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?

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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

Torching Literary Groupthink

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You may or may not have heard of Cory Doctorow; but years ago when I first read Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, something blew my mind. It kind of makes my point, so I thought I’d hit you with it to see what you think.

I grew up reading white physicists writing about white physicists in my science fiction, which made me all kinds of happy because I was into spaceships and slick graphics of hydroponic farms tended by robots and that sort of thing. My view of a successful and breakthrough idea in a sci-fi book or movie would’ve  been just some cool extrapolation of:

  1. Spaceships or living in space
  2. Robots
  3. Plasma-based weapons
  4. Time travel
  5. Post-apocalypse stories

That’s what the pulps built up for us, and it’s what folks are still doing well. I’m glad that’s there, and those fields of science were starting out in the 1930s and 1940s in the first golden age of science fiction. That’s what those types of stories are doing there because it’s what people were thinking and dreaming about. The momentum’s still there, as anyone can see by a tour of Netflix’s Science Fiction offerings or basically any sci-fi movie Hollywood puts out. Go ahead to Netflix or Amazon Prime right now to check me out on this – I’ll wait here.

Back? I could of course make a similar argument for horror and list something like this:

  1. Vampires
  2. Werewolves
  3. Ghosts
  4. Demons and possessions

Just because you make one of these a lesbian or mash these together or make them love each other, that doesn’t make it a breakthrough idea. It’s groupthink no different than just tweaking a fancy spaceship or coming up with yet another way of dropping the world into an apocalypse. Look, I’m no better – I’m just pointing out that much of what we’re consuming for our fantastic literature is stuck in a mold. Don’t get me started on the endless recycling of anything Tolkien strung together.

So what did Cory do right?

In Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, characters die and are rebooted like a computer. I have no idea if he was first to that idea – he’s just the first place I saw it. Then I saw it elsewhere, maybe something by Charles Stross. It became a trope. A thing people started using in more than one place. Like laser-style weapons did one time. Like robots did once. A new trope! Fantastic. My impression when I started seeing that idea making the rounds years ago was that finally people are laying new tracks. He came from the computer science world, even having started a software company. That was his world, so it was nothing for him to carry those ideas over to his fiction. Yet it was a very different and rich world of computer-based analogies from the standard list of ideas, the toolbox we were all using.

Today, if you scan the latest awesome news in science…the daily nuggets of treasures where people are making world-changing gains, over and over it’s molecular biology or biochemistry work. Not a lot of folks are well versed in that world and putting out hard science or fantastic literature following its analogies and stretching on its ideas. I see that as a rich quarry for us.

You might be writing a myth-style work, but find yourself rehashing the Jesus Chris-style suffering savior motif. If you’re stuck, then read some myth that’s exotic for you – maybe Hindu or Tibetan or Chinese.

You might be writing a horror story and struggle on how to make vampires interesting. How about dropping that entirely and go read something about Norway’s folklore on mares or vardogrs or some creepy tropes from Russian folklore to get something novel.

Let’s all challenge ourselves to put something new in the world. It’s what I want to do.

Smashing Paradigms Like Halloween Pumpkins!

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Art by Juan Pablo Rolda

Let’s talk about being stuck in paradigms and not even knowing it. The reason you should care – if you’re an aspiring writer or somebody interested in the craft of storytelling, then you probably want to break some kind of new ground. At least for me, I like to think I’m an original, coming up with cool stuff that inspires other people. When somebody tells me I wrote something that really made them think or that gave them the shivers…or best of all, that made them want to know more…that’s fireworks to me! So paradigms are cancer. Off with their head – if you know what I mean!

