Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Everybody's Doing It

            Today, while Googling P.D. James to find out about her book Talking About Detective Fiction, I inevitably ended up on the Amazon site. What struck me, after finding the book in question, was the little moveable bar of book covers at the bottom entitled “customers who bought this item also bought”. Here I found dozens of other instructional books about writing detective and thriller novels. And, when you expand the search to writing instruction in general, you open it up into the thousands. The screenwriting section alone is enough to stock a warehouse of shelves.

            This started me thinking about the ubiquitous nature of the how-to genre of books. Why are we so drawn to these books? How many people actually learn something from them? How many people go on to successfully write a novel, screenplay or sit-com, based on the techniques espoused in these volumes? And here’s the biggie: Do they work? Is it just a big scam, or can anyone follow the ABC’s of any given book and become a successful writer?

            As a creative person, I kinda want to believe that not just anyone can do it, but I wonder if that’s true.

Certainly not every person who attempts it is going to make it happen, but there are a lot of obvious reasons for this.

1)    You don’t start.
2)    You don’t finish.
3)    You don’t possess the technical fundamentals required to write coherently.
4)    You lack the imagination and research skills required to create engaging and believable people and environments.

Even beginning an undertaking like writing a novel is challenging. I’m sure there are many who purchase a book on writing who never manage to pick up a pencil or sit down in front of a keyboard. Perhaps they are big dreamers, who buy the how-to book to feed their daydreamy reverie but lack the discipline to hunker down and do the work. Then there are others who are simply too overwhelmed by work, kids, and the many other hurdles and tragedies of life to ever get going.

And, if one does make the start, finding the time, energy and pure stubbornness required to finish the job is no small feat, especially if it is a creative endeavour as large and difficult as writing a novel or screenplay. As someone who has given his life to writing, performing and drawing I have seen many projects through to the end. However, there are many more I’ve attempted that hit dead ends, or petered out, or were simply beyond my abilities at the time.

Finishing something that big is hard, man!

And, for many who finish the job, the result is ineffective because they are trying to lift big, heavy barbells without having gradually developed their muscles. Imagination, research and the technical understanding of language are crucial in the creation of a readable piece of fiction. Like any muscles, they must grow slowly over time, until they expand to the required strength to do the job. You’ve got to know your spelling, grammar, plotting and other rules of the road, and you must have the discipline required to create an engaging, readable whole. No small tasks, these things.

I have many instructional books in my library. I own several on writing and dozens on drawing and painting. Many artists and writers I know have similar books in their collections and many of these books are excellent. I have learned a great deal from reading them, but I have also followed through with the practical exercise and constant creative exploration required to build up my muscles to a pretty good size.

I often hear writers spouting the old saw: “If you don’t have to write, if you aren’t utterly driven and compelled at your very core to write, then just don’t do it.” 

Well, that’s all very dramatic, and makes for a good sound bite in interviews, but I don’t think it’s really true. Personally, I think wanting to write is enough. If you approach it intelligently, diligently and sincerely, and you remain committed, I think most people are capable of writing a good story, doing a good drawing or giving a good performance. They may not become a Hemmingway, Rembrandt, or Nicholson, but they may be able to garner some joy for a job well done, and perhaps even make a living into the bargain.

Greatness Personified
  So, I’m going to cast my vote for the how-to book, with the caveat that one’s dedication to the process must be absolute. If so, the instructional book can start you off quite well and take you pretty far.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Arts and Crafts

Rockwell speaks to me.

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about what elevates something from the pedestrian to the sublime. What is the difference between something that is merely well crafted and entertaining, and something that is ART?

            This is not an area of study that rests easily within the limited space of my diminutive brain-pan.

Picasso does not.
            It doesn’t help that my tastes run more toward the popular and less toward that which is traditionally, or generally, considered art. The truth is, whatever the unique thread of creative logic that lead him there, I will never appreciate the work of Pablo Picasso as much as the work of Norman Rockwell. I will never prefer the writing of Charles Dickens to that of Orson Scott Card.

            I know. What can I say? I’m a rube.

            Don’t get me wrong, I have read, absorbed and even enjoyed much of the work of Dickens, and have come to appreciate, on an intellectual, and visceral level, the paintings of Picasso. But, ultimately they simply don’t engage me in the same way. There are dozens of mitigating factors, of course. Picasso’s style is challenging and Dickens’s writing is a somewhat dated product of its era.

