Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars, Storytelling, and Nostalgia

I may need to recant my previous post about Star Wars. I said that "JJ Abrams Doesn't Understand Star Wars" after having seen the trailer for The Force Awakens. Now that I've seen the movie I need to revise that statement.

First, I promise not to spoil any plot points in the new movie. I will, however, let you know some of my feelings about the movie, which might spoil things for some people. You have been warned.

What I Got Wrong

After seeing the trailer all the way back in May, I was worried that Abrams was going to take Star Wars and make it into any other action movie instead of making a space opera film. He didn't use any of the cheesy wipes and the action was so frenetic as to remind me of a Michael Bay film. 

I'm happy to say that Episode VII felt like a Star Wars film. I only counted a couple of the scene wipes, but they were there, and the action, while fast paced, didn't overwhelm the characters in the way that other action movies tend to do. 

Nostalgia

What Abrams did supremely well, was to evoke nostalgia for the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI). It felt like Star Wars in a way that the prequels (Episodes I-III) never quite did -- fun side note, George Lucas' first wife, Marcia, had an incredible impact on the OrigTrig that was noticeably missing from the prequels.  

There were callbacks, references, inspirations, and direct quotes from the OrigTrig all throughout The Force Awakens (TFA). They brought back several members of the original cast and used the iconic John Williams score to further evoke the feel of Star Wars. 

But, in many ways, it felt as if the nostalgia of the movie was more important than telling a new story. If you have seen both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: Into Darkness, you'll understand what I'm trying to say. Abrams clearly wanted to evoke nostalgia for The Wrath of Khan in Into Darkness and he mostly succeeded. 

And that's the problem. For me there was too much nostalgia. There were too many references. To many ways where the movie was the same thing only slightly different. And yes, I'm talking about both Into Darkness and The Force Awakens

After having seen TFA only once, I can't make a definitive statement, but I can't recall a single scene without at least one reference or nod to the OrigTrig. It may have only been a setting or a line, but it was so prevalent that it began to distract me from the story. 

Storytelling

JJ Abrams is a master at his craft. Period. I can't take anything away from him because I think he accomplished exactly what he set out to do: restart the Star Wars franchise. 

The prequels failed in all of the ways that TFA succeeded. Abrams was able to take the mess left to him by Lucas and reshape it into something that feels like my childhood. It feels like watching Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battle on a catwalk or Han and Chewy fighting Storm Troopers on Hoth or Princess Leia staring down Vader on the Death Star. And that was a great feeling. 

But TFA fails in all of the ways that the prequels succeeded (and yes, the prequels did succeed in many ways). While the prequels were hokey and filled with intolerable or unsympathetic characters, they succeeded in telling a new story rather than rehashing the same old yarn with different characters. But TFA doesn't bring much that's new. We have new characters, but the same dualistic fight. We're 30 years into the future, but nothing in the galaxy seems to have changed. 

In many ways, TFA feels like a reboot rather than a sequel. It feels like the board has been reset so someone else can tell the story that Lucas did in the 70s and 80s. It feels like what Abrams has done to Star Trek is happening to Star Wars. 

Fan vs. Critic

As I have grown and learned more about the craft of story, I've had to develop the skills of a critic. The problem is that I often can't turn off that part of my mind, even when I want to. It is immeasurably helpful to my writing for me to be able to see the beats in a story, to see the structure, the character development, and the plot flow. But it's also a hindrance to my enjoyment. 

As a fan, as best as I can still separate that part of my mind from the critic, I thought TFA was as good as the OrigTrig, and far better than the prequels in so many ways. I will watch it again, I will enjoy it, and I will own it. I'm a sucker for Star Wars and Abrams has done nothing to undermine that. In fact, he has done a lot to restore my faith in the franchise. 

But as an older, wiser, more critical fan, I'm seeing the bones underneath the skin; I'm seeing that Star Wars is more than a story to be told, it's a franchise to be marketed. That was always true of the OrigTrig, I was just too young, too naive, and too much in love with Star Wars to notice or care. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Grandfather was a Racist and I Love Him

I love my grandfather (Jack Wood). He passed away over 20 years ago, but I still remember him fondly. He took me to see the redwoods of California for the first time in my life, he took me on an ATV for the first time in my life, and it was at his house that I first got to watch satellite TV (all 4 channels of it).

But he was also a racist. I'm not talking about the overt, violent, hostile racism that is in the news so much today. To the best of my knowledge he was never involved in anything like that. But I do know that he grew up (born in Missouri) thinking that people who weren't white were somehow less.

So what am I supposed to do with that?

