Evolution is upon us…

Well, it finally happened. Or rather, I made it happen. A new blog by yours truly has come into existence. All the posts from this blog have been moved there, along with a new home page, book and film reviews, my story samples and more. The new site will definitely evolve as I learn to use my newly enhanced powers of WordPress. I plan to add more reviews (for example, review of Blade Runner is on its way), more topics for blog posts (thinking of writing up my experience with exotic writing software)

Here is the link to the new blog: martinvavpotic.com. Drop by, have a read and maybe send a thought my way.

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Yes, it’s a series. I know. Sue me.

Any creative process comes in stages. Writing is no different. I wanted to believe that I was able to overcome some of the nastier stages. Writer’s block is one of them. Sitting down to write is no longer a problem. There is always a chapter waiting to be written, a scene to be editted, a dialogue to be perfected, a character to be fleshed out. If not anything else, there are piles of notes to go through and try to make sense of. I can’t remember the last time I faced an empty page. It was probably a different millenium.

But today I reached that particular point in a story’s progress where all seems pointless. When all the months of writing, months of editting amounts to nothing but a pile of wriggling mess. That point of ‘hanging above the chasm’, a point where nothing but your whirling arms keep you from plunging into the abyss.

There is a certain theme I’m trying to introduce in the story. I refuse to call it a subplot but it does suggest there’s more to a character’s past than previously anticipated.The trouble is that the story is not at the right stage to introduce the new theme (trust me, you’ll thank me later). I knew all along that to do it successfully, I need to introduce this theme very slowly and by morsels so it has time to grow in the reader’s mind and to possibly create a sense of foreboding. But the idea is so abstract that to flesh it out seems absurd in its own way. How can you flesh out an abstract? It has no flesh to speak of!

So I tried to use the character’s emotions and I tried to crystalize these into words (since this is a book, I thought words would be handy). It doesn’t work. Words are too direct, too suggestive and too much obviously hiding a major part of the plot from the reader. Readers don’t like being played, not in an obvious way anyway. They love to be surprised but it shouldn’t come in an unlikely way (“What’s a Tyrannosaurus riding Nazi doing in a Star Wars story?”)

Next, I tried using a visual image to introduce the subplot. It does work, in a way, but I still think it treats the reader like a moron. It’s way too obvious and even a little bit childish. Not something to brag about.

By the way, all of this thinking is being done on a story with its chest cavity ripped open, waiting for a new set of lungs. Yes, I performed an open bypass surgery on a story that was about 90% into completion. No pressure.

Third attempt was to hide some of the theme in the lore, fleshing out the setting while doing so. The other part I’m still worried about. It’s sort of treating the reader like an idiot but at least the main character is clueless about it as well, even though the detail is about him personally. The main character suspects something is amiss but cannot place his hand on it.

The trouble is, now I fear the plot is overly complicated for no other reason than to do an early introduction of the next book in the series.

Yes, it’s a series. I know. Sue me.

Tonight, I start closing the bypass. What’s done is done. I will let history (and readers) decide if it works or not.

Why writer’s rules are wrong

Ah, the rules. The wise sages depart them onto us in hopes we would emulate their glory and some day join their illustrious ranks.

Bull.

Rules are meant to be broken, especially in writing. If you don’t break rules and see what works for you and what doesn’t, you will only write as good as the writer whose workshops you took. And if they need to organize workshops, they must not be very good authors, otherwise they would actually be making a living from it.

Which are the rules we hear most often?

One particular comes to mind: Show don’t tell.

Ah, that’s a keeper. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

Problem is people take it way too seriously.

I think “Show don’t tell” or some variation of it is the single biggest reason why people fail to finish their stories. This one is the perfectionist’s mantra and because of it, novices are never satisfied with their creations.

What novices need to learn is to develop habits, not rules, habits that will enable you to produce a large word count. The writing technique can be developed and fine-tuned later, after you’ve developed the habit of simply sitting down and allowing your mind to flow wherever it wants to. Think about directing it later. If you’re a stickler for the rules, you will forever remain in that “want that perfect first line” phase aka “the Dreaded Empty Page”.

