Logan’s Run And The Story DNA Hollywood Needs

Logan's Run

So I re-watched Logan’s Run the other day, for the bajillionth time. I’ve got a serious thing for the uber-creative science fiction material that came out of Hollywood in the seventies and early eighties. Can’t help it. Don’t care what the FX look like, I just appreciate that so much of it was out of absolutely nowhere with the ideas and trappings. Then like any compulsive nut who can’t let things go, I started re-reading the books – the trilogy by William F. Nolan (George Clayton Johnson helped out with the first book). It got me thinking about crappy Hollywood remakes, the Music Genome Project, and a skill that writers (and money jockeys in Hollywood) could use to make the world a better place. Please allow me to expand on that.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil all the story stuff for you here – if you don’t know what Logan’s Run is, I’m pretty jealous. Go watch that and read them and buy the lifeclock and Sandman shirt off eBay or something, then get back to me with pics of you wandering around Houston or Dallas or somewhere looking for where they shot the scenes.

The movie version: “A 1976 American science fiction film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. It depicts a utopian future society on the surface, revealed as a dystopia where the population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by killing everyone who reaches the age of 30. The story follows the actions of Logan 5, a ‘Sandman’ who has terminated others who have attempted to escape death, and is now faced with termination himself.” -Wikipedia

There’s a domed city where people are pleasure-chasing sheep, watched over by paramilitary Sandmen in very cool uniforms who chase and eliminate the runners that don’t believe ‘Carrousel’ (their spelling, not mine) is the reincarnation they’re told it is. Logan discovers an ankh on a dead runner, which draws him into the underground network of runners and eventually in love with one of them and all that sort of thing. For me, it hits all sorts of highlights:

  1. Tough-guy gunslingers, with a buddy story
  2. Gorgeous and mysterious woman involved in intrigue
  3. Domed freaking city with futuristic technology and weird backstory
  4. Authoritarian shadow-government slamming down an unfair ultimatum on the hero with no recourse for him
  5. Cool scenery and high-stakes chase down into the ever-deepening mystery
  6. Post-apocalypse reveal, with burned-out cities

The folks at the Music Genome Project boil songs down to basic elements to allow for comparing and recommending them. Paul Hardcastle’s slow jazz song ‘Lost Summer’, for example, might include:

  • Smooth jazz elements
  • R&B and funk influences
  • Synthetic instrumentation and a melodic alto sax solo
  • Use of call-and-response melodies
  • A groove-oriented approach

Maybe if they were to strip down the Logan’s Run film, it would include some things off my list, or maybe things more basic like:

  1. Rebellion against authority theme
  2. Intrigue and inclusion of underground resistance
  3. Youth versus establishment theme

I imagine when these books first hit, the culture was ready for something that pushed these buttons. That’s kind of my point about crappy Hollywood remakes – that the buttons aren’t bothered to be identified or adhered to. The point is missed. If you read any articles about people wanting to remake this movie, they just want to make Logan a girl or stick some odd bits in that have no purpose other than spectacle. Of course, that goes way back. In Nolan’s introduction to the books, he said this of a meeting with a screenwriter in 1968:

“I recall a lunch with Maibaum in Beverly Hills shortly after the option had been picked up. He was already into the script and full of what I felt were bad ideas, none of which existed in the original novel.

‘There’s this giant surfing god on the shores of Hawaii’, he told me. ‘Big, bronzed guy about ninety feet high. We have all these young studs on flying surfboards fighting like crazy, zooming through the air around their god, ripping each other apart…just think of it as James Bond in Tomorrowland.'”

I mean – what?

The Kevin Feige-era Marvel movies got the tone right, I think, possibly a reason for the ridiculous amount of cash they’re pulling in. A little humor, some spectacle, cool rules like ‘the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets’ and the idea that no one unworthy can lift Thor’s hammer. I remember when I was a kid reading those comics how fantastic I thought it was that all those guys knew each other, that Peter Parker hung out with Johnny Storm and asked Matt Murdock for advice sometimes, and occasionally had uncomfortable conversations with Wolverine in a bar. So Marvel hit those buttons, triggering nostalgia, sure, but also the same chemistry I liked so much when I was a kid.

The idea that prompted me to sit for a while and jot this down for you is this:

What would happen if aspiring wordslingers like myself got really, really good at boiling down the STORY DNA of things, to the point that we know them instinctively when we see them, and could even read what the people are hungry for us to push?

Wouldn’t you say buttons like these would be timely:

  • Distrust of authority and government
  • Nostalgia for the feeling of freedom like a bike in summertime
  • Clear, decisive, and upright moral leadership without the taint of scandal
  • Inspirational stories of disparate people coming together for something bigger than themselves

I don’t know – what buttons do you see waiting out there?

Maybe we need a Literary Genome Project: a society of trusted book reviewers in all major genres and a set of agreed-upon themes and tropes that could be applied like the music folks are doing. Movie-makers could use it as a way of lowering their risk for untested concepts, by knowing what themes need to appear in the movie to avoid disappointing the intended audience. Authors could use it to replicate the feel of the works that inspired them without ripping them off.

Anyway, that’s a shower thought – probably only good while the water’s running. Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

 

Books We Put Down (And Why)

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I know, man. Gene Wolfe is supposed to be amazing. People that dig his stuff go on and on about that. The Book Of The New Sun was supposedly voted the greatest fantasy of all time after Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. Whatever. I’ve tried three separate times to read it. Three times, man. I suppose I’m not smart enough to see the big deal. Anyway, after I tried to read a book by Felix Gilman called Thunderer, it got me thinking about books that look amazing but turn out to be fizzlers.

