Monday, October 31, 2016

Westworld and Meta-Narrative

I have a theory about Westworld. It's not about the world outside the park or whether or not Ed Harris is a cylon. My theory has to do with the show itself, which seems fixated on the concept of narrative. Westworld is already drawing comparisons to Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two shows that trafficked heavily in managing and playing with viewer expectations, but they were still narrative shows that took place in their own worlds. Westworld is a slightly different animal. Thematically, it's about entertainment that turns against its consumer. So while it has echoes of Lost and BG, and the obvious antecedents of the 1973 Westworld film and Jurassic Park, I think there's a strain of influences that are more akin to The Ring and Mulholland Drive, horror movies that invite the viewer to be just as much of a victim as the characters on screen. The former posits a world in which viewing a film is a death sentence. The latter creates a distorted and disorienting world that makes the viewer feel just as lost as the characters.

In short, here's my Westworld theory: Westworld is messing with us.

The world-within-a-world of Westworld presents itself almost like an MMORPG. There's a central hub where guests can play around, and there they will find a series of small repeating events that are inviting them on sidequests. Then there are the huge out-of-the-way quests for completionists (read as: Ed Harris, who may or may not be a cylon). Then there are big events, like Hector's shoot-out. Finally, there's whatever happens just because the guests were farting around and shooting people. That's four layers of story interacting just within the world-within-a-world. But the television show adds a few more: there's Arnold's long-con, there's Theresa's corporate politicking, there's Ford's rabid defense of his creation, and then whatever-the-hell Bernard's been doing. And oh yeah, there's Logan's company trying to buy out Delos, Westworld's parent company. Also apparently there's some corporate espionage going on.

I'm thinking this is all distraction. Ostensibly, if Westworld-the-world is an MMORPG, then Westworld-the-show is about what happens when the NPCs come to life. As such, all of this world-building is background to the Pinocchio narratives around Maeve and Dolores. Despite all the mystery and narrative, the show is about the robots, and the show has devoted a fair amount of time towards making the robots seem human and relatable while making the human characters flat and static--especially those who work behind-the-scenes. This is not a catastrophe narrative, as it was in the 1973 film. This is a revolution narrative, and in this narrative, the humans are the bad guys. So, add Ex Machina to the list of influences.

But what does that have to do with us, the viewers? Well, humans are the bad guys, and we're the humans. I think the show is priming us for some real-life scares. It's already been playing fast-and-loose with chronology and neglecting to establish some very important practical details--how, for example, does Dolores get from the middle of a parade to underground-and-naked to have a conversation with Ford and then back without anyone noticing her absence? Was it, in fact, a dream? What the hell happened to that guy who died in episode three? Then there's the ever-present player-piano, which sometimes plays recognizable songs to remind us that this is all fake, but then sometimes doesn't. Also, we know practically nothing of the outside world of the show. We've seen a few glimpses from Bernard and the photo that set off Dolores's dad, and nothing indicates that this show actually takes place in a far future. There've even been some film-technique shenanigans. In that same conversation between Ford and Dolores, Ford asks if she remembers "the man I used to be" while the camera pans behind her head. This is a classic technique for a visual reveal, but when the camera emerges on the other side, we still see Ford. Nothing has changed. Our gut-level intuitions about storytelling don't necessarily apply in this show.

Given the reported delays and reshoots, it's easy to dismiss some of this as sloppy storytelling and slap-dash editing. But it's important to keep in mind that this is the newest prestige drama from HBO, the same channel that assured us that [REDACTED] was really dead for good on Game Of Thrones. It would not surprise me at all if some of this was HBO managing the viewers, setting them up for whatever bombshell is going to drop in episode nine. And if you think about it, all of this is laid out in the opening credits--from the initial shot of moonrise over the desert (that's actually a work-light rising over a half-finished torso) to the skeleton hands playing the piano that then recede, because it's actually a player-piano (there's that damned player-piano again). The show starts at nothing-is-what-it-seems with viewers expecting to have the rug pulled out from underneath them. But I think the show has grander aspirations than just the rug--I think it wants to pull out the whole floor.

So yeah, I'm pretty sure Westworld is messing with us. If the player-piano starts playing Rains of Castamere, get ready.

