Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Own Not-So-Private Writing Screed

(From here.)

I've been reading the entries over at the Aerogramme Writer's Studio. They have a lot of Rules of Writing by various writers. Many of these are very good. So I figured I should have some.

I came up with two.

  1. Read intelligently.
  2. Write honestly.
I am not saying the other rules for writing are bad. They are often very, very good. But to me they are refinements. They are methods by which you can made bad writing better or good writing great. They are not (again, to me) rules for writing in and of itself. 

Or, you could say that the usual rules for writing reflect what one should do once the state of writing has been achieved. What I'm talking about is the enabling principles to write at all.

At least for me.

Let me explain.

First, read. Read everything. Read bad fiction and good. Read science fiction, mystery, best seller, little known American authors of the thirties, translated Burmese poets. Read about the whisky rebellion, folk music of the nineteenth century, the care and feeding of llamas, the Teapot Dome Scandal and how steam engines work. Be Not Thou Narrow and Do Not Stop. I'm convinced when a writer stops reading he dies inside. William Goldman said it first in The Color of Light: It's all material. Every square bit of it. And you'll need every square bit of it.

Be voracious. Be eclectic. 

Second, read intelligently. By this I do not mean narrow the material. I mean that every writer has a point of view. Some defensible. Some not. Some you agree with. Some not so much. But they all have biases. So if you read somewhere that box turtles are vegetarians, be aware It Ain't Necessarily So and corroborate the author. Follow the material down to bedrock. Don't be satisfied until you have wrung your material dry. Tear it apart and build it anew in your mind.

Don't be worried that it won't prove useful. It will and in ways you cannot imagine when you're reading. Do it for fun. The love will follow.

I had a physiology professor in college who always answered questions with material that begged for more questions. Eventually, when the questions could not be answered, it was not because the professor had run out of knowledge; it was that we had run off the edge of the state of knowledge.

Cultivate such relationships.

Then, write. Write incessantly. Write about the sun, the moon, the darkness. Try your hand at plays, poems, stories, novels. But most of all write in your mind. Think about what you read, see, feel, experience. Frame it. Turn it inside out. Change points of view. Would that be the same if the person were a woman? Chinese? A squid? Compare it against what you've read-- bad and good. Compare it against things you know and things you don't. 

And write honestly. Don't be satisfied writing someone else's material. Every writer first has to discard the very writers that crystallized the desire to write in the first place. Don't worry. It's all material. It will come back to haunt you but when it does it will be in your voice. Write about people who work, play, have children. You don't have to talk about their work, play or children if it doesn't serve the story. But you will know them and through your knowledge so will the reader even if you never mention a whisper.

There is no character so minor that they don't have a back story.

Let characters come forward in your mind-- I like to think of writing as an exercise in multi-personality disorder. But for fun. You, as the writer, are in charge. But readers are like the audience at a magicians show. You can fool them for a while but if you do the same trick too many times you're just messing with them. They'll see through you and resent you. Treat not the reader with contempt. Treat them like the intelligent people they are and they'll give you their valuable attention. There's no sin in asking the reader to work with you. 

Treat not thy characters with contempt. It's a variation on treating readers with contempt. Simon Legree had a business to run. He had a wife and children to support. Yes, he was a cruel sadist that tortured slaves for fun and profit but that's not all he was.

I'll even give a great example of not treating your characters with contempt. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck's father, Pap, was one nasty piece of work. He was the worst kind of drunk. He abused Huck. He kidnapped him to get his money. Huck goes on down the river largely to get away from him and in fear of his life. Twain could have drawn him as a villain with no more depth than a playing card. He did not. The reader does not know how Pap came to this place, what sort of choices he made to get here, the nature of the people he came from and what formed him. But at no point in the novel are you ever in doubt there was a path Pap followed. There were decisions-- mostly wrong but likely looking good at the time-- that brought him to be the person Twain describes. That is writing honestly.

Writing honestly is doing the very best work you can do because you, of all people, know where the bodies are buried and which corners were cut. 

Writing honestly is doing your best when you know you will fail at it because you know where the bodies are buried and which corners were cut. 

Nobody's perfect. Suck it up and do it anyway. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Consideration of Works "Past": Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Usually I talk about works I read when I was younger now rediscovered. But in this case, I'm going to talk about something that I've read relatively recently-- not the film version of Nausicaä.The manga.

In a way, this is a cop out. I've been working on a set of posts involving regulation based on science and physics rather than on whim and appearance. I was going to attack gun regulation but it's more work than I anticipated. So I'm taking a break from that one and talking about Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki is primarily a film director and animator and it's by his film work that he is best known. If you haven't seen a Miyazaki film, stop reading this blog right now and go rent one. Kiki's Delivery Service is a good one. Or Castle in the Sky. I have a weak spot for Porco Russo, since it's about seaplane pilots. Or you could go straight to the big guns and get Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Or, of course, you could also watch Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Oh, hell. They're all terrific. Go watch them.

