Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.

Tomorrow is the European release date for Code Name: S.T.E.AM., a new Nintendo videogame in whose localization I’ve had the pleasure of being deeply involved. It’s a third-person strategy game developed by Intelligent Systems, best known for series such as Fire Emblem, Advance Wars and my much beloved Paper Mario.

I’m glad to report that some reviews are praising the localization work. Nintenderos in particular mentions the translation as one of the strong points of the game.

There’s a free downloadable demo available in Nintendo eShop, so I hope that all of you who own a Nintendo 3DS will give Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. a try and, especially, I hope that you enjoy it!

50 greatest novels for art students

Among the restless artists who gather here, not few of us care for more than literature. For those of you with a pictorial inclination, I present this list of “the 50 greatest novels for art students“, arguable as any list but full of gems, many of them little known, all of them crowded with painters, except for the presence as star guests of a duo of comic authors and an architect. There’s history and fiction, business and introspection. Explore, and let me know what your recommendations are. Do you miss any titles here?

NaNoWriMo 2010

I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t explain it again: NaNoWriMo is here, beginning next Monday, November 1st.

Do you dare write a novel in 30 days? It’s worth trying!

I’m not doing it this year because I’m busy with several projects, one of which is, precisely, revising mi nanowrimo 2006 for publication, because -yes- the thing I poured in a rush, after long revisions, seems ready for publication. I hope. At most, I may try to write the second season of Mrs. Carrington in a month. That would be a challenge too.

but don’t let my stories distract you, focus on your own story. Improvise. Unplug the router. Turn off the TV. Those episodes of Glee and Fringe will still be there in four weeks, there’s no hurry. A sandwich will do. Type.

You’re not alone, the whole NaNoWriMo community is feeling the same and they are more then a hundred thousand people. One made the NaNoWriMo report card to help you visualize where you are and how much there’s left. Others draw funny calendars. Some buy AlphaSmarts to write anywhere, even I am considering getting one – donations accepted. It doesn’t matter how, it doesn’t matter what – the question is how much. Come on, you’ve been reading stuff like this for years now, write the damn novel once and for all.

The classics

He doesn't give a fiddler's fart about modern stuff like planes and reads classics only.

I always say I’m more into the classics, but I could be more precise. Most of my readings come from a relatively short stretch of about seventy years, from the last third of the 19th century until the mid-20th. I rarely venture further back in time, out of fear to feel overcome by the socio-cultural -or merely linguistic- distance. Thus, for example, I loved Shakespeare when I read him in college, but I indefinitely procastrinate reading more of his plays. The oldest thing I’ve ever read must have been “Lysistrata“, which felt a little slow but still makes me laugh every time I remember some lines from its chastity oath:

I’ll never lie and stare up at the ceiling,
Nor like a lion on all fours go kneeling.

from the Gutenberg Project edition

One of my favourite bloggers wrote recently:

I don’t think reading classics is so important. After all, if they were read in their time is because they knew no better. I read for fun. I don’t read to cultivate myself, or to become a better person, or to have conversation topics at hipster gatherings. I read for fun. That means my choice of reading material is determined by one basic factor -that they entertain me.

Well let me entertain you all with my disagreeing thoughts. Firstly, not everything that was read in the past has reached us today. Probably loads of lesser texts (or then-considered lesser) got lost along the way by lack of interest and -therefore- copies. Even with a bit of bad luck we might have lost some of the best ones, due to their audacity or rebeliousness, in bonfires across the centuries, be it in the depths of a medieval monastery, during witch hunts or at a nazi demonstration. Following our example, less than a fourth of the plays by Aristophanes survive today. The classics that we have are not all that there was. It’s just all that we have.

Secondly, I also disagree because classics can be entertaining in many ways. They come from differents times and cultures, so dumping them all in the same basket can be quite a mistake. I find most classics amusing for some reason or other. Sometimes you discover how old is a certain idea (a character in “The Clouds” already offends somebody else by showing him the finger, over 400 years before Christ), or how early a cliché was born that we still see as modern nowadays, from criticism to the monarchy to vampire myths. In other ocassions one discovers the meaning that certain words used to have and, by seeing them used in a different context, one can deduce how they came to evolve into their modern meaning. Quite often, in general, one can see how people lived in former times, as if you were watching a transdimensional edition of “Big Brother“.

Aditionally, as writers, we owe a certain commitment to the literary tradition. For example, the novel that I’m working on describes a whole new universe, so for “documentation” purposes I enlarged my queue of readings with titles such as “Alice in Wonderland” or “Gulliver’s Travels”. The latter felt a little imposing because it was published as early as 1726 and I feared it wouldn’t have much to tell me. I’m finally reading it these days, and I have to say I’m impressed at the wide range of topics it touches upon. I happen to have a near-completed play whose characters have different sizes (imagine an Andalusian “Honey, I shrunk the kids“) and I have no joke in it that Jonathan Swift hasn’t already covered in his “travels” to Lilliput and Brobdingang. Moreover, his criticism of Western forms of government is just as valid today as it was almost three centuries ago.

In a word, I plan to widen my range of readings, which I hope will widen both my understanding of the world and the number of ways in which literature can amuse me. Are you willing to give it a try?

Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt wrote three novels before dying last year at the age of 78.

The first one, Angela’s Ashes, narrates his miserable Irish childhood in the slums of Limmerick, the opression of his Catholic upbringing and his fight to achieve the dream of sailing to America. It won the Pulitzer Prize and it makes a thoroughly enjoyable reading (not long ago I related how I got hold of my copy).

The second one, ‘Tis, picks up at his arrival upon the new continent and tells of his search for employment, for flats, for a place in the world, for love, for a respectable career. It tries to repeat the formula but it lacks the spark and falls in nowhere land.

The third one, Teacher Man, digs in his experiences as a secondary scholl teacher of English and, for the last few years, creative writing. Both the novel and the character lack a purpose, but both seem to find it towards the last third of the book, which contains the most intense passages of the last two books and is the reason we bring it here. Both McCourt’s work and his advice are perfect matches of Brenda Ueland’s philosophy in If You Want To Write, and perfect contrast with megalomaniac storylines as we discussed them only last week.

We’re going to devote the whole of next week, Monday to Friday, to comment upon several fragments of his work and discuss, through them, the use of real experience and autobiographical elements in fiction.

Great expectations

I’ve mentioned Scriptshadow in the past, so I won’t introduce Carson Reeves again. Last Monday he reviewed the script for Vanishing On 7th Street, a horror film whose trailer is already available:

As you can see, everybody disappears form the face of the earth, with the rare exception of our protagonists. There’s also something strange going on with darkness, as they can only trust the lights they carry themselves. Pure claustrophoby, and a powerful premise.

Carson starts off his review by wondering, too powerful?

The Vanishing on 7th Street is a script that starts off strong but, like a lot of these scripts, gets swallowed up in its own ambition. The ultra high-concept premise lures us in like fresh garbage to a family of raccoons. The question is, is the premise *too* high concept? Wha? Huh? Buh? ‘How can that even be possible’ you ask?? A premise is too high concept when no matter what you do with the story, it will never be as interesting as the concept itself. In other words, you bite off more than you can chew. And unfortunately, I think that’s the case with Vanishing.

The idea deserves some thought. Only last night was I talking precisely about this, as I’ve recently finished 1984 and my partner is reading Brave New World. Such classics both suffer from the same unarguable flaw: once the initial premise is exhausted, the plot grows thinner by the page.

We’ve seeen the same problem on TV, a few years ago on The 4400 (forty four hundred missing people reappear simultaneously together without aging a day or memories of the missing time) and more recently on the big flop of the season, Flashforward (every person on the planet faints simultaneously and dreams a scene of their own future exactly six months later).

Of course the concepts are powerful enough to engage the reader’s imagination (or the viewer’s, who’ll pay their cinema ticket or sit in front of the TV every week, willing to witness the grand show) – but is it not a pity that, by starting with the climax, we all end up disappointed?

If the concept that sends your story into motion is the best thing about your script, then you only have one-fourth of a script. What if aliens invaded our planet tomorrow? Okay, great concept. But then what? How do you keep that interesting for the 100 minutes after they invade? If you want to see how bad someone can screw this up, go rent Independence Day. Just make sure to also rent a gun, as you’ll want to shoot yourself by the midpoint. I think the key to these high concept ideas is making sure you have a story ready on the personal level after you hit your audience with the hook.

Indeed the big question is, how do I avoid that problem? With interesting characters? Through solid plotting? But of course! Shouldn’t those elements be present in every story? Yes, but we raised the bar too high for ourselves, how can I come up with an ending that’s worthy of my beginning? Well, you need to find elements that are just as powerful. Lost may have disappointed many of us towards the end, but during six seasons it managed to reinvent itself with complex characters, unexpected twists and narrative schemes of all colours and shapes. Blindness turned itself inside out by undoing a world tragedy and revealing a personal one. Masterful!

So here’s an exercise just as powerful: how would you save Vanishing on 7th Street from falling into this trap? How would you improve a book the size and importance of 1984? How would you get, out of these premises above, more than the authors who created them? Or, to present another forthcoming blockbuster, what would you do with the premise of Skyline?

Screenwriting Tips

Scriptwriting Tips offers daily advice in just a couple of lines, straight to the point, unlike me.

Tips are oriented to scriptwriters. In many cases the author -who has habit of being crude for the sake of impact- simply points out an overused cliché. Half the times the tips are highly arguable. But quite often good ideas come up which are useful for any writer, and every once in a while a real gem finds its way through and deserves being quoted if only for its brevity.

As an introduction, I offer a selection of the best tips from the last couple of weeks.

Good writing is when a character does something we weren’t expecting, but which makes perfect sense given everything we know about that character.

Every scene should affect the protagonist in some way, either directly or incidentally. If not, you got yourself a dud scene. Doesn’t matter if it’s the funniest, scariest, most exciting scene in the script — it needs to go.

If your characters don’t say horrible, soul-crushing things to each other during the dark point, you’re doing it wrong.

You don’t have to start in media res, but maybe you could do us all a favor and start at the not-boring part?

If only for the sake of commenting, I’ll keep posting here selections of their best advice as it gets published.