Saturday, April 30, 2011

Indecision and Other Obstacles

Lately I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been writing posts for this blog, writing movie reviews and reflections for my movie blog and writing reviews for DVD Verdict. I’ve been watching movies and series for Verdict and my movie blog. I’ve been playing a few video games that captured my attention (Dragon Age why do I keep coming back!). But the one thing I haven’t been doing is working on my fiction.

Last year I planned to get editing done on two novels I completed. I started editing both and didn’t finish. Part of the problem was the home related and family related issues. I also burnout on editing. I do a lot of it at work too: one of the few nasty side effects of writing and editing procedure documents for a living. I just get sick of reading and rereading my own stuff. Needless to say both manuscripts are just sitting with red pens waiting to be worked on… for months.

Then there’s the constant issue of wanting to write new material. I’ve had several ideas over the last year that have been sitting in my head and not doing anyone a lick of good. So, what’s to be done?

First off, I love writing about movies. The movie blog proved it and I’ve been having a blast with it. Writing for Verdict is great, as I get more people reading my writing than ever before. But the time it takes to watch all those movies and series is considerable. While I’ve toned down my blog entries for my movie blog, I’m still finding it tough to juggle everything. And this blog has been running since 2007, and I’m loath to let it go, even though I’m finding it harder and harder to write interesting entries for it. Heck, I’m writing this one right now, because I didn’t have one in the wings.

But the bigger issue is the changing landscape of publishing. Used to be self-publishing was a suckers game. But with electronic publishing the game has changed and it’s quite possible to make some money and get some readers for your fiction if you know how to get it out there. I keep coming back to the idea of really getting my fiction rolling, but to do that I need to cut into my other writing. I need to stop getting sucked away into video games. I need to really dive into editing (the one element of writing I always flounder on). . I need to decide the path I really want to take.

The trick is actually doing it instead of writing about it.

Am I the only whiny writer out there? Anyone else struggling with their writing careers and their focus?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spark of Inspiration – The Gunslinger

This isn’t going to be so much of a look at the first novel of The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Instead I’m going to get a little more personal about it. I think its safe to say that The Gunslinger really changed me as a writer.

First a quick examination of the novel. This series of stories were written by Stephan King when he was young, around 19 or so. As he points out in his new introduction, there was a zeal to the writing that he doesn’t have in his prose any more. But there is also a lot of stuff a young writer does that just doesn’t add to the story. In 2002 King went back to the work and did some editing and modifying to allow this book to feel more at home in his seven book epic. Reading this version, I have to say it is a smoother read and flows a bit better with the rest of the series. But I grew up with old version, over-elaborate prose and all.

I remember someone recommending the book to me, but I don’t remember who. It was in high school, I wanna say sophomore year or so. I knew King more from the movies based on his work, but I believe I read Cujo and maybe It. Anyway, I thought I knew what I was in for, but man was I blown away.

Here was a world that combined so many disparate elements and yet it all worked. Your main character was a cowboy, cool as the devil and twice as dangerous. He’s travelling across a world that hints at apocalypse. We see ruined machines, and technology. But the people all seem to have stepped out of the 1800’s. They talk funny, a kind of mix between olde west and a formal speech you’d find in a medieval film from the 50’s. Roland, our gunslinger has flashback to his youth, where the cowboys live in castles. There’s a strong sense of the feudal in these memories. The gunslingers world is filled with perils including demons, wizards, mutants and strange technology. Finally there is Jake, a young boy who is pulled into the Gunslinger’s world from ours. When he describes his home we recognize it immediately as a modern city street.

I’d never read a book like it, and the setting and characters just clicked with me. I picked up the rest of the series (up to the third book at the time) and was hooked. This was a classic adventure story with our heroes on the quest, travelling the land and facing all kinds of characters.

Let’s get back to The Gunslinger. Up to the point of reading that book, Tolkien heavily influenced my writing. Lord of the Rings was a focal point as a writer. I loved the depth, the characters and the adventure. All my writing was based around this basic fantasy model. But when I read The Gunslinger I realized that fantasy was just that – fantastic. You could do anything with the characters and world, and if you did it right it would all flow together creating something unique and powerful. C.S. Lewis did something similar with his Chronicles of Narnia, but this being Stephan King was a darker more cynical world – one that H.P. Lovecraft would appreciate. That darkness was what really got to me. There is a melancholy to the series, a tale of endings, which really hits home to me.

