Just How Naughty Is It That I Didn’t Like ‘Rogue One’?

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Don’t get offended, man. I just didn’t like the new Star Wars movie. And I was the kid swinging plastic lightsabers at my pillow and floating in the YMCA pool like Luke Skywalker did in the bacta tank. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, in fact; and I don’t think I’m particularly grumpy. My brother suggested something though, that I thought would be interesting to chat with you about.

He said writers can’t enjoy movies.

Before I get to that, let me list for you just a few things about the movie that irritated me to the point of not liking it. Of course there are spoilers here, so do what you need to do.

  1. Forrest Whittaker can act better than that, I’ve seen it. Was horrible to hear the fake British accent and the weird grunting. Horrible.
  2. Felicity Jones offered us one facial expression the entire movie.
  3. Hollywood shorthand overuse:  main character fondly clinging to a memento given them by a lost loved one (Jyn’s crystal necklace). Come on, dude, we’ve even already seen this in a Star Wars movie!
  4. Hollywood cheap emotional trigger overuse:  not one but TWO freaking scenes where someone dies in somebody’s arms after saying something. Ugh. Disney should be above that sort of cheap trick. Also already seen in a Star Wars movie, by the way.
  5. Moustache-twirling villain (with a cape, no less!) stomping through his scenes who can’t see beyond just wanting to rule the world.
  6. I knew the Death Star plans got transmitted when I was six years old. The drama had to come from the characters and their sacrifices; but they were snoozers. I, as always, except Donnie Yen because he could just show up and be my favorite, so that’s not fair.
  7. The Hobbit Effect: they told this story in a couple of sentences in an opening scrawl decades ago, but had to drag out all sorts of obstacles and friction to make something of it. And it felt like it. My son yawned twice. My wife fell asleep.
  8. Shameless cameos: very cool to see Leia, obviously. Also cool to see Senator Organa and Mon Mothma. Those make sense in the story. But did we REALLY need to see the ‘You’d best watch yourself!’ guys from the cantina?
  9. Lazy ‘Braveheart’ speech: Jyn gave a half-hearted and snoozer of an inspirational speech, which even the guys on the mission with her were bored with.
  10. If they have computer files and the ability to store and transmit them, why in the world are they stored on hard drives in a tower where you have to access them with robotic arms? So the heroes could climb around and get shot at? Exactly.

I honestly hope I’m not coming off as too picky here. Maybe you disagree with some of this, but seriously – ALL of it? You’re killing me.

No, I don’t believe writers can’t enjoy movies. There are all sorts of movies I think are genius or just popcorn-munching fun rides. I can switch gears, man. I’ve binge watched about ten Hallmark Christmas romance flicks with my wife in just the last couple of weeks. See, I have depth?

It could be I have a very high standard for ‘Star Wars’ and expect more from them. I was trying to puzzle out, even before the movie was over, what it was that was bugging me so much and what I liked so much about the original movies…you know, whether I’m just getting old.

Harlan Ellison said there’s nothing worth writing about other than people. Chemistry and the dynamic between characters will hook us and keep us hooked with more impact than visual effects or nostalgia or plot twists or slick ideas. In ‘A New Hope’, Han Solo was funny and cocky and bold. Leia was tough and driven and beautiful. Luke was wide-eyed and innocent, but with ties to a deep mythic undercurrent on a hero’s journey. That trinity resonates even four decades later, which is one reason we’re still dealing with shameless riffs off that original story over and over. With ‘Rogue One’ – and maybe this is because of the cheap writer tricks they used to try and shorthand me into liking their characters – I just wanted them to die already so I could get to whatever the big scene was at the end I kept hearing about.

I’m curious what you think. If you loved ‘Rogue One’, please drop me some details on what it was you loved. I just don’t see it. I really, really, really want them to get better at telling ‘Star Wars’ stories.

Oh, and writers can definitely love movies. Maybe they just like to backseat drive too?