PS: did you know that Westworld has an companion ARG-style website? Of course you do, we all signed up for HBO Now and got the link. Anyway, this show that's going to try to scare us in real life has all of our email addresses now, that's what I'm getting at.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Her Story

Since I'm not working on a novel right now, I took the opportunity to play through a few PC games that had been on my radar, one of which is Sam Barlow's Her Story. I have some quibbles with it, but on the whole I found it very engaging as a piece of experimental storytelling.

The premise is that you have been given access to a series of police interviews from the 90s, which feature a young British woman. You type in a search term and the database returns up to five videos with that search in it. You are prompted with the first search term: MURDER. Who died and why you are investigating a decades-old murder (a clock in the game establishes that it takes place in the present) are mysteries to be unraveled.

The fact that this is more-or-less a game-ified version of Alta Vista is interesting in itself, but the deftness of the game is in the way it guides the player towards certain revelations. The first videos that come up give you a number of details that send you chasing down details. Because the results are always chronological, and the juicier details about the story will obviously come out in later interviews, the challenge becomes finding ways to narrow your search. The character has strikingly different outfits in every interview, which helps gives the player a timeline. Since you don't get the interviewer's questions, only detached answers, everything feels a little disjointed and context-less, which adds to the puzzle element. And, of course, there are many juicy details to be revealed.

It was interesting. Not great as far as game-play is concerned, but it was a very different way to experience a story, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. But I also found it frustrating. After about two hours I had uncovered all of the relevant plot points but only about three-quarters of the videos. But the game doesn't end until you tell it you're done--at which point it will roll credits (and then give you some cheats to reveal anything you've missed). What this means is that you essentially keep playing until you are so frustrated that you have to stop. And there's a sequence of videos in the middle that seems designed to troll completionists, so a game/story that I enjoyed quite a lot left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

I must also quibble about uneven production values. There are a bruise and a tattoo that feature, and neither of them look good. The bruise is barely noticeable, and the tattoo looks fake. Considering the effort that went into recreating 90s-era video artifacts, I had to assume that the fake tattoo was supposed to look fake, and that had some story implications. It ended up being a distraction, when it was supposed to be a supporting plot element.

But I still overall liked this game, and considering the price point ($6 on Steam, but frequently discounted--in fact, it's on sale for $3 right now), I definitely recommend it.

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Below are my spoilery quibbles. Don't read them if you want to play the game and be surprised:

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS Highlight to read.

  • The fake tattoo supports the fan theory that Hannah and Eve are the same person. But nothing else does. I don't buy that theory, but it took up a lot of brain space while I looked for clues around it.
  • I've had Eve's traditional folk ballad stuck in my head for days.
  • Seriously, what the hell was up with that polygraph sequence!?
  • I got seriously confused keeping track of all the pregnancies. So when I exited and it's revealed that you're playing as Sarah, my reaction was "Wait, is she even alive?"

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Château Soleil: Final Update

Word count: 173,227

Well, it's done. For now. This phase, anyway. Still, this feels like a major accomplishment. It is the largest project I've ever completed, and I'm very happy with the result.

Next steps:

First, I'm going to put it in a drawer and forget about it for at least a week. I'm going to spend my writing time catching up on other obligations that I've let slide. Cleaning the basement. Doing alpha reading for other writers that I've gotten behind on (sorry, Steve, David). Catching up on The Daily Show. And so forth.

When I've got a comfortable distance, I'll start incorporating feedback from my own alpha readers. I've only put up eleven chapters for them so far--due mainly to crippling insecurity. But I'll go over those chapters with an eye towards fixing continuity, setting up plot elements that I haven't adequately foreshadowed, and getting the character voices to better match what they are at the end.

Then I'll compile the whole thing into a mobi file so I can read through it and take notes on my Kindle. I expect it to grow by another 10,000 to 20,000 words over the next few drafts. Just knowing the way I write and edit. I tend to skip over a lot of details in the first draft, so edits are about making the story breathe better and putting in those missing elements. For instance, I don't think I've described a single article of clothing. So that sort of thing will need to be backfilled. This will mean a final draft length of around 185,000 to 195,000 words, or between 600 and 700 pages in mass-market paperback.

