Monday, June 16, 2014

Why You Should See X-Men: Days of Future Past AGAIN

Lately I've been studying cinematic storytelling techniques and conventions. I just mention this because it is the only reason I noticed what I'm about to tell you.

SPOILER SORT-OF WARNING: I won't give away any plot details that aren't explicitly narrated in the opening shots of the movie, but if you read on you might find yourself distracted next time you see the movie.

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past the first time because I like genre films and this one got good reviews.

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past the second time because I loved it the first time and I'm a wee bit obsessed with Michael Fassbender.

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past the third time because I wanted to get some character inspiration from James McAvoy's too-good-for-genre portrayal of Sad Charles. (Also, I didn't want to go home after a beautiful night out and there is nothing else to do at 10:30pm on a Sunday in my sleepy-ass town.)

WELL. This third time I knew the story well enough to sit back and enjoy the cinematic details. And what did I discover?

X-Men: Days of Future Past is an homage to War Games.

Do you want to play a game?

First, there is the basic premise. A war waged with machines devolves into a no-win nightmare, and the heroes must prevent this before it starts. I know, this also describes the plot of Terminator and probably countless other things.

I say it's an homage to War Games specifically because XM:DoFP is also a visual tic-tac-toe game. Next time you see it, look for the X's and O's.

The X obviously represents Professor X and the X-Men and all things good. At the start of the movie, when things are not going well at all, we primarily see the Xavier X inside an O. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; circles are used throughout the film to represent everything Professor X is up against.

It's subtle at first. Notice the spiral staircase in Trask's office (which incidentally calls back to the 1974 movie The Conversation). Then notice the circles in his lamps and artwork. Trask is depicted with a halo handing an artificial limb to a girl in a wheelchair.

As the tension builds, we'll see more circles everywhere from the Professor's own wheelchair to the Presidential Seal to hatches and hats and earrings. Every weapon, literal and figurative, features a circle. By the movie's climax, Professor X is literally buried under and circumscribed by O's.

Once you see it, you won't be able to un-see it.

So what's my point? It's not to ruin the movie for you. It's just this: As novelists it is our job to layer meaning into our stories without bogging them down. We carefully choose verbs that imply adverbs, convey character through voice, tone through description, and in every other way make every word do as many jobs as possible. Great filmmakers do the same, packing as much meaning into every frame as they can afford to. I suppose it is what all artists do, from poets to sculptors to musicians. Maybe this is what defines great art. I just know that as a writer, every time I study any other kind of art, I learn something that helps me be a better writer.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts Provoked by The Rejectionist

Author and blogger Sarah McCarry and I have pretty much nothing in common, but last night we both went to see Skyfall.

In Sarah's post about her viewing, she shares a personal issue she has watching violence, even fictional violence, particularly against women.  She describes her intense and visceral reactions as being "not normal", and it's true that I for one did not have the same reaction at an emotional level to the Skyfall shot in question even if it did disappoint me from a critical standpoint for the same reasons.

I do, however, have a similar issue with children. Any time I hear a story about a child coming to harm through malice or neglect, I am undone.  I hear the story and the scene starts playing in my head in IMAX 3D.  I am there, watching, helpless, feeling the pain and the fear and the need.  And then the hopelessness and the anger and the sadness and the bitterness  And then the scene repeats and it keeps repeating.  Eventually my own life mixes with the images and I sort of come back, though I never unsee these little movies.

So I think I can relate to Sarah a little, but I am lucky.  I've learned how to mostly avoid such stories from real life (with some help from my husband), and I am also forced to observe that popular entertainment does not, as a rule, feature harm coming to children except in sanitized stories actually written for children. 

But why do you suppose this is?  Are we spared the glorification of violence against children as a matter of traditional values, or because a significant proportion of viewers are like me, so genuinely repulsed by it that the shit just wouldn't sell?  And do we tend to be more repulsed by children coming to harm than adult women - or men - out of biological instinct or simply because we are more inured to the latter? 

