Been crazy busy for the last few months, so I’ve fallen way behind on this (and it’s also why I’ve watched so few movies lately, but incidentally has allowed for a lot of audiobooks.) So here’s a long-delayed update for something that absolutely nobody reads because I really just do it for my own benefit.
Didn’t see a lot of movies this month, but I did rewatch a couple Disney classics that I haven’t seen since I was a kid; unfortunately, for my money neither Dumbo nor The AristoCats holds up overly well, although I actually enjoyed AristoCats a bit more.
Two movie highlights this month: The Force Awakens and Begin Again.
First, the obvious: The Force Awakens was everything I was hoping for out of a new Star Wars movie, and may have just taken the spot as my favorite of the whole series. It exceeded all of my expectations and then some. Well written, great story, awesome new characters, and superb acting all around. Daisy Ridley & John Boyega were hands down the perfect casting choices. Even BB8 was a joy to watch. This is not only the Star Wars movie that fans wanted, it’s the Star Wars movie that fans needed.
And then there was Begin Again, the movie that has quickly become one of my all-time favorites. Despite just discovering it, I’ve already watched it several times and shown it to a few of my friends. It’s a modern movie musical by John Carney (writer/director of Once.) Unlike a Broadway style musical where characters randomly burst into song, the songs in Begin Again come from the fact that the characters are musicians, and these are their songs. It has a beautiful story & music, and I absolutely love Keira Knightley in this role. Great performances all around, really. Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld… all pitch perfect. The characters feel real and have wonderful story arcs. My emotions were riding high while watching this, as it’s a cathartic, heartfelt story about moving on. Highly recommend.
Another couple of months where I didn’t get out to the movies too much, but I did do a good amount of reading. I’m taking a class on Teaching Young Adult Fiction, which has given me a good excuse to check out a lot of YA fiction.
I’m currently taking a class on Teaching Young Adult Literature, and one of my first assignments was to write my Reading Autobiography, which was a detailed description of the sort of reading I did when I was young (focusing on middle school and high school.) I enjoyed going back down memory lane for the assignment, and so I wanted to share it here.
Reading has been a big part of my life from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are of me getting in trouble for staying up late reading beside a tiny nightlight. In that sense, I was always a little ahead of the game. When my siblings and I were elementary school kids growing up in Ohio, I would always look forward to the Saturdays when we’d go to the Bexley Library to hunt for new books. I would always pick up one or two Peanuts or Garfield books, and then go straight to the kids section for the Matt Christopher baseball books. From there, I graduated to baseball players’ autobiographies. I remember reading Orel Hershiser’s and Hank Aaron’s autobiographies when I was in the third grade, and I guess I just assumed at the time that they were written for kids my age (because why else would I be allowed to read them), although looking at their lexile level now I see that they’re at a high school reading level. I think that just goes back to the whole notion that if a student is interested in the subject matter, they’ll read above their normal level. Oh, and I read a lot of the Encyclopedia Brown books, which taught me that if you ever see someone filing their nails after they’ve gotten out of the shower, it means they’re a dirty, dirty liar and shouldn’t be trusted.
We moved to Georgia when I was in fourth grade, and our primary source of books became the B. Dalton bookstore at Gwinnett Place Mall. There was also a Waldenbooks there, but for some reason that always struck me as the “fancy” bookstore. I still remember the locations of all the shelves I would venture toward in B. Dalton: The humor section where I’d get the latest Fox Trot or Garfield collection (the far back wall on the left), the juvenile book shelves (halfway back on the right), and the sports section (along the wall on the right side, just past the magazine rack.)
I read a lot of series books from fourth to sixth grade. The first ones I remember getting into were the Boxcar Children books. We probably had forty or fifty of those, and once I finished them I started reading my sister’s Babysitters Club books. Sure, I wasn’t the target audience for those, but they were still engaging reads (even if I did have to hide them inside a Sports Illustrated when I was reading them at school.) After that was Goosebumps, a series I thoroughly loved and devoured every time a new book came out. I also got into a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books. We had a number of those that I’d read a lot, although now that I’m older I can admit with only some shame that I would cheat and sneak a peek ahead to make sure I wasn’t walking into a trap with every choice I made.
As I got further into middle school, I read more classic series books. I got sucked into the Chronicles of Narnia in sixth grade and burned through all of those pretty quick. In seventh grade, I discovered the Prydain Chronicles and made short order of that series as well. It was also my first experience with a series where multiple characters were killed off. I recall making a chart showing how and when characters were killed during The High King. It was also in seventh grade that I first got into Michael Crichton and read Jurassic Park. Crichton was my favorite author for the next several years, during which time I also read The Lost World, Sphere, Congo, Rising Sun, and Timeline (my favorite Crichton book, which also became the worst Crichton movie.) Pretty much anytime we went on vacation, I’d take a Crichton book with me to read on the plane or while lounging beside the pool.
