Back to my inspiration – Comic Books

When I was eight, my parents had no problem supporting my $10 a month comic habit. This consisted mostly of Transformers, GI Joe and Batman.

Entering into my working teen years, I had nothing important to do with my money, so my $10 a month habit expanded to $60+ a month.

Then adulthood struck; car payments, mortgage payments, food, clothing, kids, little room for a comic habit. So my comic collecting, and therefor reading, days ended.

I’ve recently been able to resume a small portion of comic reading. It’s funny, but I didn’t think for a moment that it would make me as happy as it has.

What has surprised me most, is how it’s helping me see my writing. If you view each issue as a chapter, some comics have plot lines that go for hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages. Each issue has to extend the plot and leave the reader hooked to come back next month.

The reality is, comics have become the modern serial. In the past, comics were seen as the domain of children and their stories were seen as having little consequence. That has changed as audiences have aged and demanded stories that still provide the visual flair of comics but deliver a story worthy of an adult reader.

A particular comic I’ve started to read is The Walking Dead. AMC has recently started a TV series based on it. The Walking Dead is about a group of people trying to survive in a world over-run with zombies. While the setup sounds cliche, the execution of the book is anything but. Sure, there is action, but much of it has little to do with the zombies themselves. In fact, the zombies are just a minor obstacle to the greater threat, which is other survivors. There’s tense character development, conflict in relationships, interesting back stories. Essentially, everything a great novel has. And each issue has a development arc that leaves you waiting anxiously for  the next issue. It’s fabulous.

As much as reading novels has always been inspiring to me, I had forgotten how much comics had engaged me as a child and powered my imagination. Getting back to comics makes me feel like some of the batteries are getting recharged.

When Good Guys Become Evil, Then Good, Then Evil, Then… Wha?

I’m in my mid-thirties. When I grew up, there was only one Star Wars trilogy. We followed Luke Skywalker and company as they sought to rid the galaxy of the evil empire. Our heroes remained heroes until the last rolling credits. Only one villain, the fearsome Darth Vader, found redemption. By this point, we all knew Darth was really Luke’s father and that at some point he had been a hero. So having him find redemption gave a sweet bookend to a beloved trilogy of movies.

Twenty-two years later, George Lucas decided to let us all see what happened to poor Anakin.

For those of us old enough to have been around the first time, it was a chance to see what the fall of Anakin Skywalker was all about, and to see the fabled Clone Wars. We knew and understood what we were watching.

For those younger, new, fans, they watched the movies from episode one to six, and understood the story as that of Anakin and his children.

Now my six year old son is a fan of the animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Anakin, clone troopers and Chancellor Palpatine, he sees them as the “good guys”. Trying to explain to him that these soldiers who fight and die so valiantly next to the jedi will, upon a single command, turn around and murder all of them, is tough. Every time the topic comes up, I can see injury in his eyes to think that the heroic Anakin will become a monster.

I wonder if George Lucas thought about that. I wonder if he considered even for a moment how he would injure young fans by creating a series like Clone Wars. I wonder if he thought what kind of position he would put parents into by having love be the thing that drove Anakin to the dark side.

When I was a kid, Star Wars was a sci-fi fairytale. The good guys stayed good. I’m not against the anti-hero. I’m not against a hero who falls and then finds redemption. But introducing series after series that features villains, then the villains before they were villains, who then become villains, who are then heroes again, is confusing for adults, let alone six year old kids.

So why am I rambling? Because stories should have a logical order. There is a danger in prequels. There is a danger in prequels, then doing prequels to the ending of the prequels. An audience can be alienated, especially if the differing stories are aimed at different demographics.

Burning Books Is Never A Good Thing

When I started this blog, I never thought I’d be writing anything that might be seen as a political diatribe. Yet, here I am.

So the story, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that a small Christian parish in Florida intended to burn copies of the Q’uran in order to mark the anniversary of September 11. Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed and the event has been canceled. But it got me thinking about the idea of burning books.

To me, burning a book is not an act of protest, it is an act of fascism.

Wow, a pretty bold statement.

