Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Done in the actual time of Pangaea

I've been working on my current WIP, In the Land of Pangaea, since November (it was the subject of my unofficial NaNo effort, you may recall).  Yesterday I concluded the first draft for the first and longest section of the book, the part that takes place in the eponymous supercontinent.  I ended up being damn happy with how it developed, which made it easier and easier to write as time went on.

That leaves the second section, which is the shortest, and the third, which is the final (I'm a sucker for three-act structures, which is the basic shape nearly all of my manuscripts have taken, with so far the lone exception being Minor Contracts, which has a general medley of five narrative threads, one of which is a tapestry of different, illustrative voices).  I hope to be done, as I think I've said previously, by the end of February on the complete first draft.  I will certainly let you know how that works.  It's a fantastic feeling, though, knowing that I did exactly what I wanted to do, and am pleased with the results, which ended up turning into a murder mystery, something I've only tackled on occasion.  I blame it on all the John le Carre books I was reading at the time I started writing...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yoshimi returns? (a blatant plea for artistic collaborators)

I'm currently looking for artistic collaborators on comic book projects.  I'm lousy at making these connections, so I'm making a blatant plea right here.  If you want to humor me, here's your chance.

It's funny, too, because with all my rotten luck breaking into comics, the last missed opportunity ended up providing me with a major plot element for my WIP, In the Land of Pangaea.  Based on a scenario originally envisioned by artist Don Bryan and further developed by me, I tried to keep the project alive (read an aborted effort here) until I totally repurposed it.  That's all well and good, but at the time I really wanted it to remain a comic book.

The couple of Bluewater biography scripts I've had published have only whet my appetite.  I want to do some original work now.  I want to do it badly.  I want to work in the sandboxes of other people, too.  Mainly, I want this creative outlet.

The (main) title of this post references Yoshimi, who's the featured protagonist of The Whole Bloody Affair, the source of another tortured march to publication.  I've been wondering if there was ever going to be another Yoshimi story.  The dramatic arc of her life completed itself before she hit sixteen years old, so I wondered what could possibly justify bringing her back.  And then it struck me.  She doesn't have to be the main character.

So that's how she appears in my initial notes for Boxer, one of the comic book projects I've cooked up and would love to develop with an artistic collaborator, maybe shop around to publishers (because most of them really love not having to do that themselves, the creative team for a project they didn't come up with).  Boxer is my high school drama.  The main character is the eponymous figure, and she's not herself a boxer.  That's her mom.  Her story is about establishing a legacy of her own, which is funny because that contrasts so well with Yoshimi's unexpected return.  There's another character who's the narrator, sort of like how Brian K. Vaughan has cleverly made a star out of the narrator in his Saga.  This narrator also happens to dramatically affect the shape of the whole story, because this is her interpretation, and she sometimes lets her imagination get away with her.  (Yes, somehow all three leads are female.)

If I make a big deal out of my hopes for Boxer out of a half dozen other potential comic book projects, it's because this is the one I'd probably most like to see move forward first.

If you know anyone who could help me with this, let me know.  If you only want to wish me well, thank you for that as well!  Either way, this will be one of my major goals for 2014, just so you know, that along with finding a publisher for Seven Thunders, and maybe one or more of my other manuscripts.  2013 was hopefully the last push for my self-publishing efforts.  We'll see!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm blaming comic books for everything

I'm blaming comic books for everything.

I'm blaming them because they warped my imaginative and creative development.  Ever since my sister got her hands on a copy of Jim Starlin's Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel, the least likely of all possible developments in my youth, I've been chasing comic books ever since.

Death of Captain Marvel remains one of the most awe-inspiring comics I've ever read, completely unlike anything else that has been attempted in the thirty years since its original release.  (Keep in mind my experience with it goes back maybe twenty years, I'm not really sure.)  Frank Miller, Alan Moore, all the Big Dramatic Life-Changing story arcs of the '90s ("Doomsday," "Knightfall," "Emerald Twilight," the Clone Saga), they came from this one comic book.

Marvel's Captain Marvel was not the original.  The original Captain Marvel was for a time one of the most popular superheroes in the world, and then DC decided he resembled Superman far too much, and then he went away, and that caused a great many interesting things to develop.  The '80s were a particularly good breeding ground for the results.  If you've never heard of Miracleman, you're merely one of many people still waiting for that particular result to surface again.  And then there was Death of Captain Marvel.

Marvel's Captain Marvel, then, was not originally such an important part of the DC trademark dispute aftermath.  He wasn't much of anything.  He was so not much of anything that Marvel even allowed him to be almost totally reinvented to a virtual duplicate of the original Captain Marvel, which originally he wasn't (although the British Marvelman definitely was, and that was where Miracleman came from, the first of the postmodern superheroes).  When that didn't work, Marvel decided their Captain Marvel was expendable.  So Jim Starlin got to do whatever he wanted with him.

