Saturday, October 22, 2011

NaNoWriMo #05: Background and Milieu Research

With 9 days to go until NaNoWriMo, I've started preparations for this year's project, codenamed (and possibly titled, though the chances of it surviving until the final version are unlikely at best) "Wander."  The premise is one that I used for my first published short story, a historical-fantasy mashup that spans a couple of millennia.  I've tabled this one for more than five years, because I felt I needed to grow a bit as a writer before I could do it justice.  The novel's scope and slightly more literary bent than my usual SF/fantasy modus operandi is one challenge that I think I'm now ready to face; the other is having to mesh the story of my pseudo-historical protagonist with actual events and locales.

One of the things I like the most about SF/fantasy is that the milieu is entirely your own creation; you can draw inspiration from wherever it suits you, and needed have to worry about how things correspond to the real world - except, of course, thematically or by analogy.  It can be a daunting level of freedom for writers who are used to the familiar confines of fiction set in the "real" world (which inevitable evokes only enough real world verisimilitude as the story itself needs), but on the other side of the coin, that freedom can also be something of a crutch.  Being forced to mesh things together with real world timelines, places, events, and people makes for a unique challenge for a speculative fiction writer like me, and the nature of the task requires that some pre-writing research and notetaking be done.

Among the various topics my research has me reading through: the Sengoku Era in Japan; the historical city of Alexandria; European warfare in the Middle Ages; and a question the answer for which continues to elude me - what is the difference between the terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew?

Also, some flights of pure fancy that I made over ten years ago also appear to have important milieu-based ramifications on my present line of research.  In the short story, I gave the protagonist the last name "Temani," which at the time I only knew meant "from the south."  My recent research has uncovered that being from "Teman," one of the larger and more characteristic cities of the country of Edom, would strongly predisposition a Jewish character as being one of the Temanim, or Yemenite Jews, a specific subset of Jewish people with a colorful and unique history.  A history which includes an aversion to naming their children after the biblical Ezra, which comes awfully close to the given name of my protagonist, at least as I had named him in the short story.  Whether that means I'll be giving him a different name, or whether that contradiction is a story-worthy complication remains to be seen, but I'll be working out the particulars as I continue my background research and start developing plot outlines.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

APAD Follow-Up

I've been putting the principles of Tuesday's APAD revisited post to good use this week, and have about 4 pages left (and a new character to design) for the rough draft of my 30-page debut doujinshi.  The goal is to have it published online before the month's end, and as long as I don't encounter any problems with the manga software I'm using, I think I'm on track to meet that deadline.

If you haven't tried APAD yet on your longterm project, go ahead and give it a go.  Tell me what's holding you back - or, if you've given it a try, how the technique worked for you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fictional Tips: A Page A Day (APAD) Revisited

In one of the inaugural posts on the Nexus of Misc blog, I proposed that the three Rs of practicing any skill - including storytelling - are rigor, repetition, and ritualization.  The underlying notion is simple: to become good at something takes more than raw aptitude or inborn talent (though either can make the road a whole lot smoother).  In the end, though, you have to travel that road to get where you want to go.

This can often be easier said than done.  A penchant for procrastination is, I've found, something that almost everyone is born with.  Whether it's a term paper for a class, an article to be published in a scholarly journal, a short story, or an illustration, often times the hardest part about getting work done is getting yourself to sit down and actually plod your way through it.  The good folks at Writing Excuses offered the term "BICHOK" as advice for the itinerant writer: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

My approach adapts the same principle to some of the progress benchmarks that writers like Stephen King swear by.  APAD, or a page a day, espouses an incremental approach to completing your creative (or even non-creative) undertaking, by 1) breaking it up into per-day-sized pieces and 2) most importantly, taking on each of those pieces day after day until the work is complete.

My original APAD post was intended as a call to action, but ironically, that post would be the last on the Nexus for almost a year!  Hardly practicing what I preached, as far as blogging goes.  Since then, I've tried to separate the Nexus's overly ambitious topic coverage into more clearly delineated niches, with Fictional Matters inheriting the posts focusing on writing and the creative arts.   I wanted to repeat that call to action, but this time couple it with an overt commitment on my part.  It has been my goal this month to begin providing new content on Fictional Matters, Watches to Wear, and Goods to Buy every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and to continue those scheduled updates into November, even as I take on NaNoWriMo 2011.

