SPREY Log #13 – Genre Research

Exciting news, I finished reading Brian McDonald’s “Invisible Ink” and started reading the next book already. I will put “Invisible Ink” away for a couple of weeks and then read it again, just to make sure I haven’t missed the point. Then, I was very lucky as my kindle recommended K.M. Weiland’s “Writing your story’s theme” to me. Perfect, I told myself, reading another voice dealing with exactly what plagues me at the moment could be the best call now. And I found a treasure indeed.

First of all, according to Weiland what I have gone through and discovered througout my own past blog entries and writing sessions is true. Theme is indeed ethereal and you can actually craft a story without ever consciously dealing with any of it. You then just aren’t guaranteed a coherent theme will manifest through your instincts alone.

Weiland offers a more open view on theme than McDonald declaring theme a personal practise of each writer. She does for example not exclude single word themes or a preaching approach where you offer an answer to humanity’s biggest problems yourself from being acceptable themes. What I learn from this is that I can treat it like the discussion which art style is the best…none of them. I just have to find out where I fall on the spectrum of approaches and make the best of it. This of course in turn changes my search for SPREY’s theme. I don’t have to find that one statement that clutches the story climax and in turn is reflected through everything else in the story, although it would be good for structure’s sake.

Yesterday I figured out that current SPREY is a wild mix of themes. Weiland says if you can’t figure your theme out and are worried about the consistency of your story, you can always fall back on genre. At least that’s what I understood. It is probably not the most elegant way to do things, but if you at least do your genre right, you aren’t lost completely. After all, it wouldn’t be a genre if it’s archetypes and must have scenes weren’t tested. I took that to heart and put in an extra reading session yesterday, diving into the romance genre and slasher movies. I was surprised by what even a superficial look at both unveiled.

Genres are powerful tools indeed. A romance can be more than primarily dealing with a love relationship in your story. Actually, a classical romance can even work without a love interest. If you are interested in that genre and it’s history at all, look it up, you will not be disappointed. Looking into slashers was also pretty revealing. I have truly seen my share of them and never actually thought about the ritualistic nature and symbols in most of them. A virgin woman is protecting herself from a sometimes supernatural danger that has been killing her whole peer group. That’s like tossing an ancient Greek princess into a labyrinth to please that minotaur monster inside. Truly, some things never change. This time around the princess, rarely a prince, saves herself though. Here I’m baffled how I ever assumed SPREY had anything to do with the essence of slashers. I guess I just copied some of the aesthetics. On the other hand, they’re putting Rich on an altar to cut his heart out in the end. But he never was in a peer group that was killed off and left him alone to be tested. Also if anyone is a typical final girl it’s Willard, because he’s the only virgin I know of in the story. But Willard is also the one who returns to kill the monster. Decisions decisions. But at least I’m having a lot of new ideas to play with in my writing. I have no idea where this is going but I must write and test. I also hope I’m not being dishonest with myself here though. I don’t think the final girl protects “just” her virginity. This must go deeper.

See you next blogpost!

SPREY Log #11 – Testing SPREY’s story

I keep working through “Invisible Ink”. This time around I’ve learned about how the best stories have a balance of external action and internal development of the characters, a glimpse into their emotions and inner life. And I’ve learned what a climax of the story actually is. How can this book tackle all and every problem I ever had with my writing? And why do the explanations work so well for me?

I have heard about the climax of a story before. I was under the impression that the climax of the story is it’s most important, most dramatic, most action rich scene or moment. It changes everything and the whole story builds up to it. While this is not wrong, it was not precise. It could have lead me astray in some cases. In fact, the climax of the story is the test whether your protagonist has changed or not. Not every protagonist is changing, and not every protagonist is changing for the better, but the climax is a test of whether they did, usually a decision they make in a dire situation. And everything that happened before is necessary to establish why it’s a big deal. It does not matter whether the protagonist is about to save the whole world, their relationship with their child or just make peace with themselves, which nobody may even see from the outside. It is your job as writer of that story to craft it in a way that makes the reader care.

