Monday, November 05, 2012

Free Advice For Disney On The Next Star Wars

After digesting what is probably the geek-news of the decade, I’ve accepted the fact that there will be new Star Wars movies – in perpetuity, probably – and that these will be further and further removed from the film that made such an impression on me as a child. George Lucas decided to retire, secure his brain child with a corporation that will mint money off of it until it’s public domain - or they spend enough money lobbying in Washingtonto prevent that  - and let go of the reins once and for all.

There are inherent pros and cons with this. I’ve found myself growing more and more excited about the idea of a new Star Wars movie, especially one set in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, that could potentially feature so many of the characters and elements that people felt missing in the prequels.

So here’s some free advice from a life long fan to Disney on how they can not just make money, but believers out of a willing but skeptical fan base (if it goes bad - we know it – there will be blood):

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Bastard Genre

Turns out modern sci-fi owes nearly everything to a bastard.

The surprise here isn't that most of the most famous tropes in science fiction owe themselves to a single work - hello, Star Wars - but that they originated from a book that was essentially fan fiction. Garret P. Serviss somehow avoided the legal apocalypse that would surely visit him today after publishing an unauthorized sequel to H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds - Edison's Conquest of Mars. The book was apparently written on commission from The Boston Post - I guess things were looser back then - and featured Thomas Edison leading the fight back to Mars.

The article at Cracked labels Serviss a 'hack.' I won't make accusations as to the man's ability (capsule review: Serviss never met a comma he didn't like. Also, brownie points for 'puissance') but I don't think it's fair to dismiss him so easily.

According to Wikipedia, 'the book contains some notable "firsts" in science fiction: alien abductions, spacesuits (called "air-tight suits": see Spacesuits in fiction), aliens building the Pyramids, space battles, oxygen pills, asteroid mining and disintegrator rays.' It also features what appears to be a Mary Sue type character in the form of Serviss himself. More than its contributions to science fiction, what the book may represent is a significant contribution to the genre of fan fiction.

Why is that important? Because we're all fans.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The question for the last four years has been, is there any way they can top The Dark Knight? The answer is obvious, and became beside the point in the early morning of July 20th. The question unfortunately for this series of Batman films by Christopher Nolan is why such grand cinema must be forever associated with tragedy. At the end of the day, this is just a movie. It means nothing in the light of the loss of so many lives in Colorado, just as The Dark Knight meant nothing in the wake of Heath Ledger’s unexpected passing in 2008.

What TDK did become was a tribute to a spectacular actor. The Dark Knight Rises was not intended to be any tribute to what happened last week, and it cannot be. What TDKR becomes is a tribute to a feat very rarely accomplished on film – the successful trilogy. The bad third movie in a trilogy is a bit of a running joke in cinema. Say when: X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman III (yes, they did it in Roman Numerals once) The Godfather 3 (this actually happened). The Dark Knight Rises withstands any comparison to these movies, and most movies being made today; for all its faults, TDKR is a barely restrained commentary on the current state of class in our society – the villain Bane (Darth Vader’s love child with Dr. Evil) comes to Gotham looking to liberate its people from the oppressive greed of the rich and privileged, Bruce Wayne foremost among them.

Why connects this film back to the first, Batman Begins, and this is where the film becomes something on the order of Return of the Jedi, and these three films something akin to the original Star Wars trilogy. I don’t say that lightly – there simply is not another comparable series of films, much less a frame of reference, for these movies.

For a writer – for a geek like myself – it is a powerful thing to become inspired again by something as familiar, and fundamental, as a character like Batman.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Rule #10: WINNING

A writer offering rules on writing is always a fun exercise to - if nothing else - argue about the rules of writing. Colson Whitehead provided his own the other day in the NY Times that you should definitely read if you write or have any interest in writing.

All of the rules resonate, but for me, #1 and #10 do the most:

Rule No. 1: Show and Tell. Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do. “And what do you have for us today, Marcy?” “A penetrating psychological study of a young med student who receives disturbing news from a former lover.” “How marvelous! Timmy, what are you holding there?” “It’s a Calvinoesque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo.” “Such imagination!” Show and Tell, followed by a good nap.       
Show, Don't Tell is extremely pervasive in fiction workshops, and can be stifling, depending on the type of story you are wanting to - key word - tell. What Whitehead says makes a lot of sense to me. Showing gets you a lot of places. Telling it is what you went there for.

Rule No. 10: Revise, revise, revise. I cannot stress this enough. Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn’t. It’s like washing the dishes two days later instead of right after you finish eating. Get that draft counter going. Remove a comma and then print out another copy — that’s another draft right there. Do this enough times and you can really get those numbers up, which will come in handy if someone challenges you to a draft-off. When the ref blows the whistle and your opponent goes, “26 drafts!,” you’ll bust out with “216!” and send ’em to the mat.        
Now, whenever friends ask me how the work in progress is going, I no longer need to hang my head and mumble, "I'm revising." Now, I can hold my head high, and answer with gusto:"I'm WINNING."

What do you think of Whitehead's rules?

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Maze

aMAZEme Book Maze In London
Imagine you wake up in the middle of one of those huge hedge garden mazes. The scary Shining kind. You start wandering around, looking for a way out. Time after time, you hit a dead end. Some paths hold promise only to come to nothing. You ultimately test each possible path, because you don’t know where you are. You know where you’re going – out – but how to get there? Eventually you find your way, but only after you have spent a lot of time, effort and frustration. Fear, even.