I didn’t immediately begin writing fiction in the style of The Dark Tower, I was too in awe of it. But it opened my eyes, and The Gunslinger in particular. It feels more dreamlike than the following books. It ebbs and flows in ways that make sense on a primal level. Even the overwrought prose of the original version adds to this, seeming to create an off kilter feeling. That’s what got me – the feeling of being in a dream. I love dreams and writing and stories that are immersed in them. This was the first book I read that came anywhere close to matching that feel, and while I’ve explored more examples since then, I keep coming back to this book.

It wasn’t till nearly five or six years later that I used The Dark Tower as one of my main influences on my first novel. That story was influenced by so many things spanning Japanese anime to the action film Ronin that it’s kinda funny to read now. But that wide swath of influences and the dark nature of the story is definitely based in The Gunslinger. I even tried a version of the ending of that novel with my main character – having her face a nemesis and receive a revelation at the same time. I read it now and its clunky and not effective at all. But I can see the seeds of the inspiration there.

My dark fantasy fiction has not strayed much since. When I do delve back in, I find elements of King’s work in mine, as well as influences by film maker David Lynch and of course Lovecraft. But I think my characters have gotten a lot better and I’ve created a plot that is more fluid and less locked into its influences than the original. Maybe one day I’ll fee comfortable enough with one of the tales to unleash it on an unwitting public (as Dr. Forrester would say). But for now those dark tales remain mine to polish. I love them, but they aren’t ready yet. But each time I revisit my world it gets a little better.

And so thank you Mr. King for creating a fascinating story and providing a spark of inspiration for my fantasy writing, taking me into a direction I never thought possible and allowing me to see possibilities in my fiction.

Do you have a book or film that really triggered a direction or change in your writing? Do your early attempts to matching it show how much you’ve grown as a writer? Have you read The Gunslinger?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Logic and the Human Mind - I Robot

Time again to delve into Asimov. I enjoyed the two previous robot centric books I read by him, Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. But I had never read the stories that started it all, so I was interested to see how “I Robot” fit into all this.

I was aware that this was a collection of short stories, and that’s fine with me. “Foundation” is essentially a collection of short stories that build on each other, and “I Robot” has a similar feel to it, with the central character of Susan Calvin telling or figuring in all the stories. Some of the tales had a very pulp sci-fi feeling to them, especially those involving the duo of Powell and Donovan. I got a kick out of their dialogue and their layman approach to dealing with the puzzling behavior of their metallic comrades.

But what struck me most about these stories is that they are basically logic puzzles with a narrative formed around them. At the heart of each tale is a mystery that needs unraveling and this usually has something to do with the three laws of robotics, and how they are interpreted. Since the robots deal with things logically, they are limited. But these limitations aren’t always apparent to the other characters and to the reader.

As the stories progress, the robots evolve and the puzzles take on greater and greater impact on human society. This is one of the things I admire about Asimov, he weaves his themes so well into interesting stories and provides you with entertainment and a bit more to chew on after you’re done reading.

If you haven’t given this book a read I recommend it, as some solid and entertaining short stories, but second to see if you can figure out these logic puzzles before the other characters do. I have to say that if had to take the place of Donovan or Powel… I’d be dead.

Have you read “I Robot”? What did you think of it?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Insight into a Writer’s Mind – The Narnia Code

Earlier this year I wrote a review for a documentary called The Narnia Code over at DVD Verdict. This documentary focused on “a mystery” that has plagued readers of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series for decades. How did Lewis reconcile the vastly different characters and settings of his fantasy world? A casual reader of the first book will find references to characters from Greek mythology, Celtic legend, fairytales, as well as seemingly random elements like a lamppost in the middle of a forest and Santa Claus. Many have wondered if Lewis was just bad at creating a fantasy world, and was just pulling these elements out of his brain. This is more striking when you look at his contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien, and see the huge amount of back-story and depth he created for his fantasy world.

