SPREY Log #12 – Hunting for a theme

Okay, before we dive back into dry writing craft, I have realized something.

I’m feeling young again. I’m feeling a specific feeling of youth I’m surprised I still remember. Many years ago I was an actual literature nerd, actually interested in reading, literature history and the technical and practical aspects of the craft of writing. Then I got a taste of literature how it was taught at the university I studied at. Not saying all universities are bad. That one probably was. It made me lose all passion and interest in pursuing writing and reading at all within a year. If that was “real” literature I didn’t want to do anything with it. Now I feel this is gone again, finally, after many years and I’m back to where I was.

And just to be clear, I’m not blaming the university, after all no one held a gun to my head and told me I may never read a book again. Everything that happened, I did to myself, in my head. I just needed the wisdom of many years to come to realize it and undo it. I would even go so far to say I dumbed myself down from then on, further manipulating my further endeavors for the worse. How could or should I ever succeed with any writing if deep inside I didn’t want to do anything to do with it?

I consider myself very lucky that I got behind it after all. Now I can deal with everything I must deal with in peace and without self-manipulation. Writing and literature should have always been a part of me, to whatever extent. I think this will improve my art, not distract from it. And just as a general reminder, me and you do not need anyone’s approval to pursue literature and writing and learning about it. The knowledge is out there, not discriminating, it’s there for everyone. And it wants you to learn about it and use it in your own writing as you see fit. And as anyone can publish books today, truly no one can hold you back but you. Apparently you have to be confident but humble. Confident, so that you don’t give up when you don’t get anyone’s approval first, and we’re talking years possibly, but always humble so that you don’t stop listening and working on your craft.

And now back to writing SPREY.

After last blogpost I made myself a list of bullet points what I have to establish in order for the story climax to work. And fascinatingly, I got a complete looking list of what belongs in the first and second act. This is spectacular to me, as writing had been an incredibly difficult cascade of guesswork for me before. The distance to bridge between first and third act seemed to be impossible. Never did it occur to me that not all story parts are equal, independent from each other, just boxes to tick to hit the “right” act structure. Pretty much everything before the climax is dictated by the climax. There is no guesswork. And now I see how this structure is the bones that hold the flesh of the story together. I was just sculpting the flesh before. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a scene where Rich is about to get sacrificed but then is saved by Willard? Isn’t that villain monologue lovely? I can still have ideas like that and see whether I can work with them, but they can never substitute the underlying structure.

But how can it be that I have SPREY current state now with it’s working structure without knowing my theme yet? Shouldn’t the theme sit one level above the climax and govern it? I’m starting to have a suspicion that I was just assuming a new structural model for my works again without fully understanding it yet. But through research I found a new clue. Theme is not message! A theme is asking and describing a difficult to answer problem or question about the human experience, a message is offering an answer to it. By design, the message can only be flawed, as the most interesting problems about being human absolutely have no easy answers and no matter how educated you are, your own perspective will never be a hundred percent and always right. Also, people tend to not like being preached to. Luckily for me, it doesn’t seem to be the job of a writer to solve existential problems and the human nature once and for all. It is my job to unveil that a problem exists and what makes it so hard to solve it in the first place. And that is what theme does. Which questions do I ask and look at about being human through my characters and what’s happening to them? I can absolutely have a clear theme, but it is not me saying something is so and so, it is rather me asking things like “If love always wins, what is about the villain who is also loved and loves? Is his love not good enough?” That is actually hard to answer and I would have to look at multiple cases or facettes of a case within my story. If my climax is the story core and tangible backbone, my theme is the soul. In a way it is ethereal. And yes, you can absolutely ignore it and create something down to earth without dealing with any of this. But I guess the best stories, those that stay in your memory, do ask those difficult questions.

