Sunday, 30 July 2017

Don't Just Write

I've been thinking about feel-good mantras a lot recently, and this was catalyzed a bit by a recent Tim Ferriss podcast where he talked to a bunch of previous guests about when it's time to quit something. A lot of the advice - or even all of it - was good, and very little of it had anything to do with writing fiction, but it got me thinking about the advice that beginning/aspiring writers get a lot.

The main one is, "Just write!" I think it should be obvious from my use of an exclamation point what I think of this advice. I've gotten it myself, many times, and the hell of it is that it's good advice. But it's not enough - necessary but not sufficient.

Thing is, writing's the easy part. The hard part is submitting it places, and getting it into shape to submit to magazines, contests, and literary agents. The one I prefer is Robert Heinlein's "Read a lot, write a lot, and send away what you write." But even that one kind of obscures the amount of work needed to get something into shape.

The platonic ideal is to write a story, send it off, and get started on the very next one. What I'm finding hard these days is balancing creating new stuff with editing the old stuff that I've "finished". I've got a screenplay I spent last year writing, and have spent some time since tinkering with it, getting it back in shape, etc. I have a short novel I wrote in 2015, which I've also been tinkering with since I wrote it. Just got back some beta reader comments on it that indicate how much more work I have to do on it.

But what do I prioritize? Writing new stuff (like this short story idea I've had) or fixing up the old stuff? The other complicating factor is that short stories are easier to submit than novels or screenplays, but less lucrative.

As an aside: yes, I'd like to make money at writing; doesn't mean I don't take it seriously - on the contrary, wanting to make money at it seems like even more reason to learn to do it well.

Obviously I need to do all of it. But to come back to my original thesis here, I can't only do the writing - to be successful at it (however you define success) you have to do the editing, the research and the submitting.

It's a good way to learn to deal with rejection!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Finally Finished Breaking Bad

The title says it all - after first checking it out in 2012, I've seen the resolution of Walter White's quest, and the final fate of his family, his partners and his enemies. I won't be posting a spoiler warning here, because the show ended in 2013, so proceed at your own risk as I deliver myself of my final thoughts.

It's a show that seems to inspire a lot of fervent love in its fans, but I have to admit that it didn't do the same in me. This is probably why I've spent so much time thinking about it, and why I'm writing about it now. The following will take that into account, as a kind of riposte to the likes of Chris Hardwick or my friend Anthony, who have championed it heavily for years.

In a lot of ways, the show really came alive for me in these final 16 episodes. It started to get very good at the end of season 3, when Walt ran over and shot those two drug dealers who were about to kill Jesse, and who worked for his employer, Gus Fring. It got good again toward the end of the fourth season as well, when Walt started maneuvering around Fring, and finally killed him with a cunningly laid trap.

But whereas every previous season walked everything back sooner or later, the fifth season was finally able to move things forward and keep escalating until Walt killed Mike, got Hank and Gomie murdered, and alienated his entire family, right down to Walter Junior. It was clearly the story Vince Gilligan was building toward, and as much as Gilligan and his fellow writers may have enjoyed building up to it, putting everything into place for the showdown and the scene where Walter meets his end, it feels like something that could have worked as a movie, or a series of movies, rather than 50-plus hour-long episodes.

Over the seasons I've complained about Walter himself, because he's a frequently aggravating character. I listened again to Bryan Cranston talking about his approach to playing Walt, and I have to say at the end that maybe we (or I) needed more hand-holding, more explanation of why Walt made the decisions he did. You could argue, rightly, that the first image of this dorky chemistry teacher brandishing a gun in his tighty-whiteys in the desert is a kind of red herring to the sinister figure of Heisenberg that he became by the end.

My problem, however, is that the changes rarely felt earned - he refuses the financial assistance from his former friends at Gray Matter in Season 1 or 2, but we don't get an inkling why until Season 5. He lets Jesse's girlfriend choke on her own vomit, runs over two people and poisons a kid, to say nothing of all the other people he murders. Was he always this much of a sociopath, or did each misdeed lead to the next? Neither explanation feels adequate, as we don't see enough to really decide which is true.

