Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vampire Guest Blogging

I've been guest blogging quite a bit over at vampires.com and thought to share some of what I've written there:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Legal Rights and Civil Liberties (Politics)

Strong opinions follow.

Being American and living in my homeland, I hear a lot of folks talk about "rights."  Specifically rights in terms of freedom, liberty, etc.  Like most of Americans, my upbringing echoed with that word.  We fought wars to protect our rights.  No greater political sin exists than to threaten those rights.  Enemies of our rights are enemies of all.

Increasingly, what I've heard and read is that the greatest foe to our rights is the government.  The less government, the better has become a widely-held motto, etched with passionate acid into hearts and souls.

Within the last couple of years, though, I've come to question even using the word "rights" as sloppy, vague, and too often an excuse for some very disreputable ideas.  A freshman Senator from Utah insisting the government has no business outlawing slave labor.  Former presidential candidate Ron Paul going on and on about how the Civil Rights Act was wrong.  More, I've read and heard people make a really stupid claim, a popular but frankly absurd one:

Namely, that rights exist in nature and government exists to take them away.

Let me be frank.  This notion is excrement.  In real-world, practical terms, life without government ends up the most brutal kind of chaos.  Simply look around at places where civil government breaks down, where no police and military and courts and lawmakers and a bureaucracy to support them exist.  Freedom indeed does run rampant there--freedom to loot, rape, murder and enslave.  For those with sufficient strength, weapons and ruthlessness such times and places can be a kind of utopia.  Those without have the freedom to try and run away to hide.

The whole idea of legal rights and civil liberties (a far more specific terminology, and one I prefer for exactly that reason) arose from government.  Freedom of speech in practical terms means laws protect that freedom.  Trial by jury means a system of government exists, with rules and procedures.  Long, weary centuries of Faith-inspired  bloodshed gave rise to Freedom of Religion, which consists in many ways of government protecting the legal rights and civil liberties of religious minorities.

Contrary to the rantings of some, government serves an excellent and supremely wonderful purpose.  It is an institution (one of many) that allows this lovely thing we call civilization to live.  Perfect?  Certainly not!  Like all institutions--the Church, Labor Unions, Corporations, Formal Education--government requires oversight to work at all well.  It even functions as oversight to itself as well as other institutions--and vice versa.  But in and of itself government is not the enemy.  The hundreds of thousands of government employees are not in fact all sadists and sociopaths (I know people who actually preach this nonsense).  More, just because the government does something doesn't make that action totally evil.

We may (and do) disagree on precisely what the government should do.  After all, we disagree over which sports team should win and whether Sookie should choose Bill or Eric.  But when we view such a crucial part of our lives, such a necessary institution with contempt, we're making heaps of problems for ourselves.

It bears repeating, more explicitly.  Legal rights and civil liberties were created by government.  Without government, for all practical purposes they don't exist.  Take away government and they vanish.

Nor (to answer a very silly objection already encountered) does this mean government can or will do things according to a whim.  I'm genuinely curious about where this idea comes from.  My suspicion is that it arises from a lack of understanding.  We don't really know what all the rules and regulations are in a society as large and complex as our own.  None of us do.  Coming up against something that baffles us runs aground of a deep reluctance to admit our own ignorance.  For a certain mindset, admitting they don't understand is as unthinkable as trusting strangers know what they are doing.  At all.  What is left then?  To assume the rules don't actually make any sense and were created "just because."

How likely is that really?  Sure, now and then somebody somewhere is going to just make a best guess that'll be so wrong as to be laughable.  Or tragic.  History is full of that, and plenty of horror stories lived out as a result.  Yet most of the time, reasons actually exist for doing things a certain way.  Good, bad, indifferent--there are reasons.  Likewise legislatures who do things on a whim--honestly, I can't think of single example of that.

Mind you, I also strongly suspect some folks are projecting their own sins unto government.  The supremely self-centered cannot imagine others entering public service for any motive other than greed.  People filled with the urge to tell everyone else how to live their lives (while never ever having to listen to any advice from them) presume that is what motivates every single person in government.

Pretty immature, really.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How I Would Have Done the Star Wars Prequels

Way back when, before I grew my first beard or (truth be told) dated my first girl or had my very first job, George Lucas gave me a wonderful gift.  Star Wars.  My siblings and I insisted our parents go this flick.  They didn't much care for science fiction, but came back with grins on their faces.

Good times.  Good times.

So maybe you can imagine how thrilled my soul felt as word came out that after years and  years a brand new Star Wars trilogy was on the way.  To the left is the first poster I ever saw.  Oh, the pathos of that image--an innocent little boy with that darkness in his future...

