Sunday, November 22, 2009

Old versus New: The Prisoner

Last week, AMC premiered a six-part series, "The Prisoner", based on a 1960's series of the same name. The original series was conceived, starred, and mostly written by screen legend Patrick McGoohan ("Escape from Alcatraz", "Braveheart") and ran a total of 17 episodes.

The new series stars Jim Caviezel ("Passion of the Christ") and Sir Ian McKellen ("The Da Vinci Code", "The Lord of the Rings"). I hadn't seen the original before watching this version, though thanks to restrospectives and sci-fi specials, I've been aware of it for some time. After watching AMC's presentation, though, I went to AMC.com and watched the entire series. Frankly, I felt AMC's version to be slightly superior. There were many elements of McGoohan's series, not the least of which being his performance as the eponymous Prisoner, that outstripped AMC's version; but overall, I consider the new to be the better program. I know that position won't endear me to many fans of the original series. I'm a purist, myself, and I can't stand many of the remakes that have been produced recently (I still refuse to go see Will Ferrell's "Land of the Lost"). That doesn't mean that I can't like the new better than the old, though.

**Warning: Contains Spoilers**

First of all, in this case you can hardly compare the two together. McGoohan's "Prisoner" was about a secret agent who resigned and was abducted by persons unknown until he would reveal the "true reason" for his resignation. Caviezel worked for a company apparently engaged in researching persons who possessed access to higher states of consciousness. In both series, the Village is a place to hold the Prisoner until he is feeling cooperative, but what "they" want from the Prisoner is different in each case. The new Village isn't even a village, per se; it's apparently some sort of astral projection in which the residents all share with the help of Number Two and his wife. In short, the two stories are similar in name only.

This makes comparing the merits of the two stories vaguely like comparing Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series; some elements remain the same, some archetypes are common, but the plots, characters, and moral (the fundamentals of every story) are widely divergent. No one can doubt McGoohan's vision or creativity in what is rightly considered a masterpiece of the sci-fi/adventure genre; but his is not the only vision out there. Should the nominal aspects of McGoohan's "Prisoner" have been appropriated for the new version? Maybe, maybe not; but it certainly wouldn't be the first time a beloved series has been "updated" for a new generation (see Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, et al).

As a consequence of the new nature of the Village, some elements were necessarily eliminated or adjusted. First of all, the nature of Number Two has significantly changed. Before, Number Two was an administrator/warden tasked with extracting information from the "Villagers", including Number Six (McGoohan). To keep the focus on Number Six, every time Number Two failed to learn why Six resigned, a new Number Two was chosen to replace him. Some few Two's managed to retain their position longer than others, but all eventually failed when faced with Six's iron will.

McKellen's Number Two, though, could hardly be replaced so easily or so readily. Running a prison, even one disguised as a village, is quite a different task than controlling another plane of consciousness; especially one that is ever-expanding. When Caviezel's character proves his resilience, rather than continuing in their efforts merely to integrate him in society, it is apparently decided to annoint him as the new Number Two. McKellen's character, after all, is getting on in years, and he would need a successor eventually, anyway. This arrangement, though integral to the new storyline, places far more emphasis on Two than in the original series, even to the point of giving him a wife and son. Such an emphasis calls for the kind of acting that only a man of McKellen's caliber could deliver, which has led many to claim that Two upstages Six in this version. Apparently, though, that's how it's supposed to be.

By the way, if you've noticed me using the word "apparently" a lot in connection to AMC's "Prisoner", you're right. I'm guessing at much of what takes place in the new series. There's more mystery in the new version; still, it's left me with fewer questions than the original series. For example, when "Number One" is finally revealed in McGoohan's series, I couldn't have been more confused. They never quite reveal the real reason why Number Six resigned, nor do they even make clear during the series whether there is a "real reason" or if his captors merely think there is. And though one can hardly fault how well the writers and creators worked with what they had (i.e. a 1960's working knowledge of science), some of the episodes dealing with surveillance, medical science, and especially hypnotism were rather hard to swallow.

