Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Books: February to March

The Iliad occupied most of February. I worked my way through two translations: the funny, pulpy Rieu, and the beautifully written Fagles. It's an impressive war story with a surprising focus not on the beginning or end of the war, but on the showdown between Hector and Achilles. It makes me keen to read the 7-part graphic novel Age of Bronze that tells the story of the war from Paris' dream to the post-Trojan Horse slaughter.

The Hunger Games started off as a ho-hum rip-off of Battle Royale and a third of the way through the book became utterly gripping due to a single character reveal. Vivid, tough, brutal and the sequel (coming up in a few paragraphs) is even better.

I read the script for Tell No One, an adaptation of a Harlen Coben novel. A fast tight read with that thriller plot arc: amazing hook, great second act where you have no idea what's going on, and then a conventional finale. Conventional, but with strong emotional pay-offs.

It makes me think about Se7en, which follows a similar structure but whose finale transcends the conventions through some magical combination of simplicity, implication and acting. However, I've always been taken with the idea that the true ending to Se7en involves David obeying John Doe's instructions: becoming Wrath, conducting the execution, and then - in full view of the camera - blowing his own brains out.

I know that version of the movie could never have been made in 1995, but there's such a dramatic purity (and relentless logic) to that ending that I can't help reshooting it in my head (heh) every time I watch it.

Bully In Sight is an English book about bullying. A little bit of research for Workplace Bully, natch. 

The Complete Indigo Prime - in my mind, Indigo Prime is a classic 2000AD serial, riffing off of Sapphire and Steel, and creating an amazing story about reality engineers saving the universe. Turns out that it's far crazier, patchier and more incoherent than I ever remembered, and that I read far less of it than I thought. Nice long story arc involving Jack the Ripper and a time-travelling train, though. 

Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games, which is basically a version of Battle Royale (teenagers fight to the death in the wilderness for the amusement of spectators) in post-apocalyptic America, with a fair bit of class warfare thrown in for good measure. It took me a while to warm up to the Hunger Games, but Catching Fire was excellent - mostly because it completely defied my expectations about how it would play out.

If it's the obligation of the writer to find the way forward that you didn't expect but realise makes perfect sense, then Susan Collins definitely fulfilled her obligation to me. I won't say I'm a raving fan, but I am very much looking forward to Mockingjay.

Shafts of Strife was published as a comic in the Listener in the 80s. I can remember the beginning and the end but had no idea it told such a tight little story.

I followed that up with Aliens vs Pooh, courtesy of Mr Morgue.

The Complete Persepolis is a lovely story about a girl growing up in Iran, that contains an unexpected detour into another country that I found delightful, funny, boring, off-topic and ultimately moving. It's odd to read an autobiography that straddles the line between finding a deeper meaning in the author's life, and just being a series of events that happened.

Dark Days is the sequel to the graphic novel 30 Days of Night. It didn't leave much of an impression on me, except that there were some good action sequences.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On giving feedback

This quote by Paul Czege, author of My Life With Master, contains a nugget of such concentrated wisdom that I wanted to share it all with you. Let's discuss feedback:

Many years ago, years before I ever found my creative medium in RPG design, I dated a quite intelligent woman. I would show her my fictions and nonfictions and tell her about my ideas. And she would provide constructive criticism, upon which I could base improvements. Because, of course, the world ignores works which aren't excellent. That, or it rides roughshod upon them with cruel hooves.

There is a great deal of generally accepted wisdom about the value of constructive criticism that I now believe is bullshit. The institution of "constructive criticism" in creative communities is born of anxious, self-serving neuroticism and white-knuckled paternalism.

Danielle taught me that I need none of it. It does nothing but keep me from wielding the full force of my creative powers. What I need is feedback that puts energy into my efforts. What I need is feedback that helps me see the full elephant, to understand the meaning of the whole beast that has yet only a crude shape under my mortal hands. I am already scrutinous and critical enough of my creative efforts. What I need is feedback that strips away the bullshit that's holding me back, empowers and armors me against the certain doubts and contrary notions of others, and gives me energy and momentum.

Look at this game you have, find the love you have for it, and instead of criticism give it the feedback it really needs.

The keys, for me, is 'feedback that puts energy into my efforts' and 'feedback that helps me understand the meaning' of the thing I've created: the implications I haven't drawn out and what it can potentially become.