So I asked around. It can’t just be me that this happens to. And it happens to me a lot. I’m a little too hard on my literary entertainment. If I get a few pages in and there’s too much rambling, inane dialogue, or I see no sign of whatever hook drew me in, I’m bailing. Anyway, I got some answers as I posted or chatted about this very point that formed a pattern. Thought I’d let you in on that.

The Gilman book I mentioned said this in the description:

“Gilman takes his readers on a journey through a world of deep and wondrous impossibilities where marvels lurk around every corner. His infinite city and the lives of its people quickly become an irresistible compulsion— I imagine an evening where Dickens, Miyazaki, and Jules Verne sat down to dream up a metropolis and its wrangling multitudes. Thunderer will leave you wide eyed, breathless and hoping for more.”—David Keck, author of In the Eye of Heaven

Let’s break down what caught my attention, because the cover was an embarrassment. (Go look for yourself, I’m not posting that nonsense here.) The quote describes a teeming city, mentions Dickens (always certain to catch my eye) and the genius from Studio Ghibli behind the greatest anime ever made. I love interesting fantasy cities. One reviewer mentioned it reminded him of Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s the point: because of the reviews and cover description, I was hoping for a city with a supernatural twist to it, with some intriguing imagery, and a storyline- any storyline – that took that idea to some kind of fulfillment. I mean, I couldn’t even have told you when I started reading it what the jacket said that story was going to be. I was just trusting it would fulfill the promise of those influences I’d been promised.

Unfortunately, it’s a boring, dreary, rambling incoherent mess with plain-Jane characters and dull ideas ripped from a cosplay convention. I stuck it out just because, which is very unusual for me.

What I heard from a lot of folks I asked about this – books they had to put down – was that there was in fact a hook that caught their eyes, but they just didn’t deliver on it. Evan at From The Wastes said for him it was Dante’s Inferno, which is why I included that picture on this post. A city in hell is a firecracker of an idea; but if that’s why you’re planning to read Dante, you’re going to be disappointed.

Several folks named bestsellers like Girl On A Train or Gone Girl. The pattern I heard from them was similar – with a bestseller thriller you have specific things you expect to see; and the bestseller apparatus should assure that. Here’s what some folks said:

“I want the book to grab me with characters and plot immediately”

“I need movement and plot…and make them interesting”

“Didn’t get into the plot. Didn’t move along. Just blah blah blah scenery and description”

“Someone said it gets better after the fifth chapter. WTF! I have to wait five chapters!?”

You get the pattern, right? I suppose writers should face the fact that within a few pages, most readers have decided whether they’re pressing ahead or not. Look, most editorial reviews on Amazon are paid for. When other authors are quoted, they’re just doing drudge work their publisher is requiring of them.

Leo Tolstoy said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity” I suppose as writers we ought to listen to him and to our own experiences with books we’ve put down. Pick one where it happened to you and cypher out what it was that drew you in to begin with, and how the book failed to deliver. My guess is the author overcomplicated a cool idea and decorated it with a bunch of style and ambience. That’s ironic if true, because all the reader ever wanted was to just see the cool idea in its simplicity.

Get back to me with your own experiences or thoughts. I’m curious what you’re putting down and why!

Stock Inversion: Thoughts On Paradigm Smashing

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“Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho

A few months ago, I posted an article on paradigms that started some interesting conversation; and a recent miserably cold and rainy day in a warm library caused me to revisit the notion with a twist I thought you might find helpful. The gremlin I’m chasing here is lazy writing. If you’re a wordsmith and you’ve caught yourself slamming into your story a dragon or an elf, a robed wizard or a huge command room on a gray spaceship, a two-arm, two leg robot who wants to be a real person, a mysterious prophecy, technology gone bad, wicked corporations,  a protagonist suddenly finding out who they really are, …you know where I’m going with this…then let’s agree there’s possibly more out there.  We don’t have to tweak or to retread old archetypes, it’s a great big world!

The Basho quote above makes my point well. For example, I’m inspired like crazy by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It’s absolute genius, in a million ways. There are a few moments in Wizard And Glass that rank among some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen.  Please join me in hoping Hollywood doesn’t pooch it up with their upcoming version – we’ll talk about that when it comes out in July. King turns the mysterious gunslinging cowboy on its head in those books. He breathes fresh life into a trope we all know and that by all rights should be tired and worn out by now. Basho’s point is it’s cool to be inspired by what he did and to follow the way it made me feel, but that it’s lazy and disappointing to simply tweak a little here and there and otherwise take for my own what he did. It’s the same with Tolkein, the 1930’s pulps, and the standard rogue’s gallery of monsters. The racks at the library, at Barnes & Noble, crap on Netflix, and a lot of what I see on social media profiles unfortunately, are chasing the same tropes. I’m no better, I’m just pointing at it and looking for the stairs.

There used to be a magazine called Wizard. It was about comic books, and was how I kept up with storylines when I was forced to become an adult against my will. They had a feature where an artist would sketch something out and explain the thoughts and creative process that went into it. I recall one where a guy was drawing a library, which may fill your head with the picture of an old white woman peering over her glasses and shushing somebody. In the issue I’m thinking of, the guy said he made his librarian a tall, muscular young guy with spiked hair “because that would make it more interesting”. That really stuck with me and came to mind when my very odd daydreaming suggested the steampunk control panel in the image introducing this article.

