Monday, November 8, 2010

Warm and Fuzzy: Artists

Artists. You know who they are, they're the ones the media generally portrays as dysfunctional misfits with tortured lives, bad habits and fragile egos. Throw in an unkempt look, irreverant streak and a host of quirks and you've got the cliched, Hollywood depiction of the artist.

And perhaps it's true...

... for some.

The reality, however, is quite different, and it's worth sharing to help dispel the silly myths that have entered the public imagination, particularly in less metropolitan, cosmopolitan areas (read: most of the U.S., if not the world). If you've looked at my site, you'll see that I have over 75 artists onboard contributing samples of their hard-won, intricately crafted masterpieces. In practically every artist I've spoken to in the last few years, I've found men and women overflowing with generosity, professionalism, and intelligence. The artists I've dealt with have been passionate, deeply focused, creatively gifted, witty and outright charming individuals.

I've yet to run across any primadonnas, overinflated egos, or disturbed personality types drowning in negativity and sociopathic tendencies. Not a one. What does that tell us? That people are people. Artists do have a greater creative urge, a need to express themselves and the truths they see in a twisted world. Generally, when we see musicians, artists, actors and the like abusing themselves with drugs, alcohol and debauched lifestyles, it's because of the stresses of fame and all that comes with it, not because they're artists.

If anything, I find that artists are less unhinged than the average person who has no outlet for the chaos that swirls around us night and day, who's forced to get up daily at an ungodly hour to head to a mind-numbing job loaded with pressures and aggravation to earn a meagre salary that he rarely has time to enjoy due to the high-cost of living. Artists, conversely, are doing what they love. It's hard work. No question about it. It's not steady work; and it's dependent on the artist's ability to channel creativity, and market themselves so that their work gets shown.

I have nothing but the highest respect for the artist. As far as I'm concerned, they're the salt of the earth, individuals bold enough to express the truth, to try and wake people up from the zombie-like slumber they've put themselves into when they glided into cruise-control. The artist is courageous, not just for living the life he does, but for regularly immersing himself in the human condition so that he can honestly express it. I feel grateful to have had this opportunity to meet a wide variety of artists and speak with them on a regular basis. If there's one joy that's come from doing a book of this nature, that's it. That, plus the fact that I get to bring their names and works to a larger audience, my small way of giving back to those who are giving us so much of themselves.

God bless the artist.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Avoiding the Pitfalls: Using The Two Towers as a Warning for Writers

After watching the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers for the upteenth time, I was driven to distraction once again by a number of moments that just take me out of the film. Each of these, with a little more time (and, in this case, fidelity to the source-material, but we're going to ignore that aspect), could've been avoided. I think they bear noting, not because I feel like trashing the adaptation of The Two Towers, but because they're mistakes that a writer can easily make. These all fall into the category of underestimating your audience. While a case can be made for those who overestimate their audiences, the former appears to be the more common misjudgment.

1. Treating your readers like they're not very smart: Because it's so imperative that your audience follow what you're saying and where you're going, many writers make the mistake of overcompensation by spelling everything out for their readers. That, however, can serve to irritate them and take them out of the story. In The Two Towers, this happens throughout a large portion of the film, most notably in the first third. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas approach a forest. Aragorn notes that the Hobbits they're looking for went into Fangorn Forest. That's just the right amount of information an audience needs. But the writers take it a step further, feeling the need to broadcast that this is going to be a weird and scary place. So Gimli says, "Fangorn! What madness drove them in there!" Now, John Rhys Davies pulls the line off because he's a good actor, but the rule of "show, don't tell" is breached here. We're about to be shown it's strange place; there's no need to telegraph the point. But it happens several times throughout the film, notably every time the characters go to a new location, or meet a new character, someone stands there--as if in a play--and, in a declamatory fashion, announces expository dialogue. The audience, for the most part, get it: Rohan is home of the horse-lords. Mordor is the one place no one wants to go to, but the one place Sam and Frodo have to go. Theoden's mind is taken over by Saruman. Saruman is a wizard. Wizards are people who have magic powers. Ok, I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. With so much great dialogue in Tolkien's original text, to exchange it for pointless exposition that people are going to see and figure out is wasteful. Now, if they wanted to tell the audience who the Numeroreans are, or how the Easterlings and Southrons came under thrall to Sauron, that would be fine (perhaps not needed, but at least more interesting). Compare it to how masterfully exposition was handled in Fellowship of the Ring, and you'll see the contrast. E.g., Aragorn approaches Weathertop and says, "This was the great Watchtower of Amon-Sul." That's it. No need for Pippin or Merry to add, "It looks creepy." That's Scooby-Doo style writing.

