Friday, July 31, 2009

Buffy: Heading towards the middle of Season 3

More mini-reviews, this time with the occasional listing of specific act breaks

Lover's Walk
The episode that convinced Joss Whedon that he could mine more dramatic potential from Spike - by protraying him as a drunk, hilariously love-lorn emotional sap/psychopath. It's great comparing the scene of Spike trying to convince Willow to cast a love spell with the scene in Season 4 where he's failing to bite her - Willow as the terrified confident of a confessional Spike is a fun dynamic, and I can see why they revisted that well.

This episode starts building up the question of what going to happen after high school finishes, as Buffy begins to realise the future is wide open to her. A tremendously entertaining episode that finishes on a low point for everyone. It's not key to the overall story of Season 3 though.

Act Break (AB): Spike decides to use Willow.
AB 2: Spike captures Willow and Xander. Wants Willow to cast a spell on Dru.
AB 3: Spike shows up at Buffy's house. He has a heart to heart with Buffy's mum.
AB 4: Spike is under threat, and Buffy and Angel have to protect him. Although I'd argue that the real act-out comes when Cordy gets impaled by a pole.

I enjoyed how the reactions to these act breaks (when we cut back from commercials) are unexpected and reveal character.

The Wish
An episode that ties off quite a few of the romantic subplots from the first third of the season and sets up a new status quo. Cordy's wish doesn't create a subtle alternate reality, but it's a nicely handled one - it feels logical, and it's portrayed in broad strokes that feel appropriate and convey a lot of information.

Boy, I remember this as a weak episode. And in a way it is - it creates this false jeopardy that Angel was brought back to kill Buffy (*), before swerving into the more believable territory of Angel wanting to destroy himself. The result is pretty damn sappy, but not as bad as I remembered it.

(*) Cos they're totally going to kill off Sarah Michelle Gellar's character halfway through the season, right?

Amends also demonstrates that this show does NOT ignore the emotional reality between the characters. Take a look at the scene where Giles meets Angel for the first time since he's back - Angel killed Giles' girlfriend, and the show tackles that head-on. This emotional continuity is a vital part of the 'watching a novel' effect I'm talking about.

I remember this as an effective little story, although (like Amends) it's not essential to Season 3. It's a nicely-developed mob-mentality horror story. It also features the transformation of Amy into a rat that becomes so important in Seasons 6 and 8.

I'm beginning to really lock in to the idea that the reason Buffy is so satisfying to rewatch is that the real plots happen in the sub-text of the episode.

This felt like a significantly deeper episode to me; a great combination of schlock (suddenly defenceless slayer hunted by vampires) with introspection (what is Buffy without her powers? What is the exact nature of her relationship with Giles?).

I'm impressed by David Fury (the writer of this ep; he later moved to 24). The episode is filled with nice transitions between scenes, and scene endings that are odd, skewed, and quiet. There's also a extended pre-teaser intro that really drew me in to the episode.

This is a Buffy/Giles episode - the presence of other supporting cast has been significantly reduced. Buffy has to deal with Giles' betrayal; the father-daughter vibe between them is more deeply explored (and the conflict between Giles' role as a Watcher and his relationship towards Buffy as a human being is fully brought out into the light). It also ends with a big plot development for Giles - something I'd completely forgotten about.

A good, more serious episode that I think will be pretty important to the rewatching of Season 3.

The Zeppo
I can remember reading that a lot of fans were angry about this episode - presumably because it undermines the reality of the show but undercutting the epic Buffy/Angel love story and the seriousness of preventing the apocalypse. Me, I think that's hilarious.(*)

(*) In particular, check out the music cue when Xander leaves Buffy and Angel alone about 32 minutes into the ep.

This episode is supposedly about Xander's inadequacy, his search for coolness, and generally trying to find his identity in the group. I'd say at a meta-level, it's really about giving us, the audience, a reason to care about Xander by throwing him into an episode that gives him a mega-dose of 'worthiness as a protagonist', making him someone we want to watch.

It doesn't hurt that it uses a whole 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'/what's-happening-backstage structure to tell a series of funny jokes. It also doesn't hurt that Xander and Faith have a couple of scenes together (and check out that impressive 5 seconds of silence as he leaves her motel ... that is some rare stuff in TV, to just watch a character process what's happened to them).

