Lots of opportunities for short stories of late! I’m working on them as fast as I can. More in this week’s writing vlog:
Author Archives: natechen
I’ve written about my problems with the storytelling of Rian Johnson in the past. However after observing his career for some time, I’m beginning to believe that there’s a deeper thread running through his work that bears addressing. In the past, Johnson has stated he’d rather have half his audience love a film and half hate it than have a large majority simply like it. In fairness, he has succeeded in becoming quite the controversial director.
This position is merited. But I think the reason underlying that merited controversy is Johnson’s simple, undiluted laziness. On his own, I don’t think Johnson being a lazy director who somehow finds an audience is bad. Art and effort don’t have an entirely linear relationship and, once a certain degree of competence is achieved, even lazy creators can still create work of surprising artistic merit. This is true in every area of life and I don’t think art is an exception.
If Johnson was the only lazy director out there it might not be that big of an issue for movies as a whole although it would be disappointing. However we’re starting to see it with other creators as well. James Gunn and Taiko Waititi are also directors with a great deal of talent, in particular with a gift for striking visuals and excellent editing. As writers they have very little ambition.
Let me make my case using some examples from Johnson’s writing – and be warned there will be spoilers in here. In the movie Knives Out, Johnson builds his entire plot around a character, Marta Cabrera, who’s most notable characteristic is an is her inability to lie. Any time she lies she winds up vomiting. Marta is the caretaker for the aged Harlan Thrombey who winds up dying (indirectly) of an inappropriately administered medication. As his caretaker, Marta is implicated.
By the end of the story the genius detective Blanc has deduced the real killer and corners him into confessing using a gambit that hinges on… Marta lying. This is revealed when Marta barfs all over the killer after he confesses. All this happens in direct contradiction to all the previous instances where we see Marta vomit when she even tries to lie.
Now, I wouldn’t object to this as much if we’d seen Marta practice to overcome her difficulty. However there’s no set up like this at all, in fact it raises the possibility that Marta can lie and everything we’ve heard from her is actually a lie. We were supposed to be able to be confident in Marta’s integrity and the climax completely undercuts it to the point where I’m not sure her entire untruth allergy is a ploy on her part. It destroys Johnson’s narrative.
This happens again in Glass Onion, Johnson’s latest mystery film. A major central character, Andi, is revealed to be dead and the character who’s been called Andi up until the middle of the story turns out to be her twin sister Helen. This doesn’t add new dimension to any of the characters. It doesn’t cast any of their conversations in new lights, it doesn’t create tension since we don’t know Andi is an impostor and it doesn’t give rise to any clever gambits. A little more effort could have made this a twist that improved the story but instead it just undercuts our investment in what we thought we knew.
Finally, in The Last Jedi Johnson sets up the infamous hyperdrive kamikaze scene, where one ship rams another at near lightspeed in spite of the ways that contradicts everything else we’ve seen about the hyperdrive in the past including the previous installment in the franchise, Rogue One, where we see a ship at near lightspeed collide with another and get smashed to rubble without harming the other one. Give the hypderdrive kamikaze it’s due. It’s an impressive visual. It also shows a lack of care for the previous story and a lack of imagination for how he will get to his desired visual. There are may ways he could have achieved this. In fact in said previous film we see ships using ramming in ways suited to the Star Wars universe.
Johnson is supposed to be a genius artiste, setting up common tropes and then subverting them with his clever movie making. However, when he subverts he does it in the laziest way possible. You thought Marta couldn’t lie? Surprise! She can! You thought Andi was one person? Surprise! She was someone else! In fact, in Glass Onion the story is so bad that the characters themselves insult it as moronic. However, hanging a lampshade on your story’s lazily used tropes doesn’t make them okay. It just points out your laziness.
Waititi and Gunn are likewise both artists with their own visions that they seem intent on forcing into any narrative they produce and not making the least concessions to it. Gunn relies on character tropes to replace much of his character development. Waititi shoves jokes into his movies without trying to smooth the transition from narrative to joke or make the joke organically arise from the situation. It’s deeply frustrating, especially as these directors show so much talent in many other areas of their movie making.
Most of all it’s frustrating that people are so content with cheap entertainment. It is great to see people creating at their highest levels but when they only put their passion and effort into a very narrow band of what they make it shows incredible contempt for their creations and their audience. Hopefully one day we’ll all have more care for what we create and consume.
