Genrely Speaking: Horror

Some people love getting scared, particularly when they know they’re actually totally safe. Full disclosure: I’m not one of them. But this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tackle a genre I’m not a fan of so today I want to look at the modern horror story, something cinema has simply dubbed “horror” though it’s a bit different from traditional ghost stories or scary campfire stories.

Horror relies on tricks of production in setting it’s scenes and drawing readers in much more than most genres. Consider the impact of music in films like Halloween or the eerie claustrophobia of the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project (the original). Edgar Allen Poe, mastery of written horror, achieved a similar restricted and unreliable point of view using first person narrators in most of his famous horror stories.

That said, these flourishes are not the pillars that hold up this aesthetic genre. Rather, those hallmarks are:

  1. A sense of isolation. It’s very hard to feel scared in a group of people. Even strangers provide a sense of camaraderie and empathy for most people that builds confidence and helps you avoid horror. So characters must become isolated from those around them in some way before we can get truly scared for them. Poe’s stories almost never mention characters outside the immediate circumstances. The Evil Dead puts it’s characters in an isolated cabin far from civilization that they wind up stranded in due to circumstances. It Follows achieves isolation by making it’s monster visible only to the person it afflicts, leaving the victim alone with the creature even in crowds.
  2. The threat of death. And actual death. Horror requires us to be well and truly scared for the characters in order to work. Death is the most effective threat there is, period. Even horror stories that aren’t chock full of actual death pile death symbolism onto their stories. The unnatural appearance that drives the apprentice to kill his master in The Tell-Tale Heart, the way the girl’s head spins entirely around in The Exorcist, the deaths of the crew in Alien, all of these make it clear to us that the stakes are real.
  3. The unknown. Things we understand are not as scary as those we don’t. Consider the contrast between Alien and Aliens. At first Ripley and company didn’t know what a xenomorph was, what would work against them and what wouldn’t. When Ripley killed the alien and escaped only to face xenomorphs again in a new context the xenomorphs are not presented in the same way as before. While Aliens is certainly a thriller it’s not a horror story like Alien is because the weird biology and full shape of the aliens are known to Ripley and us, the mystery that’s half the horror is gone. This is why so many horror stories have supernatural monsters in them – these creatures can operate by their own rules, rules the audience won’t know until the story tells them, keeping us jumping as we try and figure out what is going to happen next.

What are the weaknesses of the horror genre? The biggest weakness of horror is that it’s grown very trope reliant and characters often make decisions purely because they serve the plot. Going places alone, being dismissive of supernatural forces that have proven their potency and malevolence, these are things that no person with even a passing knowledge of pop culture would do but horror story characters routinely indulge in. This can leave the audience very frustrated with the story and is one of the primary reasons I can’t stand the genre most of the time.

Another weakness is the need to provide the unknown. It’s very easy to wind up with contradictory events that are never explained or previous things known about what characters are facing getting undone just to provide new “mystery” about what’s happening. This is a particular problem in long running horror franchises.

Finally the threat of death hanging over every character means many writers never bother to develop the characters who are dying so their deaths can wind up feeling meaningless and lacking impact. This also makes it easy to pick out who’s going to live just by looking for the well developed character or two. Kind of undercuts the suspense which, in turn, is half of horror.

What are the strengths of the horror genre? As said in the opening, the thrill of something scary happening to someone who’s safe is very powerful. Poe’s horrific stories also provided a glimpse into the worst side of humanity from a place of safety, a benefit I’ve advocated for previously.

Good horror is also a great place to find good examples of narrative tension, story pacing and great villain ascendancies.

Personally I don’t plan on tackling horror in any of my writing and I’ve no desire to dig through the pulpy backlog of “classic” horror. But I’ve read Poe and I do know two things. The best horror has a razor sharp understanding of human nature and refines every step of its tales with the single minded focus of the master craftsman. If those are skills you need examples of you can find them elsewhere but I wouldn’t fault you for seeking them in the horror genre either.

Fail Faster

Time for a postmortem of my latest novella. Normally I’d just write an afterwords and move on but this time there were a lot of issues with Out of Water beyond what I’d normally write about in this space so, instead of doing a standard afterwords, I though I’d write something a little more technical.

