Where we go

Recently I talked with some friends on whether Obama is a good for the world or not. And, to be honest, I think he’s not. On some level I felt, ever since the election, that it might have been better if MaCain had won. Not because I believe he would have been better, quite the opposite, but because he would have brought down the house faster. The way I see it these days, the problems of capitalism are not fixable through the ways and means that brought it into the world. Long discussion :). Anyway, then I stumbled on this article by Naomi Klein – of Shock Doctrine and No Logo fame. Echos  many of my sentiments. Quite a good read actually.

This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his “Yes We Can!” slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is “big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy”. And then their highest compliment: “Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player.”

Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued “bipartisanship” with crazed Republicans once in the White House.

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Movie Review: Night of the Demons

I saw the original “Night of the Demons,” but I don’t remember much about it. I seem to recall that there was a nun chaperoning a dance who kept telling the dancing teens to leave room between them for the Holy Spirit. When the demon got loose and the body count started spiraling that nun kicked some righteous ass. I don’t know if that was the first or second “Night of the Demons,” btw.

The remake stars Shannon Elizabeth, who is barely in the movie. She rents a haunted mansion for a Halloween party and ends up getting possessed by a demon. The results are predictable, except the filmmakers screw up and kill off too many characters too fast. By forty-five minutes in only three characters remain, one of them cannon fodder. Since most of the fun in movies like this is watching people die in creative ways, knocking off half your cast in five minutes is a bad idea. Continue reading

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The Art of “Not-to-Rock” – at times

PJ Harvey made a new album and I fucking love it. Now there are two options for you: You could save yourself some time and just obtain “Let England Shake” through some channel (I still favor CDs, my home insurance doesn’t cover iTunes in case of a fire ;)) or you can listen to me telling you how good it is for a while and then get it (should you choose to do neither, the evil creeperman will eat your soul some night soon).

I’ll try to be brief though. Harvey’s new album is weirdly intimate and soul gripping. Part may be the instrumentation which is very folky for someone who made her career on noisy guitar rock. Another aspect is her singing. Harvey sings in her highest key throughout the album, reinventing herself once more (She has ever been of the tribe of musical chameleons). Her voice echos hauntingly familiar, to use a somewhat overused but, in this case, apt expression. It’s almost like the memory of someone you think you might have known at some point and just can’t place until you realize you’ve known this person for a long time and she has just chosen to show you another facet of herself.

Harvey recorded the album in an old church somewhere in Dorset, England. Maybe one of the ways she got in touch with her country’s musical roots. Still, it’s not a nostalgic look back. There are too many reminiscences of war and carnage here. But then that is history, seen from the perspective of the angel of history.

Here is a short two-part interview Harvey did with the NMW: If one day I can talk about my own art in a somewhat similar manner, well, my efforts will not have been in vain.


Part two and some other stuff after the break.

Continue reading

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The Global Seed Vault

I just found out about the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard today.

It reminds me of a novel that one of the denizens of this very blog was writing at one point. You know who you are!


Also, I think I just broke a lightbulb with my mind. I mean I’m that stressed-out. Ka-pow!

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Yes, and…

I just Googled “Yes, and…”

And the second result was this.

I do post more often when I’m procrastinating. Why do you ask?

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Wrongra. Wrong-ra! Pronunciation: rong-ruh. I don’t know how to make diacritical marks in html, do you? Pronounced like the word ‘wrong’ with a ‘ruh’ on the end.

Have you heard this expression? It means “wrongest, most wrong,” or “wronger than wrong” or perhaps if we’re feeling silly, “Lord of the wrong,” “King among wrongs.” It is used to describe a person, place, thing, phenomenon, or situation that is supremely lacking in Right-ness, such that we fear permanent damage to the balance of the universe.

I’m writing something today and I came to a place in my narrative where this term would not have gone amiss. In fact, it would have been perfect, and I can’t think of anything better. “Really wrong” seems woefully inadequate by comparison. But I wonder if over a dozen people use the term.

Maybe I’ll put it in anyway.

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Shocking revelations

Let’s get something out in the open. The biggest revelation in this article was not that Tom Cruise wanted custom nickel-plating and cherry-red paint on his motorcycle. It was this:

Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis got his start writing scripts for Scooby-Doo and other classic musty old cartoons!