Tell the story first. Tell the activity as it comes and if it feels right. Don’t stand in its way as the floodgates are opened. Unleash your instinct, lend it to your characters, let it guide them and worry not of the words you use. Only after it’s been done, after the flood has ran itself out, look at the result and think about what was the purpose behind the details that glittered into existence among that chaos of flow. You will be surprised what comes out of you. Yes, some of it will be garbage but at least you will know it came from a pristine place.

But the main reason why ‘tell’ is better than ‘show’: it’s fast. It enables you to keep pace with the story. When the story springs forth, it’s a raging torrent. How will you be able to keep up with it if you’re worried about words? By writing fast, you’re not in control. The events in the story are not predictable to you as they would be should you be placing the perfect word after perfect word.

Another reason why writing in ‘show’ is bad: you’re conscious of your use of vocabulary. If you show, you’re texting, not dreaming. When the story floods out of you, it should be like dreaming. A lucid trance in which you forget yourself and pass into pure function. You’re not really there as the story gushes out. You give your body over to the arrogant gods and the fickle muses and let them weave their fabled song.

If you ‘show’, you’re using your conscious brain. That kills flow, it kills immersion as it is essentially editing mode.

Once the novel is done and you’re in true editing mode, you can ask yourself: “How to show the reader this? Or even better: how to hint at it without actually mentioning it? How do I create a mystery out of this so the reader gets to discover it for himself/herself?

Here’s my personal version of “Show don’t tell”:

Show if you can.
Tell if you must.
Imply whenever possible.

That last one is supposed to motivate you to have secondary plots running in the background. Some authors call it “Make things happen off screen.” This gives the story depth. It stirs curiosity in the reader’s mind, making them ask the single most important question of successful immersion: “What is happening there and why?” Throw the reader hints. Make them guess. Make a thought gnaw on their mind as they go to sleep. Make your story the first thing on their mind when they wake up. Give people sleepless nights.
No matter what they say to you, ‘tell’ is your friend. But just like any other friend, you shouldn’t abuse it.

In conlusion: read the rules of writing and then forget them. They are still there in the background but you shouldn’t allow them to exist in your surface as they will make you second-guess your work and slow down your progress.

The threshold of a new age

My Tribes Asunder novel is approaching completion. It took me much longer than I initially anticipated but at least I had good reasons. The original 8 chapters turned into 15. What used to be Chapter 1 has now become Chapter 3. In Book 2. Why that happened? Because I’m as much a visitor in this world as the reader will be.

I don’t consider myself as a very prolific writer. I could write much faster and turn out a greater word count per day, I’m aware of that. I could make the usual excuses: my writing style makes it hard for me to write fast, I come up with new things as I write, have to explore the ideas as they come. Those are all true and they are all excuses.

I’ve taken up NaNoWriMo a few times and failed every single time. I think NaNo is a great way of kicking yourself in the behind but it doesn’t seem to work on me. The NaNo catchphrase “Don’t worry about writing the perfect sentence, just write!” is all well and good but its main idea is to stop people languishing on the empty first page. I never had the problem of the ‘First Page Block’. My problem is organizational.

I’ve been exploring and testing the various degrees of pre-planning the story for as long as I can remember. My early stories went without any planning. The first novel that I’ve written, I finished in exactly 365 days. There’d been plenty of planning involved but the main points of the plot were quite unexplored until I got to them. This has been my way ever since.

I do my best work on the fine edge between pre-planning and exploration. Sometimes, I fall over the edge on either side. Too much exploration will kill my timing (as it happened with Tribes Asunder). Too much pre-planning will kill my fascination with the world that had grown around me.

So how do I speed up the writing process and keep the quality of writing? One published novel per year would be ideal. I need to optimize my organizational side as well as the pure increase of word count. Being the control freak that I am, I’ve gotten quite good in pre-planning. I plan my stories in scenes now, not chapters. I plan the main plotline separately from the character arcs now though I need to correlate them regularly as they are naturally linked.