Starting in eighth grade, my reading habits would change drastically for the next several years, not because of a book but because of a video game. It was in eighth grade that I discovered the Playstation game Suikoden. Before Suikoden, the games that I played were all fairly simple in their approach to story, as few had a plot more complex than “rescue the princess” or “stop the bad guys.” Suikoden was a whole new ballgame. It was an RPG, or Role Playing Game, where the story and character development were just as crucial to the experience as the gameplay itself (even moreso, in point of fact.) I was sucked in by the story of Tir McDohl, the son of one of the Five Great Generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire, whose best friend is killed by the consort to the corrupt Emperor and must go on the run. While in hiding he meets Odessa, the leader of the Liberation Army, a group dedicated to freeing the Empire from the Emperor’s tyranny. After Odessa is assassinated, Tir is thrust into the role of leader of the Liberation Army and must assemble the 108 Stars of Destiny to combat the Empire. It was a life changing experience for me, as the story had brilliant plot twists, moments of great triumph, and heart wrenching turns as favorite characters were killed or sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Almost twenty years later I now find myself playing through Suikoden again, and the story is still as good as I remember it. Additionally, the young adult book that I’m currently writing, Into the Black, is heavily influenced by the Suikoden series and other Japanese RPGs.
From that point on, I couldn’t get enough RPGs. I lost myself in Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy series, Xenogears, Vandal Hearts, and anything else I could get my hands on. Anyone who says that video games aren’t a legitimate storytelling medium is an uninformed fool who’s been playing the wrong games (I’m looking at you, Roger Ebert.) And so, on April 27th, 1997, I created my first webpage: IcyBrian’s Suikoden Page. It started out as a resource for information on the game itself: Walkthroughs, secrets, character lists, things like that. The internet was still in its infancy at this stage, and as people found my site they asked me to expand it and make pages for other games, and as I did the site became IcyBrian’s RPG Page.
And then a curious thing happened. Someone sent me a Chrono Trigger story they had written and asked if I would post it on the site. I shrugged and said, “hey, why not. Original content!” I had written little Mario stories when I was younger, so I was already familiar with fanfiction (even if I didn’t know what it was at the time.) Pretty soon, more and more people started sending me their stories to post. From there, the site became less of a resource and more of a community. I met a lot of fellow RPG fans and writers, many of whom are still friends of mine to this day.
For the next five years, IcyBrian.com was the go-to place for RPG fanfiction and fan art on the internet. My site had the largest collection of RPG fanfics anywhere (at least until the advent of fanfiction.net, an automated site where people could post literally anything they wanted without any sort of moderation or quality control, something I totally wasn’t the least bit bitter about in any way.) Throughout high school, the vast majority of my reading was fanfiction. Every day when I came home from school, I’d have a fresh batch of emails waiting for me in my inbox, containing new chapters to stories that were already posted on the site or new stories looking to be approved for posting. I would still read other books, namely the aforementioned Michael Crichton books and a number of plays, but most of what I read in high school was fanfiction. I’d print out chapters and put them in my binders with the rest of my school work so I could read them in class without arousing too much suspicion. I remember that Math class in particular was my designated fanfic reading time. I was good at math but really didn’t care about it, so I was able to get by only paying a little bit of attention in class, while dedicating the rest of my focus to the more important task of reading new stories about the RPG characters I loved.
The RPG site is still up, although a recent backend update on my server broke the script I used for the fanfic section, so I need to get that repaired so it’ll be back up as an archive. I haven’t read fanfiction in over ten years, and I now subscribe to the belief that writing in someone else’s world isn’t the best way to craft your own stories, but I still credit fanfiction with getting me back into writing and with shaping a large part of who I was in high school and in the years beyond.
Ant-Man. Seriously, how about that Ant-Man? Marvel took a character I had very little knowledge of or interest in and turned it into what’s easily one of the three most pure fun Marvel movies (alongside the original Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy.) Paul Rudd was the perfect casting choice, and Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, & Michael Douglas do an awesome job rounding out the cast. I kinda want to go see it again.
On the book front, I was apparently on a kick of books that were turned into movies starring Shailene Woodley. Fine with me, because both Divergent & The Fault In Our Stars were pretty great.
I’ve made a number of attempts at writing a novel over the years. While I’ve succeeded at writing and producing plays and screenplays, a finished novel has eluded me. There’s one series in particular that I’ve been working on in one form or another for about five years now. On the first draft I got seven chapters in before restarting, writing another seven chapters, restarting again, writing another two chapters, and then starting over again.