So he gave him cancer.  And Captain Marvel was allowed to die.  And Death of Captain Marvel was all about his journey toward death.  Thanos, that large-chinned figure you may recall from the end of the Avengers movie, is involved, but as with the best Thanos stories, there is not a lot of typical villainy involved.  There's philosophy, and even poetry, not literally, but lyrically, the way Starlin provided Captain Marvel with the coda he never deserved.  This is comic books at their finest.

And so that was something I chased, probably unconsciously, for years.  I was also going for the more obvious material, which was why Spider-Man was one of my original favorites, why I glommed onto Robin because he was the classic surrogate figure for a young fan, and why Green Lantern originally became a favorite just because he featured my favorite color.

I chased comic books for years, trying to duplicate the Death of Captain Marvel experience.  That's why I ended up being such a big fan of Grant Morrison, because he seems to write in that scope with every story he tells.  I look for those kinds of stories in comic books all the time.

And without realizing it, I started to write like that, too, and read like that completely outside of comic books.  I craved scope.  I craved it like it was the most important thing in all of storytelling.  Truth is, I still believe that.  I absolutely do.  I crave it now because I'm realizing more and more how important it is to me.  I think big, or try to, as a matter of course.  A story has to work on many different levels.  The characters have to be important, and the things happening to them have to be important, too, and there have to be many other characters important to that story.  It has to have scope.  It has to mean something.

In a book, I grow bored if it seems the author tried, very hard, to have scope but failed.  I grow bored if there's no scope to be found at all.  I don't want the simple.  Comic books are many things, but if you always assumed they were simple wish fulfillment fantasies for little boys in a world they otherwise couldn't comprehend, you're wrong.  They're the greatest synthesizers of modern mythology possible.  That's what Superman was from his debut to today.

That's why I prefer the movies that star Superman and Batman, by the way, because they realize this more than those that star the Avengers.  The Avengers have everything they need to understand their scope, but they always back away from it.  I hate that.

Embrace the scope.  Maybe swig it a little.

And so I'm always looking for the books, the movies, the TV shows, the music (hello, Beatles!), and yes, the comic books that try to accomplish this task.  And that's the way I try to write, too.  I think I've realized why I'm always so scared that my dream of becoming a comic book writer will actually come true, because I've spent so much time working on the scope in my prose that I never really developed it in my comic book scripting.  Every time I've tried to work on a comic book script, I've panicked.  I haven't listened to my own instincts.  And every time I write, all I want to do is listen to the story explain its scope to me.

It's something I recognize in the work of new comic book writers.  They panic just like I do.  They try to be too precise.  This is something I get to recognize the more sporadic my reading of comic books becomes.  I read them heavily in the 90s, but it took about half the first decade of the new millennium for me to have a chance to get back into them.  And then I obsessed over them.  I immersed myself in them.  And it was good but maybe I also started taking them for granted.  A few years back, I started pulling away, and this year has been the most sporadic of all my years reading comic books.  And I think this is a good thing.  It gives me greater perspective on them.  It gives me, I guess, a little of the scope on the whole thing that they've been giving me all along.

I blame comic books for everything in a good way...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The power of imagery

I've just tracked down a poem that's lingered in my memory since I first encountered it a decade ago.

As a college student, I rediscovered poetry as a means of creative expression.  It was something I stumbled into in middle school but quickly left behind.  After a trip to Boston when I was attending Mercyhurst in Erie, PA, I decided I wanted to commemorate the experience in a series of poems, which I abandoned before completion.  But then at the University of Maine I seemed to fall into its poetry scene, by far the most vibrant aspect of the English department.

Much of my college experience took place in the shadow of 9/11.  Yet the scope of the event was illuminated for the first time when Chilean writer Marjorie Agosin visited a class dedicated to modern poetry.  This was the first time I heard of the significance of another 9/11, which resonates for all Chileans who experienced the Pinochet coup of 1973, which dramatically transformed the country and radicalized many of its citizens.  I was appalled when the consensus of the class was that her evoking the Chilean 9/11 was an insult to the American one.  If you can't trust poets to be sensitive, what else is there to believe in?

What stuck with me just as clearly over the years was a poem she'd written about Pinochet that, as with the best of poetry, was centered on the power of imagery.  Here she depicted the casual detachment Pinochet had to the suffering of his countrymen, contrasted with his immaculate white suit.  I tried saving most of the poems from that class, but things become lost over time, and when I wanted to read it again, the poem was nowhere to be seen.

So I began a quest to rediscover it.  This is harder to do with poetry than with just about any other creative medium, and that's a general indictment of society's current appreciation for the form.  But of course I finally succeeded.  For the record, it's called "The President" and can be found in her An Absence of Shadows collection.

Why talk about it at all, why rehash memories that stirred so much conflicting emotion?  Because for me, it speaks to the best quality of the written word, whether in poetry or prose.  In other words, the power of imagery.  Often as writers we're encouraged to "show, not tell," but the result of this advice is more often than not a lot of description that sets a scene, tiny details like the items that fill a room or what exactly someone is supposed to look like.  I find this tiresome.  In some cases, it works, it's actually important to the story.  Mostly, however, it's a chore.