Finally, I'd say check out Xander's costuming. Compare his super-geeky sweater and shirt in the first scene after the title sequence to how he's dressed in the final scene. As with The Wish, it's overt but clearly makes the point about Xander's transformation.

... Now, on to the heart of the season. Episode 14 (Bad Girls), here we come.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Adjusting the blogging schedule again

For the last two months I've been running an experiment on this blog. Posting every couple of days has been fun, but I'm still feeling a bit of pressure. So, I've decided to change my schedule to one post every four days.

That gives me more space, and I expect I'll pop in the occasional blog post between those scheduled posts.(*) I'm also regularly updating the Links of Interest on the top right of the blog, usually every day, with stuff I think is worthy of your attention.

(*) I'm still writing these posts in advance, and auto-scheduling them to publish (this one was written on the 21st of June).

I'm still figuring out what to do with multi-dimensional; I reckon this schedule change will create the environment for me to be able to play around a bit and sort that out.

Synopsis: Elements of Persuasion (The Last 3 Elements)

In The Elements of Persuasion (TEOP), the Antagonist is defined as the thing that is keeping your Hero from achieving their goal(s). This 'thing' could be a person, or a disease (if you're a doctor), or a sinking ship (if you're stuck on the Titanic).

An Antagonist isn't used to create conflict; they're used to "clarify what the conflict is about".

So, here's why TEOP thinks you should use an Antagonist. The authors say that if you're going to persuade people, then they must remember what you've said. Citing studies that indicate that experiencing strong emotions increases the chances of remembering something, the authors then point out that using an Antagonist has two advantages:
  • you can easily generate strong negative emotions because of them, and
  • audiences will associate those the negative emotions with the Antagonist - keeping your Hero sympathetic.
Antagonists also get the audience on the Hero's side, says TEOP.

You've got to choose the 'right' antagonist, though. One that can be overcome. One that's not a straw villain (either imaginary, or whose threat is overinflated). And one that you don't demonise - because that allows your hero and your audience to learn from them. Choose the right antagonist and you're halfway to succeed (in either the goal you've set for your hero or in persuading your audience).

Awareness and Transformation

TEOP kind of peters out in its final two chapters. Rather than providing 'how to' guides on building moments of awareness and transformation into your stories, it shares a bunch of pretty interesting stories about viral marketing and retail architecture. It's become very obvious by this point that TEOP is a business book, but in these last two chapters it becomes extremely (to be generous) 'indirect' in the way it imparts its lessons; very 'show, don't tell'.

So, drawing on material from the book's introduction, 'Awareness' is the moment that allows us to learn from the story and therefore succeed. When I write it like that, it seems that Awareness applies both to the Hero and to the audience.

You want to create a moment of Awareness in the audience where they see the problem for what it is and the actions they need to take to fix it. Hopefully by this point you'll have also created the Passion to change things and given them a model of how to change (the Hero).

As for Transformation ... well, TEOP says that in commercial storytelling this usually involves you getting paid. But more generally, Transformation involves taking action that changes you and the world around you.

That's all I was able to extract in terms of how to apply the Elements of Persuasion from the last 2 chapters.


I should point out that TEOP contains a bunch of interesting stuff that's not totally on-message. Creating teams, tips for presenting stories effectively, advice about finding meaning in your life. Stuff I found useful, but not for this synopsis.

And it turns out that my criticisms boils down to two points: This is a 225 page book that feels like it should be about 100 pages long, something that's tighter, more on-message. And I'm absolutely not the target audience ... well, sort of absolutely not. I can see how to apply some of this to my day-job. But the book is pitched at business leaders and corporate storytellers/marketeers.

Worthy of having a quick flick-through browse, filled with tangents, and it'll make you work to extract its lessons. That's my take on the Elements of Persuasion; now I'm going to try applying its principles, which I have found useful.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Open Thread

In honour of this weird-ass week: What's the craziest thing that's happened to you recently?

Buffy: The first third of Season 3

Being home with the proto-flu has given me a chance to watch about a third of Buffy Season 3.