Deep Waters: A Case Study In Adding A Mythic Dimension

 

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When I read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, anytime I read Dune, I get the same vibe as I’m planning to chat with you about in this post…that there’s something ominous and huge going on – a belief system or set of myths or larger than life history affecting events. I dig that tremendously; and I look for it in things I enjoy reading. In fact, when I was growing up, you were either a Luke Skywalker guy or a Han Solo guy – meaning you wanted to be the space cowboy or the brooding, mythic hero. I was a Luke Skywalker guy. The literary take on this is it’s much more interesting in your fiction should you plan to include some sort of belief system if you don’t just recreate the Greek Gods or rip off the American Indians with a ‘Great Spirit’ thing-a-ma-bob.

So I’m going to go deep with this one. Stick with me. I finished an interesting study recently that went way farther that I’d expected. I was googling and flipping through the original materials madly, chasing a huge idea that kept getting bigger. It was like pulling up one of those weeds where the roots keep popping up out of the ground and you finally just cut it when you can’t tell how far it’s really going to go. For me, it started with a random book on my shelf from years ago that had an article about the I Ching in it.

Anyway, another article in that book that caught my attention was about the Kabbala’s  Sefirot. The idea of treating a deity like an engineered contraption, like a set of physics rules you just needed to respect to make jedi-mind-trick things happen tickled both the logic and artsy sides of my brain. So I went deep into the Kabbala – read several books and spent some time reading what its believers found attractive about it. No offense if that’s your thing; but I ultimately found it full of promise and marketing but a big fizzler when you try to pin it down to something useful. It did strike me as fascinating though, the nebulous descriptions of the highest realms of reality – a nameless and unapproachable perfect being so incredibly pregnant with the potential of creation it’s provoked by nothing more than a state of mind. The sefirot idea stuck with me, so I poked into where it came from.

Read the Sefer Yetzirah if you like; but it’s gibberish to me. That was where the sefirot were first described. I bought the Pritzker Edition of The Zohar though, because that’s the big daddy of Kabbala, the place where it really took off. Get far enough into The Zohar; and you’ll get the feeling that nobody’s saying what they really mean and you can stretch and pull to make anything mean what you want it to. Still though, the massive superstructure of the universe having a secret dimension to it, a direct line of sight to a divine machinery, kept things popping. So I went deeper to see what influenced Moses DeLeon (the 13th century Spanish author or the channeler, whichever you dig).

I’ll speed up to make my point, though this took a while to trace. What I found was a pattern of about every two or three hundred years, a very similar theoretical apparatus was showing up in some famous writings. The themes are these:

  • There’s an indescribable, unapproachable entity way up in some higher dimension ready to burst with creative potential
  • This entity is either intelligent or just a principle of the universe, depending on who you’re reading; but it can be influenced either way
  • Since this thing’s perfect, it can’t produce things that aren’t perfect, yet here we are with cancer and weeds and birth defects
  • So this thing has levels beneath it, where things get progressively farther from the top and so are less perfect till you get to us
  • That means there are perfect versions of things somewhere, like flawless templates from which all matter is descended

I had discovered what they call Neo-Platonism. If you already knew that, good for you. I didn’t. It made me think of Object Oriented Programming, because it’s exactly the same idea where you have ‘classes’ defined as templates, then make ‘instances’ of them to tweak for where you use them. Going successively back in time…

  • John Scottus Eriugena (800-877AD) said the entity at the top was God; and He was creating stuff so that He could understand Himself. He said the primary Forms I was talking about above were the patterns of all things located in God’s mind. Eriugena was probably influenced by…
  • Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite (late 5th, early 6th century AD) who shared the view of a procession of realms from God but said a rock or a worm was a window upon the entire universe if you only knew how to look at it. He was intrigued by finding his place within that procession and seeing himself inside it, focusing on the sacraments as a way to engage with the apparatus. This guy was probably influenced by…
  • Proclus (412-485AD)  who was head of the Athenian school and thought Plato was divinely inspired. This guy wasn’t Christian, so his view of the thing at the top was more of a nameless ‘One’ you could influence with magic rituals. He was influenced by…
  • Plotinus (205-270AD) who studied Plato religiously. This guy had an inherent distrust of material things because they were a poor image of something higher. He said the supreme dealie-o at the top was a transcendent ball of potentiality, without which nothing could exist. He also said because of its nature of perfection, it couldn’t have a will of its own and couldn’t engage in any activity without becoming imperfect. So he had a procession downwards as well, culminating in matter.
  • The Gnostics were around this same time period, thinking the same sort of thing about matter being wicked and only a pale reflection of the perfect templates up there somewhere.
    • You see how big this is getting, right? 
  • Plato (4th century BC) developed in The Phaedo and in The Republic what’s called his Theory Of Forms . He likened us to people who’ve spent their lives watching shadows on a cave wall, thinking the shadows were what’s real when in fact there’s something making the shadows. Plato extrapolated from this idea that the soul was also a Form, and therefore perfect and unchanging, so..you know…reincarnation. He may very well have been influenced by…
  • Parmenides (5th century BC) who revolted against the sciency philosophers by suggesting there was actually a difference between true, objective reality and the stuff we can see. I’m not sure he started all this though because of…
  • Heraclitus (535 – 475BC) which is where my story ends. I read Remembering Heraclitus by Richard Geldard. Here’s a deep well like you wouldn’t believe. Heraclitus may have written a book and just dropped it off in the famous temple at Ephesus, and soundly changed the world. He described ‘the logos’ as a fiery, invisible rational principle that embedded the universe (like the Force, surrounding us, binding the galaxy together). It’s the wisdom of all of creation. Entirely possible it’s this guy that kicked the whole thing off that led to the same theoretical apparatus inspiring people for millennia.