My guess is that a lot of parents, possibly mothers in particular, are biologically hardwired to protect children, and the more the children seem like our own children the more intense the instinct.  I think if we could be inured to it, if it could sell, there would be such movies being made left and right already.  I sincerely hope we never see that day.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Congrats to D.J. Kirkby

Thing #1:  I'm still not dead.  Just running the biz and working on that other project that has everything to do with writing except actually writing.  (Why you ask?  Because I like my life meta.)

Thing #2: Congratulations Congratulations Congratulations to blog buddy and client D.J. Kirkby on the release of her second novel, My Dream of You.  Go check it out and celebrate with her on her blog (pssst... she's giving away prizes!)  I can't wait to read it!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What Should Your Focus Be?

Thursday was a busy night.  First I had dinner with a seasoned entrepreneur.  She told me founders don't think enough about exit strategy.

Right from there I went to an event where another seasoned entrepreneur was giving a talk.  He advises not thinking too much about exit strategy. 

After he spoke, I met another guy, who went through a startup accelerator program, wherein one meets with dozens of such mentors.  So often does one get conflicting advice in this world, he said they have a name for it: mentor whiplash.

So at the end of the day, you just have to use your own judgment.  In this case, I've decided not to think too much about exit strategy.  Basically, when people talk about startup exit strategy, they're talking about selling their company - figuring out which bigger companies might want to buy it, at what point it would be most attractive to those companies, what it will cost the founder to get to that point, and how to position the startup to the founders' best advantage.

In my opinion and experience, thinking this way early on can be a trap.  The problem is you start designing the product for the potential acquirer instead of for the user.  It's a huge risk in any case, but if you stop focusing on the user, you're going to have an unusable product.  What's worse is that a hundred other entrepreneurs are probably looking at that same opportunity, so you're going to have an unusable product in a particularly competitive space.  You won't be able to sell the product or the company.

All Thursday night, I was remembering agent and editor blog posts along these very same lines.  Don't write YA paranormal romance because that's what your favorite agent likes, or steampunk because some editor said they're looking for it...  if it's not your passion, you either won't finish or by the time you do finish, it will end up looking like the same formulaic coattail-chaser as a million other entries, and the moment will have passed anyway.  Instead of writing a specific kind of book, write whatever kind of book you can make great.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It Happened AGAIN!

OK, so last night this guy emailed me.  We used to work together - sort of.  He was a VP at this consulting firm I worked at right out of college.  I remember him not at all, and only remember a few things about this firm:
  1. The consultants were, on the whole, conspicuously attractive people.
  2. The consultants were, on the whole, lazy.  The few people who worked really hard kept the whole thing afloat, but they got less good-looking the harder they worked.  True fact.
  3. At the time, I wanted to write a novel about a data analyst at a such a firm who discovers a big international plot and is recruited by the CIA... or turns out to be a spy all along...  or some such bullshit.  I couldn't figure out how else to make data analysis seem interesting.
Well, I just talked to this guy.  (He claims to remember me, which is either very flattering or an obvious lie.  I have an inflated ego, so I choose the former.)  And guess what?

HE WROTE THE NOVEL.  He wrote a novel about an international consulting firm that has something to do with spies.

It's sort of adorable that I ever imagine my ideas to be unique, or ever worry they aren't.  What they are, mostly, is just ideas.  Ideas are a dime a dozen; everyone has them.  Original idea is practically an oxymoron.  It's execution that matters.  This guy spent three years figuring out how to make consulting seem interesting, and another three years getting it published. 

Kudos man, kudos.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Better Sooner Than Later

I guess it was inevitable.  I have four novels in various states of completion.  Tonight I saw the movie trailer for one of them.  The exact same story.  The same opening scene! 

&^%$*! @#$%*!

Oh well, of the four novels, it was the least complete and least interesting.  Hopefully it was the least original too, right?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How Starting a Business is Like Writing a Novel

1. The Blank Page.

You start out with a general idea of where you're going, but there are no constraints - you can go anywhere.  The choices can be overwhelming.  You spend a lot of time meandering and no small portion completely lost.  Your final destination is practically invisible until you're practically on top of it.