I know this is the second post wherein I’ve mentioned Scooby-Doo. Lest I start to seem like some demented closet fan, I should explain that my attempts to learn the craft of writing have oddly coincided with my 5-year-old daughter’s discovery of the beloved talking-dog detective.

And those two events, happening in concert with one another, have set up an echo in my head… a maddening echo that I want to share with everyone… an echo that sounds like this: “Oh no, my glasses! I can’t see without them!”

It’s not that I like Scooby-Doo, but it has a strange negative fascination for me. For starters I love talking animals, and I love amateur detectives, and I’ve always been flummoxed how a show that incorporates both of those things could go so awfully wrong.

But there’s something else, something that incorporates a whiff of dated slang, a dash of “As you know, Bob,” a pinch of Captain Obvious. It’s that groovy dialogue!

The dialogue in old cartoons is not just bad. It’s bad in a certain workmanlike way that feels strangely indulgent. It accomplishes things you’re not supposed to accomplish in dialogue while speeding merrily on its way without a backward glance.

Let’s call it Boneheaded Dialogue. I think I may have coined this term myself (said with a wink of course), so let’s define it. Boneheaded Dialogue must either state something obvious about the scene, or gleefully telegraph an emerging (and probably also obvious) plot point. Sometimes it can even do both. Like this:

“Oh no, my glasses! I can’t see without them!”

“Gee, what a spooky place to run out of gas.”

“What would a ghost from outer space be doing reading the newspaper?”

I’ll be honest and say that my desire to stamp out Boneheaded Dialogue is at war with my equally strong, albeit perverse, desire to promulgate even more Boneheaded Dialogue for the next generation to enjoy.

I’ve committed acts of Boneheaded Dialogue in real life as well (although I suppose then it would be called Boneheaded Conversation). For example, I wish I could share the chirpy remark I dropped into contented silence at a dinner party the night Arturo Gatti was found murdered. But this isn’t a boxing blog.

My point being, I guess, go Paul Haggis! For moving up from that hardworking Scooby Doo dialogue all the way to an Oscar.

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The Secrets of Scriptwriting

Of course, there’s only one real secret in the arts – work harder.

That is the Big Secret, but there are plenty of others. Here’s another big one for writers. I started as a scriptwriter, and writing scripts is excellent training for writing fiction. It teaches you to write in scenes, to tell stories through images and dialog, and most importantly? It teaches you to write for an audience. There’s a lot more to writing for an audience than any of us know.

First, a caveat. Fiction writers are known in the film industry as terrible scriptwriters, and I have a notion as to why. I’ve heard two excellent fiction writers speak of their scriptwriting experiences, and they both said, “Oh, it’s so easy, there are so few words per page.” And one admitted his script was bad, and the other failed to sell the script. They were right in that a page of script has about a quarter the word count of a page of manuscript. They were wrong about the other part.

I have sold cartoon scripts that were broadcast on BBC and the Warner Brothers’ website. It takes me twice as long to write a page of script as a page of prose. Which means I spend about eight times as much effort on a word of script as a word of prose. If fewer words meant easier work, then poetry would be the easiest thing in the world to write. It ain’t. It’s the hardest. Get me?

Now for the good stuff.

Scenes are one of the basic units of dramatic fiction – a story is made up of a series of scenes, and in fact a scene is a small story in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and central conflict. However, many times writers will use exposition in place of scenes. By this I mean that instead of a fully-described set of actions occurring in a fully-described setting, we are given a synopsis of the events in question –

The Detective rubbed his chin and gazed into the gas jets of the fake fireplace. “So, how did you come to realize that someone had modified the scrimshaw work on your sister’s false leg?” (scene)
The Lawyer’s reply was halting and difficult to understand. (exposition)

This is weak. Exposition does not engage the reader. A scene does. Exposition can be the most graceful way of handling things that the reader needs to know and doesn’t want to read about…

… but a movie does not give you the option of using exposition. In film, all you have is sight and sound. So you are forced to tell the story entirely in scenes, and every scene has to hold the reader’s interest. In the script you can bring in other sensory cues or small bits of exposition for the people who will film it, but they won’t make it to the audience. And what is necessary in a film is frequently preferable in a story.The idea that fiction should be primarily sight and dialog predates film – I think Flaubert might be the man responsible – and it still holds a lot of truth. I do think a full sensorium is best in fiction, but a strong visual focus is key. If the reader can’t see what’s going on, they’re lost.