Finally, fans of the original series like to say there's no way anyone could live up to McGoohan's performance as Number Six. As for myself, I couldn't care less. We expect each actor to approach roles differently, even when it's the same role. Daniel Craig was a far different James Bond than Sean Connery, but that didn't make either one "superior" to the other; merely different. And this can hardly be considered the "same role". When you consider all the ways in which the stories diverge, the motivations differ, and the distance between the aims, you can't expect any of the characters to adhere to the original. Was McGoohan's performance superior to Caviezel's? Perhaps; but only in the same sense that Peter O'Toole's performance as King Henry was superior to Richard Harris' performance as King George.

- Stephen Monteith

(read the original post on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=186592026543 )

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dragon*Con 2009

As my friend Lillian stated often over this last weekend, "There's too much to do!"

Dragon*Con boasts the largest science fiction/fantasy/gamer/writing/paranormal romance/comic book/video game/movie convention in North America. After four days of running (in some cases literally) between four very large hotels in downtown Atlanta, rushing to meet some of our favorite authors, actors, and entertainers, at the same time dodging and admiring the costumes of thousands of other attendees, I see no reason to dispute that claim.

We arrived relatively early in Atlanta on the morning of the 4th. Our first task, after finding a parking space in the middle of an invasion of rental cars, was to get our badges for the convention. Just standing in line was a bit of an adventure. The line had the feel of an amusement park line; a little frustrating, but in that "so close, yet so far away" sense of the word. My travel companion was soon enchanted by the many costumed characters around us, and began taking the first of many pictures and videos.

(A little side note, here: when selecting a digital camera for ... well, for anything, make sure you pick one that doesn't draw a great deal of energy; or make sure you carry a double handful of spare batteries with you at all times.)

By the time we got our badges, the convention was already under way. We missed a rare joint appearance by Star Trek legends William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the kickoff event of the convention. However, we were able to meet and even schmooze a little with some of our favorite stars and authors. Dragon*Con has a Walk of Fame practically crammed with celebrities. We met some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy, gathering not a few autographs for ourselves and our friends and families.

For two aspiring authors like ourselves, this convention was something of a dream come true. Lillian, a budding romance author, rubbed elbows and even had a few drinks with some of her favorites in the field, networking as well as gathering several autographs. I'm not much of an "autograph guy", myself, but I did get a signature from one of my favorite authors, Timothy Zahn. His Thrawn trilogy is widely acknowledged as the greatest Star Wars trilogy since the original. I've often thought that he should have been contracted to write the screenplays for Episodes I, II, and III.

In addition, we attended a twelve-part seminar on writing offered by two more giants in the Star Wars universe: Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston. The topics ranged from developing important skills and habits before you begin writing, to exercises that will prepare you to write your novel, to improving your manuscript once it's written, to what you can expect the writing world to resemble in the "post-paper era". Their advice is available on their own websites, so I won't try to recreate it here.

http://www.stormwolf.com/

http://www.aaronallston.com/

It wasn't strictly a nerd- or geekfest, though. You might look at the convention as an event that has something for everyone. The guest list for this year, I conservatively estimate, had over four hundred names on it. They ranged from Star Wars and Star Trek alumni to Robert Jordan and J.R.R. Tolkien panelists. Video gamers, board gamers, LARP and RPG aficionados each had their own venues to frequent. Artists and authors all had space to display the fruits of their labors. Dealer and exhibitor booths peppered the hotels, with musicians playing in every hotel.

And the costumes. What can I say about the costumes? They were, no pun intended, fantastic! To be sure, there were plenty of people in the traditional sci-fi/fantasy/comic book costumes. There were elves, Vulcans, robots, X-Men, jedi, Halo Master Chiefs, and a fair number of Ghostbusters. However, there were also many people dressed in original costumes. Skeletons and pirates, literary figures both classic and modern, World of Warcraft characters and, of course, every kind of vampire were all in attendance.

I didn't dress up this year, but if I go next year, then I may go in "steampunk". A subgenre that has gained a significant amount of ground in the sci-fi community over the last couple of decades, steampunk centers around Victorian-era settings in which modern-day and even future innovations already exist in the form of brass-encased, steam-powered inventions. Think the original "Time Machine" novel by H.G. Wells, or the more recent collaboration "The Difference Engine", by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I found the steampunk costumes to be very visually interesting; they were my favorite of all.

