Monday, March 31, 2014

The Part About Endings

I just read a good ending, in Jerome Charyn's The Seventh Babe, and so it got me thinking about the subject.  As a writer, this is a particularly compelling subject.  It's about as important as the name of the story, the names of the characters.

The way I ended The Cloak of Shrouded Men, for instance, was crucial to the whole story.  When I originally wrote this one, it was during the course of three successive NaNoWriMos, so it's perhaps more accurate to say that I wrote three endings.  The first, after "Colinaude, the Angry Avenger," came about because I realized the main character was headed in a dark direction.  He kills a man.  Considering the main character is a superhero, this is a fairly significant event for him.  The second, after "Repose of the Eidolon," was less of an ending because by that point I knew I was going to be writing the character again.  That ending was more of a beginning, as the character dons his superhero costume again for the first time since the end of "Angry Avenger."  The whole of the third, "Cotton's War," is one long ending.  Actually, it takes place after the ending, the climactic fight the character must experience in order to complete his experiences in the story.  The fight apparently leaves him at death's door, only for an eleventh hour reveal that he's switched places with someone else, and that he's been comfortably observing the results of his response to killing a man from 'Angry Avenger."  His morality has flipped.  He has decided that the only way to respond to a world that no longer makes sense to him is to reshape the landscape.  It is a little like my version of Watchmen in that sense, except there's no belief that he has won a war so much as completed, well, a story.

That was my first attempt at concluding a novel.  The next one, Pale Moonlight, was a little trickier.  The whole story became a study about ideas.  Everything about it is less a traditional story and more a confrontation with 20th century psychology in the wake of some of the greatest horrors history has ever seen.  It's what happens when the climactic battle becomes more about one side walking away.  Who does that?  So the character who is supposed to walk away dies instead.  Of the three protagonists who confront the villain, one of them symbolizes the effort to understand evil, another the effort to reject, and the third the effort to confront it directly, which is to say contradict it.  This is what a lot of people have been trying to argue recently, that instead of picking a fight you pacify the enemy.  Except I'm ambivalent as to how easy that really is.  So if I'm to write a story about it, I write about what I imagine has to happen in order for it to work.  It's such a convoluted story, I'm sure I won't have any readers for it basically ever.  I guess that's why it had absolutely no traction with publishers.

So I went in a different direction with the next novel, which I'm seriously considering self-publishing this year.  I've previously referred to it as Minor Contracts and its original title, Ecce Homo, but it's now going by Holy Men.  This is the first time I've written a long-form story without having some kind of climactic fight at the end.  Like Pale Moonlight, it's a story of ideas, a much more direct grappling with my religious beliefs.  I knew exactly how this one would end from the moment I started writing it, which was why I named it Ecce Homo originally, Latin for "Behold the man!," which is what Pontius Pilate utters to the crowd after having Jesus scourged.  Except the man in my story isn't Jesus, but Adam, who is pleading with God to give his son Cain a second chance.  Really???  It's a story that needs to be read to be understood, and this is something I knew from the moment I started writing it, so it's actually one of my clearer narratives.  Swear to god!

From there, I wrote The Whole Bloody Affair, which was my version of a young adult novel, following the adventures of warrior orphan Yoshimi.  Since the whole premise of this one involved fighting, I knew the climax definitely involved a fight.  And so I peppered the book with a lot of short fights.  It was originally my idea to have the climax feature another one, because I don't choreograph very well.  I have to think a lot about it.  It's the whole reason the superhero in Cloak of Shrouded Men does very little actual fighting.  So I end up thinking of such moments more as set pieces, the way movies center a lot of their stories around specific moments, usually action scenes.

That's what happens in Seven Thunders, which is the first book I think other people might actually want to read.  I've been foolish enough recently to send it to a publisher.  It's the linchpin to my whole Space Corps saga.  Whatever else I write, this is still what I think will be my legacy.  It took me fifteen years and three prior manuscripts to even attempt writing Seven Thunders.  And it was the same movie that ended up informing the fighting in Whole Bloody Affair that ultimately gave me the shape of it, including the ending.  I'm talking about Warrior, the best MMA movie that will ever be made.  It's the story of two brothers and their father, all of them estranged, all of whom converge back into each other's lives thanks to a tournament.  The brothers end up meeting in the finals.  It's seriously one of the best movies I've ever seen.  Seven Thunders is also a story about brothers.  I knew that whatever else I did in the story, I needed the ending to ring as true emotionally for me as Warrior's did.  I'd dreamed about this ending for so long.  Previously it played out a little like the lightsaber duels of the Star Wars prequels.