Writing Vlog – 02-08-2023
A few updates, few details available now but projects are starting to unfold.
A Secret Unshared
When Rachel Griffon finds a stone statue of a woman with bird’s wings standing abandoned in a forest she’s perplexed. She’s heard of creatures like women with dragonfly wings. She’s heard of creatures that look like women with wings instead of arms. She cannot think of anything like a woman with bird’s wings growing from her back and that’s particularly unusual for Rachel because she never forgets anything.
This striking and memorable scene is our first clue to the mystery at the heart of Rachel Griffon’s life.
You see, Rachel lives in a world where a powerful society of secret magic users lives alongside normal people, hiding their existence with guile, magic and secrecy. Rachel attends the Roanoke Academy of Sorcerous Arts where – wait! Wait! Come back!
It’s true, the core concept behind L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Rachel Griffon story is pretty well trod ground at this point. However, there’s more to Rachel than a Harry Potter clone. For starters, unlike most of what I read in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Roanoke Academy has a very realistic feel to the social dynamics that swirl through its halls. Rachel spends a fair chunk of her time navigating that social minefield without that side of things getting ridiculous or oppressive, which is a nice touch. While teenage drama is not my cup of tea I think the intended audience will find it engaging and Lamplighter shows how a teenager handles those challenges without endorsing any of the bad behavior that inevitably results from some of these hurdles.
However, Rachel’s story is not primarily a social drama, it’s a hero’s story. While the social battlefield is part of the story it’s not the primary focus, rather the focus is on the mysteries that result in Roanoke becoming a very dangerous place. Rachel has a unique tool for solving these mysteries in her photographic memory. It actually lets her slip out of mind altering spells with shocking ease and makes it very easy for her to remember all the details of her lessons – to say nothing of all the little clues that didn’t mean much at first but eventually all point to the source of whatever problem she’s facing in a particular tale.
However, where Rachel is a very powerful mystery solver she’s not a very powerful wizard. She can’t tackle these problems on her own. She doesn’t have a whole lot of magical muscle to put behind her spells, she’s incredibly tiny so she doesn’t have regular muscle either and she’s a little naive in the way she looks at other people. She has to rely on her friends and family to overcome many of the challenges she faces. For some protagonists that could be an issue. However, Lamplighter takes pains to construct each of her stories in ways that let Rachel play an active role in every stage of the narrative by playing to her strengths.
Rachel has strong morals that often put her in conflict with others who find the occasional compromise acceptable and drive her to right wrongs, whether or not that’s something a young girl should be responsible for. She has a strong sense for deductive reasoning which allows her to leverage her excellent memory. And she has an ability to connect with people quickly that allows her changing social landscape to present opportunities without dragging her along on a railroaded plot. Finally, Rachel has an incredible ability to keep secrets.
Every Rachel Griffon story revolves around some kind of secret or another and Rachel is often the first to figure it out. However she’s not always the first to share it. Rachel finds a special thrill in knowing things others don’t and being able to share those secrets at the moment where they will make the most difference. She knows this is her power. That she’s so proactive in using it and takes such joy in using it to help others is a credit to her, even though sometimes she does misuse it.
You have to understand that in order to understand Lamplighter’s masterstroke. You see, Rachel’s entire story is structured so that we can share this thrill with her because we know something she does not. We know that the stone woman with bird’s wings is an angel. The strange orphan words that seem to have no meaning in Rachel’s world – words like steeple and saint – encompass ideas that mean nothing to Rachel but are commonplace to us. You see, the core mystery in Rachel’s story revolves around something we know that her entire world has forgotten.
For a girl with a perfect memory that’s a terrifying thing to contemplate. She may also be the only one who can remember it again. So she tries to piece together the threads and figure out why someone would hide a piece of history away, why strange creatures like the one called Moloch are forcing their way into the world by violence and deceit and why a lion and a raven were arguing in her bedroom one night. She doesn’t even realize that conversation is one of the most important clues she has. But we know.
We know that Rachel’s world has forgotten Christ and His Church. But a secret on that scale cannot be kept for long.
Rachel’s entire story gives us a chance to keep a secret until the moment she’s ready for it. So far, she hasn’t reached that point but the ride to this point has been wild. I can’t wait until we reach the moment when it’s all revealed.