If there's too much to do at Dragon*Con, then there's also far too much to say about it. I knew before I even agreed to go that I wouldn't be prepared for everything that I'd want to do, or have time for it if I was. I frequently caught myself thinking, "This is my Dragon*Con dry run. Next year, I'll be much better prepared." I haven't actually decided whether or not I will go next year, but I can tell you that it's more likely than not.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Trials of Seffin Phel: Bandits of Moftal

Dear Editor,

My name is Stephen Monteith. I'm submitting my story, The Trials of Seffin Phel, a fantasy story of approximately 12,000 words. It begins the adventures of a young man in a medieval setting who starts as a simple blacksmith's son and becomes a crime lord's apprentice, a cursed fugitive, a demon-fighting monk, an adoptive father, and eventually a hero of the continent.

This is the first step in Seffin's remarkable evolution, his introduction to the most powerful man in the kingdom. I've also included the first chapter of the next installment so that you may have a better idea of where I hope to take the series, should you choose to publish it. I have several more adventures outlined for him that take him across kingdoms, through warlords' territories, and into wizards' castles. Along the way, he'll meet magicians and monks, kings and warlords, priests and thieves, and more than a few demons. He'll be hated and reviled at times, but eventually he'll find what he left his home to find in the first place.

I look forward to hearing from you, one way or another. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith



Searching a drawer, Seffin found some flint and steel and he lit a nearby lantern, filling the shop with a soft, golden glow.

"Why'd you light that lantern, boy?" Tren growled from his seat. "I'm trying to sleep."

Seffin shook his head. "You can sleep later, Tren. We need to talk." He pulled another chair over and sat down across from the older man.

"If it's about my drinking, then you're wasting—"

"It's not about you," Seffin interrupted him. "I need your help."

"You need my help with what?" Tren demanded, lifting his head. "What's so important that it couldn't wait until I'm good and sober?"

"Is there anything that can wait that long?"

Tren's eyes narrowed. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

Seffin sighed. "You're not as drunk as you look, are you Tren?"

The cobbler rose to his feet, wavering only slightly as he did so. "Never as drunk as I look, Seffin." He went to a cabinet, removed two goblets and a bottle, and poured a drink for both of them. Leaning back in his chair, Tren took a long drink. "Now tell me why you're looking for me at this time of the night."

Seffin picked up his goblet and looked into it for a while before speaking. "Lan beat me tonight." He took a gulp of the red liquid, coughing briefly after he swallowed.

Tren squinted, his eyes yellow in the lantern light. "Well, that was predictable."

"What did you say?" Seffin demanded.

"Oh, be reasonable, boy. You're a thief and you were caught stealing. You're fortunate a beating is all you got in return."

"I won't be beaten again."

"You're only fourteen," Tren responded, taking another drink. "Life's got a great number of beatings still in store for you, rest assured."

"Not from him." Seffin got out of his chair and started pacing. "He's not my father; I won't take anymore beatings from him." His chest and face still ached from the punches he had received. He brushed his hair out of his face and lightly rubbed his jaw, wincing as he did so. That's going to be sore for a few days.

Seffin stopped pacing and turned to his old friend. "I need your help."

"What, you want me to threaten him?" Tren scoffed. "No, I don't think I will. He's stronger than I am, and just a bit younger besides." He raised his cup to his lips again.

"I'm running away, Tren."

"Are you, now? Well, I hope you're not planning on staying here." He took a drink.

"I'm not." Seffin took a breath. "I need you to help me find Arka Subo."

Tren choked and sputtered, spilling his drink all over himself. He thumped his chest and coughed several times to clear his airway. "Are you insane, boy? What do you want with him?"

"I want a job."

Tren shook his head. "You'd be better off shoveling dung out of the elders' stables. Arka doesn't take apprentices."

"He'll take me."

Tren slammed his goblet down, pointing a bony finger at Seffin. "Whatever crazed plan is rolling around in that head of yours, knock it loose right now. You're not going to work for him."

"I don't care if you think he'll make me his apprentice; I just need to know where he is."

"And what are you planning to do once you've found him? He won't take you on just because you ask him to."

"I'll buy my way in."

"With what?"

"Everything I've stolen this last year; everything you've been holding for when he next visits. There's quite a lot of it, as you know, and I want it all."

Tren rose to his feet and stood nose-to-nose with Seffin. "Listen to me, and listen well: I deal with Arka Subo; you don't. We're thieves, you and I. We steal, and that's all we do."

