On Creativity: Carnivalé and the Hero’s Journey

The HBO series Carnivale has been inspiring me.

We recently picked up Carnivalé on DVD, and are enjoying season one. This series was broadcast on HBO in 2004 and only lasted two seasons before being cancelled, but not before attracting attention and kudos for its haunting stories, great cast, and movie-quality production values.

Carnivalé presents us with two unlikely protagonists: an abandoned farm boy who has recently lost his mother and his home, and a tortured preacher who struggles to save the down-trodden “Oakies”, outcasts from society in the midst of the American dustbowl-era depression.

Ben, the farm boy, is beset with dreams and visions of his late father. Ben possesses a healing ability, which his devoutly religious mother condemned him for moments before she died.

Brother Justin, the Preacher, also possess a power – the power to make others see visions. He uses this power to convince the weak and the evil to follow his path of righteousness, specifically to help the downtrodden and especially, poor abandoned and orphaned children.

Each of these men lives in a different world from the other: Ben with the “Carnivalé” circus, and Brother Justin in a small, conservative town that would never accept him as their pastor if they knew of his special abilities.

Ben undergoes what I see as the classic Hero’s Journey, or trial, where he becomes trapped and lost in an abandoned mine, and sees visions involving his late father and a man from the Canivalé, whom he knows as Ludz.

In the Hero’s Journey (a la Joseph Campbell), the hero becomes trapped in a maze or some kind of labyrinth, but eventually escapes after having a vision or dream.

This maze experience is a test. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker went to Dagobah to learn from Master Yoda, and one of his tasks was to enter an underground cave, where he confronted Darth Vader in a dreamlike battle. We knew it wasn’t the real Darth Vader – it was a test visited upon Luke by his Master, to help him see his own soul and potential future.

 

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On Process: How Scrivener is changing how I write…

I’m still getting used to working with Scrivener, but its design is encouraging me to organize my manuscript in a better way.

When I wrote Owe Nothing, I saw individual scenes first; specific exchanges between characters, or particular story “beats” that were important to me. However, I didn’t start with much of an overall framework in mind – I went back later and analyzed my half-finished manuscript, documented the various plot-points, and tried to resolve or relate sub-plots. Then, I had to decide where to put my chapter breaks, make sure I had good hooks at the end of chapters, or create good break-points if there weren’t any.

Bottom line: Working that way, I wasn’t really in control of my story, because I didn’t create much of a plot skeleton for it when I began.

Scrivener’s design encourages the creation of an outline by making it easy to create little index cards on which you can bang out basic plot points and major events, and then progressively fill in details as you work from general to specific to develop each scene. Working with modular chunks of story (scenes) is the way it should be done, and Scrivener makes rearranging scenes as easy as dragging a piece from one place to another in the story outline.

This author has some good points on writing your content as scenes first, and then compiling them into Chapter folders after:
From “Clay’s Site” – “Using the Scene writing method with Scrivener”

In my last post about my own writing process, I covered a little about how Scrivener (and other tools) have helped me learn and improve my work-flow.

 

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On Process: Getting to Love Scrivener

Have I said how much I am loving Scrivener?

I am loving Scrivener.

When I started writing my first novel, Owe Nothing, my initial tools were a notebook (the dead-tree-based, spiral-bound kind) and a variety of ballpoint pens. I wrote a dozen pages at a time, “long hand” as they say.I would write at home, at a cafe, and anywhere else I was when some inspiration or scene idea would cross my mind.

As material began to accumulate, I started adding little codes, yellow highlighter, page numbers, arrows and sticky notes. What a disorganized mess it became. Then, the fun task of typing in and organizing all those hand-written notes. Bloody hell…

Handheld Devices and Laptops

Later, I began using my PDA (a Palm Tungsten, then a Treo) and a little keyboard to write scenes. This worked pretty well but must have looked ridiculous, judging by all the looks I got and the resulting conversations with curious strangers.

Later still, I finally bought myself a little netbook and started moving text from the netbook to my desktop PC using a USB key or emailing it to myself and composing snippets of text into a manuscript later. The netbook was orders of magnitude better for sheer typing speed, but gave no relief in terms of information organization and consolidation. Blech.

