All About matsugawa
As I've said of writing, one of the biggest struggles to overcome with it as an artistic medium is that have near-infinite levels of undo. Granted, most mediums have their own "reset" buttons, like tearing a sheet out of the sketchbook to start fresh, painting over the canvas, and of course "clear" options in drawing programs. With writing, however, there's considerably less loss beyond, at most, paper, which you're either not using very much of anyway or you're using such an inferior grade of paper because it's only a draft. The point is, there's no effort to the undo, simply a matter of holding down the backspace button until your screen is white (or gray, or black, or blue, or whatever color you've got your text editor of choice set to).
Something I think concerns every writer is the level of detail and immersion that comes through in the finished product. On the one hand, you want people to get immersed, to feel invested, to see what you're seeing when you write. On the other hand, your audience isn't stupid, and they're certainly not without an imagination of their own, so they neither want nor need their hand held. Chekov teaches us that the best way to approach detail is to make sure that you only include parts essential to the story and simply learn to let the rest go. If there's a gun on the mantle in act one, somebody better be waving it about and at least threatening to use it by act three.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my all-time favorite movies. I hated it when I first saw it at age 12, but in two years time, seeing it again was transcendent. In short: I got it. I don't know exactly what it was I "got" but I know I got it. It builds an amazing world with very few elements in it, hardly any of which are explained in any overt fashion. If you've read the book, though, you see that everything has a purpose and its own reason for being. This was by design from the word go.
A lot of people think the book is based on the film and not the other way round. Actually, it was something more cyclic and nebulous, almost kinky. John Fowles (The Magus, The Collector) said that writing a novel is easy, but that writing a screenplay is like swimming in treacle. Screenplays are only literature in the loosest possible way: they're things you can read. The difference is that a novel is a standalone work while a screenplay is an instruction manual for something else. In other words, they're not supposed to paint a complete picture; that's for the art directors, production designers, wardrobe, makeup, and anyone else who gets at least a line in the closing credits. In other words, it's a component at best. Screenplays are also meant to move in more or less real time. A novel can have an entire chapter devoted to the architecture of the family estate, but a script has to keep things moving at the rate of a page per minute of screen time.
To combat this, Kubrick and Clarke worked on the novel first, using a few of Clarke's short stories as jumping-off points. Once that world was fleshed out in a medium known for being far more free-form in terms of structure, length, and pacing, it was all the easier to distill it into a scene-by-scene shot list for the crew and dialogue for the cast.
When writing shortform fiction, there's a similar sort of idea at play. It's all about efficiency and simplicity, keeping the pace while still making facetime with your details. If you're having difficulty keeping the length down or your readers complain about pacing or overexplanation, a good way to move past that habit is to get it all out there, but not in one place.
Here's an idea: even if you can't draw, try sketching the room the action is taking place in. Use that as a guide for when you block out the action. If you succeed, there shouldn't be any confusion about location in the final piece. If your character has an unusual costume, write up a head-to-toe summary, even if its merely a list separated into sections like "head," "torso," and "legs." Think of it like a prop list for a stage play or the character customization screen in a game. Does the world this is set in have a rich history, write up a timeline by year, including bullet points of births, deaths, marriages, company buyouts, and political shifts, among other things.
Most of this will not find its way directly into your final story, but by having it all laid out in front of you, you don't have to burn the candle at both ends by creating a world and telling you about something going on inside of it. You can focus on what's important an then go back to add in little tidbits of information or foster the seedlings you already planted along the way.
That's the funny part about the written word, it can be obsessively specific and amusingly vague at the same time. The key to mastering it is understanding how these two ideals can coexist.
Some people get nostalgic when they have to use pen & paper when playing a videogame, whether it's to make your own map or work out a puzzle or even just write down the solution. There was a lot of genuine excitement when the developers of Grimrock included a printable PDF of custom graph paper for people to use in lieu of the game's built-in map function. I even remember the original MYST coming with a blank notebook. If I think further back, I remember someone at a neighbor's house handing me a memo pad when I sat down to play one of the Carmen Sandiego games to work out the clues.
I'm not a very smart person. I'm really not.
