The Influence Map

Improving your writing should be an ongoing effort.

large_writer_s_block_meme

It’s easy enough to find writing advice online, ranging from drafting the so-called perfect scene to 297 Words to omit. While much of it is sound advice, it is often difficult to find advice that is at your level, whatever level that may be. From learning how to cut out over-used phrases (for instance, my characters tend to shrug, snort, and raise their eyebrows often) to understanding how to seed information throughout your story as opposed to performing an InfoDump (very common in Fantasy and Science/Speculative Fiction), or even simply challenging yourself by going through your draft to cut out the words “was” and most any adverb (-ly words) … mercilessly.

Following even just the guidelines I just mentioned:

  • The rough scheme of how to construct a scene
  • Omission of words that serve as useless padding
  • Awareness of one’s own tendencies
  • Seeding information (avoiding InfoDumps)
  • Restructuring sentences (but not necessarily all) to avoid using an -ly adverb or the word “was”

…Following even just that, I am confident the majority of would-be writers will see an improvement in their prose.

But what if that isn’t enough?

After all, once you’ve mastered the art of storytelling (which, as I said, is an ongoing process and as such mastery is a matter of subjective opinion), what if the story itself you’re trying to tell is downright not engaging? What if you’ve spent months-worth of hours crafting and inventing a world, but the story in which it takes place just isn’t all that interesting?

There is no formula for an effective story, as Andrew Stanton says in his awesome Ted Talk, but there are clues. I have heard his points reinforced by other writers, such as those found on the Writing Excuses Podcast.

I share these with you now to cover any bases, for those of you unfamiliar with these links and methods. But to be honest, I have researched all of these things before (which is not to say I mastered the aforementioned techniques, but I feel I’ve got a good handle on them), and I was looking for something more.

That’s where mentors come into play.

If you are someone I want to say lucky enough to have yourself a mentor, no matter the field, this is a boon for your career. If you meet someone who does what you want to do, has what you want to have, and they are willing to take time out of their life to show you the in’s and outs of this, that is a magical, special thing.

However the majority of us do not have such a person in our lives. And as it turns out for me, personally, most of the writers I admire are dead. But I, too, am lucky to some degree, for the most powerful research tool in the largest library in history is readily available as well as readily taken for granted.

I discovered another Ted Talk, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (he has a book of the same name). Watch this video.

Following the idea presented in the TED Talk, I drew up my own Influence Map. This is the result after a few hours:

20151217_130629 (1)

A web like this makes sense to me, as a visually-oriented person, as opposed to, say, a spreadsheet or a simple list of names.

For the more technically minded, we can see from this beautiful and half-chipped white board more than a few familiar names. You can see that Isaac Asimov (specifically Foundations) and Frank Herbert’s Dune were each inspired mostly by … well, science and history. The same goes for George R. R. Martin, the works of whom I have criticized thoroughly in the past, yet I cannot deny he has had an influence on me.

Many Go-To-Influences include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings get put into the same rough genre yet differ greatly from each other. I’ve never been a direct fan of Tolkien (never read LotR, only The Hobbit), and Howard’s writing style had a profound effect on me — years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. Names like Roger Zelazney come up often as well.

Yet there are those inspirations for certain pieces and by certain authors that I may never be able to unearth. Cory J. Herndon wrote the first Ravnica books, novelizations for a particular setting in the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. He’s been relatively quiet since then, and like many of the MTG novels, creativity is doubtless involved, but for the most part, writers have the same recurring theme going on within the confines of a premade setting. Novelizations of a trading card game are, after all, promotional material at best.

mtg_memes__lorwyn_by_ulquiorra9000-d556pem

Lorwyn, one of nearly a dozen canonized worlds (planes) under the Magic: The Gathering multiverse.

Yet several of the MTG books stand as extremely influential for me, not least of which the Ravnica series by Herndon. Among a few other writers, he is unfortunately one of those whose background and influences I could not dig up.

And then, somewhere to the side next to “MTG Books” I’ve got Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where the Japanese creators of those geek-culture phenomena got their ideas is not so easily discovered. Granted, those were video games and an anime series — a team effort, with different members contributing different things. I would give up my legs for a translated transcript of those brainstorming sessions.

I would recommend the Influence Map exercise to anyone, regardless of what branch of creativity from which you sprout. Who inspires you? Who inspires(inspired) them? And who inspired *that* one?