Buffy is the show that really started my second phase of thinking about how to write for television. Working on my own show was really like boot camp for TV script-writing. Watching Team Whedon, on the other hand, gave me an opportunity to reflect on a completely different approach. Most notably:
  • a strong focus on using the act breaks to twist or invert the situation
  • using the main story to develop and comment on a character's emotions
  • telling a coherent season-long story almost totally inside the subtext of the episodes; it's a story that's invisible to a person who watches just one episode, but cumulatively it's quite epic in scale and makes a season of Buffy feel like a novel.
What's been most impressive about these early episodes is how they take their time to really explore difficult emotional terrain for the characters - in particular, the cost of keeping secrets from people.

These first seven episodes have played like an overture to the season, gradually moving sub-plots into place - and when I say "gradually", I mean they're not afraid to let crucial characters drop out of entire episodes while they establish other stuff that's going on. That other stuff includes:
  • Willow and Xander develop feelings for each other
  • Angel returns from several hundred years being tortured in a hell dimension;he's in a bestial state
  • Faith, another slayer, arrives in Sunnydale and develops a complicated relationship with Buffy
  • The Mayor is slowly (very slowly) introduced as a character (*).
(*) The Mayor's been hinted at as far back as ... episode 3 of Season 2 (the one where Spike takes over the school).

It's amazing that by the end of episode 7, the heart of Season 3 has yet to be even hinted at. Sure, Buffy and Faith have had a bit of a well-motivated smackdown in Revelations, but Faith's descent into the dark side? The Mayor's paternal relationship with her?

The characterisations have established that these could be plausible, but even so, they're not even a possibility yet.

The first episode of Season 3 focuses on Buffy's new life after running away from Sunnydale. The central question is 'What will it take to make Buffy go back home?'. Watching Whedon escalate the pressure on Buffy (to the point of trapping her in a hell dimension, just as Angel was) is fun. And the episode totally delivers on its two obligatory emotional beats: (i) Buffy embracing the fact that she can't run away from being a slayer, and (ii) her reunion with her Mum.

Dead Man's Party
An unusual episode, explicitly dealing with the gang having to reknit itself, and learn to trust each other again, after Buffy's long absence.

This one felt far less solid to me - in fact, I stopped watching it at one point (when Buffy's friends start planning something for her during an emotionally difficult time, without asking her if it's something she'd like). Sure, I could interpret that moment as the friends trying to ignore the fact that the situation is emotionally difficult. Unfortunately, it really felt like "Full House Syndrome" - the inability of characters to learn and grow during the course of a TV series.

Faith, Hope and Trick
A really complicated episode developing several subplots, including Buffy moving on from her relationship with Angel, and ending with the kick of a major character returning to Sunnydale.

Beauty and the Beasts
Man, this episode totally features my favourite shot ever of Oz in werewolf form - I love the way he bounds through the halls of the school; it feels genuinely inhuman.

By this point, the show is firmly re-establishing its style of using the A-plots of each episode to advance the bigger picture plot. This is what I mean when I talk about Joss Whedon's voice - not the phrasings he uses for writing dialogue, but the idea that episodes aren't about beating the monster, or even about facing what the monster represents. Episodes are incidents in the broader 'novel' of the season, and the plot of that novel is moving relentlessly forward, sometimes extremely subtly with each episode.

Weird to describe an episode that features a competition called "Slayerfest 98" and a rocket launcher as more of a character piece, but there you go. Great to see Cordelia get a hero moment.

Band Candy
Way more fun that I remembered - I was actually a bit nervous about rewatching this one (much like the upcoming 'Amends'). Sets up a great little run of character moments in future episodes between Joyce and Giles, and outs the Mayor as a bad guy with supernatural connections - but that's really a minor part of this episode, and I'd say it's not totally clear what his status as a recurring villain is at this point

A great episode that deals with bringing the news that Angel is 'alive' to the group: news which puts Faith and Buffy into real conflict for the first time. I like episodes like this - where characters who like each other are strongly opposed, and that opposition comes from well-motivated reasons that have been developing for a while.