I was a "B" student through most of middle school, high school, and the entirety of college. That may sound like a decent achievement, but it was arduous and painful. I was in Honors Algebra I in high school, and I would often be at my desk, my forehead pressed against the paper (as if trying to will the answers into existence) in tears. I'd stare at a jar of broken pencils, trying to keep things in perspective and not let it all get to me. The reasons why I struggled so much are many and varied, much of it owed to the kinds of mixed signals parents often unknowingly send to their kids when it comes to expectations. In short, unless I was told so, I wasn't allowed to be okay with anything. If I was too calm about something, I'd be chastised for not taking things seriously. If I beat myself up about something, I'd be told to calm down and keep things in perspective. There was no middle ground, the choices being to either make mountains out of molehills or get them made for me. Failure was almost always chalked up to simply not trying hard enough or wanting to win enough.
I bring this up because I gave Machinarium a try. It's a point-and-click adventure game where you solve puzzles to get past certain obstacles and progress farther in the story. You'll gather items, talk to people (robots), you'll move things around, you'll read little schematics or symbols. The game is broken up into individual screens (sometimes two or more) of either a single room or series of rooms, each one a puzzle unto itself, with one rarely carrying over into the other. I solved the first one easy enough, but the second one resulted in me doing a search for a solution. At first, my reaction was "well, duh." but then I stopped and asked, "Well, how would I have known I could do that?" Often the solutions in these games come as a result of getting mad and clicking on anything and everything, eventually discovering the solution completely by accident. This was not a good start.
The next puzzle involved flipping a series of switches to lower a beam to climb on. I kept trying to work out how the symbols on the switches corresponded to actions, eventually working something out that only really held up about one in every five times. I should have felt proud for solving it without the walkthrough, but I wasn't.
To its credit, Machinarium will hold your hand on occasion, but it does so in a novel way I've never really seen before. In the upper right corner of the screen are two icons, one a question mark that isn't selectable (how this is made otherwise is never all that clear) showing a simple illustration of what should be done in order to progress. The other icon is for a notebook with a curious electronic lock. In fact, it's less a lock and more of a minigame. You suddenly get to play as a small, flying key shooting at spiders while scrolling left to right until you reach the keyhole at the end of the stage. If you complete this scrolling shooter (my favorite videogame genre, by the way), you get a rather beautifully illustrated set of storyboards revealing the solution to the screen's puzzle. In other words, it gives you the answer, but it makes you work for it. It's very novel.
The detail of these answers varies at times, often only telling you that something is a puzzle, but not actually showing you how to solve the sliding block or red wire/black wire problem, leaving that up to you. This is where I start to develop a complex and almost abusive relationship with the game; I should be having fun, I enjoy taking on a challenge, I know there's no real pressure, and I know there's no one around to point and laugh when I need to take a few extra steps than most. So, why does the idea of getting out pen & paper feel so defeating? There was a puzzle I absolutely couldn't figure out. It was like that wolf-chicken-feed puzzle but with way more flora and fauna. The shmup hint book gave me the solution, but instead of writing it down, I tried memorizing it, even checking back every few steps. It didn't work. I started to get up to get some scratch paper and a pen, only to feel very depressed.
I turned off the game, resolving to just come back later. Unfortunately, like I said, giving up (even briefly, with resolve to return, and after trying my best) doesn't sit well with me. It brings back a painful memory, a fight I had with someone. Someone has a go at you in frustration, and says something hurtful. The memory itself is really nothing special, certainly nothing traumatic, but it's one of those lingering echoes that comes back to haunt you at the worst possible time. A harmless little remark over a game of chess or basketball or Mario suddenly becomes this metaphor for your whole life (even though the person who made this remark is themselves barely older than you). Worse is when someone else comes along to tell the self-appointed life coach to back off, only to turn the mess into a full-on scene. Doors get slammed, chess pieces get picked up,
Machinarium is a game that makes me very sad, but not for the reasons it probably wants me to be.
It's been over a full year since I made a journal entry here, easily my least visible weblog. I really don't socialize here all that much, as more people are probably interested in discussing gameplay strategies or recomendations than what I end up talking about when it comes to games, like characters and stories. Speaking of which, I've been doing some writing lately. I figured, since it's still technically November, National Novel Writers Month is still going on (if drawing to a close), and this was the place where I first linked one of my last short stories Ladyhorse, I thought I'd share some writing tips I've learned and picked up over the years. Some of these are my own, most are from other (and far better) writers than me.
1. Don't stop, take a break, or get up from what you're writing unless you know what the next thing you'll put down when you get back is.