The idea is to run a standard stock character or idea through an adjustment process that will make it more interesting, that suggests a novel story idea. LET’S BE CLEAR here – just switching genders on a trope doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. I’m not tweaking, I’m looking for a fresh look that brings something new. We’ll try it with King Arthur in a minute. Stick with me.

The panel offers a few principles, here are examples so you get the drift. Imagine cranking the knobs on these concepts back and forth till you dial into something new and fresh.

Male/Female and Ethnicity  – and all the shades between.

Unborn/Ancient  and Historical/Future – Take an old Tibetan monk (tired and been done) and make him the manifestation of a future incarnation, as yet unborn (there’s a story to tell here!)

Illusion/Reality – (spoiler alert) What you thought was wargaming in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was actually a war being fought – it was reality, not illusion.

None/Many  –  Marvel Comics took the Iron Fist character, which was a stand-alone hero like many others, and made a dynasty of them. Iron Fists through the centuries, passing on the mantle. Oh, and Yoda’s famous quote in Empire: “There is…another…Skywalker…”

Living/Dead –  Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman series has a character who is the personification of a place – Fiddler’s Green. An inanimate place as a person, and all that that entails.

Positive Space/Negative Space – “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” I’m reminded for this one of the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze where the detective’s biggest clue regarding an intruder was that a dog had NOT barked when it should have, because it knew the culprit. It was what was NOT there that was important.

Microscopic/Massive –  Take a gargantuan spaceship that couldn’t possibly be fueled or air conditioned and make it a swarm of connectable pods, ever changing. Greg Bear wrote a book called Blood Music where he turned the alien encounter trope into biological computing cells injected into a person’s bloodstream.

Let’s give it a try and wrap up. I’ll start by listing attributes of King Arthur that I believe give him staying power. Then in bold, I’ll offer suggestions falling out from cranking the dials around, looking for something fresh.

King Arthur: In a devastated land with recollections of a golden age, barbarian marauders invade. While a new and growing religion turns the world upside-down, a prophesied warrior representing the heroic virtues of his day and the new religion comes to power. He’s aided by a mystical and mysterious remnant of the old religion and wages his righteous war with a weapon that is tied to the very land he protects. He sacrifices himself in his victory, but lies waiting for a time of greatest need to return.

Crank the dials:

  • (Negative space)  Maybe it’s the absence of a King Arthur figure that is the story. No one shows up to save the land, so the people write their own fake prophecy and lay artifacts out hoping it will fulfill itself. Then it does.
  • (None/Many)  Maybe the prophecies are real and DO come true, only they do it multiple times. Several King Arthur figures, all legit, all righteous, all working for the same cause and supported by the same mystical doohickeys. But there can be only one.
  • (Historical/Future)   Maybe the King Arthur trope is wired into human instincts, and is supposed to happen every generation by design. Since it hasn’t occurred in so long, the ones that programmed that show up to check why it’s not working
  • (Living/Dead)   Maybe King Arthur wasn’t a person at all, but rather was a place. A place you can still visit.

I supposed I could keep at this, though I’ll never write any of these. My idea was just to offer a slick visual that may help me (or hopefully you) when you worry you’re being lazy and want to contort something around and make it new and shiny. To say something that hasn’t been said, at least in that way.

Let me know your thoughts. If there are any particular tropes that bug you most, I’d be curious to hear them. Good luck with the wordslinging!

 

 

The Well Of Ideas: My 2nd Century Crazy Uncle

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“You are truly home only when you find your tribe.” Srividya Srinivasan

What if I told you there’s a book I go back and read in random places, not even straight through, that doesn’t have a plot, written by a guy who lived 1,800 years ago that wasn’t that great a writer? But I go back over and over because he’s just interesting to me…he liked the same sorts of things I like. He saw things I can’t because they’re long gone. When somebody at a market said there was a cool statue up on the mountain hidden in a grove that you had to climb to see, this guy was up for it. He collected stories. He thrilled at history and listened for hours to old people chatting up about gods and sea monsters and miracles. His name was Pausanius. He has some things to teach wordslingers; but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Let’s back up. When I was in the Navy, me and a couple of other guys had a day in Spain to do whatever we wanted. One of us had spent a semester there and thought he knew some cool places to see, so early morning in a train station we were squatting over a map pointing at things and waiting on him – his name was Keith – to make his pitch on how we should spend this one day we had. One day, get that. Then we’re back to sea for months. Kind of a big deal to get this right.

He said Antequera was the place. Had to go there. Was awesome. When we asked what was awesome, he got vague and lost our confidence. Sounded like he was drawing a big blank and had drunk his way through that semester. But we hopped on the train anyway, with big dreams of seeing something we could tell stories about later. As the train passed a gorgeous valley and some amazing hiking trails and cityscapes I, at least, was really feeling down about the call we’d made. What in Antequera could compete with this?

So the train dumped us off at a desolate wooden platform with a dusty road leading up an empty hill like an old western movie, with a sign saying the next train back would be back at the end of the day. So we’re pissed at Keith, but trudged up the dirt road anyway. And it was one of the best days of my life. Jaw-gaping cathedrals, unearthly Catholic processions, Moorish ruins, some beautiful stone university, probably the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten, and the most amazing view of a harbor from a hillside I’ve ever seen. Pausanius did stuff like that; but he wrote what he saw in excruciating detail to capture fully the ruins and statues and art of his day. He was just always interested.

An example: “A road goes from here to a Sanctuary Of Asklepios. In the colonnade they keep an enormous sea-monster’s skull, with a statue of the Dream-god behind it and Generous Sleep lulling a lion.”