With SPREY my struggle to find one red line might also stem from just throwing a lot of things together that sounded entertaining and interesting by themselves. But this also results in a mashup of themes, leaving us with no clear winner or direction on that front. Let’s take a look at what we got:

1 Love as a terrifying force

If you think about SPREY from an inverse perspective, a whole biker gang gets killed because they didn’t account for selfless sacrifices made out of love. Willard and Rich each get into mortal danger to protect each other, another character dies for people who aren’t even present. That is terrifying from an outside view. Love, that is regarded as a “soft” power actually lures people into death overriding their instinct for self preservation? Love gets people killed who stand in the way of lovers? Well, unfortunately the slashers are pretty bad people themselves, so in this specific case it will be hard to feel sorry for them.

2 The individual versus the group

Maybe I should rather go for the individual vs group angle. A human is a creature that must exist both as an individual and as a member of a group or groups to be happy, but in actuality humans are never happy. We get extreme cases like Rich who is a struggling lone wolf or on the other end of the spectrum the slashers who literally operate like a hive. And then there’s Willard who finds his own balance as someone who wants to be part of a group, any group, but just doesn’t seem to fit.

3 Are humans trying to domesticate themselves into a functioning civilization since the beginning of time

The slashers themselves as a concept ask a very difficult question. We think bounding together to a tribal group was what helped people drive civilization forward. But here a group has formed that actively undoes civilization, rejects rules anyone outside of them made and uses group synergy to harm and kill people. And they build nothing up of their own, they just destroy. Are they a mirror of us when we can’t get over our selfish desires to build a society that works, a failed civilization? This is a tough one.

4 Man vs (human) nature

And what about good and evil and how being amongst some of the most evil people imaginable teaches Willard to be a better balanced human being? As I said, theme is ethereal, doesn’t give easy answers. Ha, wait, maybe this is a good one – the slashers are everything we do not want to have in our modern, civil, urbanized society. They are a form of nature’s revenge. But it is not the environment that comes for us, it is the parts of the human nature that we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with, our own potential for evil. It comes back to haunt us, no matter what we do to shut it out. And Willard is us, he is very cultivated and civilized, first in utter disbelief about facing actual and unapologetic evil, then part of it, then out of it. Rich isn’t that severely affected because he grew up amongst evil already, there is nothing to be disillusioned about.

I will think about that.
See you next blogpost!

Creative Survival

I talked to you about how to get more work out in the blog post before, but today I’m returning with a blog about a related topic. Creative survival. I might possibly return to this topic somewhen later in this blog, but here’s the wisdom I have to offer about this right now.

Why creative survival at all? Yesterday I finally finished working through concept artist Nik Hagialas’s “Art RPG”, a great introduction course to concept design. I’m immediately embarking on the follow up “Creature of the Deep” right now. The book doesn’t waste any time either, the first task is a profound one already. Before you even take a shot at the drawing tasks, the author wants you to think about a time you have overcome a huge obstacle and see what you can learn about your strategies – and then apply them on large creative projects that can feel like a huge calamity at times, too. I thought to myself, if I’m writing it down, why don’t I blog about it, so that others have something from it, too?

1. What is a strategy

First of all I had to do a websearch what a strategy is. Originally, this is the art and science of leading and moving an army. Imagine it like this – you and me can decide to go for a walk on a whim, but try to move thousands of armed people in a sensible way, even on a day march from one camp to another. That requires planning effort and foresight how the movement of the troops might impact the troops themselves, the locals, the area itself, what to do when something goes wrong during the operation.

Businesspeople have adopted the term strategy for the context of the development of companies, too. After all, leadership has to “lead and move” the employees and ressources of a company towards defined company goals and predict as well as possible how employees, clients, competitors, markets, governments or any other players will react, how it impacts the company assets, the environment and other circumstances and what to do when things go terribly wrong.

If you are reading this you are probably not an army or a multinational corporation. Most people don’t have or want a complicated manual on how to govern themselves and go about reaching their goals. Yet we could profit from looking into how they solve problems efficiently and successfully. You have goals you set yourself, too. You want to get things done, go places with your career.

Also, everyone will have a certain amount of survival strategies already without naming them as such. If you are in unexplicable and lasting strong pain you make a doctor’s appointment to find and eradicate the cause of your pain. If you run out of money you are looking for a job or apply for welfare to help you through the worst.

