Architect or Gardener: Approaches to Writing

Architect or gardener. Which approach works for which story?

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class,  talked with friends who also had aspirations to become a writer, or read an interview with some famous writer in the Stephen King/George RR Martin mold, you inevitably come to one point:

Architect (Martin) or Gardener (King)?

This has, unfortunately, nothing to do with exterior decorating of suburban houses to make your daily two hour commute less of a macabre preamble to your inevitable stay in hell for all eternity, but one of approaches to writing a story.

I talked before about my disdain for creative writing classes in colleges and universities, and a lot of that has to with with having to put grades on your work, which leads to many professors and teachers encouraging the creation of outlines.

Writing with an outline is not necessarily a bad thing. It essentially gives you plan, more or less detailed, from which to draw in the creative process. This can be anything from a simple list of characters to full character bios, from short diagrams outlying the relative distance between places to full topographical maps of the region.

When done well, it it s a great crutch in longer projects to keep the draft you’re working on on point. It can most definitely cut down on the time you have to spend working on reworking the story once you are done with the initial draft.

When done poorly, it can lead you down a rabbit hole of world-building from which there is no escape. Guess which experience made me swear of this approach? Continue reading “Architect or Gardener: Approaches to Writing”

Historical Accuracy and Authenticity & When They Apply

A look at the interplay of historical accuracy and authenticity with the realities of today.

I’m in one of those moods ever since I saw Wonder Woman last week and did two posts on it, so we might as well talk about historicity in films again while I’m on a role.

When it comes to film making (and art in general), historical accuracy is often fighting an uphill battle against the workings of the narrative. I’m actually quite glad that I have degrees in both History and English as historical films often fight an inner battle over my enjoyment of the craft and the implications of sacrificing truth on the alter of the three-act structure.

I admit that I have muddled the terms in the past, especially when talking to people without getting my thoughts sorted at first, but historical accuracy and historical authenticity are really two different things that apply in different situations. Getting them right might help both critics looking at these films and general audiences in what to look for in a film. Pretentious to think this will have any influence on anything, sure, but self-deprecation aside:

Historical accuracy is a term that I prefer to use, when I remember to order my thoughts first of course, on films that are directly based on a true story or depict historical events. In a film that generally means that the story is presented as it happened, that the people behave correctly, and so on. Something that is very much fact based and can be proven by historical records. If your movie (or any form of media in that regard) gets this wrong, you immediately fail because you are perpetuating lies or spreading them. Portraying “the truth” is a tricky business as well, as there really is no such thing as a singular truth, only different narratives of which a majority of people agree in their interpretation and framing of. In regards to how far you can bend the truth to service the bigger picture and narrative cohesion in service of, I’m more forgiving of this than others, I often find (shocking, I know) because I believe this applies to the big picture much more than the small one. Tora! Tora! Tora! is a good example of a film so accurate to history that it becomes a slog to sit through for a casual audience. It’s a great piece of art, but I can see where it may overreach for a general audience. Of course, in the case of the small picture this can often lead to a snowballing effect where the historicity suffers a death of a thousand cuts. Best is to let reality speak for itself and make minimal changes.   Depending on the story you wish to tell, I will often prefer to fictionalize the story as is. This perfectly leads into:

Historical authenticity is something that will go hand-in-hand with historical accuracy when you are portraying the actual history on film and are trying to be as faithful to the truth as you can. When working with a fictionalized story, it is of the utmost importance to at least get the framing right. This is something that makes, for instance, The Last Samurai very interesting to look at. Based on real events, it does fail to portray the actual history, but at the same time manages to immerse you in the world and the end of an era that the samurai represent when the last of them die out. This is not accurate to actual history, but will at least convey the feelings and values of the era. Had the film fictionalized more events and tightened its focus a bit more, I believe there would be less to criticize. Authenticity can range from portraying the values of the era, to general politics and events happening in the background which inform the actual events. It’s what differentiates history from historical fiction.  Continue reading “Historical Accuracy and Authenticity & When They Apply”

How To Fix The Wonder Woman Script

A script rewrite for the new Woman Woman movie adding historical credibility and grey morality.

