Excerpt: Ep 3, Draft 1

Pukka: Is this what it’s supposed to be like? It’s not even a game, it’s a dance. Everyone knows their place, and there are songs and people move to them and sometimes a country gets an advantage and sometimes another, but nobody pushes really hard. No one starts a real war.

Neyu: It’s why Sami left. She knew things were going to get a lot worse. She wanted to help stop it.

Pukka: …She told you about that?

Neyu: She said we shouldn’t stop trying to do the right thing even if people told us to stop, even if no one else did it. But how do you know what the right thing is? If everybody’s doing something different, how do you know which one is right?

Yes, and

So this was meant to be small and short, and isn’t, but I want to get this down because I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Yes, and.

I first heard about it when I interned for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in the early aughts. It’s a part of improv; when you’re working with others, when they throw you an idea, or they throw one out to get picked up and carried over the next goal line:

Yes, and.

It’s a simple principle, and it’s terrifying, and it’s the thing that will make us better people and it’s what shows us to be good people.

In a collaboration, the instict to deny or negate comes from a protection of the self — sometimes a concern over sovereignty, over who gets the credit, over the dilution of ideas. But real collaboration, teamwork, trust, does not happen unless there’s this sense of yes, and.

As I think about it closely I lose the feel of it, and it’s frustrating. It was clear to me when I was at a writer’s festival early last month, listening to people I admire both professionally and now personally, as they talked to one another on stage. Genuine admiration and support — not the sugary bullshit that we can all discern when we see it. There’s a kind of honesty demanded from yes, and.

I think I have notes written about it but I don’t want to go downstairs right now.

Anyway. Yes, and. It forces you to lock down prejudices and assumptions. Certainly, this isn’t the way to go when you’re being genuinely threatened. But when someone comes to you earnestly and honestly and presents something, take the extra seconds of thought to contrast what might be your initial reaction with yes, and. And it’s not a sarcastic and, it’s not

Yes, and?

It’s an affirmation and build. You accept what someone’s given you, you work with it, and you add something of your own that builds positively on what you’ve been handed. The final answers that may come from a long string of yes, and may not be immdiately useful, but what happens around that conversation is priceless. People will trust you when you listen, when you show you listen and then back it up with words and actions. Saying yes, and is an affirmation. And when it’s done toward you, the feeling is deeply surprising, possibly because we as a people are very fearful and cagey right now. But when someone genuinely says to you, “yes, and here’s this thing that builds on what you gave me, on to the next person,” the usual calluses of the heart shear away in that moment of suprise.

Or at least that’s how it is to me.

Being vulnerable, in my mind, is the only honest way of making art. Vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to judgment. Wearing your heart on your sleeve not only keeps you honest — people can spot shifty art from a mile away — but it keeps your heart honest. You’re forced to think about others because you’re leaving yourself, raw, out in the open, too.

Or at least that’s how it is for me.

I’d like to incorporate more yes, and in my life. I tried to do it, to a limited extent, when I taught first year English composition for a little while. I was still new to the notion of it, and I was also in a fairly nasty financial situation, so my heart-callus was pretty thick and not readily sloughing off. But there were days when I did that: when I was generous with the people I worked with, I was teaching, and even if most of them took advantage of it, the ones who did responded in a way that made the effort worth it every time.

Just a thought that’s been banging through my head for the past few weeks.

Yes, and.

Things fall together Part 2

So, the good news is the reason I haven’t written about Part 2 is because I’m busy with my script. The bad news is that right now I’ve hit a really crunchy bt and I’m backing off for a moment, so here I am.

Procrastinating from writing, by writing. This is a first for me.

Anyway, if you take a look at the previous entry, I had three things that happened to shake me out of whatever doldrums had locked me feet down. I’ve talked about one, I’m writing about the second here, and now that I’m re-reading that post, number three may escape me because I can’t remember precisely what it was my advisor said.

Anyway. Have some squiggly mind maps.

An early mind map of the connections among people on the Riti

An early (and incomplete) mind map of the connections among people on the Riti

An early map of connections between only the crewmembers of the Riti

An early (an incomplete) map of connections between only the crewmembers of the Riti

The thing with a story that relies on tensions among characters for its very existence is that it needs characters. I’d been talking about bringing Neyu’s sister Pukka back from the dead, in the sense that she never dies at all (initially, she bought the farm just before Neyu stowed on board the ship). And then I thought, since I have four crew members, maybe have four stowaways in total. Originally, I had three, but a fourth ended up arriving. Just sort of showed up on his own. It happens.

