Sunday, February 17, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 2/16/19

Back again!  Two weeks in a row with my weekly roundup of . . . stuff.  Primarily, I'm looking at my writing, how I'm doing, what I'm doing, and what I'm "ingesting" as inspiration.  Whether I can easily connect the dots between the writing and the inspiring, that's another story, but it all goes into the soup bubbling at the back of my brain and will eventually come splurting out onto the page, in one form or another (to use a hackneyed turn of phrase).  Anyway, let's get to it.

Certainly, reading is one of the most important things to do, if you want to improve as a writer--read what's good to help you level-up (it's homage when done artfully, stealing when not so deftly realized).  But there's story all around us now, and with the current "golden age" of television, one could do worse than looking toward Hollywood for ideas and lessons.  So:

The year is 2258

Babylon 5 --
B5 is one of my all-time favorite television shows, and my favorite science fiction show, period.  (The X-Files isn't straight sci-fi, otherwise, there'd be a tie for fave sf tv)  I've slowly--very slowly--been rewatching the first season of J. Michael Straczynski's epic series and watched the penultimate episode of that initial season, "The Quality of Mercy," this week.  One of the things that so impresses me about B5 is how even one-off episodes like this one--revolving around the sentencing of a convicted murderer and a former doctor using an alien device, which she doesn't fully understand, to heal the impoverished denizens in Down Below--have threads that will tie into the larger mythology, a few seasons hence.  It's really impressive and the ability to insert plot threads into my stories in a manner that makes them interesting on their own without giving away possible future plot points is something I aspire to.

Trouble in paradise?

The Americans SPOILER ALERT--
Four episodes into this final season and things are just getting more complex and more dangerous for our protagonists.  As talks for limiting nuclear weapons between the American and Soviet governments forge ahead, Elizabeth is working to help those in Russia opposing Gorbachev and this apparent capitulation to the Americans, while Philip is trying to find out specifics about what she is working on, in order to help those loyal to Gorbachev, who believe in and seek peace with the United States.  Philip's and Elizabeth's differences of opinion, about America, about their life, about Russia, have never been so starkly framed.  With the end fast approaching, I wonder if the creators will have the bravery to permanently fracture their relationship and leave us, the audience, wondering if they could have salvaged it.


Community --
Before heading up to bed, my wife and I sit down with our eleven-year-old son to watch something on TV (not "real" TV, but Hulu or Netflix or a DVD).  Our current "crush" is COMMUNITY.  We're halfway through the third season, and sitting on the couch laughing at Abed and Troy, Shirley and Annie, Jeff and Britta and Pierce is a great palette cleanser before going up to read and sleep.  We just watched the episodes surrounding the pillow fort/blanket fort battle, with the schism between Abed and Troy (didn't like that, at all) and the culmination with the homage to Ken Burns (brilliant!).  There's so much good writing going on in this show--the characterizations, the infusion of familiar television tropes in new and oddball ways, the jokes, and the social commentary, it's a blast!  It's also daunting.  But, at the very least, I can take away the desire to work harder with my own writing, and that's not a small thing.


The Hundred Secret Senses --
I'd never read anything by Amy Tan before, but was aware of her.  This book was a great introduction, for me, to her writing.  Great story!  You can read my full thoughts here.

Mignola, pre-Hellboy...gorgeous

Cosmic Odyssey --
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this.  Written by Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos), drawn by Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy), this series brought together Superman, Batman, Starfire, Martian Manhunter, the Demon, Orion, Lightray, and Forager of the New Gods, as well as Highfather and Darkseid (with Dr. Fate coming in to save the day, at the end) to combat the Anti-Life Equation, which is more an entity in this imagining of Kirby's Fourth World mythos.  The books moved along at a brisk pace, the art was beautiful (I love Mignola), and Darkseid was particularly manipulative.  A fun romp with the DC superstars.

The Tripods are coming.

The White Mountains --
I was introduced to John Christopher's "Tripods Trilogy" through a comic adaptation in Boys' Life magazine.  I then found the actual novels that was based upon, and, as a kid, I loved these books.  Now, I'm reading the trilogy to my youngest boy (having just completed the Harry Potter series, over the course of a couple of years).  I have to say . . . they don't really hold up for me.  Which isn't surprising, as they were written for children.  There's some good world-building by Christopher and interesting scenarios, but his biggest pitfall is that, when he puts his characters into harm's way, he quickly allows them to extricate themselves, within a page or two of the obstacle revealing itself.  It's been frustrating to watch them so easily and quickly get out of trouble, at every turn.  There's no opportunity to inject the narrative with any tension or drama.
Which is a good lesson to take away from this:  don't allow my characters to quickly get out of the traps and troubles into which they fall, it will leach the work of any drama I might have infused it with.