Simply put, books are not merely symbols, they are ideas. Burning a book isn’t just about saying you don’t like the content or you disagree with policies or actions that a particular group takes, burning a book is about destroying ideas and knowledge.

It doesn’t matter if that book is the Q’uran, the Bible or Harry Potter. This to me is a form of control. By destroying ideas, you deny people the ability to expand their knowledge.  By gaining knowledge, we make informed decisions. When we lack knowledge, we all too often have another person’s message pushed in. Anyone remember what the Nazis did? Oh yeah, they burned books.

This is from Wikipedia;

Fascists believe that a nation is an organic community that requires strong leadership, singular collective identity, and the will and ability to commit violence and wage war in order to keep the nation strong. They claim that culture is created by the collective national society and its state, that cultural ideas are what give individuals identity, and thus they reject individualism

Reject individualism? Singular collective identity? How could such a world exist if books were allowed? OK, one book would be allowed, the book that supported the ideas of the fascists. But numerous books? Books that contained contrary ideas? Books that encouraged free thinking and individual spirit? Such things would have to be destroyed.

Books are precious. They give us insight, understanding, and sometimes even entertain. To burn such a thing seems a horrible act, religious text or not.

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book…

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 – 1969)

Who do I want to be when I grow up?

First off, a little thanks to those of you who have stayed subscribed & have been coming by to check the site.  I know I’ve been pretty quiet this summer, but school’s return will allow me far more time for the writing bug, so I will be here more frequently.

Now, for the actual purpose of this post.

I was logged into Facebook the other night, playing my favourite time-killer, Bejewelled Blitz.  I noticed they had added a new feature, which were badges you earned.  The way to earn a badge was to play the game & add your score to your running total.  As you achieved certain totals, you leveled up.  I admit it, this was insanely addictive to an old-school RPG fan such as myself.  Something about pushing to new levels, achieving new accolades, it just had me hooked.  And why?  I didn’t get anything for it other than a shiny bade graphic next to my name.  As the volume of hours I had wasted on this effort dawned on me, I started thinking that there was a blog post in the experience.  It wasn’t until tonight that I realised what that was.

Bear with me, I will get to the point.

The notion of this blog post finally hit me as I sat reading Neil Gaiman’s latest blog entry.  His latest was about attending the read-through of his script for the next season of Doctor Who.  I couldn’t repress this gleeful thought that maybe, one day, that could be me!  It was then that reality visited me, and I found out what this blog post is about.

Thanks for hanging in there. My point is coming, like next.  You’ve been so very patient.

The point is simply this; It is easy to lose ourselves.

How’d I get there from a video game and some wicked author envy?  I realised how much time I invest in chasing something that is either meaningless, or improbable.  It gave me pause to question my motives for writing The Veil.  It made me ask, “What do I really want from this?”  Because it is so easy to dive into something and lose track of why you did it in the first place.

Why do I play Bejewelled Blitz?  Is it really to pursue medals and meaningless titles?  No.  I do it because I have a little fun, it flexes some minor hand-eye-coordination and it kills time while I clear the clutter from my brain.  Do I need to reach the next level?  Should I forgo working on my novel or spending time with my family just to achieve that next shiny?  No, I shouldn’t.  But it’s so easy to lose sight of that when you slap on the blinders.

Why am I writing The Veil?  Is it because I truly think I’m going to be as big as Neil Gaiman?  Haha, well, maybe that’s one of those childish dreams I can’t let go of, but no, it’s not the true reason I want to write the book.  The true reason goes back to my parents’ basement when I was fourteen and I hammered out over one-hundred pages of a novel.  I did it because I loved it.  I did it because the act of creation was thrilling.  Because after pouring hours into something, it was almost magical to go back and read it and realise that they were all my words.  Truth be told, I still get a little thrill when I read a chapter I’ve finished and I see glimmers of something shiny to be buffed into beauty later.

It’s a universal trait.  We all lose ourselves.  How many books, movies, games, etc. are about failing to realise who we are, falling into a desired crowd, only to discover our true self doesn’t belong there.  It’s so often the topic of coming-of-age type stories.  But what shocked me as I hit my mid-thirties was that I realised nothing changed.  Here I am an adult, and there’s still days I lose myself and look in the mirror wondering who is looking back at me.  Sometimes it’s disheartening.  Sometimes I need to stop and evaluate why I’m doing the things I do.