Endings aren't always my strong suit.  Half the reason I spent a few years doing micro fiction was so that I had to tackle endings on a regular basis, the beginning so close to the ending that there could be no mistake as to how one met the other.  As a reader, I've developed an instinct for how a story's shape looks.  I happen to be partial to stories that end well, not just begin well.  I hear all this stuff about how a story has to begin well, but that's perhaps the least important part of a story.  I've read plenty of bad beginnings that quickly turn into excellent middles.  But how many excellent endings?

Sometimes, when I want to end a story without having really finished writing it, I simply conclude with the overall effect the events of the story have ended up having. That's what I did with "Lost Convoy" from the Monorama collection.  Last summer my laptop died on me.  It ate the ending of Seven Thunders.  Not the ending, but the coda.  With that one, it was as important to do a proper ending as explain what happened after it.  I guess bringing the lessons of Cloak of Shrouded Men and later efforts full circle.  Luckily my sister helped the computer regurgitate the coda.

With the manuscript I've recently completed, In the Land of Pangaea, there are three separate stories that are nonetheless interrelated, and so once more I needed a coda to bring it all together satisfactorily.  I've also been working on Zooropa all year, which is another way I've been meditating on endings recently.  Zooropa is the title I've given a series of stories I've been working on for about as long as Space Corps.  It encompasses "Leopold's Concentration" and several other stories from Monorama, and several that aren't in it.  When I tackled "Eponymous Monk," a serialized quasi-cartoon strip I recently completed over at Scouring Monk, I knew I still wasn't completing that story.  So when it came to thinking up a theme for this year's A-to-Z Challenge, I determined that it only made sense to use the Zooropa world, which was all I needed to finally reach the conclusion, which will come in the form of "Shooks Run," from an outline I actually completed last year, without realizing where the story would be by this point.  (If you're interested in my A-to-Z, it'll be at the Monk, as always.)
So I will soon have the shape of that whole story completed, including its ending, which may seem to be a little out of left field, the way Cloak of Shrouded Men and Pale Moonlight end.  I'm not regressing, though.  I wonder if I will rewrite the whole Zooropa saga one day.  But for now, it's enough to know I finally have its ending, because that's something that has eluded me for close to two decades.  Which is incredibly frustrating for a writer who has made endings so important to his stories.  But all the sweeter for finally having reached it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Music is the key to 12 Years a Slave

I finally saw 12 Years a Slave, know what?  It isn't even necessarily a movie about slavery.  How about that?  It's more about a person who endured a terrible experience, about anyone who has suffered indignity, repression.  And you know what?  There are three elements to the movie you will need to keep in mind in order to understand it.

The first is that, as I said in the title, the music is the foremost key to understanding it.  Solomon Northrup played the violin.  This fact alone certainly caught my imagination, since I played it myself.  It becomes astonishing, then, that this skill means absolutely nothing to the white men who keep him in slavery, that it doesn't appear to be any indication that he or anyone else of his color may be worth more than their estimation.  There's Paul Dano singing, too.  Dano used to be on the verge of becoming a pretty big deal.  He was one of several breakout stars in Little Miss Sunshine.  He was the other notable star in There Will Be Blood.  And now, if you haven't seen 12 Years, you probably had no idea he was in it until I just mentioned him.  Listening to him sing (if you've seen it you know exactly what I'm talking about), it's a perfect encapsulation of the extreme nature of the cognitive dissonance that certainly Solomon had to endure for the span of his experience, that any of the white men who made it happen had to have, that even Dano's character had to have.  The ability to hold two disparate beliefs together.  That he could sing that song and expect the very people it denigrated to clap along.  As if it meant nothing at all.