The manga is in seven volumes. If you've seen Nausicaä the film, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the first couple of volumes are pretty much a recap of the film. There are more than one story about why Miyazaki did the manga. Miyazaki couldn't initially get funding for the film and so put out the mangas. Miyazaki couldn't get funding for a film that didn't have an associated manga. Etc. The mangas were written from 1982 to 1994. The film was made in 1984.

A thousand years before the story starts there was a terrible war fought, in part, by God Warriors: giant mechanisms with horrific weapons. Vast areas of the world are now filled with poisonous forests inhabited by giant insects. The forests appear to be fungal in nature and spread by spores, often carried by insects or unwary travelers. However, the poison is everywhere and people eventually die of it.

Nausicaä is a princess of the Valley of the Wind-- the royalty component of the story seems to not have a direct connection to rule. Her father did rule the valley but there are hints toward the end that there may be other paths to being a sovereign than heredity. Regardless, she is looked up to and admired by the folk of the valley.

War breaks out and there are treaty obligations that the Valley send troops. Nausicaä goes with them. The war was between the Torumekeans and the Doroks. As she proceeds through the different convolutions of the war, encountering spiritual battle, biological warfare and enormous cruelty, she becomes more and more important, a force for good in an amoral conflict. Eventually, her influence, the power of the insects and the suffocating horror of the war all come together and she prevails.

I'm not going to get more detailed than that. The plot is intricate and clever but I think is actually a side note to the issues Miyazaki is handling.

Miyazaki has always had environmental concerns. Pretty much every movie has some sort of component that can be construed to be environmental. Even Porco Russo, a story about a seaplane pilot who's become a pig, has a continuing discussion of the balance between selfishness and selflessness-- which, I think, is a stand in for Miyazaki's issues with the environment.

In Nausicaä these issues are front and center. Humans have to live on a poisoned planet-- poison that is of their own making. The poison is killing them. Yet they still war. Religion is a political means to an end. The personal and selfish pursuit of power is the source of the world's evil.

But it's not a screed. It's a story where these bits come out as important plot details. Nausicaä never says "If only humans will somehow sees the immorality of their ways and learn to help one another. Ah, Atlantis." She does lament human behavior more than once but it's more in the vein of "Come on, guys. Stop hitting yourselves."

The film handles some of this but much of the rich and detailed tapestry of Myazaki's world is given only token treatment. The God Warrior is just a prop. The sword master Yupa a part of the chorus. This is the cost of making it into a film. The manga is much more detailed.

One of the interesting things in Nausicaä's character is her continuing avoidance of killing-- not because she's a pacifist. But because she finds out early one the killing rage she has in her own heart and how easily it can be released. She decides that this is something to struggle against and from then on she keeps trying to find different ways to make things better. Not easy in the middle of a war.

This continuing attempt to not kill anybody and to stop people from killing one another, coupled with her own forceful personality, begins to have knock on effects. People start to take her seriously and, by doing so, take her point of view seriously.

Nausicaä is, no doubt, some sort of Christ figure in this. But it's a Christ figure that we're not used to. Nausicaä is not passive. She's not going to volunteer for the cross. If she goes down she's going down trying to save everyone around her whether they want it or not.

I've read this series twice now and this aspect of Nausicaä's character is what stays with me. She's like the members of Doctors without Borders, going out there and working until they drop to save people's lives.

The work has its limitations. There is little introspection regarding motive-- people just do, knowing what they must do instinctively. In my experience there's just a little consideration of what must be done. The ending is a bit abrupt. It feels wrongly shaped-- I think everything happens that has to happen but it seems clunky in execution. Miyazaki did all of the drawing in pencil and the artwork is wonderful. But you want to just see the precise definition of ink in some of the action sequences.

But these are quibbles. It's a terrific read rendered by a master story teller at the height of his powers.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Webcomics Of Interest

(Picture from here.)

I follow about four hundred web comics. A bunch of them can be seen here.

Fortunately, the update schedule for most of these brings it down to about fifty or so a day. Is that a lot? Not sure. It takes me about forty-five minutes or less to get through them. Maybe I just read fast. Or, at least, read comics fast.

At any rate, I'm going to start a new subthread on this blog. I'm going to talk about certain webcomics that I follow.

One of the problems of webcomics is that there's not a good mechanism to pay the authors for their time and trouble. (In my example, if I paid a dime to each webcomic I read every day it would costs me $5/day or $1800/year. I can't afford that.) While this can mean that webcomics creators are free from deadlines, publishing oversight, etc., it also means it's a labor of love unless and until they make some money on it. There are some definite success stories in webcomics (PVP and Sluggy Freelance leap to mind) but many webcomics just last until the life pressures on the creator consume them.

