Category Archives: Writing

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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Promise and Flavor in Storytelling

SF Author Nancy Kress, on of my favorites, in her book on the craft of writing speaks about the promise an author makes to the reader when starting a story. Her argument is that the opening promises is a very critical thing and ties in closely to how the author should end the tale.

For examples – and this is my own and not an example I believe that she has used – the movie Star Wars clearly telegraphs its fairy tale and mythic roots even before the opening scrawl has begun. Fairy tale are stories of moral instruction with clearly defined good and evil and conclude with evil defeat. Given that opening promise if the story had ended with the defeat of the rebellion and the turning of Luke to the dark side of the force audience would have felt betrayed, even though such an ending would have been culturally consistent with other films and television of the era. Just a few years earlier Francis Ford Coppola shot to directorial stardom with the Godfather. The promise of the opening is a story about family &loyalty, and the corruption that they can bring. Michael’s fall from a moral man – ‘That’s my father Kay, not me.” – to a crime lord is a payoff on that promise as expected as Luke’s destruction of the Death Star.

That is not to say the ending are predictable but rather that are consistent with the promise and do not violate it.

Flavor is a different concept but one that is related to the promise. To me flavor is the overall philosophical tone of the piece. It can be nihilistic such as Soylent Green, optimistic such as Star Wars or even cynical such as any really good noir. Making sure your tone complements your promise is a critical design issue in storytelling.

I have recently criticized a number of movies for their cynical nature, but it is because I do not think that the flavor they used complemented the promises.

Sunday night I streamed the movie Night Crawler on Netflix. It is a deeply cynical nihilistic film about a sociopath and how society encourages the expression of his sociopathic actions for our entertainment. It is truly one of the darkest and deeply cynical film I have watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Promise and Flavor are wedded in this film and though it is by far not for everyone it’s a terrific example of how to do dark right.

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On Being a Good Citizen

Democracy requires good citizen, but what does it mean to be a good citizen? Certainly not that a citizen should shut up and do as they are told. That’s not citizenship that servitude.

A good citizen is one who is informed and engaged in the civic life of their democracy. Now not all citizen have equal talents, time, or resources and so therefore the criteria for informed and engaged is a highly variable one. For some it means making sure you know the issues and candidates when you vote, I would say that is the bare minimum, but with greater ability and resources come more challenging standards.

Volunteering, for work both charitable and political in another means by which someone can contribute to the civic body and be a good citizen. Public service is also a means of active participation, both in local and national matters civilian or military.

Advocacy for cause and issues is another route to participation. In the era of social media it is one that is becoming easier and easier for people to participate in. Those with platforms that amplify their voices, extend their reach have a greater obligation to advocate issues and concerns to the greater body politic.

That brings me to what is going on today.

There are a number of voices out there shouting at public persons that those persons should ‘shut up and sing.’ As though choosing a life of the arts has someone removed their rights and duties as citizens. I reject such a notion categorically. Anyone who has read my blog knows I have a passion for the arts and for politics. I am never going to shut up about either.

To be clear I am not saying that speech should be or can ever be free of consequences. I make a statement advocating the concept that Trump is likely to be a terrible president and perhaps someone decides then and there that they will never buy my stuff.

I won’t lose any sleep. That is the sort of thing that discussing politics will invoke and I would never tell that person that they are wrong, because they are not. The hypothetical person has their principals, their deeply held convictions and if that means they shun my writing, that’s their call.

I do call out those who insist that artists and celebrities should stay silent. It is not anyone’s place to silence a citizen. Criticize what they say, call on others to voice their opinions, even boycotts, are all fair game, and if they happen to you or me, that is the price for advocacy, but never call for silence. Never for someone to ‘shut up and sing.’

We are citizens, not servants.

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Doing Research

So I am about to dive back into my Nationalized Space fictional setting and write another Seth Jackson novel. These usually involve research into governments types and functions, space movement and combat and things of that nature but I find I needed to take an additional step this time: I had to re-read by my earlier novel.

This has been a different experience. It has been nearly two years since I last read these pages and I have grown as a writer in the intervening span. That said, and while there are sentences here and there I now want to revise, I am overall happy with the book. It’s the sort of novel I want to read and if I may be allowed a moment of egotism, one I am having a lot of fun re-reading.

Other aspects of my are also going fairly well. Three weeks ago my doctor’s office called me to warn me that my cholesterol number were rising and the time had come for action. I could either start taking medications or I could try diet and exercise. To me the medications are a last resort and it is better to address the causes rather than the effects.