Yes, I like drama.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Synopsis: Elements of Persuasion (The Hero)

Heroes show us how to change things. That's what I've taken to be the essence of The Elements of Persuasion's (TEOP) discussion about the Hero. They live the story, personify it, and show us how to change our own lives.

Once you've connected with an audience through a shared passion, a hero allows the audience to 'access' the story. (*) Having a hero allows the storyteller to unify the audience, so that they all see the events and meaning of the story through the same point-of-view.

(*) I'm using 'access' to synthesise a whole bunch of concepts in TEOP: the idea of 'connecting the story to the audience's world at a broader level', 'equality', and 'looking at the world through the hero's eyes'.

'What is a hero?' is the obvious question. TEOP describes a few qualities that heroes possess; they are :
  • the highest common denominator; they bring out the best in themselves, the listener and the story
  • complexity; heroes surprise us
  • authenticity; heroes are real and charismatic
It's vital to find the right hero for your story, and it's best (says TEOP) if they are real rather than fictional. This is because stories are more than words; they are things that can be lived. Heroes demonstrate how to live the story.

The book provides some pretty reasonable examples of corporate and team stories, such as the behind-the-counter routines at Starbucks (story: "This is how you make a really good cup of coffee"), Harley Davidson (story: freedom and fun through getting on a bike ... I guess), and the US Marine Corp (story: Always faithful). (**)

(**) In fact, the book's description of USMC basic training is definitely worth a read, especially its description of the Crucible on pp 99-101 which synopses a 54-hour test of group performance under combat conditions coupled with myth-building. It is both stranger and more interesting than I'd ever imagined basic to be.

TEOP's advice is to reduce your story down to its central concept. Transform that concept into actions. Then choose a hero who demonstrates how to take those actions.


As with the section on passion, I've found that once I've boiled down TEOP's take on the hero, there's a lot of insightful material that I'd never thought of.

However, some negatives are also becoming obvious. The book is primarily directed toward a corporate audience (referring to them as 'corporate storytellers' as some points); in other words, an audience that is not me. That explains a lot about why some of the examples leave me cold.

The idea of associating each element of persuasion with one of the five classical elements seems a bit spurious. Why is the Hero associated with Earth, for instance? You could make an equally good case for Air, Fire, Water, or ... I think 'Spirit' is the fifth element the authors use.

It's a little unclear how to operationalise some of the stuff TEOP talks about. "Heroes stand their ground," says the book. "They control some territory (whether it be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual) of value." Interesting stuff, but more something you the author recognise than something you implement.

There are sections (like the one on active listening) that feel like tangents or padding. I can sort of see how they connect with the aim of the book, but I'm not quite sure when to utilise them in the process of creating and telling your story.

Next up, 'The Antagonist', via a chapter of sticky stories (a chapter that I'm not quite fits in to TEOP's five elements schema).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Synopsis: Elements of Persuasion (Passion)

The first 'element' of persuasion is the PASSION with which a story is told. 'Passion' is defined as the energy that makes you need to tell a story. The two big advantages of passion are that:

(i) passion can cut through all the competing demands for an audience's attention and make them listen to you

(ii) if your story connects with people emotionally, they will spread it for you because it's fun to tell (*).

(*) I'm not entirely sure the authors justify how that second point follows from a story being told with passion, though. Unless 'passion' is simultaneously "the energy that makes you need to tell a story", and "the emotion you want the story to create."

According to the authors, speaking with passion has another couple of benefits. It warms the audience up (getting them ready to want to listen to you). Passion then makes the story come alive for them; the story seems more vivid and more real.

Apparently, the more passionate and personal your story is, the easier it is to overcome the natural stage fright of telling your story to people. In particular, stories that are personal are easier to remember, and able to be told in a way that makes you appear natural and relaxed. They also increase your likeability and show that you're authentic (talking about something that means something to you).

Which brings me back to the first point: passion is your need to tell a story. The Elements of Persuasion (TEOP)describes itself as being about how to get other people to care about what you care about. The key to this, according to TEOP is that you need to be personally committed and passionately involved (in order to be able to make anyone else care). Before you tell your story, you need to ask:
  • Do I really care about what I'm about to say?
  • It is true?
If the answers are 'No', you should pick another idea to talk about. And if people aren't connecting with your story at an emotional level, then you're telling the wrong story.