Weak excuses, I suppose.

I certainly value what more esoteric artists have added to the world, but a Frank Frazetta painting or good pulp adventure yarn still engages me more thoroughly.


            Maybe I’m just a farm boy, whose taste is in his mouth.

            Or maybe I’m a simpleton whose taste is in his ass.

            Both assertions might be true.

            However, there is one thing I know for certain. I don’t appreciate anything that doesn’t stem from a deep understanding of the craft. By craft, I mean the nuts and bolts of the medium.

A short history of Picasso's artistic development
displays his early mastery of the craft.
In painting, that’s anatomy, perspective, color, composition, and other fundamentals. In Picasso’s case, he was rigorously trained in these fundamentals, and then made an intellectual and creative choice to eschew those basics. That I can appreciate. Certain other individuals, who have been widely heralded as great artists, lack these skills completely.

That I cannot abide.

This shows no understanding
 of craft whatsoever.

I can see the great skill and craft utilized by comic book artist Dave Stevens as readily as I can see it in the work of Rembrandt, and I can fully appreciate both.

But, Dave transports me away from the mundane, and I guess that’s the key.

Maybe the question is why I need to be transported away. Why do I crave escapism more than intellectual or aesthetic stimulation?

Perhaps it stems from my frustration and disillusionment with the world and my life as it is, or perhaps from an unfulfilled adolescent need for the magical, I don’t know. But whether it’s little “a” art, or big “A” art, you’d better have your craft figured out, or I will dismiss you as unworthy.

And this is where I find myself. Working on my own crafts of writing and drawing, and trying, perhaps in futility, to master and transcend those fundamentals, whatever my subject matter.

Wish me luck.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Trapped Story

About 6 years ago, when I got a new computer, I ran into a bit of an unfortunate situation. The new machine read CD’s and the old one read floppy discs. (Yes, that’s how infrequently I update my computer. And I don’t plan on getting another until this one is so old the plastic turns to dust! Grumble, grouse, gripe. Curmudgeon, curmudgeon, curmudgeon!)

My excellent friend Darryl helped me transfer all the files I thought were important, and I made hard copies of many others prior to retiring my old model Mac. But, as is to be expected, there was one file I failed to transfer or print out. It was a short story, about 75% completed, entitled The Bitter End. It’s a humorous tale set in the near future, about mankind discovering, and meeting, the creator of Earth.

At the time I was occupied with other endeavors. (Like joining Facebook and playing online poker on my new Mac, for instance.) By the time I finally decided to finish writing the story, some 18 months later, I found I had no file or hard copy of the piece. My old computer was still plugged in, (reserved for the occasional contest of the classic shooter game QUAKE), and I was easily able to find the file. Sadly, I had long ago disconnected the printer. Hoping I could still get the thing to print, I dug the it out of mothballs. Unfortunately, I had somehow misplaced a key connective cord. The thing was now useful only as a novelty burglar basher.

My story was trapped like a rat in a limbo of inaccessible pixels!

And so it stayed for four more years until my lovely wife Beth bought a new laptop for her new job. Using her portable computer, I was able to transcribe the unfinished tale to her Word program and e-mail it to myself. I have since finished the tale and plan to submit it for critique at the Moosemeat writer’s group at the soonest possible opportunity.

In the meantime here is a short excerpt, to whet your appetite. I will let you know what the Moosemeat clan had to say about it in the New Year.

Story by Sam Agro. All rights reserved. Steal it and I’ll crush your kneecaps.

