Sunday, July 14, 2013

Doing What You Love - At What Cost?

One of my personal heroes, Joseph Campbell, was famous for his quote "Follow your bliss."  Nowadays people say it as "Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life" or similar pithy lines.  But there was a pithy line from a movie I watched recently that really got me thinking about this.

The movie was In Time (2011, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried).  [Some spoilers ahead]  For those that don't know the movie, the plot revolves around a near-future dystopia where everyone stops aging at 25, but where time has become the currency.  You literally pay for everything with the minutes and hours of your life.  And if you run out of time, you die.  So the very poor struggle to make enough time to last to the next day, while the wealthy may have eons of time.

In one scene in the movie, the wealthy antagonist tries to tell our poor hero that the system only works because of the balance, or rather imbalance, in the system.  "Many must die so that a few may be immortal."  To which our hero responds, "No one should be immortal if even one person has to die."

Now I'm sure most of us would agree that requiring others to die so we can live is immoral.  I mean, I know people who refuse to sign to be an organ donor because they're concerned if they ever end up in the hospital with some dying rich person, the doctors would be inclined to let them die so they could harvest their organs for the rich person.  And I think most people would object to that sort of treatment of a person as a commodity.

But in the movie, when the hero begins his Robin Hood campaign of stealing time and giving it away to the people in the ghetto, there is concern from the wealthy and the police (Time Keepers), that this will destablize the whole economy.  And in fact it does, to some extent.  When the poor no longer need to grind away their lives in factories just to survive, they walk away and the factories shut down.
Well hooray for equality and all, but what happens when those factories don't start up again?

 And that brings me back around to Campbell and his admonition to "Follow your bliss."

I've worked at a lot of jobs over my life.  I've painted houses, laid blacktop, served fast food burgers, and designed cutting-edge paint for aerospace applications, both commercial and military.  I've been a prep cook, a Research and Development chemist, and a Manufacturing Quality Engineer.  I've worked in paints, inks, pesticides, water treatment additives, adhesives and even one of the largest manufactures of alcoholic beverages in the world.  

In all these places, I've met a number of people who liked their jobs, and many who hated them.  Some really loathed their jobs, counting the days until they retired, even if that time was decades away.  A few really loved their work and looked forward to coming to work each day.  But very few could be said to be following their bliss.

Of the few that might really be following their bliss, I'd say all the ones I knew were in creative jobs: designers, product developers, R&D, etc.  I've known some people who really love math and get into accounting.  Others love the law or science or whatever they do.  However, the one thing I've never really found is anyone at the bottom of the heap that loves their job, that is following their bliss.

The guys (and a few women, the chemical industry is, if anything, more sexist in the hourly jobs than it is in the lab jobs) who work in these smelly, often noisy, mostly too hot plants making the paints, inks, coatings and other wonders of modern chemistry that make our modern society possible in so very many ways do it for the paycheck.  These jobs pay well.  That's the beginning and end of it.  Any of the ones I've spoken to could think of at least a few dozen things they'd rather be doing than working in these factories. 

So if everyone followed their bliss, no one would be working in these factories.  And the way of life that allows those fortunate ones to follow their bliss would collapse.

Which makes me think, how different is it, really?  Is "Follow your bliss" so very different from "Many must die so a few can be immortal"?  If many must toil away their lives in miserable jobs so a few can follow their bliss, is it really morally superior?

Personally, I'd love to follow my bliss.  I love to write.  I want to some day make my living from my writing.  Although I do actually have a job now that I like enough that I'm not really in a rush to retire.

But I find myself wondering if this isn't really an elitist ideal.  After all, I like having all the cool stuff I have, that makes my life easier.  I love the laptop I'm writing this on, even if I suspect that the people who made it did not derive nearly as much joy from it's creation as I do from it's use.

After all, we do not live in a world of craftsmen who carefully hand-make everything we use.  Most items we have are mass-produced in factories by faceless, interchangeable workers, who are often treated exactly that way by their employers.  But it makes all these cool things available to many people at prices we can afford.