I’m gonna be honest here and say, Lewis’ fantasy world never bothered me as a reader. Granted I first read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when I was in fourth grade or so, but even rereading it over the years I never had a problem with it. There was a whimsy to the whole book that just pulled me in. All those elements seemed to work together because Narnia is a world that only children could enter. So it made sense that these kinds of characters and settings would appear. I never felt it was sloppy.

The Narnia Code says that there is a method to this “madness”. According to scholar Michael Ward, the series basic construction and stylistic elements are all based on the medieval view of the seven known planets. To the medieval mind there were seven heavenly bodies that traveled differently across the sky than the rest of the firmament. These were: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Ward believes that each of these planets has been given its own book to influence. If you study this medieval cosmology then you’ll see elements of these planets in each book.

Here’s where things get a bit odd, at least for the writer in me. So this “code” has been revealed and now we know where all these seemingly disparate elements came from. But what if you didn’t have a problem with these elements in the first place, will this “revelation” mean anything to you? In a way it’s interesting, but I don’t think a casual reader is going to care. Even those that read the series or use it as a teaching tool of Christian belief aren’t going to find much here to add to their view of the work.

What I found especially amusing was the fact that the documentary presents this as a game changing solution. That now that Ward has presented his theory (and yes its still theory, we can’t ask Lewis if this is correct, and plenty of scholars don’t agree with Ward) a whole new level of meaning has been introduced to the series. I don’t buy it. What we have is a new understanding of stylistic choices made by Lewis. It may allow other writers and scholars to smile at different places when they read, but other than that, I don’t see it as changing my opinion of the work or deepening my understanding of its themes. I just think that Lewis was pretty clever at using that as an inspiration, one that took decades for someone to figure out and yet provided a pattern that we didn’t know existed. But then comes the question, can it be a pattern if no one recognizes it?

What do you think of the Chronicles of Narnia? Do you think this kind of revelation helps or hinders the enjoyment of the stories? Should influences on a writer really be dissected like this?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Subtle Horror – The Wendigo

H.P. Lovecraft is known for his unique brand of horror storytelling. His dark and nihilistic view of the universe inspired some chilling tales. But he had influences on his style and stories. Some of these were contemporaries like Robert E. Howard. Others were older like Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. Lets take a look at Algernon Blackwood.

Blackwood’s influence on Lovecraft is more stylistic than anything else. For one thing Blackwood’s weird fiction does not concern alternate worlds and planes of existence, but deals with an internal spiritual horror. It’s a terror that is difficult to define, something that comes from within, like a creeping doubt that builds and builds until its too much.

In the stories I’ve read by Blackwood, this source of terror comes from the natural world or from within. The Wendigo is one of his most celebrated stories, and along with The Willows may be one of his most effective. In The Wendigo the story starts out as a hunting trip into the Canadian wilderness. Like a typical horror film, everything starts out peachy keen at first. But slowly little things begin to hint at a dark side to the survival story.

Blackwood infuses his stories with description – a lot of description. So you’ve got to be prepared to read some long passages about the wilderness. It’s not too bad, because Blackwood really builds a solid picture, but it does slow the pacing down to a crawl. However this is intentional too. It puts you into a certain mood, slowly moving through the story and allowing the descriptions to build upon each other twisting slightly each time.

When the horror unfolds in the final third of the novella, you’ve been slowly creeped out for so long that it becomes chilling. It takes some patience to read, but it also takes skill to write. Blackwood’s theme of nature as a force unto itself, and one that man cannot hope to tame is strong in his stories. The Wendigo does just that. Sure it skirts the supernatural (and delves right into it at the end), but there is a lot of psychological horror in there too. The corruptions or devolution of the characters spirit is what fascinates him, and creates a unique horror experience.

Lovecraft uses a similar style, but focuses instead on the human intellect. His characters often meander in a world that is beyond their ken, and often become corrupted and insane by the end. This build up usually happens faster then in a Blackwood story, but the same style is present. Its also interesting to note that in The Willows the danger is very present and real, but never identified clearly. It makes it more horrifying. This technique is another one that Lovecraft utilized well in many of his stories.

I highly recommend checking out The Wendigo if you have the opportunity and are in the mood for a horror story that takes its time but is very effective. If it works for you then seek out The Willows for a solid sampling of the unknown.