The Bitter End
By Sam Agro

God’s name is Irving.
The millennium came and went without a ripple. The much-dreaded Y2K bug was a big bust. Contrary to popular expectation, the groceries got to the store on time, and the water, electricity and television programming continued to flow uninterrupted into everyone’s home. The devout were not taken up into the Lord’s throne room, and the survivalists were left with vast stores of powdered eggs to silently mock them for their misplaced prudence. Ultimately, no one was forced to feast on the roasted eyeballs of their neighbours to stave off starvation.
Well, a few did, but were dealt with in short order by the constabulary.
Life went on.
All in all, everyone was pretty disappointed.
The end of the world, when it finally did arrive some twenty-six years later, came from a completely unexpected place. It did not bring the world of man crashing down in one giant, apocalyptic flash of fire and brimstone, as some had predicted. It merely infected our tender little souls and started a painful and extended process of spiritual putrefaction.
It happened on September 19, 2026.
Several years prior to that fateful date, an industrious group of scientists, delving ever deeper into the mysteries of the human genetic code, finally succeeded in mapping the genome in its entirety. New technologies finally cracked the repetitive centromeres and telomeres, and the job was complete. This breakthrough ushered in the long promised golden age of genetic curatives, which, one by one, eliminated the long-standing ills of the human creature. Even the common cold finally fell to the new technology, causing cocktail party wags to quip; “Now all we need is a cure for the common clod.”
Things were pretty damn good for a while and might have stayed that way if not for Dr. Emmerson Quentin Carstairs.
Carstairs was one of the tertiary decoders of the human genome project, and was an avid puzzle fanatic. One might assume that decoding the human genome would be enigma enough to afford a lifetime’s worth of satisfaction for even the most intent decipherer, but it was not so for Carstairs. His gamester’s instinct hinted that there might be a further mystery lurking beneath the first. He was somehow certain that a greater revelation lay hidden in the twists and turns of the double helix. After the project was completed, his fellow scientists pushed forward to put their new information into practical use. Instead of following their lead, Carstairs secluded himself away with several powerful, top-of-the-line organic computers and sought to scratch his nagging intellectual intuition.
He ran the genome information backward and forward. He chopped up the data into tiny bits and rearranged it in every conceivable combination. He considered the problem from all imaginable viewpoints, in an obsessive attempt to find the elusive hidden message he sensed lurking in the myriad compartments of our genetic code. His former colleagues first teased, then scoffed, then worried, then finally abandoned their increasingly obsessive, and increasingly un-showered, peer.
But damn it, he was right.
The specifics of Quentin’s discovery are pretty complex, but as it was explained to me this is what he finally did. He transposed the data found in our DNA into a series of tiny, parallel bursts of light. He then projected the information through a controlled series of prismatic computer simulations. The simulations resolved the light bursts into a designer’s label of sorts. There, in impressive, multicoloured holographics was the complete history of our genetic engineering and, startlingly, the personal signature of our creator.
God’s name is Irving.
Irving’s name was later found in the subatomic codes of everything on earth. He had designed the flora, the fauna, the very rock, dust and oxygen that surrounded us. It was all the handiwork of the great and powerful Irving.
The ultimate truth of our existence had been laid bare. The earth and all it’s creatures were prefabricated. An astounding series of experimental organic constructs. In fact, all the planets in our solar system, and possibly beyond, were further installments in what appeared to be a vast, intergalactic science fair.
An atomic check of our cache of moon rocks quickly confirmed that they were the design of some guy named Aldo.
Once Carstairs’s discovery had been confirmed several things happened right away.
The religious immediately turned their backs on the church. Pagans and atheists rushed in confused desperation back into the chapels, cathedrals and synagogues. Conformists became wild, crazy and unpredictable, while the idiosyncratic lost all sense of self. The noble were reduced to the common and the indigent got downright cocky. The racist became impotent and the elitist became possessed of a newfound generosity.
Wars ended and wars began.
Whole countries dissolved out of sheer apathy.
World governments tried to maintain the status quo, of course, and ultimately found it to be all too sickeningly easy. The post revelation backlash died out after four or five years and, in the final analysis, things didn’t really change all that much.
But, something had happened to our sense of self-esteem. Knowing that our beloved Earth was merely a giant petri dish, created for some otherworldly show and tell, then left fallow by its creator, wounded us. Our sense of specialness had taken a shallow cut to the jugular and we were slowly losing our life’s blood from the wound.
Sure, people still went to work, still bitched about taxes, still watched YouTube and ate pizza, but our hearts were no longer in it. As a race we were winding down. Slowly falling into a bleak hopelessness. Reproduction was at an all time low.
Oh Irving, why hast thou forsaken us?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Historical Document #1

A tale I created for Mark Innes's
graphic story collection

For me, words and pictures have always been a team.

            The first thing I did the moment after I learned my letters was read a story, the second thing I did was write a story of my own, and the third thing I did was add pictures to my prose. I created spot illustrations for my stories at first, but after I discovered the wonders of the comic book, I immediately began telling my tales in sequential arts form. 

            My addiction to film and television was forming at the same time. There was a TV show about a boy and his horse called Fury, to which I took an immediate shine. I loved the show, but it was never enough for me, and I created pages upon pages of my own comic book stories featuring Joey Newton and his noble steed. Each page lovingly crafted on multi-coloured sheets of newsprint from a big pad with cartoon faces on the front.

