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While my work computer suffers from a brain hemorrhage (is that spelled right?), I’m going to take the opportunity, rare for me any more, to sit and ramble about a topic that’s been on my mind lately. And I’m going to start with what may be the most puffed-up, hubristic (is that a real word?) thing I’ve ever said:
I think I’m as good a writer as Neil Gaiman.
Not always; I mean, when I’m having a good day and he’s having a bad one, that kind of thing. The point is, in terms of my quality of prose, I’m in his league.
But of course, he’s a famous, respected, professional author who makes a living (and one assumes a pretty good one) with his craft, whereas I’m this guy on the internet, y’know? So what’s the difference?
My theory, at least at the moment, is volume. Neil Gaiman writes a metric buttload of stuff, all the time, and he sells it to anybody and everybody willing to pay. The sun comes up, he sneezes out a short story and sells it to some magazine, then he works on a novel for a few hours, goes to lunch and finds a Doctor Who script in his back pocket he’s been meaning to send off, then comes back home and works on his Ted talk.
He’s creating, all the time. He’s always got more stories to tell. This is where I break down.
I don’t feel like I’ve got lots of stories to tell. I’ve talked before about having tons of characters and settings but no plot: this is what I mean. This is the giant broken part of my writing craft that I’ve struggled with since forever. I’m working right now on a story idea that should flow from me like a rushing river, as it combines many things that I love dearly. Think “Jeeves, Wooster, and horrible monsters,” and you’ll get a glimmering of the notion. I should be all over that, right?
I’m not. I have no idea what happens. The characters are sitting around a table staring at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. I keep shouting at them, “How should I know? Telling me what you do is your job!” and they just keep on staring.
This is why Neil is Neil, and I’m me.
But writing and making art is what I’m here for; one of the reasons I’ve been so horribly depressed lately is that I’m not doing what it is I’m supposed to do. (Pony fans: insert a reference to ‘What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me’ here. ‘cos I ain’t gonna do it. ;P) So if the difference between Neil Gaiman and me is volume, volume, volume, that means I need to start creating more. Anything more.
To that end, I’ve been instituting a “make something every day” policy. It doesn’t have to be a finished piece every day (and in fact, there’s no way I could do that kind of volume in the 15-45 minute increments I’ve got to work with), but it has to be some kind of progress. Obviously, more is better, but as little as a sketch or a paragraph counts. The key is that no day goes by without at least a tiny dot on the progress bar.
I think there have been results already: yesterday’s Fictionlet (the first in months) was well-received, I’ve got the beginnings of an art piece that I’m looking forward to seeing the end of, and some creative thoughts regarding my new comic idea have bubbled to the surface.
It’s agonizing, glacially-slow progress, but even that is more than the no progress I was making, say, this time last month. Here’s hoping that it snowballs.
I’m halfway through my life. I don’t have time to “hope for better things in the future” any more. I’m in my future. If it doesn’t get better now, it’s not going to.
For all my skill at prose, I always have a problem with plot. I want something that’s a bit more sophisticated than “Triangle Man hates Particle Man, they have a fight, Triangle wins!” … but when it comes to actually think up what happens, I tend to just stare at the screen (or paper) and go “Uuuuuhh… I like pie.”
This is why I like to come up with an “elevator pitch” for my stories, especially episodic things like comics– so that if I get stuck, I have a roadmap of what’s important to the story and what I should be talking about. Unfortunately, it’s very often not until you’ve got a significant amount of stuff already written on an item that the themes really start to become visible. Alas, that’s not much help when you get stuck near the beginning!
So at the beginning, or at least in the rough draft stage, it’s often handy to lean on an already-established plot, or even just lift some other story whole cloth. “Um… so we’ve got these lions, and… uh… what do they do? We know we want to have some kind of thing with the hero and his father– I’ve got it! Let’s riff off Hamlet!” But I always have trouble letting go and doing that, I think at least partially because my studies in English lit have enabled me to spot it being done so often everywhere else! And my ego resists.
