Monthly Archives: November 2009

Write Together

I’ve been even more quiet than usual when it comes to my blog and twitter but I have an excellent excuse. I had a brainstorm of an idea – one that helps to make Pan Historia an even better destination for writers as well as one that is helping motivate me to write my own novel. I started a writing group at Pan for those of us who want to move from just writing ongoing collaborative fiction to finally finishing and publishing a novel of our own. This concept does not exclude collaborative projects (I hope to include a version of my zombie novel in this mix one day) but does focus on story structure, discipline, craft, and actually sitting down regularly and making time to write.

For those of you who know me or know me through my blog you’ll be aware of my intention to write a novel and how I have been working on one based on the life of Wyatt Earp for just about forever. Mostly it’s been in the endless research phase with a sort of Mobius strip of trying to work out my new ‘fresh’ angle on this particular subject. When I started the new writing group Write Together at Pan I fully intended to finally write and complete this work. Our group is really fortunate to have a published author of a sort of mentor consultant and the first thing she asked me is “why am I writing this particular story” and I could no longer answer the question. I got some good feedback from my fellow writers and had worked out some possible interesting twists on the Wyatt Earp story and how to tell it in an engaging way, but there was no real purpose for me. I ended up answering that question with “I’ve been researching it? I have a book case full of books on the topic?”

Beep. Not good enough.

So I decided to shelve the project and immediately begun work on another novel idea that had been flitting around my mind for a while. This time I jumped into a genre that I have come to love writing in: horror. I’ve started work on a sort of supernatural thriller set in the 1920’s full of glamorous characters, many of whom are historical, and dark sinister magic. I’m very excited about the story and using all the resources of my novel writing group as well as the many great resources I have found since using twitter and blogging, I have already got a good working synopsis, a stable of interesting rich characters, and the beginning of an outline using a classic story structure. The basic storyline and characters has been something I have been working on for quite a long time on Pan as a collaborative novel, but my focus will be on my own ideas and characters and developing a plot that has not been told in the collaborative forum so it’s all original.

Gratifying the Inner Child

“Little Wyatt, if you want your another piece of your candy from Halloween, you have to clean your room first.”

It’s a common command. Children are taught to delay gratification from the bassinet and stroller and onward to school. Learning self-control and how to defer pleasure is essential to becoming an adult human being capable of making responsible decisions that enhance quality of life and ensure survival. Some of our oldest fables and folk stories demonstrate the same principle from the hard plodding tortoise that knows he cannot rest until the job is done and thus beats the hare at a race, to the three little pigs where the one that knows to do the hard work and build his house out of brick doesn’t end up pork tenderloin for a hungry wolf. Of course it’s hardly kosher these days to scare children with stories of pigs being eaten by wolves is it? And how does Little Red Riding Hood fare?

In fact not only are we less likely to tell children cautionary tales of what happens to the selfish, lazy, greedy, and irresponsible, we, collectively as parents, are less likely to teach our children to be anything but greedy, selfish, lazy, and irresponsible anymore. Out the window went spankings and consequences, and while I’m happy to find an alternative to physical violence as a parental disciplinary option if you can show me a better happier way, I’m terribly loath to go the way I have seen this nation tumble towards. Television sets are baby sitters that teach mass consumption. Lack of public approval for discipling children has either led to screaming harpies that don’t care how they are perceived in public or the greater majority of well-meaning parents that hand that children whatever it is they are crying for as soon as they are crying, just to stop the socially embarrassing moment of a child making a scene in public.

Rewards are handed out as incentives for self-expression rather than self-discipline and we’re all lauding the freedom we experience as our entire nation, as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, grows ever younger and more immature. Our entire financial institution is now centered around the principle of enjoy now, pay later (or at least have someone else bail you out). Don’t defer. Get a credit card. Credit cards getting a bad rap? Well now you can use layaway at some of the major stores just to be sure you can get what you want now and worry about the consequences later. No matter than you’re now paying much more for it than you should be because all the added interest and fees. Can anyone remember far back into the dark ages when you know, if you had no money in your account, your card wouldn’t let you have any, or wow, your check would bounce? Now instead it lets you go on blithely spending and slams you with fees later – because, of course, you gotta have it now. We have all sunk deep and deeper into a quicksand of instant gratification.

Of course it would be easy to say: don’t use credit, save, only buy what you can afford – except that the whole crazy system of instant gratification has had the domino effect of creating massive inflation (yes, I know there are complex issues and myriad causes, but it is one of those causes). How many years would it take to save for a house, when of course when we are young and raising a family is exactly when we need one? Rising health care costs and the wonderful fraud of insurance of course accounts for huge chunk of change making it impossible to get what we need without credit.

Every where you choose to cast your eye in regards to our culture the cult of childish instant gratification has left its indelible print of banality, self-centeredness, and immaturity: music, art, relationships, media, and our economy. Is there a way, I wonder, to reverse that trend or are we doomed like Benjamin Button to fade into black unable to remember our own name?