Needless to say, while I think it’s fantastic to be able to write anywhere I can, whenever the fancy strikes me, it has sucked hard trying to keep all my raw material organized and centralized across different input sources. Man cannot live by Word(tm) alone.

Writing Tools That Have Helped Me Stay Organized

Next, I played around with FourSquare for almost a year, and it helped to centralize my manuscript and research materials better than before. I began to see that having digital research material adjacent to my working draft manuscript was extremely helpful and motivating. Unfortunately, I found importing and exporting my project to a flash drive to get it from one PC to another turned out to be a total pain in the neck. Because of that, I just didn’t sync my Foursquare project data all that often.

Recently, I discovered Scrivener. This tool is like a complete working environment inside one app: For research, I can import text, photos, and web links. For high-level organization and outlining, I can modularize my words as “index cards” or folders of text, and it’s easy to move chunks of my story around in order to get a flow that I like. Most recently, I’ve used the labeling feature to colour-code scenes according to the major plot to which they belong. This gives me a sense of the balance of the overall piece, and will make it easier to decide how to move scenes around if I want to contrast things against each other or change the flow of the story.

As for portability, moving my Scrivener project between my laptop (for those productive Starbucks sessions) and my desktop PC, it’s easy to transplant my project by dragging one folder into a common location. Dropbox is the best answer for that. Drag and drop. Boom. Done.

In terms of composition, Scrivener is a full-meal-deal editor, providing enough tools to format my text, but not so many that I’ll get lost amongst features that I rarely ever need (unlike Word).

For distribution formats or special projects, where a particular template is required, I can burp out my manuscript in a paperback novel format, an eBook, or reformat it as a screenplay or something else. I haven’t done this yet, but it sounds pretty cool.

But it can’t make me create…

…so, for that I use Write or Die, because no one tool can do everything.

I still keep a pen and paper handy too, just in case…

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On Research and Creativity: Archetypes and Inspiration…

I’ve been revisiting and researching famous stories and hero myths, starting from the most recent, pop cultural stories and their influences, and then digging down deeper into personal territory, furrowing paths that lead me to my mother and father, and to my images and beliefs of myself.

I’m a fan of pop culture, comic books, and sci-fi – not all of it – and during the years when I grew from a kid into a teenager, I absorbed a lot of pop culture stories and artwork. Here are the particular works that affected or influenced my outlook as I was plodding through my angst-fueled tweens through teen-hood:

Star Wars:
I had just turned eleven, and this movie was a religious event for me. I read magazines about the movie’s plot and its production, collected every bubble gum card in the series, and collected some of the action figures. It had aspects of the Wizard of Oz, along with a somewhat gritty “used” aesthetic that made it feel worn and lived in. I wanted to live in it. It was the last movie I ever saw with my mother, and the last movie that she ever saw outside of a hospital television. For Mum, Dorothy left the farm in Kansas to see the world. For me, Luke left the farm on Tatooine to find his destiny.

Superman, the Motion Picture:
A year after Star Wars landed, another big cinematic event for me. Christopher Reeve inspired me that a man can be an honest, virtuous hero, impervious to negative influences and corruption. He gave the most convincing, wonderful performance, and the movie’s physical and optical effects had reached an amazing level that convinced me that a man could fly.

Famous Monsters of Filmland:
This was a science fiction/fantasy/horror movie magazine that showed me that movie monsters were brought to life by actors, designers and writers, and that movie monsters could be funny as well as shocking. The magazine’s editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, was lovingly referred to as “Uncle Forry” by me and a whole generation of young fans and future movie makers. Real life provided me with enough real scares and true monsters, but Uncle Forry made his world fun and safe.

Archetypes – Parents and Other Important Grown-ups:

My parents, only one generation younger than their wise elders, seemed to contain all the chaos the world had to offer, and served it up around me far too often. Mother and Father were the seat of drama and hot emotions in my life. My father could be gentle, but when challenged or threatened would become authoritarian and rigid – someone to fear and obey. My mother could sometimes be fun or spontaneous, but was most often depressed, uncommunicative or just unavailable.

