Monday, January 31, 2011

The extra lesson

Ms. Stumpf, my host in Arizona.
Also Raven, her horse
er, dinosaur
er ...

Once, I didn’t have any teachers.

Not for writing, anyway. My first dedicated lessons in the art of writing came from my grandmother, a writer herself, when I was a teenager and had already been writing Rae Masterson’s adventures for about three years. Before that, I was largely self-taught, and in many ways I still am. I read widely and voraciously, and constantly challenge myself to write the best stories I can. I am my first test audience, and I’m quite a nasty one. (Remember, I used to tell my English teachers in school, “Don’t tell me whether my writing’s good work for a twelve-year-old, tell me whether it’s good!”) Most of my techniques are hard-won lessons I taught myself, the fruit of trial and error.

You know that old saw about how conflict is essential to good writing? I actually tried writing a few stories without conflict. (They were incredibly boring, and you will not get to see them.) That’s how I did most of my early learning about writing—through experimentation. I experimented with different kinds of characters and plots, and hammered away at my writing until I figured out how to introduce themes. It was tedious, grueling work, and it’s a good thing I loved it so much, or I might never have persevered.

In Arizona, I got to cheat that process. I got to stand up in front of about 600 kids, all told, and say, “This is how it works. This is what I know.” I broke down the basics of plot—using my own system, the one I developed when I found that “beginning, middle, and end” was the most frustrating way imaginable to describe a story I then had to write—and then helped the kids apply them to their favorite books and movies. I shared the best of the many tricks I’ve learned for characterization—secrets of motivation and worldview that lead you outward to words and actions. I showed them how to build fictional worlds, from gravity up. And I showed them how to find themes in what they read and what they watch, which I believe is the key to putting your own themes into your own work. (For one thing, I’ve found I tend to write them into my own stories without knowing they’re there, and find them only later.) If someone had told me these things when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I could have shaved years off my development as a writer. I am proud to have shared these ideas with those students.

Even so, I hope they didn’t listen too closely.

Because while all those elements are crucial to writing good stories, there is one I can’t teach. The best writers don’t just swallow what their teachers say (even when the teacher is me). They go after the rules with a hammer and bash them until only the stuff that works is left over. They try things, even if they’re told those things can’t possibly work. And they write. They sit down, day after day, with a pen or a pencil or a keyboard or a stick in the dirt, and they write. They find out what works for them. Everything I said in those lectures is what works for me, and for a majority of my students—but I’ve never met a writer who didn’t violate at least one important rule in at least one way. No two brains are exactly alike; no two souls are identical. Every writer has to discover for himself or herself what works for him or her. And the only way to discover that is to try everything in the hope of finding something.

Right now I’m writing a novel that came to life when I heard someone say I couldn’t do something. Specifically, they said that no one could write an adventure story (at least, one in the style of the West) whose hero was committed to nonviolence and making a serious go of it. If the good guy can’t fight the bad guys, I was told, the story doesn’t work, at least for Western audiences.

I’m writing that story now. I’m about halfway done with the first draft, and I’ve passed the first major fight sequence where the hero’s principles are put to the test. The chapter is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written, and consistently exciting (at least to me). There’s action, there’s suspense, there’s a funny bit with a dog and a moment to make you cry a little inside. You could say I cheated a bit, since there are plenty of other characters in the story who have no problem whatsoever with using violence—but the nonviolent hero is the most consistently interesting part, the most difficult to write, and the most satisfying when I finally figure him out. So it turns out it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. And that’s the thing about writers—they’re not afraid of hard. They’re not afraid of time-consuming. They’re not afraid of impossible, because they’re used to making the impossible happen.

I could see a few faces in the audience in Arizona that were thinking hard about what I was saying. I could almost hear wheels turning inside heads—“Can I really do that? Can I make that work? What if …?” Go with those instincts, guys. Try it. Mess around. Find your own voice, your own method. Figure out how you too can do the impossible.

And send me a link afterward, will you? I do so like to see how it’s done …

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Off the map

(Written January 18, 2011)

Last summer, I had to make a last-minute trip to the East Coast. I don’t particularly like flying—I’m not phobic or anything, but it will never rank high on my list of favorite activities—and I remember staring intently down at the scenery to distract myself from the noise of the engine and the activities of my fellow passengers.

As we left California and flew over the western United States, I found myself studying the landscape. I was fascinated by the places where human civilization just seemed to stop—the solar farms and suburbs that suddenly gave way to mountains and desert, which just as suddenly gave way again to something manmade. It was as if the landscape below me had been constructed according to incomplete map—in this place everything should be as built-up as possible, but this patch is missing from the map and so we’ll leave it as it is. I stared at those off-the-map spaces, trying to burn them into my brain because I knew they wouldn’t be as common once we crossed the Mississippi and entered the land of trees. I could see the coyote coming from those places, and some of the wilder and more unpredictable elements of my stories. It’s always good for a writer to go off the map from time to time.

Well, I’m off the map now.