If you have large projects to write like a thesis paper or novel, a book or anthology to edit, or (the current occupant of my creative desk space) a comic book to pen, using the principle of APAD can help you to make it more manageable and to position yourself to make steady progress by minimizing the opportunities to procrastinate.  Give APAD a try, and if you do, be sure to tell me how it works for you by leaving a comment below.  Whether it works or fails, I'm interested in learning how it goes!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

NaNoWriMo #04: So You've Got A Story Idea - Now What?

This week's post in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2011 looks at the steps that come immediately after you've found an idea for a story.  How do you turn an idea into a story spanning 50,000+ words?

In many ways, developing an idea into a full-fledged story is a lot like the basic gameplay of the Katamari Damacy video game series.  Your idea is like the titular katamari - a magic ball that can adhere to particular things (namely, smaller objects) and add them to its mass, growing each time it picks up a new object.  The things that will stick to your idea are directly related to it, and you can begin in a number of places.

If you're like me, you could begin with characters.  Who is your protagonist?  What is their backstory?  What are their goals and desires?  Who - or what - will oppose them in their quest to fulfill those goals?  As you round out your main character, other characters, plot developments, etc. may pop up in the process.  You can aggregate your original idea with as many characters and as much depth as you like - whatever amount makes you feel comfortable with your prospective cast of dramatis personae.

Other well-known science fiction and fantasy writers are worldbuilders.  Like them, your idea might start with an intriguing premise and develop of the ramifications that it would have on the world in which it exists.  What if special magic users could derive specific abilities from ingesting and "burning" different kinds of metals? This milieu premise is the starting point for Brandon Sanderson's bestselling Mistborn series.  What if a desert landscape covered an entire planet?  Welcome to the starting point for Frank Herbert's Dune.

Or you can take the tiger by the tail and delve right into plot.  What has to happen in order for your idea to work?  What could happen in spite of all that?

This katamari-like process of info aggregation is primarily to get you comfortable and more familiar with the story-wide implications of your idea.  Your cast of characters, milieu, or plot could completely change - and often enough does - once you actually delve into writing your first draft in November, so don't be too concerned about getting every detail right at this point.  Give yourself permission to explore, to make mistakes, fix them, and keep going.  Odds are you'll find yourself having fun along the way.  And here's a secret from a past NaNoWriMoer: once you're comfortable enough with your story idea, the fun you've had in aggregating it is only a pale reflection of the fun you'll experience actually writing the story.  So no matter what, the best is yet to come.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fictional Tip: Creating to White Noise

Nearly every creator has stared at a vast expanse of white struggling to set down the first few words of a story or the establishing line work of an image.  Faced with the stark emptiness and contradictorily endless possibilities that a blank page or canvas presents to a creator, the silence of a controlled - but equally empty - work environment can sometimes echo so loudly that it only compounds feelings of apprehension and paralysis.    Perhaps this is why many creators create with music playing in the background; Stephen King, for example, describes his preference for Heavy Metal in his memoir, On Writing.  Another near-cliche has writers seeking out the comforting ensconcement of the coffee shop, where relaxing surrounds and the ambient buzz of fellow patrons can ease the oppression of the creative void.  My preferred white noise of choice is the TV rerun - but only of certain varieties, and all with one prevailing virtue: I've watched them before.

The first variety is cooking shows.  My favorites include Alton Brown's Good Eats (which I've watched so much that I've taken to refer to Mr. Brown as "shisho," the Japanese word for "master"), Iron Chef (original Japanese program), and Jamie Oliver's and Gordon Ramsay's various series.  I've found that they provide a welcome distraction for the small part of my consciousness that serves as the eternal critic, deriding every creative thought that enters my mind and dares to transfer itself onto paper or computer screen.  (That part certain has its uses - namely in the editing and revising phase of creation - but it's a voice that needs to shut up when a work is in its formative stages.)  The acts and instructions of cooking are far enough removed from what I'm writing or drawing in order to keep the programs from being distractions themselves, as my having seen them before keeps me from becoming too consumed with what's happening there to neglect the work I'm creating.

