December 30, 2009

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Inspirational Quote

"When functioning as it should, in secular as well as religious contexts, imagination is the most important means by which higher truths can be communicated." - Robert Houston Smith, Patches of Godlight: The Pattern of Thought of C.S. Lewis

Samurai art by Tim Baron, (c) 2009

December 29, 2009

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Dig Deep, or "Method Writing"

They say "write what you know", and really, "they" are pretty good at saying things that sound simple and make sense . . . until you start trying to do it and suddenly you find yourself asking, "What the heck does that mean?"

First off, how can you write something you don't know? I mean, take a look at that statement. If you write something, you have to know it . . . because if you don't know it, it's not in your brain, and you can't write it. You may not know MUCH about what you're writing, but that is easy to remedy: through research you can learn about something . . . but knowing ABOUT something is not what "they" are talking about. I think.

I believe when they say "write what you know" they mean this: when you write, dig deep. Connect with each of your characters, by doing what some people may call "method acting".

Recently, I've been trying to apply "method acting" principles to my writing. "Classic Acting" (my term, I think) is when you simulate emotions as you act a part. You simulate laughter, you simulate weeping, you simulate the feelings you are portraying. And some actors are quite good at this. "Method Acting", on the other hand, is where you actually draw upon those emotions so that in the moment you are acting, you are feeling those feelings. Instead of just acting sad when you play the part of a girl who just lost her puppy, you draw on your own memories of that day when you found out your kitten was run over by a snowplow. Instead of just going through the motions of laughing when another character tells a stupid joke, you bring up your own memories of that day when you found out your best friends kitten was run over by a snowplow. You get the idea.

"Method Writing" is the same idea. When writing about a serious tragedy or writing about a personal triumph or writing about a introspective realization . . . you bring these emotions up from your own well of experience. This is where you beging writing what you know in earnest, not just writing what you know about! This is where if you spend all your time cooped up watching movies or reading comics, you aren't going to be a very effective writer because you aren't experiencing life! Your emotional experiences are limited to what you see in front of you, not what you feel.

Feelings are what connects people. Love. Passion. Happiness. Silliness. Pain. Sorrow. Unless you are a callous person with no soul or are experiencing overwhelming emotions of your own, if you see someone experiencing these feelings you will be empathetic to the person who is feeling these emotions. You will connect with them, based on your own experiences with these feelings. You speak with a lovesick teenager . . . you'll remember your own embarrassment when you felt that way, and maybe even be slightly annoyed with them -- but that annoyance comes from empathy. You speak with a heartbroken teenager . . . you'll remember when your own heart was broken, and either feel bad for them or, again, annoyed. But these feelings come from shared experiences. Someone tells a joke that's not all that funny? You may find yourself laughing simply because other people are.

Art has a dual purpose, although these purposes often wrap around each other. It can be cathartic, a way to sort through feelings on an internal level; or it can be to connect one soul to another, on an external level. This is why I "preach" about the power of art, and why it bothers me when I see people minimizing art as "it's just a story" or "it's just a joke". No. It is a connection between two souls. Or two brains, if you don't believe in souls. Whatever, the concept is the same. It's an interpersonal connection.

To truly connect, though, the story must FEEL true! It must feel right! It must feel recognizable! Art is a caricature of real life, and as a caricature it must be something people can look at and see recognizable features.

So, writers, dig deep. Work hard to make your stories and characters as emotionally "true" as you can. Doing this will cause a connection between your reader and your characters . . . and --this part is scary -- you.

The only way you can do this is to get to know your characters . . . and get to know yourself . . . and then, "write what you know".

~ Ben

Samurai art by Tim Baron, (c) 2009

December 21, 2009

A Little Christmas Webcomic . . .

Art by clip-art . . . lame joke by me, (c) 2009 . . . although something tells me that 2009 doesn't want anything to do with it . . .

~ Ben

December 20, 2009

Nano Film Review #27 -- Avatar

Nano-film review: Entertaining, if cliche, story and characters; amazing world creation; spectacular special effects and action sequences.

Longer version: I’ve heard a lot of people comparing Avatar to other movies. Most of them are fair. Dances with Wolves. Ferngully. Even Delgo. (My old review of Delgo is here. And apparently after the Avatar trailer came out, the people who made the Deglo movie were considering suing James Cameron, which is ridiculous, although they may have sold one or two more DVDs from the publicity.)

The movie I’d compare it to the most, honestly, is The Dark Crystal. (The Dark Crystal, by the way, has a much better case against the Delgo people than the Deglo people have against Avatar when it comes to stealing visuals, I think.) The Dark Crystal is an incredible example of world building. And Avatar’s weakness is also The Dark Crystal’s: an amazing, visually stunning world and characters, but with a weak story to hang it on. (This is something Jim Henson himself would agree with, and with their follow up Labyrinth they started with the story first, not the world.)

