Curiouser and Curiouser

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Working on a new writing project is always a little daunting for me. I don’t know the world, the characters, the detailed plot, nor the ending. Basically, I know shit. I have found that once I begin to think about a story, I tend to dive into things that seem to have no relevance.

For example, my characters in my fantasy has wings. The world they live in is completely made up. As I moved through my normal life, my mind seemed to come up with things that I could include in the story and world. So much so that I couldn’t keep track of it all. I bought a small notebook, this was before phones had become smart, and I jotted down everything that came into my mind that I thought might be of use. All of the sudden a flood gate opened, and my notebook was filled with nick knacks and tidbits and nuggets and morsels. I was amazed at what came out. And I’m not talking about my first time.

I remember watching a documentary about the evolution of birds. One of the topics it explored was: Do birds prefer to walk, or do they prefer to fly? To test this, the scientists put a bird on a wooden plank. The incline of the plank was increased to various degrees. No matter the degree, as long as the birds could walk up the plank, they would walk. It wasn’t until the incline had gotten so high that the birds were forced to fly up the plank. So I decided that my characters with wings would have that same behavior. That they preferred to walk, unless the place they wanted to go to required flight.

Be it fantasy, science fiction, or plain ole’fiction, the foundations of the world needs to be consistent. I’ve talked about his in the world of Harry Potter where J.K. Rowling almost made a mistake in this regard. Being the writer that she is, she caught it and corrected it.

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In my new book, one of my main characters is a skeptic. He was entrenched in his martial arts school, loved teaching, and loved working with kids. But a slow disenchantment led him down the road of rebelling against his own school, much like Bruce Lee had, and he questioned what they taught and their methods. His skepticism lends well to working with children because he’s willing to investigate their issues to discover their real causes.

Before I knew all of this, I came across YouTube videos from the Athiest Community of Austin, the ACA. Their cable access show, The Atheist Experience, is run live with callers that ranges from theists to atheists to conspiracy theorists. I have to admit the theist callers are fun to listen to because the debate that ensues is not only entertaining, but opened my eyes to what constitutes as evidence and gave me a basic overview of how logic works. Both of these things were not very well defined in my mind beforehand. And this current character that I’m writing understands those things well.

Now, I started to watch the videos before I began to write this new book. To prove that my mind knew to watch these videos because I was thinking about this new book would be difficult. But I’ve always allowed myself to dive into things that seemed unrelated to anything that I was doing in my life. A lot of it went into the ether. Some of it was useful. Quantifying it would nearly be impossible since I don’t remember where anything that I think of comes from. But had I not watched the ACA videos, I may have not had enough of an understand of logic and evidence to write this character well.

Steve Jobs talked about this process in his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. In it he mentioned that he took a calligraphy class at Reed College simply because he was fascinated by the beauty of the lettering. He learned about serif and sans serif typefaces and what made great typography.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me...It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

I’m not saying that everything you’re interested in will become useful in the future, but you never know. Why not delve into something just because you’re curious? For me, it’s part of the great joy of life, to learn and experience new things.

Prescription vs. Description

In my last post, I talked about a conversation I had with a friend about happiness. He was upset because he thought I had been mocking him.

I explained to him that I had used our conversation as a jumping off point into my perspective of what happiness is, that my account was really a fictionalized version of that event. And it was because we had been a group of six people exploring this idea and not just him and I.

Going back to that idea, I want to explore a little more about his questions, not specifically, but what a lot of people do when they ponder about passions, happiness, purpose, etc.

A lot of his questions seemed to circle the idea of how we get there. You can substitute there with happiness, success, or any goal. The problem with discussing specific questions like these is we're trying to find a specific path. One of my friends said, "Do what you love and that'll make you happy." Another suggested to try different things to find your happiness. These are good suggestions but all are prescriptions, and more importantly, prescriptions that are very individual.

There's this thing called modeling: a general process in which persons serve as models for others, exhibiting the behavior to be imitated by the others.

So if I wanted to be rich, then I would research someone who is rich and mimic her behavior, a prescription. We see this with Steve Jobs. He was well known for berating his employees to motivate them to perform better. And given the success of his comeback at Apple, many managers have copied this behavior in pursuit of similar results.

Look at it this way: we all know that a dog is happy when he wags his tail. So if I ran into a pit bull who was growling and foaming at the mouth, then I would walk up behind him, grab his tail and wag it to try and calm him, make him happy. I don't have to tell you that I'd probably lose my hand, arm, and shit my pants.