The second variety is specifically Star Trek episodes from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  I've seen these series enough times to usually recall the plot of an episode with no more than the first few seconds of the opening scene, so once again the danger for distraction is minimal.  Also, though the plots and milieu are somewhat uncomplicated compared to the stories I endeavor to tell, they for me also represent a large part of my foundational narrative: that is, I grew up with these stories, so at some elemental level, they possess poetic resonance with the very reasons that drew me toward storytelling in the first place.  

The third variety are Japanese-language programs, primarily documentaries and - predictably - cooking shows.  While this variety may be of best use for those creators who are familiar with more than one language, I find that having a program or even music playing with voice overs or vocals in a different language from the one in which I'm writing helps to keep the white noise from doing more than distracting your inner critic, and perhaps distracting or even interfering with your creative process itself.  I've encountered situations where the white noise I've employed had a detrimental impact on my writing, specifically where I had set my music player to repeat a single song - usually one that I'd only recently discovered and therefore wanted to hear over and over again.  Some of the worst, most melodramatic and pandering drivel I've ever typed resulted from the ad nauseum repetition of an otherwise perfectly good song, and I can't for the life of me explain why it happened.  But not only did the repetition confound my creative efforts, it also tainted my feelings toward the songs themselves, as I'd remember the atrocities against creation they had lead me to commit whenever I heard them after that.  Through this painful trial and error, I learned that repeating a single song while creating is a poisoned well that taints both the one who drinks from it, and the very watertable from which it springs.

So what lessons can we draw from these examples of white noise that worked and those that didn't?  I would say that successful white noise distracts your inner critic, thereby giving your creative mind the clarity it needs to do its job.  But it distracts in such a way that does not pull your attention away from the act of creating, or exert undue influence on the creative process itself.  

Ultimately, what works best for your white noise depends on your own background and preferences, though I would suspect that creating to white noise is a useful technique for anyone who has ever had their inner critic shout down creative ideas that should have been given the chance to make the blank page a little less so.  

What do you think about using white noise while creating, and if you use it, what seems to work best for you?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fictional Review: Working'!! and the Slice-of-Life Genre

Having added an apostrophe to its title (and logo!?), Working'!! is back for its second season.

Continuing the titling convention used in the second season of K-On! (aka "K-On!!" - the two exclamation points referring to it being the second season), Working!! (in which the first season already included the two exclamation points) recently began its second season under the name "Working'!!" - and yes, the apostrophe is not a typo.

Watching the first episode of the new season was a bit of a challenge for me, as the fansub group have upgraded their offerings to 10-bit video encoding, which even the latest version of VLC (1.1.11) does not yet support, displaying only a blank green screen of sadness where the video should be.  Updating to the latest CCCP codec set and opening the video with Media Player Classic fixed the problem for me.  The increase in the depth of visual quality between the encodes I'd in the previous season, which was presumably 8-bit, and this one is striking, as even backgrounds seemed to pop with definition and character:

I'll admit it: the depth of detail on the candy display here made my jaw drop the first time I saw it.

The story picks up pretty much where it left off in the first season, following the employees at the Wagnaria western-style restaurant as their eccentricities complicate their working lives.  If you're new to the series, the second season isn't where you'll want to begin watching, as many of the character's behaviors may seem inexplicable without the benefit of background exposition.  If you're a veteran of season one, though, watching the new season is very much like returning to school - and a familiar lineup of friends and acquaintances - after a summer break.

The girls and surrounds of Wagnaria look especially sharp in 10-bit video.

Working'!! is firmly entrenched in the comedy/slice-of-life genres, the latter of which being, as far as I'm aware, far more prevalent in Japan (particularly in anime/manga form) than it is in the West.  The slice-of-life genre is characterized by light plotting and characterization built on a milieu designed to evoke and emulate everyday life.  From a Western viewpoint of characterization and plot work, the slice-of-life genre should be fairly one-dimensional and uninteresting.  Yet examples of this genre (of which K-On!! is another recent exemplar) have an almost inexplicable allure that draws you into the uncomplicated storyline, and invests you emotionally in the relatively simplistic characters.  Whereas western storylines tend to use conflict and pain to induce audience members to invest emotionally in characters and plot, slice-of-life works focus on evoking a kind of warm appreciation - the Japanese expression, which defies complete translation, is mono no aware, or what I would call the sweet evanescence of all things - for the mundane, the familiar, and the familial.  It flies in the face of everything I learned about fiction writing in college - yet it works.