A Double Edged Story
The power of story to uplift often necessitates we first confront the darkest parts of the world, whether the real world we live in or a world that only exists in fiction. Depicting the darkness of the world is very difficult. It’s difficult for a number of reasons. You have to learn about the darkness, which is decidedly unpleasant, you have to depict the darkness without running off your audience and you have to expose the darkness without reveling in it. Beyond that there’s one final problem.
There may be nothing to learn from passing through the darkness.
Last year I was told that if I really wanted to understand scifi fandom in general and the Science Fiction Writer’s of America specifically then I needed to read a book called The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon by Moira Greyland. I had never been that interested in the SFWA and fandom has always struck me as a tad… obsessive. But I do enjoy scifi and I was given to understand Greyland had unique insights into what made some of the biggest scifi writers of the last generation tick. So I decided to check out the book by reading Amazon’s free sample.
Let me start at the end: I can’t recommend this book to anyone outside a very select group of people. Greyland has survived some of the darkest things I have ever heard. Her survival in and of itself would be a superhuman feat, the fact that she lives a wholesome life, creates beautiful music and has forgiven those who tormented her is truly, genuinely inspiring, a testament to the grace of God to redeem even the worst of circumstances. Many who have endured similar things say reading her book has helped them.
I believe this to be true, because I am in no place to contradict it. In fact, that testimony meshes well with what I’ve observed of human nature myself.
That said, I don’t know as The Last Closet has anything to offer anyone else who reads it. Those are my thoughts on the book broadly speaking and, before I delve into my reasoning deeper, let me give you a chance to jump off this ride here, dear reader. Greyland’s story is disturbing even removed by several layers of discussion. If you don’t wish to delve into very disturbing topics, now is the time to get off this ride.
Moira Greyland was the daughter of Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Breen was an early participant in scifi fandom, contributing to many fan magazines and appearing at many scifi conventions in the early years of these events, long before TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica put the genre out for the general public. Bradley was an award winning fantasy writer – fantasy and science fiction have long been related genres and there was less of a barrier between them in the past – who published dozens of novels including The Mists of Avalon, which is her most famous work.
Breen was also a convicted child molester. His wife was aware of and covered up for his crimes, facts she testified to during Breen’s trial. If Greyland’s testimony is to be believed – and I see no reason it shouldn’t be – Bradley was also a child molester. Neither parent spared their own children their predations. The Last Closet is a complete accounting of their crimes, as far as Greyland can recall them and supported, as much as possible, from the public record.
To the extent I can praise the book, I find Greyland’s work in sourcing letters, articles and court transcripts to supplement her own narrative quite impressive. It speaks to her strong desire to be as fair as possible. I am also staggered by what reads as real, genuine pity and compassion that the author has for her subjects. Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley both suffered terrible childhoods and, as is so often the case, were themselves victims of the horrors they visited on others. These events doubtless warped their outlooks and poisoned their attitudes.
The prose of the book is very readable. In fact it feels very much like blog writing, a very folksy, easy to read kind of writing that blunts some of the force of the things it describes. Greyland does run a blog and her experience with this kind of accessible prose shows. She intermixes the factual narrative with pieces of poetry she has written over the years to help her process her trauma. These pieces are, frankly, terrifying. As someone who has never come close to the level of trauma Greyland has experienced, reading those verses felt a bit like walking over cracked ice, wondering if I was about to slip through into the trauma beneath.
As I said before, Greyland survived her childhood. Amazingly she even managed to live out her own dreams – she got married, had children and is a professional harpist with several albums of music available. She has forgiven her parents. Yet I cannot recommend anyone, outside her fellow abuse survivors, deliberately read her book.
Listen. The world is often a horrible, depraved place. Although it is rarer than it should be, people do survive the depravity of the world and bear witness to the goodness of God and the potential we all have to survive the worst circumstances. I have never doubted any of these things.
I wish that I could say Greyland’s story shocked me. Whether it is because I am cynical, jaded or just too aware of what my own sinful nature could do if unchecked, I have to say it did not. I always knew these things were happening somewhere. What it did do was sadden me and enrage me. Having read The Last Closet I now know a whole series of things about scifi conventions and the people who run them that only serves to stoke empty anger and grief. There is some consolation in knowing the victim has overcome these things.
However, I was not a victim of Greyland’s suffering. I have no one to forgive and only one lesson to take away from the story: Some things are beyond my control.