There's an uneasy course to navigate here, between telling someone what you would do with their idea vs. telling them what you think their idea could be, but done well you can be a valuable member of a creator's support team.

There are a couple of other relevant posts to check out on this topic:

  + Seth Godin uses his graph-fu to explain the value of the green dot (someone who's cheering us on, showing how great it will be when we finish and share our creations with our audience)

  + Alex Epstein talks about great feedback here. He emphasises the importance of developing your own 'giving feedback' skills.

So I open the floor to you. Tips for giving good feedback? What sort of feedback do you prefer? Do these quotes and articles strike something in you like they did for me?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Workplace Bully: Public debut

Just pitched Workplace Bully to Sean. This is a big improvement for me: with The Limit the gap between thinking about the story and pitching it was about two years. With this it's been ... ah, ... less. Like maybe six months since first thinking about it, and about a week since first starting to work on it.

Pitching, as ever, remains difficult for me. This was my first time describing the whole story to someone else. I prefaced it by explaining that, and asking Sean to keep a lookout (while I pitched) for the emotional flow of the story. Were there any odd or inexplicable character decisions? Any big leaps where things didn't make sense.

The pitch was a bit of a conversation, a bit of recitation (from my outline), and a bit of discovery (I figured out a few scenes while explaining the story). Sean and I also know each other pretty well - he felt comfortable asking questions about things that were unclear to him. I felt comfortable pausing to write things down. To an outside observer, it would have seemed very stop-n-start, but for us it was like hitting pause on a movie, and then getting right back into the story.

Two big discoveries from pitching it

First, this marked the beginning of the story's transition from a bunch of related scenes to something coherent, with themes and a structure. The conversation with Sean really drew out a few big points, including how epic the confrontation between the two main characters in this story really is.

Second, we examined the emotional logic behind one of the characters deciding to fight back. It felt facile to me as I pitched it, and it felt an odd transition to Sean as he listened. Together we were able to really dig in to what was going on for the character at that point. This is some of my favourite writing work - to figure out all the implications of the plot event on a character and then determine how they'd really react to it ... and what that means.

Now it's time to absorb the rest of his feedback and get to work on refining my outline so that it's readable. There's much work to be done, but I'm on the right track.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Workplace Bully: It begins

Workplace Bully was the New Thing that gathered the most comments back when I was blogging about my next projects. I've spent the last couple of months researching and thinking about what could happen when you're bullied.

Rather than take extensive notes, I turned each idea or interesting-fact-from-the-research into an episode idea (describing each idea in a sentence). That gave me about 200 ideas ... and out of that research, some insights into the characters and what I want to do with the show have emerged.

I've found that I've been a little torn between my original conception of creating Workplace Bully as a webseries and discovering the story along the way vs. outlining the whole thing for an upcoming Film Commission thing. That tension has brought back some of my old fears about writing, but I seem to be dealing with it this time by breaking each stage of outlining in small, quickly-and-easily achieveable steps.

My big goal was to create an outline of the story that I could show to my first audience of readers (Sean, Andrew, Chris).

First step was to take those 200 scenes and identify the main emotional beats - the moments and decisions that make me care about the characters and the story I'm watching. With that done, I culled even further ... and identified what I called the 'keystone' beats: the absolutely essential moments in the script. There are seven of them.

The order for those 'keystone' beats was pretty clear, but on their own they don't make a story. Now I had to take the main emotional beats and use them to create a flow of events between each of those keystone beats. This took a bit of doing; after refining my first crack at it, I took a day to just reflect on the story and what I considered to be the core of it.

Finding the core of a script or a story, figuring out what it's about, is something that I constantly refine through doing a project. Here's what I think is the core for Workplace Bully, at the moment: it's the story of an ordinary woman who has to become a hero. That captures the sense of the everyday setting of the story coupled with the epic nature of the struggle that I want.

Now I've refined the story a little more based on that. With previous projects I might have kept going on this for days. Now I'm going to pitch it to Sean as soon as I can. Get his feedback, restructure it and get a very rough written outline to Andrew and Chris (if they're willing) as soon as I can.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Back once again

After two months of relentless work-crazy, I'm finally getting a chance to relax, think and blog again. Oh, and write: an update of the New Thing is coming.

After that, some book reviews and my thoughts on the Peter Jackson review of the New Zealand Film Commission.

What have you been up to?