Avatar was being hailed before release as a groundbreaking cinematic experience, and to be frank it is. It’s the best motion capture animation ever. The characters look expressive, move fluidly, and feel alien. The world they live in is an example of incredible world building. It is a fully realized world with believable, alien environments. It’s the best scifi/fantasy world I've seen. It totally blows way Lucas’ prequel trilogy in that regard. It’s a big, epic scaled world they created. It was made as a 3D movie, and the gimmick here is not things flying at your face, it's instead a layered, huge, textured world.

The creatures are graceful and vicious and just plain cool looking, although the humanoid creaturs and their semi-naked attire may take some getting used to. They’re just human enough to be relatable and alien enough to be different. The biosphere and environment of the world are carefully crafted and a wonder to experience on the big screen.

But then there’s the plot. You've seen this movie before . . . just never this big in scope. You'll know the plot and almost exactly how it's going to resolve five minutes in, if you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie. You've seen these characters before. Remember Paul Riser in Alien? He’s in this movie. Remember the gruff sergeant toy from Toy Soldiers, or Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now? He’s in this movie. Remember every scientist from every science fiction movie? They’re all in this movie. But it’s okay, because this movie is bigger than any of the other times you've seen this story and looks prettier.

I will say, though, that I really liked the main character. He helps the movie rise above the cliches by being a likable character with emotional motivations. He's the perfect character to experience this whole new world with.

The underlying message is cliché, unfortunately, but you do get some interesting Big Ideas that can only come from science fiction. Things about the natural of individuality. Our place in this world. Our relationship to God. You also get lots of hamfisted references to current events, like the casual tossing out of "shock and awe", that sort of thing. It would have been a much better movie if it had left those connections up to the audience.

The music was James Horner doing James Horner. The familiar echoing horns did their thing, and the music settles in to the background. I’ve decided that even though many of James Horner’s film scores sound very, very similar, it’s familiar.

All things considered, Avatar is a visual feast, with exciting action sequences and beautiful effects. Plot is mostly predictable, but forgivable because of the world building. Avatar should be seen on the big screen. The 3D was awesome, although it took a while to get used to. (I want to see it in 2d.) It was a big, epic scaled world they created, very sophisticated. It should be seen on the big screen.

I just can't wait until this technology and this level of world building is matched with an equally sophisticated story.

~ Ben

December 14, 2009

Obama asks moms to shave . . . FOLLOW UP!!!

I can't believe I'm writing a follow up post to my original "Obama asks moms to shave" posting!

But here I am. And here it is, the most recent ad to pop up on my Yahoo! free e-mail account:

You know, when I was a kid I remember one year the Santa who came to visit my school was a woman! She was an old woman with white hair and thin glasses and a fake beard. She looked like Santa until I got close to her. That kinda ruined the whole illusion of Santa.

Now, if they had just gotten the mom from the above photo . . . you know, the mom that Obama REALLY wants to go back to school . . . she could have played Santa no problem! Just some white hairspray and she'd be good to go!

This new image shows me that the original was not a mistake or oversight. Indeed, it was a conscious decision to match the headline with the photo! Because that's not a new photo of "bearded mom" with a hat. No, that's a photoshopped hat on the original "bearded mom" photo, along with a revised subheadline! Time, effort, and thought went into creating and using that picture for this ad.

I'm really curious now. What are they thinking?

~ Ben

December 10, 2009

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Inspirational Quote

"Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago." - C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Graves

Samurai art by Tim Baron, (c) 2009

December 9, 2009

Obama asks moms to shave . . .

So I'm checking my free Yahoo e-mail account . . . free because of advertisements, of course . . . and this is the ad that shows up:
Now, the question I have is if this program is open to ANY mom? Or just moms who could play the part of Joseph in their church's nativity scene?

Look, I know they just use stock photos for these ads. I understand that the people in these ads has nothing to do with the product being advertised. But don't you think who ever is responsible for these ads would think "If I'm going to use the headline 'Obama Asks Moms to Return to School', I probably shouldn't use the picture that looks like the mug shot of a guy who just got arrested for domestic terrorism after spending three months in the mountains"?

Then again, I'm glad they didn't. Everytime I look at this ad, I can't help giggling. I kept the screen with this ad active in my browser for a few minutes. As an advertisement, it did it's job. I caught my attention and kept it.

~ Ben

December 4, 2009


When I go running, I find myself facing two things: growing fatigue and growing discouragement. And when I run and I start to feel tired and discouraged, I find myself lowering my head. Pushing through. I started running with my head down even when I wasn't tired or discouraged. It just became the way I usually did it. Now, I don't mean my head was bowed and I wasn't looking where I was going, but generally speaking my face was angled down. My eyes were looking ahead maybe half a block, if that.

When I noticed this at one point when I was just not feeling like I was going anywhere, and I lifted my head and fixed my eyes on a point down the road. It seemed to me that this SHOULD be more discouraging. It was a LONG stretch of road ahead. (Actually sidewalk, but who care.) But instead, I found a bit more energy. Looking ahead of me, I was able to run with more purpose. I had a destination. I wasn't focused on where I was; I was focused on where I was going.