Spent a good long afternoon this week critiquing Wonder Woman and pointing out historical inaccuracies. Now it’s time to fix the movie without becoming “too dark” for all the precious comic fans and general audiences who can’t stand a war movie about trenches and poison gas to be too dark. With that said, let’s begin.

In this version we will keep the main story as is, because it actually works. We will, however, change some of the elements: Wonder Woman goes to Europe to fight Ares. Let’s go from there.

Act 1:
Pretty much as is in the movie. With the character being as unknown in much of the world in terms of actual characterization rather than brand recognition we need to set up the Amazons.

Once Trevor moves into the story, things change. Since the German Navy, as portrayed in the movie, cannot be the ones that hunted Trevor across the Mediterranean and Atlantic (the fleet was boxed in after Jutland in its native harbors and the foreign squadrons were destroyed) we will have to change the location of Themiskyra into the Mediterranean and change the ships used to either Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian. Same difference since both were part of the Middle/Central Powers. This immediately broadens the conflict and makes the villains of the piece much more diverse than simply being the Germans.

The main villain of the piece is also changed from Erich Ludendorff to Hans von Hammer, aka Enemy Ace. An anti-hero in the comics, he serves an army colonel in this version responsible for weapons development. If you need Ludendorff in this have him be von Hammer’s superior/benefactor. He can still work with Doctor Poison, but it places some distance between real historical characters and superhero antics.

Wonder Woman and Trevor still make their way to London and the story continues as is, but in London we meet more members of the Entente, with possible cameos by Lord Kitchener, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and maybe General Blackjack Pershing as Trevor’s superiors.
Trevor delivers the plans, but many see no reason to continue the mission. The war is almost won after all, there is a rebellion in Germany. Social-democrats and sailors are mutinying. There are talks of abdication of the Kaiser and the proclamation of a German republic as per the insistance of President Woodrow Wilson that the Entente would only open peace talks with a German democracy. (In real life all of these actions took days so there is some wiggle room to fit in the story of the film as it takes place over the course of half a week tops). Queue talks about hypocracy for democracy being a necessity when half the Entente are empires and kingdoms.

While in London we see the effects war has had on the public and the returning veterans. The movie as is was a bit too studio-backlot-y in its depiction. Too few amputees and maimed victims running around. Wonder Woman and Trevor still put together their team and move on.

Act 2:
Enemy Ace and Doctor Poison get the stand-down order from General Ludendorff who has recommended an armistice to the government and currently he and Field Marshall von Hindenburg are waiting for the response from Wilhelm II in regards to abdication and the future of the country. They are pretty much resigned and as much as they want to win, it is pretty much impossible now. No supplies, no men, no time, a rebellion behind the lines, the end of the empire has come. Enemy Ace and Doctor Poison, fervent imperialists and patriots in this version, believe otherwise and manage to create the new version of the gas, going “rogue”. The quotation marks are necessary in this case because even while the armistice is hammered out, the fighting does continue. Both sides want to be in an advantageous bargaining position. Ludendorff and von Hindenburg don’t encourage their actions but also don’t condone them. After all, all they need is a demonstration to dangle over the enemy.

Wonder Woman and team continue their mission through France on their way to the border and after von Hammer and Doctor Poison. They see the horrors of the war as in the movie, but we also see the conditions of the troops in the trenches much more detailed, rather than a simple line of “been here for a year”. We see Brits, ANZAC, French, American, and especially colonial troops from Africa, India and around the globe. They are all fighting over centimeters on the ground.
It would, of course, be more poignant to show longer periods in the war, but for the sake of that precious PG-13 and the general audience we must remain with the Disneyland version. Still, we make it as graphic and as hopeless as we can get away with. The rest of the act continues unchanged even until we come to the castle.

In the castle, the changes made include the interaction Wonder Woman has with Ludendorff, in this version Enemy Ace. Hans von Hammer is less of a jerk than Danny Huston’s caricature of Ludendorff, an aristocrat who sees his country disappearing in-front of him. A former fighter ace, he saw dozens of comrades shot down, the glory disappear from the battlefield. For good measure he talks about the glory of the war of old and laments that he was too young to witness it himself. Wonder Woman now has little doubts that he is Ares, the God of War.