Additionally, working only in scenes teaches you the value of the cut. Too much of the time writers – and I include myself here – spend time to-ing and fro-ing, having characters walk and turn keys and open doors and attend to various personal matters.

Sometimes they do this in movies. And when they do so, the actors use it as an opportunity to show you the character. But usually? They will cut from one important scene to the next one, no interval, bim-bam. This works in fiction as well. There are quiet scenes, there are times when you want to give the character a sandwich and some time to think – but those thoughts have to be important to the reader, the sandwich has to mean something to the character.

Quiet moments should only be in your story if they are real scenes, and most stories work best if they consist of nothing but important scenes, one right after another. Don’t be afraid to leave out the boring stuff. Your first question about any difficult passage should be, “Can I leave this out?”

Dialog functions differently in scripts than in prose. It carries more weight because it is spoken by actors trained to add to the delivery, or even modify the script to best fit their portrayal of a character. Scenes are constructed around the rhythms of dialog, and it’s the flow of conversation that determines when a scene starts and ends. There are things that can’t be done on film that can be done on the page. The reverse is not true. You can bring your characters to life on the page through skillful dialog and description. How does your dialog sound when you read it out loud? If you’re a scriptwriter, you’re gonna find out the hard way. Read it yourself. You never know which passages that look simple on the page will tangle in the mouth.

Here’s the central conflict in scriptwriting. You have to write for more than one audience. When I did cartoons, I wrote for the story editor and the director of the show, for the actors, for the animators, and for the viewer. All in addition to myself. The story editor and the director wanted something that filled the formula of the show and succeeded as a story. The actors wanted dialog that was fun and engaging. The animators wanted exciting visuals. And the people watching the cartoon wanted three minutes away from working on their spreadsheets.

A script isn’t a work in itself. It is a set of instructions for creating a story. This is also true of fiction. Fiction is not a work in itself. It is a performance that you write and the reader executes. You must equip the reader to design the sets, to get the best performances from the actors.

Fiction is a set of instructions to the reader, telling them how to create the story in their minds. There are formal and experimental aspects of fiction that can play against story, but for the vast majority of fiction, this is a true statement.

So. You might want to write your next short story as a script. Or rewrite part of a completed piece as a script. Or you might go crazy and try your hand at a full film script. Look into scriptwriting. It’s one of the secrets.

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Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge (534 pages, Science Fiction)

This book was the one that made me want to write science fiction and fantasy.  Round about 2002, I was on a 6-month excavation project in Honduras and I found a battered copy of Fire Upon the Deep stuffed into the project book shelf.  I picked it up, and within minutes was totally engrossed.  Fast forward to 2011, when I spotted a copy on a markdown shelf at Borders (poor, sad, dying Borders) and grabbed it for a re-read.  Man had I forgotten how good it is.  There is much genius in this book – genius in plot, structure, and story, and genius in world-building, too.

On the surface, the coolest thing about Fire Upon the Deep are the Tines, the group-mind species Vinge creates to inhabit a wild, ferocious back-water planet at the Bottom of the Beyond.  They’re like dogs, but “individuals” are created by combining several members into a pack.  Each member performs different functions or brings different personality traits or types of intelligence to the whole, and they think and operate as one.  Though the Tines are truly alien, they are also deeply familiar to us humans in terms of their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.  Into this world come two children fleeing an interstellar terror set on destroying the entire galaxy (called The Blight).

The deeper genius of the book is how it structurally juxtaposes the plight of these kids as they attempt to survive on the Tines world with the malicious plans of the Blight.  A third plot line involves a group of humans – one of whom may actually be a puppet for a god-like intelligence – and Skroderiders (another fabulously ingenious alien species Vinge dreamed up) as they attempt to rescue the marooned children.

The pace is brisk, yet Vinge still manages to find a way to world-build and exposit without weighing the story down.  As he switches between story lines (and eventually brings them all together), the reader is treated to the full scope of this incredible universe – from the great powers that shape interstellar events all the way down to the tiny individuals caught up in those events.  Honestly, it’s completely masterful.

If you haven’t read this classic, do it now.

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Questions of scale in the universe

I just read a sf story by a friend of mine. While really liking the idea and the prose I found the logical progression to be not quite convincing. Without going into details here, I think it has to do with the ability of the human mind to wrap itself around the immensity of the cosmos.

Today I stumbled across this video which is a good step in the right direction. I know there are more like it and I will keep adding as I find them. Suggestions welcome.

Here’s another one:

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