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Month: August 2013

What I’m working on

If you’re wondering what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll tell you, right here, right now, today. I’m probably working on too much, which makes progress slow on all of them, but too bad. I’m interested in all of them.

Intellectual projects:

Book on melody and automatic music composition system

I’m still working on my book about my theory of melody, but I’m turning into a book on musical composition in general. Obviously that’s a huge subject, so the book really won’t even begin to cover music in all its vastness; it will focus mainly on how my theory of melody applies to music composition. Along with this, I am expanding my melody generator to be a symphony generator or song generator, a system that aids composers in composing entire pieces, whether they be short little songs or long Mozartean symphonies, with as much or as little creative input from the composer as desired. It’s very exciting, but obviously there is much work to be done.

Book on artificial intelligence

This is far more experimental, so I don’t know if this will happen or not, but I’ve been working on creating a program that will ideally teach itself to play chess, or any rule-based game, after being supplied only the rules of the game. It should teach itself in such a way that users can then look at its “discoveries” and use them to play chess themselves. That means no artificial neural networks, no genetic algorithms, no statistical analysis, no number crunching, etc. It should learn to play the game the way a human would: by recognizing concrete meaningful patterns. I have an algorithm written in a notebook that should do this, but it’s a bit complicated and I haven’t programmed it yet, so I don’t know if it will work or not. We’ll see. If it does, I’ll try the algorithm with a few more games besides chess and then write a short book about it.

Creative projects:

Middle grade and young adult fantasy books

My agent search for the middle grade fantasy novel I finished earlier this year is going nowhere. Of course, it’s my first novel, so I’m not holding my breath. While I continue to search for agents, I’ve started writing two more fantasy novels, one being another upper middle grade, the other being young adult (and a male-oriented young adult at that, not one of them paranormal girly romancy love triangle books). I’ve been looking into self-publishing on the Kindle, as it seems like a much more viable route than it did just a few years ago, but it still has many disadvantages.

Adult fantasy book

Working on another adult fantasy book, coauthoring it with a friend.

Computer game(s)

I rediscovered Game Maker a few weeks ago thanks to someone I know. I remember looking at it years ago and was not impressed with it, but they’ve made newer versions in the meantime and it looks like a fun toolkit to use for making 2D games. I haven’t started any official projects yet, but I’m brainstorming some ideas.

Following your selfish dreams

From this interesting article:

For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children’s movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.

It’s probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children’s movies overlaps with the so-called “cult of self-esteem.” The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community. As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America’s supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations “simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.”

First, I will diverge into the idea of “comparative success”. That is, success as defined by comparing oneself to others.

I get annoyed with the Disney channel and some of Nickelodeon’s teen-oriented shows, in which being a famous pop-singer and/or trendy-dressing dancer is something that is idolized. I know they may seem like harmless frivolous silly entertainment on the surface, but I think they actually actively harm our culture (like much of television, for that matter) by glorifying, subtly or unsubtly, performance art talent and popularity. That is, the more talented and popular you are, the more you are worth as a person, so it is a good and worthy thing to dream of that sort of success, to dream of being not just a pop singer or a fashion designer, but of becoming a famous one.

The most famous antithesis to this teen-idol market is a cartoon show targeted at a younger crowd, but shares a large number of older fans as well. It is Spongebob Squarepants, an ever-ready nerdy optimist who takes insane amounts of pride in flipping burgers, blowing bubbles, and catching jellyfish, remaining blissfully oblivious to the ways in which he could never gain fame in his own society by just doing what he loves. And while his burger-flipping pride is something we have an easier time laughing at than relating to, it is not presented as something to be ridiculed in and of itself, but celebrated. That’s not only what makes it funny, that’s what makes it inviting to audiences. That is, if a viewer can even slightly relate to a bit of Spongebob’s over-passionate nerdiness for something ridiculous, he is welcomed to it in good company, not made to feel a clownish outcast. (Compare this to the nerdiness presented in The Big Bang Theory, in which audiences are called to laugh at references to nerdy things, but these nerdy things are never celebrated in their own right; audiences still need their trendy dirty humor.) I daresay grown men who go into cartoon production for a living have a much different outlook on their art than producers looking to profit from teenagers idolizing each other’s voices and looks and fame.

It equally annoys me when contestants on talent competition shows like American Idol or The Voice claim that they want to win so that they can be an inspiration for others. Oh, how noble of you! Oh, wait. You want to encourage other people to desire fame and money? Oh, thanks, that’s great, just what the world needs!

Of course, it’s not just pop culture in which this sort of comparative definition of success reigns. It’s just perhaps the most visible and the most obviously vain in pop culture. But it thrives in businesses, academics, politics, the arts, etc. It’s all over the place. You don’t know how well you’re doing what you’re doing, or how you should feel about it, until you compare yourself with others.

Anyway, the reason I diverge into comparative success is because that’s the sort of success these animated film characters dream about. The “Follow your dreams!” message isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s just vague, and allows for a variety of narcissistic interpretations, dreaming of being somehow quantifiably better than others, as in winning a race, and not allowing for the mere following of the dream to bring any joy.