Similar to Iron Fist, over on Netflix, the main character wasn't as much fun to watch as a lot of the folks around him, especially once Hank realized that Walter had been leading him astray for the entire run of the show previously.

For another comparison, though, I have to say that Breaking Bad didn't nail the family stuff as well as the Sopranos did. That was another show I enjoyed but didn't love, though David Chase made his thematic concerns plainer, or at least was better at communicating them. Tony Soprano's relationship with his immediate family was at least as compelling as the crime stuff, if not more so, but I couldn't say the same about Walt, and this is probably because of Walt's lack of definition as a character. David Chase makes very clear that Tony's evil and irredeemable - you see how he gets this way, and you see the toll it takes on him, but there's no effort by the writers to portray Tony as anything else.

I couldn't say the same about Walt, because so much of the story is about glorifying outlaws and leaving behind a legacy. Not that there's anything wrong with telling that story, but I feel that Breaking Bad tried to have it both ways, and in doing so failed to tell either type of story in a satisfactory way.

On the other hand, what fun it was to see Walt come back to Albuquerque and take his revenge on the meth dealers and his other betrayers. Uncle Jack and his Neo-Nazi Friday Night Lights alums (we have both Landry and Herc in his gang) were a great final set of villains. We first met them when Walt orchestrated his prison killing spree, but they survived to eliminate the other meth dealer, Declan, and join forces with Lydia at the international supplier. They became the uncontrolled reagent for Walt, leading to the death of his brother-in-law, and so it was pretty cathartic to see Walt use his technical skills one last time in the service of wiping them out.

So what's the legacy of Breaking Bad for me? Well, I can't put it anywhere near my top five shows ever (which currently stand, in order, as 1.) the Wire, 2.) the West Wing, 3.) Justified, with spots 4 and 5 unassigned). But at the same time, if I'd hated it I wouldn't have stuck with it until the bitter end - and there were good, or even great, moments throughout. The fifth season was the best, as far as I'm concerned, and it's made me want to catch up with the spin-off, Better Call Saul.

And I can't deny that there's a sense of loss at finally seeing how it ended, given that I spent about as much time watching the show as it was on the air. It may not have been the best show, but I'm glad I continued on to see the end of Walter's quest, and another appearance of Cradoc Marine Bank from the X-Files. I'm also glad to see that Jesse got out alive, and that Badger and Skinny Pete survived to continue their self-destruction.

As Jesse would say, "Yeah, bitch."

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Guest Post: What the Pursuit of Happiness Does and Doesn't Mean

Trying something new today - my friend Jeremy posted the below on Facebook, and has allowed me to post it here, since it sums up pretty closely something I wanted to post to mark Independence Day in the US. Enjoy:

American culture has a character problem. The evidence is abundant. Look at our child president. Look at the sad resentments that have made the "troll" into an established American archetype. Look at how large parts of the population moan about the imaginary restraints of "political correctness."
The funny thing is that America's lack of character is bound tightly to the otherwise enlightened idea that each human is inherently valuable.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's great! Radical, even, given how we treat each other.

It's also obvious that we've never come close to putting these supposedly self-evident truths into practice. Some say America has always been a forward-looking concern, that that unequivocal line from the declaration is a beacon on a distant shore, one that we aim for when we take a break from beating civil rights marchers and injecting people with expired execution drugs. We fix on that beacon and ignore the cognitive dissonance the threatens to trouble us whenever a right-winger invokes Martin Luther King, Jr.

But I think that founding idea also works on us at a more basic, psychological level. It gives us a powerful cognitive tool we can use to assert ourselves, to proclaim our worth in the face of the forces of anti-humanism.

Unfortunately, this tool can also be put to dark uses. For some, the American self isn't just sovereign. It's imperial. It opposes civilization and cultivation. It favors the zero-sum contest and precludes honorable restraint and moral obligation.

I'm not saying the American character needs more submissiveness. Nor do I use obligation in the Confucian sense. But I fear so much of our culture insists that we're just fine as we are. The raw materials implied by our self-evident animating idea are enough and in no need of refinement. Even our children's entertainment emphasizes "being yourself" with no mention of "becoming yourself."
But the Declaration of Independence wasn't a declaration against self-improvement. The idea was never that we should be born free and then stay dumb, that our inherent value as people absolved us from all further effort. The "pursuit of happiness" may sound like the end of obligation, but it's an active idea, an invitation to strive.

