Saturday, April 9, 2011

If My Career Was a Chimera...

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term chimera, here's a definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online:
a capitalized : a fire-breathing she-monster in Greek mythology having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail
   b an imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts
2 : an illusion or fabrication of the mind; especially : an unrealizable dream
3 : an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic construction

Now, I would imagine that many of you are familiar with the first definition -- the classic image of the tripartite creature in Greek mythology. What some of you might not realize is that the definition of the monstrous chimera has expanded to incorporate sub-point b up there, which includes all manner of conglomerated creatures resulting from the fusion of two otherwise normal animals. Fantasy gaming is full of these, ranging from the owlbear to the duckbunny. (Avatar: The Last Airbender is particularly fond of this, to the point where every animal in the entire series is either over-sized or cross-bred.)

The most interesting and applicable element of this definition, however (and the one that I didn't know about), is the second definition: "an unrealizable dream." That's fantastic, though I doubt I'm ever going to use it in conversation that way.

Now, getting back around to the title, if my writing career was a chimera (both in the sense of a thrown-together construction of many other parts and  in the sense of "an unrealizable dream"), I would like it to have...

...the public face of Brandon Sanderson.

By now, I'm sure you're all familiar with my adoration of Brandon Sanderson. What I want to emphasize today, however, is how this man connects with his audience. Whether it's helping aspiring authors through his weekly podcast Writing Excuses, or keeping his readers up to date on the progress of his novels at his website, or providing bonus features for his books like deleted scenes and annotated commentaries, or convention appearances and signings, or just simply providing regular updates on his Twitter feed, Brandon Sanderson works hard to connect with his fans in as many ways as possible. And his fans have responded to this personal touch by making him one of the most popular new voices in fantasy.

...the character complexity of George R.R. Martin.

I haven't mentioned George R.R. Martin as much as I have Brandon Sanderson, but it cannot be emphasized enough how much I admire this man's writing. If you have not read his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series (beginning with "A Game of Thrones") you are missing out on some of the best literature being written right now.

Without a doubt, GRRM is a master at character development. He manages to create a cast of literally hundreds of characters all belonging to various factions in different parts of the world. For a lesser author, this kind of juggling job would be impossible to maintain and difficult to get the reader interested. But Martin handles it masterfully. You really, truly care for each and every perspective character, even though they're all on opposing sides in the conflict. While you're reading a Tyrion chapter, you're thinking "Oh, no. The Starks are going to get him." But then when you're reading a chapter from one of the Starks, your thinking "Crap. That wily Tyrion got away again." Even characters that you hate for an entire book (or longer) turn out to be sympathetic and understandable once Martin starts writing chapters from their point of view. That kind of complexity -- that ability to turn any character into an interesting and relateable being -- is a skill that I desperately want to master.

...the cultural worldbuilding of the Legend of the Five Rings.

I'm a newcomer to the Legend of the Five Rings phenomenon, and it's accompanying world of Rokugan. For those of you who don't know, L5R started out as a card game and has grown into a sizable franchise in the gaming community. The most interesting thing about it is that the players of the game are given opportunities to influence where the storyline goes (which would be a really interesting way to write a book, now that I think about it...) What you need to know for today, however, is how rich the culture is in L5R.

George R.R. Martin, who I mentioned above, really knows what he's talking about when it comes to medieval culture. His kingdoms of Westeros really feel like they're coming out of the twelfth century (or so), and his ability to develop literally dozens of noble houses and families with their own distinct characteristics and motivations is impressive. L5R does it even better. I can't quite place my finger on how they do it, but the richness of Rokugan and its various clans and families and the tapestry of its history bleeds through everything you read about this place. It was a tough call for me to say whether I admired GRRM or L5R more when it comes to cultural worldbuilding, but if I'm going to aspire toward something, I'll choose the Legend of the Five Rings.

...the franchise development of Star Wars.

If anyone knows me at all, they know how much I love Star Wars. This universe and the characters within have remained near and dear to my  heart almost as long as my family has. And I am quite certain that I will remain a faithful Star Wars fanatic until my grave, even if I don't necessarily like all (or any) of the decisions made by its story team.

The thing to marvel at here, however, has to do with how Star Wars has grown from a single film into a universe with such expansive worlds and diverse characters that it rivals the breadth of any Marvel or DC universe. An army of authors, comic book writers, and video game developers have taken Star Wars thousands of years into its past and hundreds of years into its future, which has expanded the franchise well beyond the vision (and some would say talent) of George Lucas. This has allowed Star Wars to remain vibrantly alive (outside of several ugly bruises that plague the franchise to this day) long past its initial installments.

