“I once knew a writer who tried that route (psychoanalysis). Cured him of writing all right. But did not cure him of the need to write. The last I saw of him he was crouching in a comer, trembling. That was his good phase. But the mere sight of a wordprocessor would throw him into a fit.” – Heinlein, ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’
A dear friend of mine described the need to write as “a concrete block on [her] chest”. It took time away from chores and duties to write, but every day she didn’t write, another block was added until finally, under threat of her metaphorical rib cage collapsing, she threw the blocks off and wrote. I can’t think of a better metaphor for this.
We (that is, writers) ideally should write every day. A little or a lot, some writing should happen. And I’m not just talking about stuff like this blog post either. My wife has pointed out on multiple occasions, in the same tone of voice she uses to remind me to deal with the utilities, that writing a blog post actually takes time away from writing things that might actually end up paying me money. Not that the blog doesn’t make money, it just doesn’t make very much.
Speaking of which, have you clicked a blog’s ad today? It makes you and the blog feel good.
…That metaphor is going somewhere dirty.
Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make is that writers need to write. Just like programmers need to program, drivers need to drive and plumbers need to plumb. It isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’d be easy to succumb to letting ourselves be defined by day jobs or pending bill payments or anything else the mundane world likes to throw at us. I’m not trying to say that writing is anything supernatural, though. Writing itself is pretty mundane. Writing anything more than a few hundred words can get just as tedious as any other task if you can’t quite get into your groove.
Getting into one’s groove, however, is something that bears discussing. Probably in another post.
It seems that more often than not, stories in popular media from novels to motion pictures spring fully formed from the heads of their creators. Like Athena emerging from the cranium of Zeus, except she’s a goddess and a lot of these stories are more likely to ride the short bus than a blazing chariot. The idea get into the writer’s head, they put it down on paper and immediately rush to get it published or made into a movie – and that, right there, is the problem.
It takes nine months to form a new human being. Good food takes upwards of half an hour to prepare properly. Carving a statue out of wood, painting a miniature for a game – see where I’m going with this? These things take time.
Natural diamonds are the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of pressure on something that doesn’t look anything like a diamond. A story properly developed is a bit like that, in that odd things stick out that prevent the overall product being smooth. You need to work it over and over again, smooth out the rough patches like water moving over a rock. The more time spent refining the ideas and plot points of the story, the smoother the overall result will be.
There was an excellent post made about “Moff’s Law” – which is, in essence, the notion that anybody making a comment about ‘just enjoying a movie/tv series/novel/game without analyzing it or thinking it through’ is demonstrating monumental stupidity. I think it’s worth noting, however, that if the creator of a work doesn’t engage their brain, the audience isn’t likely to either.
“What’s your story about?” It’s a common question asked of authors, but one has to wonder how much the questions is actually pondered. Can you discuss the story beyond a brief synopsis of the plot? What are the themes of your work? From where are you drawing inspiration? Who are you hoping to engage?
Answering these questions won’t just allow you defend your work on an Internet forum. You’ll be able to assemble a better, attention-getting pitch if you can not only recap the story but also point out how it relates to current events, other successful works or deep philosophical issues. I’m not an authority on representation, but I’d be more inclined to represent a work if it’s got more to it than tits and explosions.
Not that there’s anything wrong with tits and explosions, mind you. After all, one of the cardinal rules of mass media in all its forms is “Give the people what they want.” And people, by and large, are interested in sex and violence. Both of them lead to drama, one way or another. But do these things serve the story, or is the story merely a vehicle for them?
Compare Terminator: Salvation to District 9. Both of them are sci-fi stories set in the present or the near-future, with human characters interacting with non-human ones. However, in one you have a straightforward action flick that tries to be gritty and serious and just comes off as full of itself, while in the other the story flows naturally from one event to another and the action scenes, riveting and exciting, grow organically from the story while maintaining the dramatic punch of the themes and mood.
Guess which is which. Go on, guess.
If all you do is toss good-looking women and breakneck action at the audience, they might comment on how good those things were and not discuss anything else, all but forgetting the experience the second that discussion ends. Include more nuances, mix in an interesting theme and find ways to make the audience think about what’s happening, and your work will not only generate more interesting discussion, people will want to experience it again, to make sure they fully understand everything you’re trying to say.