My grandparents were all dead by the time I was twelve. I only got to know one of them really well (my maternal grandfather). I’m also grateful for the careful attention of my father’s aunt, who gave me and my sister quiet, safe times to learn, draw or just hang out. I had learned from watching how each of them lived that life could be uncomplicated, rational and peaceful, with simple joys like a brisk walk while sucking on a fresh peppermint.

Later on, a couple of years into adulthood, I’d encounter a teacher who provided me the educational and professional mentorship I had craved. He began as a kind of “Obi-wan Kenobi” to my eager young “Luke Skywalker”, showing me new ways to look at the world around me, and in the years to follow as I matured and accumulated more of my own wisdom, I saw him more clearly as a man, idolized him less,  and liked and respected him even more.

Wise elder figures in fantasy (Obi-wan Kenobi, Gandalf) or familiar celebrities (like Uncle Forry), represented safe and reassuring proof that there was fun, reassuring elder wisdom to be had for uncertain youths.

Each of These Figures Goes into the Mix…

For me, I suppose that the symbolism of my family and life sums up something like this:

  • Parents teach more by the example of their lives, than by anything they tell you about them. Do as they say, but watch out for what they do. In my life, I learned what not to do and how not to live, by watching their living examples.
    • Father: Strong, fearless except when his fearlessness is in question, and moral, except when his morality is in dispute. When he’s good, he’s Superman. When he’s bad, he’s Darth Vader, or Dracula.
    • Mother: Beautiful to look at, a songbird to hear, but unstable and unreliable. Tragic and flawed. Someone to love en absentia, and then posthumously. Referred to in the past tense, even during her life; zombie-fied and burnt out, like a poor, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster
  • Grandparents tend to be wiser than their children, and tend to mourn and regret their antics, even into their adulthood. Because of their roles, they can provide comfort, but are often ineffective at being parents to their adult kids. The old wizards and warriors have had their day, and must yield the field to their younger counterparts – for better or worse.
  • Teachers tend to be the most objective and reliable source of information and inspiration. They also represent the emotional oasis that is school and higher learning in general. They don’t get involved directly with any of the above.
  • The Hero/Heroine of your life is you (in my case, me). You take everything you can get, learn all the lessons, suffer all the trials, and watch all the examples of each of the above people in your life.

This is the raw material that has gone into the characters and events in my own fiction, such as Owe Nothing, and its sequel, The Two Sisters.

In looking back at my life, and what I’ve made of it, I acknowledge the roles and influences of my parents, grandparents, teachers, idols, and fantasies. They all represent parts of a tapestry (if you’ll indulge me in a weaving metaphor), the threads of which I’ve extracted to knit into something new. The individual threads (snippets of a personality, an action-reaction, a core value, feeling or sense-memory) don’t reveal much of their source, but careful composition allows me to create figures, worlds and events that can resonate for a reader, without devaluing the original threads and those who spun them for me.

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On Research: Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey

I’ve only ever read snippets of Joseph Campbell’s books on heroes and heroic tales and myths, so I never expected to find influences in his works. Yet, the influence is there. Many other writers and film-makers *have* studied Campbell (not the least of them being George Lucas). So, in being a fan of modern epics like “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings”, it follows that I must have subconsciously absorbed and recycled some similar ideas and themes when writing my own little book, “Owe Nothing“.


Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero With A Thousand Faces)

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation–initiation–return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. Stages of the hero’s journey:

1. Birth: Fabulous circumstances surrounding conception, birth, and childhood establish the hero’s pedigree, and often constitute their own monomyth cycle.

2. Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger. The Hero may accept the call willingly or reluctantly.

3. Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey.

4. Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world of adventure.

5. Tests: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a series of tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax.

6. Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.

7. Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure.

8. Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.

9. Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.

10. Elixir: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society.

11. Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

 

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On Creativity: Multiple Media and a Billion Artists

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Maybe a singer-songwriter like Adele or Beck will say something extremely poignant to me through their music. The same with film-makers like P.T. Anderson, Michel Gondry, or Quentin Tarantino, through their movies.