DANGER, SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t read if you want to experience that in SPREY yourself later.

SPREY’s climax so far has been Rich sacrificing his life for Willard. This is a reversed mirror to the beginning of the comic where Rich just can’t bring himself to commit to a stable relationship with Willard. Rich is afraid of getting his heart broken later. He also doesn’t like the prospect of having to arrange himself with a partner. He is so used to fend for himself and do what he wants the way he wants, it seems like a huge disadvantage to give even a bit of that freedom away. But then he is ready to give his life.

This is also an inversion of the whole plot of Willard leaving his old life behind to save Rich. Willard’s arc actually is over already when the climax comes up. The slashers taught him that he has a chaotic side and a potential for evil, but they offered him a very flawed way to deal with that. Willard would have had a choice to become a slasher, for real and fully, but he did not give in to that and went with Rich, saving a lot of lives on the way out.

I’m surprised to find that it does not matter whether Rich and Willard survive in the following, at least not for the climax. The climax is just about putting their character development to the test. I think I have to correct myself, Willard is tested twice. So he does not become a slasher. But now that that is gone and that Rich is gone… he has to make another choice. There is a very slim chance that Rich is still alive. Rich has distracted the slashers who were after them away from Willard’s tracks and has probably been badly injured when they got him. But he could still be alive. Willard would be free to just go, return to the normal world as a changed, more balanced man. Instead, he goes right back to grasp that last straw and save Rich if he can. Willard is in for a battle he cannot win and he knows it. But he does it out of love. And now he understands why Rich was afraid of it. This is Willard’s sacrifice.

I don’t intend to break my own heart entirely and will let the lovers survive. I’m not entirely sure how they make it out of there in one piece, but that is a detail question compared to decisions about the underlying story structure and it’s workings.

SPOILERS OVER!

But wait…that is just the climax. That is not a theme. Remember? SPREY still got none. But at least the beginning matches the climax, which is a huge win already. And the climax is strong! Maybe the theme will reveal itself once I worked further through “Invisible Ink” and also did more writing work on SPREY. What do I want to say with SPREY? I don’t know yet. But what I got already stands at least a basic test.

See you next blogpost!

SPREY Log #09 – A lucky strike

So it’s day one of the time of silent work. Day Ones tend to go well, but then comes the rest of the marathon where you are actually tested.

Seeking for a clue what plagues my writing…and then actually finding it

I started out with a good idea: What I have been doing so far doesn’t seem to work. So why not take the time to look into a book about writing before immediately jumping back into what I have been doing before?

Stephen King taught me nothing trumps sitting down and writing when it comes to learning and doing your writing. Unfortunately I took it literally and bravely ignored any and all materials on writing for a while. This makes you pretty relaxed as you don’t fear on missing out on anything anymore. I intend to keep this relaxed attitude up and expectations for books, workshops and other materials I tackle 0n a low healthy level. But not reading about the craft of writing is not the way when you realize you hit road blocks that cannot be solved with just more writing.
If you build a house and it collapses…and you build it ten times more and it collapses ten times more…maybe you should look up how to actually build a house. You might have become stronger over time in your house building efforts and maybe learned some practical tricks, but you still haven’t built a house. So when you lower yourself to read how to build a house, only then do you have a chance to learn about “invisible” building blocks like actually placing a foundation first before you build on top of it. You cannot observe this from just looking at finished houses made by others, if you don’t know what you are looking for. That’s about the experience I had when reading the first third of Brian McDonald’s “Invisible Ink”. I didn’t do anything wrong per se in my writing. I was just ignoring some “invisible” building blocks you cannot see in the writing of others, if you don’t know they exist.