There's a good chance that your grandparents were racist too. Even 50 or 75 years ago most people thought that different skin color meant something about the quality of the person. And I'm not relegating this to only white people (though people of European descent have benefitted most from racial stereotypes in the United States). It was a far different time. People hated each other for the color of their skin.

So, what are we supposed to do with that?

What are we supposed to do with the fact that some of our ancestors owned slaves, others were slaves, and others sold people into slavery? What are we supposed to do with the fact that some of our ancestors were reprehensible people? What are we supposed to do with the fact that we owe no small part of our place in this world to the lives, beliefs, and experiences of our ancestors?

Embrace and critique.

We don't need to ignore our past to recognize that it wasn't always good. I can look at my grandfather and see the good he did in providing for his family, taking me on adventures, and raising his kids. But I don't have to accept his mistakes to love him. I don't have to reject his whole life to critique what he did wrong.

You don't either -- not that you need to love my grandpa, but for your family and your history. And we don't either, for our shared history as Americans. We can call out the great things that have happened in our past -- bringing freedom and democracy, fighting to protect the innocent, working to make the world a better place -- without ignoring the truly bad things our country has done.

I love my country, and I want it to be better. I love my country, and I'm willing to admit that it has struggles. We've been racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and committed genocide. Our nation isn't innocent. But we've also fought for freedom, rights, hope, justice, and equality.

I can both love my country and critique it just like I can love my grandpa despite his flaws and mistakes.

So don't give up on loving your history. Don't give up your past. Don't give up your heritage because it might contain some great or small sins that you're ashamed of. And, don't give up the constant striving to be better. Don't settle for the way things are. Don't stop pushing for equality, freedom, and hope for every person.

You can do both. You can hold both together.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why JJ Abrams Doesn't Understand Star Wars

The trailer for Star Wars VII was played before The Avengers: Age of Ultron, so I saw it (it was the short teaser trailer). So now I have to deal with what I saw, even though I didn't want to.

The Power of Setting

I noticed something almost immediately about the trailer. It didn't feel like Star Wars. It didn't match the tone of the original trilogy. Sure it has better effects. Sure it has a Stormtrooper of color. Sure it has a quillioned lightsaber. But none of those things were the problem. 

The problem has to do with JJ not understanding (or rejecting) the genre of the original trilogy (I'm going to ignore the prequels for this post). 

The setting of a movie is more than just where the characters interact. The setting of a movie is the entire tone of the film. It's the lighting (I hope there aren't all of the lens flares in SW7), the camera angles, and even the wipes between scenes. 

Cheesey Wipes

The heading for this section makes me think of a terrible cleaning product or a terrible food product. But don't let that distract you. A big part of the setting in the original Star Wars was the scene wipes (the transitions from one scene to the next). There were wipes from one side of the screen to the other, from top to bottom, from the middle out, and the clock wipe that might be my favorite. 

It looks a little bit like George Lucas got a new version of PowerPoint and was playing with all the transitions. It looks cheesey. It looks like a Space Opera (which, for the record, is what George was trying to make). 

But when you look at JJ's trailer (which you shouldn't do, unless you're subjected to it before a movie in the theater) you see mostly black screens between the scenes (and a few smash-cuts where there's no transition at all). It's a modern, blockbuster, action-movie style of trailer. It's not Space Opera. It's not Star Wars. 

Why I Care (and Why You Should Care)

I care because I really love Star Wars. I care because I want these movies to be amazing. I care because the tone and genre of the movies has been so much a part of what sets them apart from all the rest of the space-action movies that have existed since 1977. 

I also care because the way in which a story is told is almost as important as the story that's being told. If Schindler's List had been shot in the style of film noir, it wouldn't have had the same impact that it did. If The Princess Bride had been shot with the wide, sweeping vistas of Lawrence of Arabia the film wouldn't have become a classic. 

As I tell stories I try to match the tone to the subject. I've written mythological stories that have an almost biblical tone to the words. I've written action stories that drop jokes and explosions with equal abandon. As I sit down to write each story I think about the tone, the choice of words, the amount and type of description, and even the transition between scenes. 

I think JJ might make great movies, but from the very little I've seen so far, I don't think he's making Space Opera, which is at the heart of Star Wars. 

He doesn't get the tone of the original (or he doesn't care). What we get may be fun, it may have lightsabers and wookies, and it most certainly will have my butt in a seat on opening day. But I don't think it will be the same Space Opera that we all fell in love with nearly forty years ago. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Why I Won't Watch the Star Wars VII Trailer and You Shouldn't Either

Today (April 16, 2015), the second teaser trailer was released for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

I'm not going to watch it. I didn't watch the first one. I won't watch any more that come out.*

Trailer Failure

Trailers ought to exist to help people decide to watch a movie. They ought to entice people to put their money down, sit in a chair, and enjoy a cinematic experience. But what most trailers have become is a hype machine (yes, there's a difference between hype and marketing).

