Friday, September 23, 2016

Why Is Writing So Hard for Me?

I was browsing Pinterest (Yes, I've become a closet Pinterest browser. Yes, I am completely ashamed that I've joined the bandwagon and joined the bandwagon so flipping late), and I came across a picture. Now the picture itself was of little consequence, but the caption made me laugh because it basically encapsulates my life:

"Hello, I am a writer. My pastimes include not writing."

(And I'd post it and give credit for it, but now I can't find the stupid thing... Guh. So that was originally made by somebody somewhere.)

After I was done laughing and quoting it to myself a few times (Come on, other people must do that when they see something funny, right? Where else would we get those Youtube comments that are literally just one or two hilarious lines from the video?), it reminded me of something I'd been thinking about the other day.

One of my friends once pointed out that as soon as your writing turns into a job, the drive to write vanishes.

That's certainly been the case for me. Sure, writing more than three pages at a time has always been hard for me (three pages seemed to be the max I could write in one sitting for many years), but at least when I was younger, I just wanted to create stories. The sheer fun of it kept me going easily. I remember sitting down for hours writing early drafts of The Victor's Blade. Now I'm lucky if I can stay focused on it past forty-five minutes.

Writing just isn't quite as fun as it used to be. It still can be fun. I still get a thrill--maybe even a bit of a buzz of euphoria--when I feel like I've nailed a scene or a character, or when I've delivered a line of dialogue that just makes me laugh out loud. But it's way easier for me to write for fun (roleplaying, for instance) than it is to write in The Victor's Blade.

I wonder why that is.

Sure, it's partially the "work vs. fun" problem: The Victor's Blade is actually getting to a point where I have to start taking it seriously. By contrast, roleplays are usually just games to me. Of course I'm going to want to do something fun over something that seems like a job.

But how did The Victor's Blade end up in the "job" category at all? Is it just because I've started realizing "Oh crap, this is gonna be a real thing that's going to (hopefully) make me real money someday"? I don't think so.

I know part of my problem with TVB in particular is how long I've taken to write it. I kept taking breaks, and I've lost a lot of the passion for the characters. I've been trying to rekindle that passion and revamp the characters as necessary, but it still leaves me with this feeling that the characters are... stale. And I wonder if that's just me, because I've spent so much time with them, or if it's a red flag that something about these characters is dangerously lacking.

Wow. The cast of my magnum opus might have some severe issues? There's something to kill the fun in writing.

Another part of the problem is that TVB has gotten to a point where I have to work. It's not just a series of unrelated scenes that happen whenever I feel like writing. I have to tie things together with transitions and plan out pacing and figure out when and how to drop in key plot elements. It has transcended fun and games. Now it's into the nitty-gritty. And that's just plain ol' not as fun to write, because that takes more brainpower and revision.

Buuuut even so, just because something requires some rewrites and brain-flexing doesn't necessarily make it "not-fun" for me. Take one of my more recent time-devourers, a roleplay I've been working on for the better part of three years. That's finally getting down to the nitty-gritty, too, but working on it has actually been--gasp--fun, even though it's got its share of hard work. Heck, I just spent two hours late Wednesday night photoshopping a map for the campaign. Hours of strenuous, complex, hard work for a minuscule part of the roleplay as a whole. But I couldn't put it down, because I was having so much fun working on it.

What makes the difference?

I think a big part of my struggle to write is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of the criticism I'll receive. Fear it just isn't good or will never be as good as I envisioned it. I have a crippling fear of sharing a piece of myself and being misunderstood and rejected or shot down or ripped apart. I see it happen all the time to others--and it's happened to me before, too. A lot. To the point where I have to push myself to express my real feelings about a lot of things. To the point where I'm not sure I can count on one hand the number of people I've really opened up to recently.

And since I believe that what I write is a reflection of something I believe, or even a little piece of myself, it's terrifying to think that what I write might not be any good--or that it might be misunderstood so people say it's not any good (even if it is)!

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I need to separate myself from my work. I'm not my writing. It's not who I am at my core. And other peoples' opinions aren't me, either. They don't know the full picture of who I am. Heck, not even I know that. I think only God does.

Easier said than done, but it does make the thought of taking criticism a lot easier.

And maybe I can pull out that keyboard and pop out a few pages today, after all. Guess I won't know until I try.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Life Stuff, Slower Updates

Hi everyone. Unfortunately, not a sunshine and rainbows post today.