I expect the title to change. Château Soleil has been a useful working title, but it doesn't really say "Sci-fi prison-break novel," does it? It'll probably end up being called something like Escape from the Sun. Less glamorous, but far more functional. Who knows? I'll workshop that.

And then I'll start submitting it. Hopefully before the end of the year. But we'll see.

So yeah, I've still got lots to do, but the first and arguably hardest part--writing the damned thing--is done.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Château Soleil Update 16: Action is Boring

Current word count: 161,029
Chapters done: 48/52
Projected length: 174,448 words

This is the actual, honest-to-goodness home-stretch for this draft. In fact, I don't anticipate writing another post until the draft is complete. Right now I'm dealing with the climax of the novel, resolving character arcs--all that good stuff. This has included a number of action-sequences. And in putting them together, I've had to keep one bedrock principle in mind the whole time: Action is not inherently interesting.

A few years ago I was an alpha-reader for an acquaintance who was writing a space opera, and it was pretty much un-relenting action. This worked well enough for a few chapters, but it quickly became exhausting. In fact, I started using the term "combat fatigue" to describe the reading experience, because it really was just fight scene after fight scene. If you think this sounds painful... it is way more painful than you think. And it's even worse on paper. A movie or a TV show can at least use visual spectacle to its advantage. In a book, on the other hand, it's just a never-ending fight between two people that I have no reason to care about.

This was reinforced recently when I watched Captain America: Civil War. It's a movie with a lot of action sequences in it and some of them are really huge fights, but there's a lot more standing-around-and-talking in that movie that you'd think. In fact, a lot of most action movies involves standing around talking, or sitting around talking, or making dinner while talking. This is because most of what human beings do is talk to each other. It's how we build relationships with each other. And it's the building of those relationships that gives the action sequences weight. And then those action sequences work because they contribute to the story of the characters that we already care about.

So when I'm writing a fight between a thug with a bionic arm and a man piloting a giant mechanical spider, hopefully the reader enjoys the spectacle more because they care about the combatants and the bystanders and the outcome.

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Château Soleil Update 15: This Outline Is Useless!

Current word count: 151,482
Chapters done: 45/52
Projected length: 175,046 words

I'm sure I've mentioned once or twice that I'm using an outline and that my outline is falling increasingly out of sync with what I'm actually writing. This isn't a problem, really. The outline is still useful because, more than anything else, it's an emotional map of the story. But the actual story beats I have mapped out aren't proving all that useful anymore--and at this point in the story it was pretty thin to begin with. So I basically have to look at what I have written, note the POV character, imagine what I thought was going to happen and what effect that might have on the reader, and then write something that accomplishes same but gels more with the story I've been writing. I've also been looking ahead at the next few chapters to try to get a handle on what they could be story-wise.

But I haven't been writing any of those changes down. Because I'm an idiot. I knew that I wanted to keep my outline around so I could learn from it (and, hell, for posterity, right?), so I was reluctant to make any changes to it. It only occurred to me recently that I could save off an "old" version and a "current" version separately rather than relying on head-canon. This may seem obvious, because it is. But the reason it never crossed my mind is a major point that I want to reiterate, so I'll make it its own paragraph here.

I'm an idiot.

Thankfully, this hasn't been a problem for me either (the head-canon, that is--being an idiot will haunt me for the rest of my days). Fortunately I haven't forgotten about any of my head-only changes. Or, perhaps more accurately, I haven't missed the changes that I've forgotten about. And since I only have seven chapters left, it's not going to be a problem. In other words, I'm not going to change that thing I've been an idiot about. But this brings me to another point.

I only have seven chapters left! In the neighborhood of 25,000 words.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Château Soleil Update 14: Major Milestone 2

Current word count: 140,419
Chapters done: 42/52
Projected length: 173,852 words

We're on the home stretch now. This update marks the end of Book 2. As mentioned in a previous post, I've sub-divided the manuscript into three smaller "books". Book 1 covers about the first half, Book 2 the next third (or so), Book 3 the final sixth. This may seem like an odd way to organize a story, especially considering how rigorously outlined it is. I had a number of reasons for doing it this way, but the most pressing is that the story is laid out around narrative set-pieces. Each capital-B Book ends with a major event in the story and deals with a piece of correspondence that is being referenced throughout that section. There are other reasons, of course, but they are seriously too pretentious for me to talk about in a blog post.

