Noise, Music, and the Crowning Moment of Awesome

Our heroine strides boldly into an area filled with the enemy, shouldering an assault rifle and taking them out one by one. They are a slow, faceless enemy, not one is an individual threat. Their numbers make them lethal, however, and what will happen to her if captured in unthinkable.

Behind our heroine are two more members of our trusty team. They are deeply concerned for her. She is putting herself in grave danger, wandering away from her friends to confront the numberless enemy one-on-one. It was tragedy that drove her to it, emotional trauma so severe it made her snap. She stops to tell them to leave her alone, but they won’t. So she ignores them and continues taking out the enemy, headshot by headshot, quick and efficient and merciless. She is a sight to behold, and we stand in awe.

Suddenly, one of the women following her begins to have flashbacks. The violence here, the wrath of our heroine in her crowning moment of awesome, reminds the second woman of her own trauma, and of her own awesome abilities. She lifts her handgun and begins to fire.

“I don’t need your help,” the heroine says.

“I’m not doing it for you,” says lady number two.

Now we have two people simultaneously snapping, simultaneously having reached the breaking point in their separate story arcs, each with their own trauma to deal with. And they are both blowing the enemy away. Third girl goes in with a knife, and is awesome, because why not?

Heroine number one runs out of ammo and gets pinned by a bad guy. Just as we think she is about to die, heroine number two casually blows the bad guy’s brain out from point blank range.

“I almost had him!” heroine number one snarls. Resume combat.

 

 

At this point, I left. I just couldn’t keep watching. Each of the heroines’ outbursts of righteous anger, their thirst for just vengeance, and their remarkable ability to make it happen would have been awe inspiring—on its own. But heroine number two undercuts heroine number one, and heroine number one distracts from heroine number two. In this single climactic moment, multiple good guys are confronted by the same dangerous situation, and their separate stories reach a climax, or at least a turning point, but we can’t enjoy either. It’s like Eminem and George Strait blasting from speakers in the same room—separately, each song might be the best in its genre, but together it’s just a lot of loud, foul, twangy noise. This kind of writing drives me up the wall.

It’s easy to imagine where it comes from. If one person snapping and taking out the bad guys is awesome, wouldn’t two be twice as awesome? Especially if we can work them into the same situation, and get them interacting with each other? On a surface level it’s very appealing. One could even see how someone might enjoy watching it. If you take the stories out of context, heroine number one’s story is incredible. The same goes for heroine number two. But set beside each other, it’s distracting.

This is the kind of storytelling that grows out of playing pretend. As a kid, I used to do this all the time. My buddies and I would be running through the woods, killing aliens, orcs, dark elves, demons, Nazis, zombies, whatever kind of bad guy we could come up with. We’d been playing all afternoon, and there had been plot twists, betrayals, romances, secret missions behind enemy lines. But now one of us would be facing the Big Bad of our story. Now was the moment when all of that back story came into play, where that one person’s character would be put to the test.

But, hey, we have to play fair. We can’t let him hog the awesome. My character is cool, too! So one person interrupts the other’s moment of truth to have their own drama-filled moment, their own trial. The story gets adjusted to accommodate them, and then a third kid wants to be awesome too. It quickly turns into an episode of the Expendables, each person trying to match or outdo the other, trying to play just as awesome a part in the story. And as a result, the story breaks down. Nobody really defeats the bad guy or becomes a hero in a satisfying fashion. We are just a team of Supermen, all invincible and of sterling character. And most of us slightly annoyed.

The problem here is that no one is actually interested in telling a good story. We’re interested in constructing a fantasy where we can be better than we are in real life. This is an escape into wish-fulfillment. The same thing happens in a lot of sci-fi TV shows featuring a “team” or a “family” setup. Our crew of space cowboys each functions as a stand-in for a separate section of the fandom. A whole bunch of people want to be Mal, others want to be Jayne, or River Tam, or Zoe, or Wash. These characters are them if they were awesome, are them if they had a crew like that, and could go on wild space adventures.

Given this setup, what happens when we reach a climactic episode? Well, we can’t focus on Mal, because the fans want more of River Tam. But we can’t focus on River Tam and not Jayne. And so on and so forth. We try to please everyone by making their favorite character as awesome as possible, and end up losing sight of the big picture.

Now, I use Firefly as an example, but Joss Whedon is actually pretty good at balancing his characters and blending their arcs into a solid overarching story. He is, perhaps, the example of how to pull this off, if you really have to. But so many sci-fi shows are bad at this. Kids’ cartoons do it as well. And as a result, they keep devoted fans, but they are fans of the superficial awesome, people who just want their characters, the vessels they escape in, to continue existing whether the story needs to continue or not.

