The most important skill to a writer

Here is a quick post about what you need to focus on as a writer. There are plenty of important skills to master good fiction writing. Crafting complex interesting plot, creating compelling characters, dazzling prose, strong important themes, having a distinct point of view or voice, all of these are important.

But.

I think we can all recall novels and short stories where one of these elements was less than stellar. Books that are massively successful despite some poorly drawn characters, tired cliched plots, or that they brought nothing new to light. (Mind you I don’t think aside from self-published material – and only some of them not all by any measure – do you find all these faults in one work. But many works survived with one or two of them.)

There is a skill that every published author has mastered no matter the material.

They finished.

The story didn;t end up in a forgotten drawer, on in an uncompleted file on their hard drive. The author stuck with it, did not give up and chase a new shiny idea, but did the work and wrote to the end.

This is the most important skill, learning to finish. Because if you can’t, none of the other things will matter.

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Why I Write What I Write

No one has asked for this post, but then again no one asks for any post and that has never stopped me.

Writing short stories and novels is a curious thing, particularly when you do it without a contract in hand. There’s no assurance that it will be published or that anyone other than the author will see it, so why take that risk? Why write?

I write for many reasons, other authors may share some of these reasons, some may value them differently. That’s neither right nor wrong, as with cars, your mileage may vary. These are my objectives when I start putting words in a row.

  1. Entertainment. I write the sort of stories that if I read them would entertain me. Be they dark or light, happy endings or death and gloom, all the stories have elements that thrill and engage me.
  2. Show me a world I don’t know. That can be cultures that are new to me, viewpoints that illuminate others’ lives, or a whole new way of thinking about things. I love a good novel that take me into the a headspace unlike my own.
  3. Moral Thought Experiments. I am far less interested in plots than I am stories about difficult choices. If the only issue is stopping the bad guy from doing a bad thing, that itself is of limited appeal to me. It can be exciting to read or watch but upon reflection it proves empty. I like it much more when a character is torn between what they want and what they think is right or just.

Those are the biggies for me, but the list is representative not exclusive.

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Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

In2008 with Iron Man Marvel studios took what many considered to be their second string heroes and started an ambitious project; a shared cinematic universe of superhero films. (Some call it a first, the shared universe film set, but Universal did the same, though not by initial design, with their classic horror films.) The successes of the project have remade the movie-going business and continue to this day with the release of MCU movie # 13, Captain 1-iron-man-and-captain-america-civil-war-4k-wallpaperAmerica: Civil War.

It is amazing that this film, so deeply indebted to the storytelling that proceeded it, is so truly marvelous. Carrying on with the character of Steve Rodgers AKA Captain America after Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, CA;CW though studded with massive battle set pieces, is ultimately a story about the small character beats, choices, and conflicts that drive people and teams apart.

The world is reacting to the presence of enhanced individuals and the enhanced threats to safety and security that they represent. While on the surface those appear to be the issues dividing the Avengers, what is really driving them are their own psychological needs and problems. This is a far better way of telling a story that simply a big bad with a big bad plan. Make no mistake. there is a villain in this piece, but unlike Loki, Ultron, the Red Skull, or Hydra, the threat is not about global destruction but about the personal costs and choices in such a universe.

There is a third act reveal that I should have seen coming but I was so suckered into the characters and their lives that the filmmakers managed a blindside that made me actually gasp out loud. No really, in full on cliché mode my hand went to my lips and I gasped. It was so obvious, so perfect, and so devastating.

Another area where this could have failed spectacularly is the sheer number of characters. With a cast of speaking roles so large it would have been far too easy for most of the characters to lose their sense of individuality and become nothing more than plot points and exposition. That did not happen, the writers, the directors, and the actor all utilized their briefs amounts of screen time to imply and inform the audience as to who these people are. It is amazing.

The new additions to the MCU, Spider-Man and The Black Panther, are handled well and with slowing or stopping the film to explain them Everything feels natural and organic. I even approve of the reinterpretation of Aunt May.

I think, but I can not be sure, that a person coming in cold to the film, having seen none of the other, would still enjoy and understand it, but I also wonder how long can that be maintained. At what point does the weight of cinematic history make any one movie incomprehensible to a novice viewer to the MCU?

Only time will tell, but it isn’t here.

This film is good. Go see it. In theaters.

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Trump is the Face of the GOP

Well, it’s all over but the crying. The opponents have dropped out and the last man standing for the GOP nomination for President of the United States of American is Donald Trump. This fall we’ll see a contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton, though my past predictions – like everyone else’s – have been disastrously wrong I think this will lead to a massive defeat for the GOP. So be it, they brought the storm down upon themselves.

