Until the End of the World

Source: Until the End of the World, directed by Wim Wenders

I remember going to see this movie back when it came out in 1991, when it played briefly at Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, just a short-ish trip on the T from Charlesgate dorm near Kenmore Square. I remember it being a long-ish movie — the US version was apparently two and a half hours — but for some reason I also seem to remember somehow seeing the European cut, which is closer to three hours. It’s visually gorgeous, filmed in eleven different countries.

The director’s cut, however, is closer to five hours, and I sat through it all this past weekend during our flight back from New England. And I enjoyed every single minute.

It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I can totally understand why others might question my sanity, as it’s not a movie for everyone’s tastes. From the beginning it has a slow and deliberate pace — not a glacial one, which quite a few European art films tend to suffer from, but a novel one. I say ‘novel’ because that’s what it feels like: reading a novel, playing it out on the screen. It takes place in the final days of 1999 when a nuclear-powered satellite is spinning out of control and threatening to crash somewhere on the planet’s surface. But the story is not about the satellite; that’s just the framework of the more personal stories that unfold. There’s Clare, a young and emotionally lost French woman trying to find meaning and stability in her own life; there’s Sam, an American on the run from the government after stealing top secret hardware; there’s Eugene, Clare’s ex and a writer who still loves her; there’s Henry, Sam’s scientist father who focuses more on his projects than his son. And there are even more secondary and tertiary characters who also have their own storylines. It’s about dreams, love, loss, and hope.

It’s kind of hard to explain everything that goes on with this story, though not because it’s confusing or convoluted; it’s more that what we think is the story is only the surface of a much deeper and more important one that involves every single person on the screen. It goes in quite a few unexpected directions but does so deliberately and always for a reason.

I was first drawn to the movie due to its fantastic soundtrack featuring numerous well-known bands of the early 90s performing songs that, on the request of director Wim Wenders, were to evoke what each band would sound like at the other end of the decade. It features songs by Depeche Mode, U2, Can, Lou Reed, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, REM, Elvis Costello, and more. The soundtrack alone is worth picking up, even if you’re not interested in the film!

I mention the movie here on my writing blog, not just because I’d sat through the marathon five-hour director’s cut (which, to Wenders’ credit, manages not to drag at all), but because one of the reasons it’s my favorite movies is because it was an extremely important influence on my writing. From this movie I learned pacing; I learned that not every story needs to be going at a tangible constant speed, nor does it even have to hit high and low points at specific times within the story. This is a slow-burner that starts off calm and introduces new plot points at a leisurely pace, until we get to a point where we suddenly realize we’ve been going at a pretty damn good clip for the last hour or so. It’s a perfect example of how pacing can help tell the story by way of playing with our emotions and expectations.

Until the End of the World has just been released as a remastered Criterion dvd, and I highly suggest watching it if you have a full weekend afternoon.

Breaking Past the Barriers

Source: Hisone to Masotan (aka Dragon Pilot)

Oh hey! I’m back again. Sorry about the delay. So what’s been going on in the writing world for me lately, anyway?

Glad you asked! Because I’d been getting rather annoyed with myself because nothing was going on. I mean, I have been doing my daily words for the most part, but I really wasn’t getting anywhere with it. It’s all fine that I was using this time to write something just out of necessity — in this case, a few holiday-themed experiments in the Mendaihu Universe (which I may or may not expand on at some point) and quite a few outtakes for an as-yet-unnamed college campus story set in the Diwa & Kaffi universe. I even played around a bit with a few older ideas…but nothing seemed to be sticking. I was either getting bored with it, or there really was no story there to begin with.

To put it bluntly: I’m itching to start a new project. And none of these outtakes were calling out to me.

That is, until I decided to try a different approach: one day last week, I wrote out a few detailed paragraphs of various story tropes that I’ve positively gravitated towards, both past and present. Nothing specific, just working out what kind of stories resonate with me at this time. In the process, I let my imagination go wild: how would I go about writing these stories, anyway? Would I be able to expand on this, make it a novel or some other format? Not that I was about to write one then and there — this was just to expand my mind a bit. This is exactly how I’d approached my last three novels, and the process worked pretty damn well.

In all honesty, this was EXACTLY what I’d needed to do. Because now I have a few Possible New Projects worth looking into. Again, I’m not going to look at these as Big Epic Undertakings… I’m just going to let them evolve.