Have you ever read any of Blackwood’s stories? What did you think of them? Do you think heavy description can be as effective as a tight plot, or do you think a balance needs to be struck?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Detection and Sloth - Fer – De – Lance

Holmes and Watson, Nick and Nora, Simon and Simon: the detective pair has been a staple in fiction for a long time. In many cases you get partners who seem very different in approaches but compliment each other. Why would you need a partner otherwise? But a skilled writer can take a duo and not only use them to compliment each other, but to contrast each other in a way that creates additional tension in the story.

Rex Stout created Nero Wolfe and his partner Archie Goodwin, and they are a great example of this style of detective pairing. This is the first time I’d read a Nero Wolfe mystery and I was pulled right in. The setting is the 1930s, and Archie comes across like your typical hard-boiled type. He’s streetsmart, he cracks wise, and he knows how to question folks to get the info he needs. He’s not afraid of a little danger, and he’s dedicated to catching the bad guy. What more do you need in a detective character?

Well you need someone who can put the pieces together, especially when the pieces are an intricate and diverse as the mystery at the center of Fer-de-lance. That’s where Nero Wolfe comes in. He’s a master of using deduction to find the source of the mystery and revealing who is the heart of the matter, as well as their motives.

There is only one small problem. Wolfe is a jerk. Seriously the guy has a foul attitude, he’s agoraphobic, and his love of the finer things in life has turned him into an obese toddler. His eccentricities make him an interesting character, because Stout allows us to see the genius behind the man. Sure Archie does all the leg work, but in the end the key witnesses come to see Wolfe and he questions them. And while Wolfe may be a complete jerk most of the time, he is also an excellent reader of people. He can tell by a glance and the entire approach of a person just what kind of role he must play to get the information he needs. And he can act. This compiled with his deductive skills makes him formidable.

The combination of the bizarre Wolfe and streetsmart Archie makes for a dynamic read. They have some great dialogue when they are together. Both men respect and understand each other, but at the same time find the other infuriating at times. It works so well, that combined with the interesting mystery at hand, I sought out more Nero Wolfe mysteries. If you haven’t given this character a shot and enjoy 1930’s style fiction, give Fer-de-lance a try.

Have you read a Nero Wolfe mystery before? What did you think of him as a character? Do you have a favorite fictional pairing? What made them work?

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Supporting Cast is the Lead – Memnon

In my continuing quest to read historical fiction based on ancient Greece, I ran into “Memnon”, a tale that takes place during the age of Alexander the Great. Last year I read the novel Virtues of War that presented Alexander’s rise from his point of view. It was an intriguing character study that worked well.

Author Scott Oden took a different tact, by basing the novel around one of Alexander’s enemies, and so we get a very different view of the Macedonian conqueror. The story revolves around Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek mercenary who finds himself allied with the powerful Persian lord Artabazus. We follow Memnon from his youth in Rhodes, and through the forging a powerful leader of men. Oden even has Memnon meet Alexander while Artabazus is in exile in Macedonia.

Things get really interesting as Memnon comes to realize that Alexander presents a greater threat than his father ever did. Being experienced in battling with and against the Macedonian forces Memnon attempts to bring his knowledge to the famous battle of Granicus River. But internal politics on the Persian side keeps Memnon’s advice from being heeded. Disaster results. The climax of the story occurs when Alexander reaches the city of Halicarnassus. He begins his siege and Memnon comes up with a plan to make Alexander pay for the city with as many lives as possible.

Memnon is a pretty interesting character. He’s smart, able to read people very well, brave to a fault and not willing to give up. But he does suffer from a plight that many heroic figures end up with in novels. He’s never wrong. A little of this goes a long way, but I think Oden wanted to show that Memnon was an equal to Alexander’s strategic powers, but it was Alexander’s luck that allowed him to defeat Memnon. Still, the protagonist never makes a bad decision or misjudgment. Sure, it may appear to be so at first, but he’s always proven right in the end.

Honestly this is a minor quibble. The story has so many interesting characters, and a perspective that I don’t see often in fiction based in this time period. Usually its Alexander or his men we are linked to, it’s rare to see it from the opposing side. Picking Memnon was a great move. Little is known about him for certain, so Oden was able to give him an intriguing back-story and interaction with the Persians and his brother Mentor. This combined with the exciting historical details made for an excellent read.

