New Fire

My new favorite things are the pilot for Terra Nova and the website Brain Pickings. Before you stop reading, hear me out.

First, Brain Pickings. It’s a blog of interesting things this person finds around the internet. Always intellectual. Always interesting. Never pop-culture-y or affected. Love it. It makes me think about all the cool stuff that’s out there that I’ve never heard of and reminds me that I’ll never know everything. Which is a good feeling for someone who likes to learn new stuff. Definitely add it to your Twitter and/or RSS feed. And if you have a few bucks, donate.

Now for Terra Nova. I thought the pilot was pretty cheeseball. Then I thought, “Oh, they’re going for a mid-level, family audience.” So then I thought maybe the cheeseball was purposeful and appropriate. Nothing too challenging, nothing too dark. Like ST:NG or a watered-down Jurassic Park. But ultimately, it didn’t move me like early episodes of Walking Dead, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, or any other kick ass show that surprises you with how kick ass it actually is. So why am I listing it as a favorite thing this week? Because I got a hold of the pilot script. And guess what? It’s not strong. But even better than that, I can see how greatly improved the pilot is over the script. Whomever re-wrote the pilot for production really made some great adjustments. Particularly in the opening “teaser” ten minutes. They took out tons of VO, dialog, and standing around. They made everything into action and not discussion. The same story elements were there, just converted into actor movement and visual context. Watching the show while following along with the script was like a shot in the arm for me.

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been working on some Earth-based sci fi stuff for a production company with no guarantees of anything, only the request to read my stuff. I have the story broken down into “chapters” which will easily become “episodes” but I was worried that if I blasted out a pilot script, I would need a great cliffhanger to keep the show going. Reading the Terra Nova script pretty much cleared my mind of any concerns. A) Because the producers reading it will change everything around once they’ve read it. And B) because the script feels like it was written pretty quickly. These writers had a great idea and blasted something out that would be readable and have the key plot points in obvious time markers for commercial breaks and the finale. So yeah, it went through a bunch of re-writes. Why wouldn’t it?! I don’t know why I thought I would have to deliver genius in the first draft. Maybe it’s a procrastination/avoidance technique that I’m using subconsciously. Either way, I’m back on pen and paper and moving forward.

UPDATE: A while back, I read a book by Ania Ahlborn called SEED. It’s a self-published novel about a deal with the devil. It was a fun, fast read (worth way more than the .99 I paid for it on Kindle), but I thought, “How is this thing selling so crazy well?” Then I found out from her blog the book got picked up by Amazon’s print publishing division AND she’s talking to Paramount about movie rights. Whoa. Then I saw this post, and I tied it back to my Terra Nova experience. If you check it out, she has very graciously posted an image of the revisions in Word from the Amazon people. There’s a LOT. Just like Terra Nova, people saw the great idea and picked it up even if they wanted to make a bunch of changes or clarifications. The lesson? Forge ahead! Be the bull in the china shop and smash your way through to completion. If the idea is there, people will get it. Maybe it will end up a cheeseball TV show, but I bet you that’s something compared to the nothing you get when you don’t finish anything.

The Terror by Dan Simmons & Dan Simmons, The Terror

First off, my apologies for the month-long blog hiatus. Not sure what happened. I haven’t been on the video games. I haven’t been watching TV. I guess my time has been just reading, writing (not blogging), and the day job. In the past month, I’ve read The Windup Girl, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a novella called Wool, and The Terror by Dan Simmons. It’s this last book that I’d like to talk about.

I’m not a huge buff of nautical themes, but I always appreciate a book that integrates research into the story. The key word there being intergrates! I’m not a Tom Clancy guy who enjoys chapters and chapters that read like a military technology manual. The Terror is a great example of how the writer’s research is actually part of the story and not just the surrounding environment. The story is a fictional account of what happened during the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin back in 1845, but the theme is how technology and preparation can be absurdly off-base. Simmons doesn’t merely talk about the cold and the ice, but the clothing and the supplies and how much crap they carry around when they try to move across the ice. If that weren’t enough, he deftly contrasts the over-loaded English operation whose men are freezing and starving with the Inuit tribe who live almost comfortably in the same environment. It’s great stuff. A highly recommended book for pretty much anyone. Literary-grade historical genre fiction.

But don’t judge the creator by the creation.

Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of artists, filmmakers, and writers. It’s great when you love a book, meet the author, and they turn out to be really cool. Examples? Comic book writer Ed Brubaker is a good guy. Happy to chat and not in that fake-y, “buy my books” kind of way. Terry Brooks handled the crowd at his signing with charm and patience. In fact, I don’t even fault writers like Greg Rucka or Neal Stephenson when they get impatient with fans who ask a lot of crazy questions. Or when people are just plain crazy like David Peoples who I met briefly at a screening at the San Rafael Film Center back in 2000. He was really, really out to lunch. Remember this, kids: drugs are bad for you.