So is it hypocritical to tell people to follow their dreams, while we want them to keep toiling away to keep our lifestyle going?  Or is it just cruel, an unattainable carrot  dangled to keep them grinding away at their jobs?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Fan Fiction As Practice

In a previous post, I talked about fan fiction as a modern, secular version of the Jewish tradition of Midrash, or sacred storytelling.  This focused on the idea of the practice of telling the missing stories, the stories the original didn't have the time or space to tell.  Sort of fixing plots holes, or answering questions the author didn't get around to.

However there's a Kickstarter project I came across recently that has an even more interesting take on fan fiction.

In the description for the Massive Fiction Project, the creator talks about fan fiction as a teaching tool.  The point to the project is to create, through a series of novels and short stories by a number of professional writers, an open-ended fictional universe and release it through creative commons attribution.  The frees people to write all the fan fiction they want, but to legally own their work.

Now the purpose for the project intrigued me.  Why seek to allow for legal fan fiction?  Their argument is that fan fiction gives the writer a scaffold to work from.  They already have characters, a world, rules, language and so on.  They even have story frameworks if they stick to the original.

This allows the writer to focus on small picture issues: dialogue, description, pacing, conflict and so on.  Since you don't need to worry about the broad strokes, you can practice the details.  Also, you can even pit your writing against someone you admire-- can you tell an alternate version of the story that works as well as the original?  

Of course this open source concept isn't unique.  There was another Kickstarter fairly recently called Symbiosis.  This one created an art book (by Steven Sanders, an artist for Marvel and Image comics) of a fictional universe (a sort of biopunk future).  But again, it was released to creative commons so people could create anything based on this world: stories, art, graphic novels, RPGs, games, movies, whatever.  The biggest difference was that the Massive Fiction is free even for commercial use.  With Symbiosis, commercial use requires separate licensing.

But the shared idea of creating a fictional world in which writers or artists can play and create is an interesting one. I really like the idea-- sort of crowd-sourced storytelling.  I will probably look these worlds over when I get the chance and see if they inspire any story ideas.

All of this looks to also have some interesting implications about views on copyright, but I'll leave that for another post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Holy Fan Fiction

Okay, I'm always happy to learn new things, especially about the art of storytelling.  And the other day I found out about the religious roots of fan fiction: the Jewish concept of Midrash.  For those, like me, that have never heard the term before, apparently the Jewish religion has a long tradition of filling in the missing parts of the story. 

For example, take Lilith.  She doesn't appear by name in the Bible.  In fact, she came about because the Jews notice there were two very different creation stories in the Bible, and the stories of First Woman were incompatible. 

In the first Creation story, Man and Woman are created together as the final act of creation.  In the second story, The Garden of Eden is created first, then Man.  Then Man was lonely so all the animals are created as possible companions, but none work.  So a rib is taken from Man and used to create Woman. 

Clearly, these two Women are different, one created with Man, the other created from him.  So how to explain this?  The result, the story of Lilith, Man's first wife. 

There are many examples of this throughout antiquity.  But even in modern times we have similar stories, like The Red Tent, the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, a woman that was otherwise only really known by name.  And by her rape. 

But what I really found interesting was the idea of recreating stories, filling in the missing pieces, as an act of sacred reverence.  I've never really written fan fiction myself.  Not exactly.

Of course I have had plenty of conversations with friends and family about stories we loved, or hated, and how things could or should have gone differently.  Or tried to figure out the holes in the story, especially the backstory.  Like Harry and the other had gone past the room with the Time Turners, so when Sirius died by tripping through a curtain, why didn't someone just grab one and skip backward to push him the other way? 

I've also played in more than a few RPGs set in famous fictional worlds, from the Marvel Universe to Melnibon√©. 

But I never really thought seriously about writing my own fan fiction.  I guess I looked down on fan fiction, like it's for people that lack the creativity to do something original.  Besides, why put in all that time and effort writing something I could never publish?  Or at least never get paid for. 

So there I was, sitting, listening to this talk about midrash and had a bit of an epiphany.  I was a literary snob.  Okay, not a big epiphany, for those that know me.  But for me, it was fascinating. 

It also made me think about the relationship between fiction and fan fiction.  I know many writers that hate fan fiction, see it as people stealing their work, their characters.  Some are famous for their opposition to fan fiction, especially erotic fan fiction.

But I think I have to side with those who see fan fiction for what it is, a sign of a great fictional world.  If the writer creates characters and a world so vivid that the readers want to play around in it themselves, I think it means the writer has touched them at a very deep level.  I think a writer that generates that kind of following should be happy about it.