But here we’re just talking about a tug of war. The crew will have a fairly unified goal, despite their internal differences, and the stowaways will have a fairly unified goal, despite their internal differences.

So why not have some passengers, too? It takes the tension from a back-forth tug of war and triangulates it, and gives more opportunities for divided support and conflicting goals. It’s the kind of thing I should have considered early on, but I write up the background of the ship in such a way that I was tethered to a concept, or an assumption, of how the ship operated.

Nonsense. There’s no reason a tramp freighter can’t take on passengers. Modern day cargo ships do it all the time.

And the moment I began playing around with all these characters which more or less line up into three distinct groups, I had politics. I had conflicting and aligning goals. People started doing things. Now my only trouble is keeping the scope of the story under control given the time and resources available for production, which is actually kind of a nice place to be.

And there’s the whole analysis thing, too, but I’ll worry about that once I’ve got the refined initial drafts done.

Things fall together Part 1

It always feels like this: after a good stretch of feeling at sea and nothing making sense, there’s a pivotal stretch of time, maybe a few hours, during which you begin to work, and you’ve given up feeling bad about things because let’s be honest there’s a deadline looking and folks asking questions and you have nothing left to lose.

And it happens. Things fall into place. Things begin to make sense, they have a sensible extrapolation, a kind of logic about them. And you feel like you’ve got your feet on the sand again, even if you’re still shoulder-deep in water.

Three things happened to make this so.

  1. I went back to Bakhtin, dug around, read up on the context of his life and the political and social circumstances of his time; I took a good, solid look at polyphony again as a structure, as a theory, as a lens, as a platform from which to build.
  2.  I had a great conversation with my industry advisor who had such a simple, elegant clean suggestion for what I was trying to do that it blows my mind I didn’t sort that out myself. That kind of “why didn’t I think of that” idea is a mark of … of something hyperbolically insightful and aware. (I’ve been writing. The word engines are needing a bit of oil today.)
  3.  I had a great conversation with my primary academic advisor about the nature of practice. This is important because a primary tool in rendering new knowledge and information from the kind of research I do is something called reflective practice, which, to be completely honest with you, I still don’t completely understand. If I’m lucky, I actually have a pretty good intuitive understanding and I’m just fretting needlessly, but letting myself believe that can lead me into dangerous complacency and what’s my life without loads of anxiety?

So let’s start with number 1. The above revelations themselves couldn’t have happened without a conversation I had with my secondary academic advisor, in which we talked about how the key to transmedia stories isn’t the platforms (this is something I’ve been feeling for a while, but didn’t have the guts to follow through on); it’s actually character.

I’ve taken to calling the different avenues used in transmedia narrative (and I have to say, I’m almost sick to freakin’ death of the word transmedia) vectors, not platforms. I borrow from biology, in the sense that a biological disease vector is a way in which a disease infects a victim. Every time I think of this, I think of “language is a virus,” which is originally from William Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded but which I learned about from Laurie Anderson’s single which I first heard on Home of the Brave.

Very early on, I’d toyed with the concept of having one vector per character, in the sense that in a polyphonic work, each character occupies and enacts a particular ideological stance that mayor may not have anything to do with the author. It’s the connections, and push and pull, between and among characters as they live through their given circumstances that creates story. When I enacted Step 1 (revisiting Bakhtin), I began imagining this as a bicycle wheel, or Ferris wheel.


These structures only maintain their shape, their integrity, if tension exists. Without tension — if one of those spokes snaps — then the wheel is far more likely to bend out of shape on the next big rock.

And then I started thinking about negative space. I mean, with a photo like the one above, it’s hard to not give it a bit of thought. And I realized that what people tend to focus on when talking about transmedia are the spokes, or cables. Not the axle, or the rim, and certainly not the space between. But a wheel will never function with only spokes.

With that observation, I re-examined my absolute thin-soup mess of a story. My primary problem was that I had too few characters. One refugee, a handful of crew, and the idea was to follow the refugee through her travels. This is not a bad way to write a story, and there are plenty out there that are fantastic, but this is not what I set out to do — it’s outside the scope of my research. So I had to think about characters. Which, when I write it out on a screen, seems seemingly self-obvious.

