Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things Christopher Nolan Taught Me About Writing

What can I say? I’ve been a fan of Batman since I was barely out of diapers, and so of course I have mad respect for the brilliant Christopher Nolan. And yesterday was his birthday, so the post is totally valid.

Now, calm down, I’m not going to spend this entire post worshipping the ground he floats over. I think he’s a great writer/director, but I don’t mean to put him on a pedestal. Today, I’m going to focus on his methods and their effects. Pull on your capes and cowls and join me, won’t you?

1.      Respect your characters. This, above all, is what I think what made the Nolan Batman films (and hell, The Prestige and Inception, while we’re talking about the subject) so successful. It sounds rudimentary and obvious, but unfortunately in today’s world, this concept is not mandatory. Want proof? Three little words: X-Men Origins Wolverine. Did that send chills up your spine? It should have. If you do not respect your characters, you get things like the Merc with the Mouth getting his mouth sewn shut, one of the most bad ass characters of all time turned into a whiny love-struck kitten, adamantium bullets that cause frickin’ amnesia, and an entire sea of pissed off comic book fans who swear off of your movies for life. Nolan taught me to take my time, spread open a character, and examine them from top to bottom with a creepy Dr. Zoidberg kind of patience. With each of the three Batman films, Nolan paid attention to the various traits that made up Bruce Wayne, Alfred J. Pennyworth, and an assortment of other characters from the Batman comics. He incorporated different versions of the characters and streamlined them into the incarnations we watched on screen. If a writer does their homework and creates a three-dimensional character, people—in their key demographic and sometimes beyond it—will show up. Guaranteed.
2.      The devil’s in the details. An old phrase, but a good ‘un. Nolan’s scripts have always been filled to the brim with details. Hell, that’s why he waited ten years before deciding to film Inception. The story is that he kept it in a drawer for years and chipped away at it until he finally came out with something he liked and thought would work. Details help fill in the spaces that a writer might not notice are there. It can be dialogue, it can be setting, it can be backstory, anything. It can also be easy to pack in too many and lose focus, but that is something I learned as I edited my first novel. Details and editing seem to be natural enemies, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, think of all the little things in The Prestige that added up over time. The story left us tiny clues that eventually congealed with the tremendous reveal at the end of the film. It was still a lengthy running time, but the film never felt long because the details kept us hanging on the edge of our seats. Details should help the reader invest, keep them interested, and move the story along.
3.      Realism is a double-edged sword. Some fiction excels because it has the ability to take a ludicrous concept and make us believe it. This idea is one of the reasons why the Nolan Batman films broke barriers. While Tim Burton’s version was certainly entertaining, it existed in its own bizarre plane of existence. And don’t get me started on Joel Schumacher’s versions. (Mind you, I enjoyed Batman Forever for all its cheesiness, but I’m not disillusioned that it’s not really Batman. And Batman & Robin is In Name Only.) Nolan was the first to take the hero and apply him to modern times—our cinematography, our technology, and our current social and ethic standards. It worked. It flourished. It made us believe that it could happen. However, this concept cannot always be applied to every hero. It’s here that I put on my critic hat. I thought Man of Steel was pretty good, but one of its biggest flaws was that they took the realism concept too far. Actually, one of my friends put it into perspective perfectly. Heard of ItsJustSomeRandomGuy? (Insert shameless Name Drop Here) His biggest criticism of the film was that it wasn’t fun. I agree. Man of Steel was a lot of things, but I never got the sense of fun that I feel is absolutely essential to the character of Clark Kent. Superman is meant to inspire. He’s someone to look up to. The realism in MoS was an admirable attempt, but it took away the wonder that Superman should instill in the audience. He was much more cynical and harder edged than I felt he should have been. There is a reason they call him the Big Blue Boy Scout. I didn’t want to give him a merit badge by the end of the movie, and that’s a crying shame. So, when writing, realism should be a guiding light, but not the main focus. Many novelists can write realistic characters, plots, and stories, but Nolan’s work has taught me that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Lighten up. Fiction operates under the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. We can accept a lot under that creed—even that a man can fly.
4.      If you truly love your work, someone else will love it too. Now, this is subjective. Loving your work and vanity projects are NOT the same thing. For instance, most people agree that Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a vanity project. Loving your work means investing fully into everything in it—cinematography, script, casting the actors, dialogue, soundtrack, all of it. It is for this reason that Inception was such a big hit. It took a concept that might be a bit hard for the Average Joe to accept and turned into a terrific story that also made quite a good bit of cash. Nolan spoke in interviews and commentary how he sat on the project for so long, and that is a labor of love. We have all seen movies and read books that were rushed. It steals a lot from a story if you don’t take the time to sweat, cry, and gnash your teeth over it like a misbehaving toddler. I believe that if someone truly pours passion and devotion into their writing, someone else will respond with the same amount of passion and devotion. It may not happen immediately, it may not be across the board, but love of writing cultivates love of reading.

