Friday, June 7, 2013

Drawer time

I'm stuck in a maddening corner with my novel.

I want to make it better, but I can't. It's not that I have no ability to edit or that I can't revise and revisit scenes. It isn't that I lack motivation to do it either, I often spend huge amounts of time writing every day.

I'm paralyzed by the simple fact that I want my novel to be the best it can be, but I no longer have any perspective on what that is.

I've rewritten the beginning several times. I've shifted the starting point for the story forward and introduced characters that are pivotal at earlier moments. Then I've shown it to other people and changed it all again. Every time I go through this process I realize one thing. I want my book to be the best it can be, but I don't know what that is.

I'm stuck in a loop of, I'll do whatever is best for the writing quality, when I don't know what that is. The reason I can't recognize it anymore, is a complete lack of perspective.

I can't even imagine what it is like for someone to approach this draft as a reader. 

Which brings me to the inevitable moment that I am in now. I won't be able to make this story much better without moving on to other stories and distancing myself. People are lucky that way, we can forget creative works and grow. When we return after months or years, they mean something new to us. They can be renewed in our minds. In my case, the issues with my story will be clearer to me.

Luckily, most agents and editors will take a significant amount of time to respond to my inquiries. So I'm struggling as hard as I can with the beginning of the story. I'm hoping that I can make the first three chapters strong enough that I can get it right and take a break from the novel. I want to write other stories. I have so many ideas in my head that I feel genuine pain that I have to focus on editing draft after draft of the same chapters.

Perspective is a difficult thing to maintain.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What's wrong with the video game industry?

Writing every day is often the only way to get better at it. So sometimes this blog is going to drift from what the description labels it as. Today I wanted to talk about big game companies that are having difficulty and what has been bothering me about it.

Who the hell comes up with the estimates for sales?

Square Enix predicted that they would sell over 5 million copies of the new Tomb Raider title in the first month. That is absurd. There are no statistics I can look to that make me think that number was likely.

Ok, it's one thing to estimate sales that high. Maybe they were just hoping they had a hit on their hands? They couldn't have possibly put their financial future at risk with those expectations could they?

The quick replacement of their CEO in April and then again in May makes me think that they did in fact budget for sales that reached that high. All this while video game sales have slumped overall in a significantly noticed fashion.

Meanwhile, one of the most bungled launches ever occurred when Maxis/EA proceeded to sell a version of Simcity that couldn't be played. It may not seem related to the Square Enix debacle, but I see an underlying connection between these two news items happening so close together.

Software companies that make video games have grown to massive sizes in the last decade. I used to think it was for the betterment of the industry. I remember days when I looked at the purchasing of developers by large corporations as a sign that bigger and better games would come the consumer's way. What I see now, with the recent troubles in these huge companies, is the downside of a capitalist system.

Big corporations exist to make money.

When a large publisher like EA acquires Maxis, it isn't doing so because they think Maxis is super cool and they are fans. Companies like EA buy Maxis, because they think they can produce a product that will sell well and make EA even more money.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. In a properly functioning organization, the desire to make profits often leads to excellent products. The problem comes when companies don't put quality first. No CEO will ever admit to it, but I think that games like Simcity are pushed out without regard to their level of detail. It gets reflected at Square Enix with sales goals that aren't based in any sort of reality.

Compare these massive failures with the successes of the indie game market. Specifically look at platforms like steam or the Xbox arcade. Games with smaller budgets and sometimes singular staffs are producing buzz that big companies dream of.

I can't help but look at the larger companies and wonder how long they can sustain themselves with such lack of direction.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How I focus on long term goals.

Beginning a creative project can be a difficult task. Even harder than starting, is continuing your work until completion. A book can take months to write, and many drafts get shredded in the process. Videos take hours of sitting in front of editing software every day. Musical creations take thousands of hours of relentless practice and revision. Art takes considerable effort and patience to master.

I've seen many of my friends start projects that never end. Sometimes I think they don't want them to. I've also seen projects that abruptly stop after several days of committed effort.

The real trick behind getting anything made, is that no matter the mood, there is a designated time that they work every single day. Quality is desired, but not a need for workloads like this. Enough production of creative material will eventually spin out something worthwhile. I sometimes find my favorite scenes in writing when I've gone off the deep end of exhaustion and am just trying to finish something. I lose the clever words and fancy language that I focus so hard on under normal conditions and just let thoughts race onto the paper.