My point is that this nebulous, vague description of a cosmic apparatus appeals to the logical side of your brain because it sounds like machinery; and you want to figure out how to make it work. It appeals to the creative side of your brain because it leaves so much for you to interpret and add to it. In fact, ,that’s just the way the I Ching appeals as well, presenting itself as reflecting the universe in a little microcosm so you can leverage what it’s up to as it changes.

Since the I Ching has been around in some form for 3,000 years; and the ideas the Kabbala built its palace on for not much less than that, those systems have something to say about how to make your manufactured belief systems resonate with people. Appeal to both the right brain and the left. Show how it could make people’s lives better in some way.

I took a real stab at this myself in Tearing Down The Statues, focusing on the idea that history repeats itself at different scales.

Now you go try and let me know how it turns out for you!

“The cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure.” -Heraclitus

Less Whining. More Inspiring.

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I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?

Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them  for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.

In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:

-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do

-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things

So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.

I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.

So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.

In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.

Einstein And Writer’s Block

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Yes, I’m definitely a nerd. It’s cool, I’m comfortable with that. What it means is I get interested in loads of things where most people might not see the attraction. Equally true,  if you ask me how the Royals are going to do this year, you’re probably going to get a change of subject from me. I’ll be polite; but I have no idea what to say to you when you ask me that. So I was studying Einstein’s Field Equations the other day…

I’m not trying to impress you here, just bear with me. There’s something about Einstein’s life that is of tremendous interest to an aspiring writer, especially one that’s seen the horror of a blank page blinking back and weedy plot points all twisted and ensnared, sudden contradictions that make the original idea nonsense…maybe even the whole premise that felt so much like warm, gooey chocolate sloshing around in your imagination in the beginning, suddenly frozen and hammered by an idle comment somebody made that trashes it entirely.

fieldHere they are: Einstein’s Field Equations defining gravity. Why things fall down.  All the jibber jabber on the left-hand side is just saying that spacetime curves. It doesn’t say why, just that it does. Einstein came up with all that on the left just to make the math work out, not because he was a prophet or anything. But he started with the doohickey on the right…the ‘T’. He knew he’d use that, and the idea that energy is conserved; and then he just started diddling around to see what he could do with it. Let’s say that was his original inspiration, the way a writer might suddenly string two things together to make a story idea. How pregnant with potential and thrilling, right! So what’s ‘T’, then?

Everything on the right-hand side except for the ‘T’ is just a bunch of numbers. If I gave you a calculator and a reference, you’d tell me the number. So forget those. Focus on the ‘T’. The Stress-Energy Tensor. It’s a thing. It was already a thing before he got started, that’s why he knew he’d use it. It describes energy and momentum. The big ah-hah for him, the thing that made General Relativity something you’ve heard of, is that it’s the energy and momentum, the ‘T’, that’s causing spacetime to curve. Great; but here’s what he said about it:

“But it (General Relativity) is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood. The phenomenological representation of matter is, in fact, only a crude substitute for a representation which would do justice to all known properties of matter.” -from Physics And Reality.