I'll watch trailers for movies that I've never heard of to help me decide if I want to watch them. But I won't watch a movie I've never heard of in a first-run theater. My first-run movies are rare gems. Usually I don't watch more than about 5 per year. I'll watch second-run movies (at the cheap theater for $3) with less knowledge of the film and/or by watching the trailer. The total investment is quite a bit less, so I'm willing to take more of a risk. If the movie isn't interesting enough to get me out of my house, I'll watch it on Netflix or Redbox.

Hype vs. Marketing

Marketing is the age-old (or a couple of centuries old) practice of trying to convince people that they need to spend their disposable income on your product. You don't really need to market essentials. They pretty much sell themselves. You just need to market luxuries (including upgrades to essentials like fancy homes or gourmet food). 

Hype, on the other hand, is the intentional generation of communal emotions. It's the effort to get society to react to something. Marketing wants to motivate individuals to make a purchase. Hype wants to motivate groups to have an emotion. 

Hype is, by definition, irrational and manipulative. It is a snake consuming itself. The hype machine, when it works, creates a frenzy of people dressing up, standing in line for days, and posting frame-by-frame interpretations of a trailer on the internet.

Hype can occur naturally. It happened around the original Star Wars trilogy without massive changes to the movie marketing system. But once the marketers got a taste of the hype, they wanted more of it. They wanted to manufacture it. They wanted to control people's emotions rather than encourage them.

Story vs. Marketing

I tell stories for a living. There is a part of my soul that dreams about one of my stories generating the kind of hype that Star Wars has. But there's another part of me that wants my stories to be free of that kind of pressure. 

The story of the original trilogy was compelling. It connected with people in a powerful way that made them want to tell their friends about it. It painted a vision of a world that people wanted to inhabit. The story, the world, and the characters generated the hype of the original trilogy. The marketing was in making the best possible space opera and telling the most interesting story. 

I won't generate Star-Wars-level hype by manipulating people's emotions or trying to have the most exciting blurb for my next book. I'll generate the hype is my stories are so amazing that people want to live in the world I create. I'll generate hype if I create characters that connect with people in meaningful, compelling ways. 

Enjoy what You Love

I don't think you should watch the trailer for Star Wars VII. Of course, I'm assuming that you've already committed to watching it (I'll be there on opening day). 

Eschewing the hype machine doesn't mean you have to stop loving things. It doesn't mean you have to stop geeking out over your favorite entertainment. It doesn't mean that you have to stop enjoying all of the things that you enjoy. What I'm asking is that you enjoy things because you enjoy them, not because of a hype-machine that is trying to generate group-think. 

Enjoy what you love because it's good. Enjoy it because it makes you happy. Enjoy it because it's creates a compelling world that you want to live in. 

Not because a trailer came out -- eight months before the movie -- trying to make you wet your pants in fan-joy. 

But what do I know, I'm just an author. 



*Note: If I'm in the theater to watch another movie and the trailer comes on I won't close my eyes, I'm just saying that I'm not going to actively pursue watching the trailer. 


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Call to What?

Throughout history we have seen very similar stories. They are the stories of the hero and his/her journey. The basic journey of the hero is a quest. But what actually happens on that quest is the hero is transformed into what they were destined to be.

Arthur becomes a king.
Luke becomes a jedi.
Harry becomes a wizard.
Katniss becomes a revolutionary.

All of those stories start with a call. In writing it's known as the Call to Adventure. Arthur draws Excalibur from the stone. Luke is given his father's lightsaber. Harry is given an invitation to wizard school. Katniss takes the place of her sister.

The underlying presupposition behind all of those calls to adventure is that the nascent hero is passive and must become active. They are being affected by their worlds and they are given a chance to affect their worlds in meaningful ways.

The power of the heroes journey is that we all want to create meaning. We all want to do something purposeful. We all want to stop having the world happen to us and start shaping the world. That's the call. Not necessarily to adventure, but to relevance. To meaning. To purpose.

But what is purpose?

In the past it was useful to prepare children to become adults with stories of battle (for the boys) and being rescued (for the girls). Even if the hearers of those stories were peasants, they still would be called upon to fight (for the boys) and to rely on people fighting (for the girls).

Purpose was survival. Purpose was protecting what was yours from those who wanted to take it from your. Purpose was addressing the lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy.

