Being Complacent With Failure?

Those aren't tears! That's life lubricant!

June 8, 2012

If there’s one surefire way to get me utterly mad at you, it’s to tell me “Everything happens for a reason” right after something bad happens.

Of course everything happens for a reason. It’s cause and effect. Things don’t happen without a reason. If they did, it would mean physics themselves had broken down and we were two seconds away from reality coming apart like a cheap sweater.

“Everything happens for a reason” is a nice way of trying to comfort someone by saying that something bad had a greater purpose. This supposes a universe that runs on a set plan that cannot be altered and is eventually going to come to a happy ending for someone. For example, major disasters “happen for a reason” to maybe teach the rest of us about humility and what is really important. Good for us, bad for the victims. 9/11 “happened for a reason” to bring us together as a country. Great, except we started two wars, destroyed our image abroad, and have a few hundred thousands dead people overseas that would disagree.

depression by ~deathswife666 on deviantART
Me? I’m currently trying to pitch a book no one seems to want to buy and am eating nothing but vegetables because meat is too costly. Oh, and I haven’t filled up my gas tank with more than ten bucks at a time because I never have that much available at any one time.

“Elves With Shotguns” is selling… not well. People who’ve read it like it and have left wonderful reviews, but it’s not getting the exposure it needs. This mostly has to do with not having any money for a budget. My bank account is pretty much shot. A month of no work will do that to you. I wish we had the time to do everything that’s asked for us, as well as pay comparable to other institutions around the country, but that’s never going to happen. I’d be happy to be able to work just 30 hours a week.

And yet…

A long time ago, I learned something about being frustrated and angry and down. I learned from both being in that position and being the teacher that gave a bad grade. Yes, you can be down. Yes, go get a drink. Get a lot of drinks. Vent. Punch a pillow, not a wall. I learned that last one the hard way. Play a video game and blow stuff up. Let it all out.

Then move on.

Everything happens for a reason, I know. Politics, favoritism, the economy, whatever. I can’t control those things. I can, however, control how much harder I look for freelance work. I can control how I decide to just power through the depression and get going with my life. I’m the one who decides I will look for a second, third, even fourth job. And if that fails, I’ll go out and drink, I’ll vent, I’ll punch a pillow…

And then I’ll take a deep breath, gather myself, and start over. Again. As many times as necessary.

Morning of Determination by *xkillz on deviantART

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to scrape by. It’s not the first time a plan to bring in extra income blew up in my face. It’s not the first time I felt the world was coming down on me.

I can’t afford to get some drinks, so here’s what I’ll do…

I’m going to have a minor freak out, calm myself, and remember the people around me. I’m going to get back to work and finish Charcoal Streets. I will spend time with my friends and family. I will keep my mind busy on the goal.

Frankly, I don’t have time to fail. No one should. Everyone should have something they aspire to do. Write, draw, read, cook, whatever. It’s not enough to just work, eat, and watch TV. We have to keep creating, doing something productive. Yes, watch cartoons, go out with friends, but creation is what keeps us sane, what keeps us going. Passivity is the death of the soul.

“Everything happens for a reason”?

Yeah, it does. I’m choosing to keep going. I would never ask anything of my students I wouldn’t do myself, so if they get upset they didn’t pass a practice test, I’ll just smile and tell them to keep going. I expect nothing less from them. The reason I’m still going is because to choose to do so.

That’s the reason. And I made it. You should, too.

And now, to help lighten the mood, let’s enjoy a mini-pig going down the stairs and nailing the dive.

Why Plagiarism is Good 2: The Return

If you squint, you can almost see the public domain rights.

November 16, 2011

As I work on the next Charcoal Streets story and edit the manuscript, I can’t help but wonder at the morality of borrowing characters, ideas, even entire storylines. Every writer’s done it. House? It’s Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. Lion King? It’s pretty much Hamlet with animals. Even my beloved Batman is a copy of Zorro, another childhood hero of mine.

Speaking of which, where did the Spanish and Mexican superheroes go?

Anyway, back to the subject at hand…

Borrowing ideas is not a necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re just starting out. They can be the launch pad for another, better idea. When I first started writing fiction, it was mostly science fiction and I shamelessly borrowed ideas and plots from Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and anything and everything I could find in the genre. Looking back on those old stories will no doubt show shameless plagiarism, but it was a way to learn the ropes, how to structure a story, characters, etc.

Plagiarism by ~FatesDarkHand on deviantART

One assignment I received in college was to try and imitate a poet’s style. I can’t for the life of me remember who I picked, but I remember thinking that imitation was the last thing you wanted to do at that level. I wanted to find my own voice. However, we found that trying to imitate the style made us aware of our own style, for better or worse. We saw the words we used over and over again and even the type of diction we were more comfortable with.

Such an exercise is good for any writer, or any artist for that matter. If you’re a photographer, try to imitate a style or even a photograph you really like. You may find a new angle or even location filled with opportunity. Painters and other visual artists can do the same thing with famous works of art.

