Category Archives: Movies

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

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The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.

Becoming a Writer: “Whisper of the Heart”

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness")

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”)

Life demands and a lack of money have prevented me from going out to movies very often in the last couple of years. I had to end my Netflix subscription also a year ago in order to save money. I hadn’t realized how much I missed movies until a co-worker and I got into a conversation about the brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. We’re both dedicated fans of his work, and my co-worker offered to loan me an early movie that Miyazaki had done the screenplay and storyboards for and I’d not seen. All he’d say about it was that it was sweet and wonderful, more grounded in reality than Miyazaki’s later work but with touches of magic. I jumped at the opportunity to see a Miyazaki movie I hadn’t seen before.

DVD from Disney

DVD from Disney

In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku, a young teen, has reached the point when she’s begun to question the direction of her life and what her true talents are. She loves to read and her father works in a library which gives Shizuku easy access to lots of books. She notices that a boy, Seiji, has checked out all the books before her that she’s been reading. This strange fact sparks her curiosity and imagination. One day, as she’s on her way to the library on the train, a cat with one purple ear catches her attention. The cat jumps up onto the seat next to her and studiously ignores her attempts to befriend him.  When the cat gets off the train at her stop, she runs after him, follows him up hills to a lovely residential neighborhood. True to cat behavior, he continues to ignore Shizuku, but seems to point the way to an intriguing antique store where she meets the elderly owner and The Baron, a cat figurine.

By this point, I’m totally hooked into this story, especially as Shizuku keeps running into a mysterious boy, Seiji, who turns out to be the grandson of the antique store’s owner. I don’t want to give away too much of this gentle story revealing the emotional lives of creative teens and how they help, support, and inspire each other. What I want to review about this movie is how Miyazaki reveals the life of the creative artist, and what the creative process is really like.  For Shizuku is a budding writer, and Seiji a budding violin maker who can also play a mean violin.

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

How does someone become creative? More specifically, how does someone become a creative artist?  Every human being on this planet is creative in his or her own way.  For example, problem solving requires creativity and imagination. Relating to each other successfully takes a lot of imagination (for empathy) and creativity. But when it comes to art, this is when the human mind and imagination fuse to bring forth truths of existence in ways that stimulate the imaginations of the people who are experiencing the art. As Miyazaki has done with Whisper of the Heart.

I believe that we are each born to certain lives but we each have the choice of whether to fulfill those particular lives or do something else. My father, for example, loved music and art — he played the clarinet and painted oil pictures — but he chose not to fulfill that creative spark; instead he chose to pursue a job in financial services. He allowed the powerful influence of American society to pursue “business” and the making of money to squash whatever creative inclinations he had. Fortunately for me, he supported my creative pursuits from my first forays in elementary school, but only up to a point. He notoriously said to me when I announced my music major in college, “You can’t eat a piano,” and when I told him and my mother that I’d finally recognized my creative spirit in writing, he responded with the pithy, “Writers are prostitutes.”

Shizuku and the Baron

Shizuku and the Baron (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Which brings me to the crux of Whisper of the Heart. Being a creative artist is extremely difficult even in the best of times or most supportive of conditions. Other people — family, friends, as well as strangers — will pressure the artist to do something more “practical,” to not pursue creative expression, and this pressure can be incredibly strong, often hurtful, and constant. It takes power and a belief in the strength of the soul’s desire to be creative in spite of the pressure not to be. And then there are the self doubts. Both Shizuku and Seiji eloquently show and tell others their doubts about their abilities and talents. But they keep going because they must. And that need is inspired and supported and sustained by each other as well as Seiji’s grandfather. (Not to mention the cat with one purple ear and The Baron!)

My favorite moment in this movie (in addition to the moment Shizuku meets the cat)? It’s when, after Seiji’s grandfather has read her story and told her that it’s a wonderful raw gem that now needs cutting and polishing, Shizuku bursts into tears, wailing that she doesn’t know if she can do it.  Been there, done that!  Many times. So, Whisper of the Heart is not only Miyazaki’s homage to the creative process, but the moving story of a young writer discovering her imagination and the creative process in writing.