In the beginning, I was certain I would grow up to be a writer. This was primarily due to an enterprising mother who had me reading from grade school primers long before my entry into the hallowed halls of education. It was secondarily due to a very encouraging fourth grade teacher in Port Rowan Ontario, one Mrs. Knowles, who once made a big fuss over a story I wrote. In keeping with the western theme of my Fury stories, I fulfilled a short story writing assignment with a little yarn called Jomia the Indian Boy. (Yes, yes, I know, but political correctness had not yet seeped into the culture in 1968.) In the story Jomia is separated from his family on a hunting trip and ends up trekking across the plains to find a whole new tribe to take him in as their own. I’m not certain if I was having issues with my own family on the day I wrote this, but let’s ignore the sub textual probabilities for now.

My teacher was very enthusiastic about the story. She typed it up, along with a few others, and bound them in construction paper covers and neatly printed the titles on the front. (I still have the darn thing and its one of my most coveted treasures.) The stories, and other work by students, were displayed for a parent’s open house at the school. When my Mom and Dad arrived my teacher positively gushed about how much she liked the story.

I really took the affirmation to heart.

I decided right there, at age eight, that I would be a writer. 

However, I rarely wrote a story that didn’t include a drawing, which was my other great passion. Goaded on by a “Draw This Pirate” art school ad in a magazine, I started drawing and never stopped. However, while in senior public school in Tillsonburg Ontario, another teacher made an indelible impression on my life. He passed by my desk one fateful day while I was scribbling out a picture of The Incredible Hulk, and blithely commented; “Hey, that’s not bad, have you ever thought of doing that for a living?” Heck no, I’d never thought of doing that for a living! In that very moment, with the capricious daring of youth, I shifted lanes from writing to drawing as a career path, and continued merrily on my way.

Many encouraging art teachers followed and I never once hesitated in my new direction.

Still, my passions remained the same, and even though I went to College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock to take their exceptional art classes, and later studied classical animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, I never stopped writing. Short stories, ideas for comics, and later a lot of sketch comedy and short plays. I even made a few bucks with it from time to time.

It’s only recently that I’m trying to get back to my prose roots and see if I can really be a writer. If it’s not too late, of course. There are several reasons why I’m doing this now, but I’ll enumerate them at another time. Right now I’m just trying to get back in the groove with some short stories, a few TV and film scripts, and a novel that I’m pounding away on.

In the meantime, enjoy the remaining pages of my story for The Comic Eye.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Two Fisted Critique

I submitted several more chapters of my novel THE EDGE to the Moosemeat writer’s group last night with generally negative results. Again, the pulpy tone seems to put most people off. In fact, it seems to make some members of the group downright angry. Strangely, the member who reads the most pulp-style material seems to be the most negative toward the piece, which I confess perplexes me more than a little bit.

A great deal of the critique time seems to be spent on suggesting that the piece can only be made worthy by pushing further away from, or attempting to transcend the pulpy themes and prose.

I know that most of the members are really trying to urge me toward the best possible result I can attain, and I truly appreciate their time and efforts. However, their help always seems to be subtly predicated on the assumption that the genre itself is fundamentally flawed. That’s tough for me because I simply don’t agree with that position. Several ‘Meaters have made statements along the lines of; “This isn’t the kind of thing I’d ever read on my own.” Hey, I could say the same thing about much of the work I read there from other members, but I usually don’t. 

To be fair, a few members of the group did offer a mostly positive response. I award my eternal gratitude to those fine individuals.

I know that there are fans of this type of material out there, because I’m one of them. I certainly never have any difficulty finding similar stories in the bookstores. Someone must be reading this stuff!

The heartbreaking thing is, when I read my story, I really get a great deal of joy out of it. It would be exactly the sort of thing I’d like reading. I don’t think my book is perfect by any means, but all I’m really trying for is a fun read.

I guess maybe I’m asking for it by aiming that low.

It isn’t that I don’t want to write at the top of my game, and it isn’t that I believe that a more thoughtful or “literary” piece is forever outside my abilities. (Though it may be.) For me, it’s more about taking things in bite-sized chunks. This is my first novel, and I thought my best bet for any kind of success was to choose a style I’m familiar with and enjoy reading. Then find a workable premise and just try and fulfill the basic requirements of the genre.

I wonder; is that a flawed approach?