And so Sunnydale is saved from destruction, and everyone is happy, until the next time, when the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. Eventually people start coming back from the dead just to keep the story going. And we have to bring in new characters so things actually happen. They story that was supposed to be told in the first three or four seasons turns into a twelve season monstrosity that only the diehards can stand, because this alternate universe is their alternate life.

Am I dissing Joss Whedon again? I don’t mean to. Again, he’s basically the only person I’ve seen who can take this sort of fandom and this sort of wish-fulfillment angle of ensemble-cast storytelling, this pretending writ large, and pull it off. But even with him it gets old. And with others, it’s downright unbearable. Fox Mulder found “The Truth” so many times, eventually Scully had to ask him, “What Truth are you looking for? You’ve already found it again and again.” Yes, Scully. Yes he has. But we all need Fox to keep going, so we can keep going.

All this is not to say that there’s no place for escapism, or for ensemble casts. But we do sometimes settle for cheap writing when we could have so much more. We could have a good story, where we explore a character, and their motivations, carrying the story through meaningful tension to a solid climax, and a denouement that leaves us feeling we’ve learned something. Instead, we often sacrifice that for something that looks awesome on paper, and never really goes anywhere. We prefer noise to music.

Why the Daily Posts–And Why They’ll Stop

The predominating problem of most of my life has been lack of discipline. Since this very much effects my writing, interspersing good days with dry spells and letting my progress in a given project depend entirely on which side of the bed I woke up on, I decided to change that. And what better way than to make myself write and post on a blog every day?

Having done so pretty consistently since break began, I think it is safe to say I have the output thing down. The problem is, that an increase in content has not also been an increase in quality on this blog. In order to reach that level of output, my posts have tended to be, on the whole, cheap and easy and less than what I expect of myself.

Now, on the one hand, that is perfectly fine. The point was discipline–that I would force myself to sit down and write for an audience (however small) on a daily basis for an extended period of time. But I do not want this blog merely to be a training ground for my discipline, and I do not want to give what audience I have low-quality stuff. I have higher standards for myself and honestly want to contribute a whole lot more.

This means my experiment in self-discipline and daily blogging will be coming to end in the near future. I will be moving from daily posts on whatever I can find to less regular posts on stuff I actually care about and am willing to talk about coherently. Anything less is a disservice to the people who read this thing. Hopefully that shift towards quality will still allow for regularity, and hopefully this test of self-discipline has proven I can sit down every day and crank out the words. But regardless, I want to give you something better, and in the near future.

This experiment has also been helpful in another way. It has allowed me to find out what I tend to talk about given the chance, and (far more importantly) what I have that people can benefit from. That is something that is hard to pin down, something which has a lot of potential to evolve, but what I have learned will probably also give me some direction in where to take this in the future.

Let me wrap this up by saying “Thank you.” I have received a lot of interest and encouragement over the past few weeks, and it has been a real blessing. I have some great readers, and I hope to show my gratitude by giving you something better.

God bless.

You’ve Got To Believe It

I am a storyteller. Whether I am a good storyteller remains to be seen, but it’s something I do. In that endeavor, I’ve learned a thing or two. One of those is that it’s pretty darn hard to sell a story you don’t believe in. You can think it’s a good story, and you can dress it up in raw talent and technical mastery, but the fact is, if you don’t care then the audience does not care.

It’s not just true for prose, either. I’ve seen acting, and I’ve done acting, and in both cases there’s been good stuff and there’s been bad stuff. You can get the bad stuff from any number of things, but good acting generally only happens when the actor gets inside the character’s head. When you see the world through the character’s eyes, then you can present it the way he sees it. Ask Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger.

This means that a storyteller has to have a certain talent: empathy. If you want to tell a story, you have to believe the story. If you want to believe the story, you have put yourself in that world. There is a lot of imagination involved in that, and a lot of mental and emotional flexibility.

The problem is, no good story is told with just one character in mind. You have to account for the actions of all the characters, and if it’s a good story, then they will have very different motivations. This means you have to have a second talent: confidence in your own view of the world. You have to be able to look at things from multiple angles, but have enough of your own view to be able to separate yourself from the ones you are presenting.

Good storytelling demands this. Empathy and detachment, subjectivism and objectivism, reconciled in a single mind. If you’re not born with it, you have to learn it. It can be learned, but it takes real work.