He was bummed about ‘T’. It was crap to him. It didn’t explain any of the other whizz-bang stuff matter does. The guy that shook the world in 1905, starting entire branches of science from his work, and that explained why things fall down in 1916…the guy whose name became a nickname for geniuses, spent 40 years till his death trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would settle this for him. No dice with that. He died frustrated. Sheesh.

I’m writing a horror novel right now; and one thing I struggle with is making the big baddies really scary without making the point of view characters useless. I can’t stand people in fiction that just stare like deer in the headlights and who don’t try something. Anything! The original idea I had for the book though, the thing that made me shiver and consider it worth a year of my life, brought that helplessness with the original spooky image. Okay, great; but if I’m not going to be like Einstein and just stay stuck with the original paradigm, then I’ve got to be willing to grow beyond the original idea. The point is, I can see I’m going to have to capture that first image and the feelings that went with it, but then let things grow to wherever they need to grow. Even if it’s not where I’d thought the narrative was headed.

In my first novel, I had a fantastic image I wanted in there so badly! I could hear Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars as background music. I could see the camera pulling back from the scene. I could see my three main characters, young and scared out of their minds high on a rooftop spire looking down on the horrors they’d come through…freaking beautiful. I lost months trying to figure out how to get those guys into that circumstance. Finally gave up. Wasn’t going to happen. It stopped making sense for it to happen. That’s my point with all this, actually. To recognize when you’re there.

So if it happened to Einstein, it can happen to you, right? Recognize when your idea needs tweaking, and when it needs to be blown up. Be willing to turns things loose. Burn things down when you have to, so something else can grow in its place.

 

What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

Let The Trolls Speak: Principles Of 21st Century Storytelling

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Every previous generation in human history, it’s been more difficult to move around and certainly more difficult to be exposed to the different stories people tell around the world than it is right now. In fact, you can go back less than a century and see a world where people largely stay where they were born. A guy’s library and his best storytellers were the primary means of being exposed to new stories. There’s been a sea change caused by the internet, electronics, and our own leisure time & mobility. So here you are…knowing stuff. Good for you. Now what does that mean?

I went into my thinking corner about that very question; and I baked up something for you that I believe you’ll like. It’s free – go read it. I also kept it short. Printed, it’d be less than 30 pages. Shouldn’t take you long at all. I stirred in some stories you’ve heard of, and one or two maybe you haven’t.

Would be great to hear from you on what you think. Let me know!

‘Google Translate’ For Dream-Speak: Beginning With Pictures

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I’ll tell you something interesting about how your subconscious works; and I’ll do it without referencing Jung. Maybe. Anyway, there was this girl in my elementary school that I thought was kind of cool and who’d call me every once and a while. She was pretty and one of the popular kids, so I was into that but not because I had any great fascination for her. She often forgot how good a friend I was when we were back in school on Monday anyway, strangely; but we’ll just let that lie there. It’s important to my point here that you get this – I wasn’t in love or like or even considering it until a particular turning point. A dream.

Nothing nasty here. I just had a dream about her one night where we were hanging out on a farm looking at the stars or something when she tried to kiss me. That was all, seriously. I can still describe to you now, however, the incredible attraction she had in that dream…like a mask with the power of all of human myth behind it just hanging over the dreamwork cardboard cutout of this girl. She was everything about girls in that dream, all girls who are fascinating and maddening. From that point on, I had a thing for her I couldn’t understand at all. Weird, yeah? Hold on to that. I’ll come back to it.

A nightmare I had when I was probably thirteen is as clear to me now in my forties as it was the night I dreamed it. The plot is thin; and you probably won’t get what’s spooky about it. I was outside my house bouncing a basketball alone; and it echoed. I remember it echoed. I knew in the dream no one else was home. Yet when I felt someone watching me, I turned around to look up in the second story living room window. The curtains were split open; and a pale old man was grinning widely back at me. The end. I chilled up just now typing that because of the malevolent feeling I had about that guy up there. It wasn’t what happened or that I recognized him or even knew his intentions. It was the mythic power of everything that’s dark and frightening and wicked pasted into a mask hung over the cardboard cutout of a stranger in my living room window. It was the feeling then that is still with me now.

