Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fear is the Mindkiller, Fear is the Liberator

Fear has a powerful ability to cease up the creative mind.  Not only in doing our work itself, but what we do with it after it's finished-- or as finished as we can make it.  I've known many people who had very strong, solid work, and it was ready-- or as ready as it could be-- to make its journey into the world.  Submitted, queried, what have you.  Time to send it out the door.

And yet they won't.  Because of a fear of rejection.

I totally get it.  Showing your work to people is terrifying. But if you don't embrace that fear, jump off the ledge, nothing will happen.

But it's good to feel it, and push through it.

The other day, I saw an interview with Robert Rodriguez (director of Desperado, Spy Kids, Sin City and many, many other things) where he talked about fear.  Non-quote from memory:

"When I'm afraid of what I'm doing, that's when I'm on the right path.  And whenever I'm thinking, 'Bah, I know exactly what I'm doing!', that's when I fuck up."

There is something to be said for fear of screwing up.  Lord knows, writing Way of the Shield*, it's kept me on my toes.  There is no sense of, "Hey, I've written three** novels, I can do this like that."  Because that's just not true.  I'm constantly barraged by thoughts of, "What am I doing here?  Can I pull this off?  I'm screwing this up, aren't I?"  But even with that fear, I drive through.

Because that's the only way it gets done.
*- I'm even afraid of the title.  The only other one I have is Dayne of the Tarian Order, and I'm not crazy about that.  Anything?
**- Really, five.  But two are terrible and staying in the drawer FOREVER.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Intention and Interpretation

I've been watching Girls on HBO of late*, and it's a solid, interesting show.  It's had a lot of firestorm surrounding it, but that's not what I'm going to talk about.  Mostly because the firestorm has mostly devolved into talking about the firestorm itself, and I don't really care to shove myself into that self-swallowing snake.

What is interesting to me is each episode is followed up by a brief commentary on the episode by writer/creator/often-director/lead actress Lena Dunham.  In terms of auteur, this show is all Ms. Dunham.  She touches every aspect of the show, on both sides of the camera, and what she has to say about it is essentially word-of-God, in terms of authorial intent. 

This is interesting to me because very often, when she's talking about the characters on the show, what they feel and why they do the things they do, it's clear that her intentions behind the characters bear almost no connection to my interpretation of them as a viewer.

Now, I am not saying that I am "right" and she's "wrong".  She is completely correct in stating her intentions.  And my interpretation is correct in terms of my subjective impressions.  But the vast difference between the two is kind of a new experience for me.  Ms. Dunham will say something like, "Jessa sees a lot of wisdom in what Kathryn is saying" but what I saw was, "Jessa really wants Kathryn to shut up."

If I were feeling uncharitable, I would say that part of this is because Ms. Dunham's character (Hannah) of a 24-year-old navel-gazer with her head up her ass isn't actually too far from the truth.  Especially since the text of the show seems to support the idea that Hannah has her head up her ass.  Despite the show's sympathies for the character, she's regularly shown other people yelling at her for being inconsiderate and obtuse.**  But, frankly, Ms. Dunham herself seems far too intelligent and aware for this to be the case.  Perhaps it's simply a case of her intentions not being clear in the text, which is a problem a lot of writers face, including myself.

Take, for example, my second-least-favorite*** of the Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian.  Suffice it to say, I'm pretty impervious to all the religious parable stuff in Narnia.  I'm just not going to be the target audience here.  But the one in Caspian kind of drives me nutty, even though I think I understand the author's intent.  In the book, Lucy sees Aslan at a distance, but others can't see him, and there's a lot of stuff where Lucy thinks they should follow him, but since the others can't see him, they think that's foolish.  Not listening to Lucy causes some trouble, and when Aslan finally shows up, he berates them for not trusting Lucy, and berates Lucy for not fighting harder for what she believed was right.  The intended message, as I understand, is how faith in God needs to be something beyond what you can see, and you need to hold to that faith even when surrounded by doubt.  Except for me, I read it as Aslan, who in the first book had been directly interactive and helpful, decided this time to act like a capricious jerk and got pissy because Peter and the others didn't trust in him when he acted that way.  Why didn't Aslan just reveal himself to them?  Because he felt like messing with them. 

 *- "Of late" meaning, of course, since it started, which was only a couple months ago.  It's not like this was something I'm finally catching up on.
**- My favorite scene has been when she's trying to tear into Adam, her not-boyfriend, about all the stuff she doesn't know about him, and he responds, "You never ask!" 
***- A Horse and His Boy can die in a fire.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Excerpts and Workshops

It's been a busy week on this end, so this post will mostly be links.

First, I've updated the Works page on my homepage.  I updated the samples of Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary, as well as adding an in-draft sample of Way of the Shield.  The Bat City Novelcrats will be tearing up Shield in the near future, so if you want an early stab on that, feel free to check it out and tell me how many mistakes I made. 

After all, I can always use more critiquing.  And so could you! The deadline for the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop is fast approaching.  (How's that for subtlety?)

Seriously, the deadline is on Monday.  You may look at it and say, "Hmm, that's $75.  That's a lot."  But you get membership to ArmadilloCon with it, and THAT is worth $40.  Plus you get lunch.  That's, like, another $10.  So, if you think about it, it only costs $25.  You get hands-on critiquing and interaction with TONS of writing and publishing pros for $25.  You can't beat that value.  Again, here's the line-up of teachers:

Elizabeth Bear, Julie Kenner, Scott Lynch, Robert Bennett, Liz Gorinsky, Mark Finn, Martin Thomas Wagner, Martha Wells, Matthew Bey, Nicole Duson, Scott Johnson, Jessica Reisman, Cat Rambo, Joe McKinney, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Anne Bishop, Stina Leicht, Jeremy Lassen, and Amanda Downum.