“Fail faster” is a common adage in the creative community; whether it be in terms of art or general “design” the notion gets bandied about a lot. In point of fact, one of the few groups of creative people who don’t say it a lot are writers. There’s good reason for that as I now understand. See, the notion is to start doing something, screw it up and then immediately stop, examine what went wrong and start over on a newer, better product. It can be hard to leave your babies behind but iterative work is a big part of improving on craft, whether it be carving, painting or furniture design. The faster you can make something and judge it’s effectiveness the faster you can get started on hammering out the flaws and trying again.

Of course, writers do have fail faster safeties if they want them. That’s why they can outline, for instance. Making character sketches is another tool in this vein. But the ultimate test of writing comes when you set pen to paper or pixels to bytes and start your actual writing. Some flaws in your story just don’t become apparent until you’re writing it.

The writing equivalent of fail faster is kill your babies.

I knew, somewhere around chapter eight, that Out of Water had gone off course. Not just because I was really busy at the time, although that certainly didn’t help. No, there were fundamental problems with the story and how I’d gone about executing it, namely –

  •  I’d tried a new method of outlining. Normally I use the beat outline but I thought I’d experiment this time around and, long story short, the method I’d decided to try out did not match my writing style well and I hadn’t seen problems I probably would have noticed otherwise.
  • There was too much in the story. Again, I might I have noticed it with a better outline but I was trying to tackle a story with too many subplots and characters for the format I was trying to execute in.
  • Speaking of, the novella format was chosen without regard to what the story actually needed. I’ve had a rough outline of what I wanted to happen with Oscar, Herrigan and the whole nation of crusty former prison colonists for years. Tossing the Australians into the mix was something I definitely wanted happening at this point but I didn’t stop to ask myself whether a novella would work for that story – it didn’t – I just set out to write one because I really enjoyed writing The Antisocial Network earlier this year.

As soon as these problems were apparent I should have stopped, posted a quick apology and shifted content to other stuff I’d been wanting to write about. I even considered doing it for a week or so. But I decided to press on and the story truly felt worse as a result.

The fact is I wound up with two stories, one establishing a trio of new Australian characters and just as many new trenchmen, with all the dynamics and tensions that many characters are naturally going to have, and another focusing on Herrigan, Lauren and the question of how a society can draw boundaries without being hypocritical. I’d always thought of Alcatraz as a uniquely libertarian kind of society as a kind of rebellion against its prison roots and I wanted to explore the limits, pros and cons of how such a society might deal with law breakers, especially as compared and contrasted against one more like the modern West.

Unfortunately I don’t think Out of Water was that story.

While it may have been better to terminate Out of Water early and start afresh I did learn the lessons of the story clearly. The new outline format was interesting to experiment with but I won’t be using it going forward. In the future I’ll be especially mindful of how much I bite off for each story and how the format meshes with it. I don’t know if an expanded version of Out of Water is in the works or not, given that a big part of failing faster is moving on quickly to new projects rather than dwelling on those that may not be salvageable. Time will tell… but I would hold my breath.

Tune in next week and we’ll talk about something (or somethings) evil. And no, they’re not vaguely bad thematic puns.

Dear Social Justice – Just Stop

Seven Years in Tibet was a film about a white guy going to an Asian country to find enlightenment. It was supposedly revolutionary and touching, a message about what the East had to offer Western culture in our decadent twilight years (or something). The Last Samurai was pretty much the same movie but with swords and Tom Cruise and it was supposedly a sign of a “problem” where white people go and save people who aren’t white. Apparently wanting to save people isn’t a good instinct in our politically correct climate. Who knew?

Now we have The Great Wall and people have lost it. If you haven’t seen the American Great Wall trailer yet here it is:

I stress this is the American trailer because I’m sure the one they release in China is going to be a fair bit different.  And not just because it’s being released in China but because this film is the result of a collaboration between a Chinese studio and an American one and so there are a couple of big name Chinese stars in this film, along with that other guy, who will probably get top billing in their home market.