If you are creative artist, you've got approach things in much the same way. You can't just focus on where you are, you have to be looking ahead at where you're going.

Doing this can requires having a destination in mind. With a run, I know my destination. Down the road, around the corner, and back home. But if you are a writer or artist, the destination is not nearly so well defined.

That means you've got to define it yourself!

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1. Personal Goals. Personal goals are just that: personal. These are somewhat abstract goals, and some of them may never really feel like they've been attained because they are really a work in progress. These can be goals like "learn something new today" or "be the best I can be".

These personal goals are goals that help you become more self-aware. They are goals that cause you to take a look at who you are and how you do things and, hopefully, push you to be better. Because they are abstract, I debated not putting them on this list, but I think that as you strive to be a better, successful creative artist, you also need to strive to be a better human being. These are spiritual goals.

The success of these goals can be hard to measure. "Hmm, I'm a 7 in 'be a better person' today." it just doesn't happen, does it?

In writing and art, it is just as hard to measure. Saying you'll "write better" is difficult to measure, yes, but setting goals like that will cause you to take steps toward achieving them. You may not be able to see how much better you are in your chosen art on a day to day basis, but you will be able to see if you've worked toward bettering yourself or not every day.

These goals are abstract, as I said, and as a result are somewhat amorphous. That's okay. As you grow and change, these goals should grow and change with you.

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2. Professional Goals. Professional goals are hard, because success is, honestly, out of your own hands. You can set a goal like "get an agent in two years" or "get published before 2012", but the success of these goals lie in the hand of agents, editors, and publishers. And frankly, they don't have the same enthusiasm for your goals as you do.

Still, it is good to set these goals. Use them as milestones you can point to as you grow as a writer or artist. For me, in the past, one of my professional goals was to be published by someone other than myself (Community Comics, a comic book publisher, was run by myself and three other men -- being published by Community didn't count) before I turned thirty. And when I was 29, Image Comics published The Hedge Knight. My current professional goal is to have another project lined up before my current project is finished. The first of these goals was about my career, the second of these goals is tied directly to providing for my family.

But do not let them get you down if you do not make those goals. These goals are meant to help you move forward, not stop you in your tracks. If you find a goal becoming unattainable or if you do not make one of these goals, adjust them. Or use the failed goal as an opportunity to assess what you are doing to meet the goals. If "get published before I turn thirty" is a goal, and on your thirtieth birthday you still haven't been published, take a look at what you've done to meet that goal. Is it because you didn't write anything? Or is it because you just never found the right connection with a publisher, even though you did try? Do you need to get some help with your cover letters?

Success with these goals means moving on to the next goal; failure means assessing what went wrong and addressing it for the future. Either way, you're pushing yourself to become better.

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3. Practical Goals. Practical goals, unlike professional goals, are completely in your hands. These are things that can range from the tiny to the enormous. And they provide the most encouragement, I think, when things get tiring or discouraging. Challenges like NaNoWriMo, in which people set a goal to complete a novel in a month, or the 24-Hour Comic, in which people write and draw twenty-four pages in twenty-four hours, are extreme examples of a practical goal. There's a timeline (one month or twenty-four hours) and at the deadline there's a tangible product (a novel or a comic book). Practical goals can include things like "1000 words a day" or "half a page of art a day" or "three submissions this month".

A practical goal is a goal that you can easily measure. It is a goal that gives tangible results. And, as a result, it is a goal that will often times encourage you as you look at your other goals.

As with the professional goals: success means moving on to the next goal; failure means assessing what went wrong and addressing it. You should have both long range and short range practical goals, for immediate accomplishment and satisfaction and to have as a destination to strive toward.

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There is a fourth type of goal-setting. It is one that I didn't think of until just now, and it is one that many people do not think is valid. It is one that other people put too much stock in. Me? i think it is important. However, I think that you can't build your career on it.

4. Dreams. These are those big idea, crazy wishes. For me, an example would be that I have a dream to write a Man-Thing story for Marvel Comics or an Aquaman story for DC Comics. It's a dream. It fits into my career nicely, but it's not a practical goal by any stretch. Marvel and DC have plenty of amazing writers at their beck and call. The likelihood that they might be interested in someone like me writing a C-List character like Man-Thing and Aquaman (although Aquaman SHOULD be an A-List character!) . . .

Well, let's just say it's a dream. It's not bad to dream.

Some people say "there's dreamers and there's doers". I disagree, I think we need to be a little bit of both. But don't let your "dream" of selling your science fiction novel idea to Steven Spielberg get in the way of, you know, actually writing the novel!

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So keep your head up! Keep your eyes on the road ahead! With each step, with each day, push yourself to be not just the BEST you can be, but to be BETTER!

~ Ben