Kecak Fire Dance

Sometimes I witness something crazy and I think to myself, “that’s going in the novel for sure.”

This weekend I got to see the Kecak Fire Dance. The “Kecak” is a popular performance across Bali. “Kecak” is the sound that the men yell and chant with hip-hop enthusiasm.

While the men provide the A Cappella soundtrack, a costumed cast of heroes and villains re-enacts the basic storyline of the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text.

It was a trip for me to watch this performance. Because I really did fall in love with the Ramayana when I read it back in college. When I signed up for the fire dance I just thought I’d see some guys tossing flaming sticks around. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then as I watched the performance I started to recognize some of the scenes and characters: Prince Rama shooting the golden deer, the Princess Sita being lured out of safety by a demon disguised as an old beggar, and later placing a flower in the hair of the monkey god Hanuman.

I did more research as soon as I got home, and I learned that the performance itself was created by a German artist in the 30’s. Apparently Walter Spies traveled to Bali and he said, “Holy Scheiße”  this story’s got money-making potential. What he saw was the original Kecak trance ritual performed in the Hindu tradition by the local Balinese. He took the chant and the themes and adapted them into a dance performance.

Today the Kecak is performed all around bali. If you visit an old temple you can usually pay $5 or $10 for the one hour show. This is a fascinating example of what is referred to as the “modern art-culture system” – when Western Culture adopts non-western cultural elements and transforms them into art.

Also known as the “when white guys monetize non-western shit instead of inventing their own stories” system.

I went full Nerd on this performance because these days I’m in story writing mode. It was strange, mystical experience for me to watch a Hindu myth re-enacted in a language that I couldn’t understand, and realizing that I could still identify with the universal themes and tropes: the hero, the mentor, the princess that symbolizes innocence, the demon in disguise (wolf in sheep’s skin), the “all-is-lost” moment, the climactic battle, the “hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villan moment.” Just to name a few. It’s time to re-read the Ramayana.

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Patterns Within Patterns

bali rice fields

It takes a damn good Villain to sustain a lengthy series. Petty criminals can be tracked and detained within the space of an episode, but a Voldemort or a Darth Vader can push your hero to the brink.

Arguments about what people should or shouldn’t do only distract from the reality of what people are actually doing.

Life is what happens from 9 to 5. Evenings and weekends are just commercials that break up the regularly scheduled program.

You can fake love, wealth and happiness, but you can’t fake fitness.

All I have to do to become a poet is read every poem ever written, starting with Homer.

What people/characters want is usually very different from what they need.

Life imitates life. The start of a new year is like the first flowers after a bitter winter, which is like a fiery sunrise after a moonless night, which reminds us of birth, which is like waking up after a long nap, which feels like forgiveness, finite youth, and limitless possibility.

How to Make a Character

pengubengan road

The boxcar full of innocent people is hurtling toward the cliff. Superman wants to save them but WAIT! Lois Lane is on the cutting board, the laser inching closer and closer to her exposed neck. What’s it gonna be Superman – your love or your duty?

Everyone pretty much agrees about life’s core values. Is FAMILY important? Yes. Is GOOD WORK important? Of course. What about SOCIAL JUSTICE? What about PERSONAL HEALTH?

Yes yes yes. There’s not much room for debate here. We all nod, love and truth amen.

But a novelist tortures his characters by making them choose one value over the other. It starts to get interesting when you ask someone, “which value is more important – FAMILY TIME or PERSONAL HEALTH?”

Superman usually figures out how to succeed in both. But us regular people have to decide: should I take the money job that requires me to work 12 hour days? Should I skip the gym membership so I can spend evenings with my grandparents in the nursing home?

These decisions always hurt. They differentiate you from the people around you. These decisions are the structural support beams for the building that is your Character.

The Terminal Man: Tuesday, August 25th

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but his novel The Terminal Man was even less thrilling than it sounds.

Now I’m not a fan of critics or criticism. I believe that the artist should always be given the benefit of the doubt. Even someone who creates poor art is benter than no artist.