So I'm officially announcing, once my books get published and become world famous, I'm willing to let people write fan fic all they want, as long as they don't try selling it.  Well, maybe we can work out terms if they want to publish it.  After all, there are plenty of anthologies out there now of writers, some quite famous, writing in the fictional worlds of other famous writers (like Lovecraft or LeGuin).  

Seriously, maybe when I get some free writing time, I might see what I can come up with.  Not sure what universe would interest me enough to write something for it.  But at least if I come up with the story, this time I might actually try writing it.  After all, it would just make me part of an ancient, sacred tradition. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Update

Sorry I've been falling behind on posts again.  I started a new day job, as a Quality Engineer for a paint company.  A great job, actually.  And I finally have my nights and weekends free for the first time in about a decade. 

But I also hit my goal with my writing, I made it through the major revision of the first novel in my series before I started the new job.  I even took one of my first majorly revised chapters into my writing group and found I still had room to improve.

So I'm going through and tightening the whole thing up a bit more, smoothing out the seams where the old and new material blend.  Mostly I've found at this stage I'm mostly cutting out material that's become extraneous or overly explanatory.

I plan to read a few more chapters with my group, to see how I'm doing.  But I think I'm ready to start my agent search again.  So, once I finish this last polish pass, I'm going to put together my new list of agents.  And probably revise my query letter to better fit the new tone of the novel.

Wish me luck, and thanks for following.

The Storyteller's Art

Last night I took my family to experience my favorite band, Rush.  It was a wonderful experience on many levels.  For one, it was a chance to take my daughter to her first real concert (not counting the bands playing our local Fourth of July fireworks and such like).  It was also the first time I was at a concert with my son, though it wasn't his first concert.

Of course, it was also a chance for me to hear my favorite band in more years than I care to admit.  Haven't gotten a good excuse for some good old-fashioned head-banging fun in years.  Screamed along with the lyrics to many of the songs, loud enough my throat's still a bit sore today. 

But all of that is actually secondary to why I really enjoyed the evening.  This concert was for their new album Clockwork Angels.  Given the title, there was an interesting steampunk vibe to several of the new songs and a lot of the show.  And since I love steampunk, that was a huge plus.

However, that still isn't the real reason.  It was the show as a whole.  The concert began and ended with video pieces that old an amusing and weird story, just as they did with the Time Machine tour.  In fact, many of the songs had their own complex videos weaved in with them. 

The band used all of these elements (video, lights, instruments, vocals, even, for the first time, guest musicians for part of the show in the form of 5 violinists and 2 bassists) to tell a story. 

And that's what made it so amazing, the chance to feel on such a base, visceral level, what I have always known: that they are amazing storytellers.  It's why I list their lyricist and percussionist, Neil Peart, as one of my major influences as a writer.  I've found few writers that can tell a great scifi story as succinctly as "Red Barchetta". An economy of words, but it tells a complete story, including setting up it's dark future.  Of course, their most famous story-song has to be "2112".  Much longer, but it still tells a great story in a minimalist fashion.

And that is why the concert was such an amazing experience for me, the chance to see master storytellers working their craft in a mixed-media format.  It was exhilarating and educational.

I think that sometimes I can get too wrapped up in being a writer, thinking about the page, the words.  I can forget that the point is to tell a story.  Anything in service of the story is gold, anything not in service to the story is dross.  Maybe beautiful and fun and witty, but still dross.

Don't get me wrong, subplots are great, minor characters that play no apparent purpose can be fine to add, even scenes that don't seem to advance the plot.  All these are fine, just like a great song can tell a story, but include long instrumental stretches. 

All these things can be there, but I still have to tell a great story.  Otherwise I've broken my deal with my reader.  They give me their time, attention and  money and I promise in exchange to give them a great story.

For myself, I find that exploring other ways of telling stories, whether music, movies, or even games, helps me get at the message, and get away from the medium.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"I Can Do Better Than That"

I consider myself a writer.  I know some prefer the term "aspiring writer", but I write.  That makes me a writer.  What I aspire to is to be an author, which I see as a person who makes their living from their writing.

