Thursday, August 28, 2008

August already - how the year has been flying.

Time to make an admission. First semester in my Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing was frankly often a bit of a bludge. I found it so very easy to belt off the necessary work. Even the subject that I was struggling with did not prove to be too big a problem in the end as I achieved a Distinction for it.

Reality has leapt up to smack me hard between the eyes in second semester though. I am having to work this time. And I'm loving it. I took myself right out of my comfort zone and decided to study a unit of poetry. This is has been a real eye opener. My decision to take this step was to help me learn more about another written form. While I do not agree with everything my lecturer says, here at the end of six weeks of classes, I have realised that this study of modern poetry has helped me learn to think in a more abstract fashion.

I was a science student in my last years of high school, deferred a civil engineering degree and ended up working in a bank. Best part of ten years later I left the bank, obtained accounting qualifications but ended up largely working in statistics for the next fifteen years. Along the way came army officer training with the Australian Army Reserve until I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease and forced to resign my commission. Is it any wonder that I tend to be very anal and left-brain? This abstract thinking does not come easily but I am seeing the virtues and benefits. I am quietly proud of a short poem that I write on the fly only earlier this week in a tutorial.

In July, I attended the Canberra Writers Festival. At the end of that I was just so inspired to write and write. And write I did. I wanted to start getting articles published once more. A flurry of activity resulted but unfortunately these were resulting in 'we like it but...' sort of responses. To my great disappointment, I was singularly unsuccessful in placing my piece on the battle of Fromelles anywhere. Presumably too many staff writers had already been assigned to it already. The experience was far from wasted and an advanced draft may be found on my articles blog, Ross's Rant. This morning however I received a nice email accepting one of my articles for publication by the Internet Review of Science Fiction. They have published my work before and it was very nice to get another acceptance by this publication once more. No, more than nice, it was a thrill. Being published is not new to me but I do still get a thrill when it occurs.

Writing - I love it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

And whence to from here?

Firstly, big congratulations to Australian writer, Ian McHugh, for winning the writing award in the latest Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest. This is probably the biggest science fiction contest in the world and has produced some major talents. Ian has been honing his craft for a long time and has been rewarded for his efforts.

While pleased for Ian, this win did prompt me to think some more about my future. Come October 31st, I should have handed in the last of my university assignments and barring something disastrous happening, will be finished with my Graduate Diploma of Professional Writing. So what next?

My health has improved to the point that I am no longer quite the gibbering wreck that I was although I am still a long way from being fit enough to re-enter the workplace, not that too many workplaces will be terribly keen to hire someone who was forced out of the public service on mental health grounds (never mind that this situation only occurred because of a years-long pattern of lies, neglect and negligence with parties so far having escaped being called to account).

A couple of possibilities present themselves. First, I could stay here in Canberra and pursue my writing here. The positives of this are that Canberra provides a number of benefits to anyone with as wide a range of potential writing interests as I do: National Library, National Archives, War Memorial, ACT Writers Centre, good contacts at the University of Canberra and writing friends primarily through the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. The downside - as basically an invalid pensioner, I cannot afford to live anywhere here but the dungheap community housing facility I was condemned to some time back. My whole life has to be contained within a single bedroom. My writing space is virtually nil.

The other option is to pack up and move back down to Victoria. My base there would be my old home town of Bendigo. Well it was good enough for Sara Douglas when she was on the staff of the local campus of La Trobe Uni, although several years back Sara shot through down to Tasmania. On the positive side, the cost of living is slightly less. I would initially have to move back in with Mum and Dad while I try to find a small, affordable place to rent. Having a place of my own has frankly become a simply impractical dream unless I am eventually able to rehabilitate myself back into the workplace. Even then, having lost everything a while back, starting all over again at 45 makes home buying an unlikely prospect at best. That or I become incredibly successful as a
writer. Come to think of it, I do things like write in coffee shops, as JK Rowling did, so surely my success is now assured? :) Being back in the old stomping ground also gives me a support network with the family (of sorts). The downsides of that move. The facilities there are nowhere as promising as here in Canberra. I know hardly anyone back down there any more. What remained of my old friends have since moved on. The prospect frankly leaves me a bit uncomfortable.

The one thing that I do know is that from October 31st onwards, it is all up to me. I have no excuses not to write.

What to do? What to do?

