Monday, March 19, 2012

On Writing "Death of Heaven" and "Showing the Monster"

As I've mentioned here before, I have a new book coming out called, "Death of Heaven". Actually, I have two books coming out soon. You know, I've been told all my life that I was a very good writer but I never really believed it, or that I could ever actually become a writer. Even though I was a Senior Technical Writer for many years, so I suppose in a way, I already am a writer.

But they say the" truth is in the pudding", don't they? And I do love my pudding. Or was that "putting"? I put it as good as I can, could, uh, goodly can-- would? Actually it is, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". And so, "the proof is in the pudding". Actually actually, the pudding in question was probably a savory and not a dessert. In William Camden's "Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine" (1605): "All the proof of a pudding is in the eating." Camden's list of proverbs also includes, "If you eat a pudding at home, the dog may have the skin"; and so we are most likely referring to a typical sausage.

Well, well, well now.

Well? I was told frequently as a child how that was a deep subject for such a shallow mind as mine. But I won't let an infirmaty or a disability stop me now. Finally, I've decided that I'm going to grab it by the tail and see who salutes. That is, run it up the flagpole and hold on for dear life.

Possibly, I'll just publish and see if anyone reads it.

My first short story online, "Simon's Beautiful Thought" is currently on Smashwords and Amazon. People seem to like this little Sci Fi tale of romance. So far so good. However, compared to my works coming up soon, it's pretty lightweight, almost sweet in a way. My new book, "Anthology of Evil", is a collection of my short stories of horror, humor and science fiction. Shortly after that will be, "Death of Heaven".

We now have the cover done for the anthology and we're working on the cover for "Death of Heaven". This last book is going to be huge in its scope. Perhaps I'm just working out some demons, but I wanted to go as big as I could. There is a little of everything in it. It has links to a short story in the Anthology and one of my Horror/Comedy screenplays (HearthTales) that I have written. Once these are all produced, I think it will be a lot of fun. I think that is all I will say about it for now.

PreRelease version of "Anthology of Evil" cover
Cover art by Genius Artist Marvin Hayes
Okay, on to the point of this article.

JJ Abrams gave a talk on TED a while back. It's pretty interesting and entertaining. It got me to thinking about my book and what I have done with it. I saw three issues to consider in Abrams talk: imagination, how it relates to the entertainment experience ("showing the monster" or not), and communication between artist/author and audience.

First let me point out a couple of things about imagination and "showing the monster" which has a lot to do with how I structured my book and how I tend to work in my writings. Since Abrams is using film points in his talk, I'll use that as a way to exemplify my own points.

When I was very young and in the years following, movies never wanted to show the monster. Because what they had to work with back then was pretty lame. Before I started watching in the 60s, they used to show the monster in those old horror and sci fi movies. I later saw them as a young kid and they almost always let you down. But back then they were at the caveman level of creating (especially Science Fiction) special effects. So the F/X sucked for the most part. Like Robot Monster (1953) where you had an actor in a gorilla suit and they stuck a "spacesuit helmet on it. Pretty sad.

Robot Monster (1953)
Of course there were better ones. "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954), was just an actor in a suit, but it looked pretty cool. And it went underwater. Even though you could see the zipper down the back, you didn't care because they actually let you see the monster and they put enough time and money into it and the story and production values, that it was really pretty cool.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
So we knew it could be done. Not to mention "King Kong" (1933), various photo enlarged bugs, and others. I loved BEMs back then, Bug Eyed Monsters. I think the show "Outer Limits" back then did a lot to explore that area. They were kind of the BEM version of "The Twilight Zone", the gold standard of bizarre speculative fiction. Rod Serling was a genius.


"Them" (1954) was a valiant effort and we accepted it because it was a pretty good movie and they played it for real. But the giant ants in that film, once shown were pretty fake looking. Still it was such a good effort that we appreciated it and accepted it.


"The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957) is still one of my favorites, and probably the most philosophical Sci Fi of that time. But that was more tricks with cameras and lenses. Still, it looked great. They showed the monster, even though it was either a cat, or a spider made to look far bigger in sight and danger than we were used to seeing it. It took the ordinary and made it terrifying.