One disadvantage of being self-taught that can be overcome if you are willing to learn

I was also impressed how McDonalds describes people like me who purely come from the self-taught, practical side of things. He compares us to a sculptor, who can sculpt really well, but somehow the sculptures soon melt and fall apart. This sculptor has never learned about the armature you build first, that looks nothing like the finished sculpture and that holds the final work together later. You cannot observe that from outside if you don’t know it exists. It’s still there. I think that is one of the biggest strengths of McDonalds’s book. He doesn’t just talk about how we people love stories, he keeps telling us little stories and situations like these to make us understand and memorize what he wants us to see and understand. It is incredible. I would actually call that storytelling magic. And I’m incredibly grateful and happy I got to learn about armatures after all. I will look out for them in the future, not only in writing. What else is there, for example in art, that is invisible if you don’t know about it and that disappears under the finished painting, yet defines it and holds it together?

Writing and theme

My big enemy or unknown writing armature is theme. I went through all my writing life without knowing what a theme is until this year I think, but even then I thought I had grasped it but I actually hadn’t. I’m still not sure, but I will reread passages of “Invisible Ink” and maybe look to some other sources if curiosity strikes again. I couldn’t tell whether “sacrifice”, “red”, “mayonnaise” or “not accepting loss only makes it worse” are valid themes and I had a hard time bringing any of this into my work. I know the three act structure. I can write something that looks like something with a three act structure. But without a theme it has no core. I was curious to find out that you don’t just write and build and write until you have enough words and the plot ended. You work out your theme first, then you write anything. And anything you write is written around that theme. Armature and sculpture on top again. I was only writing all the time.

Theme is hard to see and judge. You can see and judge whether a work is kept in a three act structure pretty easily. But you usually can’t openly see the theme. The protagonist does not have to step out of the frame and tell you “not accepting loss only makes it worse” in your face. What if you just read a story about someone who just can’t let go off a past humiliation and just completely destroys his life and that of the people around him pursuing revenge? Or an old couple that recently lost their only child is so desperate that they consider necromancy to bring it back…but the result is worse than living with the original loss they suffered. Both ticks the theme box. And I’m sure any theme can produce countless works that seem vastly different but are built on the same core. And to answer one thing, a single word like “sacrifice” or “red” is not a theme for writing. It doesn’t say anything, does not give you any direction what to build on and around it. That was like when I learned that you don’t just place shadows by guessing or intuition, but that a shadow is actually a consequence of light not being able to access an area. So shadows and their qualities are the consequence of the qualities of the specific light(s) hitting the forms depicted. There is no guessing. I can promise you I was guessing in my writing a lot as well.

And SPREY?

I did try to throw a theme on top of SPREY, but I did it in an adorably backwards fashion. I understood it that it is part of the etiquette to have a theme. I had my plot and everything I wanted to do with it first and then thought, what would sound good as a theme, a message out of this all? I came up with a single word (of course I did), transformation, change. Everyone in the story has to change and for one way or the other either rejects it, runs from it or only reluctantly and under extreme pressure does it. This is not a theme. And it is twofold not a theme because people and things changing is like a natural law. All that lives, changes. Maybe some of the characters or their dynamics are memorable enough on their own so it’s not a total loss, but in the end, it’s a loss. Something like that will not stick. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Learn about theme early.

Guess I’m starting from scratch

I have no idea where things go from here. Of course I want to understand theme and make it the core of my future writing. I’m aware I probably have to throw out anything I have written so far ever, but I’m not even mildly startled by it. It didn’t work, so why should I mourn that loss? Is it a loss? I might also have to cut some things I wanted to bring up in SPREY should they serve no purpose anymore. What I don’t know is how long it will take to grasp theme and apply it correctly. I will write. I might even do some good old fashioned humble writing exercises to practise this before trying to brute force a SPREY theme and subsequent script. My mind is completely blown right now. But you know what, this means there is hope for the future, hope for a functional SPREY comic and other works, better than it could have ever gotten before.

See you next blog post!