The fourth draft has been more successful. I had a few of the main plot points figured out, but I was still flying by the seat of my pants for the most part. This time around, I got twenty five chapters in and just… hit a wall. It’s not that what I had was bad. I actually like most of it. But I felt like the last few chapters had the characters spinning their wheels, venturing off on this mission, and then that one. Something was missing, and I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
It was around that time that I had to focus on finishing post-production for Uncommon Law, so I set the book aside for a while as I completed the movie. When I was finished with that and went back to the book, I realized I still didn’t know where I was going with it.
And that’s when I knew I had a fundamental flaw in my writing process.
Whenever I’ve written a play or a screenplay (you know, those things I’ve actually completed and put out in the world,) I’ve had an outline that I worked from. However, anytime I’ve written fiction, I’ve been a pantser, someone who just writes as it comes, without any outlining or significant planning. Which, I realized, may be why I’ve never actually finished a book. Some of this probably goes back to the times I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, which has traditionally been the domain of pantsers. Now, don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with pantsing (unless you’re in public, in which case nobody wants to see that.) It’s great for some people, but it just wasn’t working for me. I had to try something else.
I searched online for different outlining methods, but none really struck my fancy. In my search, though, I saw a number of people on Writer Unboxed and the NaNoWriMo forums recommend K.M. Weiland‘s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Enough people seemed to swear by it that I decided to give it a look. Reading through it, I felt like it had some good info in it, but I wasn’t certain how much of it would really be helpful. But hey, the old method wasn’t working, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a shot at putting Weiland’s lessons into practice.
I set aside my in-progress novel and pulled out an old idea from over a decade ago (that longtime readers may remember as my short-lived fantasy web comic “Into The Black.”) I had jotted down various ideas or thoughts that had came to mind over the years, but I’d never actually written it. I believed it had a lot of potential, though, so I knew it would be a good candidate to try out the lessons from Outlining Your Novel.
I’m not even a third of the way into the steps listed in the book, and I’m already a believer. Not just in a “hey, this kinda works” way, but in an “I’ve got to obnoxiously tell all my writer friends about this book” sorta way.
Right off the bat, what I love about the method in this book is how it replicates the part of my previous process that actually worked, only it allows me to do it on my own. Previously, one of my best friends acted as a sounding board for my ideas, and we’d have hours-long phone conversations going through all the various “what if” scenarios that could pop up in the book. But, as it does, life happens, and she suddenly had law school, a full time job, and a wedding to plan, so our conversations became shorter and more focused on the personal side of our lives (because as great as it is to have a sounding board, I still prioritize her friendship over all else.)
One of the first things the book has you do is list all the potential “What If” scenarios that could occur, and it encourages you to write down everything, even if it seems ridiculously silly. Following that, you pick out the ones that have the most legs or that give you a visceral reaction, and you extrapolate like crazy on those. Just from doing that exercise, I not only learned things about my characters that worked so much better than the notes I’d already written down, but I’d also figured out what the story should be about and the right angle to take to introduce this world. Some people say they don’t like outlining because it takes away the exhilarating sense of discovery that comes from writing, but damn, I was getting that exact same feeling from brainstorming these ideas up front.
Another recommendation the book made which has been extremely helpful to me has been to do the brainstorming/outlining process by hand. Way back in the day, I used to write all my notes out on notebook paper in three-ring-binders, but when I was in college I switched to doing everything on a computer. In doing so, I found that I’d fallen into one of the traps Weiland mentions: When you’re writing on the computer, it feels so permanent. I had a lot of ideas that would come to mind, but I wouldn’t type them up because I didn’t know if they were worthy of going into my Scrivener file. So instead, they just sat in my mind until I found the right way to incorporate them, or else until I forgot all about them before I could figure out how to make them work. By returning to my old three-ring-binders, I’ve given myself permission to write down every single idea that comes to mind, no matter how implausible, and then when I reach the end of the outlining process and am ready to write, I can transfer all the ideas I’m keeping into the notes on my computer. Also, it means that when I’m outlining, I don’t have all of the distractions of the internet at my fingertips (a big problem of mine.) I still plan to do all the actual writing on my computer in Scrivener, but so far this is working wonders for the outlining/brainstorming process. Boom. Best of both worlds.
I’m looking forward to my daily writing sessions each day as I get further along in this outline and continue to make discoveries about this story, the characters, and the world it’s set in. I can’t wait to start writing the actual story, and feel the relief that comes from knowing where I’m going every step of the way.
The TL;DR version: I was having crazy trouble writing as a pantser, and K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success has completely changed the way I write and reinvigorated my creativity. If you’ve been struggling with writing by the seat of your pants, I highly suggest checking out this book. Hopefully it’ll do for you the same as it’s done for me.