Also, me critiquing a Michael Crichton novel is like an ant telling a bee how to make honey, or like a wristwatch telling a flashlight how to shine.

Michael Crichton died in 2008, on the same day as the US Presidential Election. Who knew? But his techno-thriller novels catapulted my childhood brain from black and white to color. Who didn’t have their heart and brain thrilled by Jurassic Park? Man I wish Crichton were still around to comment on the state of current affairs – our people and our planet and our technology. I wonder what he would think about Iphones and 3-D printers.

Anyway my point is, now that I’ve been studying so much about story, novels, the art of story, and the way that good stories are crafted – I couldn’t help but be disappointed by The Terminal Man.

In the novel, we are supposed to be surprised and scared by the idea that men and computers are merging. Actually this aspect of the novel was more funny than it was disappointing. The damn thing was written in the early 70’s, so we can’t exactly blame Crichton for the fact that his techno-thriller doesn’t hold up. Because of how fast technology has changed in the last few decades, the novel feels much older than it actually is.

But I think, precisely because that techno thriller aspect didn’t hold up, I was able to see the other parts of the story for what they really were. The magic curtain was drawn back. The skeleton of the novel was exposed, and I was left hanging on to the characters, the emotion, the plot and the development of the story action.

As I try to write my own stories, I want to remember, and learn from, the aspects of stories that I don’t like, just as much as I learn from stories I love.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the novel…

  • I didn’t like that ending was so damn predictable.
  • I didn’t like that there was really no clear protagonist. I didn’t know who I was rooting for. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters. So I didn’t really care what happened in the end.
  • I felt like I was being preached to. Even if the technological aspect had been current and cutting edge, it still felt like Crichton was jamming the point down my throat. The message kept interrupting the story, whether it was the narrator who was waxing philosophical, or the characters who were saying things that the narrator obviously forced them to say.
  • Along the same lines, I didn’t like that the novel had such a strong and obvious theme. This only made it easier to guess the ending.
  • The characters were really just representations of different ideas. They never seemed free to act on their own will.

***

Michael Crichton you’ll always be my hero. It’s humbling to know that even you wrote a few mediocre stories when you were starting out (before the phase where everything you touched turned into a hollywood blockbuster). Thanks for giving Jurassic Park to the world. And Eaters of the Dead and Andromeda Strain too. And for The Sphere; Dustin Hoffman was great in that movie, and I’m still afraid of the deep ocean ever and jellyfish to this day.

How to Build a Fictional World – by Kate Messner: Wednesday, July 29th

Kate Messner has a great animated video that talks about her world building process. I transcribed some of her notes so that I could put them into use myself.

So here we go. How to go about building a Fantasy World (and how to write a story in that world).

1) Start with a specific place and time. Where is this world? Is it in the past/present/future? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that you make a decision, and go forward from there.

2) Create a timeline for your world. What Kate Messner does is creates an outline of the history of her new world. What major events have happened? How did this world come to be? What are the key points of it’s history?

3) What rules are in place here? Start with basic things like gravity, light, magic – the rules of physics. Then move into the rules of society.

4) Who is in power in your world? Is there a government, a council, a little psychotic man behind a curtain, a hideous monster demon king? Who is running the show, to what extent, and how, do they rule?

5) What does society value the most? What do they fear the most?

6) What kind of technology exists?

7) Once you have this groundwork laid out, you can start to think about the “regular folks” of your world, and the day-to-day living scenario. What’s a normal day like in your world?

For example, what’s the weather like? Where do your characters live? Do they go to school or work? What do they eat? Where do they play? How do your characters move around, how do they commute? What do the plants and animals look like?

8) If you spend some time answering all of these questions, you’re going to start to get a really idea of what it’s like to live in this new world.

But it’s not enough just to create a world. Readers and Viewers aren’t interested in worlds alone. We’re interested in characters. You can have a pretty stage, but you still need emotion and humanity to bring it alive.

