P.40: On Journaling

19430170_10101274964647836_1054977293858506989_n (1)                                                                                        I started keeping a journal at about this time last summer — and I’ve found it helpful, to say the least. This journal here is my fourth volume since starting.

Most of my entries are brief — about a couple short pages — and are just a quick run down of what I did that day, or since my last entry. Conversations, random things I’m struck by, tasks of the day, how I’m feeling, and so on and so forth.

A collection of patterns and oddities and everything in between.

But it’s also a great way to keep track of goals, and make a record of what I’ve read, watched, listened to and what I took away from it all — so it’s not all lost in the æther. I also often include a short poem, to get my creative juices going, or to explore a thought or idea.

Over time, as I’ve written more, it’s made me think back to an episode of NPR’s Indivisibilia —  exploring if humans can change. The show’s guests went on to point out that not only can we, but that we are constantly changing (even at a cellular level), and can in many ways be viewed as entirely different people whether viewed over long stretches of time, or from one moment to the next. In that vein, keeping a journal is the great link — a record of ourselves, in all our different versions.

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever tried?

p.38: On Unlikeable Protaganists

How likable should protagonists be? Do unlikable protagonists need some qualities about them that readers can identify with, some aspect of the character they can feel invested in?

It’s a debate I’ve had with a number of other writers. While I think there are no right or wrong answers — there’s a reader for every kind of writer — I lean down on the side that even unlikable protagonists should have something about them that helps readers root for them in some way. Even if the protags are horrible human beings.

In that vein, I stumbled on this excellent video blog from the Lessons on the Screenplay channel on Youtube that examines the protagonist in Nightcrawler, a tremendously underrated movie. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a true sociopath in it, someone who I highly doubt most any viewer could actually like, who is yet an incredibly compelling character. The performance is a tour de force, but it’s all there in the screenplay, too.

The video really sums up my thoughts on the subject better than anything I could write, and uses great examples from the screenplay for evidence. I hope others will find it as useful as I did.

P.35: Deathly Hallows Part 1, a Retrospective

Spoilers, of course.

It’s weird. Right from when I heard that Warner Bros. was rereleasing the Harry Potter movies — all on IMAX — the movie I was most excited about seeing again was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.  I may be in the minority, but it’s by far my favorite in the film series.

For starters, the movie is fantastic. The acting, the direction, the cinematography, the score — everything delivers.

A lot of people at the time scoffed at the idea of separating the last book of a popular franchise into two different movies (me included!) — and it certainly set a bad industry standard — but unlike so many of the others that have followed, the two Deathly Hallows films are really well thought out.

Each part is almost the diametric opposite of the other, and yet they fit together so well. It makes the two films resonant — if Part 2 has all the action, Part 1 has all the feeling. And feeling wins for me.

But, of course, Part 2 doesn’t really have all the action. Part 1 has action in spades, maybe even more action sequences than any other Harry Potter film other than the Deathly Hallows Part 2. We get everything from a broomstick getaway to a diner shootout. There are two major heists, a blown-up house, a wedding raid, a battle with a Big-Bad-Wolf-esque snake in human clothing. There’s a magic-dueling chase, a prison break and a homicidal necklace drowning scene.

And all of them effect our heroes, and often the world around them, in very personal ways — for good or bad. A character doesn’t just die, but is cried over and buried. A wand isn’t just broken, but is used as a symbol of the need to not dwell on the bad in times of crisis. Our heroes don’t just save random strangers, but get to know them just well enough to make viewers care that they were saved at all.

Almost nothing is glossed over — even outright victory has consequences, as when Hermione had to compromise her morals and erase the memories of Voldemort’s snatchers, to keep the trio safe. Winning the fight, for Hermione, was the easy part. The results aren’t always predictable, and the film usually takes the time to let the impacts sink in.

Further, this film oozes character and relationship growth, hitting so many different emotional notes. By taking viewers out of Hogwarts completely, it gives us the chance to see Hermione, Harry and Ron stand on their own — and Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint deliver.

Another point in its favor? This is a Big Blockbuster that’s not afraid of taking chances. For example, it has all these beautiful settings and lingers on them, chewing on the scenery and moment, not afraid to stop and breathe. It creates this beautiful message — that even in the worst of times, the world is a beautiful place and there can be moments of peace.