But even more so, the farther back in time I go: Orson Welles speaks to me strongly.  Buster Keaton makes me cheer for the little guy, and Fritz Lang and Murnau make me wonder what happens in the darker corners of our minds. Illustrators and graphical storytellers like Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee feel like uncles. Their lines are like well-known handwriting that evokes a familiar voice in my head. Steinbeck made me anguish for the poor and desperate working families. Charles Dickens made me love the charity, trust and loyalty of dear David Copperfield.

Some of the stories were recorded decades ago, and some well over a century ago, but they are alive in real-time whenever I experience them again.

I think that the human mind must truly not care a thing about timeliness, or temporal sequence. There is just now.

And now, we all have the capability to dream, to create, to defend our values, and to reach out to each other through our art. The insanely fast, relentless growth and spread of digital communications technology allows us to bring our minds and hearts together in time and space with an immediacy that we’ve never before known.

Of course, there’s a lot of crap and idiocy out there online and in realspace, but in the midst of it, a billion potential artistic voices are trying to call out to each other.

 

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On Writing: Chasing Echoes and Ghosts

For me, the energy and desire to write always seems to get bogged down in the necessity to research. It’s just part of the process. In my fiction, a certain amount of factual research is needed in order to pin characters, places and things down in a realistic, believable way.

When it works, and I gather information that qualifies some details, it fills me with a sense of accomplishment and closure: I feel that I can build on the objectivity I have established, and move on from there. However, there are times when I can’t get the answers I’m looking for, or no clarity or objective detail can be established on some topic. In those cases, I feel like I’m staring into a gap in the tableau I’ve been developing, and in my insecurity and self-consciousness, I become convinced that the gaps are big enough to drive a truck through. I’m left with a lingering lack of confidence.

If I cannot establish some kind of adequate, believable, factual precedent for an idea, character or locale, then at some point, I find myself faced with “Plan B” – I use my imagination and whatever other information I have gathered in order to close the gaps.

When it doesn’t work, I feel like I’m chasing wisps of ideas, ghosts of people, down unfamiliar alleys, following echoes to who knows where.

I don’t get writer’s block. I get lost in a conceptual morass, looking for the way out. Eventually, once I dig back into the world I’m building, I’ll find the beacon I need to make my way.

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On Research: How did it ever get done before the Internet?

How the hell did writers ever do research in the days before the Internet? A lot of cultural and technological development took place to get us where we are today.

I’m not exactly a digital native – I remember the days before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. I remember the days before the web, and email. I remember using a 2400 baud modem to log into local Bulletin Board Systems located on private desktop PCs all over town, just to stay abreast of local chatter.

Back in high school, I remember that we were taught how to use the card catalogue to look up books by their call numbers. It seemed to take a long time and a lot of searching to find one or two 20 year-old books, and then, more searching in each volume to find the information you were looking for in the first place. I just cannot imagine how much time and effort a writer would have to take in order to do research for a book, back in the days before the Internet.

The difference in time and effort spent on research today is like the difference between walking somewhere and teleporting there.

Finding Informed Opinions

When I need to make requests of various experts, but I don’t know to whom I should make my queries, I can just bleat a tweet out into the twitterverse, or send a few quick emails. Within 24 hours (maybe just an hour or three) I will have at least a couple of useful leads. Answers.com and other “Ask an Expert” sites are all over the web too. People will bid to answer your esoteric questions for relatively cheap rates. And, there are also a boatload of free message boards where amateur experts, aficionados and historians share information on a multitude of topics. No phone calls, letter writing or travel required.

Consult that Encyclopedia Britannica

When I’m looking for third-party researched data on general topics – like the kind of information I’d look for in an encyclopedia – I just go to Wikipedia, and if necessary, corroborate the information with other online sources.

Go There and Research Stuff in Person

Thanks to Google, Bing and others, I can get street-level and bird’s eye views of many places on the planet. This can go a long way towards informing any descriptions that I’d want to add to a story.

Of course, no street photography can give you the sounds, smells, temperature and tactile impressions that come from live human experience. By the time we manage to virtualize those sensations, we’ll be in the era of virtual travel, and reading textual descriptions will be largely irrelevant.

How Will Narrative Change?

At the point in our future where virtual environments become predominant, I think that narrative – the “story” – will be something that you as the reader/participant construct in your mind as you experience the writer’s virtual world. In that scenario, the writer will be a facilitator – a guide – and you will be the one creating your own narrative as you take your own steps through the story.