Another: “On the brow over the theater is a cave in the rocks under the acropolis, it has a tripod on it and inside Apollo and Artemis are slaughtering the children of Niobe. I myself have seen Niobe when I was climbing the mountains to Sipylos. Niobe from close up is a rock and a stream, but if you go further off you seem to see a woman downcast and in tears.”

At Cerynea describing a sanctuary of the Euminedes, the furies so terrible to look at that murderers or impious people were said to go mad from terror if even allowed to see the images, Pausanius said he had a look; and the images were made of wood and weren’t that big or scary to him. I think that’s funny.

At Phigalia, he described a sanctuary of Euronyme that wasn’t easily accessible and in a thick grove of cypress trees. Once per year the villagers would open the sanctuary for sacrifices to Artemis. The image was wooden, bound with golden chains, and showed a ‘woman to the hips but below that of a fish’. Some dude carved a mermaid; and these people worshiped it as the goddess of the hunt.

Pausanius is just full of cool sights and stories about all the great stuff he’d seen; and he was always on a journey somewhere. A freaking free spirit, man! I stole at least three locations or ideas from him for my first book, but just recast them in a science fiction setting. The guy’s writings are my muse sometimes; and I really enjoy letting him riff on whatever crazy Greek myth or absurd intrigue tale he feels like spinning. Like a crazy uncle.

What he’s telling aspiring writers is to chase down vague hints of wonders when they show up. Go see something if it sounds inspirational. Let the sights breathe and soak into you. For me, the real lesson of all this – the reason I honestly wanted to sit down and write this out for you – is you should find your own crazy uncle. Is there a book you go back to over and over, to wash over you and that brings the ideas running like a stampede?

I could say the same thing of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. No idea what those are about, though I’ve spent hours wandering around inside them. They make me happy; and they put pictures in my head. What on earth more could you ask from crazy uncles? Go find one.

 

Chance Favors The Prepared Mind: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

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Louis Pasteur said that ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’; and that’s a fantastic quote. His point, I’m assuming, is that your mind is your instrument or your weapon, whichever metaphor does it for you. Whatever you’re up to in life, bathe yourself in stuff that will help you get better at it. Let cool, helpful things soak in. Then you’ll be luckier because you’ll notice opportunities you might not have otherwise.

So what does the hot warrior goddess picture I’ve attached here have to do with that? I’ll get to her in a little while. Go with me here.

Recently, I was thinking about where writers get their ideas. People ask that literally all the time. I bought a book years ago called, ‘It Came From Schenectady’ by a science fiction writer plagued by the question so often he started giving that answer when people asked him. Schenectady. That’s maybe a little funny. If you’ve read even a few articles on this blog, in fact, or the philosophy, it hopefully shines through that breaking ground in speculative fiction is kind of a big deal to me. I want to do whatever I can for myself and for other aspiring writers to BRING NEW THINGS INTO THE WORLD.

So I was turning that over in my head while coincidentally making my way through a book on the ancient city of Ugarit. This was a cosmopolitan city full of diverse folks and multiple languages, flourishing in 1500-1200 BC even though it was sandwiched between two superpowers of the day: Egypt and the Hittite Empire. My aim was to learn about the city and what life was like there; but the notion of finding story ideas was buzzing louder, so I was finding them on almost every page.

The theme in my head was very helpful to the writer in me; and it was this: just look for the strain on people. When there is some kind of tension set up, pulling on a person, there is a story to tell. I saw it in the tension between the two superpowers tugging on Ugarit. I saw it in the 1930’s race of archaeologists and linguists trying to be first to decipher the newly found script. I saw it in the very architecture of the city itself.

For example, the main city itself had two massive temples, one to Dagon (head honcho) and one to Baal (fertility guy, had sex with a cow while hiding from the god of death), with a library in between. The palace was on the other side of town and was bigger than the temples. There was a very rich guy named Rapanou whose house had thirty four rooms and his own library. I went dark for a few paragraphs as my mind wandered to the image of a teenage priest in training, leaned against one of the big temple statues and staring up at Rapanou’s house jealously, maybe wondering about one of the daughters who lived there. Maybe one of the statues would start speaking to him one full-moon night…

A few pages later, I came across this bit:

“Priests also had a military function, as is clear from references to them in administrative texts describing auxiliary military personnel; they are also listed in an army payroll text. Their role was that of support personnel, providing advice of a religious or oracular nature to military commanders. They were, in other words, an intelligence corps, purporting to provide divine counsel with respect to strategy and military operations.” -‘Ugarit And The Old Testament’ by Peter C. Craigie

That got me going on my little guy, because I saw him caught up in a rebellion against the Hittites, when all he wanted was to be left to his stone tablets and dreaming. I could see war-ragged army generals desperately shouting for divine insight into a hairy battle when the little priest was coming to doubt his own beliefs. Maybe because of something the statues had said. Maybe because of something Rapanou’s wild daughter had said.

You see how this just kind of gets going, right? Spitballing. Weaving together stuff from everywhere like a jazz riff on whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m doing. That’s how it works for me. The book had just described the little port towns on the sea as having no more than maybe a hundred people in them. I know what little rinky dink towns are like; and so, probably, do you. Then I read this:

“It’s possible that naval conscripts were drawn from the coastal towns where men would already have seagoing experience in merchant and fishing vessels”

I saw a new guy, then, who’ll probably meet up with the other guy. This dude loved his quiet little foggy port-village, though he maybe dreamed of adventures…then he got pulled into this same conflict the priest was in. Now I had a couple of folks stirring into the soup, and the possibility  of massive naval battles, which I love, and talking statues that had offered a mystery of some kind. I’m also reading Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle Master” trilogy, so probably the statues had offered a riddle.