Since the doctor’s warning I have not had red meat. I plan to on rare occasions, say every two months or so, allow my self some red meat but fish and fowl have become my mainstay. I have also jettisoned snacks that are not fruits or nuts. On February 4th I have another blood draw and we’ll see if there has been any effect. Then on February 5th I’ll take a sol trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and let my brain recharge for a spell.

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It’s not the Close-ups, it’s the Script

A failed film that I still enjoy and own on blu-ray home video is the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. (I also own a copy of the original which I had seen some years earlier at a local art house theater.) Th film is fun, the actors are talented, and the music endearing, but the film is seriously flawed and the theatrical release version is substantially different from the original cut. The blu-ray hosts both version the original release a director’s cut restoring the ending. In the following discussion there will of course be spoilers for the film and one for the television series Breaking Bad. (Trust me it will make sense to link the two properties.)

Still with me? Good.

The original ending of the film, just as with the stage play, our hero, Seymour Krelborn feeds his dead girlfriend to the carnivorous, intelligent, and evil plant Audrey II (Named after the girlfriend) and then later himself in a bizarre suicide. The film continues for more than seven minutes of the plant and its offspring conquering the world until it burst from the screen to threaten the audience directly.

The ending played horribly with test audience and reshoots quickly changed the ending. Now Audrey I, the girlfriend, survived her wounds, Seymour battles Audrey II and saves the world with only a hint that the danger has not been fully bested.

Even with the happy ending the film never found a wide audience and continues on as a minor cult favorite. In interviews and audio commentaries Director Frank Oz as stated that he had not understood the power of ‘close-up’ and how they transform an audience’s relationship to the characters and thinks this is why the test audiences rejected a movie where the hero dies at the end. The close-up had erased the distance and now the audience possessed too much empathy for such an ending to work.

I think his analysis is wholly wrong.

In the story Seymour, poverty stricken and almost certainly doomed to a life on skid row discovers that through the alien plant he can have fame, wealth, and love of the girl he adores, Audrey. The wrinkle is that the plant feeds on blood, human blood and quickly its appetite grows beyond what he can safely provide from pricked fingers. Audrey II manipulated Seymour’s infatuation with Audrey I to convince Seymour to murder her boyfriend, a cruel and sadistic dentist, so that the corpse can be fed to the plant.

When Seymour goes armed with a pistol to kill the dentist a serous of comedic accidents lead to the situation where the dentist is suffocating on laughing gas and Seymour stands by and does nothing as he dies.

In articles published before the movie was released Oz confessed to shooting the story in such a way as the preserve Seymour’s innocence and not make him a blatant murderer. He failed.

In Breaking Bad the protagonist Walter White goes on a five season decent into evil until he transforms into a thoroughly rotten man. At one point, rather than loose an associate to a new girlfriend, Walter stands by and watched as the girlfriend, passed out from a heroin binge, chokes to death on her own vomit.

In both case the characters were presented with the ability to prevent a death and took a knowing and willful act to do nothing, both are murderers.

An altered song from the soundtrack stressed how the play understood this dynamic but that Frank Oz did not. There is a song, and it’s quite good, call The Meek Shall Inherit. The song plays out with a chorus as Seymour is presented with numerous contracts and deals to solidify his fame, fortune and change of luck. Seymour almost rejects the offers, knowing that means more blood, more bodies, more murder, but he fear of losing Audrey is too powerful and knowing all this he signs. The song ends with chorus sings that ‘the Meek will get what’s coming to them.’ In the film, both versions, the entire second half of the song with Seymour’s knowing decision has been edited out. The set-up for the ending has just been removed.

These two elements are the largest factors why that ending didn’t play, the story was altered so that it promised one thing and delivered another. Few stories can survive that. You have to set-up and payoff the right ending for the right story.

Two other elements, not as critical, also play into the film’s failure.

First, this was 1986 and dark film about doomed heroes were on the outs. The cinematic landscape demanded relentless upbeat movies and clear heroic victories, big mainstream movies no longer engaged in ending that were better suited to the 1970s.

Second, seven minutes of the monsters taking over the world? In a movie that ran a total of 103 minutes, not even two hours? It’s dull to watch that much film roll bye without a single character that is known the audience. Al the named characters are dead or gone, it’s spectacle for the point of doomed and dark ending that won’t play in that decade.