I understand that my subconscious has these basic universal ideas about the feminine mystique and about bad things and a host of other patterns that are incredibly fundamental to how we perceive and filter information. The feeling of adventure and new horizons, for example. What it means to me to be a man. You can imagine others. One thing that happens to me and which I know happens to many other authors is we either have these patterns laid over an image we encounter by happenstance, or we dwell on an image we find striking on its own and overlay the pattern ourselves to make something of it.

In It All Began With A Picture, C. S. Lewis explained that he carried around a picture in his head of a faun carrying parcels in the snow with no idea what it meant for years…till he finally sat down to ask questions about it. I imagine it carried the sense of adventure with it, which is why it stuck around. George Lucas explains in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplay that he really just wanted to remake Flash Gordon because he was looking to recapture the sense of exploration and adventure from the serials he watched as a kid. Stephen King explains in one of his introductions to Wizard And Glass that he walked out of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly pondering the unearthly western imagery he’d seen and knowing he needed to recapture the way it made him feel watching it – a journey that gave us the amazing Dark Tower series. What I’m offering you is that images we find interesting are all around us or inside our heads. What we can do as writers is poke and prod on them a little to see why they’re lingering with us…which mythic pattern overlays best on them and makes them most real. They fit like a lock and key when you figure that out.

In my case, I was in a rock gorge in Oman with some friends particularly missing John Wayne movies on a long Navy deployment and making my way through the first three Dune books. The picture of a guy in a torn and dirty uniform slamming open saloon doors and drawing all eyes on him came to my mind all on its own. Everyone in the bar was afraid of him though he was unarmed. I knew him to be a leftover of some war, and that somehow he had people with him. He felt tired to me, and dangerous…desperate. That came with the picture. I held on to that for a long time, till I ultimately sat down to write Tearing Down The Statues and put him in a different setting to answer all my questions about him, and just what those people were frightened of.

See? No Jung. Now go think of an image that’s stuck around in your own head and start asking which pattern did it bring with it to unlock whatever story it’s trying to tell.

Imagery With Teeth: Learning To Write For Millenials From Treehugging Haiku Poets

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Call me a dork if you want; but haiku is like a cherry Starburst for me. When you’re in the mood and they’re just right, it’s like a shot of happiness straight to your cortex. My point here is going to be that this poetry form and its old masters have plenty to teach a 21st century wordslinger how to write fiction. Try this one, from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A bee

staggers out

     of the peony.

No picture needed. The word choice is fascinating because the bug isn’t said to just be there; and its little hairs or whatever aren’t described. He says the little guy is staggering in the center of a flower after blasting down a bunch of nectar. If you’re at all like me – and this is one of his famous ones so I’m not alone here – then this image pops right into your head like zooming in with your iPhone. I basically stole this one for a Salt Mystic quote in chapter 5 of Tearing Down The Statues. Here’s another one I stole from (Sylhauna’s gift in chapter 9):

First snow

falling

     on the half-finished bridge

And another (chapter 9 again, referenced in the computronium ruins they sail past):

Summer grass –

All that’s left

     of warriors’ dreams

Give me a minute on this. Hear me out. We’re bombarded by pictures in all our entertainment now and have been for a while. Most of us think in pictures. We absorb information more quickly that way. Interesting images grab us as readers and stick around maybe even after the plot has faded. I read something from a cyberpunk guy (maybe William Gibson, not sure) way back in the nineties that I couldn’t begin to tell you the title or story or even the point of it all. I just remember a line where the narrator described some rain on a lake as ‘furring it over with needles’. The image popped for me and was really an interesting way to describe that. I saw it and liked the way he said that. If you’ll just stop playing around and go read either Viriconium or Light by M. John Harrison, you’ll see what I mean about crazy-cool ways of describing imagery that are uniquely wired to the way our brains work…basically interesting images that are pregnant with stories.

The classic example of an image pregnant with a story is the six word flash fiction (probably) wrongfully attributed to Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ugh, man. That’s heartbreaking. Lean and straight for the jugular! Their baby died and never got to wear the freaking shoes. That’s awful. Usually haiku isn’t trying to rip your heart in pieces like that, but is often saying something more than what you’re looking at. How about this one by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827):

     The old dog

leads the way

     visiting graves.