Make no mistake, Trump won because he bested every faction of the GOP. He bested the establishment solids, he bested the patrician blue-bloods, he bested the up and coming hopefuls, he bested the experienced and sitting governors, he bested the RINOs and the tea party favorites and the unshakable social conservatives. he beat them in open and closed primaries. he beat them with pluralities and majority votes. The GOP voters put choose him as the nominee, He was not foisted upon them by the monies interests, He was not selected by the party big wigs. He was not given a free ride by the media. The GOP primary voters pulled those levers, punched that chad, and marked that box for this man and everything he has been spewing for ten months.

When the ruin falls in November- and I truly hope it does because the thought that he would win a majority of the general population terrifies me – a wise GOP would look at its base and seriously consider how did it cultivate such a voter pool. They created an environment where such a demagogue would thrive and they must clean the swamp to prevent a repeat. I fear that such an honest appraisal is beyond the party as it is currently constituted. I fear that like a spousal abuser they will shift they blame, most likely to the current president, and cry ‘look what you made me do.’

It is a sad time we live in. I’m going to go watch Marvel’s The Avengers.

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Movie Review: Rubber(2011)

Okay this is a very odd film; before I launch into my thoughts it will probably be best to watch the trailer if you are unfamiliar with this movie.


Okay, are you ready?

Yes, this film is about a psychokinetic tire that rolls around a small town killing animals and people. A pretty out-there concept for a film. But this movie is also about movies, what it means to make them, what it means to watch them, and the fusion that occurs between the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies.

To give you an impression of what this film is like I am going to reference two other filmmakers; David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. If you put Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at one end of the a spectrum of art house films and Jordorowsky’s The Holy Mountain at the other, Rubber is closer to The Holy Mountain than it is Mullholland Drive. The writer/director of Rubber, Quintin Dupieux, sets up this movie from the opening scene. We watch a sheriff climb out of the trunk of a car and approach a group spectators. he explains that all great films have an element of ‘no reason.’ Where things happen or take a certain form for no reason at all. He then charges the people to remember that as they watch this film. The spectators sort of act as a chorus, commenting on the action, but unlike a chorus they influence the story and they themselves are changed by it.

I am not convinced that Quintin knew exactly what he was doing or trying to say, but this film is about something and I am glad I gave it a spin. Your mileage, however, may vary depending on your tastes for European styled art house projects.

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The Duality of Writing and Writers

Recently it struck me that on a number of front writers have a real sharp edged duality about them, of composed of what seems like mutually exclusive natures. In no particular order here are some of those ideas.

Writers seem to be both optimists and utterly practical. Consider that when you send off a manuscript you are competing with hundreds and more likely thousands of manuscript for that publication slot or agent’s representation. The keep sending them out as the mountain of rejections grows is an act of utter optimism. One day it will change, one day that lightning will strike. At the same time when you review and edit your material, there is no place for wishful thinking, no room here for sentimentality. that which does not work must be fixed and excised from the text. It is the basis of the adage ‘kill your darlings.’

Writers seem to exist in a strange state of self-doubt and criticism while also possessing a belief that what they have to say is not only worthy but worthy of the attention of thousands. They must be critical enough to see the flaws, as above, but certain in their views, their plots, their characters, that they know the world needs to see it.

We can also dive into philosophical duality. Character we create exist in some sort of Heisenberg uncertainty region between free-will and determinism. Consider a character like say Will Riker from Star trek The Next Generation. If a show opened with him storming onto the bridge, mouthing off to Picard, slapping Troi around and making the moves on Wesley, the viewers would demand a reason for these actions.  He would never do such things. They are beyond any scope of his freely chosen set of actions, something must be making him act that way. Characters have defined natures that if they venture beyond they break beliefe and become ‘out of character.’ And yet we have to believe that characters make choices and that often in a character’s arc he, or she, chooses something at the end of the story that would have been out of character at the start.

It is a strange thing I pursue.

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Casting Ethnic Characters

In the last few weeks, there have been two points of conflict in the geek and geek-adjacent film communities over casting of characters in upcoming movies.

This November we get a movie I have been really wanting, Doctor Strange, my second favorite Marvel Superhero. (Iron Man has always been by tops.) In the source material Strange learns his arts from an old Asian fellow known as The Ancient One. In the film this part has been gender-flipped to a woman and is being played by Caucasian actress Tilda Swinton.  Some have been upset by an character that was clearly Asian suddenly becoming Caucasian.

Frankly this one has bothered me that much. The ‘character’ of the Ancient One was dreadfully close to stereotype and over the line as a cliche. Moving away from cliche is an improvement. I know that there are many who disagree with me and I understand their sincerely held position, but I am not convinced. A cliche is bad writing and I’m happy that we have hopes of avoiding such things in this film.