Things I Discarded Before Finishing
As I've slipped through my forties (apologies, I wanted a better verb than slipped, but sometimes you're on deadline, even if it's a self-imposed deadline), I have found my patience for books or movies or television shows that aren't entertaining or engaging me in a meaningful way lacking.  I realize, more consciously than ever before, that I have a limited amount of time, and I want to make sure I'm using it to my fullest.  So, I now set aside books and comics and shows in the middle of reading or watching them, to move onto something that will engage me.  Admittedly, I'll be the first to tell fans of science fiction they need to push through that first season of Babylon 5 to get to the really good stuff, and if they just give it a chance it will all be worth it, which is obviously a bit hypocritical given the earlier points made in this paragraph.  But I stand by that.  Guess I should be happy I came across B5 when I did.  Otherwise, I might have missed out.
Still, doesn't change anything, for me.  So:

The Compleat Moonshadow --
This is an essential read for many serious comic book fans.  I've wanted to read it for quite a while now.  And though I am a fan of J.M. DeMatteis, the writer, and the painted art from Jon J. Muth is amazingly beautiful, I could not get through the second issue of this thirteen issue epic.  Sure, maybe there's some great stuff later on, but I did not care for the characters at all, and the idea of reading that next chapter felt like work for me.  So, I'll send this back to the library, and maybe, someday, I'll return to it.  But not for a while.

Beautiful art

Captain America: the Winter Soldier --
Apologies to Dan . . .
I am a fan of Ed Brubaker.  Currently, he is creating my favorite comics, through Image.  I've long planned to read his monumental run on Captain America because it's what put him on the map.  So, I requested the first few collections through the library.  [I should note I've read the "Winter Soldier" storyline before, but never moved past it]  I read the first three chapters, and then I tapped out.  Again, I just wasn't interested in the characters.  I'm more a DC guy (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) than a Marvel fan (Cap, Spider-Man, She-Hulk).  So, sending that one back too.

What did I take from these experiences?  I'm not sure.  But, again, it makes me want to be better with my writing, to try and be entertaining while creating relatable and interesting characters, and to make sure not to be boring.  Obviously, I think the most important thing to assure this is possibly out of my hands--it is essential that one's creative work get in front of the "right audience."  People with different backgrounds or different perspectives on writing, than my own, may not have as positive a reaction to what I'm writing.  But, if I make it as good as I possibly can--something that is within my power--then I will, at least, have done all that I can to make the right first impression.

So, the writing continues.  I've now logged 15 consecutive days of writing (not a record, but not a bad streak, considering I've been letting weekends go, recently).  One of the more important bits of writing advice I've come across is not to wait for the muse to hit before sitting down at the keyboard.  There's no such thing--or, at least, very rarely--as divine intervention for your creativity.  Like luck, one has to be prepared to accept the muse, rather than sit around waiting for it to happen on its own. 

The more you write, the easier it becomes (though, of course, there are many, many days when it will feel like a slog).  Creating habits is a good way to go about improving your writing output--the same space, at around the same time, with the same background elements, which, for me, means music that I can listen to but won't distract me.  Your body, and your brain, will begin to associate this setting with the act of writing; it will allow you to more quickly enter that state of mind necessary to get the words onto the paper (or the screen).  And, as you become used to writing within this set of physical parameters, the words will seem to unlock more readily, metaphors will reveal themselves, and you will find yourself not having to force yourself to get those sentences down.  It can feel magical. 

Keep typing away.

Of course, this all sounds romanticized (hey, I fancy myself a writer, might as well try to flower that shit up, yo), but it's true.  Which does not mean that there won't be days, many days, when you can't even remember simple words and you might as well give up this pipe dream.  Writing is hard, writing well is a huge challenge, but if you love it, the work and the frustration can well be worth it.  I know I always feel better on a day I've written, and there's nothing like punching that final punctuation key upon completion of a new story.  It really is something amazing.  So, keep pushing onward and upward. 

That said, I have slowly been working on the end of the current short story, which will come in a bit longer than a typical short story but not quite long enough to fall into the novella category, I think.  We'll see.  The latest bit I wrote on it was a horrendous chore, and I know why.  It was a news story that my protagonist discovers in a scrapbook, which will have a huge impact on him.  It's about a massacre of American troops ambushed by Viet Cong regulars in the Vietnam war.  I knew what I needed to happen in this news story, but I was lacking the specific details necessary for it to feel authentic.  This is information I have at hand, here at home, and can readily find with a few hours of rummaging and reading, but the fact that I didn't have these details fresh in my mind kept me from easily getting the words down.  I was hesitant because I knew that what I was writing was not at a level I was comfortable with, and not having details to work from also made it a bit challenging to properly lay out the story, in my head.  I need to do some research to get it right.  But, this is the first draft.  I know things will be changed when I revise it.  So, I pushed through, got it down, and now I can move on to the final bits.  This should wrap up in the coming week, at which point I can finally get to the second novel.  That should be easier(?) since I already have a pretty solid skeleton to work from.  We'll see.  Hopefully, I'll have an update next week. 


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