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?"