Another scenario is that a given webcomic starts, goes for a period and then is actually ended. (My God! A comic that actually has an ending!) A terrific example of this is Anders Loves Maria by Renee Engstrom, a wonderful story that has an actual beginning, middle and end. You know. Like a story. Another is Ursula Vernon who wrote Digger. Digger won the Hugo in 2012.

Often, webcomics have support mechanisms embedded on their site. This can be print versions or donations or other means.

So. Here is today's list and discussion. Go read them. If you like them, figure out a way to support them.

Since Science Fiction webcomics are relatively rare, I'll talk about them today.

Cleopatra in Space: Take Queen Cleopatra from Egypt. Put her in space cadet school. Send her out for adventures. That's pretty much it. The bad news is it doesn't update enough.

Darths and Droids: Imagine Star Wars as a D and D game. You remember them, right? You play in your living room and all sorts of things happen? Some of them within the game like killing rebels or something. But personalities come out. Marriages come and go. Little sisters grow up. Now imagine that using as illustration actual pictures from the Star Wars movies.

Blue Milk Special: Same Star Wars venue in that the same rough plots are followed. But Leia is a rough girl who smokes and is tougher, much tougher, than Han. Han, for his part, bumbles. Think of it as an orthogonal reimagining of Star Wars. Man, I never thought I'd get to say "orthogonal" quite that way.

Decrypting Rita: This comic is, in part, science fiction. It's the life of a woman over several planes of simultaneous existence. In one she's a robot. In another she works in a store. You get the idea. The comic is drawn with these pieces of her "life" crossing over themselves. The character doesn't seem to interact with her other selves but the art does.

Dresden Codak: A terrific comic that doesn't update enough. It's fringe SF rather than true SF. Aaron Diaz plays with scientific concepts and art at the same time. He had one long arc, the Hob story, that is closer to true SF than most of the arcs.

The End: This is straight SF. Aliens have a humanitarian mission. When they see the end coming they save some of the species. Our number is up.

Freakangels: One of the ended strips This one is by Warren Ellis who's done a lot of other things in the entertainment industry. Remember Village of the Damned or The Midwich Cuckoos? TMC was  a story about psychic kids that resulted from alien intervention. VOTD was the film version. At the end of both the kids are killed. Now imagine they lived and grew up. That's Freakangels.

Freefall: Freefall has been around forever. It's basically about a larcenous squid starship captain and is first mate an AI housed in a humanized wolf body. It's very funny. It also usually gets the science spot on.

Galaxion: This one is a more traditional SF story. Woman is an admiral. Her husband was captain of a crew testing a new star drive. They disappear. She finagles an appointment to a new star ship to go after him. She finds them. Sort of.

Jump Leads: Parallel universes abound. We have trading relations with many of them. We're always looking for new ones. The explorers are called Jump Leads. Two of them (a sort of Lister/Rimmer pair from Red Dwarf) get lost and try to find their way home. Think Sliders done right.

Moon Town: This one is new and I don't know how it's going to be yet. It's about miners on the moon. One if them is always bring in more material than the others. So a second miner decides to find out how he does it.

Carpe Chaos: Strange little strip about all sorts of alien races. Each race has its own mythology and cultural history. Inevitably there are conflicts. Beautifully drawn.

O Human Star: From the comic's self-description: "Alastair Sterling was the inventor who sparked the robot revolution. And because of his sudden death, he didn’t see any of it. Until he wakes up 16 years later in an advanced robotic body that matches his old one exactly." He looks up his old business partner and lover, thinking he did it, and finds out that there is mystery here.

Quantum Vibe: This is also straight SF. Several hundred years in the future the planets are colonized. There are L5s everywhere. Space transportation is easier than flying shuttle between Boston and New York. Nicole Oresme gets a job with scientist Seamus O'Murchadha and they have adventures across the solar system. It bears a strong resemblance to John Varley's work but is in no way a rip off.

Space Mullet: Another one that's a bit new. So we'll see. Jonah is a washed up space marine who's ended up with an alien partner Alphius. They do the odd jobs and then get hammered by the unexpected. We'll see how it goes. Think of Firefly meets the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby on the road movies.

Space Trawler: Oh this lovely comic. This work is by Christopher Baldwin who did Bruno a while back. I had issues with Bruno but those issues are in the past and more than made up for with the deft touch he's brought to Space Trawler. Essentially, a group of humans are shangied into serving the galactic community with hilarious and poignant results. Come to think of it, a cup of tea does sound good.