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Sunday, 26 November 2017

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Bunnies & Beaches

How old were you when you first read or watched Watership Down?

Lot of folks my age will talk about being vaguely traumatised by the film in particular, and its unrelenting depiction of just how hard it is to be a rabbit. It showed the damage that development could do to various bits of the countryside, too. After I saw it I had an innate dislike for JCBs for a couple of years.

A lot of kids these days don't end up watching it. It is old, and has a reputation of being a bit terrifying - many parents of young kids today actually grew up with it and didn't want to have their kids experience the same thing.

This, of course, ignores several key factors. One is the stellar voice acting - it's really quite incredible, John Hurt and Richard Briers being just two examples of famous British voices. The animation is likewise superb. The standard of it, for a 1978 film, just outshines almost everything else that followed it for at least ten years. The story itself is a very competent one, too. It includes a lot of classical story elements without giving into cliche - probably forming a good introduction to the Odyssey and Campbell's theory of the monomyth.

The thing that I valued about it didn't become obvious to me until later in life, when my first pet died.

I'd already become acquainted with the notion of creatures dying. It was something that happened. Admittedly it was upsetting, and the reasons why would vary - other animals, gas, diggers, old age - but it was a thing that could happen, and a natural thing. So when my pet rat died, it wasn't a bolt from the blue that left me bereft and riven with grief. It was a thing that I knew happened, that I was more capable of compensatiing for emotionally.

A similar conversation came up recently regarding how badly the first breakup hurts. The first real breakup from one's first real relationship. It's a killer - hurts worse than anything you have ever felt before, but then the next time it happens, you are prepared. You know it's coming.

The stories that we are told that feature these things - loss, heartbreak, death, mourning - can be of great help to us. Coping is a learned skill, after all, and it comes with exposure and practice. Unless we're actually willing to see these things, though, that's an exposure that we won't experience. We can live in bubble wrap our entire lives, and the moment we leave it, everything we touch hurts.

The tools of telling a story can often be called into question. Violence inflicted on others, death, tragedy, torture, worse. Do they inherently negate the story they are included in, because they are unpleasant to watch or experience? Is every storytelling moment that features such difficult material glorify it for entertainment purposes?

Watership Down's lessons and plot are dependent on such suffering. We feel keen sympathy for the rabbits. - it's hard not to - and each setback and each tragedy that befalls them plucks at our heartstrings. It's hardly glorification, though - I mean, did anyone cheer for the diggers? Really? Did anyone thing it was a thrilling spectacle to see the warren dug up?

Has anyone sat through the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, and actually felt that war was being glorified? Has anyone seen the awful effects of heroin in Trainspotting and thought it was a great idea to start shooting up?

Once upon a time, war films were bloodless. When a character died, there would be a gunshot from a faceless enemy - cut to the character, suddenly grimacing and clutching a wound that was basically nonexistent - and down they would go. A very hygenic, very sterile version of the truth.

The truth is important.

Martial arts films are pure fantasy. The distillation of good versus evil into something as uncomplicated as Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris. The skill is real, the spectacle is real - that is glorification of conflict, undoubtedly. But those stories aren't there to teach us lessons. Way Of The Dragon isn't a cautionary tale to not harass small business owners who have visiting relatives literally named Dragon.

Combat - the actual art of fighting against and attempting to kill another being - is a brutal thing. When I write a combat scene - and almost all of my NaNos so far have involved physical combat somewhere - I don't want the reader to be thinking about it like a ballet. I want them to see what happens, to witness savagery and brute force, and to wince. To wince like one does when a sound foley manages to perfectly replicate the sound of a baseball bat hitting a leg, or to feel the sick in the pit of one's stomach when the doors of the landing boats open and the first two rows of men die in less than a second.

It's not meant to be pleasant, or fun. It's not meant to make you clap and cheer. It's suffering, and it's a terrible thing to imagine happening to another being. But it is the sake of a story - it is the fate of failure, the cost of success. And if it can make you question if it is worthwhile to force others to pay this price, then the story has done its job.