Two really good questions to ask, all along, while your world building, are…

*What kinds of characters does this world bring into being?

*What are the central conflicts of this world? Where is the trouble?

Asking these questions will help you come up with the most intruiging scenarios, the ones that will really bring your world to life.

9) In the end, Kate Messner says, drop some characters into your world and let them run wild. See what happens. The key is to get to the point where YOU understand the workings of your world, inside and out. Now you’re ready to plop some interesting characters into that equation.

Choose the most fascinating storyline that you can see, from your vantage point as the world creator. And don’t start in the beginning – you never start in the beginning – start your story in the middle of the action. Start your story right where things begin to get scary, dangerous, interesting, intruiging, wierd, critical.

 

Trial by Fire: Tuesday, June 23rd

What a character needs, and what a character wants, are usually totally different.

A character’s traits are the surface aspects that we might use to describe them: A person’s friends, job, spouse, car, hobbies, where they live, where they vacation, where they go to school.

But obviously these traits don’t define a person’s character. Character is revealed during times of trouble. When all of a person’s “traits” are snatched away, that’s when we find out what they’re really made of.

Right now I’m watching a TV Series, “Murder In the First”, in which the antagonist is a young, rich, entitled Silicon Valley entrepreneur (played by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series). Over the course of the first season, this character gets a few big scares, and he realizes that he’s not as invincible as he once thought. Suddenly his whole life is on the line, and all of his freedoms are nearly stripped from him.

Sure this character wants to be found “not guilty”, and go back to his company and his familiar ways. But what does his character really need? In order to become a better person, what does he need? Maybe these trials will be good for him – maybe he’ll learn a valuable lesson or two.

Maybe he just needs a scare? Maybe he needs to do hard time? That’s for the writers to decide.

Being able to distinguish between what characters want and what they need is key to creating rich, lively people on the page. It’s an important thing for authors to think about – and as with all of these “Art of Story” aspects – it’s a question worth asking in our own lives as well.

 

5 Quirks of the Fantasy Genre: Monday, June 22nd

I want to write a fantasy series this year, so I’m trying to do some respectful research on the topic… What do fantasy readers like? What do they expect? What are they tired of?

Here are a few notes I’ve been picking up on the fantasy genre.

1) Point Of View: The third person omniscient narrator was popular in the old days but has since fallen out of fashion. Much more popular is the third person limited, where the author jumps around to different characters, but stays close to each character, looking over their shoulders and only letting the readers know what the characters themselves know.

I must be a part of this trend, because I personally don’t like when authors jump out of the 3rd person limited and into the 3rd person omniscient.

I think it’s because, the omniscient narrator reminds me that the author is present, and that the author already knows everything. The third person omniscient narrator reminds me that there’s a writer behind the story. I’d rather not be reminded that I’m watching a movie – I just want to be swept up in the action as if I’m there.

2) Grey Characters are the most interesting. The battle between good and evil is not as white and black as it used to be in the old days. It’s important to get inside the heads of all the characters and realize their motivations. There are no heroes and no villains – only humans who want success, love, and prosperity –  humans who are insecure, afraid, and irreparably damaged just like you and me.

3) Portal Fantasy is apparently out of fashion? I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems to be a hot topic between readers and authors.

A portal fantasy is when the main character travels in between worlds. The classic example is Alice in Wonderland. Other examples include Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and The Magicians.

A non-portal fantasy is when the story begins and ends in a fantasy world. Lord of the Rings is an easy example – there’s no modern day kids popping in and out of the Shire. Middle Earth is its own reality.

But portal fantasies are what I’ve always loved! Surely those types of stories can never be exhausted? There are pros and cons to both, sure. Maybe portal fantasies aren’t in fashion, but they’ve sure sold off the shelves in the past.

4) Introduce a Reader to a Fantasy World Slowly. Don’t throw in too much newness too quickly. Don’t scare the reader away. Give them something normal and introduce the magic gradually as you go along.

