Experienced

Jimi Hendrix with Are you Experienced from Rock Without Rules on Vimeo.

So one of my latest assignments for the Current Day Job is bookkeeping duties. Basically being trained on prepping the registers, balancing the safe, and other money-related things. I definitely have experience in this from my last years at HMV, being left in charge of opening/closing, balancing, depositing and all that fun stuff, so I’d let them know this when I was interviewed. I figured it would give me an extra in when they hired me.

I’ve been at the new place for a bit over two months, and I’ve already retained all my old retail and warehouse job experience into this new one, making everything easy and fun. I’ve already got multiple compliments on my bagging skills, and it’s not just because I do my own when I’m doing the shopping — my style is very much like how I used to build my pallets back at Yankee Candle, getting as many items into a finite space as I can yet still being safe about it. [It really is a bit like Tetris, and it’s kind of fun to look ahead at the shapes/items and put them together in my head.] And thanks to watching Gardener’s World and all those cooking shows during the pandemic, I’m even having some fun conversations about herbs, plants and ingredients as well.

Reason I bring this up is that in these same last couple of months, it dawned on me that perhaps I don’t nearly use that sort of thing with the characters in my stories as much as I really should. I’d like to think my characters are no longer the one-note self-inserts of yore, but after so many years being in an enclosed office setting with the same couple dozen people, I’d kind of lost touch with what other people were like. [Mind you, I don’t use social media for this sort of thing too often, for many and obvious reasons.]

What kind of experience do I have with people? I mean, in real life? I have a lot, it’s just that I’ve kind of lost touch with it for the last decade and a half. The Current Day Job has definitely changed that. I meet regulars, but I also meet the tourists, the late-nighters, the teens, the business people, the homeless, the well-off, and everyone else. And I’m really enjoying that sort of thing. Like I said recently, it’s reminding me that there’s a world outside. A world that’s not on Facebook or Twitter, a world that’s not crunching numbers, a world that’s not trying to save or ruin things. Just…people out there.

And it feels really great to experience that again.

When movies make me rethink my writing

Image courtesy of Everything Everywhere All at Once

First of all: the new Michelle Yeoh movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once is coming out in wide release this coming Friday, and I recommend you go see it. It’s absolutely amazing, hilarious, and maybe more than a bit WTF did I just watch, but it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. It’s very hard to describe what it’s about other than that Yeoh’s character is a hard-working and utterly stressed out mom just trying to keep things from falling apart…and things do start falling apart, just not how you’d expect. Just…trust me and go see it.

So. What I meant to say here is that every now and again I’ll see a movie that makes me rethink my own work, whether it’s the style, or the way it unfolds. Often times its unique way of telling a story will inspire me to see my WIPs from a different angle. And, most of all, there are certain films like the above where I can “see the math of it” (as I like to say) — as a writer, I’m intrigued and often blown away by how the filmmakers have used different details, shots, edits, formats, and maybe even colors or angles, to tell the story in a specific way. They’ve allowed me to see how all the different threads of the plot, visuals and dialogue weave together to make a wonderful tapestry. Not every film does that to such a conscious degree, but when they do, those are the ones that have always made me want to run straight home, fire up Word and start writing my own.

When we left the screening of Everything Everywhere there were two things that stuck in my mind: one, I totally want to see this again to pick up everything I missed, and two, I totally want to see this again so I can study it. [Three, if you want to include I love the fact that I just spent half the movie laughing and the other half shaking my head in amused bafflement.] This film was so original and clever with its unraveling of cinematic and literary expectations that you almost don’t notice that it re-ravels them back together in an altogether new and unexpected way.

There aren’t too many films and filmmakers that will achieve that sort of unique creation that will resonate that deeply with me. There are a few anime directors that have done that — Satoshi Kon and Makoto Shinkai are but two — but American filmmakers? Not that many will make that kind of film that will just hit me like that.

And yes, I did in fact work on Theadia after we got home. Heh.

Making It Work

Image courtesey of Digimon

Okay, I’ll be honest — I’m at a crossroads. Over the last few weeks I’d been contemplating whether or not I should let one or both of the blogs go on an indefinite hiatus, or to go in the opposite direction: to Make It Work. And right now I’m leaning towards the latter, because writing has been a lifelong endeavor. I mean, the last time I went on blogging hiatus was because I needed the mental and emotional vacation, especially after I’d left the Former Day Job. Now? Now it just feels like I’m just avoiding it for no reason.

One of the reasons this came to mind is because of my recent revision/rewrite work on Theadia, and the fact that working on it has felt so similar to working on the Bridgetown Trilogy back in my Belfry days. When the resonance to a project is this strong, I’m not going to dismiss it. Every day I look forward to working on it for a few hours! And I don’t think I’ve felt that in quite some time, probably not since those days, when I would come home from the Day Job and head downstairs every evening, eager to get writing.

It didn’t occur to me how much I’d missed that. That drive and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I loved writing my last few novels both released and unreleased. But in hindsight I think some of those might have been written more out of necessity than enjoyment. I loved writing them and I’m proud of them, but they didn’t excite me quite like working on the trilogy did. Mind you, I forced myself not to think of it that way at the time because I knew that they were different projects. Theadia feels different. It could be that it’s a much larger epic-sized project (like the trilogy) and those are the ones I love writing the most. It could also just simply be about it being the right time for it. I’m not going to question it, though. I’m just going to enjoy it.

Back to blogging: what I believe I’ve been missing is that same drive. I enjoy posting, and god knows I can talk your ears off about music and writing when given the chance. So why have I been avoiding it off and on over the last couple of years? I’m pretty sure it’s the same as above: I’ve been writing about things I’m not as enthused about as I used to be. [Or alternately, that I’ve talked about things I do obsess over for so long that I’ve been repeating myself and getting frustrated by that. There is a very strong chance that could be the other culprit.]

So how make my blogging work for me again? Well, one of the obvious things is to post about new subjects that I’ve avoided in the past, either for personal reasons or because I’d been too distracted by other subjects. Let’s do an ongoing theme about my obsession with music in the 90s. Let’s post some microfiction I’ve piled up over the years. It’s about that resonance with the subject I want to talk about and share. And it’s also about being fine with writing things that aren’t always of high importance. Have fun with it. Enjoy it. Look forward to writing it, especially when it’s about things that resonate with me.

Autumnal

A and I were walking up to the Clement Street Farmer’s Market yesterday and she’d noted that the weather felt quite autumnal: clear, bright, and cold. Of course, our weather here in the Richmond District rarely gets truly autumnal. Depending on the fronts coming in, some days it’ll be clear and chilly, other days it’ll be forever overcast and damp.

I still miss autumns in New England, to tell the truth. I miss the chilly mornings driving into work with a large coffee to warm me up. I miss the back roads canopied with yellow, orange and red. I miss the quiet whispers of wind through the trees, helping the leaves fall.

These are the kinds of things I like peppering into my novels. In My Blue World‘s universe is New England-y, with several moments taking place in leaf-strewn woods, apple orchards and hilltop cabins at the start of the season. Meet the Lidwells! has the kids writing songs inspired by New England seasons. Diwa & Kaffi also sees the change of seasons as a passage of time and life. And even Queen Ophelia gets to experience weather changes as well. It’s my way of inserting some personal memories of autumnal moments. And I’m sure I’ll keep doing it with future stories as well.

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.