Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Riley Wuz Here: Wisdom in Strange Places

The first season of Boondocks is one of the best cartoon/anime seasons ever. It carried over the best characters from the comic book series, and shone them in a completely new, more colorful light. Huey has always been the "voice" of the series, injecting some much needed stability into an otherwise insane and unstable cast of characters. It's ironic, and fitting, that the most poignant episode of the series focused on Riley, Huey's maniacal, shit-talking little brother

The difference between good painters and great painters is not how well they paint, but what they choose to paint about.

Obviously, Riley's art teacher was talking about painting, but a truer statement about writing has never been spoken.

It comes down to one basic idea: writing isn't just putting together words and sentences. In fact, that isn't even the most important part of the process.

This is why practice, why writing everyday is so important. Because writing every day inevitably pushes you to think and write outside of your comfort zone. It forces us to expand our range as writers, and in the process, we stumble upon our best ideas.

The most important part of writing is choosing a topic. A plot. A thesis. A premise, idea, setting, conclusion, and so much more. Great writing is defined by what you write, not just how well you write it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Failure of The Last Airbender and the Importance of Characters

The Failure of The Last Airbender and the Importance of Characters

The Last Airbender has everything you need to build a great movie: great effects, extremely detailed choreography, an established and visionary premise, a base in mythology that is thousands of years old, and a great overall plot line. And from the moment the movie opens, it falls flat on it's face.

Why? Because The Last Airbender forgot the most important element of any good story: the characters. People aren't just present in a story, and their not just placeholders for the plot. They are the storytellers, the narrators, the filter that colors ever event in the narration. We see the stories through their eyes, their emotion becomes ours, and through them, we become a part a new magical world.

Without great characterization, even the best story just turns into a list of facts. *SPOILER ALERT* The Avatar doesn't want his responsibility, Zuko has been banished, and Katara is, well, nothing.

There was no lead in or development of these characterizations. We are presented with this list of facts, and then the characters transcend them. We rarely see Zuko struggle between his desire to do right and to seek honor. We never see Katara's fight to attain success in a land where female benders are forbidden. We never see Sokka's search for identity among his more talented peers.

All of these things fail to make an impact on an audience because there was no attempt to display their personalities within the movie. Instead, we got a movie full of gloss, plot and action scenes, with no real substance.

Some of this comes with trying to fit an entire season of a TV show into a 2 hour movie. But that could've been done: Avatar isn't a very complex show. But the priorities would've had to change: less plot, less detailed martial arts forms, and fewer fights. The Last Airbender tries to show us it's entire visual universe in one movie, which leaves it without any room to grow in it's most developed aspects, and with no reason for newcomers to watch the next movies.

Without characters, we just can't care about the movie that much. It's 2010, all movies look good now. And a lot of them look great. That's not a strong enough premise for a movie anymore. The Last Airbender had everything it takes to make a movie, and instead, it made a mediocre one, just because it ignored it's most vital elements.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why "Average" Sucks

why average sucks

Copyblogger is the best blog on writing that I know of. Last week, Jonathan Morrow wrote "20 Warning Signs that Your Content Sucks." Way too many of them struck a cord for my comfort, and none more than the first:

If you had to rate your content on a scale of 1 to 10, what would you give it? A 6? A 7? That’s what most bloggers say. But here’s the problem: you can’t really grade content on a scale. You’re either blowing people’s minds or putting them to sleep, and there’s nothing in between. Put another way, content graded as a 6 or 7 gets the same reaction as a 1. It’s a waste of time to publish it.

It's a truism of writing that most writers are harder on their own writing than anybody else (also true for any creative profession). And in many cases, what some people see as a 9, we see as a 5. If you're seeing your writing as a 5-7 on a 10 scale, there are two possible reasons.

  1. Your writing is good, and you're being overcritical.
  2. You are producing mediocre work.
Bottom line: reason #1 doesn't matter.

Why? Because if you're producing 10's, people will let you know. People will gravitate towards greatness. Even if your greatness is something only a few people will appreciate, they'll find you. Eventually. In the meantime, being overly critical might be depressing, but it pushes us to get better.

The much more serious problem is actual mediocre work. Or even work that's just "above average." Why? Because of the internet.