Producers and studios realized that it was difficult, expensive and time consuming coming up with good monsters and in the end many times, the audience didn't buy it or appreciate it. So they started not showing the monster. That put the impetus upon the viewer to create what scared them and it worked very well.

The unshown monster in that way is scary to each individual viewer. Hitchcock figured this out and Psycho is a perfect example. He did not show in that shower murder scene 90% of what people think they saw. After viewing that film for the first time, people said they remembered seeing Janet Leigh stabbed and naked, neither of which were true.
But let's face it after a while you get tired of doing all the mental drawing yourself. You want to see the monster and you don't want to be let down. So, along came films like "Jaws" (1975) and "Alien" (1979) which frankly, is understood to be "Jaws in Space". Those were scary movies! And in them when you finally see the monster you sure as Hell are not let down. Well, Jaws' shark was questionable but a valiant effort and the rest of the movie was so good that we let it go.
So, they proved that it can be done.

The other issue is in going bigger. Bigger than life. As big as possible. Bigger. And I don't mean, explosions. The James Bond franchise was one of the worst transgressors of this buffoonery for decades, where they really repeatedly went off the deep end time and time again. Of course I blame studio Execs for this kind of idiocy. And the viewing public certainly has its share of the blame to bear.

It's always been my experience that when you hit a certain level, to continue is to simply make a fool of yourself and your project. So it's best to do a 180, otherwise you jump the shark. And Fonzie jumping the shark on his motorcycle has many times been a far better scene than those in some of the films that thought adding gas to the fire made for a more pleasing filmic experience; when in reality it just made for a bigger fire (or explosion).

At some point the bigger is better paradigm breaks down
As for James Bond, give me a more thrilling experience, not a more action experience. I want to leave that theater drained and exhausted, not bored with yet another but bigger explosion. You get into Nukes eventually. Which is what we're supposed to be avoiding, right?

The turn around for me with Bond was "Casino Royale" (2006) with Daniel Craig. The opening scene was excellent. But again, was it a huge explosion? No. It was two people going against each other and exceeding what is thought to be Humanly possible. The opening chase scene with S├ębastien Foucan and his "Freerunning" or "parkour" sport display was amazing and I found it far more thrilling than any explosion.

So, when I was putting my book, "Death of Heaven" together, I wondered: just how big can I go?
And I thought to myself: go as big as you can. So I did. But what? Bigger than a nuke? Okay, I can do that. But then what? What's bigger than a nuke? Exactly.

I went to the biggest things I could think of. For me, that would be the concepts of God, the Universe and the MultiVerse. Or to go the other direction: dark versions of God, the subatomic domain, as that direction seems to go on forever in the same way the Universe does. Some of it you can leave to the imagination, but at some point you have to show, something. At least how I see it.
The connecting factor between those two concepts of big and small is to go far beyond what we know, where anything is fair game and from our current knowledge and experience, anything is possible.
Still when showing the monster you have to show something, but you also have to leave something to the imagination. In films, you actually have to create and show something, be it with physical F/X or digital.
Now a days there is a lot of digital blood spray, fire, smoke, steam, water effects. And they're getting better, but they are still pretty bad in many cases. But they need time to work through it until they evolve and get better. The more they use it, the sooner they will start to appear realistic. And they will as soon as software, hardware and talent get better at it.

So we put up with it knowing it saved money elsewhere in the film and perhaps gave us a better overall experience. Eventually, we really won't know what is real and what is digital. In some cases we are there now, but in many we are still in the fledgling stages of special F/X. I can remember when the really good digital F/X started but were only in films like Star Wars, or Star Trek.

I remember saying that they will really have matured once they are not noticed in films like Braveheart or RomComs, where they blend and enhance the film without anyone realizing they were there. Now, we are pertty much there. But still, the cutting bleeding edge, are the heavy special F/X users, such as sci fi and horror films. Smoke and fluids seem to be the tough ones still to crack.