It also puts the geeky Wizarding World lore at the focus. To beat the bad guy, the characters have to — for the first time — understand the world. They need to know how wands really work, something even Voldemort didn’t quite get. And for a franchise that never really tried to establish a detailed or rigid magic system before, wand lore adds surprising depth — depth the film wasn’t afraid to dig into.

Further, while the Harry Potter movies have always given us a great world, the Deathly Hallows gives us great stories. And those stories are important to the film itself. The Tale of the Three Brothers hits so many notes for me, from the film’s ridiculously gorgeous animated sequence (which was a huge risk!) to the way the story itself serves as a perfect pastiche of all the old European folktales.

But the really important thing is what the Three Brothers represents. If the Harry Potter universe were a mystery cult, it’s basically the outer and inner mysteries of the entire Wizarding World. In Harry’s world, there’s those who (like him, in Philosopher’s Stone) know nothing and are completely new to or unaware of the Wizarding World. They’ve never even heard of the Three Brothers, much less read it. Then there are those initiated into the outer ring — those who are well versed in wizarding culture, who understands the world in the same way most anyone would understands the one we live in. These are the people who’ve read the Three Brothers, or at least know the story.

But then there’s the people fully initiated — who not only understand the world, but how it came to be. They know what’s really going on. For Harry, Ron and Hermione, they’re just entering the “real” Wizarding World here, as they’ve come to know about (and believe in) the Deathly Hallows. It brings a greater depth to the story, and sets our characters in an almost Arthurian quest narrative, where they (like many others before them) have quested to find the elusive Grail Elder Wand, and its Deathly Hallow companions.

Of course, the book did many of these things, too, and it did them all first. We shouldn’t forget that, or how much JK Rowling rocks. But think of how easy it would have been for these scenes to have been written out or truncated in the translation to film. Or how easily Warner Bros could have forced David Yates to manufacture a bunch of different, plot-centric scenes to dumb this thing down and strip away all the character beats.

Did anyone read the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and expect all those scenes of Hermione, Harry and Ron wandering the English countryside to somehow all make it in the final movies? I sure didn’t, and yet they all made this movie so good.

So, wow, was seeing this film again a real treat. It’s one of the rare times I’ve gone to see something on the big big screen and thought, “I wouldn’t want to see that any other way.” In fact, I often don’t like IMAX for the simple reason that it can be too much. But not this one. That’s for sure. It really made this great, unique and emotive movie a perfect movie-going experience — sort of the fine wine of the Harry Potter movie franchise — and I didn’t even have any popcorn.

P.31: Star Trek Enterprise (A Retrospective)

Over the past few weeks, I watched/re-watched Star Trek: Enterprise. Wow, was I surprised. It was much better than I remembered it.

Its flaws are still there, of course, but I wasn’t bored. And if I’m not bored, that’s good enough for me.

Here’s just a few things that are a lot better than I remembered:

  • The sets. They really succeed at capturing a feel that looks dated compared to Next Gen/Voyager, yet advanced compared to today.
  • The horror episodes. There are only a few, but these were some of the standouts of the entire series to me. This is one thing ST:E did better than any of the other ST series. Silent Enemy was the best, but by no means the only good one.
  • The Andorians. The show goes a long way to fleshing out the species, one we barely saw before, despite the fact that they were one of the original few species to form the Federation. I wish the series brought a lot more of the early Federation member species into play. (Caitians, Tellerites, Deltans, etc.)
  • Limitations. We have a crew that wanted to help others it came across, yet a ship that’s not advanced enough to deal with much of what confronts them. While the show was criticized by many for making the ship too modern in some respects, ST:E actually does a great job at making the ship’s limitations impact the story. It creates problems on the show that the characters have to work around (aka good storytelling), and fits incredibly well with the show’s ‘early’ setting. Nothing’s easy, but they get it done.
  • The opening song. I used to *hate* it, as did most fans at the time. It eschewed the beautiful orchestrations from every previous Star Trek series for a pop song (!) — one first sung by Rod Stewart, at that. Maybe it’s been so long since we’ve last had a new Trek show that it doesn’t really matter to me anymore, or maybe it’s the JJ verse movies also emphasizing pop songs that have inoculated me, but now I find the song pretty catchy — and one that certainly fits the feel of the show.
  • Porthos, Captain Archer’s pet dog. Clearly, there should be more dogs in space.

The problems of the show are all still there, but it’s much better than most people give it credit for.