A dedicated project is something that should consume your time.

A few things keep me working on something every day.

Develop a morning ritual.

Mine involves coffee and video games for an hour. I try to never go past that hour, and for me it's almost a mental workout letting myself indulge in something I enjoy so much and then separating myself from it willfully. Some days I just watch other people play video games and that is enough. The tricky part is knowing what I'm capable of stopping after that hour. Every person has limitations and addictions that can get in the way. The point I'm trying to make is, I don't work immediately, I start the day with something that will make me happy.

Identify where your willpower will break, and plan for that while it is strong.

I know that after I finish the immediate thought on the pages or paragraphs that I am writing, I will instantly open a web browser if it is available. So while my willpower is strong, I disable the internet, knowing that in the next hour there will be a moment where I go back to that distraction. It's alright to enjoy a break every hour or two, but make sure it is a planned moment that you control. Which brings me to my final thought on focus.

When you feel overwhelmed, choose to worry about one singular problem and ignore all the others.

Multitasking is an illusion. I'm not saying, don't plan ahead. Planning is critical to effectively using the time we have every day. What I'm saying, is the reality is that you can only physically do one task at any given moment. Yes, you may be running out of money and sometime in the next week face eviction, but you still need to wash your clothing. Achieving completion of one small task at a time is often all I have while I'm wrapped up in long term concerns.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why I didn't like Star Trek: Into darkness

Excellent movies have often caught me by surprise. 

Seeing Drive for the first time is an example of this. I expected a mindless action film with Ryan Gosling playing Vin diesel-light. Instead I was shown a story of a silent loner who had serious issues and desires. Drive was a film about a character experiencing deep pain and wanting a way out of it. So keeping this in mind, I shouldn't be surprised at why I found the newest Star Trek disappointing.

The movie succeeds at being exactly what I expected it to. There are lens flares, explosions, epic songs and especially evil villains. The cast is back, filling their seats exactly where they left them after the 2009 reboot. The film even delves into themes of terrorism and the philosophical challenges of war and defense. While there are so many positives to look at when examining this film, I can't help but wonder why it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth.

Star Trek has always been driven by characters.

If anyone ever tells you otherwise, they are wrong. Whether observing the series television shows, or the theatrical releases, every successful outing of Star Trek is fueled by characters. The more pain and difficulty that they go through, the better. One of the most beloved characters from The Next Generation, Data, is specifically praised because his entire purpose is to display human growth from a distinctly Star Trek perspective. Spock achieved the same level of development in the original series. 

Star Trek: First Contact, is an excellent example of characters in turmoil. The characters that the audience have known for over a decade, are questioning their identities. Data is tempted by the Borg,  while the ship itself is slowly consumed and destroyed. The characters in that film are engrossing, and pull the audience with them through a well crafted tale.

Into Darkness lacks believable story.

Sure, we get the bullet points that Abrams wants the audience to know. Kirk sleeps with lots of women, he gets into fights, he drinks, he violates rules and he often does this to defend people that do not reciprocate. But when you think of a character like this, if Kirk actually held these traits and was consistent, he would horribly depressed. The original Kirk may have been similar, but it feels like someone created a list of traits that Shatner displayed with the original Kirk and told Chris Pine to show them without any context. I felt like the new Kirk had absolutely no reason to act the way he did. There was no story displayed that justified the creation of such an absurd character. This pervades all of the film and is a constant problem that Abrams never addresses.

The dialogue in this film is painfully blank in most instances. This leads to flat characters that are predictable and cliche. None of the characters every really grow and learn from their mistakes. It is most obvious with the addition of Alice Eve, whom has no purpose in the film other than to provide a pathetically weak female that Kirk can save. She has maybe ten lines, yet we see her half naked almost immediately. 

By the way, did nobody notice that she has a British accent, and her father has an American accent? How did that happen?

The result of such vapid character development is that at no point am I actually concerned for the well being of any of the characters in the film.

