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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I think it’s time I readjusted my attitude about my day-to-day. It needs it.
I know many writers who write part-time — that is, they balance their writing time with their current day job and/or parenting duties. It can be a frustrating attempt at balance, especially when your Day Job Brain functions much differently from your Writing Brain. I play with numbers and emails all day, and I’m extremely well versed in business-speak. That job entails a lot of logical, linear thinking. Nine times out of ten, point A and point B should lead to point C. [That tenth time is the exception setup, what I often refer to as “it goes like this…except when it doesn’t.”] It’s not exactly a tough job — okay, it is in its own way, but I’ve been at it for seven-plus years and I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t let it stress me out all that much anymore.
My writing, on the other hand, includes a lot of nonlinear plotting, multiple points of view (not just in narration but in character personality), and a lot of leaps of faith, in hopes that it’ll all make sense at the end. It’s the dreamland I always look forward to, where I can play with words and images, make up fantastical things, and tell fun stories.
Just as logical, but completely different frames of mind. I’ve been doing both for so long I can easily switch between the two when need be.
Lately I’ve been in a rut, however. By the time 4pm rolls around and I log off, I just want the day to be done already.
Okay, maybe the situation’s not quite that dire…but after eight hours of the Day Job, sometimes the last thing I want to do is work on something else. I want to be lazy and goof off! I don’t even want to go out at night…I just want to sit around and whittle the time away. Thankfully my ingrained guilt receptors kick in soon enough and I get to slog away for a few more hours doing whatever it is I need to do creatively.
How did I get this way? And don’t tell me “you’re getting old.” I may have just recently turned 44, but I’ll be damned if age is going to be an excuse for being a lazy bum.
I started thinking…what was it that got me excited about writing previously, anyway? Or excited about going out to do something?
As always, I thought back to a time where I was truly excited about my writing time. I thought about my Yankee Candle days — I had a half-hour commute each way, I moved hundreds of boxes all day long, and yet I still managed to make a weekly habit out of doing a comic book and new cd run in Amherst. I was also able to spend two solid hours writing at least a thousand words every night. My personal best in terms of word count that I’ve been trying to reach for ever since.* Or my days at HMV, where I’d drive 50 miles to the mall I work at, slog through the day, drive 50 miles back home (or the 70 miles to Amherst for the occasional comic book run, then an additional 30 back home!)…but still balance that with the hour before work writing longhand, and the hour or so at home, transcribing to the computer.
Point being: I know I can do it. There’s no doubt about that.
So why am I complaining that I can’t, or don’t want to? It’s not as if I’m particularly exhausted, mentally or physically, or can’t stand the project I’m currently working on.
I mean, I’ll be heading over to Amoeba over on Haight tonight to see The Church, one of my favorite bands, play an in-store show. The store is only a few miles away, and I’ll probably be home before 8pm anyway. And yet, why do I feel lazy enough to want to come up with an excuse for not going? I mean, come on. It’s the freakin’ CHURCH, for pete’s sake! They only sing my favorite song ever! Why the hell am I feeling so damned lazy??
Finally it dawned on me, just today: I was looking at this current schedule from the wrong angle.
I work at home, so it’s not as if I have to deal with a commute; I wake up at 6am, have breakfast, read some webcomics and catch up on the Twitter feed, and log on at 7:30. I take two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch. I log off at 4pm and we head over to the YMCA soon after to get our exercise. Dinner is usually around 5:30-ish and I’m writing by 6:30pm, all the way to about 8pm. I get my daily words and my project words done at that time…and if the work day is particularly slow, I sneak in some personal writing, such as this particular blog entry. The day’s packed to a reasonable degree, but I’m not draining myself in the process.
All the same, I’ve been suffering from a terrible case of the Don’t Wanna’s.
And that’s the issue right there! It’s not the schedule or the work/writing balance that needs fixing: it’s my attitude.
So I submit this: let’s return to my YC-era work mindset — my day job is my paycheck, but my writing is my career. But don’t forget to have fun as well.
I’ll still dedicate the same time and brain power to the day job, of course. But let’s also look forward to logging off at the end of the day.
Let’s remind ourselves throughout the work day that, once I’m off the clock, it’s time to go and have some fun! Let’s look forward to walking around the neighborhood after work. Let’s look forward to playing in that imagined world for a few hours. Let’s look forward to having fun with what I love doing the most.
It’s not about trying to do everything at once. It’s simply a change of attitude. Look forward to life. Look forward to that bit of entertainment. Look forward to that writing time at the end of the day, because you know and I know it’s a hell of a lot of fun, even when it does get frustrating.
Chances are, the payoff will be worth it.
* Mind you, I’m not trying to force a thousand words on a nightly basis, because it depends on the project. I’m working on Walk in Silence but not logging any new words because most of the work has been what I call ‘framing’ the flow of the book. My sort-of daily 750 Words have been consistently over 750 and flowing quickly, so I can safely say I’m counting the words where they really do count.