"And Arka buys what we steal and sells it in some other part of the kingdom," Seffin said, backing up slightly. "I want him to teach me that. I don't want to just be a thief."

"I don't care what you want," Tren practically roared. "He's not just a buyer, Seffin. He's part of something bigger than swiping gold coins and candlesticks, and the less you're a part of that, the better."

"What do you care, Tren? You've been a part of it for years. You made me a part of it yourself."

"That wasn't my idea. I've been acting on orders. Remember that silver goblet that you stole from Elder Nutgui during the winter? The one I agreed to hold for you until you felt like giving it back?"

Seffin shrugged. "What about it? Arka bought it; and you said he wanted to buy more things from me."

"Exactly; he wanted you to keep stealing. I didn't even want him to see that damned cup. If he hadn't seen it, then I'd have talked you out of this life a long time ago."

"Oh, be reasonable," Seffin mimicked Tren's earlier plea. "Do you mean to say that you didn't want me to be a thief, but you taught me to be an even bigger one just because Arka asked?"

"That is what I'm saying, Seffin. In this lifestyle, there are no personal decisions, no ideologies. When men like Arka give orders, you follow them. Their authority is more absolute than the king's."

The younger man paused for a moment, considering Tren's words. "Well, maybe I'd like to have that kind of authority someday."

"You still don't get it, do you, Seffin?"

"No, you don't get it, Tren. I will find Arka, with or without your help. If I have to, then I'll wait until the next time he comes to Dennai and talk to him myself. I just need the things I stole. Hand them over now, and I'll never bother you again."

"If you go looking for Arka Subo, then you won't bother anyone ever again."

"I can take care of myself." Seffin stooped and picked up the empty leather satchel off the ground, holding it open in front of him.

They stood for a moment like that, the old thief and the young thief, watching each other with iron-hard stares. It was Tren who moved first, finally daunted by Seffin's determination. He sighed and picked the lantern up off the table. "Follow me."
_____________

He led Seffin out the back door and into a shed. Inside were needles, cutters, spools of thread, and other tools of his trade. He set the lantern on a table and walked over to a barrel that stood in a corner. "Help me roll this." Together, they moved the barrel off to one side. Tren picked up a shovel then and started digging up the ground where the barrel had been.

A foot or so into the ground, Tren uncovered the first of the items. He pulled out a small leather pouch, jingling with coins. "Keep this on your person," he instructed. Next, he pulled out a three-branched silver candelabrum, wrapped carefully to prevent tarnishing. He wordlessly handed it to Seffin, who tucked it inside his satchel.

By the time they had finished pulling treasures out of the ground, the satchel was half-full. Seffin hefted it a few times, noting how heavy it had become. "Where do I find Arka?" he asked, helping Tren to refill the hole.

"He's based in the city of Moftal, on the south side of the forest."

"That's not too far from here."

"No, but those packs you're carrying will slow you." They rolled the barrel back into place and returned to the house. "You'll need to stay to the highway, besides."

"I can make better time cutting through the woods."

"There are bandits in those woods, boy. Where's your sense? Carrying that much loot with you, you'd be dead by the end of your first night out there." Tren sighed, setting the lantern back on the table inside the house. "Now that I think of it, you'd be better off riding my horse."

He looked at the older man in surprise. "You want me to take your horse?"

"I never ride her, anyway," Tren said, pouring himself another drink.

Seffin dropped the satchel full of treasure next to one with his clothes and other personal items. "I thought you didn't even want me to go."

"I don't want you to get yourself killed along the way, either, do I?"

"Be honest, Tren." He sat down across from him again. "You were yelling at me just moments ago, so why are you helping me now?"

The old cobbler took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, rolling his cup between his hands. "Three things can come of you seeking out Arka Subo. One, he could kill you just for asking him. That's not very likely to happen, though, especially if you come bearing gifts. Most likely, he'll just turn you around and send you right back here, which is what I hope he'll do."

"You don't think he'll take me on as an apprentice." It wasn't a question.

Tren shrugged. "He could decide to do that. Arka can be ... unpredictable at times. It's one of his more dangerous characteristics." He sighed again and took a long drink. "I never meant for you to remain a thief, Seffin. I wanted you to stay away from this life; I owe that much to your father. But, you've taken to it; like a drunkard to cheap wine." As if to emphasize his point, he took another drink.