And hopefully something new and exciting will come out of it.

Looking for fresh inspiration

Source: Read Or Die

I’ve been having this itch to do a major book purge. I mean, I’ve done quite a few of these over the years, so this is nothing new. I’ll get rid of books I haven’t read in ages, ones I’m no longer interested in, ones I’ve had for years but never cracked open. Do I need to have these in my life? As I’ve said before, the books are donated to the library and it opens up spaces for new books. Win-win!

I’ve also been having this itch to find new inspiration for my writing. This happens now and again, especially if I spend far too long reading my own stuff for revision purposes — which I’ve been doing the last few months with Diwa & Kaffi. I’ve finished that part of the project, however, so now it’s time for me to read new things again.

But what? My tastes have definitely changed over the years, to the point where I’m not entirely sure what I’m interested in reading at the moment. There’s the manga: the intriguing and unique storytelling such as Nagabe’s Siúil, a Rún: The Girl from the Other Side or Paru Itagaki’s Beastars. There’s the countless music biographies and histories I can catch up on, such as Ed Ward’s The History of Rock and Roll Vol II (the first volume was much more enjoyable than I’d expected it to be), or Prince’s The Beautiful Ones.

But I’m also at a loss when it comes to new titles. I used to find them via Publisher’s Weekly, but I let that subscription lapse some time ago. Sometimes it’s word of mouth, sometimes it’s just a book store browse. But I haven’t really looked for anything completely new in a while now. I’m not sure if I’m just dithering or if I’m just lacking inspiration. Not much is really jumping out at me lately.

I know it’s not the titles themselves or the current trends. I’m just out of the loop and not being very active about my search. I’ve been busy with a lot of things. But now I’m not as busy, and I’m looking for something new.

And I feel like I’m no longer resonating with a lot of my old collection, either. I gave up a lot of titles some time ago, but I think it’s time for another go-round. A KonMari level purging this time: if I’m not going to read it within the next six months, chances are good I won’t be reading it at all. Time for it to go.

It’s time to open up more space on these shelves again. Time to find new inspiration. Time to find new books that will refresh and reinvigorate my creativity.

Time for something new.

Dragon Pilot and thinking outside the box

hisone to masotan
Credit: Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan

I’ve said it many times before, this is one of the biggest reasons I watch anime and read manga:  it forces me to think outside the box.

We’ve recently been watching Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan on Netflix, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.  On the surface it might be one of those fantasy animes that start off cute and fun and eventually turn weird and creepy (one of my favorite storytelling styles, I should add), and there’s enough bonkers humor to sustain multiple episodes, but it’s really wonderfully written.  The short version: four young female air force cadets (and one back-up) are chosen to fly secret planes that are actually ancient dragons hiding under armor that makes them look like fighter jets.  There’s a much darker and stranger story line that kicks in about three episodes in, of course, but on the way there, we’re given the usual shojo silliness: boy trouble, self-doubt and embarrassment, strange and mysterious adults, the power of love, and so on.  I especially enjoy the camaraderie of the special air force team and its leaders, as there’s definitely a Patlabor-esque ‘group of misfits’ vibe going on.  I’m utterly fascinated at how the main plot is unfolding.  While it might just be about the girls training with their dragons, there’s a deeper, more sinister reason for what’s really going on where their lives may be at stake.

It’s precisely this type of story that inspires me to write my own.  I’m always drawn to stories with this kind of creativity, where it pushes me to rethink my own ideas.  The idea of dragons as fighter jets would not have occurred to me at all.  But after watching just the first episode — in fact, a prologue on the first one explains the entire backstory of it to brilliant effect — I was completely sold on the idea.  It was definitely a damn, why didn’t I think of that?? moment for me.

And I know a lot of readers enjoy this kind of creativity as well; after all, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series and Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer stories have the same kind of unique and original styles that have given them huge audiences and Hugo nominations and wins.  It’s taking older tropes and making them new again.

I highly recommend checking this series out…it’s really good fun.

Play

Recently Dave Grohl released a 23-minute instrumental called “Play” that was written and played entirely by him alone, and upon hearing it, I realized the creation of this track is very similar to how I write novels.