But y’know, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to use an existing idea as a framework. I know my new comic has a kind of “Mad Max meets Alice In Wonderland” vibe going on, so why not use that to my advantage? Could my comic benefit from a Cheshire Cat analog? How about a Red Queen or a Mad Hatter? (And have you ever noticed the parallels between Alice In Wonderland and Wizard of Oz?)
These are things I think about when I’m noodling around, fishing for plot ideas. Sometimes it helps! Sometimes it just makes my ideas even murkier. But if nothing else, at least it keeps my thoughts moving and prevents my brain from going into the vapor-lock it always leans towards at this stage.
My biggest struggle with writing comics (well, second biggest, after actually coming up with a story) is that I am a very wordy writer. I always want to shove giant chunks of dialog into whatever I’m writing. I can’t help it– I’m a very texty sort of guy, and I do a lot of my expression of character through dialog. Take for instance, this interchange from the piece I’m working on now:
Tanya: It was a shantak. C’mon, we need to move before the surprise wears off and it just gets mad.
Verity: But… I need to stay put, they’ll be looking for me…
Tanya: Ha! You bet it will! And you don’t want to be here when it does.
That’s all in one panel! Granted, the panel takes up a quarter of the page, but still, it’s a lot of dialog to fit into one comic panel, but in the scope of my writing, it’s a tiny little piece.
The panel size limitation is probably a very healthy thing for me as a writer, as it forces me to economy. Of any given script I write, when I have acres of blank screen to write on, probably a good 10-20% of the words get chopped as I do layouts by simple virtue of having to force the story into pages and panels.
The problem comes when I get to a passage that I just don’t think can be chopped without losing an important piece. In that situation, I end up having to break chunks of dialog up into multiple panels, or squeezing a ton of exposition into a tiny space because I’ve run out of room.
The main thing I’ve got to remember as I go is to be prepared for things to take more panels (and therefore more pages) than I expect as I’m writing them, and plan accordingly. I can’t expect to tell a full story in an 8-page teaser, for instance, and I certainly can’t expect a single page to cover more than one plot point.
It’s hardly a secret that in real life I’m a big woobie neutral good Boy Scout kind of guy. Sometimes, tho, it can be refreshing to put that aside and be a wiseass, letting out my internal Bugs Bunny (who spends most of his time being thwarted) in an environment without consequences.
Borderlands 2 is all about that; it’s one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying it. Even within the context of Borderlands, anybody you shoot, melt, or slice in half can just be revived at the nearest “New U” station– presumably getting blown to bits still stings, but mainly it’s just annoying and eats up money.
It’s a weird psychological line to walk; I don’t generally like “dark comedy” and roll my eyes at things like Pulp Fiction, but I thought the quest to shoot “Face McShooty” in the face was hilarious and always chuckle when my siren character shouts “That was awesome!” after one-shotting a foe. What’s the difference? I’m not sure.
I did find an interesting discussion of the issue however, called “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2“. From the article:
It’s important to note that this is not an instance of ludic dissonance, when the gameplay and the story contradict each other. Instead, you’re participating in two parallel stories: the story of you against Jack and the story of you against the planet of Pandora. In one story, I’m clearly the good guy, but in the other story, it’s not so clear. Killing the other bandits can’t be justified the same way that killing Jack is justified since the bandits never tried to kill you (and in fact, whenever they do shoot at you, it’s because you’re in their territory). We have no personal motivation for these fights, so instead the game gives us external motivation. We’re told that the two gangs are vicious and cruel—they are gangs after all. This is the justification for most of what we do: The bandits are bandits, that semantic “fact” alone makes it okay to kill them.
This is the exact same reasoning that Handsome Jack uses to justify killing everyone on Pandora. From an objective point of view, there’s no difference between us. Despite all of our talk of saving the world, we slaughter our bandit enemies without a second thought. Despite Jack’s dream of a crime-free Pandora, he’s really just slaughtering his enemies without a second thought as well.