I appreciate this about the Golden Compass series. Pullman does a good job of letting you slowly into the fantasy world. Actually I think all successful fantasy authors have figured this out. A fantasy world is queer, unusual, brimming with foreign words and concepts. If you push too much of it too quickly, the reader might shy away. Give them time to get used to their new universe and they’ll slowly start to buy into it.

Harry Potter doesn’t begin with Harry flying crazily on his broom, casting Patronus spells against the Dementors. It starts with a regular boy in a regular enough house. We are slowly introduced to the crazy over time.

5) Avoid Info Dumps. I hear this a lot in regards to fantasy. The underlying problem is that fantasy authors are world-builders, and as such, they have a lot of information to relay to the reader. It goes without saying that “info-dumps” are bad in any genre, but in the fantasy world it’s a particularly sticky trap. Talented writers figure out how to relay that information slowly, over time, through the mouths of their characters, and in the midst of the action.

***

That’s all for now. A part two will be coming shortly. Whenever I start researching, I’m just reminded of how much I don’t know. But it’s fun to learn. The fantasy genre, for all these reasons, is intriguing to me. I loved it as a kid and I want to offer my own stories to the catalog.

“Help me please!” he screamed madly as the writing gods cast thunderbolts down from the mountaintops: Wednesday, June 10th

Writers and Readers, I need your help.

I’m reading The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan right now. I’m a huge fan of the “Riyria” stories and of Sullivan himself. But there’s something about his writing style that throws me off. Let me give a few examples…

(1)
“This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained as Albert pulled a chair over to their table.

(2)
I do an honest business here,” Hall protested as they pushed him up against the wall with the rest.

(3)
“Does this have a point?” she asked with irritation as she took a seat on her bed.

In all three of these examples, the author is jamming two sentences worth of information into one. All of them follow this formula: piece of dialogue + identifying the speaker + “as” + describing an action. Sullivan uses the word “as” to connect a piece of dialogue with a piece of action. He uses this technique all over the place, and now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop noticing it.

If I was an editor, I would feel inclined to change the formula so that the bit of action comes first, and the dialogue comes second. Also I would split them into two separate sentences, instead of combining them like Sullivan does.

Here is how I would change each sentence…

(1)

Sullivan’s Version:

“This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained as Albert pulled a chair over to their table.

My Version:

Albert pulled a chair over to their table. “This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained.

I took out the “as” and turned it into two sentences. I put the action first and the dialogue second. I guess the conundrum is that, in reality, the action and the dialogue take place at the exact same time. As a writer you have to pick which one comes first. Maybe that’s what Sullivan’s trying to get at by using “as”.

(2)

Sullivan’s Version:

“I do an honest business here,” Hall protested as they pushed him up against the wall with the rest.

My Version:

The guards pushed him up against the wall with the rest. “I do an honest business here,” Hall protested.

Again, I split it into two sentences and moved the action in front of the dialogue. Also I identified “the guards” instead of using a pronoun. I like that Sullivan’s version is fast and action-packed, but I can’t help but feel like he’s taking advantage of me with run-on sentences.

(3)

Sullivan’s Version:

“Does this have a point?” she asked with irritation as she took a seat on her bed.

My Version:

She took a seat on her bed and asked, “Does this have a point?”

This one annoys me the most. Sullivan not only uses his “as” trick here, but he also uses an adverbial phrase (with irritation) to modify the feeling of the dialogue. I like what Stephen King and other authors say about “he said”, and “she said”, and how writers should keep it simple for readers, instead of using a bunch of adverbs like “he said angrily” or “she said excitedly“. Anyway, adverbs aside, I still feel like Sullivan is cramming too much information into one sentence here. Again I would choose to put the action first and the dialogue second. Note that I didn’t split it into two sentences this time. I kept it as one, but I used the conjunction “and” which I like better than “as”.