There is, however, a flipside to this exercise. You can easily become enamored with someone else’s style and forget to develop your own. For example, a lot of young artists start by drawing anime-style. It’s a simple, well-known set of designs that people can use to learn things like proportion and movement. Fine. I get that.

Anime by ~AmaraKaiba on deviantART

I don’t, however, get why many people continue to use that same style for everything they draw. I can’t tell the difference between one person’s chibi and another’s manga. This is also the problem with action and horror movies. It’s one thing to try and imitate John Woo or Alfred Hitchcock, but some people never get past the imitation. Musicians can also easily fall into this as they religiously hold on to certain styles. It takes skill to get past that initial exercise and make something unique.

Take the Ravenloft campaign for Dungeons and Dragons, for example. The original setting and adventure are shameless copies of everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Strahd stands in for the Count just like Adam stands in the Frankenstein’s creature. Over the last several years, though, the setting has been fleshed out. The Vistani, who originally stood in for the gypsies in Stoker’s novel, are now a full-fledged culture in the game with their own rituals, history, and the like. The land of Barovia is superficially Transylvania and any other European country that can’t pronounce its w’s, but now it is part of an elaborate prison for dark forces and offers a lot more than just Gothic locales.

Barovia by ~coyotemax on deviantART

Indiana Jones was a throwback of old pulp stories and tropes. Now, it’s a standard in action-adventure. Battlestar Galactica was a blatant rip-off of Star Wars, but it evolved into one of the most acclaimed SF series in a long time.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It was can also be a wonderful exercise into your own limitations or an experiment to try new techniques. It should not, however, become the end.

Now go out there and do some plagiarism.

Uhm, I mean research.

And if you need a short break, here are a group of guys who took eighteen different genres and turned them into something new and awesome.

Why Plagiarism is Good

It's yours if the new version is better...

January 19, 2011

Have you ever read the sequel to Macbeth? No? It’s really cool. The witches resurrect everyone at Hecate’s order in order to have them work out their differences at a lavish, magical banquet.

What about the stunning trilogy set after the events of “The Call of Cthulhu” wherein the narrator tracks down remnants of the Cthulhu cult and tries to close the cosmic seals keeping the Great Old One asleep?

No? Yeah, me neither.

There’s something massively appealing, though, about continuing a classic work. It’s not unheard of. There’s an unofficial sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a volume Adams never wrote. Even the archetypical vampire, Dracula, got a sequel long after Stoker himself was dust. These books enjoy a measure of success, but they do beg the question of how you can go about making an adaptation of a famous work.

The internet is full of fan fiction, sure, but that’s not quite the same. It’s the same fanboy impulse to make things “cool” or appeal to the most superficial aspects of a work that gave us Star Trek Nemesis, a movie so full of itself it’s like a Star Trek matryoshka doll. No. Sequels, or even prequels, based on well-loved works have to do a few things.

First of all, though, they are sequels.

Think of the great sequels in film (Terminator 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Dark Knight) and now think of how they compare next to the originals. They build on the premise of the first and do something new with it. They balance the nostalgia for that first hit of McClane with that new rush of Joker.

So why can’t we take old, public-domain works and just make them our own? Why isn’t everyone looking for that new spin on the old classics?

Probably for the same reason horror movies almost always get a sequel.

Sequels can very easily fall into the trap of just rehashing the old story. Sometimes, though, it’s the story itself that’s intriguing. The first and third Die Hard movies have a very similar plot: bad guy fakes one crime to cover up a more profitable one.

Sometimes the characters are what drive the story. No one would want to read a story about Alice where she wasn’t somehow involved in Wonderland, but take Ellen Ripley and put her on a new planet crawling with xenomorphs and a scared little girl and you have one the greatest 80’s films.

Ripley by *ertacaltinoz on deviantART

One of the best ways to learn anything is imitation. We learn to talk by imitating sounds. We learn a sport by watching others play it, then trying to imitate their movements.

And we learn good writing by imitating the greats. It’s not a bad exercise. Fan fiction is, at worst, an attempt at literary wanking. At its best, it’s an homage and a way to develop your own style by seeing how the classics were built.

Try and write that final chapter to your favorite book. Take a short story and ask yourself, “What made it so good? And what happened afterwards?”

Mark Twain once said that stealing from many people is not plagiarism. It’s research. Why not borrow from the best?

Art is nothing if not the synthesis of the world around us into new forms and shapes.

Homage by ~insomalia on deviantART

Well, time for the links and randomness.

  • Some of you may have already heard about this, but a dog belonging to a flood victim in Brazil is so loyal that it remains with its owner… even though the owner is dead.
  • If you think you’ve got mad acrobatic skills like Spiderman… you’re about one bad decision away from a broken neck. Like this guy.
  • And finally, proving that digging into the past is never a bad way to make something great, here’s the Nostalgia Critic with a review of Neverending Story III. See you Friday, and make sure you vote on this week’s poll in the upper right!