The accompanying video is prefaced by a six-plus minute talk about not just the recording but a music school for kids that he’s taken part in. It’s worth watching for both; in particular, I’m intrigued by how dedicated he is to his creation. It’s not a long-winded progfest at all, but very similar to an orchestral piece in its structure. It’s going in a specific direction through deliberate sections, laying down certain motifs to experiment on and later return to, and each instrument is supporting the other. Grohl also ensures that each segment is played to the best of his ability, leaving no weak or meandering moments.

This is how my mind works when I’m writing an extended project like a novel. While the initial pass-through might be raw and desperately in need of revision, once I immerse myself in the serious work of laying it all down, I’m all in.  I immerse myself in the story by seeing it from multiple angles:  there’s the shape of the overall piece, where I can see the plot’s peaks and valleys as a whole;  there’s the attention paid to the scene itself, and its relationship not only to what’s already gone on, but how it’ll affect future scenes; there’s the volume of the piece, where I can feel when it needs calm and when it needs friction; there’s the motifs (such as character traits, for instance) that I will return to in different shapes and forms throughout the novel.

Over the years I’ve talked with writers and musicians (and music historians) alike and interestingly I’ve found that many of them are kind of surprised when I tell them this is how I taught myself how to do it all, that this was the way it made the most sense to me.  I think this is also why I find myself drawn to other creative people whose process is unique and/or unexpected.  To me it gives their projects a deeply personal touch; it’s not just their style that gets imprinted in the words or the music or the art, it’s their own spirit.  It’s what makes their creation uniquely their own.

Clarity and Action

edward-elric-gif-13
Source: Fullmetal Alchemist.  Edward Elric provides me with a Damn, wish I’d written that! moment.

I try thinking about new ways I can play around with storytelling.  I’ve often said that the stories that inspire me the most are the ones that have moments of brilliance.  I’m not talking award-winning prose here… I’m talking about moments of damn, I wish I’d written that!

Like the above gif, from Fullmetal Alchemist, where Edward Elric uses his alchemical powers (major character trait) to not just pull the atoms of metal from the nearby pipes (major ability) but to reshape it (another major ability) into a rod that he can use for fighting.  Moments where three or four separate character traits come together in creative and sometimes unexpected ways, and propel both character and story forward. It’s both a moment of clarity for the viewer (‘aha, that’s right, he can do that!’) and a moment of action for the story (‘oh man, he’s about to beat someone’s ass, isn’t he?’) and it’s all threaded together beautifully in one five-second moment.

I try to work those kinds of moments into my stories when I can.  I try to put a spin on them as well, by not always relying on expectations.  That way when these seemingly different points come together, it’s often unexpected.  Those are my favorite moments to read and watch, and they’re definitely my favorite to write.

Mind you, the story doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall moments like that.  But they’re certainly one of my favorite weapons in my writing arsenal.

Influences and Impressions

bookworm monterey
The SF room, Book Worm Bookstore, Monterey CA

With the recent passing of genre giant Ursula K Le Guin, and the hundreds of remembrances of fans and fellow authors who were introduced to science fiction and fantasy via her novels and short stories, I got to thinking… I don’t think I’ve ever read any of her work!  I do now own one of her recent short story collections, The Unreal and the Real, that I’ve yet to crack open.  I’m well familiar with the titles, of course.  She’s one of the list of authors I will almost always find in bulk at used book stores.

So what did I read when I was first starting out as a teenage writer?  Well, that’s a good question.  I tried and failed at reading The Lord of the Rings in junior high because I had little patience for it.  I read some YA here and there, a lot of music books and magazines.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine was one of the few reading assignments I adored.  My freshman year I devoured Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.  I went through a short spell reading Vonnegut and Asimov.  Some comics.  But that was about it.  I spent more time enthralled by radio and records, as well as visual outlets like MTV, Miami Vice and the various movies we’d rent on the weekends.

And it kind of stayed that way, to be honest.  I read books here and there, but not nearly as voraciously as I do now.  I went through a Stephen King spell in the early 90s, maybe a few other authors here and there.  Douglas Coupland was probably the only mainstay for me then.  Instead I watched a lot of movies (and anime, whenever I could find it).  It wasn’t until maybe the late 90s, right about the same time that I started taking my writing a hell of a lot more seriously, that I decided that maybe I should start reading more, especially in my genre.