As I mentioned earlier, I'm also trying to figure out why I've found this book so difficult to read. At this point, I don't really have firm conclusions, but some of the stuff I've noticed while working through these two chapters on Passion are:
  • the book occasionally makes some spurious connections between different facts
  • some of the books used as examples have quite tenuous connections to the points being made (going from the idea of 'victory through a single strike' as portrayed in the Book of Five Rings to William Safire's (and Presentation Zen's) idea of summing up a story with a single memorable phrase ... well, that's quite a stretch for an analogy
  • it's not focusing on the 'How' of how to tell or construct stories; so far, it's more about providing examples of stories. I assume it's hoping we'll learn through reflecting on those stories.
That's it for Passion; despite my criticisms I found the ideas in these section were solid and seemed true to me. The next element of persuasive story-telling is the Hero.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Strain: ... and now I have a sore throat

Weird how reading a book where the primary symptom of vampirism is 'having a sore throat' can make me more aware of my own developing ill health.

The mid-section of The Strain starts developing some of the infected characters and their family members (aka future victims). This part of the novel felt very early James Herbert - it was good at rapidly building up mildly sympathetic characters and then killing them just as I was getting interested in them.

It also hinted at a bigger political situation involving ancient vampires that feels just slightly a little bit totally like antediluvians in Vampire the Masquerade.

cf. Penny Arcade.

The Strain finishes off with a lot of pulpy action that will undoubtably make a reasonable movie finale; it also draws on some stuff about rats that reminds me a lot of Scott Westerfeld's Peeps and The Last Days (*). The Strain is the first part in a trilogy, which means it feels like it stops at a reasonable point, rather than feeling like it's finished telling a story. That's irritating - it makes me want to read the next book, but by the time Book 2 comes out, it will totally have to rebuild my slowly emerging sympathy and enthusiasm for the characters - which, for me, may make the whole enterprise worth skipping until they've finished writing all three and I can read them from start to finish.

(*) Hmm, I've been reading a lot of vampire stuff recently ... not sure why ... and I'm seriously considering rewatching Season 3 of Buffy.

Conclusion: Moody, trashy, quite fun ... and probably worth waiting until they've finished the series - by which point I'm sure the first movie will have come out.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Strain

I've just started reading 'The Strain', a vampire novel co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hagen.

In some ways, it's reminding me of the Garden of Last Days in the way it's spending so much time focusing on the arrival of a plane filled with dead passengers (*), and the ensuing examination by the CDC. Like Garden, The Strain is also creating a sense of approaching doom.

(*) A nice riff on Dracula's arrival in England on the Demeter.

In other ways, it's reminding me of novels like the Keep and Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson with a little bit of Tom Clancy thrown in - pulpy, Euro-mystical (although not as bug-nuts insane as Wilson's 'Nightworld'), with a bit of 'super-competent protagonist' syndrome we usually find in modern blockbuster fiction. Oh, and a tendency to show off the authors' ability to google every single detail in the book to add an air of authority to what they're saying. (**)

(**) Something I'm guilty of, too!

I'm enjoying it so far (A biological horror novel? That sounds tailor-made for me), and I'm wondering how nasty and apocalyptic it's going to get. From the foreshadowing that's been going on, I can certainly see an I Am Legend level of civilisation destruction approaching -- and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out compared to the book's current sedate, precise tone.

... oh, and it has gotten under my skin. Last night, just after I started reading it, I had three separate vampirey/cannibally dreams ... which is a slightly higher rate than usual.

A couple of other things of note:
  • I'm not really interested in any of the characters yet - they seem more like chess pieces with arbitrary flaws and likeable traits - but because they're in an interesting situation, I'm willing to follow them
  • However, one character (Gus) has just been involved in a vividly written, short action sequence that's gotten him into a lot of trouble. He may be a Hispanic gang-member but what's happened to him is unfair, and I'm interested in finding out what happens to him next
  • ... and if people are interested, I can talk a little about the thing the novel is doing that I once considered doing myself and decided that it would be in bad taste (there would be spoilers, though)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Synopsis: The Elements of Persuasion (Introduction)

As a follow-on from Presentation Zen, I'm going to synopsise my notes from re-reading (*) 'The Elements of Persuasion'. This is a book that aims to teach you how to tell more effective stories, or (as the sub-title says) how to 'use stories to pitch better, sell faster, and win more business'.

