Friday, October 29, 2010

Please Read Responsibly

There’s been a lot of discussion on the prevalence of violence in our entertainment media and its possible impact on our culture. 

Now me, I’m an escapist. My entertainment choices don’t run toward realistic thoughtful drama. I like the occasional big explosion.

I also have an interest in genre conventions. And I tend to value them over strict realism.

So I’m probably not the right person to discuss responsible media. As an escapist, I learned early on to not consider my entertainments real (a healthy lesson, I’m thinking).  And as genre guy, I totally expect depictions of violence (and sex and government and other real world things) to vary in weight and consequence depending on the material I’m watching.

I wonder some times if the responsibility in responsible media should be approached from the other side – maybe we need to educate more responsible, intelligent readers and viewers.

Still, writers do need to take a share, too.  I once saw Neil Gaiman speak at a convention about agreeing to write Neverwhere for the BBC. One thing he said was that he didn’t want to be responsible for making homelessness (a central element of the story) look cool.

That’s sensible and reasonable and makes for a better story anyway. So maybe the lesson is to write sensibly. 

So, a parting thought: They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but we license guns and give access to social media sites away for free. Scary, huh?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Scary Thing about Scriptwriting

The scary thing about script writing is this:  The work has to stand up to actors. 

And you know how actors are.  They’ll do things to your words.  They’ll take them places you’re not sure they are ready to go.  And your words, like ungrateful children, will happily go along for the ride.

Seriously, you have to be able to give the script away and watch others interpret your words.  Their interpretations will not be based on your intentions or on how the words sounded in your head.  What’s on the paper has to be good enough, on its own.

Of course, this is also the glorious thing about scriptwriting.  Because if the words are good, actors and directors will add a layer of their own to them, adding nuances that make the work even better.  Give the same words to two different actors and get two different values.  At least two.

In a way, I suppose it is true for novels and stories as well.  The meaning and the value of the work does not end with the author’s intentions, or even with the author’s words.  The reader brings something to the table as well.  But it’s really visible with scripts.

And really fun.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Respect the Brain

A simple blog today, with short and simple advice.

Sometimes I find my mind wandering -- daydreams, stories, flights of fancy. I might be thinking of my next project or I might just be off on a tangent.

Something similar sometimes happens when I’m writing. The next sentence doesn’t turn out to be what I first intended. The plots and characters and dialogue go off in unexpected directions.

If this happens to you, my advice is to let it.  Let your daydreams fly, to whatever extent your current obligations and duties allow.

The reason is simple. You can always edit later, you can always rewrite and even delete if you need to, but you will never get this exact same information out of  your brain again.  If your creativity is engaged, if your mind is doing the work for you, take full advantage.

I’ve tried coming back to it later.  Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s never as good. If I knew what caused these bouts of creativity, I’d have a lot more money than I do now.

But I know enough to respect them when they occur.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Off the Map

We’ve been having intermittent power outages in the basement where I live. We also have for a pet a curious breed of Siamese Vomiting Cat.  As a consequence of these two facts, I spent part of my morning cleaning up cat barf by candlelight. And I’m thinking, “Yep. This is my life.”

Some stories start with a bang. Others take time to establish whatever passes for ordinary life in the protagonist’s world before they go off the map. Another common trick is to start with a prologue where someone other than the protagonist gets the bang  and then cut to establishing the ordinary world. But in most cases, that world does get established fairly early on.

Stories, the conventional wisdom tells us, are based on conflict. But it can’t just be any old conflict. It has to be sufficiently important conflict. One measure of conflict is how much it takes the character outside of his or her ordinary life.

In big epic stories, travel is often a metaphor for this internal journey – Frodo going from the comforts of the Shire to the fires of Mount Doom, Indiana Jones leaving a nice, safe university position to chase over the rooftops of Cairo – but a person can just as easily face a life-altering decision at home. If the decision is big enough, day-to-day affairs like cleaning up after the cat become hazy and far away.

Another way of looking at it is to consider what’s at stake. In any conflict situation, the protagonist can take action and succeed, take action and fail, or not take action at all. What are the consequences? The stakes have to be real and significant beyond the daily trials of our ordinary lives. In order to be satisfying, the conflicts can’t have an easy solution, either.