What, then, about the power of imagery, and how poems do it so well, and why "The President" needs to be discussed first in order to make this point?  In film, which is a visual medium, the words of a book are often condensed and altered in order to produce the most striking version of the story possible.  When a play is adapted into a film, the critical reaction usually hinges on how "stagey" it remains, whether the actors look static, trapped in a limited space, or if the production has taken advantage of its new setting.

I know common wisdom is that literature is a culturally superior artform to film, but I'm suggesting that literature can use to learn a lot more from film.  The best films are poetry in motion.  See what I'm getting at?

The best prose, which is to say the best written words of any form (you probably don't think of Beowulf as poetry, but it is, much like Shakespeare), is filled with visual imagery, the capturing of a specific moment, a single scene.  It is a meditation on all the elements that have converged to make the moment happen.  You get a clear image in your mind of what has happened, why it's important, and it has nothing to do with whether you could produce an exact replica of it in a drawing.  It feels more like a memory than an artificial experience.

For me, that's the only kind of writing that truly qualifies as great literature.  The best poems know it.  I don't know that we think of the best literature as having it, too, but it does.  The problem is, young writers are never told this.  They're told to "show, not tell" endlessly, as if that really says anything at all.  It's one of the most common and least beneficial suggestions for creative development.

When an image like Pinochet dressed in white and casually strolling through the chaos that resulted from his actions sticks so clearly in my mind, when I find it impossible to forget it, the cool and precise nature of the poem is only half of the reason why.  It's because Agosin knows better than most writers what she's trying to accomplish.  I'm saying, more writers should try to keep that in mind.  It's not all about having an easy read.  If you want to be a writer at all, I hope you understand that the point isn't to have something readers will consume in one day and forget the next.  It's not about your name being remembered forever.  It's about the imagery.  It's about the material itself becoming unforgettable.  And, if you're lucky, your name will survive as well.  Because you write in order to preserve your perspective on the world.  You're creating a cultural record.  Because of Agosin, I know of the Chilean 9/11, and I'll never forget it because of the man in the white suit, the callous general and president detached from the horrors he's created.

If that's not your goal, why are you even trying?  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

IWSG December 2013

It's time once again for the monthly meeting of the IWSG, in which we discuss ways to pet goats safely, or something like that.

This month my topic is inspiration.  For me, inspiration can and does come from anything.  It's the reason I like what I like, because it inspires me, and why I aggressively (sometimes moreso than other times) pursue new books, movies, TV shows, music, or greatly cherish things I've already discovered, because it all circles back to the foundation for what I do myself.  Quite frankly, I don't see the point of doing something, especially if you're a creative person, if it doesn't help you create.

There's a funny thing I do, however.  Sometimes I avoid things I know I'll find inspiring.  Sometimes I'll avoid them forever because I'll have already gotten what I needed just based on the ideas that come to me because of the general awareness, because the mechanics aren't after all so important.  I know all I need to know, and perhaps knowing more will only spoil it.  And then sometimes I know I'll circle back to that thing eventually, because I fear knowing their content too soon will influence me at the wrong time.  Here I'm thinking, at the moment, very specifically about two comic book series.  The first is Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

It was not a conscious decision at the time.  It was a conscious decision to leave off reading the rest of Jeff Smith's Bone, and that I got back to a few years ago, a journey I completed.  Sometimes it's better to see the whole shape of the thing laid out than watch it develop.  I guess it was the same way with Heroes, which I didn't start watching until its third season.  Maybe that's why I became a far bigger fan than everyone who fled the series at around the same time.  With Sandman, I was maybe too young by a few years to truly appreciating what Gaiman was doing, and by the time it ended I was so far behind I felt overwhelmed, didn't even try to catch up for years.  But I knew something special had been accomplished, something far more complicated than anything I'd enjoyed to that point.  And as I picked away at the edges of that accomplishment, I started to see how much it began to help me along my own creative development, to play by my own rules rather than those established by and apparently for others.

The other comic book was James Robinson's Starman.  This was a more traditional, superhero series.  At the time I was obsessed with Mark Waid's Flash.  In a lot of ways, the two series were pretty similar, steeped heavily in tradition and lineage.  Starman was darker than Flash, however.  It was not very mainstream, either.  Like Sandman, I quickly realized that falling behind in this story was only going to work against me if I tried to just jump into it.  I needed to see the whole shape.  Okay, in Starman's case the shape was not really that important.  But I had to give it time.  Although I still think of my future in comic books looking more like Flash, my prose resembles Starman a lot more.  For something like Starman, waiting for it gives it more resonance, and that resonance becomes a part of the reading experience, like borrowing how the writer originally approached it.

I'm still well off reading the complete runs of either Sandman or Starman, and perhaps it's better that way.  Now I still have something to look forward to.  A lot of times, especially for comic book fans, instant gratification is the rule of the day.  But writers know that patience is a virtue, both in writing and in reading.  Writers should be the most patient readers.  I try to be, anyway.

And besides, it means they're even more there than they would have been, as I continue to draw inspiration from them.  The journey continues.
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