(*) Actually, I've tried reading it twice before, quitting both times. Hopefully this time through, I'll be able to figure out why.

The Elements of Persuasion (TEOP, from here on in) defines a story as a 'fact, wrapped in an emotion, that compels us to take an action that transforms our world'. The authors, a scriptwriter and a former monk/communications coach, describe stories as having five elements:
  1. The PASSION with which the story is told
  2. A HERO who leads us through the story and allows us to see it through their eyes
  3. An ANTAGONIST (or obstacle) that the hero must overcome
  4. A moment of AWARENESS that allows the Hero to prevail
  5. The TRANSFORMATION in the hero and the world that results from successfully acting on that Awareness.
I'll go into more detail about each of these as I go through the rest of the chapters. TEOP also describes how stories don't have to be lengthy, and they don't have to be verbal. As an example, it offers this image:

Back in a few days for details on the first ... I guess ... element of persuasion: Passion.


Here are the links to all my Elements of Persuasion posts.

The First Element: Passion.
The Second Element: The Hero.
The final three Elements.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Second Sight

I am back into the world of long-form video games. Second Sight uses the classic technique of giving the protagonist amnesia - it totally saves on frontloading exposition when the player discovers the world at the same as the character.

While the premise is a little ridiculous - you're an amnesiac ... with psychic powers ... who's a reknowned paranormal debunker ... who (as I play him at least) is the greatest natural sniper in history - yeah, like I said: while the premise is a little ridiculous, the structure of the game is compelling.

It's told in two timeframes: what happens once you wake up in hospital without any memories, and flashbacks to the events that put you in hospital. The two timelines change in subtle, slightly disturbing ways every once in a while, as characters you thought were dead turn out to be alive. I'm looking forward to the game's explanation for that.

About halfway through the game, I discovered a fascinating third strand to the game happens when you fail a level (either by dying or by letting a team-member die). You'll enter the interrogation room where the central villain of the piece messes with your head for a minute before letting you restart the game

Second Sight also plays in extremely digestable chapters. I can play a chapter without triggering my OOS, which makes it a pretty perfect diversion ... as long as I don't get addicted and play three chapters in a row like I did last night.

I'm also playing using a walkthrough - yes, it's cheating (in the sense that I'm not figuring out each level or activating the puzzle-solving part of my brain), but it's also saving me heaps of time, protecting my health, and delivering a more cinematic experience.


Just finished it: It's a good game, does interesting things with time, and while it's pretty damn linear there are some great gimmicks that give you a variety of options to complete each level. The power to astrally project and then possess someone else may well be the scariest thing ever.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Open Thread

What are you into at the moment?

This is not a title

Language is a virus.

Words are the capsid that protects the virus and allows it to be delivered.

Speech and writing are the vectors of transmission. Books are hot zones.

Our minds are the hosts.

The symptom is a fundamental alteration of how we perceive and interact with the universe - expanding our abilities, constraining them ... or both.

Most people are carriers, sneezing emails or phatic communion.

Writers and orators spread the infection best. By making us think (or inspiring us) they cause the virus to replicate. Essays, short stories, novels and scripts may result as the infection changes us and uses us to spread itself.

It might even turn us into writers, shedding filthy infectious language.

Aphasiacs are immune.

I have no idea what a vaccination consists of. Meditation? Judging a poetry competition for teenagers?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Presentation: Wake up, Freak out, and then get a grip

Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo.

A great example of a compelling metaphor - this one explains the 'tipping point' - and a pretty good visual representation of feedback cycles.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

RPG: Danger Patrol

Played Danger Patrol last night - a new game of pulpy cliffhangers in an alternate 1950s universe filled with rocketships and rayguns. Think Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

It didn't go very well, but I think it has lots of potential for delivering a style of gaming I really enjoy.

I'll be running it again, probably at Confusion in August.