The purpose for most people in throughout history was to secure safety. The hero's journey led people to protect themselves and those they loved. As a reward, the heroes would get love and belonging. The prince gets the princess and they live happily ever after.

Or, perhaps, they could win respect through achievement as Odysseus did after his journey.

Or, in rare cases, the end could be self-actualization, as in the story of Arthur and Camelot (though that seemed fated to crumble).

As our modern stories issue calls to adventure, they are often stuck in the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy. They focus on people seeking basic survival or safety or freedom. But most of the readers today have all of those things and much more. Most of the readers today struggle with gaining esteem or self-actualization.

So what are stories to do?

Stories can remind us of what we have. Post-apocalyptic tales tell us, in part, how great things are right now and how important it is for us to remember that. Even the smallest change could send us all back to the point where we must kill or be killed just to get enough to eat.

Stories can remind us of what we want. The world of Harry Potter is one where a boy finds belonging, friendship, and respect. He lacked all of those things in the muggle world and gained all of those things in wizard school.

Stories can also remind us of what we need. Luke chose compassion over revenge. He chose selflessness over pride. He chose redemption instead of justice. Despite all of the things that the Empire and Vader had done, Luke offered forgiveness.

Stories can draw us into our own adventures, but they can also leave us mired in past conflicts. As we tell stories and hear them, we need wisdom to know which stories are calling us to the adventure of maturing and which are calling us to the false-adventure of reliving the past.

Which stories have called you forward? Which have been false-adventures?

Note, these thoughts were in response to the Novel Ideas podcast.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nutty Bites Podcast Tonight

Join me on the Nutty Bites podcast (live tonight at 6pm PDT) as we discuss crowdfunding, creative work, and other things awesome.

You can watch here, on YouTube or Google Hangouts.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Like Mind 2: The Serial

If you're like one of the 25 other people who enjoyed my first novel, Like Mind. Then you probably won't be annoyed while reading the sequel, Like Mind 2 (clever title, I know).

I've been posting the chapters of the sequel to my Patreon page, and I'm all the way up to the second chapter (so it's not too late to get all caught up).

If you're curious about what's going on with all of this you can read the interview below.*

Why did you decide to release this story as a serial?

Great question.

Thanks! I thought it was. You're very kind to--

Aren't I supposed to be the one responding here?

Oh, yeah. Sorry.

No problem. Where was I?

Releasing Like Mind 2 as a serial...

Right. I decided to release this story as a serial for a couple reasons. First is that I needed the next project for my Patreon audience. I'm nearly done with the series of short stories inspired by logical fallacies (the collection will be coming out later this year). Second, Like Mind reads a lot like a serial already. It has short, punchy chapters that often end in cliffhangers -- not unlike the traditional serials of old.

You mean like Dickens' David Copperfield? 

Um... sort of. I was more thinking about the later serials, but if you were on the edge of your seat in suspense reading Dickens then I guess it applies.

So... what's with the title?

It's not quite done yet (neither is the cover). So in the meantime I'm just using Like Mind 2 and the doctored cover from the first book as placeholders until I get the new title figured out.

So what's happening with Corey and Anka in the sequel? 

Well, it takes place about a year after the events of the first book. Corey has been working (begrudgingly) for the NSA at a location in Seattle, but Anka was transferred to Helena, Montana.

But weren't they hooking up at the end of the first book?

Yes they were. At the opening of the second book they're trying to figure out how to be in a long-distance relationship while they both work for the NSA.

Sounds complicated.

Any more complicated than any relationship?

Well, the NSA thing adds a level of complexity that most people don't have to deal with. I think that Corey and Anka probably face a much more difficult road, relationally, because they met and fell in love under distress. Research indicates that relationship that start that way tend to--

Hey, aren't you supposed to be asking me the questions?

Sorry.

It's alright.

Thanks.

Sure thing.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Just a shameless (okay I have a little bit of shame, but I'm going to do it anyway) plug for my Patreon page. This thing has really transformed the way that I'm able to create since it provides a consistent income from my work instead of me having to deal with all the ups and downs of selling books the old way.

My patrons are awesome, thoughtful, generous people who help me to keep getting better at writing and telling compelling stories. Because of their high-level awesomeness I'm going to give them the first crack at reading Like Mind 2.

What do you mean by that?

Well, I'm going to put up the first five chapters of the story for everyone to read, but after that only patrons will be able to see the rest until the whole story is out and published.

How much does it cost to pledge?

Patrons can pledge as little as a dollar per chapter (I release one a week, usually on Thursdays).

Thanks for your time. 

Thanks for interviewing me. I had a lot of fun.

*I am playing the parts of both the interviewer and the interviewee. Plus other parts as they come to mind.