They sat in silence for a while. For some reason, Tren's invocation of his father touched Seffin more deeply than when anyone else had mentioned him. He looked back and forth between Tren and the satchel at his feet, weighing the one's warnings against the power represented by the other. I know what my father wanted for me. He wanted me to build a life here; but there's nothing for me here. He told himself that quickly, and clung to it as the truth.

"Do you mind if I sleep here tonight?" he asked aloud. "I can leave at first light tomorrow."

"You'll have to sleep here in the shop," Tren murmured, staring into his empty cup. "There's only the one bed in my room."

"That's fine with me."

"Oh, that's fine with you, is it?" Tren slammed his cup down again and stood up. "You have no idea what you're getting in for, boy." He turned his back on Seffin and climbed the stairs. "No idea."

Seffin watched him go, almost rising to follow. Then he sighed and hung his head. Moving over to a bench, he pulled off his boots and soft-leather vest and lay back on the hard wood. Tomorrow, everything will be different.

Six years in the making ...

So, with the three blogs that I keep, you might expect that I would post more often. Lately, though, I've been finishing a project that has meant a great deal to me over the years.

It started a little over six years ago, when I took a creative writing class in college and my professor told me that I needed to work on "creating a scene". Apparently, I spent too much time on dialogue and not enough on descriptions of characters and settings (a problem I still have, at times). Anyway, one week I decided to engage in a little exercise. I described a man taking a walk down a forest trail, including the sights, sounds, smells, feel, and even taste of the forest. I was rather pleased with the result, actually.

Not one to let a good (or even a bad) piece of writing go to waste, I decided to give the man a story of his own. I created a world (a very rudimentary one at the time), gave him a mission, several companions, and a barebones personal background. Two years later, I had a short story ready to send to a fantasy magazine. At least, I thought I did. It was rejected, as it should have been. The plot was interesting, but the story was a piece of crap. The narrative was boring, the characters were underdeveloped, and the writing was so horrible that a friend of mine later was prompted to say "Surely such a thing could not have come from you!" Okay, she was exaggerating a little, but it was pretty awful just the same.

After I got the rejection notice, I started over. I spent more time developing the characters and the world they inhabited. I especially spent more time on my main character, his own history and personality. I thought I could get by with just outlining his early years, the events that led him to the point where the original story began; but every step along the way, I found myself narrating the events instead of just outlining them. As I did, I realized that his story started much earlier than I had originally thought.

I finally was able to work my way back to the "beginning". The story that I just now completed was not the first major or significant event in his life, but it is the first time his life changed through his own doing and not someone else's. It's taken me about four years to reach this point, but I've finally submitted another story for publication.

Intergalactic Medicine Show is an online magazine founded by Orson Scott Card, one of the most renowned science-fiction and fantasy authors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I submitted my story "The Trials of Seffin Phel: Bandits of Moftal" to the magazine this week. Now begins the waiting, which could take as long as three months, until I learn whether or not they feel it's right for their publication. In the meantime, I'll be working on the next story in the series; and when that one is finished, I'll work on the next one.

I'll be posting my submission letter and a segment from Trials for you to read. If you'd like to read more, or have any questions, comments, or suggestions, then please feel free to let me know.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Keeping the Faith

Dan Brown has angered many a Catholic with his unflattering portrayals of Catholic history and practices in his bestselling novels "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons". Was that his intent, though? Or was he just really hoping to tell a story set in this world?

Epic adventure in modern times almost always centers around paganism, or pseudo-paganism. Stories about demons and dragons, gremlins and goblins, wizards and witches, and even the occasional superhuman mutant or alien tend to have more ... flexibility as far as plot goes. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, while a parable for Christianity, is still set in a fantastic realm. Even J.R.R. Tolkein, a devout Catholic himself, went the other-worldly route with The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter is a bright, young modern hero, but he is training to be a wizard, not a priest.

Where are all the Christians? In classic times, Christianity was the basis for every epic. King Arthur, despite traveling with the wizard Merlin, was a Christian, and famously searched for the Holy Grail. The Three Musketeers were all Christians; one studying for the priesthood, in fact. In modern times, though, Christianity just doesn't have the same "epic" appeal. With the exception of Indiana Jones (the first and third movies), regular old Christian "superheroes" just aren't that popular.