This is writing a novel for me.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Revision Revisited

 Matthew Salesses wrote an outstanding article on revision at Necessary Fiction the other day, and it inspired me to think a little about what rules I have for revision, since it's mostly all I do. There are no hard and fast rules - a random Google search will generate hundreds of equally good suggestions - but what I liked best about the 'thoughts' Matthew shares is that they're fairly unique. Most how-to's and guides you will find on this subject are very clinical and technical. Do this. Do that. Writing is rewriting, and writing to me has always been a very intuitive process.

The best one maybe the first:
1. To me, the most important question to ask as I revise is: Am I bored here? The best “advice” I’ve ever heard on revision was from the wonderful teacher and writer Margot Livesey. It was something like this: if you are bored, it’s not because you’ve read that section so many times, it’s because it’s boring.
A lot of the time as a writer, you spend so much time with something, you lose perspective on it. Writing a novel for me at least is something like a relationship, so I'd offer this thought:

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

If We Let Semicolons Marry...

I came across a nice essay on the semicolon over at NYTimes today.  I'm a fan, in case you couldn't tell, but it seems not everyone is. The writer, Ben Dolnick, quotes an amusing anecdote from Kurt Vonnegut on the subject:

“Do not use semicolons,” he said. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
This only endears the semicolon to me. I find it one of the most musical of tools in the language. The semicolon allows you to impinge on other thoughts, other sentences, often in a rhythmic or as Dolnick points out when discussing William James, symphonic way; in the present tense, the use of the semicolon can help achieve a certain kind of kinetic energy that has always appealed to me. I love music. If I had a choice of any artistic ability, it would be to create music. The only way for me to even try is through words. I fail daily, but I keep tapping away at beats I hear in my head. I marry them to images, and then dialogue, and time them to punctuation. I have this fantasy any of it makes sense. Periods are absolute. Non-negotiable. Music, like language, is always a negotiation. Fluid.

It surprises me, the hostility Vonnegut had against the semicolon. The language he uses is especially grating. You could do worse heeding the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, but I'd suggest giving every instrument in the language a try. Music is music; language is language.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Next One

So, like I said.  The next novel after this new one will probably be the Elizabeth sequel.

I say probably because it was supposed to have been the next book, and obviously that didn't pan out.  I do have about 150 pages of what was to be the sequel that I wrote back in '09.  I probably will not use any of this.  We'll see, but my concept of the next book has veered pretty far from what I had in mind back then.  My approach to the sequel is that it's not even really a sequel at all. 

As I said earlier this year, I am approaching the sequel somewhat as a level setting of the story. It will assume no one has read the first book.  One of the themes of the first book is reinvention and the sequel completely recontextualizes the story to the point that you could call it a reboot, except it's not.  Some of the influences on this novel include The City and The City, Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, Watchmen, and Chris Claremont's early run on X-Men. 

Obviously comic books feed a lot of my thinking here and the comic book Miranda is reading in book one will be an important aspect of the story.  The endless rebooting of comic book continuity proves endlessly fascinating to me for some reason, and I will continue to explore this idea in the fractured continuity of history in the novels.

I look forward to getting back to the story.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not Finished

But kind of.

The story that has given me so much grief over the last - um, it's been a long time - finally came together in the last month or so.  As always with me it was a matter of confidence.  The book is more or less the version I attempted about three years ago.  I lost confidence in it then and spent a long time lost in the weeds trying other approaches.  These yielded some interesting writing but ultimately they weren't right for this story.  The Book of Elizabeth had quite a few false starts too, but none as dramatic as this (actually, I'm leaning toward my next novel being the Elizabeth sequel, which as it stands now would kind of make the first one a false start...) I hope this is something I am getting better at recognizing.  Maybe I am just one of those tinkerers that never knows when to quit.  Or maybe I just never know what I want.

In any case, I am very happy that I have found my way to this place.  The novel right now sits at about 424 pages, which is probably a little longer than it will end up.  I'm going to let it cool its heels for a few weeks, and then clean it up before sending it to some beta readers.  My hope is to see it released probably late this year/early next. 

In the meantime, I do plan to go ahead with the story collection that has been neglected while I went off on this long weekend with the novel.  That's actually been ready to go for a while now, so that should come together kind of quick.

And then it's on to the next one.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Type Those Money Makers Baby

There was an article recently in the NYTimes (the link is escaping me) about how the boon in digital publishing for indie writers has created something of a sprint to generate as much material as possible.  The nutshell is that if you are not producing multiple books in a single year, then you are not sustaining your brand and worse yet, not making money.  Dean Wesley Smith actually breaks this down in a post on his blog that is well worth reading.  There is a lot of thought that goes into his reasoning, and that of all the advocates for blitz publishing.  The e-reader consumes at a pace that is both electrifying and terrifying.  If you want to build a readership, you need to give them a reason to stay around.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn't write more than one book a year.  I will probably publish my second novel later this year.  I feel the same pressures other indie writers do.  I feel the same spirit of opportunity.  Money simply doesn't motivate me, and I'm not going to sacrifice the quality of my writing for the quantity of my output.  It will cost me in income and readers.  The fact that I can't focus on much else beyond my slow writing - including this blog - already does that.

When A Country of Eternal Light comes out, the people that read The Book of Elizabeth may or may not find it.  They may or may not wonder why I spent so much time on something that isn't a sequel to the last book.  They may think this guy spends a lot of time on nothing much at all.