2. Overstating your case: This is similar to the first, and one area I know I've been guilty of. I think any passionate writer, at one time or another, has done this. The rule of thumb here is if you can get your point across with a gentle touch, don't do it with a fist! The audience doesn't need to have everything driven home to them with the intensity of a jackhammer. And it's particularly ugly if the point you're making is clumsily done. In fact, it can achieve the very opposite of what you were intending. The Two Towers and Return of the King do this in several scenes; one that sticks out from the former film is Saruman's speech about his need to cut down the trees of Fangorn Forest, which stands right at his doorstep, to get fuel for his factories. We see his cold, calculating mind, and get the references to industrialization that are being spoken of here. But then, apparently to illustrate just how onboard his followers are, one of his orc-henchlings goes "Yeeaahh!!" with a dopey, "evil" grin! That just turned a somber point about the incalcuable cost of progress in the hands of the power-hungry into a cartoon. Yeeaahh!

3. Assuming your audience has memory loss: This is another tricky one. Most of us don't have steel-trap minds or photographic memories. So, it's not inappropriate to give little reminders here and there, especially if the book we're writing is on the longer side. But when overdone, it's yet another source of irritation for the reader who feels he's being talked down to. In The Two Towers, reminders are given constantly of events from Fellowship of the Ring. This is done musically, expositionally, and with flashbacks. Some scenes are direct lifts from the first film (Isildur cutting off Sauron's finger; Saruman inspecting his factory; Elrond walking around with a grave look). At one point, Cate Blanchett's character Galadriel interrupts the film midway through to give exposition about what's going on, information that's already been given, and is about to be discussed by Faramir. It's Cate Blanchette, so it's not unwelcome. But it's also a waste a valuable time that could've been used to end the film where the book ended. Flashing back to Gandalf confronting the Balrog so that we can see the aftermath of the encounter is not only cool, but is important. Flashing back to Boromir to show him getting shot by orcs is little more than a clunky way to remind even the most braindead of viewers who the character is. Could not the film have better been served than rehashing and reshowing things most of us already know?

I say these things not to be cruel--because I know the filmmakers put a lot of work and care into their film--but to demonstrate how a potentially great work can be reduced to a mere pretty-good one as a result of rushed writing. (And it is a pretty good film. Despite its flaws, there's some great things on display here.) I feel I can make this criticim because I'm guilty of many of the same things in my 600 page tome, and I'm working on improving it before it gets into the hands of readers. The point for anyone reading this is to take the time we need to do rewrites, listen to the advice of our proofreaders, and keep in mind that our readers probably don't need as much help as we're inclined to give them.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dispelling the Myth: Doing Your Third Draft

One often thinks that by the second draft, you've got the book in hand. In fact, that's not far from the truth. The bulk of the text is written; the bulk of the research is complete. So then, it should be a wrap, right?

Well, no. Not quite. Not even close. While all of the above is true, the next stage is the sculpting one. For many of us, the 2nd draft is like a giant lump of clay. It might resemble the figure it will eventually become, but there's still a ton of shaping to do, most of which will involve cutting, remodeling and more cutting. Like each of the prior stages, it's a process. If you have good editors onboard (and I do), they're going to tell you the blunt truth, which is that it's lacking some things, and has too much of others. This is the stage where you address those issues and make it something that people can enjoy and learn from, without feeling like they're taking a course, or that they're being shortchanged. My style tends to lean towards the former, and while I know there's some of you who love that kind of thing, the bulk of readers (and I don't mean the masses; I mean the majority who do read books, even academic ones like this one's turning into) want something that's interesting, entertaining, educational and digestible. Achieving that in your third or fourth draft is the challenge, and key to a book you can be proud to have your name on.