Retrieving the Wonder of Childlike Eyes

Old advertising posterI recently watched a couple of young boys, probably around seven or eight, explore an area of a garden center unsupervised, and I suspect they also thought themselves alone. I was amused to observe them get excited over some plant specimens (succulents of course, weird and wonderful) as well as become totally distracted and unhinged at the sight of some bug. I smiled to myself as I remembered my same joy of discovery at the amazing world around me, and the same lack of discrimination as to what was worthy of notice and what wasn’t. It was not an unusual thought that came to my mind: how sad is the loss of the wonder of youth. My next thought was a congratulatory one: I’m so glad I haven’t lost my wonder. Only a few minutes later I was proving this point by collecting up some unusual pine cones that looked like old-fashioned cabbage roses and some spiky and strange seed pods, all the while wondering how I could use them in some creative way. I often stop to watch the humming bird feed, or to touch an interesting plant with an unusual texture or scent. While dead heading the cyclamen the other day I snipped a seed pod in half to see what it looked like inside, curious because I had never observed their fruit before.

Of course my musings on the wonder of youth led me to reflect that creative people always seem to retain some of that childlike amazement and curiosity at the world around us. I started to pat myself on the back, but then I had another thought: perhaps it’s not some innate specialness that allows us to retain our senses when others become smoothed to the world around them, like over-used sandpaper. Observe adults with children and you’ll see the smoothing away process in action often. For every parent that is encouraging their offspring in their explorations there are at least two others teaching their children fear and/or indifference. To be honest most parents belong in both categories. We tell our children what is important to pay attention to all the time with every little caution and gesture.

“Dad, what is this pretty flower?”

“I don’t know, it’s just a flower, now do up your shoelaces.”

“Mom, I like this squishy slug.”

“Ugh! Put that down, it’s dirty.”

Or better yet – just ignoring all the observations, questions, and wonder – or even better yet – criticizing, mocking, or laughing at the child for their pleasure at life’s wonders.

One of my personal favorites is misinformation. The largest dissemination of crap information is from parents to their children. It can be minor as in identifying an ape as a monkey, or it can be major as in stating that all people of a certain colored skin or sexual preference are inferior.

Of course I once failed to correct a couple of little boys as they made some wild assumptions: they were identifying some marks on the side of a ship docked in a harbor as being the result of ‘shark bites’. I loved that. That was not misinformation but a sign of the wonderful imagination that all human beings are born with. Seeing some places where the paint was missing from the hull down at the water line their young minds, still not trained to ignore or classify as uninteresting or useless, imagined huge Great Whites with gaping jaws full of sharp and horrifying teeth as the fish leapt up out of the water in a feeding frenzy.

Perhaps if you have found yourself rubbed too smooth to wonder at life any longer, too harried to pass on your own wonder to your kids? I present no answers here, but I hope to have fueled some thought that might lead you down a path of rediscovery, and maybe what you find there, on that yellow brick road, might rub off on your little ones.

Multidimensional Writing Experience

There is a lovely multidimensionality in starting up a new character for a collaborative writing/role play project at Pan Historia that feeds all my creative urges at once, nearly. There are two main roads into a new character: getting an idea for a character and then finding a place for them to dwell; or finding a story you really like and then finding a character to fit in. Creating a new character from scratch is the most creatively demanding because of the added dimensions of home page design. I love kitting out a new page for a new character from finding the right graphics, or creating them from scratch if one has a bit of tech savvy with a graphics program, and then designing a fun informative home page from all the different components.

Home pages are useful. I think of them as character biographies where you can get your decorating urges taken care of and impart something useful about your character in turn. My Wyatt Earp home is both western in theme and includes useful historical quotes about Wyatt from people that actually knew him. My Gabriel Oak home is less about the personality of the character but is very informative about some of my inspiration for the character. Gabriel is an interesting character inspired both from literature and from the movies. Those familiar with Thomas Hardy will recognize the source of the character’s name, and of course the face I use is from the movie version of the novel “Far From the Maddening Crowd”. I’m not a fanboy however and Gabe is his own character. In one earlier incarnation he was an artist with a supernatural angelic side living inside him. When he moved on to a different story he became a drunk, the human mask, of the Archangel Gabriel.

Of course some characters live in many different role play and collaborative stories and one home page can hardly do justice to all their diverse lives. That’s why the profile pages were originally added as a ‘room’ off the main home page. These pages include sections for each novel that a character appears in so that the owner can give a little biographical detail. The beauty of a site like Pan, though, is that with so many interactive features the creativity of the individual takes over and tools are always adapted to the needs of their owners. I don’t try and force people to use Pan the way I anticipated. Instead I’m often adapting Pan to fit in with the needs of the users.

A lot of people reserve their character biographies for the forums of the novels themselves and use the home pages as a place to show off all their awards, prizes, badges, and the little graphical gifts that people make for one another. This is probably a similar approach that many users of MySpace employ, but it’s fun nonetheless. Of course it doesn’t really help me, as a writer, when I click on their home to see more about their character, but usually I can at least some kind of sense from the avatar they have chosen to represent their character. Other people actually write out character sheets. I have never employed one of those. I like to get a general impression, and then let inspiration take its course when I’m writing. If I get too locked down on who I think a character is I find that the work become stifled and creativity shuts down.

I guess I can sum up what I’m trying to say is that using the internet and a web site like Pan Historia allows me and my fellow writers to add layers and dimensions to our writing experience, like creating images and home pages to enhance the experience. The way that any particular writer or role player chooses to implement these tools is often going to be as unique and different as the perspectives we bring to our writing and characters.