Dogs are always awesome. I can see a loyal little guy with his tongue hanging out and that fuzzy white fur on his snout, not even knowing this is a sad thing, being in the graveyard. Since he knows the way, he’s been there many times before. That leads my mind off into all sorts of imaginings about the dog’s master, and just which graves he’s going back again and again to visit. I may have to wipe my eyes here – hold on.

If we’re wired for images, if we absorb information more effectively and make it stick more effectively with images, and if a writer can successfully convey an important message through that mechanism – or at least resonate with an important theme, then the work has a shot at immortality in someone’s mind. That’s what this whole gig is all about, right?

Here’s what I get from all this:

  1. Stay lean, avoid a bunch of useless words that don’t add value
  2. Craft a striking image that’s memorable and describe it in a novel way
  3. Consider resonating the image with a theme from the story – make it mean more than the picture itself if you can

If you’re ever stuck for coming up with something, go steal from Basho and Issa. They won’t mind.

Getting Over Free And Rewiring Your Imagination

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Back in the day, pre-internet and when the only way to hit it big was to get signed by a big publishing house, you hounded magazines to sell short stories as much as you could. You got in print. All the names you’d recognize from those days offered that advice; and I sadly admit to listening to my dot matrix printer bweh-bweh-bweh in the corner of my desk while I bent those little metal clips on the manila envelope time and time again patiently sending off stories so I could make a name for myself to finally see the way clear before me. The only cool story I have from those days is a terribly cruel rejection letter from the guy who ran Asimov’s magazine accusing me of stealing the story idea (naming some obscure piece I’d never heard of and saying the other guy did it better). Now that I think about it – there was a guy named Vampire Dan who ran something called The Story Emporium at one point, who said nice things about what I sent him and always said I was ‘close’. He was awesome; but that’s beside my point.

Where I’m going with this is – you sold everything. Nothing was free. Guys like Harlan Ellison were brutal about it, chasing every dime for reprints and mentions and ripoffs. Basic economic common sense says you don’t give your hard work away because it has value. Giving it away means it’s crap and you couldn’t sell it. Right? Hold onto that for a minute.

My brain builds up steam. What I mean by that is my job can be technical; and if I’m not careful, I’ll be exclusively reading science journals and history books, learning statistical programming, building robotic arms, or whatever my left brain decides to chase with precious little stretching of my imagination. It can make my writing a little dodgy and stiff, and the ideas a little plain-Jane and cardboard because I’m not exercising that part that mishears things on purpose, that plugs and unplugs things I see around me to rewire them into something else. Everybody says you’re supposed to write every day; and they’re of course right about that. It matters. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning you can rewire them yourself just by what you think about. It would be incredibly helpful for a writer to be able to dredge up an inspiring idea to stretch on like taffy any time he needs it. Confidentially, it helps me tremendously at work too because I’m always being presented something people are stuck on. Different ways of thinking break out of that kind of rut.

When I recently started in earnest to build a platform for future book launches, I finally got the light bulb to spark on – that old school thinking about not giving things away for free doesn’t hold true in the internet age. Nothing gets attention on-line like FREE. It’s amazing. Book giveaways are critical because of how you get reviews; and no book sells without reviews. Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads or whatever media you want to talk about, they’re all swamped and crowded with authors pumping books. Nonsense. Sales are about trust; and somebody who’s looking for an author needs to trust them. It is an incredibly intimate relationship between author and reader…a joining of the minds that must be honored and treated as precious. What this all means is it’s not only okay to give your work away for free, it’s important to do so. Setting up a place on Facebook where you can share a piece of flash fiction or a story idea you never intend to build a book around – that gives you a fantastic place for people to get to know your style, to trust you, and also forces you to sit down once a day and do it!

Go see what I mean here and let me know which ones you like best. I’ve come to notice already that people seem to appreciate most the ones with images attached. Give it a shot yourself and see if it doesn’t stretch you to look for slick story ideas around you more often.

The Making Of A Mind-Bender

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Standard warning – this is not a book review! I’m going to analyze how a science fiction author twists a story idea around like a diamond to craft a fascinating mind-bender of a book. Though I’ll likely spoil the crap out of it, we’ll hopefully pick up on best practices for anybody looking to squeeze novelty and freshness out of a concept they might have for a book or story.