So thanks, Mr. Nolan, for your tireless work. We look forward to seeing more of it.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New Review for The Black Parade

The lovely and talented @Tali_Adina, who runs this lovely blog here, just posted a review of my novel, The Black Parade. I'd be oh-so gracious if you would take a look.

The Black Parade Review

In case you didn't know, Tali's the bee's knees. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr. *Bill Compton voice* AS YOUR MAKER, I COMMAND YOU.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Things Supernatural Taught Me About Writing

If you’ve never seen Supernatural, shame on you. Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done. Now.

If you have seen Supernatural, then you are one tough son of a gun. Supernatural is known for a lot of things—creative monsters, the world’s hottest main cast, hilarious dialogue, unapologetic Fourth Wall breaking—but the reason it was recommended to me by my writing sensei was because it had a lot to teach me about writing. Let’s get started, shall we?

1.      People love to be emotionally gut-punched. And boy, Supernatural does NOT pull its punches. It introduces you to an entire rainbow of interesting, three-dimensional characters, makes you care about them, makes you bond with them, and then snatches them right out of your hands like a bully grabbing a kid’s lunch money. The relationship between Sam and Dean is Emmy-worthy because there are so many layers to the boys’ personalities. They are constantly bickering, constantly arguing, constantly not trusting each other, and yet they will die for one another at the drop of a hat. Several times, mind you. Supernatural is addictive because it barges its way into the watchers’ hearts and then proceeds to detonate like an atom bomb. This is something that all writers should strive to do. Even if your main character is an unrepentant a-hole of epic proportions, the readers should still find themselves attached to them and want to know what happens to them down the road.
2.      You cannot please everyone. Supernatural is also infamous for its loyal but rabid fanbase. Half of said fanbase is hilarious, thoughtful, and creative. The other half is full of angry, petty, self-righteous jerks. The Supernatural writers have done a lot of things over the course of the show’s eight seasons to appease the fanbase, but it is still impossible to make all of them happy. There are several examples of the writers trying to keep their fans happy. It’s no secret that the fanbase and the writers favor Dean over Sam after season five. He gets the better storylines, the better girlfriends, the funnier lines of dialogue, and is usually characterized as being “right” when the two of them are having an argument. He is also inexplicably popular because majority of the fanbase insists that he’s madly in love with Castiel. The writers have been playing to this angle ever since season six, and while the fans clearly enjoy the Dean-heavy emphasis, they still complain unrepentantly about Dean/Castiel (dubbed “Destiel”) not being “canon.” If anything, this has taught me that no matter what I write, someone will have a problem with it. Even if I acknowledge things that the readers want to see, I will still piss someone off. The key is to find balance. Find a way to write that makes both me and the readers happy. It is hard to accomplish, but many novels and shows have proven it is possible.
3.      Variety is the spice of life. Supernatural gained its popularity largely through the first four seasons. Its premise captured the interest of the audience because it adopted the idea that almost all myths, legends, and monsters exist within the same universe. The writers did their homework and dug up literally dozens of types of mythical predators and brought them into the real world with fantastic results. This is something I have tried to take to heart with my own writing in terms of the setting, the imminent threat, and the villain of my stories. No one wants to read the same novel with a different name. Even if it’s in the same series, the plot and storyline should move, evolve, and develop over time.
4.      Know when to quit while you’re ahead. Okay, this is going to be controversial so let me just get it out of the way. I personally think Supernatural should have ended a couple seasons ago. God knows I love Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Jim Beaver, Misha Collins, Mark Sheppard and company, but in my opinion, the last two seasons have been rather poorly done, particularly season eight. I feel this way because Supernatural has covered so many stories, so many monsters, and so many conflicts between the brothers that they have honestly run out of ideas. For instance, season eight had a lot of recycled plotlines and moments between the brothers, and it also ended up casting them in an unflattering light. Sam not looking for Dean because he wanted a boring girlfriend and a dog was absolutely idiotic writing and completely out of character. They didn’t even attempt to justify his actions. He just…didn’t look for him. The seasons prior showed Sam’s desire to eventually quit the life of a hunter, but this season made him look like a total jackass. It worked in the other seasons because Sam knew Dean could take care of himself. With Dean in Purgatory, Sam knew he’d be in constant danger and yet he still didn’t do anything about it with no true explanation as to why. Then when Dean found out, he lorded it over Sam and acted as if Sam hasn’t saved his life a hundred times and died for him at least twice. To make matters worse, he starts treating the generic vampire Benny like his actual brother because he’s “never disappointed him” and basically acts like a stuck up, self-righteous douchebag for most of the season. Granted, all of this is subjective and many people will disagree with me, but the concept is what has taught me a lesson. It has made me examine my writing and decide if certain stories are going to be one off, have a sequel, or have the potential to become an entire series. One should know ahead of time if they have the fuel to go the distance of Alex Cross, Harry Dresden, or Sherlock Holmes before they accidentally stall out and end up stranded.  
5.      Don’t fear the fairer sex. There are a bunch of ladies in Supernatural whom I completely adore—Pamela, Cassie, Meg, Ellen, the list goes on and on. Yet, have you noticed something? The show has been on for eight freaking seasons and there is no female main cast member. That chaps my Bat-briefs. I do not understand why Supernatural is so unwilling to have a female main character who is a regular. Granted, it took them four seasons just to add Misha Collins as a main cast member (seriously, what the hell) but I don’t understand. They also have a bad habit of mistreating all recurring female characters by killing them off just to make the Winchesters feel bad, but it still makes the writers seem like they don’t quite care for the fairer sex even though they clearly can write them competently. Now, my current theory is that the fanbase has a hand in the lack of ladies sticking around. As I mentioned before, the Destiel fangirls will cry bloody murder on any of Dean’s love interests but this female lead wouldn’t need to be a love interest. She could just be another hunter, or if they were smart, they’d make her a monster with a heart of gold who wants to help them. I actually would have liked Meg to join the main cast because she is so entertaining and she was starting to turn a corner before season eight ruined everything. I keep this in mind when I write. The main character of The BlackParade tends to have a lot of male counterparts because the story is loosely based off of Paradise Lost, but I still make sure to find time for other ladies in her life. The first novel is still male centric, but the second and third ones depart from that. It can be hard sometimes, but I think it’s important for every writer to portray both genders equally and with all three dimensions intact.

