In the Weeds

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One of my projects this spring has been writing a novel synopsis. It’s the first time that I’ve done this and I realized when I started drafting it that on some level I’d never expected to reach this point: now that I had, I had no idea what I was doing.

As I often say in my dayjob life, the lovely thing about the Internet is how much information you can find on anything you might care to know about–and the terrible thing about the Internet is the same. All the same, I put together what seemed like a reasonably consistent scenario for what a synopsis should look like and how to write one, drafted it, sent it off to one of my writing groups, and am now in the process of revising it in response to their feedback.

That all makes the process sound very simple, and it is simple, but also difficult. You discover things about the book while trying to summarize it this way; at least, I do, though perhaps it’s different for someone who’s on their fifth or tenth novel rather than their first. I identified a few lingering holes concerning character motivation and plot, and found a way to incorporate a development that didn’t occur to me until the third or fourth revision pass on the manuscript.

Years ago, I went on a camping trip on the Washington coast. The park had a forest between the campground and the ocean, and then a large dune between the forest and the ocean. During the trip I went for a walk in the forest alone, threading narrow paths between clusters of Sitka spruce and occasionally getting turned around as my sense of direction failed me. At last I ascended the dune and could look back on the thick forest behind me. Somewhere among those trees was the campsite where I’d started out.

I’m sure the metaphor here is glaringly obvious, but I tend to remember that moment when I’m this stage of a project. At some point I’ll be done, although not as quickly as I’d like to be.

American Gods, the show

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I got pretty excited when I heard there would be an American Gods TV adaptation, and even more excited when the cast announcements started coming out. I wasn’t familiar with Ricky Whittle, the actor who plays Shadow, but he sure looked how I imagined the character, and Ian McShane is so perfectly cast as Wednesday that my husband, who has never read the novel and is only vaguely familiar with the premise, observed that McShane looks like he’s having the time of his life.

I haven’t read the book in a long time, so I can’t say how well the first episode works in terms of being an adaptation of its source. Once I heard about the show, I deliberately didn’t go back to the novel. I don’t like to read the books adaptations are based on too close to watching the adaptation. I wind up being distracted by the changes, and have a hard time judging the work on its own merits. I also wasn’t crazy about American Gods when it first came out. I’d been a fan of Gaiman since the Sandman series and thought his style worked better in a medium with a visual component. But that was the very thing that made me think that American Gods would work well as a show.

Does it? I’d say so far, so good. I had my doubts with that opening scene, because I am really not a fan of voiceovers or narration in TV or movies. The scene is also so over the top in places (that arm flying across the screen with a sword still gripped in its hand!) that I wondered whether it was supposed to be funny. As a mythological obsessive I knew exactly what the scene was for and what the outcome would be, even though I haven’t read the book in years and this scene isn’t in it anyway. But as the first scene of the first episode of a new show, it didn’t fill me with confidence.

Then we moved to the present day, to Shadow in prison, and everything was fine.

As I said earlier, Whittle looks the part. He’s remarked in interviews on how he worked to get that look right (including hitting the gym), but he also has a collectedness of affect that contrasts with all the crazy shit going on around him. At first I was wondering whether that was going to work on-screen, even though Whittle’s manner is true to the character, until the scene in the cemetery with Audrey. (Interestingly, an article in AV Club indicates that that scene originally went differently. I’m glad Gaiman convinced the showrunners to change it because, among other things, Shadow’s reaction demonstrates that he’s not being passive.) There’s a lot going on in Whittle’s performance, and it’s kind of easy to miss because of all the wild stuff going on around him, but it’s there. I’m interested to see where the actor takes this role.

McShane is great, of course. Perhaps I’m biased; Ian McShane could sit on a stool reading Google search results and I’d probably enjoy it. He’s just having so much fun–and making what he’s doing look easy, which is a hallmark of a master at his craft. At the same time, though, he doesn’t take over every scene that he’s in. There’s plenty of room for everyone he’s sharing the stage with.

