Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

I’ve seen this on a t-shirt in a few different places. It’s supposed to be some kind of devil-may-care, “I’m try-sexual – I’ll try anything” type of declaration. But I saw it worn by the co-author of Hard Case Crime’s brilliant comic, Peepland.  And it might as well be the thesis for film noir, and their pulp crime antecedents.

It’s also a good guideline for compelling stories, and the hardest one to follow. At least, for me.

But, film noir first. The last few months, every unoccupied Sunday morning, I join Eddie Muller and a gaggle of folks on Twitter for Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley.  At 10am Eastern, you can follow #NoirAlley and join a conversation about that morning’s selection.  Yes, they do have well known entries, like The Maltese Falcon (the debut) but they also show off lesser known, but equally deserving entries like the boxing tale The Set-Up featuring one of Robert Ryan’s best performances. I’m still waiting for a chance to see Woman on the Run again – a lost classic starring Ann Sheridan as a wife searching for her estranged husband after he’s witnessed a gangland hit – but there are a large number of interesting films to explore.

Noir Alley was an offshoot of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” where, for Friday nights in August it was nothing but noir all the time.  An evening of desperate people making rough choices and exposing the dark underbelly of the American dream.  Hearing Eddie Muller’s insights before and after each feature exposed how much of the film noir movement grew organically from the American crime fiction and an onrush of talent escaping the shadow of fascism in Europe.  No one declared a movement until well after the ‘golden years’ of film noir ended.

Defining film noir always started with the aesthetics, but in truth, it was the story and the characters: deeply flawed, often villainous protagonists making bad decisions in their attempt to get what they want.  Many look at the Bogart detective dramas as the template for noir, but I look at Double Indemnity and it’s overlooked counterpart (and feature on this week’s edition of Noir Alley), The Prowler.  Both feature hungry individuals looking for ways out of their stifling lives.

Desperate measures lead to bad decisions. And bad decisions make great stories.

They rarely make for happy endings, though. At least, if you’re following the template of noir fiction. Or, the endings are never bright shiny ones. Let’s take “The Set-Up” for example. The happy ending involves a man having his hands broken and shattered for not falling down and being a terrible boxer, like everyone expected of him. It saves his marriage, and probably his life, but there’s a cost.

Bad decision lead to bad ends. No good deed goes unpunished, and the bad ones often end with you getting gunned down in the desert.  It’s not the best and most hopeful way of seeing the world.  To quote Greg Stoltze’s noir RPG game, it’s A Dirty World. Everything comes at a cost.

Which means adhering to the “Bad decisions lead to good stories” tenant when you’re suffering depression is a very difficult thing to do.  Despite everything you hear, no one ever does their best work when hungry, depressed, strung-out, or miserable. No one wants to write about grim situations and desperate individuals caught in traps of their own making when they’re clinging onto their anti-anxiety meds for a reason not to go back to cutting.

But their are other stories you can tell.

I know many folks deride ‘cozy’ mysteries. And I’m not to fond of them myself in some ways. But one can write mysteries, or stories exploring the dark, where the dark doesn’t consume everything.  The late P.D. James is a perfect example of this balance. She is not a shy lady when it comes to the dark side. She spends the first act of her Adam Dalgliesh books describing the deep flaws and dark desires of her soon-to-be suspects. And when the detective-poet delves into the lives surrounding the crime, darker secrets come to night.

But P.D. James offers the reader something noir doesn’t – a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train. For all the darkness she finds, at the end of the book, justice exists.  The killer will be found. And while not everyone is innocent, the truly guilty will be found and punished.  Bad decisions may lead to good stories – but they don’t have to be the protagonist’s bad decisions.  And I don’t have to write about them if I’m not in the best place to do so. There are other ways.

So every free Sunday at 10, I’ll settle with TCM and Eddie Muller and #NoirAlley. I’ll see how bad decisions can lead to good stories. But I will also curl up with P. D. James as well. I’ll find different kinds of stories, different kinds of comfort, and know when I can’t write one because it hits too close to home, the other is there for me.

Now both stories will still be shot by John Alton – but that’s another discussion.

Advertisements

Narratives in Echo Chambers

Warning! The following article will have a discussion of events in Orlando, as well as spoilers for The 100 and Penny Dreadful. Please proceed at your own risk. To act as a buffer, please enjoy this artwork of Chirico Cuvie from Armored Trooper VOTOMS…shirtless:

img_b.aspx

(a.k.a Fitness Goals)

Humans build narratives. We have a need to understand, and to do so we create stories. The scale can change from “Why is he wearing that shirt?” to “Why did the universe form?” but we look at the world and dream structures around its elements. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing. The ability to create narratives, to build stories, allows us to explore and dream. The scientific method is storytelling with fact-checking and testing.

The danger comes when we create stories in echo chambers. Not vacuums – no one operates in a vacuum – but echo chambers. Writing is often thought of as a lonely endeavor and, yes, the mechanics are very solitary. You need to focus to get words down on the page and it’s difficult to do that with other folks hovering around. Even collaborations require separation. Listen to the “Making Of…” for Cabin in the Woods and you’ll hear the writers talk about working on different floors in the same house.