Must a writer always aim for elegant prose, deep significance and sublime transcendence?

Perhaps they should.

Perhaps by aiming low I doom myself to mediocrity.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Critical Damage

Our Mascot

For me “MOOSEMEAT” is not a novelty burger item gobbled down at a county fair or the unfortunate result of a rural driving mishap.  For me, Moosemeat is my writer’s group. It’s a magical place where writers gather together in a warm, trusting environment twice a month and eviscerate each other, creatively speaking.

(Okay, it’s not that bad, really.)

It is, however, a very formidable and demanding group. Its members are very honest, highly insightful and deeply thoughtful. They vary in their approach to critique, some gentle and encouraging, some passionate and challenging others blunt as the south end of a northbound rhino. Though the members run the gamut of stylistic influences and preferences they are always open to whatever sort of riff you are laying down. Well… mostly.

I confess to feeling a bit hard done by, on occasion, due to my populist approach to the medium. It’s a minor prejudice for most of the members, and one that I’m cantankerous enough to push back against if I’m feeling unfairly slighted. However, having said that, it can hurt sometimes too. (One member once tossed off this little riposte: “You should send this out. Luckily genre stuff doesn’t have to be that great to get published.” Ouch, man… ouch…)

Hey, what can I say? I like pulp and adventure and horror, and all things low culture. For the most part genre stories are what I want to write, and I make no apologies for that. But, in a group as well educated and literary in its tastes as this one, it can sometimes give one the feeling of being the bumpkin relative at the royal dinner. You try not to drink from the finger bowls.

I don’t want to overstate anything here. Being part of this group has done wonders for my writing, mostly by giving me an excuse to get off my ass and do it, already. And most of the criticism is thoughtful, truthful and generous, regardless of the genre. There is a real sense that, whatever your style, everyone wants you to do your very best work. For me that is a wonderful thing indeed.

I’ve sent several stories into the masticating maw of the Moose, and generally the results have leaned toward the negative, but the appraisals have always been very helpful to one degree or another. 

I’m currently doing something really crazy. I’m writing a novel. It’s a genre piece of course, but the response has been pretty positive so far, with some acute reservations here and there. I’ll be discussing some of the responses here, and probably putting up a few of my stories as well.

Stay tuned for the sweet, sweet humiliation. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leap of Faith

I have long resisted the blog.

While there are many great blogs floating around out there in the infinite digital universe, they are difficult to locate amongst the vast oceans of pointless drivel posted by movie stars, housewives, angst-ridden teenagers and CPA’s who live for paintball.

I dread being just another anonymous contributor to the surplus verbiage clogging up the web, desperately trying to be heard amid the overwhelming din.

Because of this, I have resisted the blog.

The very few remarkable blogs I have managed to unearth are usually about something in which I have a deep interest. Television, movies, comics, illustration, and writing are what interest me most. The most compelling blogs, for me at least, are the ones that strive to go beyond mere reporting, youthful fanaticism and glorified journaling. The best blogs attempt to reveal something about the process, its joys and heartaches, and its victories and failures, its techniques and tenets. Achieving that kind of depth is an intimidating challenge.

Because of this too, I have resisted the blog.

It also takes a certain amount of chutzpah. I used to have bottomless barrels of chutzpah, but it has been in alarmingly short supply of late. I have now dipped down to the bottom of the last container, and found the final ounces. This may be my last draught of the cool confidence and bold audacity required for this sort of thing, but I am going to quaff that ultimate chalice of impudent energy and make the attempt.

I do so because I have a lot I want to say about my struggle to become a better writer and illustrator. And, perhaps, about my ultimate failure to reach the pinnacles I strive toward. I want to get that stuff out of my head and on paper, or pixels at least, before I am too old and tired to attempt it. The twin challenge of finding an audience and offering true insights into the creative process must take a back seat to merely organizing my thoughts and recounting the many challenges I face while attempting to do so.

I am launching two companion blogs; FIGHTING WORDS and MOVING PICTURES, I will aim to do the very best job I can manage. Whether people will be able to find my blogs in the glut of cyber-ramblings, and whether they will find the words and pictures there worthy of their time, remains to be seen. I leave that to time and the vagaries of fate. For now this is just about me, and my thoughts. If anything more should come of it, I’ll consider that pure gravy.

For those who are reading this page and those to follow, whether invited here by me or led here by the fates, I hope you will be captivated, enlightened and moved… but I’ll settle for simply entertained.