I’m in Arizona. I just finished leading the first day of workshops as I type this on Tuesday afternoon (no telling when it’ll upload). The kids were enthusiastic, and the teachers seemed doubly so. Several students came up to the edge of the stage when I finished my presentation to ask me questions about writing and getting published. One cautiously pulled out handwritten pages and told me about a series of novels that sounded quite promising. So far, so familiar, and it’s the reason I’m here.

But I only have to step outside the auditorium to remember I’m out of my territory. Sliding through the desert on a train crossing the California border, I got a close-up look at country I’d previously flown over. I didn’t recognize any of the plants. The earth was a different color. The jagged mountains looked different from the rumpled foothills and worn coastal ranges of my native terrain. It seemed alien, maybe a bit hostile. I could see the beauty in the harshness of the environment, but I couldn’t escape the nagging sense, every once in a while, that I’d landed on the moon.

But it’s good to go off the map. I can’t wait to see what I’ll find here …

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some fairly awesome news

I’m going on a school visit!

Sharp-eyed readers (and Mr. Olson’s minions, of course) will recall that I made a visit to a junior-high English class in Texas via Skype back in October. Well, this time it’s not Skype. I am getting on a train and chugging my way out to Bullhead City, Arizona, where I will be speaking at Mohave High School (go, Thunderbirds!).

I will do my best to take photos even as I do my best to warp young minds without burning down the building. I will try to post said photos, although I’m bunking at a friend’s house and internet access will be iffy. So the page may be sparsely updated next week.

BUT … the REASON I am trekking to Bullhead City is to lead a writing workshop based on my new short story, which you fine folks will get to see when Free Comic Book Day rolls around on May 7. I’m also working to develop curriculum for it at the high-school level, which I will make available for free on my website whenever I get around to making one. (Don’t hold your breath … I have to read Web Design For Dummies first.) Any teachers in California, Texas, or New York who’d be interested in helping me tailor the curriculum to your respective state education guidelines, hit me up and you’ll get to read the story a few months early, albeit without the illustrations. Plus a Skype visit, unless you’re in southern California, in which case you might get an in-person visit.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying, get to the part that matters to ME! Well, all this means that 1) a new short story is in the pipeline, which is ALWAYS good news; 2) Masks is getting a toehold in our lovely educational system, which is good news for both overworked teachers (translation: all teachers) and bored students; and 3) my completely awesome friends and fans have found yet another way to prove the viability of this book from a publishing standpoint.

Bullhead City, here I come!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fist, meet face! Or, the beautiful nose-breaking

For Christmas, I received a copy of a comic book that got me thinking about one of the central tenets of superhero adventure: guys in tights whumping on each other.

The collection was Moon Knight: God and Country, written by Mike Benson and Charlie Huston. I loved Moon Knight as a kid—the shadowy world inhabited by a flawed hero in a silver-white costume (and the moody artwork that resulted); the fact that he had not one but three secret identities, and it made him kind of schizo; the serial encounters with his lycanthropic nemesis, Werewolf By Night, with their bizarre fusion of superheroics and horror. Moon Knight at his best was weird, and mysterious, and beautiful, and indefinably cool in a way that never really caught on (lucky for me—it meant I found a lot of good stories in the 25-cent bin).

Huston’s revamp of the character has been charitably described as hyperviolent. This version of Moon Knight is tormented by the Egyptian god who resurrected him in his origin story—except instead of demanding justice like he used to, Khonshu now wants blood and flying body parts, and usually appears wearing the form of a psychopathic mercenary Moon Knight killed (accidentally? During a psychotic episode? I’ve never been sure) in an earlier adventure. Moon Knight is now a government-sanctioned vigilante, and rapidly losing his grip on reality as he takes to carving his crescent-moon symbol into the foreheads of his bloodied and broken foes. I read Huston’s comics for a while, then finally quit in disgust because the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere interesting and pretty much everything I had liked about the character was now gone.

Reading God and Country, which picks up around the time I quit, reinforced my conviction that the comic had gone in an uninteresting direction. But it got me thinking about why I missed the old Moon Knight, and what it said that a take on the character that was (arguably) supported by the stories I loved was yet so repellent to me.

The answer struck me as I was typing those words up above—weird, mysterious, beautiful. There aren’t a lot of superheroes I consider beautiful, but as dark as Moon Knight’s adventures always were, I took a certain primal satisfaction in the fact that the character was trying to balance so many conflicting sides of his life, and more often than not managing to be a glimmer of light in his own darkness. That made the character beautiful. Huston lost that beautiful light in the spray of blood, and I lost interest in Moon Knight.

But let’s face it—guys in tights whumping on each other has always been a central feature of superhero comics. The first modern superhero comic featured on its cover a picture of Superman smashing a car full of gangsters into a boulder. Violence is part of the genre, and I don’t really have a problem with violence in my fiction. Heck, I do exhaustive research to get the violence in Masks right—to make sure Trevor’s fights, in particular, make sense in the context of the laws of physics, anatomy, and human behavior. I have described my book as “a love story and a coming-of-age narrative and a meditation on modern mythology—in which a lot of stuff blows up.”