Overall, I’m actually happy my writing sensei talked me into partaking in Supernatural. Even though I have problems with the current seasons, it has definitely taught me a lot of do’s and don’ts, and I believe I am more rounded writer thanks to them. Here’s to you, Winchesters.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Things Batman Taught Me About Writing

I know what you’re thinking.

“What does a 6’2’’ billionaire playboy who dresses up as a winged rat to fight hoodlums have in common with the prestigious institution known as writing?”

Well, if you’ll calm your mammary glands for an instant, I’ll explain. You see, I’ve been writing my entire life. If I have learned one thing, it is this—writing comes from inspiration. No one ever said that inspiration is conventional. So ignore what your mother told you about talking to strangers and listen to me for a moment while I attempt to explain how Bruce Wayne may be one of the best teachers in the writing field to date.

1.      Darkness is multifaceted and interesting. Let me clarify—I do not believe that all heroes and heroines must be dark. Every protagonist does not need to be a tortured soul with loads of self-hatred and PTSD. Hell, some of the best heroes out there thrive because of their optimism. Peter Parker, a whole sluice of Disney characters, Wally West, a good chunk of the Teen Titans, etc. However, there is a reason why Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ is the fourth highest grossing film of all time in the states. People want to see the ugly part of the soul. They crave it. All of the horrific things that have happened to Bruce from birth to his current state in the movies, comic books, and animated world are what make him so fascinating. He walks the line between good and evil every single night he patrols. For years, writers and readers have questioned whether Batman will ever become that which he fights against and we are compelled to follow his story because he continues not to give in.
2.      It is possible to relate to unrelatable characters. I know, that sounds like a drunken 3AM tweet, but let me elaborate. Most likely, you were drawn to this article because of its absurd title. I mean, how the hell can we relate to a highly successful crime-fighter with gadgets and cool cars and hot women coming out the wazoo? Well, Captain Cynical, I’ll tell you how. Batman is not so different from you and me. As Batman is compelled to protect the innocent, so are we writers compelled to slam our fingertips against stupid plastic keys and somehow make stories come out. We are unable to stop it. For example, Batman has tried to quit several times in the comic books and even in the animated world (See: ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ and ‘Batman Beyond.’) Writers know what that’s like. To stare into the empty abyss of a Word document, throw up your hands, and watch six hours worth of Supernatural after swearing to never write again. Then eight hours later, we’re sitting in front of the same document, cursing profusely and writing anyway. Makes sense now, doesn’t it?
3.      The villains are just as important as the main character. Batman is a mainstay in our culture not only because he’s a bad ass but because he (arguably) has the most memorable villains of any comic book character. Without going to Wikipedia, name as many Batman bad guys as you can. I’ll wait. I bet you a quarter you were able to name at least five of them. (And cough up that money, man, I’ve got bills.) Why does that matter? Because the villains define the hero. No one wants a boring villain with nothing to offer our frothing imaginations. Each villain represents some part of Batman, whether he realizes it or not. For example, Batman represents justice so the Joker represents chaos, as ‘The Dark Knight’ so eloquently put it. Each of these bad boy and girls tempt Batman to break his no kill rule when he faces them and he becomes a better man each time he does not give in. It is the same with heroes in any given story. Compelling writing comes from an author digging deep and finding the one insecurity that could destroy the protagonist and then handing it to the villain in a gift basket. Preferably with wine and cheese.