Question is, why are people upset? Because it looks silly? Because we learn nothing about the story or plot? No, apparently it’s because of Matt Damon. Not that he got top billing in his home market. He just Doesn’t Belong There. When studios collaborate Social Justice seems to think that means Studio A hands over a huge chunk of cash and a little technical advice and lets Studio B do whatever they want regardless of Studio A’s wants and needs.

Pro Tip: That’s not a collaboration. That’s more like a hostile takeover.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Step back with me and let’s look at the bigger picture.

A lot of people seem to have their knickers twisted over how Damon’s character is just another white man saving a bunch of non-white people. But if you actually watch the trailer instead of stroking out as soon as Matt’s face shows up on screen (and yes, the typical Matt Aflecaprio flavor actor has that effect on me, too, but for different reasons) the truth sounds a lot different. He talks about being a mercenary and fighting wars for money. Fair enough. That happened plenty in the time period the film portrays. What rarely happened was that the mercenary found a war that brought about a spiritual awakening rooted in the justness of the cause. But Damon’s character has found a war worth fighting for.

Again, white guy goes to Asia and has a spiritual awakening. Tale as old as time. (Not necessarily a good tale, mind you. That depends on the execution, but no one’s talking about that, are they?)

Tell me, in that kind of a story line, who exactly is saving who? I’d say it’s the guy who suddenly finds meaning in his life. Is it such a bad thing to have a man go into a totally foreign environment and have his eyes opened? Isn’t that the primary reason so many Social Justice types bang on about going away from home and experiencing other cultures?

I grant you, China doesn’t have the world’s most admirable culture so maybe it’s not the best example for the film to hold up. For one thing, social pressures towards conformity in China is immense (although perhaps not as great as it is a short swim away in Japan). The tendency to fall in line with the culture as a whole may be one reason China produces so few actors who make it on the world stage. Creativity isn’t just undervalued in that kind of culture, it can pose an active threat to the status quo that conforming cultures demand. Of course, creativity can thrive in even the most hostile environment, it’s just rare.

But the glorification of Chinese culture and the Great Wall (the building, not the film) is not at issue here, in spite of the tyrannical culture and horrible slave labor that brought them about. No the average Social Justice stance demands social conformity to ideas about ethnicity, gender and ect, so long as those views are “progressive” so maybe these aspects of Chinese culture is not a negative from the SocJus point of view…

Normally when Social Justice starts hyperventilating about the cultural offense of the week is I look it over and parse whether there is a legitimate gripe at hand. If there is, I ask whether the proposed solution is worthwhile. Have a problem with the way police actions can unfold in our country? Sure, who doesn’t. Want to fix it by rioting in a poor community, stealing a bunch of stuff from said poor people and starting fires in their streets? Not interested in that kind of solution. When I don’t agree with the SocJus solution I try and formulate one of my own and practice it when needed. I have yet to agree with a SocJus solution so I’m not sure what happens in that case.

But if there’s nothing legitimate in their gripes I tend to tune out because I just don’t care. Epics could be written about the extent of my apathy. The lack of significance this little point of casting has on me reaches mythic proportions. In an effort to help you understand how little it means to me I’ve prepared a handy visual guide to my uninterest:

Illustrated Disinterest

The beard is a lie!

Normally I’d lump this Matt Damon mess into category two and just ignore it. That’s what I did with when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the Ghost in the Shell live action movie. (For pity’s sake, the franchise is about transhumanism, the woman can quite literally change between bodies like a pair of pants. What does it matter what her primary body looks like?)  That’s what I did when Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange. But at this point, I’ve had enough.

If you read my blog and Social Justice is your thing we need to have a serious talk. If you can’t tell from my last name I’m of Chinese descent (my father emigrated from Taiwan) and by the weird logic you guys operate under that gives me some kind of authority to speak from. I don’t like that point of view but I understand it’s part of how you think and I’m appealing to it in the hopes you can at least come to have understanding of my point of view.

There are basically three modes of behavior I see from people wrapped up in the Social Justice side of the “whitewashing” frenzy and they serve as pretty good parallels to the movement as a whole. I’m going to address each of these behavior patterns with no snide remarks, no funny pictures, just honest thoughts. They’re harsh. That’s intentional.