I’ll tell you what happened with that in Part 2.

The Dreaded Lurgi

I have not been this sick for over a decade. I know this, because when I was last this sick I had no health insurance, lived in New Jersey, and had no friggin’ car. I am very grateful I now have both those things.

Not that anything can help this Moraviscian death-flu that I’ve got. It’s a flu. Or at least a very angry cold with boundary issues. And antibiotics won’t help that.

The biggest problem has been that it’s messed up my head. I forgot that this happened last time, too, maybe some kind of defensive measure my psyche enacted. But for a stretch of over 72 hours, nothing made sense. I left my mug of tea by the bathroom sink. Eggs in the pantry. We don’t live in a place where that’s a viable non-salmonella storage option. I’d drop conversations half-way because I forgot I was having them.

A perfectly good weekend that I really needed to get writing done and I could barely parse a sentence. I couldn’t even read for more than half an hour. And that doesn’t even address my screwed-up sleep schedule. I have no idea how I’m going to go to work tomorrow. As in, I’m not sure I’ll end up there after leaving the house tomorrow morning.

In better news, though, ReDeus: Native Lands is on sale! You can get it on Kindle, Nook, and paperback (for those of you in the Antipodes, Amazon US has pretty decent shipping costs). It features a stack of great short stories, one of which may be mine.

!!! Revelation

GAH. So I was filling up hot water bottles, getting ready to head to bed (it’s winter here, and while a Brissie winter isn’t terribly onerous, the lack of any kind of insulation where I live means it’s as cold inside as it is outside), and I was thinking thinking thinking.

Polyphony. Yeah. I harp on it. Foundational theory for me. Anyway. The original scope of Neyu’s story was quite big and long. …Ignore the double entendre. It was expansive, and had like three to five parts to it divided into smaller chapters. Which is epic, and not a problem when you’re working on something for the long run. And it’s not to say that I’ll never get to those far-flung places.

But I won’t get to them for this thesis. Because all those opposing and conflicting and resonating viewpoints? It’s all in the ship. It’s like I said, what, two days ago? Maybe? I could write a play with just the things that happen on the ship.

It’s astonishing to me just how much of my playwriting has influenced what I’m doing now. I’ve always been dialogue-oriented — I stole lots and lots from Douglas Adams as I learned writing for myself — and it’s just so bleeding obvious but voices, hello.

The entire stretch of story I write for this thesis may rest in the ship and nowhere else.

I just realized this probably makes no sense. So, brief overview: I’m writing a story about a young teenage girl named Neyu who’s forced by war to escape for her life. She gets on a spaceship, a tramp freighter, with the crew and a stack of other refugees (see, that part is new), and has to figure out what the hell to do next. This being the first time she’s ever been alone, as in without familiar faces or family, and the situation is as dire as it can get without involving immediate mortal danger.

Seriously, how the hell did I not see this before?

I have to go ruminate now.

BUT BEFORE I GO. This revelation? This idea spark of the mallet of obviousness that I’ve somehow not seen all this freaking time? It provides the natural and organic impetus for transmedia extensions of this story.

GAH. And yay.

Okay, seriously, off to ruminate now. And here I was, planning an early night’s sleep.

Summaries, synopses, structures, and pitfalls

The hard thing about writing a summary is that — at least for me — I need to know more details about the thing I’m summarizing than ever end up in the synopsis. Yes, I realize that seems self-evident when I write it that way, but I’ve been trying to tackle this freaking synopsis for my thesis story and it’s harder than it really should be.

And it’s because I’m just not feeling right over certain details. Or, more correctly, I wasn’t feeling right about details. Just as I posted the thing before about structure and plot, if I get all caught up in my head, if I get all tangled up and the whats and wherefores, I lose the heart.

There are some structural problems with the initial conception of the story. I wanted to go polyphonic, but I had a singular main character who we follow as she travels. But she’s getting off a planet under siege! Lots of people are trying to do the same thing. And there’s the crew of the ship she gets on, and what happens then and there? I mean, as I’m thinking about it now, I can see a hell of a stage play come from that scenario.