It's a price I'm prepared to pay.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Through The Looking Glass


Have not been posting as much as I've meant to.  This is entirely due to the fact that I can't write a novel and anything else at the same time.  I have tried.  I admire those that blog and build their 'platform' - which is so key to what indie authors need to do these days - and I admire the hell out of authors who can produce quality material at a decent pace, since that's also apparently something we need to do

In just about every other aspect of my life, I can multi-task like no one's business.  Not when it comes to writing.  I have to focus on what I'm working on to the point that I can't really see what's in front of me.  And that's really the problem.  I've talked quite a bit before about my struggles with the Big Damn Epic.  Over the last several years, it has taken this strange place in my life.  The elephant in the room.  The monkey on my back.  Alternately it feels like I'm turning into Axl Rose, and this is 'Chinese Democracy,' or I'm Brian Wilson, and in my head at least, this is 'Smile.'  Either way, I feel a bit cracked.  And clearly delusional.  And lost. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Buffy Season 9 #8, Or Hey We Were Just Kidding

This is a tough post to write.

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I love Joss Whedon.  A lot of people love the current direction of the comic series, which is canon and often has matched the quality of the television show.

I do not love where this comic book is going.

The pregnancy/abortion storyline that sprang up recently seemed to offer a true evolution for the series and for Buffy herself.  I thought the approach was a little too literal but it offered an enormous opportunity.  The last two issues have squandered that opportunity, and frankly, the series' credibility with me as a reader.

I'm a writer and it's not my intent to judge the merits of other writers, especially ones as gifted as Joss Whedon.  So this will be the last of any such post where I do anything other than offer what I'm reading/seeing as a prompt or guide for my own writing or yours.  If there is a lesson here, it's simply not to play games with your reader.  I feel that the last two issues put Buffy through the ringer for no reason save to raise the subject of abortion.  That just doesn't work and the bizarre gobbledy-gook that Andrew spews in issue 8 to explain away why a robot thought she was pregnant has to be the clumsiest attempt to throw dirt on a narrative fire I have seen.

It may turn out Buffy is pregnant, and this is one of a series of endless complications, but it doesn't matter.  The reversal cheapens what came before.  Buffy says it herself:

'It turns out it's just more bizarre Slayer crap.'

The comic book is doing more acrobatic tricks than a Russel T. Davies episode of Doctor Who.  That's not Buffy; Buffy is straight forward, honest emotion through the lens of a genre that Joss Whedon proved could sustain just about anything.

Except this.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Websters Not Doing It For You? Write Your Own Dictionary

Back in the 80's the supernatuarally cool Nick Cave wrote his own dictionary. The only thing that would have been better than that would have been if he had made up his own words. Which of course, some people do, and you can too

For example:

rebel, rebel (noun): a torn dress

So take this as a lesson - don't settle for those dogmatic tomes from Webster's.

English is yours! Take it back.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Book of Elizabeth: Giveaway!

As you may have noticed one of my hobbies is collecting Star Wars toys.  My very good friends at JediDefender have joined forces with me for a giveaway of my novel The Book of Elizabeth

Take a look and if you enjoy Star Wars toys and good conversation, go ahead and join the forums!  This is my favorite place on the internet.

Thanks again to Jesse and everyone on the outstanding JD staff!

Monday, March 26, 2012

'Zou Bisou Bisou,' or Subtlety In Writing

A big part of what I like to write about in this blog is what interests me in the moment, and how that impacts my writing, and maybe yours.  Much has been said that this last decade or so has been the 'Golden Age of Television.'  There is no denying that, not with The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, and certainly, Mad Men, which returned last night after nearly two years with a fantastic example of why the writing on television is quite possibly the best writing that's happening anywhere.

That's not to leave fiction lovers or writers out.  There's lots to take away from TV, as there is any medium.  Cinema and now television have always presented an aesthetic challenge to literature - the axiom 'Show, Don't Tell' is simply a fact of life in motion pictures as opposed to a rule (well - ok, it's not, but by virtue of its nature, the camera eliminates the need for the kind of scene setting that was expected and necessary in literature in the past, and really, still is today). 

Great writing, in any medium, is subtle.  Last night's Mad Men was a perfect example of this.  The scene above is both the least subtle scene in the show - the series? - and one of its most subtle.  Instantly generating internet buzz around the country, Jessica Pare undid the Freedom Fries debacle of a few years ago in less than two minutes by making all things French very, very cool again through a little song called 'Zou Bisou Bisou.'  Just watch it.  Trust me.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Carnival of Indies - Issue #18!

The Book Designer

The latest issue of Carnival of Indies, featuring a round up of great links from the world of indie publishing, is now up at Joel Friedlander's amazing site, The Book Designer.  Even better, one of my posts is among the links you'll find there - My Advice For Writers.

If this is your first time to the blog, I hope you enjoy what you see and come back for more.  Thanks!

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Visit From The Goon Squad: Charting New Territory

Credit - Tessie Girl
I recently finished A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and it's one of the best books I've read in a while.  It flows from one character to another in a kind of narrative relay.  At first it's disorienting and honestly I lost track of who the focus was or was supposed to be - the point, I think - and it required me to stop and start again once or twice.  The book also caroms from one era to another.  This narrative river just flows along and then washes ashore deep in the future, providing a brief, sober glimpse of the fate of the character we follow, before retreating back to the sea of the present. 