No need to worry, but I've taken on quite a few responsibilities that are taking up a good deal of my time. As such, I'm not going to be able to update weekly for the foreseeable future. For now, I'll be posting every other Friday, starting this week.

I will be sure to let you know when this changes. Thanks so much for all your support!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Movie Review: Kubo of the Two Strings

As soon as I saw advertisements for Kubo of the Two Strings, I knew it was either going to become my new favorite movie or it was going to become one of my most severe disappointments in film since Disney's The Princess and the Frog (more on that in a later blog post). So when August finally rolled around, I was nearly dying with anticipation. I'd been looking forward to Kubo for half a year. But with that anticipation came anxiety: I was already knee-deep in a stack of recent media (films and video games alike) that had failed to deliver on the expectations they'd built through their teasers and trailers.

What if Kubo just ended up as another film to add to the stack?

The Visuals

The movie's visuals held up to the trailer's promise, even sans 3D. The company behind Kubo, Laika studios, has been rather hit-or-miss story-wise for me, but you can't knock their attention to detail and devotion to stop-motion animation.

Although Kubo's characters do suffer from a few early frames of uncanny valley expression shifts, the animation overall is so good it took me a good 10-15 minutes to remember that this movie was stop-motion. This especially shined with the focus on Kubo's origami-based magic. Dozens to hundreds of pieces of origami paper danced across the screen, folding into birds or leaves or forming anything from usable boats to cute characters.

The origami figures were so detailed and lifelike. I've only dabbled in basic origami patterns, but even I recognized one pattern (a balloon/paper lantern) that Kubo folds together. Origami fans will also appreciate one of the movie's self-jabs when it asserts that one of Kubo's origami figures "Might not even be real origami," as it's suspected "scissors were involved." (Traditional origami asserts that the figures must only be folded--no cutting allowed.)

I still have no idea if the origami was stop-motion animation or computer-generated graphics. Or just straight-up magic. It was gorgeous, it was eye-catching, it was new and unique: everything I could have asked for in a movie and everything they advertised it would be.

But how would the story and characters hold up?

The Writing

Kubo is a storyteller, a trait we discover (through showing, not telling) that he learned from his mother. And he's good at it. I couldn't help but gape, gasp, and giggle along with Kubo's fictional audience as he weaves his first tale to the local villagers.

As a storyteller myself, I found both the acting performances and the writing to be, well, honestly, inspirational. The characters felt round and endearing. The dialogue was realistic and never pandering. Adults could appreciate so many of the finer details, but these details wouldn't leave kids lost or confused. The choice to forego a traditional narrator added to this decision not to talk down to the audience, and it was the right choice for this movie. The lack of a constant narrator voiceover kept the audience's focus on Kubo, making it easy to relate to and root for him.

That said, I have to admit that some of the writing choices lead me to recommend this movie to older children (ten or so) rather than little tykes. Part of this is due to the beginning of the movie. After Kubo’s gripping voiceover intro (the one the trailers feature so prominently), the first 3-5 opening minutes of the movie are, in fact, completely silent. I adored this as an adult and writer (the creators conveyed more meaning through those silent minutes than I portrayed in 30 pages of my book). But I could see how younger children might see this beginning as boring, since technically not much is happening. But from then on, the pacing of the movie is friendly to all ages, with plenty of action and character development scenes to balance each other.

Spoilers ahead! Reader be warned!

Theme

Kubo's trailers showed no signs of the film's theme, so I was surprised while watching to realize it is a film about accepting loss. This is another reason why the movie best targets older kiddos, as the youngest ones may not be able to understand this kind of theme.

Although I appreciate the theme and think it's a very good message to share with kids who have experienced loss, the theme also directly or indirectly caused some of my biggest complaints about this movie, both of which reared their heads at the ending.

Selfishly, I wanted to spend more time with Kubo’s parents. They were clever and lovable characters. Although I think they had adequate screen time, I wanted to enjoy them even longer.

It didn't help that the movie seems to imply that Kubo's parents may survive or that there's a way to save them. For instance, in one scene the mother implores the father to take care of Kubo once she dies. I completely thought this scene was foreshadowing or at least a misdirect: that she would die but the father would live, or vice versa. In a later scene, when Kubo tries to speak to his parents’ (now deceased) spirits, he begins to choke up as he admits he isn't satisfied with this ending. He's desperate to know if there's any way to bring them back so he can have the family he's always wanted.