My comments on the game are here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Graphic Design Practice #8

I'm pleased I managed to figure out how to create an opaque background for text, right-clicking and using Fill with some opacity.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Bad Family: 100 words a day

The re-writing of Bad Family (*) has been warming up over the last week or so (although it'll have been just over a month, by the time this entry is auto-published).

(*) My game about dysfunctional relationships, family sit-coms, and the struggle to get what you want by the end of the episode before your big sister screws you over.

Really, it feels like the writing is happening at the intersection of seven personal productivity hacks that I've been using for a while:

  1. I've set up the home page of my browser so that the Google Docs page where I'm writing Bad Family is right in my face whenever I go online. Using Google Docs also has the advantage of making it easy to work on it anywhere.
  2. I have started a Seinfeld chain - basically, the idea that if you can see you're making progress every day, you don't want to take a day off (and break the chain). You can see my chain for Bad Family here.
  3. I'm using an idea from Mark Forster called the Current Initiative, which is that you choose one project that you want to make progress on, and make it the very first thing you do each day. So, when I wake up I write on Bad Family for 10 minutes. I also make it the first thing I do when I get home.
  4. After reading 'In Praise of Slow', I'm putting less pressure on myself to complete this game RIGHTNOWASSOONASPOSSIBLE. By taking the pressure off, I'm trying to make it more fun.
  5. I'm writing it with a specific audience in mind. This is a hack suggested by Jonathon Walton - writing it to a particular person gives it a more personal voice. Hopefully it also makes it a more enjoyable read.
  6. I'm making this my main writing project for the next two months (till the end of July). I'm now alternating a period of serious, focused writing with two weeks of playing around with various projects, finding out what's fun.
  7. I'm writing 100 words a day. Again it's a suggestion by Jonathon Walton, in this thread on Story Games.
Basically, I'm looking forward to 'finishing' this thing. Not only will it tie off the last Old Thing I've been working on, but it'll also allow me to release Matt, Karen, and Gino's artwork into the internet.

EDITED TO ADD: I've also been 'gameifying' my writing - finding easy levels (sections) to complete and working on them; gradually I'm working my way up to the harder levels.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Friday, July 03, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Be with your audience)

Presentation Zen (PZ) finishes up with some simple advice for actually delivering your presentation.

First: practice. The aim is to know your material so well that you can present it without referring to any notes. As PZ mentions earlier, the act of developing your story is going to help you develop this mastery of the material.

Second: be fully present when you give your presentation. Focus just on this moment; don't allow yourself to be distracted by thoughts of what happened before you arrived, or what you need to do afterwards.

This advice goes even further - it suggests focusing entirely on the act of presenting, and not on how your presentation is being perceived.

Garr Reynolds, the author of PZ, suggests a few things here:
  • "Don't ask 'Will I be appreciated?' or 'Will I win them over?' Ask 'How can I contribute?'
  • Think of mistakes as fascinating. Think of mistakes as opportunities to learn (to grow). Let the mistakes go and move on; dwelling on the mistakes will disconnect you from your audience.
Reynolds says, "Once you begin to judge yourself, or wonder how you're being judged, you stop being mindful."

This quality of 'mindfulness' is, I think, a way of delivering the best possible presentation. You're focusing on conveying the material, which (hopefully) leads to a stronger connection with the audience as they see that it's not about you, it's about what they're learning.

Third: Aim to be as interested in your material as you hope your audience will be. Again, mindfulness helps you share your passion for the material in your presentation with your audience.

How to connect with an audience

Reynolds points out that people's concentration tends to flag after about 15 to 20 minutes. Keeping your presentation as short as it can be is an excellent goal, as is trying to finish before your time runs out.

He also suggests reducing the number of barriers between you and the audience:
  • Don't use a lectern
  • Don't sit at the back of the room by the projector
  • Don't sit behind a desk
  • Keep lights on, so people can see you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Gerald's Game

by Stephen King

I like to re-read books. After my difficulties reading Garden of Last Days, I went back and re-read one of the lesser-known Stephen Kings. It's also one of the books I've been consistently tempted to adapt, probably due to its simple premise: Gerald's Game is about a woman handcuffed to a bed in the middle of nowhere. No-one is coming to rescue her, and if she's going to survive she's going to have to think her way out.