When I started writing, I had read all of the interviews with J.K. Rowling. I would try and map how she came about her inspiration for her Harry Potter books to how I came to my own for my books as a way to say to myself, "Yup. I'm on the right path."

But lightning never strikes the same place twice. Meaning there can be many paths to success. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes it's overnight. All we can do is do the work.

So instead of a prescription towards what we want in life, a better way to approach something is really a description. From the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. 

What the hell does this mean?

As best as I could put it with my limited mind, wisdom comes to us in the moment. There's nothing we need to do, there's no process we need to have. All we need to do is allow it to come. If you want to inspire your employees to do better, then approach it your way. Whatever that way is, it'll present itself when you need it.

Writing a book is similar. I usually go to a cafe, sit down with my cup of coffee, and dive in. Sometimes it takes a little warm up for the words to come. Sometimes no warm up is necessary. But words will always come.

And as I've said in my last post, happiness is innate within us. Once we let our thinking settle like the what ifs, the sediment of our minds, then we can sit in peace with a clear mind to listen to the wisdom within.

Character Trait

I think writing fantasy is difficult. When creating a new world with new rules (i.e. magic, physics, politics), authors have to remain consistent. The magic in Harry Potter is a great example. J.K. Rowling establishes different economic classes in the wizardry populace. For example, the Weasley family is considered poor. But the Malfoys are rich. Very rich.

We see this when Harry goes to the bank and sees his vault open to a pile of gold coins. We see this again in Harry and Ron's first train ride to Hogwarts when the candy cart comes. Weasley frowns and holds up his lunch(?) wrapped in Saran Wrap. But Harry makes it rain with gold coins and buys 'the whole lot'.

Then we see something curious. In the Great Hall after the new students have been sorted into their houses, plates of food miraculously appear out of thin air onto the tables. Ron dives in and gorges himself. This suggests that food, or anything else, can be created out of nothing, which contradicts the idea of economic class. Why does money exist if a basic need like food can be conjured from nothing?

Rowling even acknowledged that she had run into a storytelling problem, and covered herself by showing that house elves prepare the food, and magic is used to teleport the plates of sustenance to the tables. To be honest, I didn't even see the problem until I started to learn the rules of world building.

Now, reading other writers' works, I've had to take notice if/when they're breaking their own rules. But writing about human insecurities is a little difficult. One of the authors in my writing group has a story about a guy who is self-conscious about feeling old. But there are moments where that character feels youthful and moments when he feels old. We've all harped on this fact, that his character seems to flip flop on his own perception of age. That the character needs to be consistent, otherwise the author may lose the readers' trust. The author states that his character's feelings on age depends on the situation.

And that makes perfect sense.

Character traits are defined as something that changes their view of the world. Put it simply, if the character is a man, his view is going to be vastly different than a woman's. A man isn't going to fear rape every time he goes on a first date. But a woman may because she's the physically weaker sex.

Or if a character is narcissistic, then she will see the world as beneath her, or her above it, as seen in the character Cat Grant in Supergirl.

So what we, as fellow writers, are harping on is the consistency of the character trait. But what we did not see is that declaring yourself old or young is not the trait the author intended. The trait is the insecurity of being old. And the character's flip flopping supports that trait. Because if the trait was that he feels old, isn't worth anything because he's old, then flip flopping wouldn't make sense. And it wouldn't make for an interesting story.

Loss of Subtlety

Belieive it or not I'm walking on air...

Belieive it or not I'm walking on air...

Subtlety has escaped Hollywood. Hollywood, however, is a representation of what the market will bear. Market being the peeps. Us. What we’re likely to pay a whopping twelve bucks to watch.

To be more homogenous, movies must have:

• Action • Suspense • Romance • Mystery • Redemption • Revenge • Comic relief • Strong female lead • Coupled by a backward-thinking male lead who learns to love the strong female lead finally realizing that she’s his everlasting soul mate for all time and beyond • A chase scene either by foot, car, truck, or air, with shoot outs that lead to a climactic battle between God and Satan, where armies of orcs, elves, muggles, wizards, witches, followed by mere men and women, and a child who was born with a butterfly tattoo preordaining her to cure the virus that has threatened life as we know it and must complete a special training that will make him (wasn’t it a her?) nearly invincible (nearly because we have to have tension in our epic fog of a story) • And a Hollywood ending where the child cures Satan of his issues, and both God and Satan float off into the sunset • The End

Ebert and Scorsese

Ebert and Scorsese

One of the things I do is read reviews of movies, Roger Ebert being my favorite. They don’t have any bearing on what I watch. But I can learn a lot about story telling by people’s likes and dislikes, and they’re fairly common. As a story teller, the market is important to a certain point. But as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers has proven, good content creates the market. We see this in the explosion of wizardry and horromance in the media today.