That’s what equally bothers me about the Charlie Brown example given in the article. (I’ve never seen the Charlie Brown film mentioned, so I speak here only based on what I read about it in the article.) The entire point of Charlie Brown wanting to succeed at something is just as narcissistic as the modern-day dreaming characters. His tragic results provide a nice contrast to the modern characters’ easy success, but why couldn’t he learn to do something just for the sake of itself? His tragedy wasn’t that his success rate was more realistic, but that he took no pride or gratification in what he was capable of to begin with. The entire point of “trying again” is not to force yourself with gritted teeth through the frustration of the trial so that you can one day achieve your goal. Trying again is (at least ideally) a natural consequence of your love for something. It should be FUN to try again. And when it is, failure is only a minor disappointment.

On a side note, I like how the article points out the trope of having some supporting character be nonsupporting of the hero’s desires. I can understand the dramatic need for the hero’s desires to be rebuked at the beginning of a story, but I wish writers would come up with more creative ways of having characters do it, instead of just, “Oh, I just hate dreamers! Your desires are arbitrarily wrong! I pointlessly have no faith in you!” I’d love to see a supporting character offer a real argument, perhaps pointing out the hero’s selfishness.

Mr. Conductor

I recently watched the 2002 Russian film Russian Ark, a 90 minute film done entirely in one take. The premise was a bit bland, there’s not really a story in the traditional sense, it’s more like a romanticized time-traveling tour through a grand museum. (The Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg; looks like an awesome place to visit, even just for the beautiful grand palace architecture.) Anyway, near the end there’s this dance scene with an orchestra playing in this huge ballroom and the conductor looked really familiar. I was sure I had seen him in college.

In my college days, George Mason University offered students free concert tickets (if there were any left), which I took advantage of whenever I could. Usually free student tickets get placed in the way way back of the balcony, but one time I was seated in the front row, so close I could reach out grab the conductor’s ankle. OK, maybe not that close, I was a bit off to the side, but it was pretty close. I could definitely read the string musician’s score from my seat, so it was quite close. I had hardly any view of most of the orchestra, but I was up close and personal with the front row musicians and looking right up the right side of the conductor. And the conductor was hard to forget. He was really into the music, and was a bit distracting for someone in the front row, because I could hear him grunt throughout the music, and even see the sparkle of small bits of spittle that would fly out when things got particularly impassioned.

So I’m watching Russian Ark and the conductor looked familiar and I thought: “That’s the guy! Isn’t it?” So I had to look through my programs to confirm that, yes, it was the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. You can see that he has a memorable face, and does indeed grunt and make noises while conducting. 3:56, for example. Fun stuff.

Some people don’t understand Snyder’s Save the Cat!

I love Blake Snyder’s storytelling book, Save the Cat!  I would say that it is a must-read for all storytellers, but I’m not sure every storyteller would necessarily understand it.  The patterns Snyder identifies are much more subtle than one may think when considering only the examples he provides.  A good reader would attempt to analyze films and stories on his own and look at how stories that are vastly different actually follow similar inherent structures.  That is, Snyder is not identifying arbitrary trends found in modern stories, he’s uncovering much deeper foundations that dwell naturally in the ways we humans process, relate to, and understand stories.  If you read his book as simply a how-to guide for writing a formulaic blockbuster, which you can, you’re completely missing the point.

This article says:

In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.

Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.

And whose fault is that?  It’s the fault of lazy screenwriters, uncaring directors, and cowardly producers.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that a lazy screenwriter takes his beat sheet as a formula and ignores the countless possibilities he has to express each beat in an infinite variety ways.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that directors accept the word of these lazy screenwriters.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that producers fund these projects, relying on a “formula” to generate a hit.

I don’t think this article is necessarily trying to blame Snyder; my point is simply that blaming Snyder is nonsense.

I found the above mentioned article on author Nathan Bransford’s blog, where he writes:

Save the Cat! doesn’t just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist’s problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.

It sounds like Bransford is commenting on a book he either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood.  Snyder does not “literally say what needs to happen on specific pages.”  He gives guideline page numbers for a 110-page screenplay based on where a beat should hit within a film’s overall structure, the page numbers naturally correlating to the time at which a beat would appear in a film.  If any beat is out of place in this structure, the story will risk feeling slow or rushed or both.  Good screenwriters and directors should naturally be aware of how their creative decisions affect story pacing, so I fail to see how giving page numbers is some horrible sin that dares to stifle creativity.

Furthermore, the “opening image” beat has less to do with setting up the “protagonist’s problems” and more to do with setting up the story’s tone and mood.  Read the book, pages 72 to 73.  Most storytellers naturally understand that the opening of a story will set up audience expectations, so delivering an “opening image” that promises a different sort of story than the one planning to be told will naturally risk alienating readers.

That the opening image and closing image should reflect each other should also be understood naturally, as the end of story will relate to its beginning in some way, either providing a great contrast or a more literal reflection.  “And the story starts again…”

Lastly, Snyder’s beats have nothing at all to do with guaranteeing success.  It is very easy to follow the beats and still create garbage.  But just as the sound of a toilet flushing will never suddenly be considered a beautiful symphony, no purposeful shunning and avoidance of Snyder’s beats will result in a surprise success.  Snyder’s beats are not arbitrary; they are ingrained in human psychology.  That a “formula” becomes recognizable in some big-budget modern films is entirely the fault of the artists working in the industry.  It’s still an art after all.

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ETA: I think Steven Spielberg’s fears about the film industry imploding has less to do with big budget films becoming formulaic and more to do with the marketplace for big budget films becoming overly saturated.  But I don’t know how the money flow goes in such a big budget industry.