These things are important, because no matter how good your story, there will be slow parts. You can’t just skate through on the action scenes or moments of high drama. If you get bored when your character goes out for ice cream, so will your audience. That means you have to want that ice cream so that your audience wants that ice cream. And if they don’t, you better be flanking that scene with a couple things you really do believe in. Because if it’s just one long stretch of things you don’t care about, why should we hear your story?

Now pardon me while I go believe in ice cream.

Recovery Reading

So, when I came to NSA, I thought “Cool, a place where I read the classics non-stop.” What I had not anticipated was the fact that I would have little time for anything else. Sadly, I lapsed in my fun reading. Indeed, for months at a time I would read no fiction whatsoever. For an avid reader, that’s disturbing. For someone who wants to write, that’s downright stupid. You need good stuff going in, or no good stuff will ever come out. So, after a crisis and some soul searching, I slapped together a list of books good for writers to read, and I’m starting to read it. This is actually modified from my personal list, and it’s divided up into sections. But check them out, I insist.

Children’s Literature:

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Time Quintet, Madeleine L’Engle
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
The Book of Dragons, Michael Hague
Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
The Chronicles of Prydain , Lloyd Alexander

Non-Fiction:

Dragons: A Natural History, Karl Shuker
The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis
Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Alistair Moffat
Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
Born Fighting: How the Scot-Irish Shaped America, James Webb
God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead
Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval that Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, Michael Barone
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

Mythology:

The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson (Norse)
Theogony, Hesiod (Greek)
From the Poetic Edda: (Norse)
___Alvissmal
___Voluspa
___Grimnismal
___Rigsthula
The Mabinogion (British/Welsh)
Lebor Gebala Erenn (Irish)

Classics:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves: Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Roy Maynard
The Iliad, Homer
The Odyssey, Homer
Beowulf
The Aeneid, Vergil
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Song of Roland
The Oresteia, Aeschylus
MacBeth, Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

More Recent:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series, Tad Williams
Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
The Halfblood Chronicles, Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey
Kolmar Series, Elizabeth Kerner
House, Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker
Monster, Frank Peretti
Prey, Michael Crichton
Timeline, Michael Crichton
A Time to Kill, John Grisham

Arthuriana:

Culhwch and Olwen
The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Dream of Rhonabwy
Peredur Son of Efrawg
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green
The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead
The Warlord Chronicles (not for kids at all), Bernard Cornwell
Camulod Chronicles (also sketchy, haven’t read them all), Jack Whyte
Avalon High (if you feel like high school drama), Meg Cabot
…and several other things mentioned above and below.

More Welsh Stuff:

The Battle of the Trees
Y Gododdin
Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwendydd
The Apple Trees
The Dream of Macsen
Llud and Lefelys

Poetry:

Judith
The Dream of the Rood
Anything by Kipling
Anything by Billy Collins
The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

And so, so much more. But this is quite a lot to sink your teeth into. You can probably tell from this where my interests lie, and where my deficiencies are. If you have suggestions, I’m open to them. But these are mine. Mostly, I recommend picking up a book and following your nose where it leads. It worked for me, when I let myself do it.

God Bless.

Draft One.

Today I sat down in the school library, read a book for theology, took an online test, and shifted my backpack over to a desk near an outlet. There I pulled out my laptop and started to work. Within in five minutes, I realized something. I was done. That was it.

For fifteen minutes I spliced each of the separate chapter files together into draft file. 41,427 words, 99 pages of 11-point Calibri. One complete draft.

Now, I’ve got months to go in terms of editing, and sending it to buddies to edit, and re-editing before I try to get this puppy published. But I’ve got a draft to work with. A glorious draft of lost children in another world putting a king back on his throne. A glorious draft that I am looking forward to cutting, amending, adding onto, tweaking, and tinkering with. In short, complete butchery. Death before resurrection. Good Friday before Easter.

But right now, I’m all Christmas.

Lunacy

 

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

 

I’ve been on a werewolf kick lately, and so my mind’s been on that mythical beast for a while. What is it about wolfmen that terrifies us so much, and that can inspire the culture (not to mention me) with such a morbid fascination?

Now there’s a lot to werewolves, but you have to start with a basic definition. The most common form they take in our stories is that of a man who involuntarily turns into a ravening beast every full moon. Some variations alter the time when the transformation occurs, and others give the accursed some level of control after the shift. Either way, key themes are either hidden power or loss of control.