The quandry isn't being helped by uni proving to be more than a tad difficult at present. My scriptwriting partner for a semester-long assignment has just bailed out. Students are flatly forbidden from working on this as a solo effort. Five weeks into the thing and I have been left stranded. My poetry lecturer refuses to make his lecture notes available, insisting that as lectures are recorded there is no need to make his notes available as everyone else in the faculty does. The fact that I am partly deaf and struggle to follow him at times and find the recordings next to useless, hasn't cut much ice. I also have to memorise a poem as part of the assessment, although this little gem of information was not made available to me prior to signing up. The combination of my mental condition and medication have caused my previously bloody good memory to become bloody hopeless. I worked my bum off trying to memorise a simple 12 lines but have failed dismally to be able to memorise any more than the first eight or so. I requested permission to use a discrete prompt card with just a few key words on it as a recitation aid. That was refused. The most he would do was agree to postpone my presentation for a while. But time is not going to change something that simply isn't going to happen at all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Emotional undercurrents

As writers, we essentially write for ourselves in the first instance. If we do not like or connect with the piece, how can we expect readers to?

An excellent read for discussing this need for emotional connection is Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect by Claudia Hunter Johnson. Do not be put off by the fact that the book is about writing screenplays. The elements that impact on story structure are just as applicable to any other form of fiction writing.

I cannot over-emphasise how much studying scripting has opened my eyes to the importance of story structure to be able to tell the the story properly. This is the essentials of plot - not just what the story is but how we go about presenting it.

Johnson's central argument is that there is more to plot than conflict. Yes, the conflict is essential. That is what makes up drama. However just as important is the underlying emotional conflict. It is the emotional aspect, argues Johnson, that creates the elements which enable the audience to connect with the story i.e. fulling engaging the audience.

As readers or viewers, we don't want something that is our own lives. Ross wakes up, scratches his arse, farts, showers and goes to work. The next day, Ross wakes up, get the idea. We want a story and character that we can have empathy with, a life or outcome that we want for ourselves or at least fantasise about.

Considerations such as these have helped me take great strides forwards in my writing journey.

Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect
Claudia Hunter Johnson
ISBN 0-240-80641-7

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Making it Real

An important part of the writer’s role is to make the story ‘real’ to the audience. We are encouraged to find the right details to create that illusion of reality. Often this takes the form of the degree of authority present in the author’s voice. But what details do we need to incorporate? We need sufficient to allow the reader to fill in the blanks without overloading with detail.

Recently I saw a play that provided an example of how minimal detail enables the mind of the audience to fill in these blanks.

The play was A Fair Arrangement, the first production by the newly formed Freshly Ground Theatre.

The stage settings were minimal. One side contained a sofa with a dressing table to the rear. This represented the house’s living area. The opposite side contained a bench-like table, stove, refrigerator and stove. This was clearly the kitchen-dining area. Approximately half-way across the stage lay a wood and brick construction, set at an angle so that all of the audience could see it.

The construction was a wall. Not a physical one as such as that would have obscured parts of the stage. It was a figurative detail which had significance to the plot. It actually looked very little like a wall but the audience immediately recognised it for what it was and the mind filled in the necessary extra detail. The same general effect may have been achieved with use of lighting, and lighting was used at different points to focus attention on one part of the stage or other, but the illusion of the wall completed the illusion.

While thinking about this afterwards, I realised just how significant a detail this wall was and how it illustrated the importance of detail in establishing authority of voice. After all, if it isn’t ‘real’ then the audience soon loses interest.

Finding those details and using them to create that degree of authenticity is what the writer’s job is all about.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Four Good Reasons to Hate Firefly

Firefly – the tragically short-lived science fiction series from the wonderfully creative mind of Joss Whedon.

I used to watch a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not just because of the lovely Sarah Michelle Gellar [‘Liar!’ the missus just shouted at me]. It was more than the charms of Charisma Carpenter which drew me to Angel [‘Oh you bull***t artist]. But Firefly captured me in its spell to a much higher degree again.

First, a quick recap for those who may have blinked and missed the series or its movie sequel, Serenity. It is the far future. Humanity has left Earth to spread to the stars. Earth is dominated by a US-China alliance, leading to the formation of the Allied Planets. Outer planets and settlements objected to the rule of the Alliance, leading to a war that the Alliance won. This broadly brings us to the opening point of the series.

Mal Reynolds, a veteran of the Browncoats, the unsuccessful rebel forces, now captains an aging Firefly-class space ship, Serenity. His first mate is Zoe, a somewhat Amazonian fellow veteran. Quirky Wash is their gifted pilot. Jayne Cobb is a coarse brawler with a fondness for weapons, not blessed with an overabundance of brains but always ready for a fight, especially if anyone says that he has a girl’s name. Kaylee is a young, naturally gifted female mechanic managing to keep the Serenity flying. Rounding out the starting complement on board is Inara, a Registered Companion – sometimes called a whore by Reynolds, but is much, much more, not unlike the original geisha girl concept.

The crew of the Serenity is joined by a wandering Shepherd (a priest), called Shepherd Book. Dr Richard Tam has left a glowing career in the core planets to rescue his sister from the clutches of the Alliance, taking passage on Serenity. River Tam is a supremely gifted girl and the Alliance had been surgically messing with her brain to turn her into a weapon.