In my quest to be an author, I have already written four complete novels (okay, two drafted and revised [and revised, and revised...] and two with full rough drafts).  The four books are all part of a series, so I've been submitting the first to agents for a couple of years now.  Still waiting to sell it, though.

Which brings me to the title of my post.  Best writing advice I ever got was from an article I wish I still had so I could properly site it.  (anyone that recognizes it, please leave a post in the Comments section)  The advice went something like this:

"The real writer's mantra is 'I can do better than that'.  When the writer looks at another work, even one of the great classics, they think 'I can do better than that'.  And when the writer look at their own work they should shake their head sheepishly and say 'I can do better than that'."

I've tried to keep that in mind, especially when doing my revisions, to think "I can do better than this."  So when I finished the rough draft of my first novel I set it aside for a bit and knocked around on some short stories.  When I came back to it, I knew I could do better, and I did.

Once I had it as good as I could get it on my own, I took it to my writer's group.  After over a year of reading chapters there, I went back and did another full revision.  Then I gave that full version to a few beta readers and did another revision based on their input.

At each stage, it was amazing what I missed, what I saw anew through fresh eyes.  And each time I could see the novel getting so much better.

So I sent it out into the world, trying to find an agent to love it as I did.  On my first round of queries, I actually got a request for a partial (50 pages) from a Dream Agent.  She rejected it, but I got a very encouraging letter (not just email) from her assistant.

So I revised again.  And, since I'd only gotten one request, I revised my query letter, too.  Actually, I ended up studying how to write query letters.  I found Query Shark very, very helpful (follow her advice and read the full archives from the beginning.  It really helps).

Since then I started to get at least one request for a full on each round of queries.  All of them said similar things: they liked the book, they just didn't love it, or at least not enough to rep it.

So I revised and revised my query letters.  I even looked for trends in who was requesting fulls.  The answers shouldn't have been surprising.  I found that all the ones who requested fulls had two things in common: 1) they were all very personalized queries, 2) they requested pages along with the query.

By very personalized I mean I did serious research and found one thing I could put in for why I wanted them in particular to rep me, or at least this book.  Something other than a stellar track record, or best selling clients or even a big agency.  Something unusual, probably not in their standard bio, or at least a new spin on it.  In  one case, it was something the agent had mentioned in one blog interview five years earlier when the interviewer asked for one thing about her that would surprise most people that knew her. 

I was happy to see my research paying off and figured that meant I could probably ditch the generic queries.  If I couldn't come up with one really good reason I wanted that particular agent, then maybe they weren't right for me.  (Okay, I do still send out some anyway when I really like the agent but can't find a way to say exactly why.)

And since pages seemed important, I figured I might need to revise my query a bit more.  But in the meantime, agents that wanted pages too went to the top of my list.

But what finally got to me was all those full requests that ended up still not loving it.  And they all liked it.  Some even seemed to love it, just "not enough" or "didn't love it as much as I'd hoped".  And all of them were very encouraging, not just to keep looking for the right agent for the work, but also to send them anything else I wrote.  Two were actually were almost insistent on seeing anything else I wrote.

Finally it dawned on me that maybe I needed to go back and look at the manuscript itself.  It's been over a year, maybe year and a half since I actually read through this thing.  Since I finished it, I've written the next three volumes in the series, expanding greatly on the overall story and getting much deeper into the characters.

That's why about a week ago I sat down with a hard copy of my novel and started reading it.  It took my until about page 20 to see why they were rejecting it.  By page 30 or so I knew where my central problem was: I'd made my MCs life too easy.  I let him get away with too much, too easily.  There just wasn't enough conflict, enough tension to really keep the story going.  The writing was generally pretty good, but it could be so much better.

I shook my head and said "I can do better than this".

But I'm not, yet.  I'm going through the whole book first, finding all the scenes that don''t work and marking them for revision.  Finding all the scenes that, no matter how beautifully written or whatever, add nothing to the story or bore me.  If they bore the writer, they must be hell on a reader.

I'm especially horrified at all the times I let my character drift into Mary Sue-land (though technically Marty Stu, since it's male, but I still prefer the Mary Sue label).  Things are unrealistically easy for him, he can do no wrong.  He overcomes obstacles too easily.  It just gets boring.

Now don't get me wrong, I still love the book.  Everyone that's read it likes it, feels there's some solid writing there.  And I agree.  But having this much distance from it, and all these other books written, I can see it as the promising amateur work it is.