I’ve watched SocJus outrage culture snowball over the past few years from something fun to watch, in the manner of a train wreck, to something truly disturbing. I’ve known since my friend Mike Hudson’s pen name put him in the middle of a McCarthy style witch hunt that Chinese people aren’t exempted from the mindset in spite of the remarkable success they’ve had finding a place in American society. (Not surprising, people are people, but still somehow disappointing.) Maybe one man’s two cents make no different to people who can only rave about systems and cultures but those systems and cultures seem to exist mostly in your head and if I can pull you out of there it’s worth a try.

First I want a word with those of you who really, truly feel that they come from a culture of “whiteness” that’s poisoned the world and that they need to feel guilty about it. These are the people that will tell me that just because I’m not offended by Matt Damon being in The Great Wall that doesn’t mean it’s right. That there’s still a horrible wrong here and they have to fix it.

To these people: Your guilt over “whiteness” has driven you to act like the great white savior you claim to hate Matt Damon representing. You are telling me that you, knowing the horrible nature of your whiteness as well as you do, in full knowledge of what I think, are willing to ignore me and do “what’s right”. Again, you are trying to save me from you whether I want it or not. If this isn’t being a white savior I don’t know what is. You literally demand that I sit back and let you handle this situation because I’m too backwards and ignorant to make my own judgement on it.

You hypocrite.

Your guilt has blinded you and made it impossible for you to act in concert with your own beliefs. Why should I respect them? And it’s not healthy to try and carry that, either.

I am here to tell you that your whiteness is not that powerful. Not that horrible. Not even something worth feeling guilty about. Assuming whiteness were even a thing that could be properly measured it’s not a corrupting, racializing force that makes the meeting of China and America on even terms impossible. I know because my mother is American – qualifies for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in fact – so my family is living proof. If the fact that I’m “part white” bothers you, maybe you need to seriously consider whether you understand anything about the behavior of racists at all.

Look, Chinese culture survived three Kung Fu Panda movies and the Great Wall survived two white guys hauling a grand piano and a cello on top of it and remixing said film franchises soundtrack there. I don’t think it’s going to crumble from Matt Damon showing up to shoot a movie.

In short, your whiteness is not a threat to me, you or anyone’s culture anywhere. Please stop feeling guilty about it.

Now as for those of you going around and telling people to be ashamed of their culture? All those critics, editors and other self appointed cultural gatekeepers who have been wringing their hands nonstop over this kind of nonissue for years? Sit. Listen, if your haven’t deafened yourself with your own insistent prattle.

There are only so many kinds of people in the world. The modern trend in politics and culture is to call people like you “authoritarians” in acknowledgement of the way you find a position of authority and then try to bully people into doing whatever you like. However I have a much more specific term for you: Pharisee.

In the New Testament Pharisees tended to have two notable characteristics: 1. They made rules for other people to keep. 2. They preached those rules only to gain status, without any interest in keeping them themselves. In your response to Matt Damon and The Great Wall you’ve complained about what you expect to be a Great White Savior. Then you’ve turned around and posed as the Great White Savior for all of Chinese cinema and pulled all those guilt ridden people who can’t keep all the rules you make into doing the same. And you expect them all to praise you for it.

You hypocrite.

It’s like you vomited, shoved a man’s face into it and expected him to praise you. I see you for what you are. And I hold you in contempt.

Finally, a word for those Asian American actors who have been complaining once again that this was a rare role could have gone to one of them. I know the frustration – I do theater after all! – but let me make a suggestion. Rather than waiting for a project that could use Asian American actors, try starting one yourself. I’d suggest looking at a live action adaptation of Mob Psycho 100. You could play the part of Reigen Arakawa. You’ve already got his signature move down.

Salty

Okay there was one snide remark and funny picture in there. I regret nothing.

A Break!

Hello people! This is a brief post to let you know what’s up right now. Basically, I’m taking this week and next week off because I’ll be in the process of moving.

Originally I’d hoped to only take one week of doing this but the last week I’ve been pretty stressed and haven’t been able to focus much on anything but getting ready to move and therapy drawing (which is a thing where you destress by drawing stuff). Also, leaving the characters (and the reader) quite literally in the dark over what was going on struck me as a great time for a cliffhanger break.

