Crafting in the Eye’s Mind

Everyone has a tiny theatre in their mind. It is in this cinema mens that we enact our own private life plays, rehearsing acts and lines in an effort to perfect our performances in the broader world we live in. This mental theatre is also where most imaginative people first breathe life into their creative pursuits. Statues and paintings first take brilliant form, symphonies and concertos soar inside before notes are ever put to sheet music and authors play out chapters in their imagination long before coherent sentences and paragraphs ever form on paper. It’s where we construct our objects of admiration and attraction, where we craft villainy and heroism and build the world our hearts can pour themselves into.

In a perfect world for an author, their books work like a screenplay for the mind. If the characters are developed properly, the settings immaculately detailed and the plot exquisitely described, the reader should stop seeing words and start seeing worlds. It is the perfect expression of a writer’s craft when a book opens up vistas for the reader in their minds: Frodo fleeing the Nazgul, Harry catching the Golden Snitch, Dexter taunting his victims, Muad’Dib riding his first sandworm. We see these things and -hopefully- feel them as well, the terror, the exhilaration, the joy of the tale. For the reader, there can be no greater thrill and for the writer, no greater compliment.

So, what happens when words are no longer the medium for the expression of this imagery and instead the images are put on screen, carefully reproduced -or crudely ripped- from the page? What happens when books are turned into movies, when the cinema of the mind because the movie of the week? This has been a conversation and a debate I’ve had in my mind -and with many others outside my mind- several times in my lifetime and it’s an argument I’ve never found an easy answer for. Given that our world is rapidly -and woefully- moving away from the written word as a primary means of communication and movies (and television) have become the medium of choice, how would a would-be writer look at that world and try to find some place within it?

The translation of book to screen is -at best- an uneven endeavor. In some cases, it can be brilliant, nearly the ultimate expression of a writer’s vision. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came very, very close to being a perfect adaptation of the books; even in the areas where they diverge from the written word, such as the explicit depiction of Aragon and Arwen’s romance, something that was not clearly described in the Lord of the Ring novels proper. Even with the exclusion of Tom Bombadill and the epilogue of Saruman the White and his depredations of the Shire, the movies are an homage to the books.

On the flip side of this would be the Harry Potter movies. Whereas many people have taken exception to the cast, I personally rather enjoyed them. Beyond the problems of having movies that take years to make apiece reconciling with pre-teen actors who will obviously be too old for their parts, none of the cast was a disappointment. Some -like Alan Rickman, Richard Harris and Maggie Smith- were perfect representations of Snape, Dumbledore and McGonagall. No, my problem is the one all deeply intricate books face when converted to the screen: something always gets left out.

Unlike with LotR, where the missing bits were not essential to the story, the Harry Potter books have begun to increasingly omit often essential components of the plot. For instance, in Half-Blood Prince, we have two diluted Pensieve scenes detailing the early life of Voldemort and his introduction to the concept of Horcruxes, but none of the other flashbacks into his past which build into the very premise of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s quest for the Horcruxes and where to find them in Deathly Hallows. Throughout the movies, other such important scenes are missing so that the sum of the tale is far, far less than the whole. This is sad since Rowling’s Harry Potter is a genre-defining series and the books could have been done far greater justice if just given a different medium than a movie to be expressed in.

Another book (or series of books) that both failed and succeeded in this same regard is Frank Herbert’s Dune. The movie of Dune is a interesting interpretation by David Lynch and has some truly impressive moments, but diverges so far from the source material as to almost be a different story. As with the Harry Potter movies, it also omits much of the material, which -given the intense political and social details Herbert puts into his stories- is a travesty. Fast-forward two decades and we have the incredibly faithful and entertaining Dune mini-series on Sci-Fi. While lacking the verve and star recognition of Lynch’s movie, it is tenfold more true to the story and thus far superior.

Then we have an oddity amongst these in the form of the Showtime Originals series of Dexter, based loosely on the Dexter series by writer Jeff Lindsay. It’s hard to compare Dexter the show versus Dexter the book. In my mind, the television show is a more enjoyable experience, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing in the end. Dexter in the TV show is depicted as more of a vigilante and less as a sociopath. I don’t think it works better as a story; it is just more enjoyable and less disturbing. Dexter in the books is barely human and I think it’s hard for a reader to truly like him, because he is so very alien and horrific.