Although I appreciated the message that Kubo was now strong enough to take care of himself, the movie ends on a note that makes Kubo seem very alone. True, the parents’ response to Kubo's plea is to appear beside him as peaceful apparitions. This gives a calming “We will always be with you to guide you” feeling, but the movie does nothing to show they will be with Kubo through his everyday life or to help him make decisions. They only stand passively at his side at the edge of the graveyard. Since we don't see any signs of their colorful personalities and as this is the only place and position we see them, I felt this contradicted the message that they'd always be with him. These weren't the parents we and Kubo got to know and love; these were shallow, listless, lifeless shadows. That means that really, his parents wouldn't really "always be with him" at all!

Another issue I had with the ending was that the redemption of Kubo’s grandfather felt rushed. After Kubo helps his grandfather become human, there's an awkward exchange as the villagers try to help Kubo’s grandfather "recover" his memories. How do they accomplish this? By outright lying to him! ("You're a great person!" "You give regular alms to the poor!" "You give gifts to the children every day!") As these "memories" start to get more and more self-serving, I couldn't shake the impression that the villagers were really just taking advantage of him.

The whole scene unfortunately left a poor taste in my mouth. What were the creators trying to say? That if someone just turned over a new leaf, best to lie to them in order to make sure they don't become a monster again?

Instead, we get an uncomfortable string of lies that are supposed to be poignant. The grandfather seems overwhelmed and not sure what to do with all these memories that he obviously doesn't remember, but he seems more than happy to believe in his love for his grandson. And here's the final sin of this whole scene: this is the last we see of Kubo's grandfather! It's such an abrupt way to end Kubo's grandfather's arc, to the point where it left me wondering if his transformation has really done much at all.

In addition, this seems a very unfair ending to Kubo. After we've seen him admit that he's unsatisfied with this ending, we can't help but feel the same way. Kubo outright states that he wants a family he's never had and only briefly got to experience. But the movie ends without him having his parents' spirits walking through life with him and even without seeing him and his grandfather taking care of each other. Kubo ends without getting the family he wants and, quite frankly, deserves!

I would have loved to see an alternate ending in which, rather than the villagers lying to Kubo's grandfather, Kubo tells his grandfather the truth through one of his origami stories. When his story is complete, he offers his grandfather his hand, offering to instead make new memories together. His grandfather takes his hand, and then the movie cuts to show Kubo going through a new morning ritual--this one with his grandfather actively participating. They go down to the village together, and while Kubo and his grandfather interact with the villagers, we also see Kubo's parents' spirits tagging along behind him. They playfully pick on each other as they did throughout the film and watch their son with pride.

This would have made an excellent bookend to the beginning of the film and been a great way to wrap up both the grandfather's redemption, Kubo's new family dynamic, and Kubo's more active involvement in the village (signifying his growth and self-strength).

The Conclusion

Ordinarily, a bad ending kills whatever enjoyment I'd had with a movie. However, I can honestly say that even with these issues, I still found Kubo's ending satisfying. Even though it was far more tragic than I expected, it didn't affect my impression of the movie as a whole. Kubo was every bit the masterpiece I was hoping it would be when I first saw its trailers. It delivered on the stunning visuals, creative concept, and likeable characters it promised. In fact, the writing vastly exceeded my expectations.

The movie's pacing was well-balanced. The action scenes were suspenseful and gorgeous to watch. The character development scenes were well-placed and well-timed, a particular treat. In fact, I would argue that the characters and dialogue were the movie's strongest points. Kubo's parents are arguably the two most entertaining parts of the film. Their banter is snappy, completely in-character, moves the plot forward, and it's laugh-out-loud funny to boot. It's these memorable characters that make this movie so unforgettable.

Walking into the theater to see Kubo was both thrilling... and terrifying. But by the time I found myself watching the end-credits, I couldn't help but feel full. Kubo truly is a work of art, and I can easily see it becoming a classic animated feature. The visuals are stunning, the storytelling is some of the best I've seen in years, and the characters and dialogue are fantastic. Kubo of the Two Strings is definitely worthy of my five-star rating: a must-see movie if you like the snappy, funny dialogue of Avengers; if you're a lover of mythology or Japanese culture; or if you just plain love great storytelling.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Elemental Story Excerpt: Drawing



Here's an excerpt from a work-in-progress novel I've mentioned once before on the blog, my so-called "Elemental Story." Still haven't come up with a title, but hope you enjoy this sneak peek into some of the cast.