What’s interesting about Jack is that he represents the traditional gamer morality turned back on us. The only reason that he is the bad guy in this scenario is because he is not a playable character. If the plot of Borderlands 2 stayed the same, and we simply took control of Jack instead of the Vault Hunters, we would see him as an antihero, not a villain. We wouldn’t question his horrible actions, just as we don’t question the actions of the Vault Hunters. Both parties are antiheroes in their own story, both parties are wronged by each other, and the ultimate justification of everything that they do is that “the other guy deserved it.” But to be perfectly honest, I don’t hold this against Maya, my character. Yet I hate Jack so much. Why?
Because Jack is a jerk.
This train of thought doesn’t come out of nowhere: in the game, Jack is constantly having a sort of meta-discussion with your character about this very topic. He repeatedly refers to himself as “the hero of the story” and your character as “the bad guy,” and gets very upset about the fact that you’re not falling into line with this. Even in his very final speech in the game, he’s ranting about the fact that the player character isn’t following the expected “bad guy” behavior of getting killed at the end.
Furthermore, a lot of the random NPC dialog explicitly calls you out for what you’re doing on any given mission, from the Hyperion combat engineers who say “Dammit! I was almost done with my shift, you bastard!” as they die, to the A.I. gun you pick up halfway through the game that shrieks “THEY PROBABLY HAD A FAMILY!” when you shoot it at someone (or “Now you’re just wasting ammo!” when you reload). The writers very clearly want these issues to be on your mind as you play.
To what purpose? That’s a harder thing to pin down; it’s not like the game takes a real stance on the issue. Like everything else on Pandora, the exploration of themes seems to be done with a kind of sophomoric smirk. It may very well be that the writers don’t really have a stance on the issue, they’re just messin’ with you. But at the same time, just the fact that the issue is there for analysis and discussion, adds a kind of depth that makes Borderlands 2 much more enjoyable than just another round of watching this set of pixels blow up that set of pixels.
Warning: Politics! Which should be obvious.
I voted! Huzzah. Since it’ll hardly come as a surprise to anyone who follows my LJ or Twitter feed, I’ll go ahead and put up a sign, even. It’s nice to be voting to re-elect a President I actually like, that’s never happened before… but my decision was made before the republican candidate had even been decided. This time around there was not a single candidate in that ring I’d want anywhere near the White House, and several that would have been just plain disastrous.
For what it’s worth, if Obama isn’t re-elected, it won’t be so bad. We survived Bush the Younger, whom I can’t even really talk about with Godwinning all over the place, so I’m confident we’d survive Romney who, as bad a choice as he is, is no Bush. The real problem with Romney isn’t himself, so much as the fact that he’d be sympathetic to all that’s worst in the House of Representatives, instead of checking and balancing them. If we had a less malignant Congress, Romney would be a total non-issue either way. But in this environment? I’d frankly prefer a liberal President if we could get one, but I’ll take a moderate democrat.
(NOTE: If you stand there and say with a straight face that Obama is a liberal, I will point and laugh. He is a very solidly moderate democrat. It’s just the demagoguery of the right that holds that “middle of the road” is “far to the left,” as part of their never-ending crusade to shove the US further to the right whether that’s where the rest of us want to go or not. I have many liberals in my life. Obama is not a liberal. And neither am I, so don’t go there.)
In this election, the real issue for me on a local level is a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would force eminent domain to be applicable only in the case of public use of lands. In other words, the state would be prevented from snatching land with the express purpose of handing off to private development “for economic growth.”
I am all over this amendment and have a hard time believing this is my state that proposed it! I couldn’t believe it when the SCOTUS ruled that gov’t land-grabs on behalf of corporations was a-ok. I thought you guys were supposed to be a bunch of conservatives who were in favor of restricting gov’t power! Or does that not apply to using gov’t power to hand money over to wealthy developers? Ugh. So damn corrupt.