Consider reading and learning from those books.

Happy writing!

 

 

Top Five Items of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is something that, as a creative and critic, I’ve learned to address as a powerful element. It’s something that heavily affects what we like, and as such it’s very important to recognize it when criticizing or judging anything. There goes the old statement: “They don’t make games/music/movies/swords like they used to,” and “The classics were the best.”

I guess that makes the definition of classic “Something that didn’t suck enough for people to forget about it.”

This can be said in regards to any media, and there’s some interesting psychology behind why people, as they age, look fondly on their younger years. Often enough, to the disdain of the current era. Part of this is the Nostalgia Factor, something I’ve touched on more than once, particularly when I’m talking about music.

Here I’ve compiled a list of particularly powerful nostalgia items for yours truly, though not all of them are necessarily physical. Each of these has a memory attached, and there is a reason they each have such a strong hold on those little neural synapses in the memory part of my thinking-organ.

1) The ThunderCats

hooooooNow before I get started, let me make it clear that it’s not the entirety of the ThunderCats that I loved, or even remembered. To be honest, I had only seen three or four episodes – tops – mostly on account of my family not having access to television until I’d grown into other media.

When I mention the Thunder Cats, what evocative imagery springs to mind? Spandex-clad bodybuilders in 80’s hair, no doubt, but for me it was one, specific episode that I’ll never forget. I had watched an episode named “Trouble in Time” again and again on account of it being the only VHS available at the nearest video-rental, a small mom & pop place about ten miles away from my the old family warren.

For those of you whipper-snappers reaching for the Google Translate button, “80’s hair” means really big and radical tresses, a VHS is what we used before .avi and .mpeg files existed, and a mom & pop was a store where people bought things before your corporate masters infiltrated the minutia of daily life.

Or something else that supposedly ages well.

Here we see Tygra, aged like a fine bottle of Sean Connery.

This episode of ThunderCats thoroughly messed with my perception of the world. One of the characters, Tygra, wanders into a chasm and finds himself rapidly aging, and we later discover this place to be known as the Caves of Time. Inside its barren corridors, Tygra comes across the bones of less fortunate organisms that also ventured here, and by the time he realizes he needs to get the hell out of dodge, he’s already emaciated, going gray, and quickly losing his ability to walk back out.

To this day, I generally don’t go underground for a variety of other reasons, but one can count this as something of a pivotal element in my formative years, shaping a sense of caution in me that no doubt kept me alive while living in the woods of Upstate New York.

2) The Last Unicorn

never_run

Sound advice. Also applicable to JCPenny salesmen.

While I count The Dark Crystal and Conan the Barbarian as my top fantasy movies, The Last Unicorn will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This story is gorgeous, and the Rankin/Bass animated production — which happens to also be the studio behind The ThunderCats — is full of wonderful quotes, atypical (AKA memorable) characters, and music that echoes through the decades. This is the story of a unicorn, the *last* one in fact, gasp, who sets out on a quest to find out what happened to all the others, and it is an adventure indeed. She meets friends, encounters other mythological creatures, and inadvertently gets turned into a human — a hugely traumatic event, since one of the first things she exclaims after regaining consciousness is:

“I can feel this body dying around me!”

Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, this story has its childish comedy, the occasionally awkward voice-acting (with a star-studded cast, actually, including Jeff Bridges and Christopher Lee), and tons of excellent, quotable, unexpectedly wise moments. A particularly unforgettable moment for me comes out of Schmendrick the Magician:

“There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”

Dan Avidan (a musician who also goes by the name of Danny Sexbang of Ninja Sex Party), does a thoroughly awesome and respectful job covering the Last Unicorn song.

3) Street Fighter and the SNES

Unabashedly teaching me that it’s okay to hit girls so long as they hit (kick) you in the face first.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my writing that videogames had a profound affect on my upbringing and my perceptions as a kid. I’ve spent numerous posts praising and applauding specific titles for their qualities as media; the enjoyment derived from adventuring, the immersion of the story arcs, the euphoria of their soundtracks.

But one distinct memory stays with me from the beginning, as it was the gateway drug of games for me.

When I was a sprout no older than six, my older brother (nearly double may age at that time) took me to a local Mexican food place called Taco Juan’s. Those of you familiar with Woodstock, NY might recall the place, but at that age the cuisine concerned me about as little as the lifting of US Trade Sanctions with China that same year.