Dan Brown may be anti-Catholic; he may even be anti-religion. That's not the issue, I feel. The issue is, can a good epic fantasy center around the Christian faith? He's proven that it can; though that fact may not make Christians happy. Because, you see, every adventure needs a little conflict, a little drama, a little controversy; otherwise, whether your hero lives in Middle Earth or the Vatican, he's just going to sit around all day. Anybody can do that. We pick up books to read about what people not ourselves are doing.

Does that mean you should go see the movies, or even read the books? *shrugs* Nope. That's still your decision to make. I don't plan to, personally. I just appreciate that someone out there recognizes that a great fantasy story can be told in this world.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Few Tips ...

It seems that everyone out there is looking for tips on writing. I try to stay away from giving advice, normally. Not because I don't think I have valuable advice, mind you; but rather, because there just isn't that much "advice" to give. What I have, though, I'll share (I'm not greedy, after all).

Your best bet is to read other books and study how other authors write. Not other books on writing, just other books. You see, there are any number of hack writers out there who can give you the ten rules or the eight rules or the hundred rules that every writer needs to follow; but creativity is not found in a how-to manual. We're not talking brain surgery or rocket science, where you have firmly established procedures to follow. If you want to know what works in writing, then see what has worked for others.

Don't stop there, though. Simply copying others' works won't make you a success; and it'll probably prove to be illegal, anyway. Before you can put your creativity to work, though, you do need some idea of what actually works. Published novels and short stories are the best place to find elements that actually work.

After you've done that, then sit yourself down and write. Write every chance you get. Write every place you are. Write every word you think. Don't stop writing for any reason (within reason, that is). The second most frustrating thing about successful writing (after the fact that there is no set guide for successful writing) is the amount of time you must spend on it. Unlike brain surgery and rocket science, writing is hard work.

How will you know when you're good? You won't. You will never know, even after you've been on the bestseller list for ten weeks in a row. Remember, even Paris Hilton wrote a bestselling book. Your best bet is to get as many different opinions on your writing as you can. Success, after all, is often measured by how much other people like your work. So get as many critiques as you reasonably can.

And remember, no matter how harsh the criticism may be, there are two things that you must never do: never ignore it (because they may be right), and never trust it (because they may be wrong). Take what other people say to heart, honestly try to incorporate it in your work, but in the end, trust yourself.

Always keep in mind that creativity is relative. What you find clever, someone else might not; and what someone else finds creative, you may find incomprehensible. You have to use what you feel is right for your story. Don't let others write it for you; follow your own instincts. It's the only way to do it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Food, clothing, shelter, and that other thing ...

I work in a bookstore, and a woman today commented on the price of a book she was holding. She said to me, "There goes my grocery money." She meant it as a joke, and we both laughed about it, but after she walked away, I sort of stood there for a moment thinking about what she said.

Entertainment is one of the most important aspects of our lives. More than just something we want, I believe it is an actual necessity. We all need our health to live, and money to provide the means; but entertainment can help us feel that life is worth living. We shouldn't spend our food money on books and DVD's, of course, but we should always set aside time (and occasionally money) for the things we enjoy.

People have always acknowledged this in one way or another. In the Middle Ages, before television, electricity, and even before most people could read, you could still make a decent living as an entertainer; a bard, or a storyteller, or if you were really lucky, as a court jester for kings and queens. Though people didn't always have money, if they had food or a place to stay, then they would gladly trade it in return for a well-delivered song or story.

Today, we find ourselves in roughly the same situation. We buy tickets to professional sporting events, concerts, movies, plays, theme parks, and museums. We fill our homes with books, stereos, TV's, and other types of media. News programs sensationalize the most mundane events in attempts to draw more viewers, because they know they need to make it "entertaining". Even the president of the United States is now just as likely to choose a late night talk show as a venue for educating the public as he is to choose a traditional news outlet.

Some would say we place too much emphasis on entertainment. I say, seeing as how it has stood the tests of time and innovation, that we should all reexamine its role in our own lives. Workplaces now allow music to be played, because it increases productivity. A happy worker is a productive worker, after all. Companies that produce video games have been developing learning programs for young, and some not-so-young, children because it helps speed the learning process. Some of the best television shows and movies today are hailed as such because they "make people think" at the same time. I've always felt that entertainment didn't have to be single-minded. You can inspire and enrich, as well, if you just make the effort.