No, Mr. Oz, it was not the close-up of Rick Moranis or Ellen Green that doomed your movie, it was botched story telling.

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Goodbye 2016

Today is New Year’s Day and we can officially place 2016 into the pages of history. For some 2016 was a terrible year and I can share their horror of what unfolded on the public stages, but personally 2016 was for myself a year of gradual change.

I made no new fiction sales during the year. My agent continues to shop my military SF novel so on first inspection it would appear that the year has not been very kind for my writing, but I do not feel that is very representative of my experiences.

Yes, the lack of sales is disheartening, but I have also gotten some very nice comments from top editors. While the particular stories were not to their tastes they praised the prose and asked my agent to send more.

In 2016 I also completed two novels, both were experiments outside of my writing comfort zone. One, an SF noir I think worked very well and now rests in the hands of my capable agent, the other my first attempt at an SF YA adventure failed, but the idea is not dead and who truly succeeds at a first attempt?

I believe that I have in gaming terms ‘leveled up’ this year and start 2017 as a stronger and more skilled writer.

My personal life continues to improve. I love my wife and our marriage is strong, my day-job is interesting, worthwhile, and compensates well. I work with good people who I enjoy interacting with everyday. 2016 also saw my first opportunity to attend San Diego’s local horror film festival Horrible Imagings. I loved it more than I had expected and look forward to the next festival later this year.

2016 was not without its troubles. I watched friends struggle with adversity and right there at its close I became aware of the need for a dramatic lifestyle change of my own. My G.P. has informed me that my cholesterol numbers are beginning to climb and I had a choice, radical alteration to my diet or medication. I detest the idea of taking ever more maintenance prescriptions and so the diet is a changing. Fruits and veggies are the order of the day, whole grains, and never again the beloved fried foods.

So the year had it’s bumps and its benefits, overall I am not unpleased with how the year has turned out.

2017 holds promise. I have entered the Writers of the Future Contest after an absence of several quarters, though the tale submitted it another experimental one and we shall see if it strikes a chord with the judges. My novel continues to be considered for traditional publication, and after a little short story work that won’t take more than 2 or 3 weeks I return to the comfort of military SF for another novel.

May your future hold much promise and joyful challenges.

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Research Can be Surprising

One of the ways to avoid doing the actual work of writing it is do research. Of course your story needs research but it is also an easy out, after all there is always another article to read, another book to check out, another paper to scan. I am no more immune to this than any other writer.

For y next SF military novel I am doing research into PTSD. The question I have is if the bio-chemical and neurotransmitter links of PTSD can be undone and restored by physical treatment what does that do to issues such as survivor’s guilt?

While doing the research I followed some breadcrumbs down a rabbit hole of information and ended up reading about children and PTSD. Not at all germane to my novel as none of the characters are children and certainly not the character for whom I needed these answers, but the research turned surprising in a personal matter.

My father died when I was ten years old and it was quite a blow emotionally. Reading the symptoms and expressions of PTSD in children I was struck just how much of it lined up with my memories if myself during the years following his passing.

Now this was the early 70’s, hardly a time when people would have considered such a diagnosis for a boy, but the tremors of familiarity resonate strongly for me. Today, there are now symptoms of expressions and I am quite satisfied with life.

Writing can be a profession that transforms the writer and not just their readers. I have already had an adjustment t some political thought as a results of fiction heads I have crawled into for their POV and now I have a new take on my own childhood.

 

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A Day Off

Lately I have been working 50-54 hours weeks at my day job as the Medicare application flood in during the Annual Enrollment Period. This week my body informed me that it no longer approved of the extra money I was making and allowed the Psoriatic Arthritis to flare up.

Now, this is not disabling and many people, some close friends, suffer far worse health issues, but the outbreaks, the joint pain, and the lack of sleep do take their toll. This was a result of physical stress and in order to de-stress I took today off.

Surprisingly I slept for 9 hours, which means I really and truly needed it. I operate, happily, on 6 1/2 hours each night and even n the weekends rarely go beyond 7.

This morning has been a lazy morning of burritos, British WWII documentaries, and thinking about my current SF short story.

It had been stuck for an ending but now I have it. I knew the story, and that pointed to the character change, what I did not have was the plot that got me there. Now I think I have that plot. When I awoke this morning I even was struck by an experiment style to pull off the ending. It’s wacky and may not work but I will attempt it. You should write outside your comfort zone.

 

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