The gas rounds are fired into the freed village as Entente troops are moving on, obviously wanting to move onto the nearby castle where von Hammer, Doctor Poison, and a bunch of German VIPs are still hanging out. So the order is giving to shell the area. A few civilian casualties don’t really matter after all. The reaction from Wonder Woman is still the same after, in this version, she managed to actually save a few dozen people, though hardly all or even a majority between the town’s population and an entire battalion of troops. She is pissed that Trevor stopped her from killing von Hammer and Doctor Poison. In this version though, Trevor is actually able to somewhat seduce Doctor Poison, getting his hands on the new gas formula. He doesn’t like the idea of this new gas or other super weapon Poison has been dreaming up, but better both sides have it than simply one. Wonder Woman is disgusted from finding this out and after seeing the hundreds of dead in the village. even though she managed to save a few dozen, going after von Hammer and Doctor Poison.

Act 3:
The scene on the airfield. Wonder Woman is thoroughly pissed and curb-stomps von Hammer in his signature plane and also kills Doctor Poison for good measure. They are mass murderers, they don’t deserve better. If you really want, you can give them a motif rant, but at this point it’s pretty clear where they stand. They consider themselves soldiers in a war to defend their fatherland. And yet, the empire they tried to save is gone because it didn’t deserve to live at all after all the killing and maiming that’s been going on. Wonder Woman is shocked that the fighting in the distance continues as the two main villains lay dying. Not Ares after all.
Trevor still sacrifices himself to stop the bomber in this version, he needs to redeem himself. For good measure he takes the formula he stole from Doctor Poison with him. It’s a bittersweet situation. (Making it von Hammer also allows for some parallels in this act with him and Trevor as opposites: flying aces and patriots with questionable morals stuck in a bad situation). In the last moment Wonder Woman can save him though.

We cut to Versailles a bit of a year later. Germany, defeated, signs the treaty ending the war with the Entente. Wonder Woman sees it a bit clearer now for all the talk of Ares. She looks around and sees the faces of the people on both sides. No one is really happy with it. Some say its too lenient, like Ferdinand Foch. Some say its too hard, like John Maynard Keynes. This is no peace. This is an armistice for twenty years.
In the end, her mother had been right. Ares was dead. And yet he lived on in the hearts of everyone. If anything, the bloodshed of the 20th century that had happened and was still to come might as well lead to a new god of war coming along from all the sacrifices made in his name.
Wonder Woman retires from the world, but there are changes for the good. Civilians have lived, Trevor lives and is a better man for it, as is the team. A superhero cannot change a world that hasn’t learned its lesson yet. But a few good men and women remain. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

Writing As Workmanship

Last week I finished my second novel this year, an about 90.000 word follow-up to the previously posted Historian’s Crusade. Why is that important besides padding myself on the back? Because when I told it to a friend, who is also my editor, that within five months I had finished two novels, we got talking about output. Not so much about artistic quality, but just the general output level.

You see, for the previous three years and more, I had been tainted by NaNoWriMo and the idea that every story that needs to come out of me needs to be a masterpiece. I talked about this before in one way or another, how NaNoWriMo just encourages bad writing habits. Sure, you’ll have a 50k word novel in four weeks, but you can basically throw it away and start again. I don’t really like the idea of working in multiple drafts that way. Once my story is out, I prefer to wash my hands of it, clean up mistakes here or there sure, but I don’t tinker with the narrative anymore. Because I just know that if I start doing it, I will never stop. That hurts your output.

As artists of any field, I think we all too often want to put quality over quantity. And while that is a generally good attitude to have that will smother the next 50 Shades of Grey right in the cradle, it also stops you from experimenting and working on more. A painter could paint five works in his lifetime or 50, one better than the last. Rather than languishing between publishing any new work, or just finishing it, one could instead get it over with. Whether or not it’s good isn’t up to you anyway, that’s up to the audience. Art needs an observer to even be worthwhile.  Continue reading “Writing As Workmanship”

How To Embrace The Fact That Your Science Fiction Ideas Will Become Outdated

How will you handle the fact that all of your predictions will fail to come true?