So, by necessity, authors have a tempestuous relationship with cinema. In some cases it’s a natural progression of one’s work and a testament to one’s imagination. In other cases it has been a violation of that work and what was once a fully-formed dream has been turned into a disjointed and uneven nightmare. In other cases, it is a complete divergence, something both related yet alien and different, neither a compliment nor an insult. So, considering all this, how would I enter the world of novels without also taking these things into consideration?  Aren’t we all hoping our work will be as successful as the examples I’ve quoted, since perhaps my work might intersect with this medium at some point in the future?

Well, cinema and television are the entertainment medium du jour and they are a constant competitor to books. There’s no denying that and there’s little point bemoaning it. I’m not going to wax philosophic about the rueful decline of the book or try and build a case for the continued existence of my chosen craft. I’m at heart a pragmatic and of the mind that if a idea or an activity has merit, then it will ultimately be rewarded. For me, books are essential for us as a civilization, both as universal mediums of expression and remembrance, but also as tool for enlightenment.

So, as I begin to write, I think the best advice I can give myself is to focus on those things that books can do that movies will never be able to do. I’ll seek to craft dreams, to populate my worlds with creatures that the best CGI could hardly depict and emotions and action that would tax even the most illustrious of actors to express. I will challenge a movie or film to tell my story better than me.

But there is something more important than any of this: books let us live ‘in’ our dreams. No matter how defined a character might be, we will always see a bit of ourselves in the character while they draw breath within our own minds. It’s the greatest gift books can give us.

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Breaking the (Genre) Mold

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
~Charles Caleb Colton

I imagine that unless you are the most pedestrian writer in existence, the greatest motivation you have is to create something noteworthy, something that inspires emotion -be it praise or condemnation- amongst your readers. I would say this is true about all goals people have, but for writing I would believe that it is especially true: novel-writing is not like a nine-to-five job. Novelists (usually) don’t get paid on an hourly or per-word basis, so their goals shouldn’t be to churn out garbage just to pull in a paycheck.

Yet, too often, this is exactly what seems to happen. From Rowling’s Harry Potter to Meyer’s Twilight we see a noteworthy, often brilliant idea that is blatantly -and poorly- duplicated ad nauseum. A glance at the young reader section at your local bookstore or library yields a landfill of young male/female prodigies going to an exclusive institute to perfect their special and usually secret crafts. A look at the teen section yields an equally appalling collection of romances between an ingénue with a taste for misunderstood and tragic supernatural boys. It’s like going to the grocery store and picking up the 5 lb bag of ‘Fruity Hoops’. It looks like a good thing, but barely qualifies as a tolerable duplicate.

Clearly, it would be easy -although elitist- to dismiss all of these writers as hacks, jumping on an already overloaded bandwagon, all just angling for a quick buck. It’s disheartening to see these copies of another person’s innovation, all cashing in on a good idea. Yet, there is clearly a market for them. And -occasionally- one will twist the new genre enough to itself create something new. But even if there were no commercial profit and no innovation to made by the duplicates, we’re stil left with the question of how much of this duplication is truly represensible and how much is truly unavoidable.

Although grotesquely over-cited, Joseph Cambell deals with this to a large degree in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. To summarize, Joseph Campbell posited that all myths -and fictionalized stories would fall into the category of ‘myths’- revolve around a single story, a single conceit:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

When broken down enough, all stories follow that same pattern and therefore all myths, all fiction, is a recursive imitation of itself. Every story is about a single protagonist who experiences something that changes their everyday life and are tested, emerging enlightened or improved in someway. Campbell states this is simply our innate need to express what is an essentially universal human experience. All myths (and by extension books and movies) seek to provide this experience because inherently we all seek to participate in it.