Somebody asked me what I thought about the Bilquis scene. I thought it was fine, in the sense that the showrunners made the right decision in how they filmed it. They pretty much had to do it as written or leave it out entirely. I haven’t watched all that much television, but my sense is that this particular sex scene is unique, and not solely for its climax (sorry not sorry). I’m reminded, in the novel and again when watching this scene in the show, of another scene from Gaiman’s work, this time in Sandman. That scene involved Ishtar, not Bilquis, and it was in a strip club, not a bedroom, but it’s about the only other pop culture example that comes to mind of a literal sex goddess for whom worshipers will literally give up everything. (I’m sure somebody will be along with others–feel free, as this is something I’m likely to take up further at some point.) That’s important for this story, but it’s also important as something we see all too rarely. Most of the (straight) sex I’ve seen on TV has involved either subjugation of the women involved, or terrible consequences afterwards–for her.

Overall it’s a promising beginning. One thing that American Gods has done successfully from the outset is establish its reality, and that reality is distinctly weird but no less concrete: the gods are real and they’re at war. I recently re-watched season 5 of Buffy, which has a god in it, but the entire point of Glory was that she was in a reality where she didn’t belong. The title of American Gods rather indicates that its gods won’t be disposed of so easily.

Thinking about stories

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The Pixar in a Box series on Khan Academy is fascinating in how it breaks down the behind the scenes process of one of the world’s most impressive storytelling bodies. I’ve long been impressed with Pixar’s ability to tell a compelling story that works for so many audiences; even when I’m less enamored with a particular film than I might be (I didn’t care for Up, for example), I can’t deny that they do it right, with interesting characters, inventive plots, and delightful settings.

The Art of Storytelling is of interest even if one isn’t writing for film, or for that matter writing at all, because it gets to what I think is the heart of the storytelling compulsion. It’s not about writing what you know in the sense of what you have the factual background to cover; a story isn’t a technical manual, and these days it’s easier than ever to find an expert in whatever knowledge you need for a story, be it firearms or mushrooms or the weather on Mars. I think the “write what you know” saying neglects to define its terms: what a person knows might be summed up as the totality of their life experience, beliefs, and values. One way of getting at that is to think about one’s favorite stories and why they are favorites, which is a module in the Art of Storytelling.

When I picked my desert island movies, the three I came up with were Thelma & Louise, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Strange Days. It’s not that I think these are the best movies ever made, though I do think all three are very good. It’s that I walked out at the end of each of them thinking to myself, “They get it.”

Most of my characters are women, though they aren’t always my protagonists. These three films all feature badass women juxtaposed with injustice. In reflecting I found it curious that while I write a lot of women, and at least a few of my stories have dealt thematically with injustice, none of them have thrown the two together with quite as much verve as my favorite desert-island movies have.

The Art of Storytelling also takes you through creating your own what-if scenarios, a thought experiment by no means confined to science fiction (though science fiction writers sometimes act as though we have a monopoly on the question). I guess what I’m saying is that if what comes out of this exercise is something that owes more to Thelma & Louise, Fury Road, and Strange Days than anything else I’ve written so far, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Reading one’s work

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Some months back I heard about a local open mic and reading series called Two Hour Transport, focused on science fiction and fantasy. The invited writers were local and generally not rock stars on book tours, but people who’d had a certain amount of professional success. I’d at least heard of most of them, even if I hadn’t read their work.

I like doing readings. I mean I get massively nervous and often wonder whether it was a good idea to sign up and all of that, but that’s just stage fright. If I don’t get up in front of people occasionally I start to wonder if I can really do it, even though I’ve been teaching for over a decade and have done some acting as well. I’m nowhere near well known enough to be invited to read anywhere, so open mics it is. And one geared toward SF is perfect for me. Seattle has quite the community of SF writers, something I haven’t taken nearly enough advantage of in the time that I’ve lived there, and one of my mentors recently emphasized the importance of networking since I’ve just about finished the book. Plus, it’s just nice to read for like-minded folk, and hear their work as well. Everything I heard at last night’s Two Hour Transport, open mic and invited alike, was at least good, and some of it was very good indeed.