At some point you almost long for a chart mapping out all these people, these places and times, and then as if on queue, Egan actually depicts an entire sequence of the book in a succession of flow charts.  I wa struck at how effective, and affecting, this was; the PowerPoint slides gradually became thought bubbles, accumulating tension and drama as they chart the uncertainty of a young girl living in the desert of the future, struggling to understand her father, himself at a loss on how to cope with his son.  Children at a loss could be another title for this book, really.  The dexterity Egan employs in this sequence and all throughout the book really speaks volumes to the possibility of the novel.  Especially now in this digital age, the boundaries of fiction blur; so much of the advice and tutorials I see for beginning writers have to do with either how to sell something or how to write to sell.  Sentence structure.  Choosing the right perspective.  All these things are important.

What interests me more - and hopefully does you too - is not what's to be done within the form, but with the form itself.  The novel evolves with every generation, and has seen many iterations in the last 50 years; the digital era will push it even further.  A Visit From The Goon Squad is one example of what's possible, and inspiration to push your own work to the limit.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Buffy Season 9 #7, or How To Alienate Your Reader

For those of you keeping score at home, I've been on the fence with the latest comic book season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.  Unfortunately that's continued pretty much through the season so far, and continues with the latest issue, where Buffy plans to go through with the abortion of her unplanned pregnancy.

I have no issue with the subject itself, or Buffy contemplating what she contemplates; as I said in my last post on Buffy, I have issue with how the series is approaching it.  Joss Whedon and company approach the issue of Buffy getting drunk, pregnant and confused literally, which has never been the modus operandi of the series.  As I said before, typically Buffy has always presented common teenage/young adult fears via mystical/magical guises. The pregnancy does not seem right now to be anything than what it's presented to be, which is the result of a drunken one night stand.

I lamented the lack of subtext here, and maybe the writers anticipated that, because the very next issue puts such a twist on the subject as to give the reader whiplash. 


Sunday, March 18, 2012

24 Hour Weird Down: Community and Writing

Community returned to NBC last Thursday, and it was very funny as always.  Britta even had an observation that some writers might appreciate: 'An analogy is like a thought with another thought's hat on.'  Ah, I have missed this show.  In all the celebration across the internet (this is where this show lives), there was an interesting and thougtful objection over at the A.V. Club about the show.

Writers  Steven Hyden and Todd VanDerWerff debated the merits of the show, and ultimately it's worth.  I found the conversation fascinating as I have had some of the same thoughts recently.   No doubt the show is an exercise in form.  As I said in my post a while back, I think the characters are secondary, and one of the reasons to show struggles to expand its audience is that it presents itself as a riddle.  In general, most people don't want to think too much when it comes to comedy.  They want to laugh.  Intelluctual comedy is not a genre you hear discussed much.  Community isn't an intellectual show in the sense they make jokes about geo-political matters - this is a show with a monkey living in the air vents named Annie's Boobs - but it trades on, invests in, and seeks dividends on a certain level of audience knowledge and interaction that I think frankly some people decline to give to this medium.  It's not that they won't make this commitment at all - as the writers state in the article, Mad Men and other shows are perfect examples (Game of Thrones being another, which I just finished (WOW) and will discuss later this week) of viewers making long term, deep investments in intellectual, involved television. 

The show is insular, as both writers agree, but some of its audience issues stem I think to some degree from a lack of likeability in the characters.  The main character Jeff is not likeable really at all; that any of us root for a relationship with Annie is beyond me as she is one of the more likeable characters and to some extent he demeans her.  The show regularly points this out.  One of the most telling exchanges in the show's history - it speaks to its meta acrobatics and its own failings - is this one between Jeff and Abed (Season 2, Episode 1) at one of the group's many breaking points:

Abed: I can tell life from TV, Jeff.  TV makes sense.  It has structure, logic, rules, and likeable leading men.  In life we have this.  We have you.

I don't think it's necessary to have completely likeable characters.  You do have to give your reader or viewer something.  The show frequently hits the same note - this is a group of people who do not like each other, or anyone else - and we wonder why they hang out with each other, or why we hang out with them.  Why do we then?  Why does the show spark any affection at all?  Is it because of the in jokes and through the rabbit hole genre winks and nods?

I don't think so.  The show does have characters - and I would say all of them - that we care about.  Where it struggles is advancing those relationships, meaningfully, though I sense that is actually changing.  Last week's episode presented fairly significant advancements in Pierce and Shirley, as well as confronted the show's own weridness and inability to properly deal with it through a hilarious bit where Troy and Abed, the heart of this show, detox hard core in a '24 hour weird down' to get normal for Shirley's wedding.  They over do it, as they always do.

Troy and Abed can't stop being weird.  Neither can the show.  It has to be itself, and people will like it or they won't.  This is a great lesson is writing; to thine ownself be true.  You can hit all the easy points and be popular.  Make your characters fluffy and harmless, the jokes simple and true.  People will like it, a lot.  I like a good joke.  Or you can you write the kind of story you want, and ask more of your reader than is perhaps expected; the rewards in popularity or recognition or fame or what have you may be less, but for the reader, they will be uncalcuable.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Advice For Writers

More and more I get asked for advice from aspiring writers. Mostly this is because I have a book, not because I really know anything. I'm not good at giving advice. Actually, I'm pretty good at it, just not very good at following it myself. So take all of this with a grain of salt. Actually, you should probably just click away to some other website right now. If you're still here, or have just reached the end of the internet, seriously: I've given a lot of thought to what I say to a serious writer who is asking me for serious perspective, and in so much as I can give it, I usually speak to these things:

Find your faults. You have them. We all do. One thing my day job has taught me is to actively seek out process improvement. Usually we wait for problems to come to us - it's how we know they're problems - but most often in business, this can get you in trouble. The same applies to your art. It is a process; you should actively seek to improve it. The best way to do that is to:

Feed your head. Find your faults and grow your art by reading, reading, reading. Indiscriminately read. Reading 'bad' gets you as far as 'good.' Enroll in workshops. Take classes. Seek a degree, if you're that committed. Join a writer's group, online or not. Feedback is essential. Expose yourself to as much experience and variance in writing as you can and learn to distinguish between #1 what you like and what you don’t, and #2 what works and what doesn't. Very often those four things will be confused and you will spend a lot of time negotiating them. You never will start unless you go hunting for brain food.