I loved this movie! (It’s now on my Amazon wish list.)  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creative process, in writing, in Japanese animation, or in the early work of Hayao Miyazaki to see how his creative expression was developing.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net

The Copyright Conversation

copyright symbol

Recently, I attended a potluck picnic of a bunch of friends, and at one point the conversation turned to the length of time that copyright is in effect for creative product such as novels, TV shows, and movies.  It began with one friend telling us about some new Star Trek fan videos that included some actors noted for their Star Trek characters like Walter Koenig who played Chekhov.  Paramount Studios, the TV and motion picture company that bought Desilu Productions, the original producing company for the show, had taken legal steps to stop any more fan videos from being produced.  Paramount owns the Star Trek franchise, and the copyright, which began with the original series in 1966.  Several friends jumped on Paramount for stopping fan creativity and fans using their creativity to “move the Star Trek universe forward.”

Paramount has the right to earn money by selling its product whether it’s a TV show, a movie, or licensing the rights to develop new TV shows based on the characters of an old one they own. They are in the process of developing and producing a new Star Trek TV show with CBS.  They have a new Star Trek movie coming out this July. It’s not like they aren’t using their property.  Since the original show was copyrighted in 1966 (I think), it’s been only 50 years, and far less from the other shows in the franchise like Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The pro-fan fiction friends wanted copyright to end much earlier than it does and for property like the Star Trek franchise to enter the public domain much sooner.  They weren’t against the protections that copyright offers, just that those protections last too long, in their view.  One fellow suggested that others could use the original work to “build on” with their own creations.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107As a writer who owns copyright on my writing, including Perceval’s Secret, I was horrified. I periodically do a search of the internet to make certain that my creative product has not been scavenged and sold to benefit someone else. And by scavenged, I mean sold as someone else’s work, with a different author name, etc.  It astonishes me how many people (especially those not involved in producing creative product like writing, composing music, painting, etc.) think that writers, composers, photographers, producers, etc. should not be able to benefit from creating their novels, music, photos, TV shows and movies, etc. for the current copyright period of life plus 50 years.  One fellow commented that well then a writer should write more books.  Hmmmmm.

Let’s review current copyright law which went into effect in 1978.  For works created and copyrighted before January 1, 1978, copyright protection has two terms.  The first term is in effect from the date the copyright is secured (by publication or registration) and for 28 years thereafter.  In the 28th year, the copyright may be renewed for a second term which has a duration of 47 years.  If not renewed, the copyright ends and the work goes into the public domain. Star Trek was created before January 1, 1978, and I suspect Paramount renewed its copyright when it came up for renewal in 1994. Paramount still owns the copyright until 2041.  For works created after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright is the duration of the creator/holder’s life plus 50 years, and the work does not have to be published or registered for the copyright to be in force.  There is no renewal.  Copyrights can be transferred but revert back to the original owner after 35 years.

Most books are not bestsellers.  In fact, I, for example, will be happy to have midlist books that earn me a consistent, steady annual income in royalties.  That money is my payment for the years of work I’ve put into my writing when I earned $0, i.e. the last 20+ years. Going forward, one book usually doesn’t earn enough per year to make a huge difference, so writers generally do write more books (as well as other things like articles, essays, book reviews, etc.), each new book adding to the royalty income stream.  I have no idea how much a midlist author earns per year on one book, two books, five books, or ten books.  And it depends a lot on the market, of course.  Some books bomb.  Others do better than average.  As a writer, I DESERVE that royalty income as payment for my work, and I want that copyright protection to be in force for the legal duration. Taking that copyright away from me, for any period of time, is like robbery.

As a writer, I’ve also done “work for hire” writing, which is probably what Gene Roddenberry was doing when he created the original Star Trek series.  This type of writing is done under an employment contract of some sort, and the product  produced is owned by the employer, including the copyright.  When I do work for hire projects, I am paid a one-time fee for the writing project. This is how I worked with my clients when I was a freelance copywriter.  However, newspaper reporters are employees for their newspapers and their job, for which they are paid, is to produce writing.  The newspaper owns the copyright. Then there is the freelance writer who sells first serial rights to a magazine for an article or story but retains copyright.  There are several sub-copyrights that can be sold in publishing such as audio, digital, print, movie and TV, first serial (for publishing excerpts), and then by geography, such as North American rights, English language rights, foreign rights. (This is a very brief overview of a complicated topic.)