Keep in mind, I’m no fan of eminent domain for public use either, nor indeed a fan of eminent domain for any use whatsoever. However, government forcing you off your property so it can hand that property off to a private interest who just wants it? No way. Big, big kudos to Virginia for getting this onto the ballot, and even bigger kudos if you manage to get it passed.
Anyhow! That’s enough of that. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, have an awesome day, all.
EDIT: Corrected spelling of “eminent” domain. Stupid homophones.
Although like any kid I had my enthusiasms growing up, I have never been a big fan of superheroes generally. There are just soooooo many weak planks in the foundation of the premise that all you need to do is to lightly tug one and the whole genre comes falling down. As such, I have never followed mainstream comics much. I read Detective Comics, Green Arrow, and The Question for a couple of years in the “Longbow Archers” post-Tim-Burton-movie era, before it all just turned into “crapsack world,” but really my favorite stuff was always the Diniverse or the comic spinoffs thereof, and even that I only read for a while, c. 1990 or so.
Fast forward to this past month, when I started up a Tumblr account, which I use primarily to consume other people’s feeds. On some fundamental level I still don’t GET Tumblr, but say what you will, there are lots of pretty pictures on it. Through my Tumblr account I started following Gail Simone, Diane Duane, and a variety of other accounts that blog a lot about geekery, comics, and particularly women in geekery/comics.
One thing that many of these accounts have in common is an obsession with Batgirl, Batwoman, or both, and more generally with the fifteen or twenty “Bat-titles” going at any given time, and their peculiar interconnections, contradictions, and conundrums. It would seem that there are about twelve Robins, three Batgirls, four Batwomen, and at any given time any or all of them might be Nightwing, just to be different.
Also, I recently discovered that Renee Montoya (who I know mostly as “the smart cop from Batman: The Animated Series“) was The Question for a while. Which is neat, but came at me out of left field.
The net result of all of which is to make me just sort of raise my eyebrows, go “Huh,” and decide to make peace with the vast depths of my comic ignorance instead of trying to parse it all. I’m sure the others are awesome characters, but in my mind Batgirl = Barbara Gordon and is played by Yvonne Craig; then again, in my mind, superheroes exist in a kind of static world where time doesn’t pass, ‘cos otherwise how could Bruce Wayne still be Batman (which is the case as far as I know) seventy years later?
I realize that it’s a variation of this mindset that’s leading to the retro-reboots that have been whitewashing comics lately, and I certainly agree that’s a bad thing– if I were creating mainstream superhero comics these days (by some very peculiar whim of fate) I’m sure I would be much more interested in creating something that better reflects modern ideas and issues than just echoing the creative works of fifty years ago.
But again, this what-decade-is-this change-without-changing nature of the beast leads back to one of my big problems with the superhero genre generally, but especially in comics. Superheroes need sunsetting, but by their nature can never have it. With the exception of a character like The Phantom (whose whole premise is that the mantle is passed on from father to son) or some sort of immortal like The Doctor, the active career of any superhero (especially of the super-trained mortal type) should be ten years at the longest stretch, and way shorter for most of them. The window of “young, strong, and beautiful” is shockingly short. But the vast majority of readers (self included, guilty) don’t really care much for “new” superheroes– they want the big, iconic ones they know from their childhood.
Thus, the comic universes keep getting rebooted, so they can keep the same familiar faces but make them young again. But fan favorites from previous incarnations need to stick around, so they’re grafted into the new incarnation, giving each reboot progressively more and more leftover baggage… meh. It’s a mess. See also, “there’s always another Sith” and “*M*A*S*H* lasted three times longer than the actual Korean war.”
Anyhow… not sure where I was going with this, now. I hope I got there. But long story short: please write your stories/comics with a beginning, middle, and end! Don’t just have them go on forever!