Granted, in my own country as in others, we could all probably spend a little less time in front of the television; but that doesn't make it wrong. We simply need to be wise about how much time we spend on any activity. We also need to be wise about how that time is spent. Some say moderation is the key. I say the key is in balance. Some people actually do spend their grocery money on music and movies. Money spent on iPods and portable DVD players could just as easily, and much more wisely, be spent on health insurance, or saved against possible future emergencies. You don't always need to save every penny, of course, but you should always have balance in how you use your money.

There are many different kinds of entertainment, of course, and not all of them cost money. In my life, the emphasis has always been on storytelling (I was never very athletic growing up). From Kindergarten to my senior year, the schools I attended always gave us books, short stories, plays, and musicals to read and study. I was an avid reader, though I watched my share of TV, as well. All that I asked was that the story be a good one, and that they tell it well. That's the standard I set for my own writing, my own storytelling.

Hopefully, I'll be able to do more than simply entertain with my words. I do hope to enrich and inspire at the same time. I certainly hope that people continue to place importance on entertainment, and not because I want to make a living as a writer someday. It's a necessity, as important as food or water. I'm going to close this blog with one of my favorite quotes; from a movie, in fact:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Now medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life; but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." - Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Other Face of Plagiarism

This is a repost from an older blog:

When I first started writing stories, I shamelessly copied others' works, changing little more than the names of characters and certain stylistic aspects of the plots. I say 'shamelessly' because, being only seven at the time, I didn't realize that it was a shameful thing to do. I was proud of what I had written. I was proud that I had written anything. As I grew older, I became aware of what it meant to plagiarize. By the time I was twelve, there was almost nothing as important to me as writing my own original epic fantasy. So you can imagine how I felt to learn that an actual author, a member of the profession to which I had aspired virtually since I could spell, would have taken the route I had learned to shun.

I recently read The Sword of Shannara, the first in a long and very successful modern fantasy saga. It was written in 1977, and sequels and prequels to it have continued to be written ever since. Most who've read The Sword of Shannara would defend it with terms such as "derivative" or "in the style of"; but as I read it, as I pushed myself to finish it, the entire book seemed nothing more or less than a poorly disguised copy of The Lord of the Rings. I finished reading it out of pure stubbornness, but I felt that nothing could change my mind. Terry Brooks had plagiarized the entire work, it seemed.

Today, though, listening to a classic R n' B song, another defense of the work surfaced in my memory: "You gotta keep the classics alive somehow." You see, the song I was listening to had become fodder for a modern musician who had made a practice of taking classic hits and updating them, as it were, for our day. I used to listen to this musician, once upon a time. I had seen what he had done with his music and eventually concluded that "you gotta keep the classics alive somehow."

The Lord of the Rings needs no help in preserving itself; anyone can see that; but there are archetypes that crop up in literature. I won't get into a discussion of them, except to say that they can be found everywhere, not just on the page. They take different forms, certainly, but every form they take expands and even reinforces our understanding of them and their deeper meanings. Why have these archetypes found the places they have? It is because of the places they already hold in our lives. As entertaining as these books are, each one holds a deeper appeal: the presence of characters whom we recognize in ourselves and in those around us.

C. S. Lewis once said, "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." His words were not written to excuse plagiarism, which is intentionally passing off someone else's work as your own; but as I read these words, I find I can imagine a young writer, just starting out, crafting a world, a philosophy of life, and a cast of characters which, though they may have been based on someone else's work, were still uniquely his own. I can see the formation of a plot, simple and derivative at first, but growing in complexity and originality as each character in the story began to assert himself, or herself.

I am able, in part because of my own struggles as a writer, to appreciate the challenges this writer would have faced, even if he had had the collected works of Tolkein at his fingertips throughout the entire writing process. And I am more than a little interested to see where Mr. Brooks has taken his saga in the almost thirty years since book one was first published. Plagiarism? No; I believe that he was just trying to keep the classics alive.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Keep Writing

Everyone talks about the "rules" of writing. They make lists, of the ten things, or the fifteen things, or the fifty things that writers "need" to do, or "must" do. I've never much cared for lists or rules, myself. At one point, I was convinced that the only rule that mattered was "know when and how to break the rules".

I was mostly right, too, I feel. There is one other rule, though, that means more than all the others combined: keep writing.