Listen. Writing is language and language is music; movement; melody; time. Listen to conversations on the train. The rhythm of an argument. The current of emotion in someone's voice running under what they're actually saying. Being a good listener will only improve your writing in general, but particularly, your dialogue. Which is the most fun for me.

Don't worry about getting published. Frankly, this is the most common thing people ask - how do I get published? What do I need to do? Worry about writing a great book. Publishing will take care of itself and nowadays you can take care of that on your own just fine.

Get real. Most of us will never be widely read, appreciated, or understood. Most of us will write good work that most people will never see. The object is not validation, or money, or respect. The single biggest challenge you will face is the internal need for all of those things. You are a writer after all. You communicate. If you're not sharing, if you're not hearing voices back, you pale at the silence. I understand this. All writers do. Worry about what you have to say. Have a voice, and then you will be heard. If all you do is scream and shout to get attention - and there's plenty of that in every art - then you will be quickly forgotten. The voices at the end in any conversation are those that endure; resonate; compel. 

I believe if you find your faults, feed your head, and just listen, you will have something to say that people want to hear.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Moebius, 1938-2012

Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius to comic book and cinema fans, has died. 

Sad news on the heels of Ralph McQuarrie just last week.  The two of them had an incalcuable impact on the look of genre filmmaking and the minds of impressionable young artists over the last generation or two.  I knew of him mainly through Heavy Metal and the magazine-size Epic comics in the early 80's.  I remember seeing reprints of The Airtight Garage and being a little unsure of what to make of the grandiosity of it all - at that point I was very much still planted in the grungy feel of Star Wars. 

Actually it wasn't too long ago that Giraud did a piece based on Episode I that recalls Airtight Garage so much that you tend to look at the prequels as closer to him than McQuarrie:

That's actually Jerry Cornelious (sorry, Lewis Carnellian) up there in the corner.  Giraud's influence is most heavy in Tron and Alien, as well as The Fifth Element, which came later.

As I've gotten older, I appreciate the grandiosity more.  I got into Miyazaki in college, and I find the two have similar sensibilities.  The scale at which Moebius presents things, as in the first piece above, really intrigues me.  Everything in my dreams always is much much bigger than in real life.  So too in my fiction.  Moebius was the type of person who could transport you to a world larger and more wonderful than the one you lived in.  He will be missed.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Get Lost Writing

Writing for me has always been an act of discovery. 

At various times you will feel like Magellan, or Columbus.  Others you will feel like the Donner Party.  You will feel these at varying times throughout the process of writing the same novel, if you're anything like me.  And at some point, you will experience another feeling - the sheer elation of knowing you are the first person to ever lay eyes on this undiscovered country of a novel.  That's the way it feels to me when a novel reaches that tipping point, when the mass is so great that the collapse from dust into light becomes to powerful to deny.  I've felt this feeling before, a couple times.  It's a great feeling.  I feel it now, as I'm 211 pages into the novel that I've documented here recently on the blog (otherwise known as the #scifijohnhughesbook).  A lot of the disparate threads - fits and starts really - that I've experimented with over the last few years are finally bearing fruit. 

This tends to be the way I work.  I generate a lot of material early on.  A lot of varied beginnings.  I write quite a bit that eventually gets discarded, but some of it proves useful in the end.  A line of dialogue.  A setting.  A character.  An entire scene, as was the case yesterday.  A scene that I had been trying to fit like a puzzle piece into the wrong place for a very long time just fell right into where I see now it was always meant to - about 200 pages into this book.  So why does it feel right now as opposed to the seven or eight other times I thought it was finally working?  I can only say because I have the same sense now of understanding with the book that I had with The Book of Elizabeth; this is the way it's supposed to be.  This is the puzzle complete.

Some writers will argue this is why you should outline.  If you don't, you'll spend a lot of time wandering in the woods like me.  I can't say they don't have a point, but wandering in the woods is how you find things.  Get lost.  Literally.  Discoveries aren't made any other way.  You'll take the long way, and develop a lot of material you ultimately won't use.  But never throw anything away.  I don't.  There are snippets of this book five years old or more, from disparate sources; the same is true of Elizabeth, which features a paragraph originally written in college ten years ago.  Many of my short stories, particularly "News Right Fresh From Heaven," gestated in other forms for years before finally coming together into their final shape.  "News" actually began life as a different story entirely four years before it was published in Fantasy Magazine last year.

I'm kind of collector when it comes to writing, I guess.  I was going to say hoarder, but that's not true.  All my writing, all the paths that lead nowhere and fragments I hold on to, it all serves a purpose.  Eventually.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Ralph McQuarrie 1929-2012

Ralph McQuarrie, the conceptual artist responsible for the landmark vision of the Star Wars films and consequently, one of the most influential visions in all cinema, passed away yesterday.  It's impossible to separate McQuarrie from Star Wars; without hin, Darth Vader likely would not be the icon he is today.  Vader only got his famous mask because McQuarrie was conceptualizing the scene where Vader was entering the Rebel Blockade Runner at the beginning of the original Star Wars film; it struck him that since Vader was passing from one spaceship to another, he should have a breath mask.  This stroke of genius - luck? - had as much to do with the mythic, dynamic figure Darth Vader would become and why the character will live forever.