But it was still kind of plain, needed to go crazy. Needed something with pep. Riddles have been done. So I totally lost whatever I was reading and just put it down to ponder…what is REALLY going on with this mysterious riddle?

Ahhh…I had watched a couple of Harry Potter movies over Christmas, so Voldemort’s horcrux dealie-o was in my head too. The riddle was not given to the priest to help him at all, it was given him to become alive…to be spread among the minds of men enough to form a vessel for something to enter into. Something, obviously, terrible.

The warrior goddess up there was to represent Anat, the terrible war goddess of the Ugaritic Mythology who used to storm the throne room of the all-father so angry he would hide from her, and who would tear off so many soldiers’ heads and gut them with such glee she should laugh as she waded through all the blood. You should read some of Baal’s cycle of stories where she appears. She’s fantastic. Maybe it’s her that started all this riddle business, just because she’d be fun to write.

Like a late Christmas present, I realized then that history handed me a nice finish for all this. Around 1200 BC, Ugarit got blasted from history by a mystery invasion of people from the sea. We know almost nothing about all that. Fantastic. It writes itself.

Look, I’m never going to write this story. If you’d like to, have at it. Be my guest. It’s fun to dip into it, though, and make my overall point for today.

If you’re stuck looking for ideas…or if you’re interested in where (at least some) writers get their ideas, remember I said this: look for the strain on people, the forces tugging a person in more than one direction. Bathe yourself in fiction or non-fiction, or travel, or talk to people, or whatever information you can get lost in, and dig up things that shine. Then string them together and turn up the gas.

What I’m hoping…what I aspire to do…is not to forget that last part. Be original. Turn it up to crazy and do something new.

Louis Pasteur changed everything about disease and healing when he did what he did. His quote is a sound one. Let’s live it.

 

Just How Naughty Is It That I Didn’t Like ‘Rogue One’?

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Don’t get offended, man. I just didn’t like the new Star Wars movie. And I was the kid swinging plastic lightsabers at my pillow and floating in the YMCA pool like Luke Skywalker did in the bacta tank. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, in fact; and I don’t think I’m particularly grumpy. My brother suggested something though, that I thought would be interesting to chat with you about.

He said writers can’t enjoy movies.

Before I get to that, let me list for you just a few things about the movie that irritated me to the point of not liking it. Of course there are spoilers here, so do what you need to do.

  1. Forrest Whittaker can act better than that, I’ve seen it. Was horrible to hear the fake British accent and the weird grunting. Horrible.
  2. Felicity Jones offered us one facial expression the entire movie.
  3. Hollywood shorthand overuse:  main character fondly clinging to a memento given them by a lost loved one (Jyn’s crystal necklace). Come on, dude, we’ve even already seen this in a Star Wars movie!
  4. Hollywood cheap emotional trigger overuse:  not one but TWO freaking scenes where someone dies in somebody’s arms after saying something. Ugh. Disney should be above that sort of cheap trick. Also already seen in a Star Wars movie, by the way.
  5. Moustache-twirling villain (with a cape, no less!) stomping through his scenes who can’t see beyond just wanting to rule the world.
  6. I knew the Death Star plans got transmitted when I was six years old. The drama had to come from the characters and their sacrifices; but they were snoozers. I, as always, except Donnie Yen because he could just show up and be my favorite, so that’s not fair.
  7. The Hobbit Effect: they told this story in a couple of sentences in an opening scrawl decades ago, but had to drag out all sorts of obstacles and friction to make something of it. And it felt like it. My son yawned twice. My wife fell asleep.
  8. Shameless cameos: very cool to see Leia, obviously. Also cool to see Senator Organa and Mon Mothma. Those make sense in the story. But did we REALLY need to see the ‘You’d best watch yourself!’ guys from the cantina?
  9. Lazy ‘Braveheart’ speech: Jyn gave a half-hearted and snoozer of an inspirational speech, which even the guys on the mission with her were bored with.
  10. If they have computer files and the ability to store and transmit them, why in the world are they stored on hard drives in a tower where you have to access them with robotic arms? So the heroes could climb around and get shot at? Exactly.

I honestly hope I’m not coming off as too picky here. Maybe you disagree with some of this, but seriously – ALL of it? You’re killing me.

No, I don’t believe writers can’t enjoy movies. There are all sorts of movies I think are genius or just popcorn-munching fun rides. I can switch gears, man. I’ve binge watched about ten Hallmark Christmas romance flicks with my wife in just the last couple of weeks. See, I have depth?

It could be I have a very high standard for ‘Star Wars’ and expect more from them. I was trying to puzzle out, even before the movie was over, what it was that was bugging me so much and what I liked so much about the original movies…you know, whether I’m just getting old.

Harlan Ellison said there’s nothing worth writing about other than people. Chemistry and the dynamic between characters will hook us and keep us hooked with more impact than visual effects or nostalgia or plot twists or slick ideas. In ‘A New Hope’, Han Solo was funny and cocky and bold. Leia was tough and driven and beautiful. Luke was wide-eyed and innocent, but with ties to a deep mythic undercurrent on a hero’s journey. That trinity resonates even four decades later, which is one reason we’re still dealing with shameless riffs off that original story over and over. With ‘Rogue One’ – and maybe this is because of the cheap writer tricks they used to try and shorthand me into liking their characters – I just wanted them to die already so I could get to whatever the big scene was at the end I kept hearing about.

