Friday, February 9, 2018

Writers are Dancing Monkeys

While pushing buttons for a theatre show's lighting, I had the pleasure of being seated right next to the director. In most occasions, the director is not in the tech booth, some shows the director not even being allowed in the theatre after opening night. But in this case, we couldn't find a sound tech (re: button pusher), and so I had to endure his presence all seven shows.

"Don't do anything else!" he demanded when I tried to write. (Button pushing is one of the great ways of making money while writing.) "Don't do anything else!" he insisted when I did a few mild exercises.

The show had probably less than 20 cues, at fairly obvious points as well. I'd been the stage manager, to all rehearsals too, so I could have preformed the damn thing if asked. Finally, I turned to him and said, "Look, a monkey could do my job. And the only reason we don't have a monkey doing my job is that he'd cost more."

At least if I only had to have cymbals and a fez, my life would be easier.

Over the last two years I've been struggling with getting people to respond and care about my work. While in New York, I called up an old friend and ranted (cried) to her about how I couldn't figure out to give my writing more punch. "Well," she said, "when you figure that out, let the rest of us know."

It was a sort of turning point for me. For some reason, in the back of my mind, though I denied it logically, I suppose I still believe in the "extraordinary" versus "ordinary" birthright. That I was having such a hard time getting anyone to give me a second look said that I was trying to be something I wasn't.

But the truth is that everyone struggles with getting and keeping attention, even successful writers who have been getting contracts for years. Marketing and pitching are totally separate jobs from storytelling.

I often look at other writer's websites to inspire me, and as of late, I've been feeling jealous of the visuals and ambiance their stories seem to create. I wonder at the typical ugliness of adult fantasy books while fawn over the colors and imagery in young adult books. I want to create a world filled with iconic locations, names, and characters, I want a distinctive style that causes curiosity in those who see it.

Over the months, I've been examining my "blind spots" and the general areas I gloss over that possibly diminishes the impact of my work. Something I've argued previously is that fantasy and science fiction intrigues people because of the possibilities, but you can't build a story on setting. I was somewhat wrong in what I was saying; yes, it doesn't make a story in itself, but the stories with the greatest impact have these unique interesting "visuals" that lure you in. In a debate with another author, I said that speculative fiction has to be hybrid by nature. Most genres play on an inherent reader motive - mystery seeks answers, romance seeks the reward of love, thrillers the reward of justice, literary the reward of achievement, but sci-fi/fantasy, well, all fantasy is mixed with another genre in that world building isn't a reward in itself. She asked, "What about exploration?"

Nope, I said. Exploration isn't motivating enough. And I stand by it, in that fantasy books with only world building and no conflict aren't really stories. But, she was right in a way. The best fantasy novels allow the reader to explore a new culture, new rules, and things they'd never otherwise see.

I knew action and mortal stakes were something I glossed over, not being too interested in reading about them myself, but when I started to realize that I was pushing the background far too into the background, it cleared my mind about some of the concerns. My characters tend to be "normal," civilians without many powers, the worlds they travel clear in my mind, but not challenging my imagination. Higher stakes, yes, but stranger creatures too, and while I don't like writing about extraordinary people with overt responsibilities, writing constantly about the powerless has strapped me in.

My artwork was really frustrating me as well. There are creations that I am truly proud of, but my style was more or less hit or miss. They often required direct photographs for me to achieve the affect - I had to find "models" that looked exactly like I wanted, which sometimes felt like it wasn't my idea, or my characters. Rasmus and Kaia from The Stories of the Wyrd always looked different because their image was drawn off of different models.

I wanted something with consistency, and characters with more life to them than what the average model pose had to offer.

I spent a long time examining covers and artwork that inspired me. I have a general vision of what I'm going for, but execution is different matter.

Yesterday, I think I came across a general idea. I wanted a watercolor sketch, one that looked like it belonged in an adventurer's journal. And while this portrait of Kaia did not quite get there, I like the aesthetics. After creating an idea first, I used multiple photographs to get specific parts of the character correct. A nose model, an eye model, a hair model, a clothing model. Though a peasant who originally wore simple clothing, I realized that putting in more details (and giving Kaia a more recognizable green cloak) would help with both my cultural and artistic blind spots. This portrait looks more like the Kaia I envisioned, and gives me a starting point to start having facial continuity in my advertising graphics. I finally felt like I was getting on the right track.

As I researched what would have a great impact on me, something else changed too. Instead of the frustration that I was getting further and further from myself and genuine inspiration, I started to see the process as a challenge. It was real work. At first, it sucked the fun out of creation, and everything seemed to have less heart than before. But now, as I start to round out my skills, exercise those ignored "muscles," I start to become more capable of creating what my imagination wants. It shies from me at times, when I'm most concerned about impact and effectiveness, but then there are moments when I know that I'm on the right path.

Sure, we are dancing monkeys. But that doesn't mean we don't get to choose the dance.

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