It's equally impossible to estimate the impact McQuarrie had on generations now of subsequent artists.  Not just visual artists and engineers - McQuarrie worked for Boeing before Star Wars - but writers like myself whose imaginations were fired by the paintings, sketches and books that followed in the wake of the Star Wars films.  I'm primarily a visual thinker.  I see scenes.  I use a tremendous about of visual inspiration when I work and any time I'm writing I have photos, paintings, etc. close by.  I have stacks of concept art books on my shelves.  I have all the art books of McQuarrie's Star Wars art right next to books on Escher, Parrish, James Jean and other artists.  I live in these books.

For the last 6 months or so, I've been writing a sci-fi novel set on a planet where night only comes once a year.  I've been gathering material for this novel in one way or another since I first saw Star Wars.  There is undeniably a lot of Star Wars and McQuarrie in the design of this world, its cities and its characters.  Words will likely never convey what I see in my head, or the debt that I and so many others like me owe to Ralph. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Phantom Writer

You may or may not have heard there was a Star Wars movie in theaters. 

What continues to amaze me is the level of discourse Star Wars in general and Episode I - The Phantom Menace in particular gets, among fans.  Honestly, we never stopped talking about it.  The conversation now centers on the merits of the film, out of the glare of the blinding hype that accompanied its release.  Most people tend to agree now it was not as bad as we first thought.  It's not even the worst Star Wars film.

A lot of the conversation that takes place around TPM and the prequels centers on the 'what if;' what if Jar Jar hadn't existed, what if this or that.  If I had a nickel for every conversation I have had with Ben, Sugu or any of my friends on this subject, I'd be able to finance my own version of the movie.  And I admit - I have, off and on, been writing a screenplay of a revised Episode I for a long time.  It serves primarly as a mental exercise.  Whenever I need to limber up, or get the pistons firing, I tinker at this script.  What's most fascinating to me about this subject besides its persistence is the fervor.  You don't hear anyone carrying torches for how 'The Godfather 3' should have been.  The need for TPM and the prequels to somehow be reimagined speaks both to the quality of the films in the first place, and a unique creative trend that actually has been alive and well for a long time - fan fiction.

This video below stakes out pretty common ground - with a few major exceptions - of where TPM revisionists line up, myself included.  Some of the language is NSFW, FYI.

This is pretty funny, and if I knew all you had to do was sit in front of a green screen and pontificate on what should have been, I'd simply have done that.  The guy in the video offers a version of TPM which is at once both better, and less, than the original.

Where I agree:

  • This is really Obi-Wan Kenobi's story.  Obi-Wan himself sets this up in his conversation with Luke in 'Star Wars,' about the Clone Wars, and convincing Anakin to join him on an 'idealistic crusade.'  As it stands, we never see this because Obi-Wan is neutered as a character by Qui-Gon Jinn.  Liam Neeson is simply the best thing about TPM, but his character serves only to echo a thematic element of the original movie.  Obi-Wan is relegated to a bystander and as such his relationship and stake in the story is undercut from the beginning.
  • Darth Maul lives.  It seems the cartoon is waking up to correcting this major mistake.  Darth Maul should have survived the film, and remained the prequels' Big Bad.
  • Anakin is older.  Him being a kid - doesn't work.  Will never work.
Beyond that, what I've found is that actually the film and the prequels are largely constructed as they should be.  TPM introduces us to the Republic in twilight.  We need to see the Jedi for who they were, and what they weren't.  These elements are in the film but never realized.  The seemingly trivial conflict on Naboo is just that.  Trivial.  It distracts from the real conflict, which is Palpatine's scheme to become Chancellor.  The real meat of the film occurs while everyone is going to the bathroom; the phantom menace concerns a plot few pay attention to. 

Most everyone wants the Clone Wars to begin with Episode I, and I did for a very long time, but actually it's necessary they don't; we must see the Jedi to be incapable of defeating this new enemy on their own.  As such, the Gungans - maybe even Jar Jar - become necessary to pulling out a victory, hollow as it is.  The clones come second, in response to the percieved inability of the Jedi.  The Separatist cause, and Count Dooku, they should come right away, though, and the way the clones arrive in Episode II simply doesn't work.

Ok, ok - DORK OVERLOAD.  The real point of this is - fans are writing, in their heads, on computers, or on video.  We're writing a version of a story that already exists.  This is a new kind of writing, and it's not; people have been re-writing stories to fit their needs and circumstances from the beginning (Gilgamesh) but what you have in Star Wars, or Harry Potter fan fiction, is a particular investment that unfortunately runs up against a couple barriers - art and commerce.

It's very rare those two things work together, but traditionally they have against fan fiction.  Fan fiction typically isn't though of as art, and its commercial prospects are nil due to copyright concerns.  So, until recently, it has languished in notebooks and the occasional fan magazine.  With the internet, fan fiction is taking on a life of its own, to the point some writers are creating universes for their fans to play in.  The subject is bigger than this blog post, but so many ideas intersect here - ownership, art, commerce, joy - that it's endlessly debatable.