I see you

I see you

When reviews are either good or bad cohesively, there may be some merit. On Fandango, I had looked up the times for Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Matt Damon. Part of the movie was filmed in San Francisco in an apartment building my friend lives in. So it was cool hearing stories of how filming went.

Fandango had a rating of yellow, meaning most of the people who saw the movie thought it was “so-so”. That’s the middle rating. But Jackass in 3D got a bright green rating, the top, a “must go”. A red means “oh no”, stay away or lose two hours of life you can never get back.

Most people complained Hereafter was slow and uneventful. But you can’t have a good story with substance based purely on the afterlife. You may point out Paranormal Activity, but it’s just cheap thrills. Would you stay in a house that haunted you for any length of time? I’m brave. But I ain’t that brave. And none of the Paranomal movies explored why they stayed or what issues being haunted brought up. It represents nothing. It's like going to a strip club, paying to get a hard-on, then walking home with with no relief.

Not that I know of those kinds of naughty, naughty things.

A good story with substance uses something as the backdrop, like the afterlife, to show case interpersonal issues. Hereafter does that from three different perspectives: a psychic who can communicate with the dead, a journalist who had a near death experience, and a boy who yearns for his dead twin.

Work it, work it

Work it, work it

A good example of backdrop is Casino Royale. I'm not a huge Bond fan. I never knew why until I started to study story. James Bond is a classic character. He's suave. He likes all women. He sleeps with all women he desires. He likes his drinks to be shaken, not stirred. He can get out of any situation. He's a master fighter, can wield any weapon made available, and is witty.

But as a character, he never changes.  He doesn't go from having no confidence to being confident. He doesn't realize the error of his ways. He doesn't learn to be loyal because he already is. He doesn't have any bad qualities.  Qualities that a writer can hang his hat on to change.

Except for one. He's emotionally detached to the women he's intimate with. He never falls in love. Then Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, shows up in Royale. She's confident, brash, reads Bond for who he is, and just as every bit competitive. Through their competitiveness, Bond falls in love with her. A huge change in both character and in the movie. When Vesper dies, he must struggle with the pain, something all humans go through. As a result, Casino Royale is one of the best reviewed Bond movies.

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Franchises

Most people abhor movie sequels. Not sure why since they usually do well in the box office. But I think the lost love comes from not being as good as the first movie. Part of that comes from character development.  With a lot of stories, the main character goes through a change like going from being unconfident to confident.  And once that's done that character becomes uninteresting.  The sequel now has to depend on plot. James Bond as a character doesn't change at all.  All of his stories are sold based on plot and fan base.  It's no wonder the actors change so much.  They have to to keep the audience interested.

Then came Casino Royale.  One of the things Bond doesn't do is fall in love.  He's a slam-bam-thank-you-mam kinda guy.  Nothing wrong with that.  He whips it out, tugs hard, holds tight, and bam.  I was talking about the gun.  But in Casino, Bond not only whipped it out--not talking about his gun--but let his love interest have it.  I'm talking about his emotions.

The man fell in love.

Add the banter between the two love birds, the plot, and a blonde Bond, and you get one of the best Bond movies ever made.  But once Quantum of Solace came out, it received mixed reviews.  And here we get into franchises.

In my search for a literary agent, I came across an article written by one.  He wrote something that made a lot of sense.  As writers, we have to know that the publishing industry is a business.  As a business, once a platform does well publishers will want to build off it to make more money.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a five-book series.  I haven't read the books, but I've spotted them as I walk through Borders.  There are tons of Trilogies.  But they're small potatoes.  There are book series that last a dozen books.  Some series are even ongoing.  Publishers often urge the writer to continue the series before venturing outside of that domain.

It's a business.

The problem, as stated above, is character development.  How can a writer continue to make the character interesting?  Put her through a lot of crap through plot?  Maybe.  How about having change occur in supporting characters?  Or what about creating new issues with the main character, and adding change in supporting ones?

Here's where J.K. Rowling did a great job.  As Harry grew up in those seven years, he changed just like a real person.  Shocking.  That and the red herrings, plot, the close knit friendships made for a great read.  Rowling satisfied the publishing world's philosophy of building on a fan base, but satisfied her fans by creating incredible plot with highly relatable characters.

As writers, we need to keep at heart the art but also keep an eye on the world of business.