I’m curious what you think. If you loved ‘Rogue One’, please drop me some details on what it was you loved. I just don’t see it. I really, really, really want them to get better at telling ‘Star Wars’ stories.

Oh, and writers can definitely love movies. Maybe they just like to backseat drive too?

Go Be Audacious. We Need You To Be.

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Many moons ago, when I had a vision of traipsing across Europe with only a baguette in my satchel and no idea what I was doing, I had the good fortune to be in Barcelona. Don’t think I’m entitled, my mom actually surrendered a chunk of inheritance money to give me the chance when she couldn’t afford to do that. That’s another tale; and yes – she’s awesome. My point here is how cool the Sagrada Familia was.

Of course, I’d never heard of the place or Antoni Gaudi, the mad architect who designed this melting crackpot of a building until then. It was a skeleton at the time; but the experience sugared my cookies that he was so unlike anyone else. Seriously, look it up. This guy had no boundaries. It struck me even then when my thoughts didn’t … ummm…run all that deep, that the way this guy went after stone was how I wanted to live my life. Whatever other people are successful with is just a floor, but let’s climb to the roof and see what’s there! That sort of thing. Didn’t work out that way, because life. Still, I was thinking today when I was complaining to my brother about how bad the TV show, The Walking Dead has gotten, that I’ve missed something along the way.

I really used to love The Walking Dead. Seriously, it was my jam. I’m sorry if you’re still into it and are insulted; but it’s growing disturbingly unwatchable for me. My overall feeling is they’re not pursuing the story’s possibilities like they should – that there is amazing potential in the world they’ve set up, but it’s not being turned up to the audacious, wild levels it’s begging for. For example, how can this tiny group of people still be drama-dragging (in their second state, by the way!) on back roads with nary a freaking Applebee’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart? I can’t throw a dead cat without hitting one of those. How amazing would it be to have a big post-apoc blowout with zombies and raiders in an abandoned amusement park! When you’re popping down the street tomorrow to go to work or shopping or whatever, look around whatever you pass and see if you don’t think it would be more interesting after the end of the world than featureless roads where you occasionally run into a single gas station and a couple of mean people with rifles. Untapped potential, man. Go bigger!

So I started doing flash fiction a while back, posted on Tumblr and Facebook, to drum up some interested parties willing to do reviews or who might enjoy my writing. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot about honing down my wordiness and trying to make words pop. Less fat, more meat. Sharp razor endings designed to make you think or dream your own story to what I’ve begun. That’s the idea; and it’s fun. It’s changing me; and it’s bleeding over into the novel I’m writing.

Now, I can hear all this in my head as I cling to the original inspiration for the book, because that’s what excited me to begin with. It’s hard to kill anybody off or fundamentally change them because I want to be safe and make you feel what I did when I first dreamed the idea or the people up. That’s all balls, of course. I know that; and I need to take my own medicine. The people who read those shorts on Tumblr or reddit or whatever aren’t always kind; but they have a point. Go bigger!

So I’ve scheduled a date with Armageddon. In a couple of weeks, I’m going deep with some actual, honest-to-God free time to sit down and write to push that book closer to the finish line. I have wild plans, that make so much sense given the characters and what they want. They’re finally – after all this time – speaking up for themselves; and I couldn’t be happier about that.

So why don’t you go do the same thing, over the holidays? Whatever you’re wordsmithing, ask yourself if you’re going big enough. Dream up different twists, and secret agendas your folks might have. People are layered, and don’t always do what you expect them to. Engineer that.

Here’s another architect to round home for us:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” -Daniel Burnham

The Coffee And Book People Are Still Out There

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“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” -Ray Bradbury

I travel a lot for work; and it’s easy to get the impression that nobody freaking reads anything anymore. It’s disheartening, man. I want to tell stories – there have to be people out there who want to unplug and hear them! This Thanksgiving, I got into a fairly cerebral chat with some family folks (I didn’t start it, honestly, was just munching chocolate pecan pie and it sort of happened!). It got me thinking, so I’ll hit you with the thought to see where you stand.

I don’t run into many people from day to day who get far beyond Youtube tutorials and whatever management book is in flavor rotation, so when this chat started, I thought it was going to go my way. Wife’s uncle leans over like he’s telling a secret and says,

“I understand you’ve published a book.”

Okay, cool. We can talk about that. And we did. He got a copy, says he’ll read it. I’m in. But somehow the whole conversation veered into the nonfiction he typically reads. Also cool, I read plenty myself. But I got the gist he never reads fiction at all. I’m back where I started. He’s not going to like the book, I know that already. But guys, I just can’t sit down and write a biography about Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s never going to happen. We covered LBJ in more detail in that conversation than I’d have guessed you could. Apparently the man was complicated.

I enjoyed the conversation, actually. Yet it sent me off on this idea that if most folks do sit down to read, I’m not running into the type that want to get totally lost in an imagined world with gargantuan ideas, flash-bang battles and clashing intrigue. That’s my thing, man. I can’t get enough of getting lost in a great book where sometimes I have to look up and ponder something I read. That’s my baseline for when I’m writing – I want to engineer that. Every time.

Jump ahead a few days. Christmas shopping on-line. To be honest, I was actually looking for cool stuff to put on my own Christmas list so my wife doesn’t just get me more Doctor Who merchandise. Was reading reviews of the Kindle Paperwhite to see if I should go back to e-ink screen readers. Page after page of folks who are apparently of my tribe – talking about the lake, the beach, camping, trains, in bed at night, by fireplaces, in hotel lobbies. Awesome people who love a great book. I was feeling better.