This is similar in evolution to how the hyperlink changed the idea of informational linking between books. Back in the pre-Internet days, a footnote in one book would refer to a passage in a different book, and to experience that second book, you’d have to go find it and read it. Hyperlinks transport your mind from the body of one book to the body of the next book with nothing more than a mouse click.

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From Rockstars to Sleuths: Has 3D Game Storytelling Matured?

Have gaming and interactive storytelling finally matured to a new level? This is the impression I’m left with after reading reviews and watching clips from Rockstar/Team Bondi’s impressive new game, “L.A. Noire”.

Granted, I’m no gamer. Hell, I’m practically a neophyte. In the last year, I’ve probably spent more time playing Bejewelled and Angry Birds on my Palm Pre than I have playing any 3D first-person shooter on any platform in the past ten years. Remember Doom, Jedi Knight? I played those a fair bit, back in the nineties. I also spent hours exploring Second Life. That’s about as immersed as I ever got. Good times, but a bit meager compared to active gamers, but that’s pretty much my gamer cred.

Convergence of Pulp Fiction, Cinema and Gaming

Seeing a game that looks like a cross between an animated Raymond Chandler novel and the movie L.A. Confidential really piqued my curiosity. I think that the nature of the content – the hard-boiled detective genre and the quality of presentation – is what has drawn my attention to L.A. Noire. I love social realist authors like John Steinbeck and I’ve been reading classic hard-boiled detective fiction for years too.

From golden-age masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and cold-war veterans like Ian Fleming, John D. McDonald, and John LeCarre, through to modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin – the crime fiction genre is still alive and well in the written word. TV has, of course, made it even more prevalent. Is there anyone in the western world who hasn’t watched an episode of “Law and Order” on TV by now? I doubt it.

I’m probably the new audience that the game creators were hoping to attract, along with the folks who already play 3D games. I think that L.A. Noire is definitely a “crossover” game – an attempt to draw readers and cinema-goers into gaming. From a marketing perspective, the ads I’ve seen for L.A. Noire definitely emphasize the action-adventure aspect, showing lots of gun-play and violence, obviously aimed at existing gamers who are still at the core of its potential market.

However, the “How-to” videos I’ve seen of L.A. Noire remind me of the behind-the-scenes extras you’d get on a special edition DVD of your favourite movie. Here, production values, innovation and name-brand performers are all promoted and explained, which adds a new level of credibility. Overall, L.A. Noire and its marketing and promotion seem to have a very strong cinematic feel.

A More Mature Approach?

If 3D gaming were a coin with GTA on one side, Noire could be the other side, opposite in goals and attitude. In Noire, you play a cop fighting corruption and lawlessness, instead of embracing it as in GTA. The major emphasis of Noire seems to be on strategy, deduction, and observation, and not just action, although it still has a good deal of that. The soundtrack is different too, made up of period jazz and swing music that probably wouldn’t appeal to many younger gamers. Overall, it feels like this is a gaming experience that was designed as a cinematic period piece, for a more patient, mature audience.

From the promo clips and walk-throughs that I’ve seen so far, there also seems to be a higher-level of artistic maturity and (IMHO) name-brand performance involved in L.A. Noire than in previous Rockstar games, like GTA. (Set me straight if I’m wrong about that, GTA players. You know better than me.)

The creators of L.A. Noire say that the ability to use your emotional intelligence is a major factor in succeeding in this game. Because of the effectiveness with which characters in L.A. Noire portray realistic facial expressions and body motion, you can actually decide if a character is lying to you or is telling the truth based upon their facial ticks, dodgy eyes, or body language.

Aren’t these all emotional intelligence and empathetic skills? I remember reading about how the military would use 3D gaming platforms to develop combat training scenarios for young soldiers? Are sensitivity, social skills and good judgement now the skills that gamers will require to win? Can games now help a gamer develop those skills? I find that possibility totally fascinating.

Similar to how comic books shrugged off their childish associations from the 1940s to evolve into complex, challenging graphic novels written for a college crowd, 3D gaming may be evolving closer to cinema. At least in the case of  L.A. Noire, 3D gaming seems to be growing up.

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