So now I need to make it look like the polished professional work I used to think it was.  Maybe then the next agent will finally love it enough.

Anyone else out there with their own humorous or horror stories to share?  Feel free to share in the Comments.  I think the writing life is lonely and frustrating, but it's better when we know we're far from alone.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What Is The Right Amount Of Moral Outrage?

For those who haven't been paying attention to the news, Dan Cathy, President and COO of  the fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A, made some comments during an interview that showed his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

This has caused a great hue and cry from both sides of the debate.  It has lead to opponents calling for protests and even boycotts of the chain.  Supports have called for rallies of people to buy massive amounts at the chain to show their support.  In at least two major cities (Boston and Chicago) there have been moves to bar new Chick-Fil-A restaurants from being opened.

Because of all this, several Chick-Fil-A restaurant owners have come out in favor of same-sex marriage.  The one here in Chicago tried to defend her store from politicians by claiming they have several gays working for the store and that she has no problems with gays or lesbians.  Other store owners have come out in  defense of Mr. Cathy's views.

I'm not going to bother discussing the whole same-sex marriage debate at this point.  That could easily take up a couple blog posts on it's own.

For now I'd like to address how one should respond to the remarks of one person who may be highly placed in an organization.   

As an example, I'd like to point to Marge Schott.  For those too young to remember (or too opposed to sports to have noticed the story at the time), she used to be the majority owner, managing partner and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds MLB team from '84-'99.  She was a very controversial figure for much of this.

In 1992, she was sued, in part, over her alleged racism.  That suit was lost, but the allegations kept up.  Aside from claims of using the "N-word", she was also accused of antisemitism when she said she felt that Hitler had been good for Germany in the beginning, but went too far.     

Many people were very offended by her.  In  the end, the league commission  would suspend her from her day-to-day managing duties twice (apparently it was almost three times, but she sold her majority share before anything materialized).

Now without speaking on the validity of the claims against her, I can at least appreciate the appropriateness of the response the commission took.  They penalized her, not the team, since she was the one that had offended them.

So in a case like the current Chick-Fil-A debacle what would be a reasonable response?  I think taking out one's outrage, or support, of the COO's comments on the individual restaurants of the chain  is unreasonable.  If I was upset enough about his comments, I'd call him an idiot, maybe send him a letter or something expressing my disagreement.  If I agreed, I might send him a letter of support, maybe speak out in  his defense.

What I wouldn't do was buy or not buy their food based on his opinions.  If I'm going to patronize or boycott a business on moral grounds, it will be based on their corporate policies and practices.  If Chick-Fil-A was like the Boy Scouts, with a stated policy banning hiring of homosexuals, I could see taking direct actions towards the restaurants. 

There are businesses I like to patronize and others I avoid at all costs because of their policies and practices.  Personally, I've never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, mainly because I've never lived near one, and I'm not a huge fan of fast food chicken anyway.  So boycotting it would be pointless for me anyway. 

Let me put this another way: I really hate many of the policies and practices of the American recording industry, from their outrageous punitive lawsuits against illegal downloaders (with penalties far in excess of any actual damages done to the company in individual lost sales, that don't even go to the artists they claim to be protecting) to their contracts that often treat the artists (especially songwriters) as work-for-hire (so the company owns the copyright, not the creator).  However, if I follow the model of the Chick-Fil-A protesters, I should boycott buying anything from these major labels.  So how do I support my favorite bands?  How do I get their music, other than hoping it comes on the radio or illegally downloading it (even using a service like Spotify is indirectly supporting the record companies)?

Why should I penalize these bands by not buying their records just because I think they're getting screwed by their label?

And that's when I do object to a corporate policy.  It makes even less sense when I'm just objecting to something some idiot at the top is spewing.  If the CEO of Wendy's made some outrageously offensive comment in an interview, would I stop eating at my local restaurant?  Probably not.

Does that make me a moral coward?  I don't think so.  I think it means I'm making a measured response, directed at the person that offended me, not waging total moral war with a complete disregard for casualties.

So, anyone out there disagree?  Or maybe even someone agree?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  But let's keep to the issue of response, and not fall into arguing the same-sex marriage debate.  Maybe I'll address that later on.