We might as well deal with the fact now that every blog post I will be writing within the next however many months it will take something from the writing I do on the side for the final stages of the novel. Everyone good? Great. Let’s talk about science fiction becoming outdated.

Science fiction has always been near and dear to my heart, but when you’re dealing with something long-running like Star Trek, still on the air after 50 years, or are reading an older book like 2001: A Space Odyssey, you are immediately presented with two immediately outdated concepts: a Eugenics War by 1996 and an interstellar humanity with an existing cold war by 2001. What’s the science fiction in that you might ask? If it’s not in the future, then what’s the point, it immediately breaks the immersion. Why would we watch something, read something, that has already gone past the expiration date?  Continue reading “How To Embrace The Fact That Your Science Fiction Ideas Will Become Outdated”

Writing And The Soapbox

When is it okay to soapbox in your writing?

Among writers and readers, friends and foes, the internet and that normal place where they have ice cream, I always read about soapboxing. A soapbox in a modern connotation is something you step on and give an impromptu speech about usually a political subject but also about anything that comes to your mind. At least this is what Wikipedia tells me. From many people online that have either read my writing or with whom I discuss other peoples’ works we often discuss the merits of soapboxing.

Sure, on the one hand its easy to do it. Write what you know and that usually involves our own personal opinions and fields of expertise. For me it worked out fine with my first book The Historian’s Crusade right here on this blog. I was unsure what to really write about, what was near and dear to me enough so that I could put it into a couple ten thousand words, form a narrative. And so I just did exactly that. Right now I think it’s a success, I had fun writing it and it got some pretty decent feedback on the blog.

Naturally, I decided to try the trick again when I wrote my second book on which I am currently sitting at around 60.000 words and still going strong (more updates in the future). Again I chose a subject that was near and dear to me, being a sequel it also deals with history, historicity, reception, ideas, all that theoretical boring stuff that nobody cared about and instead focused on the thinly veiled Star Trek Enterprise pastiche. With the second book though I stood before a big problem: not being able to write for all the different statements I wanted to make and this is where we get to the central crux: Continue reading “Writing And The Soapbox”

The Liberating Feeling Of Accepting Setbacks

The trick is not minding that it hurts.

As an aspiring writer, I can tell you wholeheartedly, that there is no thing we fear more than criticism. Even constructive criticism. For all writers will tell you about wanting criticism and reviews, so they may learn from it, we actually don’t. Best case scenario? We want you to go on Amazon or our website, find our books, rate them highly, share the link to your Facebook timeline and tell your friends about how brilliant we are. That’s all we really aspire to deep down in our hearts. Or maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it. The fear of not being liked after we poured our hearts and minds into a work of fiction to receive negative feedback, is the worst thing that can happen to an artist. I’m not just speaking about writers anymore, it’s anyone. We all want to be loved, have achieved something meaningful with our invested time, our work of art.

I talked about writer’s block a couple of weeks ago and how overcoming it comes down to accepting certain realities about both your work and yourself. An important element of that is accepting setbacks. Once you accept setbacks, both in terms of your writing and the critique of your writing, you will be able to move on with your career and your life. It’s something applicable even to other areas of your daily routine, from working out, to losing weight, to your experience at work, even homework and school. Setbacks will always happen, it’s inevitable. There are too many variables in our daily lives and in what we put into our art for nothing to ever go wrong with it. Even if you are on a winning streak, there is always something that may happen to end your running series.

The trick comes in when you realize this is only temporary and it cannot stop you for your own strength and willpower and insistence to carry on. As long as you can cling to this, you will have the ability to bounce back, be it from failure at school, or a negative critique to your work, or because you need to throw out your first draft completely and start again. I was reminded of Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence in this regard:

“The trick, Mr Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

Our creative and day-to-day struggles are exactly what they are, struggles, but they don’t need to rule over our process of creating art or moving forward with our life. Once you realize this, you will be able to let go of your self-doubts, you will regain the self-confidence any creative person needs to put their work forward to the public. In the end, once the die is cast, it’s on.

P.S: Sorry for butchering Caesar at the end there.