The second storm is centered on a live-action version of the well-known Japanese Anime Ghost in the Shell. I have never seen the original, but I am open to it, it’s just my exposure to Anime in general is rather limited. However what we have here is Japanese source material, with Japanese characters, now being made with the lead character, Kusanagi, being played again by a Caucasian, this time Scarlett Johansson. I have nothing against Scarlett, she is a talented actress and I have seen her deliver a number of very interesting performances but there is no reason to ignore the ethnicity of character in the casting.

Producers and Directors generally defend these casting decisions as being forced by the financing forces beyond their control. Stating that without a big star they can’t get big budgets to make these epic films. This is true – as far as it goes, but there is a lie of omission here.The banks and

The banks and investor group that fund these project DO want big stars attached to the projects. The signing of major stars signals serious resources and commitment to a project. Without that, it is very hard to raise the fund for a massive budget. I would say beyond hard and nearly impossible. But nowhere is it written that the big star have to have the lead role. That is the dirty secret they would prefer you not recognize.

Here is a famous case to prove this: Superman The Movie. When the producers signed a negative pick-up deal with Warner Brothers to make them film, that put them on the hook to raise the funds the make it, and this was not going to be a cheap movie. They needed stars who were ‘bankable’ and indicated a level of serious artistic commitment. Kids at this point that did not sign relative new-comer Christopher Reeve as their lead, they signed Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. That, coupled with star writer Mario Puzo, brought in the funds to make the movie.

This argument – oh we can’t have a Japanese actress the lead because we won’t get funding – is a dodge, don’t fall for it. They made the call to cast it the way they did, their call not something forced and beyond their power to counter. (There’s also been an excellent argument made elsewhere that Asian actors haven’t been given the chance to build up to star power the way other have been. Look at the long line of credits Scarlett has before she exploded to a top line budget item. That matters too.)

So in short, Doctor Strange I am fine with, less cliches is better, Ghost in the Shell I call shenanigans.

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A Man Should Know His Limitations

So, as regular readers here already know for the past several years I have maintained an annual pass to Universal Studios, Hollywood. (‘The entertainment capital of L.A.’ – sigh I remember when they were the entertainment capital of the world, not just one city.) Movies are one of my favorite things and going to the park by myself gave me a day to clear my head, have fun, and let ideas collide on their own while I was distracted. Many a trip ended with new concepts, plots, and characters for my writing.

Sadly, with the coming of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, otherwise known as Harry Potter and The Really big Check — sorry Cheque, they have substantially raised their prices and instituted black out dates – pretty much every weekend during the summer – on their annual pass holders. I made the call that the price was too much, the utilization too limited, and the crowds too large for my purposes.

Searching for a new theme park day trip destination for myself I took a trip Sunday to Knott’s berry Farm. I like roller coasters, it’s half an hour closer than the Universal, and I could get a day pass at nearly half off from my work benefits.

It was a pleasant trip and I had fun, but I have made a discovery that it will not be what I need for creativity. On one point multiple roller coasters are too stimulating and the back burners of my brain appear to switch off. Also I discovered while most roller coasters do not make me motion sick, spiraling ones most certainly do. I had fun, but came home early than normal and with only modest idea creation, most of which occured during the drive time.

I still need the moderate level distraction for hours at a time when I can let creativity occur in the background processes. The answer is going to be the world Famous San Diego Zoo. I can walk it grounds, take in shows, lectures, and tours. Partake in theme park food, see fascinating wild life and be home in time for serious quality time with my sweetie-wife. Plus with two annual passes we can return to our Sunday in the zoo walks.

 

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Plotting to be Busy

Just a quick run down of how I expect to be a busy writer for the rest fo the year.

Starting this week my goal is 5000 words a week on the new YA novel, aiming to finish the first draft about August 1.

Every Sunday night, edit and revise the 5000 words from that week as part of a rolling edit so the 1st draft will be in better shape than is usual.

On Saturdays plot, research, and outline the novel after the current WIP. This is back to adult SF with a complex two plots each with a five act structure.

By early 2017 – have that planned second novel finished in a 1st draft form/

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A New Novel Started

Well, today I started actual writing, prose sentences and all, on a new novel. This is not outlining, or note-making, or character design, but the first draft starting.

It always looks like such a mountain of work at the start. The word counts completed are so tiny, just under a thousand and the completion target so, about 80,000 huge. However the only way it gets written is doing the work.

I have long maintained the hardest part of writing is butt to chair finger to keyboard.

This book is my first attempt at a YA adventure story, something along the line of the classic SF novel Between Planets. (The second SF book I ever read.)

After this novel the next will get a little darker with one character named Reginald Duncan.

 

 

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