Words cannot express my disappointment with the final result.  I saw The Phantom Menace at a discount price and felt myself robbed.  Never again did I dole out any of my hard-earned money to see the rest of the prequels.  In time, I rented them.  Reluctantly.  Okay, they proved better than Episode I, but really isn't that as low a bar as one can imagine?

Rather than whine about what's wrong with these movies (which has been done in a far more funny, scathing and exhaustive manner elsewhere) but rather suggest how I might have done it differently.

Which makes for pretty good evidence of my arrogance.  A fair cop.  Mea culpa and all that.

Let us start with a threat to the Galactic Republic, namely the return of the Dark Lords of the Sith after a thousand years' absence.  If Jedi are mystic Knights supposed to be cool, calm and collected then how about the Sith acting as their polar opposites?  Passionate, intense, hot-blooded and fierce.  Consider though--these hardly make someone evil in and of themselves.  One thing that immediately pops into my mind is that two Sith be the center of an incredible love story.

So let me begin with an original character, Darth Shado.  Imagine a seer of the Dark Side, one not very popular among his fellow Sith because he doesn't hate the Jedi, merely disapproves of them.  He sees them as an order of eunuchs increasingly shaping the galaxy in their own image--sterile, cold, rigid.  A classic conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian forces.  Amid some military campaign in which the Sith and their allies seeks come coup against the Republic, Shado confronts a very able Jedi Knight named Gideah Lann.  Okay, just for fun let's cast them shall we?  Jonathan Rhys Myers as Darth Shado, with Kate Beckinsale as Gideah Lann, who starts off as the perfect Jedi--coolly efficient, ever-in-control, seeing things from a broad perspective only--and disapproving of the interest some other Jedi are taking in romance, in personal relationships.  Like Yoda and others, she approves of the super-ascetic lifestyle that has evolved over the millennia--until she meets and falls in love with someone who's had visions of her since the Force awoke in him.  Yep.  Darth Shado.  I'd build a chunk of the prequels around their love story, in a dark parallel with Princess Leia/Han Solo.  Each would actually try to persuade each other to defect, with their growing love a sign that each side has a point.

Clearly I'm tossing aside the whole "Only Two Sith" bit, in favor of a more diverse and interesting enemy.  Since Palpatine is canon, we must show him as the Sith hiding in plain sight, a Senator who rises in political power amidst the conflict of the Clone Wars.  But rather than a stupid war between clones and robots, I'd have a conflict between people--perhaps several more aggressive races using cloning to vastly increase their numbers, threatening the stability of the Republic.  Attempting to intervene, the Jedi (including Gideah Lann and the young Obi Wan Kenobi) only set off the conflict earlier than anyone expected.

This sets up a need for more warriors trained in the Force.  Obi Wan meets the fighter pilot Annakin Skywalker mid-battle.  In time they become great friends, and the Jedi starts to train his great pal in the ways of the Force.  But what we see is a tragic mismatch of teacher and student.  Annakin has questions (the same questions that Darth Shadow asks Gideah) but Obi Wan lacks satisfying answers.  In the heat of battle, Annakin turns to the Dark Side, to his rage and hatred in order to survive.

In the end, Shado and Gideah begin to see eye-to-eye, perhaps believing they can find a way to work together, offering a possibility of ending the age-old dispute between Sith and Jedi.  But they are destroyed along with most of a world in a massive use of weaponry led by now-Admiral Skywalker, commanding elite troops under the direct control of Senate Lord President Palpatine.  Kenobi tries to stop him, and in the end wounds his once-great friend so terribly he ends up in that black suit.

Many Jedi and Sith are now dead.  Palpatine notes the Jedi are now actively intervening with the war effort and demands they swear loyalty to the Lord President.  Few agree, and are outlawed.  Kenobi and Yoda receive a last recorded message from Gideah, a Force Vision of what they must do (actually from Darth Shado).  They meet Annakin's wife, who believes her husband dead.  She is returning to her home world of Alderaan, deeply sorry her husband never knew she was expecting their child.  Kenobi accompanies her while Yoda heeds the Vision and goes to Dagobah.

All around them, the war continues, now one of conquest.  Lord President Palpatine has been declared Emperor, and outlawed the Jedi Order.  News of a new and terrifying warrior named Darth Vader hunting down the Jedi reaches Obi Wan and the widow Skywalker.  He assures her things will change.  They always do.  We must have hope.

The End.  For now.

Any commentary is more than welcome.  Just glad to get that off my chest.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writing Tips

(My apologies for taking so long between posts, but honestly I've been busy -- among other things getting diagnosed with diabetes as well as working on End Of The Line.  Mea culpa.)

A dear friend and I ended up discussing writing the other day.  She enjoys my blogs (here and at vampires.com).  More she recently got back into writing herself.  Given that she asked, I offered some "tricks of the trade" and she suggested I write them down.  So...