And yet superhero violence, in my view, works best when it plays by rules, or at least when rules exist. In Masks, there’s an indelible line between masks who do their jobs with minimal violence—who never cripple or kill when they have a choice, who train to win fights without doing permanent harm—and those who believe in using the bad guys’ methods against them, who usually leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Rae and Trevor are in the first category; Cobalt is in the second, although he pretends otherwise. It’s what makes them enemies, really. The rest is window dressing.

Part of that conflict is rooted in the question of superhero morality—to have good guys and bad guys, you have to have at least a working definition of good and bad, right and wrong, and varying definitions lead to varying approaches. Most people who make the distinction at all agree, for example, that at least some forms of violence are bad—like murder. However, there are three major schools of thought on how to deal with the fact that violence exists whether we want it to or not. These ideas get dumbed down a lot for superhero fiction, but I’ll try to maintain at least a little of the necessary complexity.

The first school, which has become increasingly popular in the last 20 years, views violence (even in fiction) as a matter of proportionate response. If the bad guys are level-5 bad, then the good guys are allowed to be level-5 bad to beat them. If the bad guys are level-12 bad, you may need to keep a puke bag handy in order to root for the good guys. This is the same argument often advanced by people who advocate a “whatever it takes” approach to dealing with real-life violence—if the opposing force uses chemical weapons or suicide bombers, then we should be allowed to respond in kind. Anything less, this thought argues, ties the good guys’ hands. That’s where God and Country is coming from, and where Cobalt comes in.

The second school of thought is at the opposite end of the spectrum—if violence is bad, then the good guys shouldn’t use it, period. In the real world, this usually takes the form of pacifism—for example, Quakers who register as conscientious objectors in wartime because their religion prohibits war. You don’t see this portrayed much in Western entertainment anymore, partly because it really limits your fight-scene options. But you will occasionally see a pacifist superhero trying to make headway in a violent fictional world. Usually he doesn’t succeed; the best-known example of an attempt at a nonviolent hero in American culture is Shane, a novel and movie about a former gunfighter trying to give up the gun. It’s a deeply moving story, full of big ideas, but you can’t help noticing that Shane keeps beating people up in bar fights. Shane’s attempt at pacifism, noble as it may be, is a real problem for somebody writing a Western. There aren’t any heroes in Masks who take this view, although I’m experimenting with a pacifist hero in another novel just for the heck of it and it is as difficult as it is rewarding.

The third school of thought occupies the middle ground—the idea that violence is a necessary evil, but evil nonetheless, and should be limited as much as possible. In the real world, this basically boils down to the rules-of-war approach—things like the Geneva Conventions. This approach says that violence is sometimes the only solution to a bad situation (the Nazis are a classic example of a bad thing that needed stopping), and that violence should therefore be used only when absolutely necessary, and then only according to strictly defined rules, which are written out in advance so nobody is tempted to cheat. Soldiers wear uniforms; they don’t deliberately harm civilians; captured enemies are treated humanely and with respect. Most superheroes used to take this approach, although it’s less popular now as writers and editors have made villains ever more extreme—by the time the fifth school bus is blown to bits, it’s hard to understand why Batman hasn’t just strangled the Joker already.

Writers, of course, see problems and opportunities in all three approaches. It’s easy to give a pacifist hero the moral high ground, but stories need conflict, and it’s harder to create action and tension when your heroes avoid it. Competing with an already violent culture makes the proportionate approach tempting—when you’re trying to make your bones as a storyteller, nothing gets readers’ attention like the snap of bones breaking—but having to constantly make up new tortures is exhausting. And the middle path seems to be the best of both worlds, but it requires constant examination to balance the need for action in a superhero story with the need to avoid unnecessary violence.

Different writers have different attitudes toward this question. Part of it’s a question of temperament, naturally, and of how much you can get away with in a given story. But I’ve always found the most beauty in the balance—in the good guys who stay good guys, as much as they can, while the world goes to hell around them. They fight monsters without becoming them, or at least they try. Sometimes they’re outnumbered or outgunned as a result, but that just makes it more dramatic when they win. The balance itself is a good source of conflict. My favorite heroes abhor violence to one extent or another, but they won’t stand peacefully by while someone, for example, abuses a child. But neither will they beat the abuser into the ground just for the hell of it. The balance is difficult. It’s complicated. And when it’s done right, it’s beautiful.

(By the way, this is all completely separate from the question of whether violent art should be censored or restricted to certain audiences—although I do support things like clear and informative labeling so we don’t have six-year-olds bringing home God and Country by mistake. So if you want to know whether movies like Hostel should be in general release, you’ve come to the wrong window.)

At the climax of Masks, Rae and Trevor are forced to fight each other, with the fate of the world at stake. It’s arguably my favorite scene in the book because of the way their beliefs and their feelings for each other play out in their exchange of professional blows and personal words. It couldn’t happen if either one of them refused to fight at all, or simply pulled out a gun and blew the other away. What happens next is unexpected, and thrilling, and heartbreaking. And, to my mind, beautiful.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.