Then I found a guy who put a Cheshire Cat grin on my face. He’s your kind of guy too. Check this out.

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If you can’t read the image, here’s the text:

“I wasn’t planning on posting a review. However, something happened that prompted me to go ahead and post a review of this amazing device.

“I was well into a nice space opera book on my Kindle Paperwhite when I caught myself talking, rather loudly, to the device in response to what was happening in the story within the book. It occurred to me at that moment that the Kindle had disappeared and allowed me to immerse myself in the book so fully that I felt as if I were living inside the story rather than reading text on a screen.” -Rev. Ian MacGregor

Let’s dissect this guy for a second. He was ‘well into a nice space opera book’. Wow. Already my buddy. The man was actually talking to his Kindle. I can’t say I relate to that; but this guy is one of my favorite people on the planet now. He was talking loudly to his Kindle. And he got totally lost in the story. Whatever the crap this dude was reading, I’d like to know. The Reverend MacGregor is not only in my tribe, he’s the goll-darn shaman!

So what do you think about the future of fiction? Interesting, ground-breaking fiction that pushes cool intellectual or narrative boundaries, I mean…not gobbledygook thrillers that software will eventually write, optimized through the bestseller list algorithms. Try this quote on for size:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries” Rene Descartes

I hear you, Rene. But who are we going to have these conversations with?

Breaking Through To What Really Scares You

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what actually frightens people. Honestly, I’ve never been in a conversation with someone about ghosts or evil covens where they’ve told me they both BELIEVE those things exist AND are frightened by them. It’s usually a much more casual…’yeah, those things are possible’ kind of comment. Maybe I’ve not gotten out enough – if you have a good story where you got spooked for real, I’d love to hear it. For my part, I wanted to reproduce in a book I’m writing now the feelings in my life when I was actually frightened or shaken to my core. Since I don’t actually buy off on a lot of the supernatural stuff, it has to be much more grounded and personal to get to me. So I thought about September 11th.

All too often, people I interact with are too young to remember what it felt like when the New York towers fell in 2001. I couldn’t relate to the Pentagon fire or the Pennsylvania field; but I absolutely remember being in those towers  when I was a kid – I had family up there. I watched them smoke and fall and remember feeling entirely helpless. File that one away, it’s important.

I’ve also said before in these posts that George Orwell’s 1984 is, in my opinion, the most frightening book ever written. No goblins or possessions. No vampires. Not even a car crash. Just people being terrible to each other in a way I could believe – an awful momentum those people allowed in their society that left them with a nightmare like ‘ROOM 101’ at the ‘Ministry Of Love’ where they torture you to the point of breaking your entire personality. They turn your own children against you. They get in your head with endless propaganda. It left that society helpless. File that away, also important.

Every year, Chapman University conducts a survey of what frightens Americans the most. Check this out:

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Helplessness is staring you in the face here.

We can’t control huge, man-eating machines like government corruption where compassionless bureaucrats take everything you own or terrorist attacks where a smiling neighbor who always waved at you suddenly sprays bullets into a shopping mall. Look at number three – imagine yourself feeble and alone, your body failing and laying in diarrhea, without any money to pay for food or electricity. Shivers, man. That’s terrible! You’d be helpless.

Ignore some of the political stuff here, the things CNN or Fox told you to worry about; and there are some truly foundational horrors listed here, things that get to the heart of what scares us. We treasure stability and control and predictability. We expect the rules to be fair and unchanging, so we can continue to captain our own lives. Yet as suddenly as a phone call with a diagnosis, you can be the one staring desperately at someone you dearly love beside a hospital bed straining to understand why this doctor is contradicting the last one and why nothing is working. As they waste away. That’s us, man. That’s humans. We can’t control that; and yet we demand to. We’re helpless; and we don’t want to be.

I’m not saying I don’t have anything supernatural in the book I’m writing. Of course I do, I get bored with plain-vanilla things. But my aim is to ask you to concede only one fantastic element and let the implications fall out and shatter from there. So far, I’m having a blast. Along the way, I’m pondering what scares us for real. Things like the ones here on Chapman’s list.

I believe in the end, anybody stringing together words for profit or fun like a lot of us would be more proud of what you’d done with a horror story if you try to break new ground. Use something grounded or contextual with just a hint of the supernatural. Make me love the folks you’ve breathed life into, then tear them apart with something terrible.

That’s the gig, right?

 

Deep Waters: A Case Study In Adding A Mythic Dimension

 

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When I read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, anytime I read Dune, I get the same vibe as I’m planning to chat with you about in this post…that there’s something ominous and huge going on – a belief system or set of myths or larger than life history affecting events. I dig that tremendously; and I look for it in things I enjoy reading. In fact, when I was growing up, you were either a Luke Skywalker guy or a Han Solo guy – meaning you wanted to be the space cowboy or the brooding, mythic hero. I was a Luke Skywalker guy. The literary take on this is it’s much more interesting in your fiction should you plan to include some sort of belief system if you don’t just recreate the Greek Gods or rip off the American Indians with a ‘Great Spirit’ thing-a-ma-bob.

So I’m going to go deep with this one. Stick with me. I finished an interesting study recently that went way farther that I’d expected. I was googling and flipping through the original materials madly, chasing a huge idea that kept getting bigger. It was like pulling up one of those weeds where the roots keep popping up out of the ground and you finally just cut it when you can’t tell how far it’s really going to go. For me, it started with a random book on my shelf from years ago that had an article about the I Ching in it.