No, there were arcade machines in the back room, and when my older brother showed me these magical machines, I watched with wide eyes as he chose a character and beat the tar out of people.

snesA short though undetermined amount of time later (however I’m inclined to think it was that same year), the Super Nintendo hit the shelves of North America. Having almost no idea what it was as my brother unboxed it at home, I stared in wonder as the T.V. flickered on and Super Mario World rolled across the screen, in all it’s vibrant primary-color glory.

“You know the best part?” my brother said to me. Wide-eyed, I shook my head. He grinned. “You don’t have to put quarters in it.”

mindblownWhen something blows your mind at age six or seven, few experiences compare ever after. And it did, of course, begin a long career in gaming.

4) Transformers: The Movie

transMovie

You got the touch.

Another animated film that seriously shaped the way I saw things, Transformers: The Movie came into my life despite my having watched almost none of the original Transformers series.

The movie itself is something of a season finale, a full-length feature film of higher-quality-than-the-industry-produced episodes of a series, and as such there were moments when characters died, early on, that really had little impact on me. More loyal fans might gasp to see characters like Ironhide and Optimus Prime (yes, Optimus) get gunned down.

gunnedOh, did I spoil it for you? The movie’s been out since 1986.

Optimus DIES in like the first fifteen minutes.

What makes this movie really stand out, though, is the antagonist, the Greater Scope Villain. An artificial planet by the name of Unicron, the theme song of whom is badass. Just hearing those first couple notes in the opening remind us that in the cold void of the universe, there always lurks the potential for a foe greater than anything we’ve ever imagined. This has profoundly affected the arc of one of my own novel projects, as well as had me looking to the stars whenever I hear about humans having a war dispute over which religion is more peaceful.

Unicron is an artificial planet that seems to focus on devouring other planets, and possesses strength and abilities far beyond that of the transformers, both Autobot and Decepticon alike. Bonus points for unfolding into a massive transformer himself, suggesting either a common origin or that, perhaps, all great non-organic intelligences eventually evolve into something transformative.

This movie showcases some of the best things to come out of the 80s: wicked story premises, screaming hair metal, and another use for term matrix before 1999 came around.

5) Aliens (Xenomorphs)

We weren’t a rich family, but I did have a collection of action figures accumulated in part for myself, as well as hand-me-downs. Toys came in different phases, and while LEGO, Definitely Dinosaurs and even Stone Protectors occupied a lot of my time as a kid, one line of toys stood out from all the others in how badass they were.

Gorilla_Alien_kenner_comicThese toys where the very definition of action figure to me. Unlike a lot of T.V. shows and product lines created with the very specific intention of selling toys, the concept of these particular aliens came around long before anyone made toys for ’em. Every figure had a unique effect to it, sometimes imaginative and sometimes simplistic, but all of them different. And there were a lot.

Between soft rubber heads that could be filled with water (to be squeezed, imitating the creature spitting acid), pressing a button on a figure’s back with your thumb to flap its wings, or even just a little spring-powered mechanism that, when released, would send a harmless, bouncy projectile to rain DEVASTATION on the enemy, these things were rad.

Not only were they fun in and of themselves, but each came with a mini-comic packaged alongside it, along with some manner of ‘flavor.’ The Space Marines came with weapons, the Aliens came with a translucent facehugger of a corresponding color, and together, with all the mini-comics, a rather extensive story could be pieced together. Impressive for a line of media that stands completely apart from (or perhaps alternate/parallel to) the storylines of the movies.

A number of models were not available in the far-off toy stores back in the day, before the age of internet-ordering, so I had doubles of the Gorilla Alien and, I think, three Scorpion Aliens, but only ever one of any other kind. Add to that the fact that they would release a model that was identical in all ways except the color of the plastic they poured into a mold.

That’s nothing new as far as toy lines are concerned, but as I kid, when I first came to understand that the tan and copper Cougar Alien was the exact same thing as the black and silver Panther Alien, I think the first seeds of doubt and distrust toward large toy companies were planted.

Be that as it may, I always loved them (though I had my favorites) if handed one now – twenty plus years later – my hands would readily and easily find the old latches and buttons cleverly hidden on their backs.

They were, for all their parasitic tendencies, very polite.

alienexcusesself