The handcuffs are the most obvious of the two antagonists in this book. The second antagonist is the lead character's own mind; Jessie Burlingame experienced something genuinely horrible 25 years ago, and has spent most of the intervening time repressing it. That's led to her mind not only creating a bunch of different voices to represent different aspects of her personality, but also a deeply self-destructive desire to undercut her own achievements, make her screw up, and ultimately kill her (because she 'deserves it').

These voices rise to the fore once Jessie is handcuffed: without any way of escaping, she finally has quiet time to listen to her thoughts without distraction. The truth of this really hit me; it's a phenomena that's been experienced by me and a few people I know recently as we've been dealing with some unpleasant mental crap.

For me, this idea of the antagonist being your own thoughts is the strongest idea of the book and oddly under-developed.(*)

(*) I've now realised it also has a lot in common with one of the new things I'm playing around with.

Instead, the psychological complexity that I admire in Gerald's Game threatens to go completely out the window once King introduces a psycho-killer with pallid skin, sharpened canines, and a suitcase filled with human bones. It becomes a little difficult to focus on the idea of an enemy inside your own mind when you're afraid that Leatherface is going to come back and kill you the next night.

At least, that's been my memory of this book over the last 15 years. However, I realised during this time through that, to his credit, King does play with the idea that the killer is imaginary. In fact, he does more than play with it -- by the end, the killer is not only real, but it's also how the self-destructive elements of Jessie's own mind have chosen to manifest themselves.

Still, my scriptwriter voice kept yelling out while reading it that the idea of the killer was a bit lame. That he's there to motivate Jessie to escape, putting a time-limit on her actions. To 'Scriptwriter Me' there's already a character in this book that serves this purpose: a scared and hungry stray dog. In my hypothetical adaptation, I'd up the threat from this corner, and bring out Jessie's 'Inner Antagonist' voice more strongly.

I'm not even sure it needs the killer in the book. The reliving of Jessie's repressed memory is horrible enough - visceral, repulsive, banally evil - and King takes his time detailing the aftermath of it, as much as he would with any other thriller setpiece. Reading these sections reminded of conversations with some of my exes, in which we've watched a movie (like, True Romance, for instance) and they've been baffled at what I could have seen in it. Questions have been asked like "Why would you want to watch something like that?" "How does it make the world a better place?"

After reading the icky repressed memory sequence, I'm beginning to see their point.

Re-reading it, I was suprised to find that the repressed memory at the heart of the book is pretty much openly acknowledged about 1/4 of the way through, and vividly [shudder] dramatised at about the halfway point. And just when I figured that it was all done with, King does something really exciting: he ties Jessie's chances of escape to her ability to remember by hinting that there's something else that she's repressing, something that we haven't been made aware of. This inverts the value of her memory - making it something she has to use rather than push away from her.

Later, King pushes the timeframe of the story forward, much further than I expected him to. It had the effect of pulling me out of the book, but after taking a break and pushing on, it actually seemed quite natural. King used the flash-forward to demonstrate massive character change in Jessie, dump a whole bunch of exposition on us, and dramatise her final triumph over her mind (through the act of finishing a letter).

After finishing it, I realised that Gerald's Game might be another one of those books that I've long wanted to adapt but subsequently realise that I don't (Phantoms by Dean Koontz also falls into that category). If I were to push myself to articulate why this is, it'd be something like: there are things about this book that I find compelling, things I find easy to visualise cinematically, and especially there are things that I would like to do differently. The question is: would I like to spend two years doing them?

And maybe the answer is that, for me, Jessie's transformation is satisfying but not quite meaningful enough. She goes through hell, she triumphs over some really nasty adversity, but the emotional bang isn't quite there for me. And I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how to make it happen - and THAT is what any adaptation of this story really needs.

Random thoughts:
  • Gerald's Game is a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne. I seem to remember it was written at a time when he had come under a small amount of criticism for not being able to write women as psychologically deeply as he did men.

  • Actually, re-reading it made me realise how influential this novel was on me: the precision with which King deals with describing how Jessie tries to get out of her predicament. It's something I drew on when writing The Limit (in fact, that script contains a woman in a very similar situation).