I'm glad we don't have any more war films wherein the plucky bunch of local lads emerge almost unscathed from El Alamein. I'm glad the cost is more accurately depicted - in blood shed and tears cried.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Goals, Objectives, Missions

National Novel Writing Month is a mission.

50,000 words in thirty days isn't easy. When you think about how many that is, when put into perspective, it's not a dismissive proposition. Several examples of books that sort of length include The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Fight Club, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Notebook and Of Mice And Men. Can you imagine writing any of those in a short month?

I mean sure, there are some people that make it look easy. Once upon a time I smashed out three in one November, but then - I was unemployed, I had literally nothing else to do in any given day, and I was a complete recluse. I find now that living day to day, having responsibilities and such, it's not as easy.

I am ahead of quota, thankfully. At the same time, that's primarily because I've had the last two weeks off work. From now on I am going to be taking every hour I can get, which means that lead is going to probably vanish - and this isn't a story that is going to be finished on Word 50,000.

The entire point of NaNoWriMo is to turn writers from one-day writers (one day I'll write a book) into people who have written one, or at least, tried. It works, because frankly - it is good to have a goal, and a time frame to achieve that goal in. It's good to have a mission, a task, an overarching drive in life that isn't just pay bills and expire.

And isn't that what we all need? Something to look forward to? A goal to reach, an objective to achieve, a mission to accomplish? Isn't that what life should have, and should include?

It can. It's up to us to make that happen. This is one of the ways I choose to do it, and frankly it kind of keeps me sane as the month gets colder and the night gets darker.

I know that everyone has different things they do, different things they look forward to. One man's trash and so on. I think it's important to have those things, because frankly - a lot of life is kind of shitty. We have to jump through a lot of hoops just to be fed and sheltered. If we're lucky enough to work somewhere we enjoy working, that makes it easier, but still - goals are good. Goals just for us.

A lot of people set these goals as self-improvement, which I have talked about from time to time. If - after really examining ourselves, really being honest with ourselves - that is what we need, then why not? But we have to make sure that is the case. Media and marketing does a great job of convincing us that what we need to fill that gap in our lives is X, which is whatever product has paid for this thirty seconds of our time. Don't get suckered in. Don't let that shit run you.

Have a mission. Pursue an objective. Set a goal.

Even if you don't make it, you may feel better just for having tried.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Reminders

Today in the UK is Remembrance Sunday.

To those that don't know - we as a nation collectively, on Armistice Day (11th November) and the nearest Sunday, observe memorials to those lost in the First World War. It is symbolised by the poppy, mostly inspired by Lieutenant-Colonel John McRae's poem In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses, row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.

(There's two versions of this poem. That's the original. The only real difference is that the word "blow" in the first line is replaced with "grow". The version above is the version that made it to print.)

The notion and sentiment is a valuable one - the statement Lest We Forget is unique to this time of year. In fairness, that is because we, as human beings, forget a whole hell of a lot of things with relative ease.

I'm going to tread a little carefully here.

It is hard to actually forget the death of eighteen million. That was, at the time, around 1% of the total population of the earth. While the figures are hard to tally properly - for obvious reasons - perhaps 40% of those deaths weren't soldiers at all. They were civilians.

We killed literally 1% of the earth's population at the time because of political upheaval, political intentions, political desires and political alliances.

There is a line of rhetoric that talks about freedom, that we went to war to preserve it. That simply isn't true. In fairness it isn't true for the Second World War, either; we put up with Hitler's Germany doing an awful lot of rather questionable things before we decided to actually do something about it. The declarations of war had precious little to do with freedom. It is very easy for post facto justification to become conflated with war's prelude, and this is one of the things that we, as people, seem to forget.

Another thing we seem to forget is the actual makeup of the soldiers that were tasked with dying for those politics. I don't want to paint large swathes with the same brush, but the last time I was "poppy policed" - that is, the last time someone called me out for not visibly wearing a poppy during the first half of November - it was an individual that I've witnessed doling out casual racial and anti-Muslim abuse in the past. An individual that has literally delivered the "coming over here" speech. Apparently, the 885,000 Muslim soldiers that fought with the Allies, and 400,000 of them were in the 1.5 million strong British Indian Army, don't get a look in. Lest we forget.