I love long-running series storytelling, so it should be obvious that this is one of my favorite things about Star Wars. In the same way, I would love to see one (or several) of the worlds that I develop in my books to grow beyond what I had initially envisioned and expand into a fully-fledged universe of its own, with a multitude of authors contributing to its ever-growing story (like Bordertown).

(I would also love to write for Star Wars someday, but that's another matter entirely.)

...the genre diversity and skill of Jars of Clay.

It might be a bit strange to see a musical group on this list, but stay with me and it should make sense. Jars of Clay is one of my all-time favorite bands. Similar to Star Wars above, I will remain a fan of just about everything Jars of Clay does until I die. What most impresses me about them, however, is their ability to almost completely reinvent themselves with each album. These are the guys who have gone from folk, to gospel, to rock, to country, to 80s and that's just mentioning five of their albums. Even when they re-record older songs, it's like they're breathing new life into a beloved classic. Sometimes you can barely recognize the old song beneath the new veneer they have placed upon it. And every single time they turn their hand to a genre like this, they pull it off masterfully. I can't imagine the skill and musical diversity that must be required to do that.

While I'm not sure if I want to have a career where I'm writing in Thriller, Romance, SF, Western, and Fantasy, I definitely don't want to get stuck in a rut where I'm basically re-writing the same book over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. That doesn't sound fun for me and it doesn't sound like it would be fun for my readers. So developing the skills required to reinvent myself between projects is definitely a goal for me.

...the inventiveness of Christopher Nolan.

I don't know if I've mentioned Christopher Nolan here yet, but what he is doing with the Batman mythos has been fantastic. Think about how Batman looked and felt before, and then compare that to the new movies. If you aren't amazed, or at least impressed, by the changes then you need to take a closer look and maybe read someone else's blog to understand how impressive Christopher Nolan's vision is. (Either that, or maybe you just need to develop a greater familiarity with Batman, who knows.) All of Mr. Nolan's films have that sense of originality and precise skill, but it's the Batman films that I really admire and want to emulate. His ability to take well-worn material and breathe new life into it simply blows me away, and I want to have that skill. Similar to the sentiment above about not wanting to get into a rut, I don't want to be known for simply rehashing old and tired material. Instead, I want to be able to show it to people in a new and different light, so that it's almost unrecognizable to anyone but me.

...the thematic layering of the Matrix.

I'm just going to say right now that I'm not equipped to properly talk about this. All I want to say is that I recently re-watched the Matrix and it once again blew me away. Even now, more than ten years after it first came out, the film's rich layering of theme within setting, character, and plot impresses me. It's not just a flashy, beautiful action movie. It's intelligent on so many levels that it's kind of depressing I didn't write it. At the very least, I want to be able to work theme into my work as thoroughly and (in many places) subtly as the Matrix.

...the feel for history of Tolkien.

Either I've been blind to it before, or there's been a recent storm of Tolkien discussion lately. Some people are promoting the literary merit of his work, while others are decrying it as simplistic and poorly-written. Regardless of your opinion, it is impossible to deny that, for better or worse, Tolkien changed the shape of fantasy literature forever. (Indeed, many would argue that he founded the modern genre of fantasy.)

For myself, I am a huge admirer of Tolkien, but I recognize that his work (like any mortal's) has its weaknesses. Similar to the cultural worldbuilding item above, it was a tough call for me whether I admired Tolkien or the Matrix more when it came to thematic layering. I finally decided, however, that I admire Tolkein the most for the feel of history that he is able to plant in his work. As you read through the Lord of the Rings, you feel such an overwhelming weight of history and loss that our own world seems almost young by comparison. I could go on and on about this (and I might in a future post), but I need to cut myself off here because there are more things to talk about.

Capturing that sense of history in my worldbuilding is the most important thing I want to learn from Tolkien.

...the skill with different medium of Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman has done just about everything when it comes to writing. He writes novels, he writes children's books, he writes comics, he writes film scripts. The man is a master of versatility. And I am a huge admirer of that. This is different from the Jars of Clay point above, because they're all working in the same medium (music) while exploring different styles (genres). I'm sure some people will disagree with that distinction, but that's okay. This is how I choose to define it.

As many of you know, I have a wide variety of interests that regularly consume my attention in such a manner that I sometimes consider it to be bad for my health (and pocketbook). I also regularly try to be a creative person (shocker, I know). This all adds up to mean that, in any given year, I'll usually go from arranging an orchestral piece, to designing a card game, to storyboarding a movie script, all while working on several novels in one form or another. (Why, yes, I am over-ambitious and indeed I do realize that I don't have enough time for all of this. Why do you ask?) If it is at all possible, I would love to find myself working on several different projects from a variety of different mediums, and handling them all skillfully.

Okay, time to wake up now.

So there it is. The monstrous conglomeration that is my ideal career. Now it's time to focus back on the one I have.

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