Obviously, these are conceits that might not survive to the final draft, but for the time being, I'm using this as an excuse to celebrate! The other cause for celebration is that I'm getting to the part of the book that is genuinely fun to write. It's the part I've been looking forward to for the last, well, 140,000 words or so. This is a (relatively) big book working towards a (relatively) big ending. There are a lot of pieces floating in the air, but getting them lined up and watching them clink into place is really satisfying.

See you all again in 10,000 words,
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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Château Soleil Update 13: Unexpected Challenges And Rewards

Current word count: 130,927
Chapters done: 39/52
Projected length: 174,570 words

So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the unanticipated challenges of working on a story that is this length. It turns out that later chapters are harder than earlier ones, for not-obvious reasons. And that biggest challenge has been in finding the entry point into a chapter. From my outline I know what what major plot beats have to happen and whose eyes we're looking through, but that still gives me a lot of leeway. And it has to start somewhere. In earlier chapters, it was easy enough to just start where the last one left off. But my characters are more spread out now and their chapters aren't necessarily chronological. So finding that starting point means finding the arc of the chapter and working backwards, rather than starting at a fixed chronological point and discovering the arc as it moves forward.

Now I don't want to sound like I'm griping. Because unexpected challenges are coupled with unexpected rewards. For instance, I just wrote a fight-to-the-death scene that wasn't in my outline at all. My POVs were going to discover the body a few chapters later, but I ended up getting certain characters together for dramatic purposes and it made sense to make the death happen during the scene. Having made that decision, I was able to invoke a parallel to an earlier chapter with the same POV character, and to have her make a different choice this time, while also drawing on some of her backstory. It also meant that the plot mechanism doesn't dominate the chapter. For my outline, I had a pretty tiny bit of information she needed that will be very important later. It's the whole reason she's there, but it's not what the chapter is about anymore. So it's a lot of work to gather up plot threads instead of laying them out, but that's also a big part of the fun of a larger work (I say "larger" like this will end up being longer than your average Michael Crichton novel--but humor me here people). It's pretty joyous when a lot of elements come together after you've spend tens of thousands of words setting them up.

And hey, I'm officially 3/4 of the way through my outline. If I keep going at this pace... you know, I'm not even going to try to guess because I'm horrible at it. I honestly thought I'd have this whole thing done in January.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Château Soleil Update 12: Morning Writing

Current word count: 120,014
Chapters done: 36/52
Projected length: 173,354 words

Almost all progress since the last update has been made in the last week and a half. I decided to take a cue from a friend and wake up early to do my writing instead of trying to stay up late. I'd resisted this in the past, because I'd rather not be working against a hard cut-off (I can stay up later, but I need to get to work on time). The problem is that I just haven't had any words in me in the evenings.

So on a lark I started setting the alarm clock for 5am and trying to get an hour of writing done before the boys get up. And so far, so good. Let's see if I can keep this up.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Château Soleil Update 11: Been A While

Current word count: 112,037
Chapters done: 34/52
Projected length: 171,351 words

So it's been about three months since my last update. That's a long time to spend on only 11,000 words. I didn't intend to take a hiatus, but that's what happened. The time wasn't completely wasted craft-wise--I've been doing a lot of reading. But I got to a place in my outline where I had too many things to figure out. I let myself stop and think about it for a while and that killed my momentum.

I've talked about this before in various forums (fora?), that I think the whole point of pre-writing is to help maintain momentum. This is doubly true on a big story like this one, since I have a lot more momentum I need to sustain. Right now I'm closing in on the end of Act II and, shortly thereafter, the end of Book II. This means that the story is not quite barreling towards its conclusion, but it will be soon. This means transitioning as a storyteller from laying out the threads to gathering them back together.

And also torturing my characters, because honestly that's my main motivation here.

That transition is something I want to be more mindful of for future projects, as I'd like to avoid unscheduled three-months breaks. On the one hand, I'm glad I took the time to figure that one difficult chapter out. It's going to be very helpful in setting up my ending. Next time, I'll try to have that sorted out in the outline phase.

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