But once the mechanics are done, you need to get the work out there. Other thoughts, other perspectives, and other voices are vital to honing any creative work. This is magnified when you start on very collaborative forms, like television, film-making or writing partnerships. It’s very easy for the echo chamber to expand and create an atmosphere of groupthink. Decisions are made which, when looked at from outside the chamber, now seem questionable.

For me, two recent examples of this were the death of Lexa in The 100 (and the whole Bellamy storyline) and the ending of Penny Dreadful. In both cases, I see the seeds of echo chamber narratives. I’ve written about The 100 before, but in the case of Penny Dreadful it’s the head writer, John Logan, and the man in charge at Showtime thinking this sudden ending was thematically and dramatically appropriate.

Had they a engaged in a conversation with someone outside the office, I think they would have gotten a distinct, “Yeah, that’s BS” response most watchers of the show are now evincing. Genevieve Valentine said it better than I could. But this decision, down to the “no announcement that this is The End” smacks of one made in an echo chamber, with no outside views or dissenting voices. Just the show runner’s voice reflected back on him and amplified.

Now, the showrunners of Penny Dreadful and The 100 have every right to take their shows wherever they wish. That’s their project, their job, etc. And it can be said that these are ephemeral narratives. But these narratives have more of an impact than we like to admit. They enforce larger societal narratives which color the way we see the world, and interact with other people.

It creates lazy, self-justifying narratives one doesn’t have to question or examine. You can simply say, “I feel this completes her journey back to God and a retaking of agency” without actually demonstrating it. In the echo chamber, everything reflects back and says, “Yes, it does.”

Where this becomes terrifying are in cases like Orlando. The story of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub is a complicated and horrifying one, which touches on threads of gun violence, terrorism, toxic masculinity, and homophobia. It is not a simple one-note narrative, but a tapestry.

Echo chambers unweave the tapestry. We like simple narratives. If you believe this is a terrorism issue, then your echo chamber amplifies those aspects of the narrative – drowning out questions about gun access, abusive machismo and hatred of LGBTQ individuals. It works the other ways as well. You filter out all which doesn’t fit your narrative, and surround yourself with a protective, re-enforcing shell.

Dialog or Get the Chatter Down

I’ve been thinking about my process for building scenes and crafting prose. Slowly, I’m admitting to myself I go for dialog above description. If a building needs to appear in the story, my first instinct is to have the characters talk about the building. (“Huh. Your apartment looks like the one from Ghostbusters.” “What, the place with Signourney Weaver?” “Yeah.” “Oh, I should be so lucky.”

This is the danger of learning to write screenplays and investing time in creating them. I learn to think in terms of scenes, “actors” and dialog, with the rest as set dressing.

I’m working on a story for an anthology and I realized how much I was relying on dialog in the beginning. So, I decided on a small experiment. Instead of fighting my training, creating full descriptions in the first pass and aiming for lush prose, I’m doing the dialog first.

Very simple, very quick, and a few stage directions along the way so I know what’s happening.

Then, I go back in and fill in the rest. It’s less like sculpting from stone and more like building stop-motion puppet. You start with the armature first. Then, layer on the muscles, and the skin, and the features, until you get a full figure you can start to painstakingly photograph.

I’m hoping this will help me get working faster. If my first instinct is to hear the character’s talking, then I need to have them talk. I’ll then get in the descriptions in.

National Novel Chainsaw Month

So, November. NaNoWriMo month. Alas, it’s also the month I was hit with a really awful chest/throat cold which turned me into a virtual hermit for weeks on end. So no NaNoWriMo events for me; no writing in the company of others lest I pass along this dread disease. Instead, I’ve been revising stories and working on dissecting Ivre so I can start really revising it.  Here’s the dissection so far:

ScreenshotNovel

 

And I’m not done yet. This is convincing me, more and more, that I have to write treatments before I go into the meat of the novel. My brain still works like a film production unit. The treatment is just the bare outlines of what’s there. Writing is ‘shooting’ the film of my imagination, where the contributions of the actors and the crew can change things. But without the basic structure, I end up meandering.

I still have a lot of cutting. And I still have short stories to revise. So there will always be work in the near future.

Keep those chainsaws warm. And happy holidays.

 

 

Welcome to the World of the Future

I cannot escape it. The time has come to once again set mile-markers in the ground and see how I do. And there is still one big item looming on my personal goals:

Ivre – at this point, the novel is over 130,000 words and I’m still 14 or so scenes from completing it. At approximately 2500 words per scene, that’s another 35,000 words. I’m setting myself a Feb 28th completion date. If I can’t do 35,000 words by then… I may force myself to shave my beard.

This year, I have to focus on work I can complete, revise and submit. And I need to work on getting my word count boosted. Faster typing, more intensity, better scheduling and BF Skinner style conditioning to enforce it all.

Last year, I set a goal to write a short story every quarter. I’m moving that goal to this year. After completing Ivre, starting March 1, I will first draft at least one short story of 6K words every quarter. And I will take others I’ve written, go through drafts, and begin submitting them to paying markets.  I must learn to write faster, to focus and to finish what I’ve started.

