Novel progress

My YA fantasy novel finally passed the 50K word mark yesterday. Not much of an accomplishment for professional writers, but this is only the third time I’ve ever gotten this far, and the first time I’ve gotten this far while sticking very close to my original outline.

One of my previous stories to get this far was The Game of Gynwig, in which I veered way way way off my outline and the story turned into a complete mess. It was also horribly written, but looking back on it provides a good laugh. It was about a young boy who gets wrapped up with a group of wizards and witches who fight to oppose an evil wizard’s plot to take over the kingdom. I still like the characters and original story I meant to tell, so I might revisit someday. But no time soon. It has to be completely replotted.

My next attempt that passed 50K words was The Book of Harbringer, my 2008 NaNoWriMo novel. It was about a banished prince who returns to his kingdom to oust an evil king. Very Lion King-esque, but much darker. It was completely outlined and I stuck to the outline. Unfortunately it was just too long and complex. After 50K words, the story had still barely started. I had something like nine characters, and I was spending a lot of time introducing them all. It might still work with all its complexity, but it was just too much for me to tackle as a first novel. I still really like the characters and the story I meant to tell, so I’d love to revisit this someday. But I think I’ll need more experience first.

Third time’s a charm, I hope. This time I kept my outline much simpler and have made it a point to stick to it. My current attempt is called Moonrise Ink, and it’s about a boy who learns that he is the last wizard in the world and must use his powers to defeat a group of mysterious invaders. It actually takes place in the same world as those of the last two attempts, though I’ve edited the magic system a bit. There are references to names and places and magical items in those stories.

I’m not sure how much longer it will take to write this draft. My current guess is that 20K more words will do it, but it may be more. But I think I’m definitely more than half way there.

By S P Hannifin, ago

On complete non-objectivity in art

While most people will agree that art is subjective and that it’s OK for tastes to be somewhat different, there’s often also this underlying belief that there are certain objective standards that make certain works of art objectively greater than others. For example, an English teacher might understand how his students might have different opinions on Shakespeare’s best work. But if a student considered a Batman comic to be of greater artistic value than Hamlet, the English teacher, along with his colleagues, may consider the student to be objectively wrong in his opinion, and blame his opinion on lack of education.

I would claim, however, that the teacher in the above example is wrong, as are all who judge the student’s opinions to be inferior. I think the problem stems from how people mix their honest emotional responses to pieces of artwork with what they think about a piece’s influence and apparent complexity. That is, if something is clearly popular, acclaimed by academics and critics, or seemingly more complex, people will hold their emotional responses in less regard and form opinions based on these alternative standards.

Influence is perhaps the most obvious factor in determining an artwork’s level of “objective greatness.” If a piece of art has influenced many, clearly there must be something objectively good about it. How else could it have such influence? And the more influential a piece is considered, the more influential it seems to become, as new audiences are introduced to and become influenced by the work by the mere virtue of its being considered influential.

Complexity may also be taken into account when determining the artistic value of a work of art. There may be a natural bias towards the complex. I have not thought about this strange bias enough to have any good guess as to why it may exist. My current guess is that people assume that more complex works are the results of a greater care and thought on the creator’s part, and are therefore more naturally valuable. It’s a completely illogical bias, as audiences can never truly know how much thought went into something, and what seems complex to one person may not seem so complex to another.

I don’t mean to claim that works of art can’t or shouldn’t be judged by these standards. While I don’t think there’s any objective way to do it, I’m not sure there’s any reason or method to stop ourselves from doing it naturally. What I argue against is the natural but illogical tendency of supposing that these qualities determine (or should determine) emotional responses and the validity of the emotional responses of others.

An emotional response is a natural emotional reaction to an experience of art. To simplify, an audience member will, after experiencing the artwork, love it, like it, be indifferent to it, dislike it, or hate it. It is a bit more complicated than that, of course, because we don’t judge our experiences as a whole; we judge them in pieces and sometimes in separate factors. For example, we can enjoy the music and acting of a film, but hate its storyline. We can love a singer’s voice, but hate the song they sing. Our emotions are also biased by factors outside of our experience of art, such as: our emotional state before experiencing art, peer pressure, tastes and preferences, background knowledge of the art’s production, and even our sense of self and social status. No emotional response can be evoked only by a piece of art; no emotional response bursts into existence out of a vacuum.

My argument is that, because these emotional responses are natural, they can never be invalid. There is no such thing as fake joy or sadness. Influence and complexity do not necessarily infer more pleasing emotional responses, and they certainly don’t create them. If a Batman comic fills one with more interest and inspiration than a Shakespearean play, that interest and inspiration is not somehow lower or worse. If a pop song fills one with more joy than Beethoven’s Ninth, that joy is not somehow less valid or less real because more professors hate the pop song.

“Oh, sure,” you may say. “Of course art is subjective! But the people who love Beethoven’s Ninth are of course more educated people.” If that is your response, you have clearly not understood my points at all, and I’m not sure how better to explain them.

By this line of logic, there is also no such thing as “high art” (as I’ve argued before). There is certainly “popular art” (whether that popularity is academic, professional, commercial, etc.), but to claim such art is therefore objectively better or higher than other art, or should evoke more greater or more valid emotions, is terribly pretentious and completely illogical.

It’s natural for us to not understand what it’s like to be other people or experience the same emotions that other people claim to be experiencing. But that does not mean that they’re lying or that the emotions you know you’re feeling are more real or justified than theirs. Your opinions can never be better or more justified than anyone else’s.

By S P Hannifin, ago

“I really wanted to like it, but…”

Sometimes when I read reviews, the reviewer will say something like: “I really wanted to like this, but… blah, blah, blah.”