The other reason to read one’s work aloud, though, is that it highlights improvements that you probably won’t happen upon otherwise. It’s easy to forget that stories were oral before they were written–though now, with the ubiquity of digital media, we are perhaps beginning to remember this–and there’s immense value in hearing one’s story even if the principal way that people will consume it is through reading it in silence. In some sense we’re still “hearing” it, even if we’re not doing so consciously.

The excerpt I read last night was from “People of the Wild”, which was published earlier this year in Persistent Visions (and check out the awesome art they paired with it!). Even though it had been drafted, revised, critiqued, and had the magazine’s editors’ eyes on it (I read from the published version), I found myself making tiny tweaks to the excerpt as I read: smoothing out a phrase here, omitting an unnecessary word there. Huge changes, no, and nothing that would have substantively changed a reader’s experience of the story. But sometimes, if a paragraph or sentence feels awkward, or something about a scene doesn’t seem to be flowing, or the whole thing’s pacing seems off, reading the text out loud can pinpoint the problem quicker and more effectively than any number of beta readers and red pens.

I’m working on making reading aloud part of my process. Every writer’s process is different so I’m not going to assert that everyone needs to do this. But I’ve gotten good results with it. So might you.

Get Out

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I saw Get Out last weekend, with a friend with whom I’ve written a few projects, and a couple of other friends. During our lively discussion afterward, one of the other friends asked us how the movie stood up for us as writers.

There’s a lot of good reasons to see Get Out, and the writing is definitely one of them. Jordan Peele wrote as well as directed. When I see a film where one person has done both I always wonder how they take on those two different perspectives on their own work. Is it easy or difficult to think like a writer one minute, a director the next? I’ve done a fair bit of the former and only a little of the latter, so I don’t really know.

Get Out is well written, though. My writer friend watches a lot more horror than I do and pronounced the plot somewhat predictable, but in an entertaining way. It avoids hewing to any one set of tropes and that’s part of what makes it work: sometimes you’re watching biting social satire, sometimes straight-up comedy, sometimes psychological thriller, sometimes (though I think this is probably the smallest portion) horror.  I found myself thinking that an excellent sense of timing is critical to both humor and horror, and can work the same way for both. It definitely does here.

Get Out is very funny, sometimes in ways that’ll make you wince. The dialogue crackles, and lest you think the people Chris meets at Rose’s parents house are exaggerated–they really aren’t. Not much, anyway, and often a slight exaggeration is funnier for sliding that much closer to the truth. These feel like real people even as you’re wondering what the hell is wrong with them. There are some great scenes, where just a few lines and some great subtle body language on the part of the actors communicates volumes. Peele doesn’t overly explain anything. He doesn’t have to. It’s all there already.

There are a few instances of handwaving. I have a far easier time believing that Chris’s friend Rod is smart enough to track him down than that he exercised some mysterious power of the TSA. Dean Armitage doesn’t seem to be running a very good surgery; with all his money you’d think he could afford breathing apparatus for his patients, and having what appears to be the world’s most hazardous halogen lamp in there for illumination is, as we see, manifestly unsafe.

These are minor quibbles, though. Overall the writing in Get Out is like the rest of it: lean, efficient, sharp, a clever puzzle of a story that reminded me a great deal of The Stepford Wives. You’ll never look at Bingo the same way again.

Relaunch

Remember when updating a website’s design or content was cause for an announcement, rather than at most a sense of irritation as we tried to figure out where they’ve moved things now?

Well, maybe you don’t. The Web and I are both old enough at this point that there are things I can look back on with nostalgia, if not exactly fondness. (People today who don’t remember MySpace, let alone GeoCities, aren’t missing a damn thing.) I teach people half my age who, understandably, get frustrated at clunky library user interfaces. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve grown up with an online that, if it’s not exactly seamless is, what, less seamy? That can’t be right.

Anyway, I decided to fix this space up, retire some old flash experiments that weren’t really that great to begin with, and actually update my publications list. It was nice to be able to add a bunch of stuff. I’m not famous or anything but I can at least say that I’ve knocked off the bucket list item of getting my fiction published in a professional venue.

I can’t say what else is going to end up here. Who knows? Stick around.