Anytime I take an interest in the writer, I like to find out more about them as people. I’m pleasantly surprised more often than I’m let down. I’m a left-leaner when it comes to politics, but I don’t usually come up swinging against mainstream republicans. I take the “to each his own” approach. However, fringe crackpots on either end of the spectrum really bug me. Dan Simmons is pretty much Glenn Beck who writes horror and sci fi. Here’s the difference, I truly believe Glenn Beck is an act like Andy Kaufman or Joaquin Phoenix. He may be around the bend, but it’s only for the attention and the paycheck. Dan Simmons really believes this stuff. He lives in a cabin in the mountains and believes he’ll be in the better position when Obama destroys the world. So he’s a nutcase hater, but can I ignore that and still like his books? I’m not the only one who wonders about this. And this guy says the same thing.

My problem is that once I know a media creator is a dick, I can’t look at the work the same way. I was in the room when Michael Bay screamed profanities at one of the assistant editors over a nothing issue. As a result, I relished his Pearl Harbor failure. Now when I think back on The Terror, a novel I respected for its research, I wonder if all Simmons did was watch the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and as I read The Terror, I noticed a lot of similarities. When I was indifferent toward Simmons, I thought, “Of course there are similarities, how different can English nautical adventures be?” But after learning all this annoying stuff about the author, I think, “He lifted all this stuff from that movie and/or O’Brien’s series of novels.” And seriously, every little moment in M&C is mimicked in The Terror. A guy gets shot, make sure you get the piece of shirt out. Doctor is hurt, he better operate on himself. Guy gets smashed in the head, make a metal plate out of a coin for the hole in his skull. The list goes on. And don’t even get me started on Simmons’ Hyperion series which is lifted directly from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The question is, why does finding out about the author’s political fanaticism spoil my reading experience? It’s because reading a book or watching a movie feels like a connection with the person or people who made it. When they’re making the work, they’re thinking like me to make it appeal to people like me, and when I consume it, I know how they were thinking when they made it. It’s like we’re thinking the same things! So when I enjoy or respect a Dan Simmons book, and I know he’s not just crazy, but mean and crazy, I don’t want to know that on some level we think the same way.

Maybe that’s a short-coming on my part, but lucky for me, there are plenty of books by nice folks out there to read. Check out anything by Mary Roach if you’re a non-fiction fan or the Criminal series of graphic novels by Ed Brubaker or sci fi by Richard K. Morgan and William Gibson. With the exception of Mary Roach, I’ve met these folks. And I like to know they think like I do.

The Case for Video Games

I wrote a post a while back in which I cited video games as one of my distractions. My friend and colleague Keld Bangsberg didn’t take it well. He thought I was someone who regarded video games as a legitimate narrative media and not just a time suck. I felt bad. It’s totally true, I do regard many games to be a great storytelling medium. It was wrong to demonize them as a distraction while claiming that reading and watching movies are not. On the other hand, I have rules and restrictions when it comes to playing video games so I stay creatively minded and don’t slip into the mindless, time-killing trap.

Rule one: Single player mode only! Yes, there’s a lot of strategy and social engagement involved in team play or multiplayer fps or mmo’s, but when in the midst of a writing project, multiplayer is the video game equivalent of having beers with friends. You enjoy your time, but you’re not working on your craft. Not thinking in terms of structure, narrative, character, or resolution. It’s key to keep the brain tuned for story!

Rule two: Stick to RPG or on rails FPS. Mass Effect, Skyrim, Bioshock, Half Life 2, FEAR, and Dead Space are all good examples of story-based gaming where scripted moments affect the outcomes. Mass Effect and Bioware games in general use morality and consequences to great effect. You’re writing your story as you go. On the other end of the spectrum, Bioshock and HL2 lead you along a very specific path (they’re referred to in the biz as “on rails shooters” since your road never forks), but that path is well-constructed and the story has twists like a movie or graphic novel. The Uncharted series combines great story with platforming as well as shooting, but it’s still on rails. RTS like StarCraft II and action FPS like Call of Duty will drape a story over intense battles, but the narrative is not the focus and the cut scenes are just filler.

Rule three: Recognize and acknowledge when you are addicted! I love playing Mass Effect or HL2 style games, but sometimes a game will take over my idle thought more than any movie or book ever has. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the spoon-feeding of achievements or the satisfaction of completing stages interactively. I’ve had a one-man 17 hour marathon “The Wire,” but even though it was awesome, I wasn’t itching to get back to finish the series the way I was with Mass Effect 2 or Borderlands. And the story in Borderlands wasn’t good! But I was hooked on it. And I didn’t know it!

That’s my rules. And they’re mostly working. I think a big part of problem is that video games are reward-based and provide instant gratification. What if the process of writing a book gave you a trophy for every chapter? Or you received 1000 fictional gold for reading a novel? Even then, the process of writing a chapter takes too long. Maybe that’s why I check my word count so often! (hold on, I’m having a realization here) The word count when I’m writing is like collecting bolts in Ratchet and Clank or gold in Skyrim. Little bits at a time that add up to huge numbers. Maybe I can find an app that gives you a live word count! Then, my friends, you would see the numbers climb. I would have five books written by the end of the year.

But first, I need to finish a couple quests.