During the single series that was aired, followed by the film, Serenity, this mismatched group had a variety of adventures/encounters, usually living just on the wrong side of the law.

Where Whedon’s approach is quite clever, is the way that he has ‘civilization’ taking shape in the outer planets etc where much of the action occurs. Space opera generally tends to have largely uniform technology wherever humanity has spread. However the experience with expansion into places like North America and Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows a different scenario. The further away one went from the more civilized centers, the less access there was to more modern technology etc. Frontier settlers often made do with mixtures of old and new, and what they could cobble together. Whedon applies the same slant to the Firefly universe, giving it something of an Old West approach but avoiding things becoming silly or a trope. At times we see people on horseback in the company of powered vehicles. Weapons tend to be more easily maintained project weapons rather than the high tech favored by the Alliance. One scene has crewman Jayne Cobb attempt to shoot an Alliance hand weapon only to have it misfire. “Damn Alliance high-tech crap!”

This was much than believable – it was just so real.

When discussing Serenity in interview on the DVD edition of the film, Whedon stated that he had wanted to make a film about ordinary people that the likes of the Millennium Falcon would have flown over without noticing. That is just what he achieved. We have settlers and settlements, traders, shantytowns on far planets, small time criminals, the occasional crime lord and a simply amazing array of characters. Not a single galactic ruler is anywhere to be found.

One of the truly wonderful things about this creation is the depth of back-story and detail that Whedon pulled together. This is a valuable lesson for any aspiring writer in putting together a believable world or universe with accompanying back-story. I keep several works to hand as a valuable reminder of this concept of verisimilitude, such as Time Future by Maxine McArthur and The Memory Cathedral by Jack Dann. Firefly has joined that little collection. A small picture of Serenity sits with several other items on my desk as a constant visual reminder and source of inspiration.

The extent of this creation’s believability is emphasized by the fact that when the Fox network pulled the pin on the series, so many questions were left unanswered. One small one was addressed in the film – just who were the insanely cannibalistic Reavers and where did they come from? But that was considerably less than the tip of the iceberg. Apart from anything else, did Mal and Inara ever sought out their damned feelings for each other? Arrrggghhhh

Imagine that you are halfway through the second volume of a great trilogy. You can’t wait to get back home of an evening to dive back in for another read. And then some [expletive] steals the books from your place and from every bookstore in existence. You are left desperate to know how things turned out. The abrupt end to Firefly left that same feeling. Damn you Fox network! One would have thought that Whedon’s success rate in the past should have ensured greater network support.

There is another important lesson in Firefly for all we aspiring writers. The quality of the overall creation, the wonderful characterization and a simply wonderful cast, all provide an immense feeling of believability. Take the lovely Kaylee for example. Whenever I watch or read about a character that is some sort of young, technical genius, it usually rings false with me. I simply cannot suspend disbelief – remember Doogie Howser MD? Who didn’t want to vomit as he performed medical miracles as a sixteen year old? However, with the adorable Jewel Staite as Kaylee in carefully crafted storylines, I never had the slightest difficulty in believing in her character. Ms Staite was Kaylee; this naturally gifted savant genius with engines, keeping the old Serenity flying. The aspiring writer in me kicks my butt and shouts ‘yes – that’s the way you need to do it!’

One of the key things with Whedon’s work is his emphasis on good storytelling with interesting characters. With Firefly and Serenity, I believe he reached a new peak. We saw a return to wonderful, entertaining storytelling without trying to create some sort of artistic, cinematic masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong – the effects and technology are wonderful. The Serenity DVD included a wonderful tour of the set where most of the action took place. However it is the way that so many things and conflicts are skillfully blended, that makes me damned envious of Whedon’s creative instincts.

I obviously enjoyed watching the series and film. A little surprisingly, I am yet to see much in the way of a novel franchise set in the Firefly universe, or if such a thing has emerged, it must not have made it very far Down Under. But consider the ongoing success of the Star Wars franchise in novels. Or the number of Buffy and Angel novels one can see in bookstores. So why not a similar Firefly franchise?

Why the title about hating Firefly? It is quite simple. Consider the male cast – Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Ron Glass, Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher. They didn’t just go to work and play in the Joss Whedon’s wonderful creation. Going to work each day meant spending time with the best damn Female Foursome I’ve ever seen on the screen – Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Gina Torres and Summer Glau. That would be heaven on a stick for the rest of we humble members of the male population. To slightly misquote Life of Brian – you lucky…lucky…bastards! Hey Jewel – how about I dump the missus out in Reaver territory so you and I can hook up? J [‘He’d do it too,’ grumbles She-Who-Will-Be-Obeyed-If-I-Wish-To-Avoid-Castration].

So for those four feminine reasons, I hate Firefly! [well not really, but it made for a catchy title and ending, dinnit?]