Part of the reason this entry is a "Fictional Review" as opposed to a "Stories That Matter" review is because  it isn't really the story that matters in slice-of-life works.  And though the characters themselves can gain a strong following, I think it ultimately is the work's ability to evoke a familiar milieu and distill it down to its most essential elements that makes this genre work as a form of storytelling.  K-On!! evokes the high school milieu, in particular the notion of a small group of close friends united by common interests (a common and ubiquitous trope in real life) and intensifies the experience through the rich interactions of members of the KeiOn Bu.  Likewise, Working'!! evokes the milieu of part-time working and the relationships a person builds with his or her coworkers, and magnifies those elements through the potentially over-the-top yet endearing qualities and behaviors of the Wagnaria staff.

Though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool anime and manga otaku, what intrigues me the most about a fictional work like Working'!! is how it shows that there can be more to storytelling than the traditional and overarching motivators of conflict and pain.  While I would still maintain that conflict and pain are essential parts of storytelling, and that even slice-of-life works like Working'!! cannot succeed without including a little bit of both, what this series demonstrates is that there are other methods of building a report with an audience.  It shows that the palette of colors that a fiction creator has at his or her disposal is larger and more varied than depicted by traditional viewpoints.  Mastering the techniques that underlie the slice-of-life genre is essential not just to aspiring anime makers or manga artists, but to anyone looking to deepen the emotional impact of the stories they create.

What do you think of Working'!!, the slice-of-life genre, or the role that familiarity or identification plays in storytelling?  Feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo #03, Fictional Tips #01: Where Story Ideas Come From

Now that I’ve covered the necessary background of what NaNoWriMo is and what you should do to get ready for it, I can back up a few steps and address those who would like to participate, but haven’t really given much thought to writing a novel until now.  One of the most common questions interested parties ask novelists and other storytellers is “Where do you get your ideas?”  It makes sense that this would be one of the first questions people would ask, as almost every story ever written began its life as a simple idea – or, phrased a little bit differently, a “What If.”

It Always Starts With “What If . . . ?”

In many ways, “What If” is the very core of storytelling.  Describing “What Is” doesn’t require a storyteller; all it requires is an attentive observer.  But considering “What If” implies a two-step process of posing a question, and then working out an answer.   Unlike the realm of “What Is,” neither question nor answer actually exists.  Both seem to spring from the storyteller like Athena from Zeus’s forehead: full-grown and ready to wage war.  Which can lead the casual onlooker to wonder: how did she get in there – and where did she find her weapons?

Like everything else in life, ideas for storytelling come from our experiences; they are not, however, limited to them.  A novelist can write about a murderer, or even from the viewpoint of a killer, without having ever taken a life.  Gene Roddenberry could create warp drives and Klingons without ever having to stop and work out whether either of them could actually exist.  In fact, the premise of Star Trek could easily be posed as a “What If” question:

What if advanced technology and an intergalactic egalitarian society allowed humankind to send its best and brightest out to explore the final frontier of outer space?

Or Lord of the Rings:

What if a ring of limitless and corrupting power fell into the hands of a young hobbit?

Or the Harry Potter series:

What if an orphaned boy discovers he is the wizarding world’s best hope against the very dark lord who orphaned him?

In posing what could be, and then attempting to answer that question, we take on the central challenge that storytellers have assumed since time immemorial.  It’s the first step in a journey that, in truth, can never end – and where the journey itself is everything.

Building to Critical Mass

Sometimes, no matter what idea you try to plug into the “What If” rubric, it just seems to fall short.  If that happens – or, more specifically, when – don’t panic.  And don’t simply discard your idea.  Just because it falls short on its own doesn’t mean it’s inherently doomed to failure.  It just needs a little help, and try as we may, we aren’t always up to the task of giving our ideas the help they need, at the very moment they need them. 

And that’s OK, because ideas come to us all the time, if we’re prepared to recognize and retain them.  As long as we hold on to those ideas that seem to fall short, they’ll be on hand when another idea comes – one that is, perhaps, also not quite enough on its own – and can lend us a hand.  As Orson Scott Card notes in his Characters and Viewpoint, combining two distinct ideas can give rise to something completely original and utterly compelling in a way that either idea alone could never achieve.   (His Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel Speaker for the Dead is a great example, being a combination of the continuing storyline from Ender’s Game and an initially separate idea of a “speaker for the dead.”)