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.