I love Star Wars.  I love TPM.  I suppose I'll always argue the film, and write its wrongs (wow) in my head or in my punching bag of a script. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Into Every Generation

I had commented a while back about my concerns in general with the direction the Buffy comics have taken since about the last third of Season 8.  The characters seemed a bit aimless, and the overall story left a lot of people dazed and confused.  Out of that confusion has come a very sober wake up call in the form of Buffy's unexpected pregnancy.  It could be the aimlessness was intentional, though I maintain it didn't really work (the writing is good but not great this season) and it revisited episodes Buffy has already gone through.   The character simply needs to grow and now, certainly, she must.

Typically Buffy has always presented common teenage/young adult fears via mystical/magical guises.  The pregnancy does not seem right now to be anything than what it's presented to be, which is the result of a drunken one night stand.  There's a lot to be said for this.  This is a comic book after all.  But this is also Buffy, and I'm not sure if it's just the writing, again, or a case of the subtext becoming the text.  Buffy really has no subtext anymore (except for fan titliation in the form of shipper chain yanking scenes) and that is made crystal clear in Buffy's decision utlimately to get an abortion.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Ben wrote about the announcement that DC is going forward with an ambitious slate of prequels to Watchmen.  Alan Moore and fandom at large collectively dug graves just so they could spin in them.  Like Ben, I've thought about it quite a bit and here's my thoughts.

First things first: it's a money grab.  The scale of the project speaks to that.  The reason it's happening now, and not a few years ago when the movie hit and something like this would have made sense (from a purely marketing point of view) is that the comic book industry has reached its financial and creative end.  A great deal was made of DC's decision just a few months ago to completely scrap its line and relaunch with a digital slate; the underlying thinking there was that the print aspect of the comics industry is in free fall.  Print in general is, and comic books are not the only victims.

I see Before Watchmen as a last ditch attempt to both breathe life into and draw life from the creative apex of an essential American art form.

That's entirely separate from whether it's a good idea or not.  We'll have to wait and see, but I don't believe there is anything to be achieved via this world or those characters that hasn't been already.  Watchmen speaks to such a specific moment - the kill shot death of the form's innocence about itself - that to go back on it now says all you need to know about the form's artistic vitality.

I don't believe though that DC, or the creators involved, have no right to do this.  Contract issues aside (Alan Moore's suffrage here has had generational benefits for those who came later), DC owns the characters and is free to do as they wish.  Alan Moore has made a living in recent years off his co-opting of existing characters in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the Watchmen began life as characters from Charlton Comics).  Though the characters of LoEG exist in the public domain, it's important to consider that most of the reaction I have seen from fans in general centers on Alan Moore's relationship to the characters more in spirit than in anything proprietary.  It could be said Moore is violating his own argument in what he does with other people's characters.

Someday, regardless of whether he wants them to or not, people will freely make use of the Watchmen as they see fit.  That they will doesn't diminish the characters or one of the great works of art of the 20th century; it only elevates it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The (Rules) of Writing

The first rule of writing is there are no rules of writing. 

That's clever, but not exactly true.  The word I probably hear the most from other writers is 'rules.'  It's also the most political aspect of writing as well; usually the subject falls along one of three lines:
  1. There are no rules.
  2. There are, and these are the ones you never break (Show, don't tell).
  3. You have to know the rules before you can break them.
This article over a io9 last week spoke to 10 generally well known rules about sci-fi/fantasy fiction; rules in writing generally being not what you should do, but what you shouldn't.  The article makes a case for breaking every single one of them.  I thought it would be fun to talk about each one in turn as I'm facing some of these decisions now in writing the new novel.

1) No third-person omniscient.
I'll be honest - I'm not sure if this is actually a rule.  As the article points out, the omniscient perspective has long been the default perspective in most fiction.  Maybe it's not fashionable any more, but fashion is most often momentary; writing never should be.  It depends entirely on the type of story you're telling, and how you want to tell it; if you're writing grand space opera or major fantasy, you probably don't want to limit yourself to a single first person narrator, which will limit the scope.  But then you can see by what George R.R. Martin is doing in A Game of Thrones, and you see immediately why rules are only rules until someone decides they're not.

The Book of Elizabeth employs the third person omniscient, as most of my work does. In my work in progress, the SciFiJohnHughesNovel, I'm using the first person.   The novel takes place on an alien world over the course of a single night; I could have chosen to create more distance, and see more of the world/plot/backstory, but in this instance this is one character's story, and I wanted her to be the lens we saw this world through.  She is a reflection of it, as it is of her. 

You're never limited to one or the other, though.  There are numerous examples of novels that employ varying points of view simultaneously.  Frankenstein is a great example of shifting first person narrators; the book follows a succession of storytellers that nests the overall plot.

When choosing which point of view you're going to use, you have to consider the pros and cons of each.  David Madden's Revising Fiction, which I've discussed here before, will help guide you in making that decision.  And there are cons to the third person, the biggest of which is typically a tenedency towards excess.  Since the narrator knows all, they can sometimes tell all, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.  An omniscient narrator also allows for explicit authorial commentary, and even judgment.  This is generally what modern writers object to with the third person.  Objectivity is essential when telling a story this way; let the facts and the story itself make whatever case needs to be made.

Next time I'll discuss whether to prologue or not to prologue.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Write Novels At All?

Usually when people ask me why I write books, I tell them because I have to.