P.30: A Year of Short Stories

I didn’t realize it, but today is about 13 months since I first started submitting short stories.

In that time, I’ve sent out 19 different stories and four poems, for a total of 50 submissions, including seven that are currently active.

I wrote another two shorts that I haven’t sent out yet (they need a little more work), and have another two that are about halfway done which I like enough that I plan to get back to them.

And that’s not counting the fifth draft of my first novel, and the first draft of my second, neither of which are ready to send out yet… but both took a good deal of work this year.

I have no idea where the time came to do all this…

Since I like to post where (and why) I send my stories every ten blogs, let’s take a look at what I have out now:

  • I have one story submitted to the Writers of the Future, from the 2nd quarter of this year. This was my fourth submission to the contest, and they’ve always either been my early work or stories that weren’t quite my best (but where what I had available to send at the time). They were stories I wasn’t necessarily hoping would win, but wanted to see if they’d survive early cullings (one of them did) or maybe get an honorable mention (nope). This time, I decided to send one of my best stories and while I still have some worry about fit (I haven’t really read enough WotF to gauge what the judges like), I’m crossing my fingers.
  • One at Tor.com. I had to get at least one story in before Tor.com closed its doors to unsolicited short story submissions forever, and sent the very best story I had available since I know Tor.com is the Crème de la crème. I’m pleased it’s still in the running.
  • One for Ghosts on Drugs, an anthology about ghosts on drugs, both terms broadly defined. I wrote this one specifically for the anthology.
  • One at Uncanny Magazine. I wrote two stories in November and December that I really, really liked. I sent one of them in, which toyed a lot with mythicism, focusing on character discovery. The story lasted a tad longer than average before it was declined — so I don’t think they hated it. Thankfully, it was rejected a couple days before their submission window closed, giving me the ability to send another (thanks, Uncanny!). I sent that second story, which had some of the same mythic feel, but with prose that’s a little more lyrical. I’ve seen some stories in Uncanny with a similar lyrical feel, so felt like it could be a good fit. We’ll see.
  • One at Let Us In, which is an upcoming anthology about horrors people invite into their lives — either consciously or unconsciously. Again, I wrote my story specifically for the anthology.
  • I have two poems out, both to Apex’s Undead poems anthology. I had one poem that fit, and another that I wrote for it. I don’t consider myself any kind of poet, only the occasional dabbler for personal fun, but figured I’d send them out because the worst thing that could happen is they get declined.

Here’s hoping.

P.29: World Building and Cuts

When it comes to writing, there’s almost nothing that I love more than to create new worlds, filled with interesting characters and locations in them.

I also love to create beautiful prose, that flows well on the tongue.

I say all this because I just sent out a short story. It was a story I first finished and sent out in December, but it wasn’t quite ready then — it was one of those situations where I would have liked to spend some more time with it, but had a deadline to hit.

I didn’t really know what was quite wrong with it in my head, but I figured out those problems this past week, prepping it for a new outlet.

There were a few points in the story — just a few — where I was trying to do a little too much. I loved the character details I had, but they were bogging the prose down, making the writing feel clunky.

I didn’t want to lose those details, though. They really did add a dynamic to my main character that otherwise doesn’t quite show.

I tried rewording the writing, I tried to move things around… but nothing worked.

Ultimately, I had to let the writing win, and so I made the cuts.

At the end of the day, no matter how many wonderful ideas you want to try to incorporate in your story, you can’t have clunky prose. Some of them will almost certainly have to be cut.

Be merciless, my friends.

P.28: Characters You Can Relate to, or Not

My friend and I were having a discussion about Transparent, Amazon’s widely-praised series playing on their Prime streaming service.

I think it deserves all the praise it gets, but I don’t like it quite as much as I’d like, because the characters are all a little too flawed.

Don’t get me wrong — I like flawed characters, protagonists included. But for me, it’s important that there’s at least one or two characters in any story who have some nuggets about them that make them likable, relatable or people who you could root for in some way — even with their flaws.

My friend disagreed, and had a good reason — there’s so little fiction out there that doesn’t ascribe to the conditions I set above. For her, that’s what made Transparent all the more refreshing. It was hard to argue with that, so I conceded the point.

What it all boils down to is different strokes for different folks. I still prefer my stories to have at least a few characters to like, relate to or root for, especially if they’re morally grey or worse, and so that’s what I write — but the more different kinds of fiction, filling more and more niches, the better.