Anyway, another article in that book that caught my attention was about the Kabbala’s  Sefirot. The idea of treating a deity like an engineered contraption, like a set of physics rules you just needed to respect to make jedi-mind-trick things happen tickled both the logic and artsy sides of my brain. So I went deep into the Kabbala – read several books and spent some time reading what its believers found attractive about it. No offense if that’s your thing; but I ultimately found it full of promise and marketing but a big fizzler when you try to pin it down to something useful. It did strike me as fascinating though, the nebulous descriptions of the highest realms of reality – a nameless and unapproachable perfect being so incredibly pregnant with the potential of creation it’s provoked by nothing more than a state of mind. The sefirot idea stuck with me, so I poked into where it came from.

Read the Sefer Yetzirah if you like; but it’s gibberish to me. That was where the sefirot were first described. I bought the Pritzker Edition of The Zohar though, because that’s the big daddy of Kabbala, the place where it really took off. Get far enough into The Zohar; and you’ll get the feeling that nobody’s saying what they really mean and you can stretch and pull to make anything mean what you want it to. Still though, the massive superstructure of the universe having a secret dimension to it, a direct line of sight to a divine machinery, kept things popping. So I went deeper to see what influenced Moses DeLeon (the 13th century Spanish author or the channeler, whichever you dig).

I’ll speed up to make my point, though this took a while to trace. What I found was a pattern of about every two or three hundred years, a very similar theoretical apparatus was showing up in some famous writings. The themes are these:

  • There’s an indescribable, unapproachable entity way up in some higher dimension ready to burst with creative potential
  • This entity is either intelligent or just a principle of the universe, depending on who you’re reading; but it can be influenced either way
  • Since this thing’s perfect, it can’t produce things that aren’t perfect, yet here we are with cancer and weeds and birth defects
  • So this thing has levels beneath it, where things get progressively farther from the top and so are less perfect till you get to us
  • That means there are perfect versions of things somewhere, like flawless templates from which all matter is descended

I had discovered what they call Neo-Platonism. If you already knew that, good for you. I didn’t. It made me think of Object Oriented Programming, because it’s exactly the same idea where you have ‘classes’ defined as templates, then make ‘instances’ of them to tweak for where you use them. Going successively back in time…

  • John Scottus Eriugena (800-877AD) said the entity at the top was God; and He was creating stuff so that He could understand Himself. He said the primary Forms I was talking about above were the patterns of all things located in God’s mind. Eriugena was probably influenced by…
  • Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite (late 5th, early 6th century AD) who shared the view of a procession of realms from God but said a rock or a worm was a window upon the entire universe if you only knew how to look at it. He was intrigued by finding his place within that procession and seeing himself inside it, focusing on the sacraments as a way to engage with the apparatus. This guy was probably influenced by…
  • Proclus (412-485AD)  who was head of the Athenian school and thought Plato was divinely inspired. This guy wasn’t Christian, so his view of the thing at the top was more of a nameless ‘One’ you could influence with magic rituals. He was influenced by…
  • Plotinus (205-270AD) who studied Plato religiously. This guy had an inherent distrust of material things because they were a poor image of something higher. He said the supreme dealie-o at the top was a transcendent ball of potentiality, without which nothing could exist. He also said because of its nature of perfection, it couldn’t have a will of its own and couldn’t engage in any activity without becoming imperfect. So he had a procession downwards as well, culminating in matter.
  • The Gnostics were around this same time period, thinking the same sort of thing about matter being wicked and only a pale reflection of the perfect templates up there somewhere.
    • You see how big this is getting, right? 
  • Plato (4th century BC) developed in The Phaedo and in The Republic what’s called his Theory Of Forms . He likened us to people who’ve spent their lives watching shadows on a cave wall, thinking the shadows were what’s real when in fact there’s something making the shadows. Plato extrapolated from this idea that the soul was also a Form, and therefore perfect and unchanging, so..you know…reincarnation. He may very well have been influenced by…
  • Parmenides (5th century BC) who revolted against the sciency philosophers by suggesting there was actually a difference between true, objective reality and the stuff we can see. I’m not sure he started all this though because of…
  • Heraclitus (535 – 475BC) which is where my story ends. I read Remembering Heraclitus by Richard Geldard. Here’s a deep well like you wouldn’t believe. Heraclitus may have written a book and just dropped it off in the famous temple at Ephesus, and soundly changed the world. He described ‘the logos’ as a fiery, invisible rational principle that embedded the universe (like the Force, surrounding us, binding the galaxy together). It’s the wisdom of all of creation. Entirely possible it’s this guy that kicked the whole thing off that led to the same theoretical apparatus inspiring people for millennia.

My point is that this nebulous, vague description of a cosmic apparatus appeals to the logical side of your brain because it sounds like machinery; and you want to figure out how to make it work. It appeals to the creative side of your brain because it leaves so much for you to interpret and add to it. In fact, ,that’s just the way the I Ching appeals as well, presenting itself as reflecting the universe in a little microcosm so you can leverage what it’s up to as it changes.

Since the I Ching has been around in some form for 3,000 years; and the ideas the Kabbala built its palace on for not much less than that, those systems have something to say about how to make your manufactured belief systems resonate with people. Appeal to both the right brain and the left. Show how it could make people’s lives better in some way.

I took a real stab at this myself in Tearing Down The Statues, focusing on the idea that history repeats itself at different scales.

Now you go try and let me know how it turns out for you!

“The cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure.” -Heraclitus