Here’s an example, for the science fiction nerds out there like myself. Maybe it was Star Trek that started this, not sure; but have you noticed when you’re watching basically any show or movie set on a spaceship that the doors swish open and closed automatically? That would require motion sensors and motors. The doors always look like heavy industrial steel. In fact, everything looks like industrial steel and huge! Just huge. But stop and think about it for just a second – space has precious little resources; and every bit of mass you take along with you takes up more energy to move the ship at all. Massive freaking spaceships made of heavy steel with silly, unnecessary things like automatic doors are a bit unlikely. “Hold on, genius”, you might say. “These aren’t science text books. Energy is free in my story. If I want doors to swish shut automatically, maybe I’m thinking about emergency containment!” Blah blah. Maybe – and you have to ask yourself this – maybe you’re just coasting on paradigms Gene Roddenberry set up decades ago.

Why are spaceships always gray metal? Is it because that’s most likely, or because Navy ships have been battleship gray; and that was the paradigm folks like George Lucas just carried on from the trailblazing pulp cover artists of the 1930s? When you’re at the airport, are the planes gray? You can disagree; but my guess is the economics of space travel either in our future or in whatever alternative universe you’re dreaming up, say commercial enterprises will be building ships for space travel. They won’t have to worry about obscuring visibility in ocean environments like the Navy does. I’m saying spaceships probably won’t be battleship gray with all sorts of squiggly machinery and useless lights blinking all over their hulls. Think about it. Isn’t it more likely they’ll be smaller, probably modular vessels with logos and smooth shielded hulls, light on mass and with relatively small hallways and workspaces, maybe capable of linking up into larger structures?

Gravity? Every show you’ll watch has their folks walking around and nothing floating. That means you’re assuming the ship spins or you should at least hand-wave something about ‘gravity generators’ or something. Why not just make it spin? How hard is that?

Don’t get me started on robots. The pulps set the stage for human-looking robotics; and we’re still living with that. We’ll probably get there, no doubt. But what’s the point of all that design if the job you’re giving it is to clean the floor or pilot the ship or load cargo or to repair things? Why make it look human with all the expense and complications and liabilities, to do mundane things like that? Form will follow function, right? That’s actually how the world really works when manufacturing plants have to actually spend money on R&D and machinery and raw materials and labor to make something real. Those slick little Roomba vacuum cleaners are a fantastic example of this. They look nothing like C3PO; but they can suck up dog hair like nobody’s business.

I’m going to end with my least favorite paradigm of all because your argument should build to a climax, shouldn’t it? I mean, this one really…really needs to go. If you’re guilty of it, please stop and question yourself. I purposely avoid the heck out of this one because it’s so tired and lazy and ridiculous by now. Yet it’s hard to stay away from it. I’ve veered very close and hated myself afterwards, like when you eat the whole bag of those little chocolate doughnuts. Stop. Stay away. Go back.

‘The chosen one’. Oh my God, how many times have you heard somebody say this? Look, I understand that to set up a mythology, some sort of over-arching roller coaster you want your characters to get swept up in, this is a handy little trick. Just make the main guy the chosen one; and all sorts of mysterious things can happen. Then you can show all the whiz-bang stuff they can do and didn’t know, so replicate the ‘coming of age’ motif which everybody loves so much. Me too. But isn’t it getting old? We’re pretty sophisticated in our appreciation of narrative structure and themes by now, so isn’t it time to put this one to bed? It almost never makes sense anyway, when you poke on who chose them and why.

Anyway, I should really practice what I’m preaching here. When you agree to move beyond some of these deeply entrenched themes or backdrop devices, it gets challenging. There’s maybe even an argument to be made that things like I’m talking about here are the common vocabulary now, so to change them up too much makes the reader confused or uncomfortable and distracts from what you’re really trying to say. Honestly, if we’ve thought about it that much, then we probably did our due diligence and should have the big, freaking steel doors swish open and closed if we feel like it.

All I’m saying is think about it first.