Occasionally I’d head to a book store and pick up one or two paperbacks.  By 2000 (right about the time I switched jobs and started the trilogy), my visits to Barnes & Noble and other book stores were becoming more frequent.  For a good couple of years I’d do a run to Leominster (about 30 miles east of my home town) that started at Newbury Comics for a cd run, and ended with a three-hour browse at the B&N up the road.  That was when I finally started finding my own literary influences; Kate Elliott, CJ Cherryh, Richard Paul Russo, Lyda Morehouse, Anne McCaffrey, and so on.  Interestingly, a lot of female genre writers and not that many male writers.  I looked for writers that jumped out at me, that did something unique that fascinated me in some way.

I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until around 2007, to be honest.  And I finally read Neuromancer around the same time.  I still don’t think I’ve read any Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss or many of the old-school classics, many of whom had movies made from their books by that time.  Some, but not nearly that many as others.

Still, I’ve found my influences in my own way to get where I am today, and I’m still discovering more.  Haruki Murakami is a big current favorite of mine, for instance.  I’m fascinated by storytelling from different angles and avenues, different cultures and points of view.  Just like my avid movie watching back in the day, it’s all about a story that makes me stop in my tracks and think two things: How the hell did they make that work?, and Okay, I need to get back to my computer RIGHT NOW and start writing!  Whether it’s a movie, a book, a manga or an anime, if it moves me just the right way, I’m hooked and inspired.

Anime Nights

A. and I decided to restart our Anime Nights, something we used to do at our old place in North Beach but hadn’t done in ages since.  I’ve always been a huge fan of anime since the mid-90s, though my watching habits always tend to come and go, depending on how much time I can devote to it and when it’s available. I was a huge fan of Cartoon Network’s Toonami back in the ’00s, and it introduced me to some great titles like Naruto (of which I’m still a fan), One Piece and more. We would also rent out anime through Netflix, checking up on some great titles like Haibane Renmei, Ergo Proxy and Trigun.

I kind of let it go for the last few years, mainly due to wanting to focus on finishing and publishing the trilogy, and also needing to get myself back into a consistent writing habit.  But lately I’ve come to realize that maybe I should at least take a night off and watch more of the things that inspire my writing in the first place.  Maybe in the process I’ll be inspired once more by newer, different stories.

Last night’s viewing, courtesy of Funimation, was finally catching up with Yuri!!! on Ice, which I believe all of our otaku friends have already seen when it was first released not that long ago.  It’s a lot of fun to watch (and I now understand the plentiful shipping that went on back then).

I should also point out this was a great example (one of many) of why I love anime so much: it’s a cartoon series about competitive figure skating. It proves you can write a compelling story about pretty much anything, whether it’s about sports or cooking or high school girls starting a rock group. As a writer, it reminds me that no idea is too weird or too corny or too goofy.  It really is the storytelling that counts.

It’s also made me think about finite serial storytelling. For instance, something like Cowboy Bebop. It tells a specific story over the course of its twenty some-odd episodes and its film, but it also has many shorter stories within the span of each episode. That gave me a lot to think about as a writer; it made me rethink how to interweave the main story arc around several smaller subplot arcs.

[I should add that I recently rewatched an episode while on our flight home from Boston, and realized just how great that show really is; I definitely need to watch it again.]

Then of course there’s my favorite movie of this year, hands down: your name.

I’m totally a fanboy for this film, because a) it’s beautifully made with some absolutely stunning shots, and b) its storytelling is amazingly detailed (I pick up more bits the more I watch it) and woven together in a really creative way. On the surface it looks like a girly ‘star-crossed lovers’ story but it’s not. I’ve watched it three times already this year (twice during our UK trip earlier this year) and I’m pretty sure I’ll watch it again before the year is over, just to study the storytelling.

So yeah…I’m looking forward to watching more anime in the coming months again.  It’s not only fun, it almost always inspires me to come up with new story ideas and storytelling styles.

Bad Habits

My worst writing habit is that I think too much.

No, really.  If you put me on the spot and say “WRITE SOMETHING!”, I’ll completely freeze up.  “Okay, write something about goats!”  …goats…?  Umm.  I got nothing.  I’m not a big Mountain Goats fan.  LJ had a goat for a mascot.  Aaand…that’s about it.  “It’s not that hard!  Write a story about a goat!”  Doing what?  “I don’t know!  Make something up!  You’re the writer!”  Umm…

Yeah, from that transcript, it sounds like I just don’t have much of a thought process at all.  It sounds like my brain just can’t get out of first gear.