Of course, I suspect that my friends wouldn’t care much about any writing or TV show or movie that didn’t interest them.  But Star Trek? They were quite certain that for that, Paramount should relinquish its copyright so that others can develop that universe for free.

What do you think?

 

Voice of The Other

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

As a writer, I explore the human condition and human behavior. People fascinate me. As I create a character, I ask myself a lot of questions — in fact, I have a list of questions that I go through several times until I feel in my bones that I’ve gotten a character right.  Each character tells me who he or she is, history, desires, goals, friends and family. I listen and write.  There are times when I feel as if I’m channeling a character.  I believe this is how it should be when writing fiction.

Last week at nytimes.com, I read interesting commentary in their “Bookends” feature from Anna Holmes and James Parker entitled “Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories?”  When a writer creates a character outside the writer’s own race, gender, sexual orientation, income, and heritage, is the writer operating with empathy or exploitation?  Anna Holmes writes: “…identity is part of experience, and that experience (or the absence of such) should not preclude anyone from telling other people’s stories.”  James Parker writes: “To the degree that you are using a person, a character, simply to propel your plot or give shape to your ideas, to that same degree you are denying this character his or her full reality — and your story will suffer accordingly. Where empathy stops, in other words, exploitation starts.”  Holmes and Parker agree that writing about The Other must be done with care and profound respect.

Writers cannot limit themselves in any way.  They must write about whoever shows up to tell his or her story.  But I do understand that some writers follow formulas, whether that is for the romance, mystery, or thriller genres, and write plot-driven stories rather than character-driven ones.  I think that plot-driven stories can fall prey to the exploitation of The Other rather than empathizing through The Others’ voices and experiences.  Character development can be minimal in plot-driven stories.

"Independence Day" movie poster 1996

“Independence Day” movie poster 1996

I believe that it’s also important for each writer to know himself enough to know and understand his prejudices and guard against them or purge them.  A writer’s prejudices can leak into a story in subtle ways, stealthy and damaging to the writing. Just this morning, I saw an ad on TV for a new Independence Day movie, a sequel to the first which came out on July 4, 1996.  I recall seeing that first movie and while I enjoyed the action, what bothered me the most was that it was so American-centric.  Do Americans really believe that if earth, i.e. the entire planet, is invaded by aliens that they’d focus their attack primarily on America and only Americans would be able to save the entire planet?  I noticed that same prejudice in the ad for the sequel.  (How movies and the arts reflect the prevailing societal beliefs and emotions is a subject for another post sometime.) As an American writer, do I also suffer from this prejudice? Every American writer, especially those writing science fiction, need to be aware of it and open themselves to other possibilities.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107When Evan Quinn arrived, before he’d revealed his name to me, I saw him conducting the empty Grosser Saal stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. At the time, I knew little about conductors and I didn’t want him to be a conductor.  When I decided that he’d be an auto mechanic, Evan invaded my night dreams, dressed in his white tie and tails, his expression angry, and he scared me.  After four nights of him scaring me awake, I relented.  Evan was an orchestra conductor and that was it.  I would just have to knuckle under and do the research such a main character required in order to make him authentic.  When writing a character that is The Other, it’s important to be open to that person’s experience and life, to do the research needed to insure authenticity, to put yourself as the writer in that character’s shoes.  No matter how long it takes or how difficult.  I think this is true for any writer of fiction no matter that writer’s race, gender, sexual orientation, income, or heritage.

I want to conclude with a lovely quote from Damyanti Biswas at Daily (W)rite:

“A live story is to be as true to the character as possible, as true to the emotion, the circumstance as I can, and to always, always suspend judgement. More than anything else, it is about being true to my body, the urge inside of it to bend towards writing. Indeed, it is to use all of my body to write, and to obliterate from the story its teller, to leave as few signs of the artist and the craft as possible, so that the story takes on a life of its own, independent of me.”

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015