This one comes from Sir Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. Not exactly a writer by trade, but while making his memoirs, detailing not just his acting career but his rather embarassing tenure as a submarine captain in the Queen's Army (which led to a lampost in New York city getting bent backward like a hairpin), he went through a few trials and tribulations, noting that it's easy to go into something with full enthusiasm and wind up getting bogged down.
2. Cut out all those exclamation marks, and exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and while I may not completely agree with it, it's still a good way to approach the way you paint a picture. My mom (an english teacher) had a saying of sorts, "If it's in quotes, anything goes." In other words, it's fine to use things like exclamation marks or bad grammar if it's a character speaking, because that's how the character may well talk. As for the prose itself, even if it's in first person, you should try to keep a level of formality and distance from the subject matter. I'd also add the caveat to never use question marks outside of dialogue, because you're ultimately writing a rhetorical question directed at the reader. Obviously, the reader can't answer, and if it's going to be addressed in the story anyway, you've not only wasted the reader's time, but also taken them out of the story.
3. When in doubt, make two sentences.
This is one of mine. I get asked about grammar all the time, and it's something that's really hard to give advice on for two reasons. 1) Writing is a very personal thing, and even if it's only the nuts-and-bolts I'm giving you guidance on, I'm ultimately teaching you how to bare your soul, and no one can do that but you. 2) If you have to ask for help on the fundamentals, you're doing it wrong. Look, I don't speak perfect grammar. For one thing, subject-verb agreements always throw me off and I can almost never keep a consistent verb tense throughout. I'd like to think the stories still make sense, but it is something that irks me. In any case, while I may not speak perfect grammar, I like to think I work at at least a B-grade level. I'm aware of run-ons, I know how commas work, and I know the distinction between dependent and independent clauses, among other things. These are the basics. If you don't know to look behind you in a car when you're backing out of a space, it doesn't matter how good the rest of your driving skills are; you should not be behind the wheel. It doesn't matter how good your free-throw average is; if you can't dribble the ball, you're not going to make the team. So, while I'm not interested in doing "remedial work" on whatever you can't do, I can give you a little bit of advice if you find a sentence is running away from you or going on too long or carries too many modifiers. Split it. Don't worry about how each sentence sounds on its own, if they're side-by-side in the paragraph, the reader is smart enough to connect the dots.
4. Write anything.
This is a cure for writer's block, or even a decreasing enthusiasm. I don't think I've met a single writer who never wrote an entire work in sequential order. That is, never did they skip ahead to write a later part of the story and fill in the gaps when they're more up to the task. If you'd rather stop with the opening chapters and get straight to the action in the third act, go right ahead and write it; chances are you're in the better mindset for that than what you're doing. Granted, it's entirely possible to write yourself into a corner that way, but who said anything about what you put down being set in stone? Speaking of which:
5. Avoid constnat re-writes.
Terrance Dicks was the script editor on the original Doctor Who series, namely Jon Pertwee's tenure. When writing a script for an established show with existing characters you most likely didn't create, it goes without saying that you're probably not going to hit all the right marks, especially on that first draft. On the other hand, between actors taking liberties with their lines to be more suitable to their performances (often with the guidance of the director and sometimes even the writer) as well as behind-the-scenes happenings that may lead to changes in location or structure, it's more likely that things won't get better, but worse. To minimize this sort of issue, Dicks had a rule: First draft gets reviewed and given notes before being returned to the writer for a second draft. Second draft comes in, the editor will say, "it's good, we'll take it. One or two changes, maybe, but we'll call it locked." the writer is then paid in full, and Dicks will either make those one or two changes, or--as a last resort--do a complete top-to-bottom re-write, leaving the writer's name on it if they so desire. It may sound rather unfair to the writer, but it's better than going through 8 drafts and wasting your time experimenting with things that shold already be down pat.
So, that's the best advice I think I can give. Now that I've essentially taken my own advice with point 4, I think I'm ready to go back to what I was already working on.
My Recent Reviews
Some people just don't have opinions. Like matsugawa.
Part The Last of this series of bogus audiologs for a game that never was.
The third (but not final) installment in a series of faux audiologs for a game that never was.
A second installment of my faux audiologs.
May 11, 2013 9:22 pm GMTmatsugawa posted a new blog entry entitled Story/Plot, Universe/World