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“Well, now what?”

I look up from drawing in the dirt as Saaron begins to complain again. He has such a hard, angry face. It’s tricky to get his frown just right; he has such a sharp-angled jaw. But everything about him seems sharp and angled. His nose is long and thin, with a sharp point to it. His eyebrows are neatly clipped. Even his black hair seems to jut at strange angles from his scalp.

I return to my drawing, dusting my hand over the earth to erase the pouting lip I had made on my version of Saaron. It wasn’t nearly angular enough. While I draw, part of me wonders if Eliasz is going to tell Saaron to stop. Normally, Eliasz would have said something by now, but Eliasz is tired. Maybe more tired than me, and I’m the weakest one.

Eliasz sighs while I’m thinking this. “Now, we set a watch and catch some rest.”

I look up from my drawing again to this other boy. I feel as though I should not call him a boy, though—he must be old enough to have been a Votary.

Eliasz is certainly not difficult to draw—or to look at. I’ve seen the other girls looking at him, too. I wonder if it was not only his skills, but also his height, his neat green velvet robes, and his lean but muscular body that has brought him to his place as our leader.

I see Eliasz has glanced to me, and I quickly drop my gaze back to my drawing. I hope he cannot see me well in the dimming light, because I can feel the heat of blush in my cheeks.

“Li-Li,” Eliasz calls. His voice is sonorous, rich and deep, and this time, full of concern. “How are you faring?”

I set down my stick and find myself clasping my hands and setting them into my lap. It is a habit I hope I can break. “I am well, Eliasz,” I say as respectfully as possible.

He watches me a moment longer. I can see he does not believe my words. But unlike Saaron, he does not always speak what he is thinking. For that, I like Eliasz all the more. Because in that way, he is like me.

And now I begin to wonder, what do the others see when they look at me? I am the smallest of the group. Even Khisa, who is my age, is far taller than me and much stronger. Though I suppose I should not be surprised. He is a boy, and I am a girl. Still, there’s no hiding that I am tiny. Even my light hair and light blue eyes seem small, especially in comparison with Kereina. She is tall, with thick black hair and deep sapphire blue eyes that always seem to spark, even in the darkness.

As if she is summoned by my thoughts, Kereina bounds into the clearing where we are talking. She usually remains behind us as a scout, while Khisa usually scouts ahead. Eliasz came up with the idea of scouts, but Kereina always volunteers. I can tell Eliasz does not like her being the scout because his forehead always crinkles with worry when she says she will do it. He never looks worried when Khisa volunteers.

She is breathless from running, but her eyes are still sparkling. "No sign they followed us down the ravine. I think we'll be safe tonight, fearless leader." She pecks Eliasz's cheek with a kiss.

That makes almost all of us blush--except Kereina.

I think Saaron tries to cover up his surprise and embarrassment by behaving even more cross. "Right. As if we'll be able to sleep after all that. They nearly got us this time!" He turns to Eliasz. "I told you we were getting careless. No more heading that close to towns!"

Eliasz just sighs and nods. "We'll reevaluate in the morning."

Saaron only scoffs.

"Well, if you're too wide-awake to sleep, then you can take my first watch, Saar," Kereina volunteers him as she skips over and pats his shoulder. "I'm bushed!"

Then she dances over to me and laces her fingers between mine, tugging me up to my feet. "C'mon, Li-Li, let's get some shuteye!"

Kereina doesn't look sleepy, and I certainly do not feel tired, but I cannot protest because she is already tugging me toward a leafy place in the clearing for us to unroll our blankets and settle in for the night.

My picture will have to be left unfinished, only to be stamped out tomorrow. We can never leave traces we were ever here.

Khisa returns shortly after Kereina and I have lain down. I hear him speaking with Eliasz and Saaron in murmurs. The sound of murmurs in the cool darkness--it makes me feel as if I am back at the Temple, lying on the stone floor, listening to the Votaries' chants.

The night air is cold and wet on my face now, so I curl up against Kereina. She hugs me close and sighs. Then she begins to breathe evenly. I think she is already asleep.

But I am wide awake. If only I were more like Kereina. If only I were not a burden who slowed everyone down. If only everything were as easy for me as it was for her.

But all I can do is watch and draw.

I close my eyes and try to fall asleep.

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Excerpt from work in progress novel, "Elemental Story" (name pending). Note that all content is subject to change!