See you in a bit!

A Word for the Ladies

I’ve kind of gotten in the habit if writing something for Valentine’s Day but this year, with the one-post-a-week thing going and the way The Antisocial Network fell out, I wasn’t able to get the post in before the day itself. So what to write about? Especially with a post that will be going up the week after the day itself?

Well, I’ve never written about the traditional stuff so I decided to do something a little more “traditional” this year. So, this year a message for the ladies, with a few suggestions for relationships. This may seem a bit curious coming from a fellow who has never dated and probably never will, but I’ve seen a lot of relationships that failed and a few that worked and I have the advantage of a man’s point of view. Which, let’s face it, women don’t have (even though sometimes they think they do). Now this is not advice for finding a guy nor is it advice for telling if he’s a good match for you or not. This is advice for people who have gotten past these basic steps and are trying to keep a relationship working.

You see, most relationships I’ve seen don’t die out because he was Mister Wrong or because the partners weren’t well matched. They fail… well, for a lot of reasons. While each case has its individual quirks and bad decisions in it there are some broad themes I’ve seen in failed relationships and this year I thought I would share some of them with the womenfolk. Particularly because, while I’ve seen the failings of men addressed in ways I find accurate many places before, I’ve rarely if ever seen the failings of women addressed in ways that jive with what I’ve seen.

Most relationships I’ve seen fail long before they actually fall apart, not because women (or men) were doing something wrong but because they weren’t doing needful things. So what do I think you need to do to keep your relationship healthy?

  1. Learn how your partner communicates. A lot of people who are a lot smarter than me have written about the differences in the ways people communicate, especially the way people communicate affection. The biggest perk of reading about communication styles is your mind is opened to the possibilities. The problem is no one conforms very well to the models I’ve seen put forward. The better way to understanding them is to get to know your gentleman’s family. Friends can do as a substitute in a pinch but family has known him longer and (hopefully) better. Comparing notes with them is probably the fastest way to get to know your beau’s ways of communicating, whether in terms of affection or otherwise.
  2. Expect communication to change over time. One thing that I hear a lot of complaints about is that men stop pursuing women after the relationship has gone on for a while. Sometimes that’s true. But frequently what’s happened is that more general displays of affection have become more personal. Instead of bringing a rose, he cleans out your car. Instead of taking you to dinner he does your taxes. Men try and know the best ways to address specific needs. Sure, all women like roses and dinners but eventually he wants to do something for you specifically so the generic “romantic” ways men show their affection for women tend to get squeezed out over time. If you’re tuning in to the ways your partner communicates affection then hopefully you’ll catch on to these changes quickly. Of course, he needs to be in tune with your communication frequencies as well, so if you’re not feeling the affection it’s okay to talk to him about it. But there needs to be a balance between his style of affection and yours. Furthermore, if the ways you communicate with your partner aren’t changing over time then your relationship is probably in more trouble than otherwise.
  3. Pursue him. This may sound like a silly thing but you’d be amazed how many women I see not doing this. In today’s society it feels like the entire responsibility of showing desire is on men. Men show up with gifts, write notes and take women to dinner and the simple presence and good favor of women is all that they can expect in return. That’s unhealthy. Be invested in your partner. Dig into his goals and ambitions. Show up in his life at unexpected times. Show that you desire him, because that is almost always the thing men question most in a relationship. Again, how you do that is specific to who you’re together with. But if you get points 1 and 2 down this one should follow naturally.
  4. Work together. Don’t settle for just spending time together. Movies and dinners are all fine and good. But working in the yard, in volunteer positions, even in personal businesses is a great way to get to know your partner and build solid bonds. Many relationships can’t manage this kind of thing and may fall apart in the attempt. The intimacy you build is different from what you get from anything else and you don’t always like what you see when you work together with someone. But without that kind of insight your relationship is going to be very shallow and is much more likely to fall apart.

Doing these things is not a magic formula for keeping your relationship together. But they make you active and invested in your relationships and they’re the things I see women in successful relationships doing. They require a lot of effort, a lot of personal investment and it leaves you open to a lot of pain. But if you want the relationship to work then its what needs to happen. At least, that’s my advice for ladies this February. Enjoy!