Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Collaboration

No man is an island, or so John Donne once surmised. Although the phrase is pretty general and can apply to nearly any aspect of the human experience, in this blog I would like to equate the phrase to the process of writing. In other words, collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

"Two heads are better than one" would be the other appropriate phrase to use.

I often think about what Hearts of the Betrothed would look like if I hadn't shared my ideas about the novel with anybody while it was still in the early parts of its development. Certainly it would look different than it does now, in the later stages of the second draft, but can I be certain that the story is better than it would have been if I'd kept it all a secret? Did conference with friends and colleagues improve the overall story, or just save me time in editing?

I'm sure there are writers out there who have the patience to finish an entire piece of work without sharing it with anybody, but I am not one of those writers. Whether it's a need for approval or a just a method of getting free feedback, I have to share pieces of my work with others before it's done. Sometimes they tell me it's good and to carry on.

Other times somebody will say something that makes me look at the story from a different angle.

The fact of the matter is that each of us thinks in a very specific kind of way, and they're all very different. If we all looked at the world through the exact same paradigm, reading would be a lot less interesting. Every narrative would sound the same, because we would all be looking at the world in the exact same way! Some writers focus on setting, others on characters and dialogue, others on action. An effective writer, of course, has a balance of all three in their stories but we all have strengths and weaknesses.

The importance of sharing your work with others is that sometimes somebody else will see a way in which a particular scene could have improved depth, or is lacking a detail or two that would paint a much clearer picture of what is going on, or improve the link between a scene and the overall theme of the story.

Of course if you don't agree with a suggestion, you don't have to use it. You're the writer, after all. Any story you write is your baby; your keystrokes are the Word of God.

A good example of what I'm talking about is the character of Eowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Granted, this is an anecdote that was related to me so I have no way of knowing if it's true or not, but it illustrates my point.

When Tolkien was penning The Two Towers, his daughter complained to him that he never put any women in his stories. Now before somebody mentions Arwen, I will remind everyone that the movies deviated quite a bit from the original story. Arwen was just a shotgun-wedding character thrown in at the end to marry Aragorn. In fact, Eowyn was originally supposed to marry Aragorn in the early it's interesting how things can change that way, in this case based on the suggestion of a young woman who wanted to see more than just a bunch of boring old dudes in her father's work. Eowyn became a rather powerful feminine character considering how misogynistic Tolkien's work tended to be.

I know that my own work would not feel as complete if I had not received feedback and suggestions from my friends and colleagues. The collective consciousness is far more powerful than any one individual's imagination. What if Byron, Shelley and Shelley hadn't challenged each other to write horror stories? Frankenstein never would have existed!

On to collaboration. I was recently involved in a collaborative project (still a work in progress as far as editing is concerned) and was discussing other collaborative possibilities with a friend of mine last week, and it got me to thinking about other collaborative works that I've encountered over the years.

One huge thing that I've noticed is that collaborative works seem to require more effort than if you're just writing something on your own. Sure, you've got two or more people motivating each other to stay focused (like a gym group, etc.) but your work is not entirely your own...and that can make it hard to feel like you're putting in your full creative potential.

However, I've noticed some amazing literature come out of collaboration. Anne McCaffrey? Not a huge fan. Her collaborative works? Much better, in my opinion. I've also never been that big on David Eddings, but when he collaborated with his wife on The Redemption of Althalus, the improvement in quality leaps off of the page at you. All it takes is that second pair of eyes and voice added to a project to really give it some depth, sometimes.

An example from my own life would be Dimensions. For those of you who don't know me very well, Dimensions is the table-top role-playing game that I started to develop in high school. At around 15 to 16 I was playing a lot of RPGs with friends, but found myself dissatisfied with the rules systems for one reason or another. As a result, I decided to develop my own. It started as a project in my basement, written out on looseleaf paper. I borrowed the elements of rules that I liked from various systems, and made up the rest. A lot of my ideas I shared with my best friends Travis and Vic during physics class, which got the ball rolling even further.

We started to play the system, to test it out. Needless to say, early forays quickly pointed out the glaring inequities in the system. As a result, I went back and tweaked a little, then tried it again. The system got better, more fair for all players.

Eventually people started playing Dimensions on their own, without me around to 'supervise'. Travis, especially, loved the system and started tweaking it in his own way. We lost touch for a while, but once we reconnected (which had a lot to do with Dimensions, actually) we began to compile the system and hash out a complete rules system. It's still a work in progress, but what was once a casual idea became, with some collaboration, something that has the potential to be published one day. At first it was hard for me to give up complete creative control, but I never could have gotten Dimensions this far without Travis and the other contributors to the system.

When you release an idea into the collective consciousness, it is no longer entirely your own. When you collaborate on an idea, every imagination improves the finished product as a whole.

What does everyone else think? Is it better to collaborate, or hold firm to your own creative ideas until you have a finished product, untainted by the opinions of others?

Collaboration can create unexpected ideas that never would have been conceived least, that's what I believe. I was brought up to believe in the idea of sharing. It hasn't failed me so far.

-James Funfer

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Writing of Pixar

I wanted to talk about Pixar for a moment because it's a perfect example of how writing (and how effective said writing is) will make or break a movie.

Movies work differently than novels. Visuals are a big part of what people are going to a movie for, especially a "3-D" computer animated feature such as Toy Story 3. Now a lot of people are going to bring their kids to a family-targeted feature film regardless of whether they think it's actually going to be good or not, based solely on the fact that they know the kids will enjoy it. Nowadays going to a movie in the theatre costs about the same as a small paperback (we're talking one person here, remember), and that's not counting concessions. Taking a whole family,'s expensive, isn't it? Plus it's not like you're buying a DVD. You get to see the movie on the big screen once, and all you have are the memories. Movies with bad writing are easily forgotten. Popcorn entertainment. Movies with good writing stay with you, just like a good book. You're more likely to buy the DVD release, so that you can cherish those memories.