Keep writing. Critics, especially family and friends, rarely have anything useful to offer. Either they like it or they don't, and it's either because of how they feel about you or how they feel about the book, and it's next to impossible to determine which it is. Besides, they may not be your target audience, anyway.

Keep writing. You may not be good, but if you stop writing then you'll never get better. Read books (not books on writing, just regular books), and study how the author writes. Ask yourself what works for you and what doesn't. Take classes, read articles, ask questions, and take notes, but don't stop writing. It's like a muscle: if you stop exercising it, then it will only get weaker.

Keep writing. You may be tempted to take the whole project and toss it in the sewer, but don't throw anything away, ever. You'll never know when something that you've written for one project will prove useful or even vital in another. If it came from your mind, then it is never worthless, so never treat it as such. You just may write the "great American novel" from something that you once decided was pure garbage. Compost makes great fertilizer, after all. File it for future reference, but don't discard it.

Keep writing. It's hard, it takes forever, and you'll almost never be satisfied completely with what you've created, but none of those are reasons to quit. If your story isn't going anywhere, then give it somewhere to go. Create a conflict, and then, in the course of the story, resolve it somehow.

Keep writing. Even if you never believe that you'll accomplish anything, and even if no one else ever believes it, you can only succeed if you act regardless of what anyone, including yourself, believes.

Just keep writing.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On the third day, it didn't fall apart

One of my favorite quotes about writing instructs us "to build a universe that doesn't fall apart two days later". The quote belongs to Philip K. Dick, one of the most influential science fiction writers of the late twentieth century. His writing credits include the short stories "Paycheck" and "Minority Report", which inspired the movies of the same names. The speech in which he popularizes the above quote contains many instructive lessons about writing in general and the power of words:

"I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing ... The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words."

My motives are fairly simple, I believe: I want to create a universe that doesn't fall apart on the third day. I want to write a book that people will read once, and then again when they are finished, and then again and again because they simply like it that much. I want them to show it to their friends and family. After I've written a book like that, I want to write another that produces the same result. And then, I want to write another.

I've been writing stories, in one way or another, since I was about six or seven years old. My family had a big, loud, clunky electronic typewriter, with keys that made sounds like pistons cranking and a hum that could have been heard in the middle of a rainstorm. My first efforts at writing stories were ... not that bad for a six or seven-year old, I felt. I was an avid reader, and I always wanted to write stories like the ones I had read, or like the shows I watched on TV. My first completed stories were a little too much like the stories I had read, in fact; they were simply copies of those stories I loved with different names for the characters. Still, like I said, they weren't bad.

Over time, I realized how important it was to create an original world, or universe, with my own original characters and adventures. As I grew older and my taste in books became more sophisticated, so did the stories that I tried to write and the worlds they inhabited. I drew maps and charts of their homelands, and sometimes of their homeworlds. I created whole generations of peoples and families. In my science fiction efforts, I invented whole classes of starships and weaponry, constructing rough diagrams on my family's brand new (for that time) computer. I examined the possibilities for intergalactic politics, warfare, and intrigue, creating governments and shadow organizations, each vying for power. I even tried my hand at creating alien languages, alphabets, and mythologies of the different species. All this I did before I was even old enough to drive a car.

As I grew older, though, I started to suspect that I had bitten off more than I could chew. My project seemed too big to ever succeed, and in my teenage mind I decided it would be better to shelve it all than to try and fail. I finished my high school years and served a two-year mission for my church, trying to refocus on the world and universe in which I already lived. When I returned home, I looked into a job and higher education, looking to a future that I realistically could expect to create.

Those other worlds wouldn't let me forget about them, though. I picked up some of my old materials, stored in cardboard during my two years away, and reexamined the possibilities. I started just a little more simply than I had before, working on an adventure story set in a simpler time and place; my first epic fantasy adventure. I started reading books, magazines and journals on writing to learn more about the practical side of a writing career. I took creative writing courses to learn how to craft more than just a world, but the sort of dialogue and prose that would make that world come alive, and invite readers to explore it with my characters.

I have been home from my mission for almost seven years, now. I'm close to finishing what I hope will be my first novella. I've learned a great deal, I believe, and I'm writing this blog to share my ideas and lessons learned on how to create a universe that won't fall apart on the third day. I even hope to answer the question, "What happens on the fourth day?"