The internet is, overall, a great tool for almost every artist. It allows us to market ourselves without having to rely on the superior resources of big publishing companies. But it also overpopulated the field, and stretches people time and attention further than ever. People who read online are looking to be entertained or informed. NOW. And if your don't present them with a great reason to come back to you, they'll move on. Because if you're not great, the somebody else is doing what you're doing, except better.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Visually - Masta Killa

This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede

I heard Da Mystery of Chessboxin' six years ago, and it's STILL amazing. First of all, the extended metaphor here is brilliant. The basic premise of rhyme = poison has been done a million times, but never better than this.

This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim

He's not attacking you, he's disabling your defenses so thoroughly that his words can actually reach your brain without any sort of interpretation. The immune system is your prejudgments and preconceptions. His technique is so advanced that it strips you of all your mental preparation. He couches it in metaphor, so you don't even see the veiled attack in his words - you are paralyzed.

You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede

And as soon as your defenses are down, he has you. He's entered your bloodstream - that is, you're now absorbing his words as a child would, without any way to digest or temper them. And once he's there, the sheer viciousness of his words is so crippling that it leaves you completely without response.

And then he throws in the added metaphor of a centipede moving through blood veins. Sick.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Creating Confidence

I hate almost everything I've ever written. I find it to be soulless, garbage that lacks any depth or personality. Most writers probably feel that way at some point. But in the end, that's a poisonous, self-destructive mindset that leeches creativity and inspiration out of you. At some point, we have to overcome our insecurities, accept our flaws and push forward. And in my opinion, that's one of the hardest struggles for any person to overcome.

But how do we actually do that? I've read (skimmed) dozens of self-help and motivational books, and none of them have a permanent, lasting solution. The best of them can motivate for a short period of time, and then they lose effectiveness. That's because at the end of the day, nobody else can create your path to success. It's almost impossible to create your own.

The hardest part of succeeding (for me, at least), isn't in avoiding pitfalls. Anybody with reasonable intelligence can steer away from the types of endeavors that doom us to failure. But what's harder to get away from are the mediocre successes we experience in life. Those are the most dangerous traps we encounter. The unnsuccessful is so unpleasant that it demands we escape.

Mediocrity, on the other hand, is the low-hanging fruit of life. It might not keep us full, or make us happy, but it allows us safety and contentment. And the habit it creates makes it more and more difficult to escape its clutches everyday. We go into our 9-5 every day, and on one of those days, we wake up as an unsuccessful, depressed middle-aged sycophant.

The only way we can escape that trap is through sheer self-confidence. We have to believe in our own ability to overcome the obstacles in life. But even more importantly, we have to believe in that we have the ability necessary to step out from comfortable life. To escape the trap of employment, and chae our greatest dreams. For some people, this comes naturally. For most of us, it's the greatest struggle of our lives.

Of course, it takes more than just self confidence. It takes incredible work ethic, skill, craft and creativity to escape the trap that encapsulates so many of us. But none of those matter if we don't have the confidence to expose those skills to the world.

I don't have that confidence. Yet. And I don't know if I have the skill, talent or drive to become a great success. But I do know that living a normal, boring 9-5 life makes me miserable. It eats away at the tiny spark that makes up my best qualities. It's a long, slow, boring death, and it's one of the most terrifying realities in the world.

I cannot, will not accept less than what makes me happy. Even if I don't know what that ultimately is, I know that I am more than what I have achieved so far.

Confidence, for me, is not a choice. It is not an option, or a goal. It is an ultimatum. I will have confidence with my life, because I do not have a choice. I will either be confident enough to pursue my dreams with everything I have, or I will be a miserable failure for the rest for my life. That thought is all the inspiration I'll ever need.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

How "Glee" Creates Drama ("Theatricality")

How Glee Creates Drama (Theatricality)

A month ago, I came down with a severe case of writer's block.

Why? Besides going through my first major crisis as an adult, I came to a startling realization: I have no idea how to create drama. Not in the overarching plotline - that's easy for almost anybody. But creating an engaging, gripping story has almost nothing to with its main plotline. It's the dozens, even hundreds of tiny conflicts, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies that breathe life into a story.

With that in mind, Fox's Glee has dominated my free time lately. In my personal life, I avoid drama like the plague. As a writer, it's water in my creative desert. And what makes Glee a great show isn't its unique approach to the TV musical, or high school creativity. It's the brilliant, diverse cast of characters, and their struggle to cope with everyday trivialities. Glee's continuing plotline - winning the national Glee competition - is hardly mentioned in its last episode, "Theatricality." And yet, it was a completely successful episode.