So I cannot recommend this book to most people. I wouldn’t even suggest reading the free sample – the story has that captivating quality of many horror stories that makes it difficult to look away once you’ve begun. It will leave you with very little deeper understanding of human nature, unless you are one of those who believes we are fundamentally good, and will leave a great deal of emotional baggage you’ve picked up quite vicariously. I’m almost certain that’s an unhealthy trade.
All that said, I also cannot suggest you avoid this book. In her introduction, Greyland states that she thinks one of the biggest benefits of her book is that it overcomes denial. It helped her make peace with what happened to her in part through her admitting it had happened. In the detailed recounting she stripped off some of the varnish she’d put over the ugliest memories. Abuse survivors also found it helped them admit the truth of their experiences.
One reason Breen and Bradley got away with their predatory behavior for so long was that so many people were in denial about it. I do not believe in widespread conspiracies to silence victims. I do believe that widespread abuse can be met with equally widespread denial that makes dealing with the abuse impossible. It is possible that The Last Closet can become a sword that helps people clear away denial that stands in their way. It may be that some will need to read it to convince themselves.
And some people will have to read it just so they know that the resource exists and how it can best be used.
So in the end, I find myself in a very strange situation. I can’t really recommend Greyland’s book but I also can’t say you won’t find a use for it if you do read it. So, for perhaps the second or third time in my years of blogging, I must simply place these facts about the book before you, dear reader, and leave them for you to make up your own mind.
Writing Vlog – 01/25/2023
A short examination of outlines, folk songs and found documents.
Story has the power to inspire, to enlighten and to persist in our minds far longer than simple learning. For these reasons many ancient cultures considered storytelling to verge on magic. Storytelling has kept all of that power through the ages and, even now, it endures as one of the most fundamental pillars that make humanity truly human. At it’s most simple, story is what points us to our highest potential and our deepest depravity.
As an author I am generally drawn to the inspiring side of storytelling. However as I have struggled to craft the most inspiring stories I can I have come to appreciate the importance of contrast in that undertaking. While a gross oversimplification, the idea that heroes are defined by their villains is a straightforward example of the utility of contrast in sketching a story or characters. However contrast is not limited to functioning in scenarios about good and evil.
You can contrast people’s goals, people’s actions and people’s reactions. The last is generally not something I think about – one of the hazards of “writer’s brain” is to think about your stories through a single lens. My preferred lenses are actions and goals. The ways different characters react in different ways to the same stimulus is not something I often think about and when I do it is as a matter of world building or as a subset of the character’s goals, rather than as a genuine intent to examine a character’s inner life. This happens in my writing, of course, but it’s rarely intentional.
The best stories need to be incredibly intentional.
I only started to think about reactions intentionally during the writing of my last project, The Gospel According to Earth. During this story I needed to show Lang, a returning protagonist, as he reacted to the death of another character. That brought me to the topic of today’s post – shame. (Yes, we are just now reaching the thesis statement.) You see, I wanted to end Lang’s story on a high note but I worried that I couldn’t get him there without a contrasting low note.
The general approach to creating a low note is failure. Your protagonist fails at something and then has to suffer the consequences and build themselves back up. That’s fine. However, a common error in approaching the building up phase of the story is to show actions that build the character’s situation up but not the introspection that repairs the character’s mind. I am guilty of this failure myself on many occasions, not the least of which was my treatment of Lang in Schrodinger’s Book. I decided to try and rectify it in Gospel by showing how Lang struggled with his new responsibilities after being promoted, as he would naturally feel his failures of responsibility directly led to the loss of his allies in the previous installment.
In writing these things out I was forced to examine how I process shame. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. And I do have a lot of shame to process, after all, I’m a writer with a good education in that field, ten years of work and very little in the way of audience or fiscal success to show for it. That’s just the state of my shameful professional career, before assessing all my personal shame on top of it!
Nor do I always process things in healthy fashion, in fact based on my own introspection I’ve realized I tend to offload my own sense of shame onto other things that are easier to ignore. This gave rise to Lang’s sudden onset thalassophobia. It also resulted in the roundabout boxing that Lang has with Priss on several occasions – it turns out shame is a thing that is hard to recognize in yourself and is probably best dealt with at a certain remove. Dealing realistically with these things is rarely direct.