I’ve been working on a novel idea which basically boils down to a fantasy concept with aspects of horror and a little steampunk thrown in, taking place in or around what would essentially be a 1500-1600’s alternate Europe and has a middle eastern flavor to it. From conception, it has always seemed something of a mish-mash to me, but the background I’m working around, the mythology behind the story (or stories since this feels to be something I’ll need several installments to truly tell), has been very compelling to me and flowed nicely. Of course, brushing my tale with the same brush I used on all those Potter and Twilight clones earlier, I have to admit that the story has taken on a hint of Wheel of Time both for the type of fantasy and the breadth of the tale. Now, I like Robert Jordan and yield much respect to him; he is a giant in the fantasy genre and his work has its own brand of influence, but that influence is really limited to just fantasy. I read his work and it’s enormously appealing and entertaining, but I never get a visceral reaction to it nor do I percieve any greater parable beyond the narrative itself.

So, this is the question I’ve been posing myself: how to balance a story that is falling firmly into genre fiction yet also provide some deeper experience for the reader. How do I tap into the tenets of fantasy but create something that exceeds the limitations of the genre? How do I create something that thrills like good fantasy does, but also touches that inner need Joseph Campbell says we all harbor. How do I create my own myth?

Soul in a Bottle

Saying that you are a writer is a lot like calling yourself a musician or a painter: unless you have a body of work to refer to, your claims are nothing but stale air escaping your lips.  The internet is a cesspool of would-be writers.   It’s like tossing a dime in an L.A. restaurant; you’re lucky you don’t hit twelve waiters who call themselves actors.  The internet is much the same.  You could hardly click a link or view a profile without stumbling on a thick ground covering of hopeful authors and poets.

So, it is with the greatest of disdain that I add myself as another piece of refuse in an already reeking stack of rubbish.  Don’t get me wrong, I wish nothing but the best for my fellow writers cum net-izens but you can only read so many white-text-on-black-background-emo-poetry or earnest coffee-shop tale-weaving before you question whether all this is just adding to a sort of white literary noise that is permeating our society.  At least becoming a doctor or a lawyer has a test to qualify you.  Any monkey with a keyboard can now churn out Aquitaining the Shrew or a Midsummer’s Night Disco.  Legitimate up-and-coming writers just become absorbed in the noise and the anonymity of the rabble.

Just to clarify: I’m not a ‘legitimate up-and-coming writer’.  I’m just a ponce with a blog right now.

But I’m a passionate ponce.  Or at least passionate right now.  I’m too old and know myself too well to not be just as critical, just as skeptical of my own nascent scribblings as I would be of EdWordSullen85 and his Facebook page of Twilight slash-fiction and angsty ramblings.  So as an exercise in self-abuse, I’m going to dissect myself today.  Well, in a literary sense at least…

So, why do I think I can/should be a writer?  How do I reasonably expect to become successful at it when -as I just ranted- so many are (what can only be generously referred to as) hacks?  And why on earth would I want to blog about it or expect others to want to read about it?  Well, this blog is self-described as “…thoughts on the ecstasies and agonies of discovering the inner writer…”, so there’s that reason.  I would say I didn’t make that shit up, but I did actually make that shit up.

I’ve been storytelling for the last twenty years in one form or another.  No, not lying.  In college, I initially majored in film-making before an instructor candidly advised me that I was a better script-writer than a cinematographer.   So, I changed majors to JMC.  But a JMC degree is like a Letters degree.  You learn the craft of using words, but it doesn’t really teach you how to write.  Obviously, that led to nothing in the end.

However, I also became involved in hosting role-playing games.  Yes, snort derisively now please.  But as the originator for these game sessions, I had to spend a lot of time creating the stories.  Sure, I had (usually) a hearty framework to work within, but I still had to populate my tales with characters and locales and events of my own.  Granted, my protagonists were living breathing people who brought their own personalities and goals into the game, so I wasn’t really crafting their characters in a direct fashion.  However, I was able to mold them indirectly, which is part of character building at least.

It was helpful in a way because instead of a tale populated with a pack of Mary Sues, I had a collection of flawed, immature, human characters and that gives you a perspective you can’t always get when working with your own creations.  While I was invested in my friends, I had no investment at all in their characters so I would not hesitate in the least to torture or test them.  This is something writers are often less willing to do with their own darling creations.  So it gave me a spectrum of personalities and their responses to stimuli that I could integrate into my own writing.  A breadth of perspective which I could draw from.

