Category Archives: Writing

It Means What you Think, but that is not what was Meant

At one of the panels this past weekend the classic SF/Horror film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was mentioned. Naturally when the film came up people started discussing it’s message and meaning.

Of Course it is an allegory for Communism and the soul crushing power of the totalitarian state.

Of Course it is an allegory for McCarthyism and crushing power of political terror forcing everyone into the same march.

Of Course it is an allegory for Social Conventions and the crushing power of culture, particularly that of mid-20th century America to crushing people into conformity.

Which of these is correct?

Why all of them, of course. A piece of art means to you what it means. That is not to say that was its intended meaning. Various interviews have revealed the actors, director, and writers, harbored not direct allegory. Some going so far as to say they merely intended to craft a good thriller. (check that box) Do not confuse the message you take away with the artist’s intent.

A perfect example of this is the recent on-line war between John Carpenter and the Alt-Right over the meaning of his film They Live. As I mentioned in passing when I recently discussed that film here, it could be read in an anti-Semitic manner. Now if you know anything of Mr. Carpenter you know that the intended message was on attacking Yuppies, Capitalism, and Consumerism. However those of the Alt0Right saw a different theme, one that is easy to see if that us what you *want* to see.

And there is the great truth of art, everyone brings their own life experiences and filters the process through them. What you see as a clear symbol is to someone else just a jar of baby food.

When you talk about tv shows and movies and what they really meant, be wary of putting your meaning into someone else’s mouth.

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Condor 2017

This weekend is Condor, San Diego local SF convention. I will be attended as panelist and fan.

Here are the list of panel that I will be participating on if you want to stop by and listen.

Friday

Zombies, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Tropes 12:00 noon

Writing What you Know 1:00 Pm

Mad Scientists in books and Film 3:pm

Saturday

Horror in Harry Potter 1:00 pm

Bad Science in Movies & TV 7:00 pm

Sunday

How Big will Science-Fiction Get? 2:00 pm

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Dream Project

Artists of all stripes have projects that they dream of attempting and I am no different. The project I have in mind is an already existing property and as I understand it totally tangled in rights issues so I have no reasonable hope of doing this.

I’d love to reboot Blake’s Seven in a series of novels.

For those not in the know Blake’s Seven is a late 70s and early 80s BBC SciFi series. Set in a galaxy under the thumb of dictatorial Federation the series deals with a band of rebels and outlaws. Once describe by its creator Terry Nation as ‘the Dirty Dozen’ in space the rebels in this show are hardly paragons of virtue, with most well across the line into criminality.

There’s Rog Blake, the engineer, idealist, and a man who has been set-up by the authorities as someone guilty of sex crimes against children. He’s the passionate do anything required to beat the government leader of the group.

Today Kerr Avon would be depicted as a hacker, but in the late 70’s few television writers understood computers (hell few understand them today) and he’s presented as more technician. Avon’s image is the self-centered criminal, sticking with Blake because its safer than being on his own, but somehow when the chips are down he never really betrays his own, so I also so him as a broken idealist.

Jenna Stannis was a smuggler before falling into Blake’s orbit where his passion and charisma converted her to a political animal, committed to the cause.

Villa Restal a talent thief he doesn’t really care about the fight but lacking the spine to cross those more powerful than himself, he follows Blake and Avon.

There are several more characters – more than seven in fact- that came and went over the series 4 season run.

The show was hampered from the start with a budget far too limited for the creator’s vision. (It had been given the budget of the show it replaced – a police procedural.) Still with duct taped costumes and sets that shook when touched they managed to craft compelling characters in a dark cynical setting.

It would be so fun to tackle rebooting the concept. Work out the world building ahead of time and really explore hard choices of heroes who aren’t always heroic.

It’ll never happen for me, but a guy can dream can’t he?

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Why I use Outlines

Outlines for fictions writing are not for everyone. The population of writers is often divided into two great camps; the pantsers who write without an outline, powering through their daily prose by force to spontaneous creativity and plotters who plan and detail the map of the work before setting out to explore the lands of their imagination.

Neither approach is superior to the other. Every writer has to find the tools and the techniques that work for them. Hell from project to project your approach may change. On some books by outlines are fairly spare, barely more than dozen pages for a full novel and yet for the current work in progress I have nearly 30 pages of outline and I have yet to reach the middle of the story.

Aside from a natural inclination and effects of being trained as an plotter, why do I use outlines? What are the tangible benefits they produce for me?

First of foremost it keep me from getting lost in the weeds of the plot. With a good outline I can survey where I am in the writing and look forward to when I need to be. If I feel stuck and confused, re-reading the outline will often show me where I took a wrong turn and enable me to resume the right course.

But even before I get to the writing stage the outline is a helpful tool. As I step through the story, the outline forces me to take the vague concepts and character and look at them through the hard prism of scenes. What do I need to make the story move forward? What have I not considered?

For example as I outline a sequence in the WIP where characters board another ship i found myself thinking about the security forces and what would be needed. hat prompted the questions did the ship carry any Marine? If not then who provides the physical security for the mission?

