let’s take a moment

I’ve heard it’s real easy to start a habit. It’s real hard to break one. Eating junk food. Going to church. Lying. Working out. Sleeping around. Writing everyday.

So last week I said some things about the size of your dramatis personae. Less is more, I think was the gist of it all. And that’s true. But maybe I swung too far in that direction. I certainly started to think so when I took another look at my own writing. Confession time. I’m a big fan of big cast lists. I enjoyed Lost (in the beginning) mostly because it told a really fascinating story with a lot of characters.

Maybe I need to back up a little bit. Don’t be gun shy when telling a story. Go balls to the wall. I think most of us already know this. Storytelling isn’t a timid art form, fiction and non-fiction both, across all mediums. My favorite author, Steven Erikson, recently completed a series that takes “epic fantasy” to a new level. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten book set, with literally hundreds of characters. Like him or hate him, he (and his partner Ian C. Esslemont, who wrote the A Tale of the Malazan Empire series) have developed a massive world and a mind-blowing multi-arc narrative to go with it. I was truly in awe when I first read it, and I knew that was the kind of story I wanted to tell. Erikson just proved it was possible. For those of you who don’t know him (and I wouldn’t be surprised), then let me say he’s a lot like George R.R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire books when it comes to big stories. Times two.

As I may have said some time ago, I’m working on a book. It’s the first book in a, oh, three or four (or five) part series. The cast list is… eh… about the middle of the road. A little less than Game of Thrones but a little more than Gravity. Like any good writer, I’ve gone over it again and again. Have I cut any extraneous subplots? Does my narrative have a beginning, middle, and end? Do I have too many characters? Well. That’s the question. At that point, I look again and ask if every character serves a purpose. In my head, they seem to. Sadly, my beta readers have been all of two people, and I’m not even sure I’d count one of them as a valid choice to begin with (my mom). So the jury’s still out on that.

Speaking of moms, me and mine went to see the new Captain America movie. It was umm… I don’t know. I didn’t dislike it, and that’s about all I can say right now. My mom, however, had an interesting reaction, and it’s one that seems to speak to this particular topic somewhat. After we left the theater, I asked her what she thought. Her response was something along the lines of “It’s gotten a bit kooky with all the characters. Was all that really in the comic?” Me being the guy that loves ensemble pieces, I didn’t really understand where she was coming from. Like, really, Mom? You watch(ed) Once Upon a Time, and that has a ridiculously large cast. Some might even say woefully large. Now that I’ve had a few hours to reflect, I sort of get it now. My mom’s the type of consumer that enjoys movies, TV shows, and books as individual, independent entities. She understands that the Captain America films are based on comic books, and she gets that it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but none of that matters when it comes to this one film. And I get that. Each film should be able to stand on its own and not confuse the hell out of people just because it’s trying to provide some continuity to the next film. (If you’ve seen the post-credits scene after any Marvel film, you know what I mean. It’s a pattern.)

Alas, my book follows that same pattern, for better or worse. It tells a story, but it also has elements that work toward setting up the next story. But that’s a convention of the genre these days. Epic fantasy likes to set down deep roots that occasionally take some time to fully bloom.

Anyway, I wanted to try to clear things up, because just a few days after my last post, I’d started to wonder if I’d just become a total hypocrite. It’s not beyond me to do something like that. I’ve definitely done/said some hypocritical things. I just don’t want my writing to be one of those things.

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On Writing: Theme

They say every writer’s got something to say.

So I figured maybe it was time I shared some of my thoughts on writing itself. You know, good writing or bad writing. The seven steps or whatever. I think many of us know in our heads what good storytelling/writing is, but we may experience difficulty communicating that to others (ironically). Even more ironic, I had this whole big thing worked out in my head about what I was going to say on this topic. But, as with most other things I write, I may have very little “to say” after all.

It’s my opinion that good writing–that is, a good story–doesn’t need to have a message or theme to be good. Some have entertainment value, and sometimes that’s good enough. Although, I think one of those things (message/theme) will happen organically, anyway. Focus on the story. Don’t stress on what you’re “trying to say.” I’ve fallen into this before. In high school, we’re forced to read some of the classics. For me, it was Shakespeare’s primary four plays (Romeo & JulietKing LearMacbeth, and Hamlet), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, and a handful of lesser known classics by Bellow, Salinger, and Ellison. Certainly, those guys knew how to weave theme into their storytelling, but I wonder how much of that was deliberate. I’ve noticed that critics can really turn, well, critiquing into its own art form. Was Fitzgerald providing a social commentary on the Roaring 20’s in Gatsby? Or was he writing more from personal experience and describing his own emotional turmoils at the time? Maybe both.

When I was younger, I had dreams of seeing my name among those giants. Ahh, the masters of 20th Century literature. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Steinbeck, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Marquez, Faulkner… me. And so on. As I’ve matured, my interests as a reader and a writer have evolved. Now I aspire to the company of writers like Martin, Erikson, Jordan, Herbert, McCaffrey, Le Guin, Zelazny, Pratchett, Donaldson, Butcher, Roddenberry, and Whedon. If you’re familiar with the last two, we should probably be friends. If you’re not, well… look ’em up. (Hint, look up Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) It’s a fantastic genre (no pun intended), perfectly designed for the integration of theme.

When I was in film school, my teachers constantly drilled us about what we were really trying to say in any given scene. What’s the emotional investment? What are the stakes? I always hated that, but it was hard to argue with. As readers/viewers, we’re always looking to be provoked, engaged, drawn in. The best way, maybe the only way is through our emotions. Whether it’s through the painful ending of a relationship or the thrilling theatrics of a car chase, if we aren’t feeling it, it’s not working. Maybe you’re thinking, well it’s hard to put theme into an action-oriented story. Yeah, I can see that. I wrestle with that dilemma (allegedly) in my writer’s group. Sometimes, they disconnect from what I’ve shared. Usually when that happens, it’s because I’ve brought in something action-y. But sometimes, they’re sucked in. And when that happens, it’s most often because I’ve brought in some meaty relationship stuff. I think I’m digressing a little from my original topic, and I’m sorry for that, but trust me, this is all related. (And there’s no way I’m gonna delete all this!)

Emotion. Theme. Message. Truth. Their relationship to story is like food’s relationship to flavor. Which is which? Oh, I don’t know. I can get all kinds of tangled up in arranging metaphor and simile. You figure it out. The point is, it’s very hard to write a good story without theme. Maybe impossible. I’m not sure… that’s an interesting challenge. Write a compelling story that has absolutely nothing to say about anything… hmm. I don’t know. We write what we know, and unless we’re emotionally dead inside, we have things to say–about everything. Love sucks. Love is great. Friendship above all. Friends are useless. People are good. People suck. Money is the root of all evil. Money can buy happiness. All truths (themes) we may have experienced at one time or another, and are more than likely going to find themselves in our writing at some point in time. (Careful now, I might start waxing philosophical.)

But no. I’m always running short on time. There’s another theme. There’s never enough time.