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?