Learning about those questions in the outlining stage and therefore answering them long before I get to writing those scenes saves me time and allows for proper establishment. Now it’s possible to answer to questions as you write, pantsers do it all the time. But for me when I answer those questions in the outline it also means that I get to see the consequences of the answers I selected before they become trouble. The wrong answer could imperil the resolution of the plot and I for one hate the idea of rewriting half a book or more because I went with the wrong answer.

As I have said this tool is not for everyone and if you know that, more power to you, but if you have not yet found your method, at least explore the outline.

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Awards – Not Really Caring

Mind you I am happy when my friends win award, and should I ever be so lucky to be even nominated for an award I will be thrilled, but aside from those cases, awards don’t matter that much to me.

There will always be awards given to films, stories, songs, and other projects that didn’t work for me. There will always be projects that I think are heads and shoulders better than their competition that lose. (Yes I am looking at Titanic and L.A. Confidential.)

However even when projects I love lose that doesn’t mean a lot. After all the book, story, song, and movie remain unchanged. The reason I loved or admired them remains unchanged and I do not need the validation of others to make me feel good about my tastes.

So congratulations to everyone who has won an award, to those nominated, but also to those who create, fight, and keep on going without the acclaim. We are all artists and we are all in the arena.

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Sunday Night Movie: The Caine Mutiny

Last night’s movie served a dual purpose, it functioned both as entertainment and as research. Entertainment because The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films. I dare say that I watch my Blu-ray of it more often than I do ether Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Research because my current work in progress is on one level about a dysfunctional wardroom and how that undermines the ship’s commanding officer. Now the specifics are very different in my WIP than in the classic movie. My WIP is not about a duplicitous officer and hopefully my captain is more relatable and heroic than the poor broken Queeg.

The Caine Mutiny is one of those rare film that I find difficult to watch only a portion. Many movie I can start and stop, or back in the days of channel surfing, watch a brief bit in the middle before moving on, but that has never been the case with this movie. When I had a lasrdisc player it was one of my first purchases, and when I moved to DVDs I acquired a copy in that format as well. For several years I’ve had my Blu-ray version and the film has never looked better. (Though I have yet to see a properly projected version in an actual theater.)

Based on the fantastic novel, The Caine Mutiny is the story of the officers if the DMS Caine. (Destroyer Mine Sweeper) It is World War II and Willis Seward Keith an immature offspring of a rich family has become a newly commissioned ensign in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the Caine, a duty station he views as a bitter disappointment, Willie discovers that the junkyard navy falls far below his expectations. Too young and too inexperienced to understand the nature of the Caine, Willie rejoices when the captain is replaced with hard-nosed, by-the-book, Captain Phillip Francis Queeg.

A change of command turns out to be the spark that lights a fire culminating in the ship nearly sinking and Willie along with another officer finding himself standing before a court-martial on charges of mutiny.

Truly one of the best films to come out of classic Hollywood, The Caine Mutiny not only is faithful for the original work, but where is seriously diverges from the text of the book serves the different medium without undercutting the themes and point of the source material.

If you have not seen this film, waste no time in finding a copy, it will be well worth your effort.

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Demons of Doubt

I think all writers wrestled with doubt, about themselves, their work, and their talent. Doubts like these plague me as fiercely as they do most authors. On one hand it sees silly and kind of strange. After all I have very rarely been bothered by rejections. I’d submit stories and novels only to get some form rejections and 99% percent of the time I’d simply turn the piece around and send it to a new market.

Despite this seemingly invulnerability to an aspect of the business that wounds so many other writers doubts still dogged by footsteps. Even as my writing improved the not silent inner voice would occasionally raise the charge that everything I produced was at best second rate, lacking style, imagination, or voice. Hell in the last few weeks that voice has tried to suggest that at any moment I’d going to get an email from my agency announcing that they are no longer m agency, having moved one to a more talent writer. That’s not happening, it is the irrational doubt that suggests that nothing from reality supports it.

So how do you handle that voice?

As far as I can tell there is only one way to deal with the doubt, write anyway. If you don’t write the doubt will be there still and strengthened by your inactivity. If you write the doubt will remain, but every time you put words in a row, every time you complete a piece, every time you submit you resist the voice, you defy the doubt, you win one more battle.

Note, winning is not publication. Winning is not payment. Those are things outside of your control and if you rely upon those as your victory conditions you are empowering the Demon of Doubt. Keep your goals and your victories within your controls. Write. Write often, those are your victories.

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Don’t Make Your Period Characters Future-Smart

One of the things that has always bugged me in novels, short stories, and film set in a historical period is when those character of the past are so smart about things of the future.

I don’t mean time travelers and others who have knowledge of how things will unfold, I am speaking of characters that are supposed to be born, raised, and educated by their historical surroundings.

For example look at Rose and Cal in James Cameron’s Titanic. Rose is spot on in seeing that the ship has too few lifeboats, a clumsy bit of exposition in a film full of clumsy dialog, but the problem goes deeper than that for me. When she and Cal first get to their cabins one of the things we see is art work by Monet. Rose refers to it like being lost in a dream while Cal thinks its lousy but at least it was cheap.