Kill The Dream Sequence. No, Seriously. Kill It.

dead of summer

If you haven’t watched Dead Of Summer yet, I don’t really care either way. It’s meh, mostly. Yet I was in a binge this weekend to get caught up and noticed something that was particularly relevant for me right now. I’m writing a horror novel – about 40k words in to a targeted 90k, and so I’m particularly concerned with how to get someone on the edge of their butt, chomping their tongue in anticipation and as nervous as I can make them. While this show is fun, it’s not scary in even the smallest sense, though I think it tries to be. Maybe we should have a look at why it fails to see how I can succeed. It’s what I thought, at least.

Go read reviews from the second Avengers movie. One thing you’ll find is a lot of people annoyed with the weird dream sequences. Should you peruse what the masses had to say overall about Batman Versus Superman, you’ll find similar irritation with dream sequences. Let’s not get into whether you dug those movies, okay? I get how divisive that is right now – it’s been Marvel Versus DC since the seventies, nothing to see here. The point I’m making is about the overuse of this narrative technique and how it practically forces an audience to disengage. In movies, it’s probably an excuse to just show some cool visuals. In execution though, it’s a signal to me I’m good to go get a refill on my Coke Icee. Know what I mean?

Anyway, back to Dead Of Summer. Here’s the marketing blurb:

“Set in 1989, school is out for the summer, and a sun-drenched season of firsts beckons the counselors at Camp Stillwater, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern summer camp, including first loves, first kisses—and first kills. Stillwater’s dark, ancient mythology awakens, and what was supposed to be a summer of fun soon turns into one of unforgettable scares and evil at every turn.”

If you read that, you agree they want to be scary, right? Their narrative structure follows the same style as Lost, involving individual character flashbacks to flesh out each main player. Honestly, that part works for me, though the flashbacks they showed had little to do with decisions characters were making in the storyline. It came off cheaper than it did in Lost for that reason. However – and this is my overall point here – about a gajillion times, we are shown visions of a dark, mysterious man from the 19th century who’s supposedly tied in with the mysterious goings-on at the camp. I mean over and over and over, we see this guy and some blood streaming off something, or eclipses or bugs or murders or whatever…and EVERY SINGLE TIME you know it’s going to be a vision with no consequences. You can’t possibly get scared because even though somebody gets pushed into a grave or dunked underwater or whatever – I can’t even remember because I checked out during so many of those – that they’re just going to wake up and be okay. It’s foreboding but not much more.

Let’s set aside movies like Inception, which broke ground with this concept and the Freddy Krueger films (the good ones, let’s not discuss the Dream Warriors, shall we?) which staked their premises on the dream sequence. The difference with stories like those is they established consequences – you could die in those dreams. How boring would The Matrix have been if you couldn’t die while inside?

I run into this problem of consequences a lot, actually. If you’re a science fiction guy, you might think a lot about the vast distances in space and how slow moving any real-life story would be…months to get anywhere and hours to talk to each other. You might go the road of setting up avatars or virtual reality-style storylines to account for that; but honestly, you’re still looking at ridiculous lag times for the signals. If you hand-wave all of that and just say ‘tachyons’ or ‘entanglement’ to get the science-snobs off your back, you’ll be looking at this problem of consequences just like I am. If your guy is actually laying in a booth in Utah or wherever directing the action, how are there any stakes for him?

Right. So there have to be consequences and some kind of danger that’s entirely relatable. If you watch Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead enough, you start to think at any moment this freaking show is going to kill off one of your favorite characters. Mercilessly. Back in the nineties, Joe Quesada who was then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney) established a “dead is dead” rule for killing off characters to restore some kind of drama given the prevalence of resurrections. Fantastic concept, actually, though he drifted wide off the mark over his tenure.

That’s what I wanted to say, guys. Dream sequences and visions are tired and boring and are basically tickets for your audience to disconnect. Don’t do that. Avoid resurrections too, while you’re at it. Kill a major character early on just for giggles, to challenge yourself, and to set the bar for your reader that YOU AREN’T PLAYING AROUND…THIS IS SERIOUS!.

Have fun!