To be clear, I'm not talking about the meritocracy or the self-improvement of internships, resumes and the self-help section.

The pursuit of happiness is America's jihad. It is a call for us to struggle against base instincts and prejudices. It is the effort to make each us a vessel of civilization and refinement. We must have experiences and study the arts and expand our conceptions. We have to question ourselves and resist the fake comfort of confirmation bias. We must live for each other and build each other up even as we work to improve ourselves.

Honor isn't a restraint, and the declaration didn't kill it. Each of us may have our ideas about what constitutes happiness, but how can anyone be happy when everyone acts as if their happiness matters more than everyone else's?

Resentment is an individual flaw, but it's also writ large in the contemporary American character. It is the current president's primary motivation. It was the force behind the political movement that put him in power. Resentment keeps us from thinking clearly about our real problems. It is against honor and it weakens us.

So, in that spirit, I recommend that Trump's America read George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company in Conversation. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Not all of the rules are worth following. It has a bit too much deference to social betters for my taste. But patriots might like it.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

London vs New York

Just got back this week from a whirlwind-ish tour of Europe, in which I hit London, Turin and Rome. Mainly I was seeing family (as my sisters live in London, my dad's in Turin and my mom spends her summers in Rome), but also working in London and doing touristy stuff in Italy.

Being in London reminded me of something I've been considering lately, namely that London, along with New York, is that rare city that is at once representative of its wider country but also completely unlike the rest of the country.
Financial Times

To explain: both London and New York are the centers of finance, culture and business for their respective countries, which means that foreigners associate the UK and the US, respectively, with them. For a lot of non-Americans, New York is considered the most obvious expression of America, and for non-Brits London holds the same position as the archetypal British city.

But at the same time, both countries are also just diverse enough that nowhere else is like New York or London, to the point that residents of some areas define themselves in opposition to these cities. Examples are how Southerners or West Coast people (or even folks from the Midwest) hold up New York as The Enemy, an example not to be followed at any cost for its poverty and decadence. With London, the cultural resistance comes from the North, where anyone south of the Midlands is regarded as a "southern nancy", and the Home Counties, which define themselves in suburban opposition to the metropolis. For some Americans, New York is pretty un-American, while for some Brits London isn't very British at all.

I find it an interesting idea, because I have trouble thinking of another city that occupies the same place for both foreigners and locals. The closest is Paris, which occupies that same space in foreigners' minds of being so comprehensively French, even if the rest of the country can be quite different. Yet I'd have trouble imagining that folks from other regions in France consider themselves to be more truly French than Parisians.

Even countries like Italy and Spain don't seem to have this dynamic. In both of those cases, you could argue that the capital (Rome and Madrid) has a key rival in another part of the country (Milan and Barcelona), and that both are equally representative of their respective countries' essences. As different as the various regions of Italy are, I don't think I've ever encountered any Italian who would argue that Rome isn't very Italian. By contrast, Spain is so diverse and linguistically fragmented that many in Barcelona, or Catalonia more generally, define themselves and their city as less Spanish.

Understanding of a place also plays into this. India is quite a diverse country, along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines, to the point that it's hard (for me at least) to consider one city, say New Delhi, as more quintessentially Indian than anywhere else. Same with China - I don't know how people in Sichuan or other regions sees Beijing, but given that it's where the seat of power has resided for centuries, I would assume it's considered very Chinese even by locals.

But the overall dynamic of London and New York remains really interesting to me, in part because it's a truism that both are more similar to each other than to other big cities in their regions. This isn't to say that New York is a particularly European city (it really isn't), or that London is at all American, but it is true that they have a lot of similarities that make comparisons between them meaningful. It feels nonsensical to compare Chicago or LA with London, just as it feels weird to compare Rome or Amsterdam with New York (to say nothing of Edinburgh or Birmingham).

But comparing London with New York does make more sense - and from that comes their status of being both representative of, and unique within, their home countries.