This isn’t really about writing, it’s more about living.

I suppose when all things boil down, there needs to be realistic and meaningful purposes behind the things we do, or else our end result is shallow.  That’s not what I want for The Veil.  I don’t want something that was written purely for the purpose of trying to make money or finding market success.  I want The Veil to be something I am proud of.  I want it to be a statement of who I am.

Blinders off.  Full steam ahead.

Reading is the greatest teacher

I started reading a book two weeks ago, Justin Cronin’s The Passage.  It’s the first book I’ve read in several months. Unusual for me, as I’ve usually managed to read a book every two weeks for the past couple years.  Truth is, I’ve been too focused on my own words to allow someone else to take up my free time.  I realise now that has been a considerable mistake.

You see the advice everywhere; If you want to be a writer, you need to read.  I’ve taken this to heart in the past, but I don’t think the truth of it has impacted me until this past week.

First off, let me say The Passage is quickly becoming one of my favourite books.  I’m about 200 pages from the end, and the first 500+ pages have been incredible.  It’s been inspiring reading this book, following its twists and turns, watching how relationships have been built and how shifting point of view helps to build the tension and add substance to the world.

Which is exactly what I needed, because The Veil had become stagnant.  I’ve had that little work in progress at a standstill for several weeks; partly due to family things, mainly because I just didn’t feel excited about it.  I wondered how I would fill the pages.  Now I’ve had a number of ideas.  The structure is making more sense to me.  I’ve seen how I can use and develop other characters in a manner that will not only deepen the world I’ve created, but also the story in general.  All because I decided to take a break and read something else.

Learning by doing is often my preferred manner of doing things.  But in this case, learning by having an example is doing wonders.

So if you’re like me, writing but feeling like you’re getting nowhere, watching as pages fill, but being overwhelmed by how many more remain, take a break.  Stop. Read a good book.

Still Alive

It’s been a while since I was last here.  Thanks to all those who’ve hung in there and stayed subscribed.

So far I’ve realised that having my kids home all day, every day, is the fastest way to kill any future I have in writing.  Between keeping them entertained and keeping them from killing each other, I’ve had my hands full.

Also, my wife’s photography career is taking off.  While this is fantastic news for her and our family, I’ve been really focused on helping her out with her web designs, marketing and generally being around as a sounding board.

All this, and we’ve had a recent death in the family.

In short, I’m not getting much writing done, either here on the blog, or on The Veil.  This may be the status quo until school resumes in September.  In the meantime, my mind continues to work away on ideas.  Hopefully sooner than later I’ll have something to show for it.

The Hero’s Journey Part 12 – Return with the Elixir

Now we arrive at the end of the Journey.  There’s a few important things to consider.  The first one is, how is the Hero’s return going to change his ordinary world?  Who needs to be punished and who will find freedom?  What will our hero have learned about himself and the world?  Will the elixir the hero has returned with truly do what he thought it would, or will the outcome be a surprise?

As a writer, a more important consideration, this is where you will part ways with your reader.  What do you want to leave them with?  How do you want them to feel when they close the book?  So much consideration is given to how a book begins.  We agonise over opening paragraphs and first chapters because we want to hook our reader and get them to read on.  But don’t you also want to  ensure they come back for another of your future books?  So you need to give even greater consideration to how everything ends.

There are two major forms to endings, the Cyclical and Open.  I’ll discuss those first, then talk a bit about other pitfalls and things you can do to your ending.

Cyclical Endings

The Hero’s Journey really does reinforce this sort of ending.  If we look at the journey, the hero starts in his world, and in the end, returns to it.  There is a closed cycle of events.  Sometimes this is criticised as being a “too clean” sort of end.  All the loose ends are tied up, the character’s progression is clearly visible and the hero accomplishes precisely what he set out to do.  There’s no real surprises when this one is done.  We usually get exactly what we were looking for.  This is the sort of ending most commonly found in fairy tales and happy Disney movies.