But in fiction writing, you don't have those constraints. You can use the reader's imagination more and if you do it properly they won't even know it. But I wanted to give the reader as much to work with as possible. So I felt I had to show my work as well as try to draw on the reader's imagination. There is a balance there and when you hit it just right, both reader and author can be highly satisfied and know that they will return to do it again.
Whether or not I have achieved this lofty goal is yet to be seen. So far though, I've gotten good feedback from readers. I put a lot of work into it over a long period of time and I have at some points stretched myself beyond my own creative limits. Because that is how you get better so that one day you will exceed your present capabilities, as you hopefully will the next and the next time. It took a lot of work, and it has caused me some degree of concern.
I think there is definitely a dynamic between author and reader where one can help the other along. It's symbiotic, or it should be. Yes, the author should write what feels right, but you have to pay attention to your audience. Communication of any kind is a two way street. Don't get angry if someone doesn't follow what you are saying, you are the one saying it after all. If they don't get it, you have to adjust so that they do; and yes, they do need to put in the effort to try and understand you. As in any relationship if you both take on the responsibility when the communication isn't working well, to enhance communication from each end, then you will both have a far better experience and understanding than you would originally have had.
 If the author is not getting across what they are trying to say, then who is wrong? The readers? Well, maybe. Sometimes marketing goes vastly wrong. A Romance reader may very well not get a hard Sci Fi story. And the far religious right will probably hate my writings. Mostly because I have put a lot of thought and research into my works and I'm not limited to any artificial boundaries like religion sets for its followers.

I read the Bible many years ago and such books as: The Bhagavad Gita, The Koran (as most Westerners seem to spell it, but then they also say "Buddhist" when really it is "Buddha Dharma", referring to the study of those teachings), and others. But I also researched where the Bible came from, and the others. And I read many other non religious books, historical, scientific, physics and metaphysics, and so on. I also got a University degree and studied psychology (my major) and Anthropology and Sociology.

My brother used to like to tease me saying that college students are "college stupid"; and there is something to be said for that. College isn't the end all be all if you come out of it closed minded in merely a more educated way. And when I graduated I thought again, as I did in graduating High School, or in becoming a teenager that I knew everything. I didn't.

In fact, what college taught me was that as I grew more knowledgeable, I grew to know that I knew less and less about  more and more. Religion is the opposite; as you learn more you actually want to know less and less. You don't want to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, right? Because once you start thinking that way, religion starts to fall apart.

Anyway, I was still better off than before I went to college. In the end you just have to come to terms with exactly what you know.

"A good man knows his limitations", someone once told me. And that is a powerful thing to know.

Whenever you push your limits, as I was mentioning earlier, you are always going to be sweating bullets until the consensus is in. Was it positive? Or negative? Basically, you want to hear what direction it is heading. I just want to know if it's negative or not, at first. Then I want to know the specifics so that hopefully I can learn from it, adjust what I  am doing and in the end, turn out a far superior work next time.

All that being said, sometimes you just have to write. Sometimes you are ahead of the times. Like Van Gogh. But truly, there is no reason as an artist to starve if you pay attention. You can always "do your art" as well as make a living. Being too much the idealist, is immature really, not purist.

If my book isn't selling in say, Spain, then maybe next time around I'll distribute copies there in Spanish. Yes, you should write what you feel, but you should also consider how you need to communicate to your audience. "Art" is not all about doing what you think is right. It's also a form of communication, sharing an experience, taking your viewers into your mind and letting them feel what you feel.

Then again I read some authors because I know they are better at their Art than I am at understanding it and I want to get to where I can understand them, because I know I'll be better for it.
In the end, I just want people to know that I certainly put in the effort in my writings and that I took a chance. Because I felt I really had to. And I always will. That's just who I am. Otherwise, why am I doing it if not to entertain and progressively develop my skills in order to do it again and again? Then hopefully the next time I will be even better at it.

I'm here to entertain and hopefully offer a different way of looking at things, especially the mundane in life. And if I can do that and you take a few new ways of looking at things after reading my works, then I will be a satisfied and proud writer indeed.

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