The best treats have layers to them. A water cracker by itself can be tasty but a bit bland and forgettable. Spread some cheese on that cracker, maybe add a bit of prosciutto or some chives depending on the cheese, and the snack takes on new dimensions and you’ll find yourself wanting more. Along those same lines, an attractive heroine is one thing, but an attractive heroine with a driving goal, personal issues and a strong sense of right and wrong will make the audience more interested in what happens to her, not just seeing her take off her clothes.
Let’s say your heroine is played by Carla Gugino.
She’s pretty sexy on her own, but Carla has played a few nuanced roles in her time. The Silk Spectre in Watchmen, the worst-case-scenario government consultant in the underrated and short-lived series Threshold, and Marv’s lesbian shrink in Sin City are just a few examples of the highlights of her career so far. She has charisma, radiates intelligence in most of her roles and draws in the audience just as much with her delivery and pacing as she does with her physical assets. It’d be easy for a writer or producer to toss her in a role just so she can shake her money-maker, but writing a role that makes use of her other talents and ties into an underlying theme causes her to all but explode out of the screen.
In the end, it’s not enough to just give the people what they want. You have to be smart about how you make that delivery.
I mean, I could have just posted that pic of Carla without tying it into the overall theme of the post. That’d be like mentioning Abby Sciuto just because she brings in the mad hits.
My career path has been, to say the least, an odd one. I knew that published fiction was a tough field to enter, and that attempting to make a living from it directly out of university would be difficult, if not impossible. That knowledge, coupled with a challenge issued by a flatmate, pushed me in the direction of honing my nascent skills with computers into usable and marketable skills.
Things didn’t go so well in that regard. I worked for a few years in customer service, specifically tech support for a company in the wilds of Pittsburgh. I managed to squeeze in some freelance web work here and there, but never really found the time to truly develop my programming skills. A renewed search for the expansion of my knowledge and marketability lead me to a course in King of Prussia for Microsoft certifications.
It turns out the network administration environment and I don’t get along. There’s a great deal of stress and immediacy, no margin for error and no room for creativity. I struggled with the job daily until I lost it. Finally, after months of searching, I found my first true programming job. I’ve moved from there to another position and it’s come time to define what I want out of this particular branch of my working life. The more I work with PHP, the more I develop object-oriented solutions in Flash, the more I realize I need to be specific about my idea of a good career if I want to be happy to hop in a car or on a train to head to the office.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a writer first and foremost. It’s the creation of new worlds, putting interesting characters into those worlds and setting events in motion that affect those characters that gets me up in the morning and makes me feel alive. Programming, however, is something of an extension of that. To that end, here’s something I’d like to call a ‘programmatic mission statement.’
The creative mind is like a thoroughbred horse – it requires a firm but flexible grip, one that does not allow the beast to run wild, but also one that permits some leeway, lest the creature rail against its control and fight to be free. Just the right balance of control and detachment puts new ideas on the path to greatness. You know what you want, but permitting your trajectory to follow its own course allows for growth, stays agile in the face of inevitable setbacks and lends a sense of adventure to the overall process.
They’ve called it “the information superhighway.” If you want to travel on it, you’ll need a good vehicle. ‘Good’ is a subjective term – maybe you want something you don’t have to worry about, or perhaps you’re looking for a high-precision machine stuffed with power and bursting with cool gizmos. Either way, you need someone who understands both the beating heart of an Internet vehicle and how the paint’s going to look to visitors after everything is said and done.
That’s where I come in.
I take the ideas that float around the subconscious mind and make them manifest. I find new ways to get things working. I get my hands dirty. It’s messy and magical all at once. I turn dreams into gold – one jot & scribble, one line of code at a time.
I think that makes things pretty clear. It’s a shame it took me the better part of a decade to finally put this notion together. I’ll still be pitching to the Escapist, working on stories and columns and chipping away at the latest iteration of my first novel. But in the meantime, I have bills to pay and mouths to feed and, unfortunately, I haven’t quite earned the writing stripes to leave the day job behind. Until I do, I’d still rather do something I enjoy than flip burgers or stand on a street corner.
Since even after the lion’s share of my first day back at work I still have a veritable mountain of e-mails to which I must respond lest a client become incensed or the universe explodes or something else monumentally dire occurs, here’s something related to the novel upon which I’d be working if I had the time. Here there be spoilers… kinda. I guess. I’m still tired from the weekend, shut up.