At the end of the original Wrath of Khan, when a critical character sacrifices his life for the well being of the crew, I remember feeling genuinely sad. There was no gimmick or magical solution for his passing. Without revealing Into Darkness's plot, the new star trek establishes almost immediately that any character can be brought back from near death. I'm not making this up, it's literally the first scene of the film where we learn how to give life to any organism. Tension cannot be created with such possibilities.

There are many more reasons why I didn't like Into Darkness, but they are predictable. 3D needs to go away, it hasn't added anything to film. The story could have been made much more sensible by simply removing some of the more absurd story elements.

Imax is apparently slang for, so loud you'll look past the plot holes

I went into this movie thinking about the new Star Wars films. I was excited to see work by the man who would be creating those titles. I left with a genuine worry for the future of the science fiction genre. Abrams has failed miserably to deliver anything close to the film I expect.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Isolation of Writing.

When I watch interviews with published writers, I see a common talking point. They often talk about how in order to get any writing done, they have to go to varying degrees of isolation just to even begin. George R.R. Martin is an excellent example of this.

I sympathize with Martin. He makes me feel like the things I do to get writing done aren't strange.

When I was in college I was frequently told, "To be a writer, a person needed to be consistent."

Pick any time of the day. Sit down every day at that same moment and begin writing. Some people prefer mornings, some prefer evenings. Consistency, I was told, is one of the most important parts of writing.

After spending three months doing this, I have to agree, consistency is incredibly important. 

But one of the other details that my professors explained to me, was the need to separate from the distractions of everyday life. Unplug the phone and close the web browser. Let people that you live with know that you need to be left alone. This step is even more important to me. 

I find that my subconscious often finds ways around this. I get to the end of a chapter or scene and before I know what is happening, I have been browsing Reddit or Facebook for fifteen minutes. It isn't that I want to stop working, quite the opposite. I'm very aware that getting writing done makes me feel better, while spending hours on social media can leave me feeling depressed and lost.

Separation from normal tasks is essential for creative writing. 

No matter how small or big that separation is, it must happen for a writer to get started. I know some people travel massive physical distances to get that feeling while others are able to turn down the volume on their phone and achieve the same level of focus. I envy the people on the easy end of that spectrum. I find myself unplugging the internet, changing passwords, uninstalling programs from my computer and even switching the room I'm in just to add a sense of isolation that wasn't previously there.

So don't feel bad if you get nothing done because of Facebook  or text messaging. That's a normal problem. You can identify the distractions and you have the ability to actively separate yourself from them. 

You're lucky that the thing stopping you from writing is so obvious.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

If I could give myself writing tips before I started my draft...

I'm 26 years old, and have just finished my first draft of a fantasy novel.
I expected to feel accomplishment with the completion of the first draft, but instead I feel like anxiety is as strong as ever. Editing is not easy, it isn't fast, and it takes just as much effort as the initial composition.
When I started writing my first book, I tried as hard as I could to focus on the fact that I could make whatever I wanted.

For the first few weeks, I would start drafting something, and get hooked on it. I would feel an obligation to complete the scenes, or even transform the characters and plan revisions. All the while, I hadn't even made anything more than a thousand words long. I remember saying to myself, "It's ok to make a shitty first draft. Just get anything written."

While this approach is certainly true, and critical to getting anything of substance written, I wish that I had kept some things in mind.
  •              Setting is something that can be changed and modified with great ease.

I remember worrying about locations and settings and world building, long before it mattered at all. Don't mistake world building that is essential to the story with what I am describing. I literally sketched out maps of locations that I actively knew that none of my characters would go to. If I could start that over again, I would have worried about it 30%-50% of the way through the first draft.
  •             Characters will build themselves if you give them a reason to do so.

I wish that I had spent more time determining the motivation for the first actions of the story. I spent so much time worrying about the midpoint and endpoint to the story, when I should have just let the characters get there on their own. When I go back to edit the beginning with a middle and ending already written and I'm confronted by characters with questionable motivations, I have a hard time rewriting in a way that fits the rest of the story.
These two things could have made my life at the end of the first draft much simpler. I expected editing to be easy, and instead find myself trying to clean the inside of a prison cell. I'm afraid of continuity issues when I change characters, and afraid of motivations that I establish later on in the book.
Focusing on the immediate setting and the immediate problems that my characters face is much more important than any goal or location I want to get them to.