On the contrary, my brain is most likely going:

Okay, goats.  Goats.  Mountains?  Which mountain?  Any mountain in the US, or one in Siberia?  Which country is it that we usually see mountain goats on those BBC nature shows?  Okay, a story about a goat that’s filmed by Attenborough’s team.  No, that’s stupid.  A goat that befriends the team?  Meh.  Too hokey.  No, let’s back it up.  The Pet Goat.  NO!  No no no.  Not gonna go there.  What the hell should I write about a goat?  Why goats, anyway?  I don’t have any interest in goats.  Well, goat’s milk cheese is pretty tasty…that reminds me, we need to do our food shopping this weekend.  I need to get that, and some more cereal — wait.  Where was I?  Goats.  Man, I can’t think of anything.

This is why I’m not much of a person to write via a suggested prompt.  I tend to overthink the exercise.  It’s not that I can’t write like that, it’s that my default setting is usually long-form story.  It’s why I’ve never really tried writing short stories in the past.  It’s also why I know I’d never be a reporter on assignment.  It’s not my default setting.

That said, however…

This is one of the reasons why I’ve resurrected the daily practice words.  I’m trying to break out of that habit of thinking oh god I have to write 750 words about something and my brain is blank.  I don’t know what the hell to write about.  Or more to the point:  I’ve already written about X, Y and Z.  I’m sick of writing the same damn thing over and over again.  I want to write something different but I DON’T KNOW–

You know, this is why I need to tell myself to STFU every now and again.

But seriously, I’m doing my best to break my bad writing habits.  Instead of blanking out or freezing up, I’ll just write a random passage of conversation, just to see where it goes.  It’s one of my favorite exercises, actually: writing a passage that tells a story or part of a story, using only dialogue.  No prose, no ‘he said’, ‘she exclaimed’, no descriptive action.  I force myself to write as if it’s two people on a blank stage, interacting purely through voice.  And in the process, it makes me rethink how to approach my writing.

It’s good that I know what my bad habits are, that way I can do something about getting rid of them.

#atozchallenge: I is for Inspiration

The inspiration behind the stories, ideas, settings and characters of the Mendaihu Universe have come from all kinds of places over the years.  I’ve talked about quite a few of them on various blogs as well.  I’ve mentioned the albums I listened to, the movies and the books and the TV shows and and and…  There’s been a lot that I’ve read and enjoyed that inspired me to write these stories.  I made a semi-official list sometime around around late 2002 that included all of these.  Maybe one of these days I’ll update it and paste it here on the blog, just for fun.

So where does this inspiration come from, anyway?  Well, my first rule of being inspired by something has always been if it causes me to drop everything and run to the computer to start typing.  If I finish reading a book or watching a TV show or a film and my first reaction is a creative excitement, if it’s made me notice the writing and the production in a good way…then it’s done its job, and done it well.

[Good recent examples: the always level-headed Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, no matter what mood he may be in; the deliberate pacing of the movie adaptation of The Martian, the one-person cast of driving ninety percent of Gravity; the movements of a large cast in Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves.]

I always cite music as  an inspiration, though that tends to be more on a molecular level, as it were.  Certain songs will inspire the mood of a specific scene; some albums will be my go-to’s for writing sessions (one recent release getting heavy rotation here is Shearwater’s Jet Plane and Oxbow).  I may occasionally hear a song and imagine a scene not yet written; with those I’ll either make brief notes or I’ll listen to the song a few more times and think about whether it’ll fit in the project I’m working on.

I like to keep my eyes and ears open for these sorts of things.  I’m not one to read or see something and think I want to write THAT!  Mainly because I know by the time I finish it, it’ll no longer be in season.  It’s more on a creative level; if I’m amazed by the writer’s dexterity in weaving a complicated plot, or their ability to look at a well-used storyline from a completely different angle, that’s what will inspire me to take the same route.

I suppose it all boils down to: how did the creator get his or her creation stuck in my mind?  It has to be more than flashbangs and shock-and-awe and disturbing scenery; there’s a time and place for all of that, but it’s nothing I can or should completely rely on.  It has to be the whole as well as its elements; the artistry as well as the work.

That’s what inspires my own.