 

Less Whining. More Inspiring.

rendezvous-with-rama

I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?

Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them  for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.

In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:

-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do

-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things

So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.

I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.

So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.

In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.

Einstein And Writer’s Block

einstein1_7

Yes, I’m definitely a nerd. It’s cool, I’m comfortable with that. What it means is I get interested in loads of things where most people might not see the attraction. Equally true,  if you ask me how the Royals are going to do this year, you’re probably going to get a change of subject from me. I’ll be polite; but I have no idea what to say to you when you ask me that. So I was studying Einstein’s Field Equations the other day…

I’m not trying to impress you here, just bear with me. There’s something about Einstein’s life that is of tremendous interest to an aspiring writer, especially one that’s seen the horror of a blank page blinking back and weedy plot points all twisted and ensnared, sudden contradictions that make the original idea nonsense…maybe even the whole premise that felt so much like warm, gooey chocolate sloshing around in your imagination in the beginning, suddenly frozen and hammered by an idle comment somebody made that trashes it entirely.

fieldHere they are: Einstein’s Field Equations defining gravity. Why things fall down.  All the jibber jabber on the left-hand side is just saying that spacetime curves. It doesn’t say why, just that it does. Einstein came up with all that on the left just to make the math work out, not because he was a prophet or anything. But he started with the doohickey on the right…the ‘T’. He knew he’d use that, and the idea that energy is conserved; and then he just started diddling around to see what he could do with it. Let’s say that was his original inspiration, the way a writer might suddenly string two things together to make a story idea. How pregnant with potential and thrilling, right! So what’s ‘T’, then?

Everything on the right-hand side except for the ‘T’ is just a bunch of numbers. If I gave you a calculator and a reference, you’d tell me the number. So forget those. Focus on the ‘T’. The Stress-Energy Tensor. It’s a thing. It was already a thing before he got started, that’s why he knew he’d use it. It describes energy and momentum. The big ah-hah for him, the thing that made General Relativity something you’ve heard of, is that it’s the energy and momentum, the ‘T’, that’s causing spacetime to curve. Great; but here’s what he said about it:

“But it (General Relativity) is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood. The phenomenological representation of matter is, in fact, only a crude substitute for a representation which would do justice to all known properties of matter.” -from Physics And Reality.

He was bummed about ‘T’. It was crap to him. It didn’t explain any of the other whizz-bang stuff matter does. The guy that shook the world in 1905, starting entire branches of science from his work, and that explained why things fall down in 1916…the guy whose name became a nickname for geniuses, spent 40 years till his death trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would settle this for him. No dice with that. He died frustrated. Sheesh.

I’m writing a horror novel right now; and one thing I struggle with is making the big baddies really scary without making the point of view characters useless. I can’t stand people in fiction that just stare like deer in the headlights and who don’t try something. Anything! The original idea I had for the book though, the thing that made me shiver and consider it worth a year of my life, brought that helplessness with the original spooky image. Okay, great; but if I’m not going to be like Einstein and just stay stuck with the original paradigm, then I’ve got to be willing to grow beyond the original idea. The point is, I can see I’m going to have to capture that first image and the feelings that went with it, but then let things grow to wherever they need to grow. Even if it’s not where I’d thought the narrative was headed.

In my first novel, I had a fantastic image I wanted in there so badly! I could hear Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars as background music. I could see the camera pulling back from the scene. I could see my three main characters, young and scared out of their minds high on a rooftop spire looking down on the horrors they’d come through…freaking beautiful. I lost months trying to figure out how to get those guys into that circumstance. Finally gave up. Wasn’t going to happen. It stopped making sense for it to happen. That’s my point with all this, actually. To recognize when you’re there.

So if it happened to Einstein, it can happen to you, right? Recognize when your idea needs tweaking, and when it needs to be blown up. Be willing to turns things loose. Burn things down when you have to, so something else can grow in its place.