This phrase really annoys me. Taken at face value, it seems like an attempt of the reviewer to place the ultimate blame for his disliking on the creators. After all, how can it be the reviewer’s fault if he wanted or tried to like it? What more could be asked of an audience member?

I would ask audience members to be not so self-conscious of whether or not they like something; just let the artwork affect you in whatever way it will, and you’ll find whether or not you like it by the end without even having to think about it.

You don’t get any credit for wanting to like something. Of course you wanted to like it; finding some kind of pleasure in the experience of art is the reason we put ourselves in the position to experience it in the first place. But one should always realize that the possibility of disliking something is there and beyond one’s control. You can’t predict how certain pieces of art will affect you; that’s one of the really fun things about experiencing it.

Ideally, one shouldn’t go in expecting to like something. That way, one won’t be disappointed with the occassional but inevitable disliking. Of course, this is easier said than done; there’s always some reason we’re interested in a particular piece of art; there’s always some quality about it we think we have a good possibility of liking. But we can and should still manage our expectations realistically, realizing that they won’t always be fulfilled exactly as we naturally daydream them to be. (Mentioning this reminds me of my older post about goals.)

When you dislike something, the fault is yours and the creator’s. That’s OK. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. You don’t have to make excuses about how you “tried” to like it. Everyone has different tastes and backgrounds they bring to the experiences they have, and while some would like to think of their tastes as being better or more sophisticated or more real than someone else’s, there really is no basis for thinking such things. We can claim another person’s tastes are immoral if there’s something someone else likes that we think they shouldn’t on moral grounds, but this has nothing to do with sophistication or intellect (as we tend to assume it does because of observed behavorial correlations, but that’s another matter). There’s also the possibility that you won’t like something because you’re not experienced enough with the piece’s background, or what material it references, or what historical influence it had. Some academic snobs might look down on your opinions for your “misunderstandings” of such great works of genius and claim that your low opinions of the piece are invalid because you are dumb, but they’re wrong. Yes, your ignorance (and your past experiences) will affect how you respond to a piece, but how does that make your natural emotional reaction any less valid? The validity of your liking or disliking does not get to be decided by a show of hands or a scholar’s analysis. How much your liking or disliking might predict someone else’s future emotional reaction can certainly be debated (such as: “Oh, I disagree with Roger Ebert 70% of the time, so I’m not worried that he didn’t like this film I want to see…”), but not your opinion’s validity. It’s not as if your emotional reaction is somehow faked by your ignorance.

Finally, how do you actively “try” or “want” to like something while experiencing it anyway? Do you consciously ignore stuff you don’t like in hopes you won’t notice them anymore? Do you think of pretty ponies prancing through the praries in your head? Do you eat loads of candy hoping to trick yourself into thinking that the joy of devouring sugar is actually from the art you wish to like?

My main point is this: you can’t control your emotional reactions to works of art, and should therefore not be ashamed of liking or disliking something. It may be informative for you to think about what specifically you didn’t like and what you think would’ve made something better. But you never need to try to justify your response. Such justifications will be invalid anyway; nothing justifies your response other than the fact that it was truly your response. Your desire to like something is irrelevant, and it’s silly (if not just plain stupid) to mention it.

Thanks for reading this post; I hope you liked it, or at least tried to…

By S P Hannifin, ago

Hanna review

Before the ball dropped in New York City to give light to this year of 2012, I watched the film Hanna on DVD.  My comments contain spoilers, so read no further if you plan to watch Hanna and hate spoilers.


On the filmmaking side, I thought it was great.  (Of course, after sitting through the disaster that was The Adventures of Tintin, almost any movie feels like a relief to watch.)  The cinematography and editing were continuously engaging, helping us understand Hanna’s state of mind throughout.  It even had an excellent long shot of a man being surrounded by attackers and then fighting them off.  I love long shots.  The pacing was fantastic; we go from moments of exciting fights, whether they’re with fists, knives, or guns, to calm quiet meditative moments.  The use of music was quite fun.

On the story side, I thought it was a bit weaker.  Strands of the story were drawn out so much that they became thin and boring; the progression was just too slow.  Even so, it wasn’t so bad that didn’t work at all.  But it made one really fatal flaw.

The fatal flaw of the movie was, I think (and here’s the spoiler), when Eric, who we thought was Hanna’s father, reveals that Hanna was born in a research facility.  Hanna is actually the result of genetic manipulation, genetically engineered to be a skilled and ruthless killer.  Woah!  Suddenly this is a sci-fi movie?  Suddenly we must accept the possibility of such successful biotech?  It’s just too unexpected to have any emotional value.  And since the revelation was made at the climax of the movie, our acceptance of anything at that moment is pretty vital for the rest of the movie to work.  The revelation ruins it.

How would I fix it?  (It’s a question any wannabe storyteller should ask themselves when critiquing other works of fiction.)  I would start the film with Hanna already knowing everything revealed in Eric’s revelation.  That way, we (the audience) would have to accept the farfetched sci-fi genetic engineering right from the get go; we’d know that this is the sort of story where that kind of science is possible.  The rest of the story, then, would be about Hanna coming to terms with the nature of outside world with what she knows about her own nature.  Can she mix in?  Can she be “normal”?  What is “normal” anyway?  Would she really want it?  Is Hanna’s assassination plan worth the trouble?  Was the genetic engineering morally OK?  You’d have to pick a certain theme about the conflict of her nature and a normal person’s nature and stick with it, but I think it would’ve made for a much more engaging story from start to finish.  Leaving the genetic engineering to be a “surprise” just doesn’t work.

By S P Hannifin, ago