Let me begin with acknowledging loads and loads of writers have their own such tricks.  Many would probably not agree with mine at all.  Or approve of some, disapprove of others.  Fine.  Kindly take what follows as advice only -- consider what I say, then accept or dismiss as you see fit.

First, and this one I see violated time and time again, avoid the passive voice.  Read nearly any textbook, business report or form letter for examples of the passive voice.  Ditto encyclopedia entries, legal documents of nearly any kind, and far too many works of fiction.  "The cat was found by Millie" instead of "Millie found the cat."  Nine times out of ten (or more) the passive voice creates boredom.  Always?  No.  In truth, the passive voice can be a stylistic trick, one that creates a powerful effect.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is in the active voice but the very next clause of that famous quote "that all men are created equal" is passive, yet rings like a bell in the annals of history.  Examine it closely, you'll even see why it proved so effective, as well as why it more usually does not.  The passive voice gramatically shifts responsibility for the verb away from the subject, often onto the object.  A cat is found rather than Millie did the finding.  In the Declaration of Independence, the "all men..." clause refers to some kind of Creator, whether natural or supernatural (a fair number of our Founding Fathers were not Christians).  So the passive voice nearly always takes focus away from the subject of the sentence, the main character as it were.

Secondly, try to avoid the verb "to be."  Which sounds daft.  How more fundamental can you get than the verb that denotes existence?  And isn't that the very heart of Shakespeare's most famous monologue?  Yes and no.  "To be or not to be..." functions as a metaphor.  In context, Hamlet muses not about existence so much as life versus death, pondering over suicide in the face of life's travails.  Kindly note also my recommendation's actual words--"try to avoid" not "never use."  I encourage you to try and see for yourself how much more interesting your prose becomes when avoiding that verb.  Try to banish it altogether, just as an experiment.  Judge the results for yourself.  Quite simply, hardly a more dull verb exists in the English language--or at least more over-used to the point of boredom.  My own writing improved greatly after taking on this little rule of thumb (not axiom, not holy writ--just a rule of thumb).

Third, I cannot recommend enough varying the length and complexity of sentences.  What do I mean?  Glad you asked!  Consider the simple sentence.  Now consider what English teachers call the compound sentence and how useful such things can be.  Finally, we really should think on the compound-complex sentence, and while we're at it try to remember how often you come across such things in texts difficult to follow (like academic papers for instance).  See what I did?  When mentioning each type of sentence type I used an example of same! 

Eye iz sew klevur (we all know not to misspell words or mangle grammar right?).

 I was also (hopefully) demonstrating why variations generally work better than repetition.  A Compound-Complex takes more concentration to understand than a Simple.  Putting two or more together might end up beautiful and more accurate, but requires a lot more labor on the part of the reader.  Which can work brilliantly!  Remember Bilbo's speech at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring?  "I don't know half of you as well as I should like and like less than half of you as well as I should."  You can almost see his birthday guests blink a few times.  They don't say anything, trying instead to work out whether most of them were just insulted or not. (Yeah, they were.)  Now imagine sentences of that complexity piled one on top of the other.  Problems.  Especially for the reader going through your work for the very first time.

Yet another consideration regarding sentence length--the rhythm of your story.  Songs rarely begin with gigantic swelling notes.  Listen to particularly stirring songs to hear what I mean.  "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables, for example.  Or "Pity The Child" from Chess.  Both start slow and soft, building to louder and more complex moments, then returning to quiet in order to give still greater crescendos later.  Writers methinks should use a similar model in terms of their own rhythms.  Lacking notes and orchestras, we use words.  More than words.  Sentences, clauses, vocabulary, the passive versus the active voice, etc.

Lastly, a few words about letters with which words begin.  Call me picky (go ahead--really, I don't mind) but one major goal in my writing remains readability.  Anything that helps achieve that remains a valuable tool.  Towards that end, I wrote myself two simple rules:
  1. Never begin two adjacent sentences with words that begin with the same letter.
  2. Never begin two adjacent paragraphs with words that begin with the same letter.
Kindly refer to the text of this blog as an example.  Mind you, I did put this rule-of-thumb last, and for a reason.  You wouldn't be wrong calling me picky.  I am.  But my own sense of how reading works, how the human eye picks up on lettering, how we keep our place and retain a memory of what we're reading lends me to think this a good idea.  Certainly the opposite has the exact impact I hope to avoid.  Reiterating the same capital letters over and over impedes readability.  Usually.

Take my words as wisdom or as the eccentric ramblings of a pretentious scribe.  Or both.  Whatever helps you create the words and works dearest to your writer's heart.

Oh, and Happy New Year!