Then there's the poppy itself.

Many of the battlefields of Europe were covered with poppies, after the fighting was finished. They were the hardiest little flower in the region, and where the deadly spread of industrial war's influence had killed off just about everything else - well, nature abhors a vacuum. Their ubiquitous appearance in places of mass loss inspired their use in a poem, which was taken up as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen.

That is, of course, papaver rhoeas. There's another poppy that is somewhat tied to the history of war. That being papaver somnium, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Literal wars were fought over this thing. They were called the opium wars. Two of them - 1839 and 1856.

A symbol is a thing. It is an object that can be used to indicate many things. The intention of the poppy as a symbol is a good one, but it is starting to come to mean something else. There is a certain amount of peeping and poking and noting. A certain amount of attention paid to who is wearing one and who is not. The implication, if you aren't wearing one, is...well, varied, but almost always includes the assumption that the non-wearer is somehow disrespecting the military, or those who died IN the military, or somehow disrespecting the nation that the military served.

Several veterans have gone on record as saying that they dislike the symbol, and that they won't wear it, for these nationalistic leanings. When it comes down to respecting the military, I think their wishes and opinions count for something, too.

Those millions of people died for political reasons. They died for preventable reasons. They died in the space of not much over four years, and ever since, their deaths have been presented as meaning a hundred different things - but what it comes down to is a failure of diplomacy. I can't forget their deaths, but I take the further step of not forgetting the reason why.

They died because it was easier to kill millions than it was to just...back down.

My NaNo kind of deals with the consequences of war - with the people that it scars, the problems it leaves behind, and the kind of person who only remembers some of what we are meant to remember. That war is awful, and that in its awfulness, it does what most traumatic things do to people - makes it hard for those people to perceive the whole.

We don't want to have to be in a situation where, a hundred years from now, we look back with sadness and police each other on symbols and stand in two minute's silence because several groups of powerful, stubborn people couldn't compromise or, heaven forbid, just take a loss for once.

We want to be able to remember when it happened a century ago, and then make it not happen now.

I look at some of our leaders, and I really wonder.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Princesses In Towers

After the prologue, my NaNo begins with a rescue mission.

Who is being rescued? Well, funnily enough, the main character. She has been kidnapped by a rival captain, in an ill-advised move to get revenge for a perceived slight.

At first, I was a little wary about this.

I was raised on the kind of bullshit movie wherein the only women that show up are there to scream and be helpless and saved by our white male hero. It's a trope that bores the piss out of me because I mean, for one, sexist much? And for two, characters whose sole purpose is to wail about how much trouble they are in are

So, how does one put the princess in the tower without turning it into a story about the knight rescuing her?

Pretty easy, actually.

Shay Skyfall is not helpless, and she's not the kind of person to do nothing when she could be doing something - even if, for the moment, that something appears to be just pissing off her captor. Of course, that is Shay playing to one of her strengths - her smart mouth. She's witty, manipulative, charming, and knows when to get under someone's skin to get the best effect.

I was tempted to have her try and escape before her crew show up, but I wanted to do a few things with this first chapter, which would be better done with her not soloing the show.

1) I wanted to demonstrate her faith in the crew, and their faith in her.
2) I wanted to show just how bad-ass her crew can be when they need to be.
3) I wanted her lack of fear or respect for her captor to be absolutely obvious.

I think she gives good account of herself. Shay is a force to be reckoned with, when spurred. Halflings by their nature are clever and spirited, and to be an effective freelance merchant and courier, the gift of gab and natural business acumen are essential tools. This being Starfinder, there's all sorts of threats to deal with that aren't her peers - so a little skill with a sword isn't too much to ask, either.

I didn't enjoy putting the princess in the tower, but then - maybe if the princesses had been more than cardboard cutouts, maybe if the film-makers or writers had wanted their princesses to be characters rather than trophies, I'd feel a little less uncomfortable about the entire metaphor.

So who wants to burn down a few towers?