Our ‘good’ character can see the master artist not yet recognized, she’s future-smart, while Cal is presented as exactly the opposite, future-stupid. He’s the villain of the piece and he is not allowed the be right with a single thing that comes out of his mouth. Even his love for her is false, making him hate the future art master simply solidifies his position.

You can see this effect over and over again in films set in the past. Often our ‘hero’ characters are more race aware than people of the era generally are, projecting our morality on the past peoples. This is bad writing and when done as heavy handed as in Titanic it is lazy writing too.

As a counter example look at the movie L.A. Confidential. While racism plays an important part of the story, no one gives two moments notice of the injustice being played against the African-American characters as they are being set up for robbery and murder. The injustice is plain to the audience without us having to endure a lecture. This is much stronger writing in a film that should have taken the Best Picture award that year.

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Whose Story is it Anyway?

Usually it looks straight forward as to who is the protagonist of a story, but that’s really something that can be a little slippery.

Many people, writers included, easily mistake a viewpoint character for the main character or protagonist. George R.R. Martin has said in interviews that he was inspired by the movie Alien, which kept the protagonist hidden in plain view, for his epic series  A Song of Fire and Ice. Who’s the main character in A Game of Thrones? We don’t know yet and that is because we have such a large number of point of view characters.

But even when there is a very limited number point of view characters identifying the protagonist may still be difficult.

In the film Ferris Buller’s Day Off there is no doubt that the viewpoint character is Ferris, aside from a few scenes here and there everything we see and hear is from Ferris’ viewpoint, but he’s not the main character. He’s just the person telling us the story.

To my way of thinking the main character is the person, or persons as it can be more than one who, over the course of the story, goes through the greatest change. I think ideally the character should take an action that would have simply not been possible for them before the events of the story, In Ferris Buller’s Day Off I think it is clear that Cameron is the main character. His actions over the car and what that represents in his relationship with his father are a dramatic change and growing for his character while Ferris leaves the story exactly the same as he entered it.

When you are looking at your story think about what the character can and cannot do. I do not mean physical powers or ability either, I mean what actions do their nature inhibit and look there for the real center of the story and for your protagonist.

A word of warning however. Do not be too slavish in the application. Rules in art are rarely unbroken. For example in most detective fiction the continuing characters rarely change. Holmes and Watson remain Holmes and Watson, at least for the most part in the original source material, and are not subject to a great deal of character change.

 

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Protagonists, Heroes, and Anti-Heroes

One of the frustrations and beauties of the arts is that they are subjective. There is no quantifiable standards to most of that arts that can be applied for a good/bad judgment, it is matters of taste and opinion. What follows here are my opinions on how you differ the roles of Protagonist, Hero, and Anti-Hero. I realized that my definitions are not quite in line with what most people use and that’s just fine, but if they make sense to you, please feel free to use them.

When we talk about story these three terms get tossed about quite a bit; Hero, Protagonist, and Anti-Hero but I don’t feel everyone is using them in the same manner. I am going to discuss this in relation to the lead character of a story, but side stepping just what it means to be the lead character. That is a subject for its own essay.

A hero is a character whose goals and means are aligned with what is considered by society to be good. Certainly Superman fits the definition. His goals are justice, to protect those unable to protect themselves, and to bring wrong doers to justice. To achieve his goal Superman will not do evil. He defines that as no more violence than is required, to not kill, and so on. Many western ‘good guys’ are heroes. Will Kane in High Noon has the goal of saving the town from Frank Miller, and you know what sort of man Frank Miller is. However to achieve his goal he will not blow up the train with innocents aboard, he will not hide and gun Frank Miller down from ambush. The code of the hero binds him in means as tightly as it does in goals.

A protagonist is simply the lead character in a story who has a major objective and faces serious opposition in achieving those objectives. Morality has no place in the assignment of the category ‘protagonist.’ A Hero is often a protagonist, but a protagonist need not be a hero. Consider for example Walter Neff from the classic film Double Indemnity. His goals are clear, he wants the girl and he wants the money, these goals by themselves are neither good nor bad, but to achieve them he is willing to commit fraud and murder. Neff is no hero but he is clearly the protagonist.

Anti-Hero is the term that I think is most abused. Too often I see it applied to a protagonist that has amoral or immoral means and objectives. I have people describe Walter Neff from Double Indemnity as an anti-hero, or Walter White from Breaking Bad, but these characters while protagonists are not anti-heroes as I see that category. To me the anti-hero is someone who still has the hero’s objectives, but has abandoned the restrictions on how those objectives are achieved. A classic example of this is Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry franchise of films. Callahan in Dirty harry never is self-serving, his goal is a societal good the reduction or elimination of crime, particularly violent crime. However to get to his end Harry will use any means at his disposal, torture for example ceases to be an objective wrong and becomes tool the anti-hero deems allowable for his just goal. Westerns and police drams lead the way in placing the anti-hero in the forefront of American Culture but the concept of a hero whose hands are not tied quickly spread fast throughout popular culture that now the very thought of a hero who will not make the ‘hard choices’ to save the day feels antiquated. Think about how much Captain America seems out of step with the world he now inhabits.

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