After college, that pastime went away.  However, in several different situations, I continued to exhibit a passion for words, often to the frustration of my peers.  I’d craft multi-page debates and rebuttals, which showed not only what an insufferable and opinionated egotist I was, but also -coincidentally- a often applauded zeal for words.  They found my rant frustrating, but they conceded that I ‘knew how to write’.

It’s true, I love to write.  Even now I’m on the verge of going on and on and on in this blog.  Some of that is in the interest of expressing my point, but some of it is just because I like writing.  Even better, I currently have absolutely no one reading this blog.  Granted it’s new, but I’m essentailly writing this purely for myself, not in the expectation of being read by fans or critics.  This blog is essentially a big diary at this point.

The biggest reason for me however are my notebooks.  Two tiny, chewed, ripped, and otherwise broken tomes which are chuck full of almost two decades of ideas.  Before I was on the internet or even had a computer, I had these notebooks.  The pencil marks are smudged, the pages ripped and creased, the Post-Its cracking and faded.  But they are a portal back in time to a point when I dreamed more vividly, when I felt more deeply, when I believed -of all things- in myself.  Sometime during my adult life, I’d lost all of that.

A year and a half ago, I fled my home and a catastrophically failing life.  I left thousands of dollars of music and literature, of furniture and keepsakes.  All I chose to save were my computer, my dogs, some movies and clothes… and those two books.  Something compelled me to dig through stacked boxes, stored in dusty closets in the vain attempt to find them.  Why?

Because something inside me recognized them for what they were.  They were my soul in a bottle.  They were the last vestige of the person I had believed myself to be when I was just entering my twenties, full of hope, divinely blind to reality.  But that’s what it takes to become something new, something more than what you are, more than what anyone assumes you can be, more than reality often allows you to be.  Or to be fair, what you allow your own self to become.

So, I open my soul in a bottle and hopefully I’ll be free again.

Hail, Horrors, I greet thee!

Welcome to my own sublime pathos.

Friedrich Schiller defined the term ‘sublime pathos’ as an expression of human freedom -of triumph- in spite of or because of suffering.  It describes the act of creation as a result of pain and strife.   For me, this has always seemed a truism and I feel the history of art and expression supports me in this belief.

Van Gogh, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Keats, Hemingway, Michelangelo and Dickens.

All were brilliant and exceptional, artists and writers and musicians without peer.  All faced demons and tragedy and it was their ordeals which inspired them.  Or maybe they created in spite of those same travails.  In either case, their pain was fuel for their muse.  In madness and misery they found transcendence.

We each experience our own brand of suffering and we each swallow it or we express it in some way.  We use it.  I suppose too often we catalog it and store it inside, forgetting what it teaches us instead of using it to achieve something more.  I’ve have had my own brands of pain, my own flavors of misery.  For too long I shuffled it aside.  Or allowed it to consume my life.

I turned 39 recently and realized that I’d wasted years of my life and let my dreams and aspirations wither like grapes in the burning sun.  Soon, anything I might refer to as ‘my time’ would have long since passed.  I would have wasted the promise of youth that had been given to me and relegated myself to a life of entropy.

I’ve always felt I had tales within me, stories waiting to be told, to escape and be free.  This manifested in my youth in a number of ways and these tales would consume me, devour hours and days all for the ecstasy of expressing that inner narrative.  As I grew older, voices -both within and from without- silenced these tales until I was left with nothing but two worn notebooks that I would occasionally but explosively record notes in.

However, someone has recently re-entered my life and with all such new beginnings, something new may flourish. Even parched earth can give new blossom if tilled correctly. And so I’ve stretched atrophied muscles again; sore, but eager to be used.  However, like muscles, writing is an activity that you must constantly engage in.  You must exercise or you accomplish nothing.

So, I have taken steps to give myself as much literary exercise as possible.  This blog is but one part of it.  It will serve me as a repository for those ideas which may not directly contribute to my writings, a filter between story and raw thought.  Perhaps what is said here will find a home in a story; perhaps not.  But writing is not always about what is useful and valuable, but rather what is necessary.  Writing -to me- is about what must be.  What begs to be born.