It's like a trip to the library. A so-so book will be borrowed and returned. An amazing book might be purchased at a later date so that you can enjoy it anytime you like. I certainly bought a lot of Dan Simmons novels after borrowing one of them. A good writer will make you want more, in both films and books. I have seen every Pixar movie because I know that I will be consistently satisfied with the product, especially the writing. Will I go see Transformers 3? No. Because I know the writing will be shit, just like the first two. The screenwriters lost me because they don't know how to tell a story.

The Transformers franchise is a good example of how to sell a movie. The general public wants visuals, explosions and action. They want comedy and dramatic situations that are easy to understand. Avatar would be another good example of this.

People who buy novels want something a little deeper. Now I'm certainly generalizing, but it takes a lot more effort to read a novel than to watch a movie (and a lot more time) so those willing to put the time into a book expect something more out of it, and print alone must accomplish this feat.

Alright, I'm digressing here. Toy Story 3, and Pixar in general are the topic of discussion. This isn't a movie review, mind you. It's about good writing and how good movie writing relates to good authorship.

Pixar will consistently take its viewers on an emotional journey. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried in "Up". This is what Damian Gray (Key Publications - The Boss Man) means when he talks about showing the audience rather than telling them. When you understand how a situation in a movie or book relates to your own life, it evokes your empathy and thus you are concerned for the characters who are involved in the situation before you. You can take that journey with them because you actually care what happens to them.

When you just throw a bunch of crap on screen and go "holy crap a lot of stuff is happening really quick please care about these characters because there is a lot of crap happening oh my god all this stuff all at once and they can't control the situation because it's too big for them whoooooaaaa" then you don't really care because you know that the character's fate is already sealed. There's no tension. It's like if a novel started by telling you that the character will succeed in the end.

Ok, so happy ending right? Well big deal. There was no struggle to get there. I don't care if this dude succeeded. It's the same as when you write a character who always succeeds and is good at everything, etc. You don't care about them because humans don't work that way. Humans fail and have hubris. They have to struggle to get somewhere in life, and everyone can relate to that. Sure, everyone wants to succeed all the time and sometimes that works for escapist fiction, but not if you want to put a person on the edge of their seat and make them laugh and cry.

Ok, this is getting long. Back on track. Toy Story 3 is about toys. But really, it's about people. It's about letting go and moving on and dealing with change. In short, it's about things we all deal with in real life. What makes it even better, what every writer should pay attention to is that it works on more than one level. Andy is going off to College. He as a character is going through a change in his life and dealing with having to put certain things behind him, like his childhood and his toys. At the same time, the toys have to move on, different ways. As Andy's family is moving away from each other and entering new phases of their lives, so are the toys. Woody might be staying with Andy. The other toys might be left behind. Anyway, not trying to tell you the whole movie. The point is that when you have a theme you're trying to portray in a movie, a very effective method is to have the things going on in the bigger world mirror what is going on with each character.

So that's all I really wanted to say. If you ever need inspiration in your writing, take a look at the way Pixar structures a story. It's complex and multi-layered. It's filled with emotional tension. It is funny and happy and sad all at the same time, and it transcends any kind of age barrier.

And yes, I cried a little bit in Toy Story 3. If a story can make you truly feel an emotion in regards to fictional things...making you empathize with them and see how it relates to your own life, then it has done precisely what a good story should do.

That, to me, is what writing is all about. It makes you think and feel, and it changes you.

Don`t we all want to change something, someone sometimes? I know I do. If I could make just one person feel something with a piece of my writing, I think I would consider myself successful.

-James Funfer

Monday, June 21, 2010

A first post (that few will likely read)

I always struggle with denial.

When I was growing up it took me years to consciously accept the fact that I didn't believe in god even though deep down I already knew it to be true. I was in denial about being an adult for a good five years, although I think a lot of my generation struggle with that one. In some ways I'm still in denial about it. I was in denial about my first grey hair. I plucked it from my arm, actually. Out of sight out of mind. Until the grey hairs outnumber the white I think I can get away with that one.

A great showcase of personal denial for me was that strange and uncomfortable feeling you get when you realize that you are no longer as quick to understand technology as you used to be. A new cellular device like a blackberry or internet concept like RSS feeds is presented to you and you actually have to concentrate to understand how it works. Gone are the days when I can simply 'figure something out' by looking at it or fiddling around with it. I'm sure many people my age, or perhaps even most of them can still pick up a new piece of technology and understand it without much of a problem, but it's a matter of proximity and exposure in my mind. I've been out of touch for years, and after a certain age your mind is no longer as mutable as it once was. Now I RTFM all the time now, or use 'wikihows', etc. to understand how technology is out-pacing my understanding of things on a regular basis.

I was in denial about the internet surpassing my capacity for understanding for years. However, I will not take this one lying down. All it takes is a little effort, which I was not until recently willing to give. This is one of the reasons that I have started a new blog and consolidated my internet content into google reader for easier access.

The other reason is to promote myself as a writer.

I am soon to be published through Key Publications ( for those of you who are interested - best site around for aspiring writers) and it occurred to me that promotion and networking are paramount for a new writer. My objective is to start a blog that people will eventually follow; a blog chronicling my writing process as I finish my first novel and beyond. I also plan on including posts about various writing ideas I have along the way, which may or may not be used at some point.

In case anybody is curious, the book is slated to be called 'Hearts of the Betrothed'. The series will likely be titled the 'Shattered Crystal' trilogy.

For anybody who reads this, I would love to answer more questions about the novel if you leave a comment.

In a nutshell, that's the intent of this blog, in any case.