The other point to make here is that this sort of ending will leave very little, if any, room for another tale featuring the same characters.  Ever watched a movie and the end was so final, so tidy, you couldn’t think for a second how anything else even needs to be told?  Yup, that’s a cyclical ending.

Open Endings

This one should be pretty obvious.  The story ends, but there’s wiggle room.  Remember the ending of the original Star Wars: A New Hope?  It felt like the movie was over.  The heroes had won, there was joy, the threat destroyed.  But, we didn’t see the Empire destroyed completely.  In fact, we saw Darth Vader very much alive flying away to safety.  There was closure, but we knew that there was more to be done.

The ultimate pitfall of the open ending; how do you make your reader feel like they’ve reached a satisfying end, yet leave enough loose ends that they are enticed back for more?  As best as I can tell, the threat needs to be so large in part 1, that even if the story doesn’t continue, the reader can see that the hero will still succeed.  Naturally that brings you to the pitfall that future stories will need to be as big, if not bigger, in their threats as part 1.

Surprise Endings

If you’ve set up a certain ending, be very careful if you decide to pull a gotcha and surprise your reader.  While this is not always a bad thing, such as the Sixth Sense, you need to ensure everything that has happened to this point still leaves your surprise possible.  When you go back and watch the Sixth Sense knowing the ending, you realise that everything you thought you saw was a misdirection.  When Bruce Willis’s wife looks at him at the dinner table, she is in reality looking at the man coughing behind him.  Bruce wears various combinations of the clothes he was shot in, etc.  When viewed again, you realise that the truth was staring you in the face but you missed it.  Be careful to ensure the seeds of the surprise get planted along the route.  It’ll make the ending more fulfilling and make you look super clever!

Things To Avoid

Unresolved Subplots

A good story has subplots. Make sure all of these are resolved by the end of your hero’s journey.  I talked about leaving some carrots dangling if you’re writing an open ending, but you need to be very critical ,and careful, about what you leave teasing your audience.  Ask yourself, would I be angry if this subplot didn’t get resolved here and now?  Is this subplot really part of a larger story, or is it something I could, and should, wrap up now?  The items we leave an audience wondering about should make them hunger for more, not think you dropped the ball and forgot to tie a few loose ends up.

Too Many Endings

The end should be the summation of the hero’s major quest.  Subplots should be resolved, for the most part, by now.  Keep your ending simple, clear and to the point.  I recall the movie Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  The way Peter Jackson chose to end that film, with numerous fades that suggested the film was over, only to return for more.  After about the third time, the audience started to groan.  While everything he showed was valid, and in a work so large it seemed fitting to show the end of the many characters, it was done in a way that audiences found tedious.  If you get to a point where the book could be closed with satisfaction, yet you keep writing, chances are you’ve gone too far.

Abrupt Endings

Your hero has been on a long journey.  As people who have become emotionally invested in your hero’s plight, your audience needs some time to bid your characters farewell.  Ending in a manner that seems you couldn’t be bothered to finish the character’s journey will seem ignorant and leave your audience less likely to pick up your next book.

To Sum Up

  • Your hero has returned with the elixir.  What does that mean for the world and the hero?
  • Is your ending cyclical or open? If cyclical, make sure you tie everything up. If open, ensure your open questions don’t make the current journey feel unfinished. They should only suggest future journeys.
  • Consider that this is where you and your reader part ways. How do you want them to feel?  Are there questions you want them to be wondering about?
  • Surprises are great if they make sense in context with the rest of the story.  Pulling a surprise out of thin air will make your reader feel cheated.
  • Your story should end, period. Not end, then end, then end, then end.
  • Allow your reader to say goodbye. Don’t just hang the phone up in their ear.

Thanks for following along.  This is the end of the Hero’s Journey cycle.  There’s still much to be said, but these are the main steps of the journey.  Bear in mind that not every step needs to be included and some steps can be repeated.  This is a tried and true story format that when done properly can create a satisfying tale.  Audiences relate, because so much of the Hero’s Journey is a reflection of life.  It’s one of the greatest reasons we love to see the hero win.