Whenever the werewolves have some control over their wolf form, the key theme is hidden power. An unassuming individual can, if the circumstances are right, be granted superhuman strength and eerily keen senses. This idea is appealing to folks who feel like they have no power, or else to folks who are afraid that others might secretly be stronger than they look. It’s either liberating, or unsettling.

But when the werewolf has no control over his shifting or his wolf state, we find something I think is far more terrifying: complete loss of control. The human side is just trying to live in peace and to protect those he loves. But occasionally, he loses control and his peaceful life unravels and those he loves are hurt or killed by his actions. This sort of story is about a terrifying lack of self-control and the consequences that result.

Liberation, hidden threats, self-discipline, responsibility. These are powerful themes, and it’s no wonder they can fascinate. Each of these issues can be approached rightly or wrongly, skillfully or poorly. I do of course have opinions on how that should be done, but I would rather show them to you one day than just tell you about them. But regardless of tastes and opinions, it can’t be denied that the werewolf is a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal.

Love and the Artist

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis brought an artist up out of Hell/Purgatory into Heaven to decide if he wanted to stay. This particular artist, a painter, can’t sit still for two minute and enjoy the scenery. He can’t look at the landscape without wanting to paint it. When he’s forced to argue about this, the artist says that’s how every artist should be interested in the world—to put it in art. Art is the goal. The more heavenly local replies thusly:

‘No. You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

And that is profoundly true. An artist is not somebody who sits around thinking about or participating in art all day. That’s why those artsy people are so weird. A good artist, one who has his priorities straight, loves the world he is in, and wants to tell somebody about it.

Fundamentally, an artist is a two year old. Where more mature people just flip on a light, the whole concept makes him excited.

“Did you see that? He flipped that thingy in the wall over there and the round glass thingy way over there went zap! Then it got all bright! Do it again!”

In fact, the only difference between a young artist and a young scholar is that the artist babbles to mom for fifteen minutes straight about how cool the light is, and the young scholar tries to figure out how it works. And those two aren’t really mutually exclusive.

This means that the purpose of the artist is fundamentally to share. I’m fond of explaining both the way I babble to my family and close friends, and my desire to write with the phrase, “I can’t see and not say.” I have to tell somebody. Another artist, of course, might have to share visually with his paints, or musically with a piano. I prefer my words. At any rate, artists see something wonderful about the world and have to tell people about it.

I want to draw two things from this. First, this is why in a lot of societies artists are more or less sacred. In telling people about different aspects of the world, they connect people to a way of looking at life they can get more out of, that makes life more worth living. To paraphrase Lewis, art may not have survival value, but it gives survival value. And in so doing, art teaches people to be more human. That’s why it’s filed away among the humanities.

The other thing that needs to be stated is that when we lose sight of this fact, we get weirdoes and bad artists. If you are concentrated either on your medium instead of the thing it’s mediating, or on what the medium can get you, you will never have as much to say as the person who actually loves what he’s writing, painting, or fiddling about. Wrongly ordered love, as Augustine might say, is bad. You miss the point, and therefore cannot communicate the point to others. Hence both sellouts, who are in it for what the art can get them, and artsy people, who are also in it for what the art can get them, but in a more emotional, needy kind of way.

Let me qualify that: there’s nothing wrong with doing art for a living. After all, the artist has to live, and there’s no reason he can’t love what sells well. Problem is, he has to honestly love what sells well. The other half of that coin is that if what he loves, or what he should love, is not something that sells well, part of his job as an artist is to change that fact. If we’re communicating what we love, we ought to be able to make others love it.

And I will throw in a qualification for artsy-ness as well. All the mediums—prose, poetry, sculpting, and the rest—they all are things in the world, things to be loved. You can get quite good at them for their own sake. Your audience will be more limited and what you say will be limited if the medium itself is the primary thing you want to talk about, but it certainly is fair game.

But the primary goal of an artist should be to communicate something about this crazy, wonderful world God made. And, for that matter, to communicate something about God himself. The medium is not what we love, it’s what we’re mediating.

To top all this off, let me quote Lewis again. Because Lewis is a thing I love, and you should too.

“When you painted on earth–at least in your earlier days–it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”

Even our earthly loves are not an end in themselves. We love the world, because it is something God made and then gave to us. That’s why artists tend to be a little ADD (at least, in my experience). They flutter about from cool thing to cool thing, spending just enough time to tell you about it before they switch to the next thing. Because, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” All our lesser creativity is simply a way of talking about the Creator who went before us.