As for my putting the words down, I will define smaller deadlines. The weekly quota would be best, I think. The monthly quota is too long-term to ensure my loyalty and the daily quota can be too vulnerable to bad days. I abhor the word-count targets because they make me put down words I know are rubbish but I put them down just to have the necessary count.

I also need to record ideas as they manifest during the writing sessions but not let them interrupt the session currently at hand. As great as they are (these spontaneous ideas are one of the best parts of writing), they tempt me to stop in my path and waste time smelling the roses. At regular intervals, I need to go through the ideas that pop up and check where they could improve the plot.

Recently I figured I was quite the rookie in the editting department. I didn’t need to edit my first novel or the other stories much. The plotline was simple, the character arcs straighforward. Back then, it was all about putting the letters down. And writing was done in my native language. I write entirely in English now. This gave me a greater and more flexible vocabulary and it has made finding the right words much more a rational process than before. It also made editting a necessary part of the creative process. After six years of switching my writing completely to English, it still baffles me how much the process is different just because I use another language.

I will need to use quotas in editting as well. As the scene is the basic unit of writing, I think it will be a good unit of editting too.

Then there’s the characters cards. Do I need them? I used to think these were beyond me. I know these characters. I know what makes them tick. I know what part they are to play. But do I remember every single detail of their nature in such a way that I would know how they would react to a certain situation? Do I instantly recall the minutiae of the relationship one character has to all the others? I think not. Character cards are coming but not in the way they are done traditionally. I will need to redefine them so they suit my personal style of planning.

The number of interactions among characters grows much quicker then the number of characters. I will need to take care not to overdo the minor characters and just focus on their relationships to the major ones, which is their main role in the story. Personal stories are reserved for major characters.

I have several other ideas on how to improve the planning and outlook part of writing, to maximize work efficiency and decrease useless time. I will most likely need to adopt new software as Word is too generic and lacks flexibility. I’ve already read up on certain software, specifically designed for writers.

I’ve gone through a lot of growth in the past few years, personal and craft-wise. This is no longer the first step I’m standing on. While the staircase to success might be a long and steep one, at least I’m no longer at the very bottom.

Why Game of Thrones is failing

I’ve been an avid reader of this series long before they decided to turn it into a TV show.

This was the first time a fantasy book grabbed me so hard I could actually call myself a fan in that fanatical sense. This was what fantasy ought to be. Forget the battle between good and evil, the endless talks of the chosen ones and destinies, forget all that and focus on the complexity of the human character. That alone is enough to produce a wonder.

This story gave me the ambition to write. It still does.

When I heard they were making a TV series, I was carefully hopeful. I knew some of the actors, I knew and loved some of HBO’s past shows (Rome!) but there are so many things that can go wrong transplanting a book story into a TV screen story.

Glad to say, my doubts were needless. While there were many simplifications of the original story, most of it made sense. The show even expanded the character interactions by some new and exciting scenes. It gave us engrossing exchanges of character conflict.

But now, with great sorrow, I see the show has begun to lose its momentum and is being watered down into a typical mainsteam blockbuster.

The primary reason for this, I believe, is the lack of guidance by the books. Until now, the screenwriters and producers could rely on the solid foundation of the grandmaster himself, George R. R. Martin. George even wrote the script for one episode per season, so he was definitely around to be asked for details.

With season 6, I think George had probably distanced himself from the show so it couldn’t influence his writing of the remaining books. I know he’d stated before he doesn’t read the fan theories so he has plausible deniability if anyone accuses him of stealing ideas (which has happened to some authors).

Here are some examples of why this show is losing its grasp on my very demanding attention.

The main premise of Daenerys’ story arc in season 5 was the underground movement in the conquered city of Meereen. For the first time, Dany faced an enemy that she couldn’t fight off or run away from. The sons of the Harpy were so determined to get rid of her that they didn’t run from Drogon even after he’d burned several of them.