***

My goal here is to learn professional tactics from a professional author. I don’t give a shit about grammar rules or any kind of obtuse writing rules. I just want to know what works best. What do readers like? -That’s the only rule that matters. Obviously Sullivan’s thousands of fans aren’t deterred by his writing, so why does it bother me so much?

Do you like Sullivan’s style? And do you think my edits clean up the language, or do they just take something clean and make it clumsy?

Making Big Decisions: Wednesday, June 3rd

Making decisions is hard. Mostly we just avoid big decisions and go through the motions. It’s easier not to think about it: car or truck or bike, big family or no family, doctor or lawyer, married or unmarried, employed or unemployed, live here or live there? In our adult lives, we settle into those decisions like a tree roots itself to the ground.

When those gamechanger decisions do come around, the stress is almost too much to handle. Where am I going with my life? Is this the right job for me? Do I really want to _______?

Writing is intense because you have to constantly be making those sort of decisions. Every minute that you write fiction, there are a million possibilities that lay ahead of you, and you have to sort through the pile and choose the right one. You decide who dies and who lives, who finds redemption and who meets a tragic end, you decide the fate of entire countries and nations. Even though they take place in a story, these decisions are not easy to make.

You can’t multitask while you’re writing; you can’t cook dinner or put your kids to bed at the same time. So much of what we do everyday is just going through the motions, but writing requires all your attention.

When you’re writing and making all of those decisions, it can be overwhelming. That’s why you have to try and listen to your characters and let them lead the way. Good writers are never untrue to their characters. Good writers let their characters loose instead of keeping them chained to a script.

So I guess the answer is, it’s a sort of outsourcing. That’s the key for the author – get to where you don’t have to make all those big decisions anymore. You just introduce the setting and the problems, and your characters, being the quirky people that they are, will do the rest.

(I like this idea of Outsourcing. It’s probably also a psychological game that writers play – outsourcing their flaws and problems to a character, and letting the character play those out instead of the author… but that’s another post altogether.)

Braveheart and Story Avalanches: Monday, May 11th

A good story is a chain reaction of events. Once the first event happens, the second event can’t help but happen. Nothing happens accidentally.

Like a movie set, you can rest assured that every single detail is placed there for a reason. A good story has no time for fluff or filler.

We’re all walking around, leading our normal, boring lives, when suddenly something happens: a divorce, a new job, a UFO sighting, an assassination, an impromptu journey. That first crucial event is the thing that triggers the avalanche. From there the action grows and one thing leads to another. Inevitably the stakes grow higher and higher until they boom out of control.

The climax is the last battle, when everything comes to a head. When the climax is over, the dust begins to settle. People go back to their everyday lives. But some sort of change has occurred, a change which can’t be undone. The landscape of the mountain has been altered; it will never look the same again. That’s how you know that you lived through a good story.

A good example of this is Braveheart, the classic Mel Gibson movie. The avalanche begins when an English soldier slits the throat of William Wallace’s new wife. UNTIL THEN everything is  relatively normal. (Even the state of war is normal for this time and setting.)

But once his wife is killed, William Wallace reacts. He can’t help it. He and his clan slaughter the English garrison in his town. It’s a blatant act of defiance agains the English. They send a couple of survivors packing back to England, to tell King Longshanks that the Scots aren’t going to take it anymore.

Now a chain of events have been set into motion. The battles grow larger and larger. William Wallace becomes a national hero, a thing of legend. He takes the fight all the way to London, where he is captured for high treason. The stakes have grown (snowball effect) from a personal feud to an all out war between nations.

When William Wallace is finally captured and killed, the dust of this story begins to settle. The chain of events that started with his wife’s murder has played itself out. Like a true hero, Wallace has undergone a transformation of living and acting for the sake of others, for the sake of the Scots, and gives his life for the cause.

The snowstorm and chaos subsides, but things will never be the same again. A change has taken place somewhere in the midst of all this story.

The casual viewer knows that Braveheart is a hell of a story, even if they don’t know why.

You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy the sunset. But if you want to create your own sunset, well knowing what they’re made of is a good place to start.