And one more thing: They have to be personal. Superman may spend a lot of time saving the world, but the good writers like to remind us occasionally that if he fails he doesn’t just lose a set of continents and oceans. He loses Metropolis.  He loses Lois. And that’s why even Superman has an ordinary life.

Got to have the map before you can go off it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Genre and Convention

There is a notion about genre that it exists mostly for the convenience of bookstores.  The idea is that they can sell books by grouping them – if you liked that last book, you’ll probably look for more like it.

The underlying premise to this notion is that authors should not feel constrained to fit their stories into tiny boxes that exist merely as a shelving aid.

There is also the problem of defining genres (and the endless sub-genres they seem to spawn). Once, at a convention, I watc hed two intelligent people have a frustrating discussion because neither seemed to realize that they each defined Magical Realism differently.

While I certainly agree that stories should be free to be whatever they need to be, I think genre conventions can be a useful tool to the writer. They create expectations in the audience that the author can fulfill or playful deny.

I recently saw a pair of interesting genre movies. One was a superhero film and one was a gritty, mean streets detective story (probably film noir, but I don’t want to argue about exactly what that term means). Each had a twist – the superhero movie (Silver Hawk, starring Michelle Yeoh) was also a kung fu movie. The detective movie (Brick) was set in a high school with all the major parts being teenagers.

The thing is, neither of these movies was a parody. There were some humorous moments in both films derived from the whole odd mix-and-match, but ultimately each film succeeded by meeting the conventions of its chosen genre.

Secret identities, evil villain with henchmen and a lair, a dastardly plot involving orbital mind control lasers? Check.  A hard and lonely man with a shady past, doing the best he can in a cruel world? Check.

I think maybe genres have been built up because something they are doing works. Like any other author’s tool, they can be used, and used well, when it suits the story.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

At the Alpha and Omega

One of the things I’ve learned performing as a live storyteller is to always have strong first and last lines.  The first line says, hey there, pay attention, this is something worth listening to.  The last line gives a final impression and signals the close of the piece.

It’s true in writing, as well.  Of course, novelists can afford to think in terms of strong first paragraphs, but the principle is the same.  And frankly, a strong first sentence is still even better. Picture your reader in a bookstore, trying to decide if this is something worth reading.  The sooner the hook catches them, the better.

So what’s a good opening? There is no definitive answer. I would suggest that is should promise something more. Whether it introduces an interesting situation, a character, or even a tone of voice, it should suggest that things only get more interesting from here.

As an aside, the I think the most daring thing I ever sent to a publisher was the first line of my second novel: “Welcome to my great unpublished manuscript.” I mean, think of it from the point of view of the publisher.  Fortunately, it was not an unsolicited submission.

Endings are another kettle of fish. I like my ending to leave a lasting impression. Once again, it goes back to my live performance experience. People don’t remember all the words of the story, only the gist of it. But they are likely to remember the end, and the feelings it created. It would be interesting to study just the first and last lines of books – I suspect that not all authors share my approach.

To break in my new netbook, I wrote a short radio play for two voices entitled The Case of the Girl who Lost Everything. It, like this blog, was written entirely on the bus going to and from work.  The first line is, “They say there are a million stories in the naked city, so stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

And it ends, like this blog, with the line, “I stayed at the ruin that was her house, gazing longingly up at the stars.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blogging on the Bus

Okay, past time I got back on the blogging train. Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. See, I’ve been unemployed for a while, and now suddenly I’m not.  More than that, for the past several years, when I’ve been employed, I’ve worked from home.  Now I’m commuting again.

I kinda’ like it, actually. Gets me out of the house. It also focuses my time. Now I’m actually thinking ahead – when will I pay the bills, when do I make this important phone call, meet that obligation, whatever.

And one of the questions in the background is – when will I write?

In related news, I got a new toy with the part of the birthday money that isn’t going to pay down the credit card bill.  It’s a netbook.  It looks like a laptop for halflings. Cute little thing.

And I will use it to write on the bus. So I’ll be blogging again, among other projects. I need to get the movie script software on it so I can finish revising my movie project (see any of my posts from last April for more details). I’m also hashing out a radio play for two voices, just for the fun of it. And hey, Nanowrimo is coming up again, too.

I don’t know if this new job will ultimately make life better. I hope so. But it’s certainly made things busy. But when things need to get done, sometimes a busy person is a better bet than someone with all the time in the world.