Confronting shame in fiction is usually handled by trying to lift a person up out of it. I didn’t want to do that because I have found all the attempts to haul me out of my own shame – whether I recognized them or not – offensive. That’s in no small part because, on some level, I recognize my shame as rooted in something real. I’d rather deal with that real problem than have my injured feelings addressed. Hence my decision to have Priss push Lang towards active decisions, taking steps towards concrete, attainable goals rather than focusing on his very real but unchangeable failures.
My hope was to write a story where we could see Lang cementing his character growth and leaning in to growth and meaningful achievement while still acknowledging that he was hurt by the things that happened to him. I’m not sure I entirely succeeded on that front but it was an instructive exercise. My hope is to develop these storytelling techniques in further writings and develop clearer uses of shame as both a motivation and a contrasting low point against potential high points.
Writing shame proved to be a worthwhile endeavor, even if it doesn’t land as hoped and even if I didn’t enjoy the process of putting all this together. Writing isn’t the hardest job on Earth but its uncomfortable hurdles are unique. Turning away from them is a great way to ensure that your writing stagnates and fails to reach its full potential. Don’t be afraid of your shame, or any other unpleasant emotion you may need to explore.
Weekly Writing Vlog – 01-19-2023
I’m writing again, and working on my next major fiction project. Details in this week’s vlog:
The Gospel According to Earth – Afterwords
Well, it’s done.
Early in writing The Gospel According to Earth I had to confront the fact that there wasn’t really an ending to the story about Earth putting an end to evil government. The unfortunate reality is, mankind isn’t inherently good. I know that’s not an evaluation that’s particularly popular today but it’s a foundational part of my way of thinking and I don’t really believe we’ve ever completely pulled away from being a savage society where the powerful abuse the weak however they wish. We got further from that than ever before in the United States, I think. Even in this day and age it’s still a global problem, though, and as I worked to game it out in my head I realized that the future Earth at the heart of the Triad World novels would reform itself to an extent only to boomerang right back to depravity once again. Trying to sketch out a path for the Triad Worlds to build a new, utopian Earth was, therefore, foolish.
So I decided not to. That really wasn’t what I wanted to do when I started The Gospel According to Earth anyway. My purpose was to show the mindset that led UNIGOV to try rewriting the entirety of human history and why, totalitarian impulses or no, it is fundamentally wrong. Hopefully in the pages of the story you have just read I have succeeded. Since the Triad World novels are intended to be grounded in reality, rather than an exercise in the kind of unbridled idealism that some of the major scifi franchises they draw inspiration from, I chose not to close the loop on all the characters the story introduces.
In particular, I never gave the ‘great men of history’ the story introduces specific arcs or defined ending points. While I got to know and like Admiral Carrington and Captain Gyle I never intended to leave them on a specific note. They were just ships passing us in the night. I was far more interested in the lowly characters in the Fleet when writing and I particularly wanted to bring a solid ending point to Corpral Langley by the end of this story.
This was a bit of a challenge, since I felt I left him in a good place at the end of Schrodinger’s Book. In fact, that was a major part of why I chose not to reuse him or Aubrey as viewpoint characters in Martian Scriptures, along with my desire to see another part of the fleet. By the same token, this is also why I didn’t reintroduce Volk Fyodorovich in The Gospel According to Earth. Lang had to be the story’s touchstone character and I think he managed it well. I hope you’ve found following him as interesting as I have.
With a number of new viewpoint characters and an entirely new thematic through-line to keep track of, The Gospel According to Earth was a challenge to outline and write. The necessity of finding a good place to leave the story was also difficult. I don’t think I’d be a great intrigue writer so I chose not to go too deep into the wrangling needed to drag a peace treaty out of UNIGOV. Instead I ultimately chose to stop on the cusp of that new challenge and leave the rest of the details to your imaginations.
In the end I wanted the Triad World novels to concern themselves with questions of how we will govern ourselves, what we will trust in and how we can know if that trust is misplaced. I’m sure I’ve only marginally achieved those goals. Still, I had an enjoyable time writing these stories and I hope you’ve equally enjoyed reading them.
Now my typical structure at this juncture would be taking a week off. But, as you may have noticed, I just took my usual Christmas break and tacked an extra week on there before posting this! Therefore my next series of essays on writing will begin next week. I have a lot to say on any number of subjects, so strap in! This will be different.
Writing Vlog – 01-11-2023
A quick look at what I’m doing right now for the first normal vlog of the year.