Of course, there's also the beginning of the blues as the slaves sing in the fields.  Everyone knows that about slavery.  But it's important to have that as an element, too, especially in a film where you don't truly understand it without hearing how important music is to it, encapsulating the contradictions without beating the audience over the head with it.  There are other elements, elements that don't work as well.  But this understated one, it elevates everything.  It defines everything.

Another element is the extended sequence of Solomon's near-hanging.  Like the music, it is astonishing, the signature image for anyone who has seen the movie.  I have no idea how anything else could be.  He attempts to find footing in the mud.  This lasts for him for hours.  For the viewer, several minutes.  I can't think of another movie moment that's anything like it.  Life goes on around him.  Slave children play in the background, even.  Another slave runs up to give him some water.  The whole thing happens after Dano has finally had enough of this contradiction of a slave, and attempts, of course, to hang him all the way.  Another white man stops him.  But doesn't cut Solomon down.  He leaves him there.  This happens in clear daylight.  It's dusk by the time Solomon is finally cut down.  His feet barely touching the mud the whole time, barely able to keep himself from suffocating.

Finally, there are the three crucial white men.  The first is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  In my experience, it's a rare performance where Cumberbatch does not entirely rely on his famous baritone.  This has a way of softening him so that his voice matches his face for a change.  Yet he's the master who gives Solomon his violin back.  Saying it'll do them both good.  Does it?  Later, we see Solomon finally smash it.  I'd expected Dano to do it.  The second master is Michael Fassbender.  This character is a fool.  He's supposed to be notorious for breaking slaves.  And yet he's completely pathetic.  At one point he and Solomon come so close to fighting, it's ridiculous.  Fassbender has it in his power to do whatever he likes to Solomon.  He already has him whipped regularly because Solomon doesn't pick cotton to the day's average.  He certainly has his way with the slave portrayed by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o.  Yet it's hard to take him seriously.  That's two masters who are pathetic.  The third white man is Brad Pitt.  He uses a voice very similar to the one his character from Inglourious Basterds speaks with, and I think this is a deliberate choice.  Pitt in the other movie was another Southerner who was up to mischief.  He at some point gained the unexplained slash across the throat that leaves a visible scar.  Sort of like what he would later do to the Nazis.  There's material that explains why he got it, just not in the movie.  It's immaterial.  I choose to believe that it was a reminder of his own prior activities in some positive way.  And so the Pitt in 12 Years relates to the Pitt in Basterds very handily.  That's as much sense as I can make out of that.

There are two other white men worth mentioning.  The first is Paul Giamatti.  Here he's dismissively part of the problem.  In his other role from 2013, he's certainly part of the solution (Saving Mr. Banks).  I just wanted to make note of him.  The one that matters a little more is Garret Dillahunt.  This is an actor I know best from the sitcom Raising Hope, where he plays the father, or I guess the grandfather.  In other words, I know him as a comedic actor.  His character in 12 Years sounds just this side of comedic, and in fact is one of the things that goes horribly wrong for Solomon that comes closest to seeming like a real farce.  (Dillahunt, it might be mentioned, also appeared in No Country For Old Men, another Best Picture winner.)

Why am I writing about the movie here, at my writers blog?  Because it's a unique kind of achievement in storytelling.  I think it's an imperfect movie.  But, it actually benefits from its imperfections.  The three elements I've just listed are about as much as you could need to consider it about as good as anyone said it is.  And yes, it won Best Picture at this year's Oscars, so there are plenty of people who think it's pretty good.

I haven't mentioned the actor who plays Solomon yet.  That would be Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I was excited about this movie initially because I thought it would finally give Ejiofor a chance to claim an undivided spotlight.  Having seen 12 Years, I wonder if he seized the opportunity.  I also wonder if I'm wrong in questioning that.  Like Nyong'o, his best moments aren't really in spoken word.  I like actors who can be expressive outside of dialogue.  The moments where Solomon is processing his experience, those are the ones where Ejiofor truly shines, and I think that was a deliberate choice.  There are scenes where the movie attempts to explain how Solomon could possibly endure becoming a slave, but it's more how he conducts himself, not so much in his attempts to rise above, but when he realizes the depths to which he has been cast.