In conclusion, Batman may have more to offer you than a great action flick or epic page-turner, as long as you’re willing to keep your mind open.

(And seriously, gimme that quarter.) 


Thursday, July 25, 2013

To the Starving Artists

To you, the one sitting in front of the keyboard. The one squinting at your bright-ass screen at three o'clock in the morning, wondering if you used the word 'perfunctory' in the right context. The one meticulously combing through your prose with your fingertip pressed against the somewhat smudged screen. The one determined to force another chapter out of your aching skull before you can finally drop to the pillow and go to sleep because your day job wants you there early the next morning. The one dragging yourself to something you're good at, something you've probably always been good at, but isn't your one true love like writing is, but you do it anyway because it pays the bills. The one who listens to conversations not because you want to be nosy, but because it might be something useful or interesting for your writing.

To you, the one searching desperately for a writing community, but your town is too small to have one. The one scrolling through Google trying to find a forum with other writers because you're hungry for people talking and laughing and moaning about the same writer habits that you have. The one fretting over the fact that no one's replied to your comment and you worry that you're annoying everyone and you'll never connect with them.

To you, the one who is doing well enough but not quite where you wanted to be with your writing. The one desperately hoping that you're actually good at telling a story and it's not just your friends and family humoring you. The one who quietly does the research, compiles lists and facts, calls people to ask them weird questions, and tries to compact it all into the story in a way that makes sense. The one scouring every inch of Tvtropes and Tumblr to make sure you're not accidentally employing a cliche that will make future readers hate you. The one who diligently makes mental notes of things you love in films you watch, books you read, comics and graphic novels you flip through, and television shows you obsess over, and also marks the things you hate that they do.

To you, the one who secretly daydreams about being interviewed on the Colbert Report even though your book is fiction and would probably have nothing to do with political satire. The one sitting in the middle row at a comic book or anime convention wishing it were you up there with hundreds, or hell even dozens, of adoring fans all dying to hear any tiny anecdote of your life. The one sighing wistfully as you read adorable behind the scenes stories about your favorite actors, or watch their blooper reels, and praying that someday your book will help you climb out of your shell and become someone other people can root for.

To you, the one who finally makes it to the mountaintop, looks down at the world below you, and openly admits that you're scared shitless. The one who bites your lip as you stare miserably at your rank on Amazon. The one who lays in bed listening to Aqualung and Dashboard Confessional and Death Cab for Cutie and worrying you'll never amount to anything. The one who picks through your various social media personas and ponders why you seem unable to get through to anyone, or at least it seems that way, the way that others do. The one who is terrified of being mediocre, or worse, so terrible that you are instantly wiped from the memories of anyone who knew you because your work isn't that good, it's just okay, and okay only cuts it when it's mass-produced by a corporation or the government. The one who sweats and bleeds writing and loves it to your core like a family member and couldn't stop even if you were banned from the entire Internet itself.


You are not alone.

Your dreams are not empty. Your words are not poison. You are something special. Maybe you're not Shakespeare or Stephen King or Dean Koontz but you are doing something worthwhile if only because you give a damn about your writing. Even if it doesn't soar off the bookshelves, even if you never crack the Amazon 100 Bestsellers, even if you get no reviews, no ratings, no nothing, you are still worth something. You are an author. You tell stories. You breathe legends. You have power beyond measure, even if it's only in your mind and your Word document.

To you, starving artists.

You deserve better than what you settle for. Don't give up. The world will always need stories.

Tell them.

And tell them without permission, reluctance, or restraint.