2.  The Work.

It is so much more work than it looks like.  Every day you realize it requires another skill, another domain of knowledge, another chunk of time that you have to find a way to acquire.

3. The Qualification Paradox.

You know perfectly well you are woefully underqualified, and also that the only way to become qualified is to just do it.  So you fake it 'til you make it: spend every day pretending to yourself that you can do it until you discover you've actually done it.

4. The Business.

You have to figure out who you're selling to, what they want, how you can give them something they didn't even know they needed that can only come from you.  You have to figure out who you want on your team and how to attract them and how to deal with them.  You have to figure out where the time is going to come from.

5.  The Investors.

You have to decide if you want outside investment, who would be the best fit, and then polish your pitch.  And polish it some more.  And realize in the process that your product needs work and go back and polish that, and then come back and polish your pitch all over again.  Repeat.

BONUS.  The Courage and the Faith.

There is every reason to believe you will fail, and that it will hurt.  This is why most people will never try.  But those who do, who take the leap of faith, will tell you that creating something is a journey, not a test.  The concepts of success and failure over time are far murkier than you'd imagined.  At the end of the day, it is your journey and your courage that will make you proud and bring you happiness.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Will You Leave in 2011?

At the beginning of my adult life, I was all about accumulation. I was going through my journey grabbing up experiences and things like a squirrel hording nuts against winter.  Then came the day I realized some of the things I was dragging along were holding me back, and an important person in my life pointed out the obvious yet profound truth that it's both OK and possible to leave some baggage behind.

So now this is part of my New Year's process: choosing a burden to abandon.  Of course, deciding to lighten the load is only the first step - implementation can take the whole year, maybe a lot longer.  Nonetheless, it has worked well so far.  Two years ago I left behind fear of not having a traditional job.  Last year I dropped some internally-imposed boundaries of who and what I could be. 

I think it's not coincidental that I also shed a great volume of physical objects from my possession in each of these years.

As for this year, well, I'm still deciding.  What about you?  Is there something you can go into 2012 without?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

3 Interesting Facts from Techland

Here are a few things of interest to writing professionals:

Thing 1:  Businesses, especially online businesses, are constantly trying to claw their way up Google rankings.  The single most direct and effective way to do this is to constantly add fresh content to their website. 

Thing 2: Lots of businesses do not have the vision or the budget to generate new content or edit existing content, especially if they don't see themselves as being in the content business.

Thing 3: There are now companies writing software that automatically generates content.  For example, input sport scores and output game recap stories.  Input stock tickers and output market stories.  Input #whatevertopic twitter feed and output article on whatevertopic.  No human writer involved.

Does anyone else find this a little creepy and uncool?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Getting a Little Closer

Helloooooooo!  I'm hooooooooome! 

Boy, the dust is pretty thick around here, but at least there are no critter droppings.

So.  I've been away awhile.  Things got a leetle bit crazy this past year.  Where to begin?  Well, as documented in prior posts, I left my job at Major Well-Known Internet Company a bit less than two years ago and started a little consulting firm.  This has gone extremely well, better than I could have hoped, and yet has turned out to not be quite the fresh start I was looking for.  I am still me, after all, and before I knew it, my path veered sharply away from anything to do with writing and all the way back into my old stomping grounds of data management.  Suddenly I find myself in essentially the same job at a tech startup that I had left at Major Well-Known Internet Company - with all the same frustrations and far less time to write.


Time to refocus.  Let's start with Lessons Learned:
  1. I really enjoy this tech stuff, especially the part about being good at it.
  2. I'm not too chicken to give up a good income to run my own business, but I am too chicken to give up a good income to write.
  3. I enjoy all the stuff that goes with writing - talking with authors, learning about the craft, and following the industry - at least as much as I enjoy writing itself.
So, I'm course-correcting.  I'm not ready to dedicate time to writing, but I am leaving the new/old job to focus on a new project that has everything to do with writing minus actually writing.  Baby steps, right?