But that is distraction. In trying to tackle this synopsis for the second time (I tried it a couple — yeah, I know, two — months ago), I’m feeling out the hearts of these people. I wasn’t before. I know I suffer from issues around structure, and it’s just a weakness I have that I need to learn to compensate for. I am, by nature, not an organized person. It is what it is, and I have to pay extra attention to compensate for it. Same here.

So this new approach/attack/attempt has given me a better sense of what’s going on in the story, not what structural things I feel like I need to have. This was a lesson I learned starkly in playwriting — in the beginning, I wrote what I thought people should say to each other, instead of transcribing what I heard them say to each other. Polyphony, just communicated differently. This whole research project is about emergent theory, and here I’ve been trying to rig up structure and theory and story in a way that I think it should be happening due to surrounding circumstances, instead of just stepping aside and letting the damn thing happen.

I know I do this. I know what to look for. So why did it happen so cripplingly this time? I mean, I’m glad I’ve spotted it now, but for [expletive]’s sake, could I have not sorted this out two months ago?

I’m off to writing again, and let’s hope I’m not walking down the wrong stupid road again.

On plot and structure

Sometimes I need to be reminded of the following, as explained by Warren Ellis on his tumblr page.

willsee90 asked:
What are your thoughts on plot? Breaking rules, especially structural ones, leads to great works, but every story has some kind of structure and thus a set of rules, even if they’re wholly its own. What do you make sure to do when coming up with plots, and what are some plot elements you generally hate/see as too easy? And do you ever use those element if they fit?

You need to stop obsessing about plot and structure.  They are signposts and supports, not writing stories.  There was a guy who’d yell over and over again that Stories Are Structure, but his own writing never rose above the shape and quality of a middling James Bond film.  Stories are not nothing but structure.  Stories have to breathe.  Otherwise you’re publishing nothing but nicely-dressed checklists.

Back in print

Earlier this year, one of my friends from back in NYC invited me to contribute to an anthology for the ReDeus series, published by Crazy 8 Press. Briefly, the premise of the series is that the gods of yore have come back, and are quite ready to resume being worshipped as they once were.

Native Lands features stories set in the Americas, where political games and turf wars between the native gods and those claiming people with non-American ancestry complicate an already difficult situation. I chose to play around in Yucatán, offering an educator and architect a choice that could lead to her own demise. I wrote about this in more detail in a guest post on Crazy 8’s blog, but there’s something I didn’t touch on there that I’d like to mull over and talk about here in a day or so.

The reason I need the time is because I attended PaxAus this past weekend, something that I originally found problematic, but at the end felt a lot better about. …Man, my grammar bites tonight. Anyway. I want to talk a bit about what happened over this past weekend and why, though I may still have some misgivings, my feelings about the event are strongly positive.

But that’s for a night when I can actually put two words together without straining.

Memory Makes Us

One of the things that has helped me replant my feet on the ground is Memory Makes Us, a project put together by if:book Australia. Over the past couple of months, people contributed long-term memories, anonymously, some of them with photos, some of them just text. This served as the foundation for a very audacious live-writing event in which Kate Pullinger, in full view of the public at the State Library of Queensland, composed a story of “lots of middles” for six hours.

For those who were at the library, three typewriters were available for the contribution of more long-term memories which got delivered right after completion to her table as she wrote. For those unable to visit the library for the event, she composed on a GoogleDoc, where anyone in the world could drop by the web page and watch the cursor reveal letter after letter, word after word, picture after picture. And these users could tweet directly to her with inspired moments, or in response to specific requests she tweeted herself throughout the day. It was an extraordinary thing, author and audience engaging directly and immediately.

Some of the words and pictures that fed her work came from a team of volunteers, including me, who went out into Brisbane to snap photos and transcribe snippets of overheard conversation and report them back through Twitter using a dedicated hashtag. We represented short term memory.

Memory and identity are really central to how I see the world. When I was younger I watched my paternal grandfather succumb to Alzheimer’s and dementia, seeing his own history unravel and vaporize. We are the things we’ve been through. What happens when you can’t remember them? Or, what happens when you take events, generously shared, and remix them through another person with her own things and events? What stands out, and why? What’s too painful to take on? What resonates with truth and compassion?

I highly encourage you to take a look through the links above — there are some really moving, funny, witty and profound things being shared, and it’s enormously valuable to take a moment and try someone else’s memories on, even for a brief while.