In season 6, the sons of the Harpy are simply butchered by the Dothraki. Where is the might of the old houses of Meereen? Why did an underground movement put all its strength OUTSIDE the walls to butcher some random people? The whole Sons of the Harpy plot was solved in less than a minute of screentime.

Dany promised to keep Slaver’s Bay free of slavery and yet she took all her ships and soldiers west. How did she ensure security? By executing two of the slave masters, one from each city. It was said countless times that these cities are not kingdoms but oligarchies, rules by councils of aristocracy and merchant princes. Would killing one man per city truly ensure slavery does not return?

The whole situation in Slaver’s Bay was so poorely brushed under the rug it’s beyond ridiculous.

One of the greatest disappointments in the last season was Tyrion. The premise in Season 5 was “Here is a man who knows how to rule a city, who knows how to stamp out corruption.” I expected a marvelous cat and mouse battle of Tyrion and the Harpy of Meereen, with Tyrion using his entire skillset to come out ahead of his enemy. What happened? Tyrion recruited some red priestesses which apparently placated the people and sons of the Harpy but when the slavers brought ships to besiege the city (again, something Tyrion actually has experience with), it was matter-of-factly solved by Daenerys who now has full control of her dragons. Very convenient.

As they grew, the dragons turned more and more feral and at some point, Dany had lost control of them completely. This was a riveting conflict with herself and brillianty shows the burden or rule. Why does Dany now have full control of the dragons? How did she acquire this control? Some fans online say it was her burning of the khaals that had caused this. Brilliant. If the show actually told us this. But it didn’t which is why this is just another of the fan theories out there. It is a sad day when you have to look up what the apologists’ theories are to make sense of what you’re watching.

There are other disappointments. Arya, for example, is released from her service to the Faceless Men without any penalty whatsoever. Jaqen trained her for months, gave her forbidden knowledge and abilities. For what? So she can not use them as her plaything, killing anyone she wishes? All this after the show worked so hard to build up the Faceless Men’s obsession with righteous murder, worship of death and the careful dealing with the Many-faced god. Where is this devotion when Jaqen gives Arya leave to go away and kill however she wishes?

Season 7 has managed to kill much of the drama and conflict the previous seasons worked so hard to establish. I will remain an avid watcher of the show but now I will be looking for what to AVOID in my own fiction, not trying to emulate it.

Most of our characters are sociopaths: Addendum

I thought a continuation of my last post was in order because of a recent film I’d watched. The film in question is Suicide Squad with a whole plethora of sociopaths as their main set of characters. The first question the screenwriters no doubt asked themselves, was: how do we make normal, healthy-minded people relate to unrelatable monsters?

The answer: try to show their human side.

*Minor spoilers ahead*

The basis of the film’s premise is: a bunch of extreme criminals are forced to work together for a greater cause. Two of these characters are given extra attention, their backstory revealed in greater detail: Deadshot (played by Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie).

Deadshot is a cold, merciless assassin, willing to kill with ease for the right amount of money. His human side is revelaed in him being a loving father of a daughter.
Harley Quinn is a complete lunatic, able to kill, maim and destroy with a smile and a jest. Her humanity is shown by her deep love for her reknowned lover, the Joker (played by Jared Leto).

Both characters are funny, witty and charismatic but that would not be enough to make the emphatic connection certain. Both of them needed their human sides to truly make the viewer bond with them.

The problem is, sociopaths do not form lasting relationships with people unless they are parasitic and/or abusive in nature. For these two characters to possess a human side is paradoxical. There is even a dialogue scene where this paradox is addressed by these very characters.

Harley: “You ever been in love?”
Deadshot: “Never.”
Harley: “Bullshit.”
Deadshot: “You don’t kill as many people as I’ve killed and still sleep like a kitten if you feel shit like love.”
Harley: “Another textbook sociopath.”

Exactly my point. These characters are textbook sociopaths but we need them to be human to sympathize with them. Quite the paradox. If these characters weren’t villains, the whole premise of the film is ruined. If these characters weren’t human, they would be worthless as characters.