“With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialized on the windswept plain. Fifty ships of the line, the pride of the empire and every one built in the huge yards of Chronopolis, were suddenly arrayed on the dank savanna as if a small city had sprung abruptly into being in the wilderness”

Because I’ve read it a jillion times and because you should too, I picked for this exercise a 1974 time travel novel by a guy capable of turning your brain into salt water taffy but still leave a smile on your face. Seriously, why are you not reading Barrington Bayley? Go get Knights Of The Limits if you want a sampler pack. The book we’re going to look at is The Fall Of Chronopolis.

The core idea:

There’s an empire that stretches across time instead of space

Time travel has been done to death; and it’s usually stupid and full of holes. Look, you’re probably nowhere near the Doctor Who fan I am – I adore that show in all its forms; but mostly they contradict themselves at will and skim over uncomfortable goofs. Admit that, so we can move on. Here, Bayley has an interesting twist on the galactic empire idea that’s been around since the 1930s. Already a good start. People go back to those 1930s pulps even now. They did a lot of things right; and so did he with this one.

But how to make that work?

Bayley built a theory of how time is structured to try and solve how his core idea could function, how the citizens would travel across the empire and how they’d be ruled. It’s a natural progression once you have an idea, right? Just answer the obvious questions about your idea. He tells us time is like a frothy ocean with our reality and perception of it like stable skim on the surface. Yet under special circumstances, you can go deeper into the potential realities lying below, a horrid and ghostly place where souls can be dissolved into nothingness. Nice – loads of chance for drama and action there.Giant freaking time barriers were set up at the rearward past and forward future like walls around the empire. Specially protected ‘achronal archives’ exist inside buffers which are compared to duplicate archives outside the buffers enabling them to become aware of any disruptions to the timestream…like people or cities disappearing from history. There’s your empire.

Which raises more questions…

There are obvious problems that are going to come up with all of this…you can imagine the debate that went on in his head at this point. Like a courtroom, putting his idea on trial, my guess is he knew right away he needed a way to smooth contradictions, and a way for them to have a conflict of some kind. So his theory of the ocean of time needed to expand a bit. If you can imagine standing ripples on the water, no different from you and I holding a rope at the two ends with me popping up and down quickly so my end goes up when yours goes down…that point between us where the direction switches is called a node. Bayley imagined us existing at a node in time – stable points that move forward one second per second. There are just several of these; and the empire stretches across seven of them. Since they’re all that’s stable though, wrecks in the hinterlands between nodes dissolves all souls onboard into the terrible sea of potentiality. Come on! Once you stretch out an idea like that, of course it’s going to happen in the story! It’s writing itself at this point!

…and implications…

I can also imagine in Bayley’s spitballing session on this idea just trolling over everyday things to bounce his time empire idea across them and see what comes out. Relationships, for example. He imagines a young narcissistic prince who seduces his future self into a romance at node 1. He constructed a religion around how his empire would view the sea of potential, and the special reverence attached to the sacred moment when a Physics lab assistant first discovered the principle which would enable time travel.

Add the conflict and stir…

Once the initial idea is set up, it just needs tension. I imagine Bayley still working his central idea, twisting and turning it to see what war would look inside this framework. Giggling maliciously, I’m sure, he gave us an enemy empire existing in the future beyond a long period of unpopulated nuclear wasteland, begun by dissident time travelers from the empire itself. Cool beans. Conflict was automatic with this one, wasn’t it? Suddenly, the archivists start reporting entire sprawling cities have vanished from history, which no one remembers. The automatic rule of science fiction is to keep pushing the idea – how far can this go? Bayley describes the ultimate goal of a time war as disrupting the founding of your enemy – basically, get behind them and muck it up. It’s really fascinating to read all this…just incredibly innovative.

I’ll wrap it up to leave at least a little mystery to it all. The overall point this time around is the ideas will come from mishearing something around you, from hammering differences into something you see in a movie or book or something somebody tells you, whatever. The job then is to twist it around in the light for:

  1. Your first-pass explanation of how things will work with this idea
  2. Answers to the obvious questions resulting from step 1
  3. Teasing out implications of all that on everyday things
  4. Finding conflict that leverages the idea, not something boring that didn’t need it

That’s my take on it, anyway. You can go read Bayley now.