He becomes a universal figure.  And so I say a movie that everyone has called difficult to watch, a movie about slavery, is also a vicarious experience.  Vicarious because Solomon's experience is more translatable than it might seem.  He is not merely a slave.  He's not really a slave at all.  He endures by cognitive dissonance, keeping his true self hidden, as much as possible, from the perception of those around him.  The music, the near-hanging, the white men who hardly present themselves in their best light, all reflect how Solomon has become an object.  Has become less than human.  An element.  It's one thing to be told from history books how slavery was justified.  How black people were considered, needed to be considered just another piece of property.  When Pitt explains to Fassbender the ludicrous intellectual fallacy he's been living by, it's another understated moment in the movie.  Something that isn't stated in bold letters.  But is clear all the same.  All these things that happen to Solomon happen because like so many black people, he was no longer considered capable of understanding his own circumstances, of existing at the same level as the rest of American society.

As a writer, as someone who writes his thoughts on the craft to other writers, a movie like 12 Years becomes something more than what it seems, too.  For some people, it is a powerful experience.  Something that should have happened years ago.  Or maybe just something that needs to exist but is just too hard to watch.  But watching it, 12 Years becomes a portrait of humanity, flaws and all.  And because of those flaws, it becomes more than what it is, more than it seems.  I don't see a perfect movie.  But I see one that's the better for it.  Its best features are better, and its message more bold because of it.

What kind of lesson is there in that?  As writers, we are constantly told we must strive for perfection.  It seems to me, though, that some writers don't really try.  I don't mean that in a judgmental sense.  It's just not what's important to them.  James Patterson, for example, famously decided he'd rather make money than critical admirers.  I wouldn't describe 12 Years as a movie that was only interested in making money, because it hasn't made a huge amount of that, but in Hollywood terms, critical praise can sometimes be the same as money.  There are movies that are described as Oscar bait.  Critics typically sneer at them.  And in some respects, 12 Years was classic Oscar bait.  And yet, the critics never even stopped to consider that.  They saw it as the slave movie, the one that they'd been waiting years to see happen.  And so they patted themselves on the back to acknowledge it.

When you're told something is supposed to be good, you expect it to be good.  And when you find that it isn't quite as good as suggested, you feel cheated.  But maybe that's not the only way to view it.  Often, when I feel cheated I try to look for redeeming elements.  Those elements don't usually actually redeem what disappointed me.  In this instance, they did.  And they led to these thoughts, all of which will probably leave the impression that I am after all giving 12 Years a glowing endorsement.  In a way I am.  In the only way it means for a writer, I guess I am.  In the sum of its parts, 12 Years is perhaps even more impressive than it was made out to be.  It creates, for me, a whole new dynamic by which to judge things.  As a writer, I can only hope to be capable of something like this.  As a viewer, I've been humbled.  I can only wish I were as strong as Solomon Northrup, to be as brave as the filmmakers who put this movie together, warts and all.

Sometimes we mistake our snap judgments for whatever we ultimately think of something.  When something isn't perfect, that's all we ultimately end up thinking about it.  We stop thinking critically.  I'd much rather, as a writer, be able to find something like 12 Years a Slave, that contradicts my expectations, transcends them.  It inspires me.  And that's what every writer should be looking for.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

IWSG March 2014

It's time to support your local Insecure Writers Support Group, once again without the benefit of James Garner or Harry Morgan.  (We writers live dangerous lives.  That's why we're so insecure.)

This post is not really about my recent release, Pale Moonlight, but it was directly inspired by the book's first review.  It was a terrible review.  Made me wonder all over again if I'm crazy.

Except I started thinking, remembering why I write the way I write, and maybe it's not so crazy after all.  There is, after all, a method to the madness.  And if there's a method, maybe it's not madness after all...

The thing about Pale Moonlight is that it's a vampire story that's not really like any other vampire story you've read.  I like to say that if you're not writing like you, you're not really writing at all.  You're just filling a page with words.  My style, my intent, is necessarily uniquely my own, but it isn't without precedent, or perhaps what they call inspiration.