Sometimes this can work. Countless stories include the ‘lovable rogue’, aka Robin Hood, a rebel against the authority of immoral people. But in this case it’s the rebelliousness that makes this character symphathetic. He/She is still a champion of the people, an altruist.

Characters of Suicide Squad are not champions of the people. They cause damage and kill people for their own amusement or gain. The only reason the audience wants to connect with them is because they are charismatic and funny. If the screenwriters didn’t employ the cheat (giving them a human side), this film probably wouldn’t have worked.

Most of our characters are sociopaths

I’ve recently watched a movie review by Stefan Molyneux. While Stefan is a philosopher who uses internet to spread his ideas and insights about out culture, gender roles and numerous other topics, he took the time to review the movie World War Z.

The movie is based on the book World War Z by Max Brooks. I read it multiple times. It represents a fascinating look into human nature and what happens when humanity is faced with a situation that is too strange and horrifying to accept. While the book is excellent, the movie has its weak points but as Stefan points out, still worth to watch.
While his review concentrates on the zombie horde being a metaphor for modern anti-intellectualism, I found his analysis of the main character, played by Brad Pitt, to be far more interesting.

Brad Pitt’s character starts as a warm and kind family man with but a hint of his previous occupation (UN agent of some sort). Fast forward five minutes and he find himself in the middle of a zombie infestation, dragging his family through fire and death, yet meticulously noticing details such as how long it takes for the infection to turn a human into a zombie or noticing that feeble people don’t get bitten. He shoots people, hacks off their hands, meets a family  which he leaves behind to be eaten alive, fights hordes of zombies… and in the end of the film he’s still the same warm family man as he was in the beginning.

In his video, Stefan explains (would like to say ‘reminds’ but sadly I cannot) that for a man to see and perform such horror and then to have no emotional trauma to speak of is completely sociopathic behavior. But as consumers of modern entertainment we’ve grown so used of this that we (myself included) do not even notice how unrealistic this all actually is.

Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, it’s fantasy. We’re talking about a movie with walking corpses after all. But the point of it all is to provide an experience for the reader/viewer that he/she can relate to. And the protagonist’s main role (apart from driving the story) is to be the access point to the story. The main character is our eyes and ears and nose into the strange and wonderful world of fiction. If anyone needs to be believable, it’s the main character.

What I’m trying to say is perhaps as creators of stories, we need to take a long hard look at what we’re used to and what is reality. Modern entertainment is so full of violence that we have become jaded to it. The point of good fiction is not to dull our senses. It’s to provide an experience that would otherwise be out of our reach of possibilities.

This also got me thinking about old/ancient cultures. While they might not have developed the same level of psychology and self-awareness as we have today (or did they?), they were definitely familiar with the mental and emotional strain trauma can cause.

I’ve read recently that medieval texts describe symptoms in European knights that could be interpreted as post-traumatic stress disorder (though I prefer the World War I period phrase: shell-shock). I’ve also heard that medieval Christian knights went through years of training which also included study of piety and humility. In other words, an education about what makes humans humane.

A great example of this in fiction is The Last Samurai. In the film, the leader of the Samurai would charge into battle mindless of his self-preservation, deal death and mutilation, and yet he will spend hours each day meditating, writing poetry, discussing the warrior code bushido which dictates compassion, selflessness and human dignity.
Why did all these warrior cultures take such efforts to teach their warriors about how to control their demons? Because when they were not warriors, they still had to be functional members of society. Each knight/samurai/warrior still had to be a husband, a father and possibly (though in extreme warrior societies not necessarily) a craftsman producing his goods.

These ancient cultures understood the emotional strain of trauma and prepared as well as possible to ameliorate the after-effects.

Human beings are not killing machines as modern film industry has made us believe. If we are to write realistic fiction and let our readers immerse themselves into flesh and blood characters, this must be taken into account. Unless our characters are in fact sociopaths (and some of them are), we need to treat them as emotional beings we need them to be.