It's a pretty good answer and I can't think of any other way to describe it.  For whatever reason, there is this narrative engine within me that compells me to try and tell stories.  This engine is missing a belt or two sometimes, but you know what I mean.  There is a very interesting article in the NY Times this morning that poses the question in general: why write novels at all?  In the face of more popular entertainment, specifically movies, why the novel and not a screenplay?  What motivates a writer to write?  A reader to read? 

The novel faces the same challenge that the play did when the novel took over the mainstream consciousness.  I don't think the novel or literature is in any danger - more people read now than have ever read.  The book will be fine.  In fact, the book is experiencing something of a revolution.  The e-reader and digital publishing hasn't so much changed the way we read as how we write.  Or who writes.  The most interesting part of the article today was this:

The roots of this question (why write novels), in its contemporary incarnation, can be traced back to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is — the novel very much included — the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have.       
Now this is why there has forever been such resistance to self-publishing in literature, and why producing and marketing your own work is a cardinal sin when it's not - when it's expected - in nearly every other medium.  Literature above all other mediums has been the distinction between not just socio-economic status, but education and intelligence as well.  Reading and writing were not popular things, in the most basic sense of the word, until only recently.  The novel itself helped spur a wider, more general literacy.  Digital publishing makes literacy viral.  The class perspective - represented in literature in the distinction of terms like 'literary,' 'genre,' or 'vanity publishing' - continues, but faces a democratic avalanche in the form of digital publishing. 

I'm glad I have the opportunity to share what I write.  I would write even if I couldn't publish it traditionally.  I just have to.  Storytellers have voices.  At the fire, at the dinner table, no one has ever said, you can't share your story.  You don't have the appropriate education or class. 

People tell stories.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Writing In The Light of Day

“From the midst of this darkness, a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” - Victor Frankenstein

So after about a week of solid panic and lamenting the ruin of my art, I put it out of mind for a day.  Then I did what Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird.  I sat down and just thought about what I liked in the story.  What the story was, not necessarily what I wanted it to be, or what others might want it to be.  I wrote down the characters, the places, the scenes, all of it in the journal there on the left, and I discovered something: all the pieces I liked, all the varying aspects of the story I tried to view it through, they all existed within the draft I had been writing.  They co-existed rather well.  This story - it's not fair to call it a story, really - this world has always been bigger than what I could get my arms around.  So many lenses existed to view the world through that I tried one at a time, certain this was it, and then finding out it wasn't.  Ultimately, I went back to the beginning.  Why did I want to tell this story?  Where did it come from?  As I wrote down this piece and that piece in the journal, the story revealed itself. 
And I found out something else: I really liked this story.  This is the story I wanted to tell.  I don't think my struggles with the novel are over.  In fact, I'm still pretty unsure how it will all come together, but I feel a lot better than I did the other day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No Write, No Write

I think back to the scene in Bird by Bird, where Anne Lamott finds out her editor doesn't think the book she has invested everything in and depends on for her livelihood will not be published. He tells her he thinks it's competent, it's... capable, but what's it about? Why did you do this? She stages a passionate defense of the book (after some drinking) and in her rant, discovers the book in her heart is not the one that came out of her head. That's how I feel right now.

I am disgusted with myself and the book at this point.  I went from feeling lightheaded with the tipping point a few weeks ago to the stark realization the other day that I am probably on the wrong track with this.  Again.  What's worse is I feel I was on the right track before. 

Day after day I chip away at the book, and I feel, this is it, this is progress; this is the end finally for this story which has hounded me for 10 years.  The book radiates this fatigue, let's say; this near persecution of creative unfulfillment.  What bothers about this draft - in my meek opinon, this very capable draft - is that it radiates nothing about the passion or the even the interest that first informed this story.  The architecture of the book mimics the theme, figuratively and literally; it has become a ghost.  A reanimated corpse.  As a literary exercise, I suppose it's, again, capable.  It contains my best, sparest and sharpest writing.

It doesn't contain any of my soul.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Writing Update

I thought I'd update on where I'm at in my writing on a couple different pieces since I haven't really done that here in awhile.  Twitter seems to have taken over my daily updates on my progress.

Novel In Progress aka GhostofBigDamnEpic aka ThatWhichRefusesToDie:

Actually pretty good progress here.  252 pages as of today.  I expect the novel will be close to 400 at that end.  What's it about?  It's about a man alive at what appears to be the cosmological end of the earth - not the end, like OMG, it's the Mayan apocalypse - THE END end.  He has seen the world floruish and freeze.  He has seen every trace of humanity in the world and in him expire.  When he decides to meet his own end, he discovers the story of man - his story - is not yet over.  I hope for this to be ready for the fall.

Story Collection:

This is done, more or less, in the sense I've settled on the content.  Sort of.  I've debated on the Elizabeth story in it, because it has become the foundation of what the sequel will be, and I'm not how much of that I want to give away yet.  But it's an experiment.  What the hay.  Just need to cover this and format and it should be ready for February.

Elizabeth Sequel:

Like I was saying, the Elizabeth story in the collection ended up providing a way through for me on the sequel.  I am approaching the sequel somewhat as a level setting of the story.  It will assume no one has read the first book.  Partly this is due to Miranda's emergence as the main character; partly it is due to the nature of the story itself.  One of the themes of the first book is reinvention.  The sequel takes the form, broadly, of a murder mystery.  The mystery expands into a conspiracy thriller, of sorts.  You'll see this - and the big giveaway - in the story.  I always wanted to write a murder mystery.  My mom loves them and I grew up watching Perry Mason and Columbo... I don't think she had something like this in mind, but I always have to be difficult.