2. My academic paper nightmare

So how did I go on about big challenges in my life? Preferably one with lessons that seem like they could be easily applied to art, too? The first thing that comes to my mind was having to write many many papers in university. One in particularly, the biggest and last one that counted directly into my final grade, was a dreaded and awful thing, but I actually have no residual bad feelings about it. No grudge. It started off horribly. I had a time limit, although I’m not sure how long, I think it was a month. Day one when I got my topic the secretary accused me of forging one of my report cards of a previous course that qualified me to attempt this paper at all.

I did still brainstorm how to tackle my paper’s topic and collect some first ressources like I planned to in the library of the university the same day, but I also had to exchange some e-mails with university administration and student office and make a couple of visits in more offices over the next days. It did not help that I also some heightened pressure to succeed from an unsuccessful attempt before, I was absolutely not allowed to fail this one or I couldn’t graduate. But that day, that time, I employed a harsh strategy to go through the nightmare: I suppressed all my emotions, I shut myself out. People tell you, you have to acknowledge, respect and feel your feelings, yes, you do, but not in the circumstances I just described. If I had listened to my fear, my rightful anger (I hadn’t forged anything), my sadness, the agony of academic pressure I would most definitely have done or written or said something stupid and botched everything in the first week, even before and outside writing the actual paper. Or I would have deleted myself. Instead, I focussed on the work and work only. There was just proving my academic certificates and report cards were real and writing the paper, and I made sure to put most of my energy into writing the paper. I did not shut off my critical thinking though and have some thoughts on my university, the secretary, hierarchies and other topics, but that here is not the place for them. Administration confirmed the authenticity of my certificate, I wrote and finished the paper and got a good grade, graduated, and the bold secretary hopefully doesn’t carelessly accuse other students of forgery today.

3. Learning from this for art

Now I wonder, how can this help you and me in art? Obviously, you do not get graded and you set most deadlines yourself or negotiate them with customers. Also it’s hard to question your qualifications unless you outright lie on your resume or accuse yourself via impostor syndrome. If the latter happens, just ignore it. It goes away when you do the work and get ahead in your art career. If you listen to impostor syndrome, you don’t get your work done and end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy where your self-doubt keeps you from getting things done while getting nothing done in return feeds your self-doubt.

Other than that, I do not wish it to you but you might get into circumstances where you reach stress levels that are a threat to your wellbeing. Long term creative projects can do that to you. Usually it’s not the project alone, but personal problems and very unlucky other circumstances joining the mix. Temporary(!) shutting off your emotions and fighting until the bitter end to get the job done might be a way to do it. It would be preferable to not end up in a situation like that at all, but if it happens, that might be a way to get you through it. And please be gentle with yourself afterwards. I think I came through this experience at university so well, because I didn’t try to make harsh survival mode my default mode for the rest of my training. Also, I worked through that experience in private later, taking some time to heal from it. There is no shame in doing that or in seeking professional help to help you doing that.

4. Academic papers and long term creative projects – birds of a feather?

Maybe writing an academic paper is not that different from getting a long term creative project done. You set or are given a goal in the beginning, you brainstorm how you want to approach it and what you need for it, you collect information and whatever ressources you decided you need, then you work on it…probably every day. You must live with the pressure that you will not see results immediately, that some days will be bad despite best efforts, days in which you do nothing hurt you, so better not procrastinate at all, but that you also may not do too much per day, otherwise you spend your energy too fast and burn out.

And then don’t forget that you get numb in the end. What do I mean by that? When you have spent weeks, months or even years with a thing, you are too close to it. You cannot tell whether it is good or bad and you will not see obvious flaws, and probably you don’t even want to see anything anymore, just get it done. You are numb. Therefore do not plan on finishing the evening before due date. You need time to let other people check your work. If the scope of the work is really big, also think about breaking it down in smaller parts that people can check for you without going numb themselves. If it’s a private project and you haven’t announced a release date yet, maybe even take a couple of weeks off yourself and either relax or work on other things or a mix of both, then return to the thing like someone who hasn’t created it themselves and experience it as a reader or player. You will be surprised what you will discover, what a difference in perception that break can make.

That’s it for today. Happy creating, everyone!