Ira Glass: Creative Work

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. Ira Glass

826 Valencia

I might be late out the gate on this, but I wanted to call attention to 826 Valencia, which is a non-profit writing and tutoring center started by the folks at McSweeney’s. There are seven branches around the country now, which each one running a unique storefront to help fund their efforts. The original location in San Francisco runs a Pirate Supply Store. The one in New York City is for superheroes, while the one in Los Angeles is for time travelers. Seattle is all about space travel (appropriate since the Sci-fi Museum is also in Seattle), Chicago is meant for spies, while Ann Arbor, Michigan offers a home for itinerant monsters, and Boston is home to cryptozoologists from all over.

So friggin’ cool. I wish stuff like this had been running when I was a kid.

Friday the 13th, 2007

While considered bad luck by many, I’ve not really found Friday the 13th to be particularly different from any other given Friday… arguably, I’ve had better luck on them than worse (which I suppose goes with my general experience with “luck”… find a 4 leaf clover, fall and skin your knee… walk under a ladder, find a quarter on the sidewalk. Don’t even get me started on my jade pendant). I slept in today, though not as late as some of the past few days, and overall I’m feeling alright.

In my daily spate of rss feeds and blogs, the inestimable Warren Ellis pointed out a fantastic post on M John Harrison’s blog, that’s worth quoting:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

I’m not sure that I entirely agree: while worldbuilding should be by no means the primary function of the story, taking the time to hammer out a core basis for the setting of your story I think can be really rewarding. I must admit that I’m a bit biased in this, in that I like thinking about the esoteric and random elements surrounding a story — how a given civilization functions, the history and struggle that caused that particular world to be formed. It’s easy to become myopic when doing this, absolutely, to start thinking about how a particular tribe in Uganda handles the dry season when your story has nothing to do with that and that knowledge will never even be mentioned. But if you are mindful of this, mindful of the lure of avoiding the story by fleshing out the world (yet another form of procrastination, seductive in its psuedo-productivity), then that elaboration can help tighten and expand your story.

That’s my opinion anyway, and I don’t exactly have any award winning publications to back it up. Unlike M John Harrison.

I kind of agree with him in some ways, though. As soon as the worldbuilding becomes even translucent (let alone opaque), you’ve bored most readers… worldbuilding should be for your own edification and cohesion as the writer. Its role in the story itself should be transparent. (I believe it was Silverberg, and I’m paraphrasing, who commented that Heinlein was one of the few others who managed to ladel on pages of exposition without boring the reader.) I do definitely agree with Mr. Harrison’s thoughts about writing, which he expounds upon here:

The notebook stage is the last time anything of mine sees paper until publication. I like to do lots of operations. Fountain pens and refurbished 1930 Underwood portables don’t cut it; digital management is the appropriate choice. Have you ever noticed how every male novelist you meet at a literary festival wears a linen jacket and is called Tim ? Tim prefers an antique Watermans, maybe his dad owned it. It keeps him pure and returns him to the sinewy prose of the giants who came before us all.

I don’t have any writing pattern. I hate being professional. I don’t write according to a schedule or an output plan; I don’t begin at the beginning and write to the end. Or rather: if I do any of those things I usually have to bin the results. Writing should be fun — absorbing, transporting, intense, whatever. It should ambush you. It should be up there with sex, drugs and irresponsible driving. It shouldn’t have anything to do with research or require a degree in finding out about lipstick colours in 1943. I can’t do it if I’m bored or depressed or feeling unconfident. Once it’s working, I can write anywhere — I’ve done stuff while hanging off an abseil rope on a sea cliff or a highrise building — but not under any conditions. If I’m sitting at my desk I hate to be cold, I hate anyone’s noise except my own. But I like working on a train.

Sounds about right to me. When I’m on a roll, it doesn’t really matter where I am, and if I’m feeling depressed, it’s like pulling teeth to get anything that isn’t simply mopey or angst-ridden out onto the screen or page. I’ve found it easy to get into that rut, and try to be mindful of it, and not letting it overwhelm other things I wish to talk about (if you’ve noticed that my posts sometimes seem varied and veer through topics with remarkable speed, now there’s perhaps a hint as to why… that, or I have the attention span of a goldfish. Maybe a bit of both). With depression, it’s remarkably easy to get stuck on depression and its related trappings, despite the fact that the answer to combatting it is do and be productive and talk about other things.

So, R Stevens linked to SBaGen via Twitter, and I decided to at least find out what the heck he was talking about. Turns out SBaGen is an open source binaural beats generator. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a quick explanation (there are whole books about this, so I definitely recommend looking into it on your own if you’re curious): binaural beats is a method to synchronize and alter your brainwave patterns, ie putting yourself into an alpha or theta (among others) state, for the purposes of meditation, focus, more restful sleep, lucid dreaming, and even (supposedly) out of body experiences. It’s kind of new age-y, but since it’s a free generator, who really cares, it cost you nothing to try it out, and if you decide it’s not worth it, you can delete it easily.

I tried out the Demo, which starts at a 200Hz cycle and slides down to 5Hz over the course of 30 minutes. It’s supposed to theoretically leave you feeling light and energized. I do feel more alert after trying it, though I would like to comment on a few things that happened with it (while I won’t necessarily be posting it on here, I do plan on keeping a journal of my observations as I experiment with this). Notably, a few minutes in, my left thumb abruptly started to feel extremely hot, and my right thumb started to feel cold. Neither was touching anything, and after another few minutes, it largely subsided (which would make sense since different wavelengths are meant to affect you differently, and that frequency changed over that period). Dunno what it all means, but it does leave me curious to find out.

The Role of Writing in Games

[S]ince the games are generally about power, control, and those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well. This means they tend to be power fantasies. That’€™s generally considered to be a pretty juvenile sort of story.

The stories in most video games serve the same purpose as calling the uber-checker a “king.”€ It adds an interesting shading to the game, but the game at its core is unchanged.

Remember:€“ my background is as a writer, so this actually pisses me off. Story deserves better treatment than that. (Koster 86)

I would be hard pressed to state this thought in a more clear or concise fashion. Put simply, the stories in most games tend to be weak compared to their media counterparts (novels, comic books, movies, television). Over the years, there have been a few exceptional stories that span larger issues, or address the nature of power and control itself; a modest number of games have alternatively succeeded in refining the “€œpower fantasy”€ into a more engaging telling, but the underlying principles have remained the same. Stories are tacked on, extraneous except in providing a context for player empowerment. While certainly not the sole issue, this is a fairly damning point when attempting to defend games as a valid form of creative expression.

So what can be done to improve the situation? The short answer is to hire professional writers. The vast majority of companies currently have their dialogue and story written and developed by the game designers, programmers, and artists themselves, rather than spending the money on a professional writer. Take the hint from the media that have come before: games are not that far different from comics, books, or movies, all of which have had significantly more time to develop techniques to tell a compelling and nuanced story, techniques that are effective across media.
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