I call my style, when I call it anything, deep map fiction.  I borrow the term "deep map" from William Least Heat-Moon, one of the better-known travel writers, responsible for Blue Highways and various other books.  The one I take the phrase from is PrairyErth, in which he explores an entire Kansas county on foot, or in other words taking a "deep map" of the territory.  What he does is learn as much as possible about something, and then reports his findings.

That's what I try to do with my stories.  I can't write a story simply connecting events to events.  I take a deep map of character motivation and whatever resonance seems to be relevant at the time, whether in history or in thought, to try and explore the story the way readers are subsequently asked to interpret it.  I'm a reader who believes a story isn't just a sequence of events, either, but something that's only worth anything if I take something positive from it.  I don't read just to read.  And so I don't write just to write, either.  I want to present a challenge to the reader, not a puzzle but something to think about.  And the way mystery writers leave clues all over the place, I try and start the thought process by beginning it within the story itself.

And I like to have a little fun.  I love to make associations.  Hopefully, anyone who's read my blogging knows that much.  I got the idea to do this in fiction by Neil Gaiman's Sandman, one of the most mythology-rich comics ever written, and subsequently one of those classic hard-to-translate challenges filmmakers have been attempting to solve for years.  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the most recent brave soul to tackle it.  Wish him luck!)

But the thing is, I hadn't read Sandman by the time I wrote Pale Moonlight, except for a few random issues.  It was a challenge I knew I wanted to take, but needed time to prepare for it.  I'm still only about twenty issues in, and can see how challenging Gaiman really made it.  His lead character most often appears as a supporting character.  Of any work of fiction I've encountered to date, it's Gaiman's opus that comes closest to the kind of work I hope to accomplish as a writer.

(I am not saying I am Gaiman's equal.  That is for others to decide!)

Other experiences helped lead the way.  Douglas Adams packed his Hitchhiker's books with asides from the title fictional cosmic encyclopedia, for instance, and although they don't really have anything to do with Arthur Dent's adventures, they are an essential element to their enjoyment.  Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes presented every facet of childhood exactly the way a child experiences it, which meant reading the comic strip was itself a master class of wildly different approaches week to week.

I also drew a lot of formatting ideas from television.  TV is a uniquely modern form of storytelling, more often than not episodic, in that the story from week to week may not be directly related but taken as a whole there is clearly a common thread throughout a series.  Some of the more ambitious shows I've enjoyed, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Boomtown being completed by the time I started writing novel manuscripts, were particularly influential.  I have the feeling that drawing such inspiration from TV will become more and more apparent as future generations of writers emerge.

Lost was another major source of inspiration.  When I began writing The Cloak of Shrouded Men, the show had only just begun, but when I finished the story that became my first book, the series had by then reached its third season, with more than ample demonstration of its unique approach to TV storytelling.  I consider it an honor to admit that I took writing advice from Lost.

The idea of writing not so much a straight narrative but looking around the corners, I saw this as a natural fit for my interests, and by the time I tackled the manuscript for Pale Moonlight, I found it more and more impossible to do anything but what interested me as a writer, putting aside preconceived notions on what storytelling is supposed to do.  The funny part is, as esoteric as Pale Moonlight is, it's still easier to understand, I think, than where I took the ending of Shrouded Men.  In that sense, I'm following in the speculative footsteps of Christopher Nolan, another creative source who had wowed me with Memento and its less-known predecessor Following before I began my writing career in earnest.

But that review got me questioning this approach all over again.  Did I write it like that because I was incapable of writing something more traditional?  If I took out a given set of material, would that make it better, or simply easier to read?  As writers, we're often told to edit our material, or completely rewrite.  I consider a certain amount of that to be artistic compromise.  In a collaborative medium like movies or TV, that can and probably should happen all the time.  But writing a book?  Particularly a story that plays by its own rules?  It would be one thing if the author realizes it doesn't work.  But is it okay for someone else to say it doesn't?  Who's right?

Some of that has to do with the business of commercial value.  I personally don't look at indy publishing as a commercial business.  I'd love to make money from it, but that's not really why I do it.

So I guess what I'm saying this month is, my insecurity is also my greatest strength.  I risk everything in hopes of gaining everything.  And maybe some money, too.
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