See?  Awesome.  Well, awesome and that Maresca guy.  But he probably won't make it lame.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Potential and Expectations and Ridley Scott

"You will never come up against a greater adversary than your own potential, my young friend."
       -Star Trek, Next Generation, as said to Wesley Crusher.

Prometheus opened this weekend-- which, I should point out, I did not go see-- to at best lightly-praising reviews.  Most of the reviews have been poor to mediocre.  This is in contrast to the strong levels of buzz and expectations that had been built up over the past months.  I was excited by the trailers, but not to the point of "THIS is going to be the movie of the year" or such.  I was, frankly, surprised by the expectations raised, at least to the level of hype I saw.  Where did this excitement come from?  How was it earned in the first place?

I think it mostly comes down to the idea of Ridley Scott returning to the "Alien" universe.  There had been five cinematic follow-ups to his 1979 masterpiece, of course, and only one of those was really any good. Despite that, the Alien franchise has a strong fanbase, who have been waiting for a work worthy of their devotion. So I think part of the hype came from the idea that he'd be bringing his unique vision and touch back to the Alien franchise.  And from what I've heard, this movie did not really deliver.

So, where did this hope and hype come from?  Was it the idea of Ridley Scott?

I'd like to present the theory that the idea of Ridley Scott does not live up to the reality.  He is a director whose expected potential doesn't match what is actually delivered.

I'll put this out first: of Mr. Scott's 20 feature length films, how many are truly great pieces of cinema?  Worthy of giving him the title of "Legendary director Ridley Scott", putting him on a similar tier of "name" directors as Spielberg, Hitchcock, Allen, Scorsese (a tier that I believe many cinephiles place him on)?  I would argue that, at most, four of his films might belong on a list of enduring greats: Alien, Blade Runner*, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator.  And that last one is questionable.**  He has several other movies that are solid, but relatively unmemorable.  But most notable on his resume are movies that had high expectations-- or at least strong buzz and hype-- which were not met: Legend, 1492, Hannibal, GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and now Prometheus (at least in initial judgments).  And several of those are, I should note, ambitious failures, which might be why he's given such high regard.

And maybe that's almost enough to give hope that the potential will pay off the expectations.

*- Frankly, I don't care for Blade Runner at all.  In any iteration.  But many give it high regard, so I'll include it.
**- It did win Best Picture, so someone out there would probably defend it as an enduring classic.  That someone would not be me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hitting Beloved Characters with Rocks

"My job is to chase him up a tree and throw rocks at him."
              -J. Michael Straczynski, on writing Amazing Spider-man

John Scalzi's Redshirts came out this week, and I tore through it in record time.  It's pretty brilliant, and I recommend it almost unreservedly.*  Without getting too much into spoilers, it does address, on a certain meta-fictional level, the "reality" we imbue characters with, and thus the responsibility writers have to the suffering we then inflict upon them.

Because that's what successful storytelling boils down to:
1. Crafting characters the reader will care about and then
2. Throw rocks at them.

If you're doing your job right, if you can make the reader care about the character, then odds are you care about the character as well.  And that can make it a lot harder to do the horrible, awful things that you need to do to them.

But here's the other thing: those horrible things have to have weight.  They have to be of meaning other than a cheap tweak to the drama, or an easy motivation for the hero.  Life has to be breathed into them for their death to have any meaning. 

Our characters have to be real, in a way. Not in a "going to knock on our door and have a word with us about their plot complications" sort of way. But real enough that the readers can easily believe in their life going on beyond what appears on the page.**  And real enough that we feel like we can take aim at their head and hurl some trouble at them with everything we've got.

Anything less, and it isn't really worth their time.

*- Almost.  I take some issue with Scalzi-- no stranger to the specifics of the behind-the-scenes of movies and television-- repeatedly referring to characters who would clearly be recurring featured characters as "extras".  Even to the point where the actors who play said characters say, "I was an extra on that" when they obviously had a speaking role.  Actors never downplay their role.
**- Isn't that what fanfic is, at its core?  Proof that you've made someone else care as much as you do.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Adding just a hint of mustard

Seven years ago, when I first participated in the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop (two more weeks until the sign-up deadline!), I brought the first chapter of an early draft of the now-trunked Crown of Druthal.  I've mentioned before that I went in cocky and got properly shredded. 

But one bit of shredding stuck with me, even as I thought it was odd and out of place.

In said first chapter, my main character (Augustine) meets some friends in a restaurant for a bit of character- and world-building scenes before he gets grabbed by the King's Marshals and dragged into the plot.  It's not a terrible bit, but my writing was all over the place-- bad POV and tense use. Seriously, embarrassing.  And it got shredded.

But one bit of shredding really stayed with me, partly because I thought it was so odd.  At the restaurant, Augustine's food comes-- roasted chicken, cheese, bread, and mustard.  He particularly relishes the mustard.

And one of the critique partners of that sessions mentioned, "And you go on and on about the mustard."

I should mention that the mustard?  Is one sentence.  And not some overlong, rambling around sentence of craziness. 

So, of course, I thought, "This guy is crazy.  I shouldn't listen to him."

Later I considered it more.  And it became clear to me that the problem wasn't the mustard in and of itself.  The problem was all sorts of little details that were just condiment, not meat.  World-building and atmosphere, but no real content.  The mustard was just the breaking point for this guy.  It seemed to him to be me going on and on, and in a way I had been. 

In short, I had become a rambling storyteller than makes you want to scream, "Get to the point already!"

So this is the point: mustard has to be applied judiciously.  Just enough to give a kick.  But not so much as to overpower the real meat of what you're eating.

Time to go spread a little on.