But what about the novels? If this goes right, you’ll have three of the bloody things sitting about.  Well, I’m going to set a goal this year of getting three Beta readers to tear them to pieces so I can rebuild them.

And lastly, photography. I need to set myself a goal of regularly taking photos. Each other month, I’ll set up a project theme – Business portrait, neo noir shoot, etc. – write up a description for the shoot, set up lighting diagrams, and take photos.

Ambitious? Yes. But given I’ll be unkind to myself even if I set modest goals, I might as well aim big and fail big.

Long Climb to the New Year

Long Climb to the New Year

It comes time for reflection on the past year, and looking forward to the new one. It also comes time to review my goals and see where I stand.

For those who do not remember, my original goals from 2013. Reviewing all I had planned, and all I did, just brings to mind one of my favorite exchanges from Doctor Who

“I have failed.”
“Yes.” [Sees D84 lower his head] “Oh, come on! Don’t be upset. Yes, you’ve failed, you’ve failed. But failure is one of the basic freedoms.” ~The Fourth Doctor & D84. “Robots of Death”

I can say without equivocation I’ve failed in all my goals. My discipline is lax, my typing skills are not what they once were (I sometimes feel my hands stiffening, as if resin crawled along my tendons), and I am so distracted it is not funny. This entire year, I’ve focused on Ivre, aside from a failed attempt at camp NaNoWriMo. Though focused is a kind thought.

Were there any successes? Yes, but not on my writing goals. In life, the successes came with love, more trips to a variety of cons, and a new home. The day job is still a monster which devours all things, but I must learn to live with it and plan around it. I need to find the small hours, the tiny spaces when I can steal time away and write.

What about this year? What goals should I set? One goal will always remain: Finish Ivre. I’m so close. The last few pages of the outline tick away. All the scenes are planned and plotted. I simply need to keep writing, keep digging, and block the rest of the world from my view.

And short stories. My big regret is producing nothing in the way of short fiction. This year, I need to produce a story a quarter, and submit them. Even if a skinner box is needed, with Leo McKern in a circular chair laughing at my attempts, I will produce and submit short stories.

Admitting to failure is difficult. No, sorry, it’s painful. Imagine swallowing caltrops, then having a boxer punch your stomach until nothing remained but bloody, shredded meat. “You do it perfect the first time!” was my father’s refrain as I grew up. Living in my loud, furious replica of a war-torn Balkan state, there was no right of failure for me. Failure heralded an “Aye, you stupid…!” yell from my father, or motherly helecoptering resembling the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene from Apocalypse Now.

But I have to admit I failed. Now, I do what scientists and engineers and dreamers always do. I pick up the pieces, look at how I can improve, and try it again. Do better next time.

Maybe that should be my goal for next year: Do better than the last.

Reflections and the forthcoming year

For notes of a more personal nature, I would suggest visiting my LiveJournal.  But this is for my writing , so I will stay relatively focused.

In terms of my goals, this year has been a mixed bag. I have written three short stories, and have begun subscribing to and supporting two very good SF/Fantasy magazines via eReader, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed,  and am continuing to expand my reading background. I attended two literary cons for the first time in nearly a decade and enjoyed them terribly. I’ve joined a writer’s group, though it is more of a “Let’s keep each other motivated” type group than a “Here’s a hundred red-lines on this story” style. But I think I need that. And I’ve also found a new community through the local F/SF book club. Which lead to… well, read my LJ entry.

As for the novels, Metaphysical Graffiti took a back seat to Ivre. I’ve gotten over 70k words into it and am in the last act, but I’m finding the “seat of the pants” style of writing, where I plan a bit, then write, then plan a bit more hasn’t given me any more spontaneity. If anything, I find myself stopping, rethinking and reworking things far more. I need to have some form of happy medium.

In future, I’ll need to think of my treatments as the initial ‘script’ for my novels.  The writing process is where I film the action in the script, and make room for improvisation by the actors, a.k.a. the characters. I honestly don’t know how literary authors just write and see where characters take them. I suppose in literary works there’s an expected level of meandering which takes place, wherein the tropes of an unhappy marriage, or a person going through a middle aged crisis, or some reflection on the lost promise of youth set against a recognizable background are explored.

The year has also given me a clearer view of my limitations in terms of writing. I work, on average, nearly 10 hours a day, not counting work done via the Blackberry on my trips into and out of the city while riding the Virginia Railway Express.  I spent myself writing email after email, burning creative fuel to keep the work lights glowing. Cranking out even a few paragraphs when I get home is a feat. Yet, somehow, I still do it.  Not to the level of a professional. The pulp writers of old would snicker at my lack of work ethic.  But I still have to have these moments. The writing keeps me sane.

So what are my goals for next year? Well, first, finish Ivre and let it rest  just a bit. Add to my short story count, get them revised, and see if they spark any interest. But get out more, live a bit more, and add to my life resume a bit. Not living and exploring chokes my creativity the way kudzu kills trees.  So I need to keep living.

When the new year hits, I’ll post a fuller list of ambitions regarding my writing. But for now, I need to look back at the lessons learned and see what I can bring into the forthcoming year.