Have you ever read a book that took place from the point of view of a lesser known historical figure, or one that was on the losing side of a conflict? Did it work? Do you think this would be easier or more difficult to write?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From Animation to Epic - Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind

Hayao Miyazaki is known for his animated feature films. He is often called the Walt Disney of Japan. I’ve blogged about him before, and I will get some review for his films up over at my movie review site. But there is another piece of work that Miyazaki did in the mid 1990’s that doesn’t get as much discussion as his film work. That is his graphic novel (or manga in Japanese) called “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”.

This was also the title of Miyazaki’s first animated feature that he funded and produced on his own. Prior to this Miyazaki had been a director for hire working on many popular programs and movies including “Sherlock Hound” and ”The Castle of Caligastro”. But this was the first time Miyazaki was able to create a story he wanted to tell. And what a story it is. It takes place on a world that has been consumed by a toxic jungle, after humans have decimated the planet during a horrible war. The survivors attempt to survive on the edge of the toxic jungle, and one of these bastions of civilization is the Valley of the Wind. Princess Nausicaa and her people live in peace, until an airship crashes near their town. The people of the valley try to help the survivors, but there are none. The next day another airship appears, this one bearing an army bent on taking back what the first airship had in its cargo. War has come to the Valley and Nausicaa must defend her people from it, and keep the war from causing an invasion of giant insects that populate the toxic forest.

The movie was done in the early 80’s and while some of the animation looks a bit primitive now, the design and thought put into the world and the story is top notch. Miyazaki shows all the elements he would be come a master of in his later films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”.

The difference between the film and the manga is that Miyazaki takes the world he created in the film and expands upon it tenfold. In the film there are three factions on this world, the valley of the wind, the warlike Torumekians, and the city of Pejitei. The manga has countless more, all pockets of humans that are tied to one another by war or dependence. Each one plays a key role in the story and adds to the main themes of compassion and man’s relationship with nature.

Nausicaa is the same character, a young woman who is so compassionate and caring that she is nearly perfect. Normally this kind of character is really hard to identify with and not be annoyed by. But Miyazaki keeps her human by having her struggle with her anger at first and then with despair. Most of the decisions she makes are the right ones, and she tends to always know when thing are going to happen or how they will play out. But we begin to feel bad for her. This world is filled with death and destruction. She can’t understand why people do what they do to each other. She can’t understand why they won’t change. It really begins to take its toll, and in the last third of the story, she begins to wonder if fighting to help these idiots is even worth it.

All along the forest and the powers of nature work against the humans, because the humans keep working against it. Miyazaki is a notorious ecologist. Many of his films include some kind of ecological message and to be honest he can feel preachy. The film of Nausicaa being one of his earliest seems to really slam it home at times. The novel isn’t exactly subtle but it works the message into the story of compassion, and makes it a bit more palatable. Humans are part of the natural world, and Miyazaki’s message is that no matter how hard humans struggle to dominate it – they are never going to be the masters. They must learn to live with nature. The toxic forest appears to be a cancer creeping across the world and destroying human civilization. While humans do their best to destroy themselves. But the truth is that the toxic forest is the first stage in a cleansing for the world, and if humans could only understand that, they would be able to look forward to a bright future.

The novel of Nausicaa retains much of the amazing art design and feel of the animation, but gets to really explore more facets of it. We get to see more giant creatures, more technology from the various factions, and more characters with other costumes and equipment. Miyazaki put a lot of effort into keeping the original feel and just delving into it.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese manga before, I heartily recommend this series. You don’t have to be familiar with the movie to enjoy it. It contains a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. The art is excellent and the story, while it may be a bit familiar or heavy handed at times, is still very enjoyable. It’s in print in a six book format (I have the older four book format). For me this was an excellent transition. For the most part anime is based on a manga series and the results are usually poor. But because we have the same creator for both and because he took a story that was roughly 2 hours and developed it into a true epic (the events of the movie take up two thirds of the first book, and then the story goes into a new and interesting direction), its like reading a totally different animal.

Have you ever read or seen “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind”? Do you have a favorite transition form graphic novel to movie or vice versa? What do you think about characters who appear “perfect”?