The concept is simple. You read one of these posts. You put in a comment at the end that says, “Interview me!” and the author of the post sends you five questions — any five questions — to answer on your own blog or site. Dan answered some, and a bunch of us asked him to interview us (Spyder, Caren and Big Tony have answered already). Click on read more for my answers, which are, as usual, long and hence have to be broken into multiple pages:
1) Other than yourself, do you have an intended audience in mind when you write?
Saying “Everyone!” here would be a bit of a cop out, despite the fact that any human would (I hope) like to exert some kind of positive influence on all other humans (especially hot chicks).
I think I like to write for geeks. I’m especially interested in entertaining polymaths like myself (All polymaths are geeks, but the reverse is not true). I like to write stories that have the particular kind of chaos-embracing, seven-hundred-genres-in-a-single-bound style that I find completely satisfying. I don’t think there’s enough of it, and I’m sure there are others like me who think the same.
It’s a tricky thing to write well, because despite the fact that it very often has something for everybody, the lack of a traditional focus and a religious adherence to the tropes of a genre puts off a lot of people (this is especially annoying in Speculative Fiction genres because, hell, it’s supposed to mess with your preconcieved notions, not stroke it until a dull orgasm is reached).
The paradox of omnifiction — well, omnipunk — is that it’s the smallest genre in the world.
The only genre that has been wrestled by its very nature into being omnifiction friendly is conman and caper stories. All of them involve characters performing tasks of various skills from physical to mental and social.
I love con and caper movies.
2) If a Savant story had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?
Hmm, I think I came up with a songlist around the time I was writing Tale of a Thousand Savants (I think I still have it, …somewhere). It was basically a lot of Japanese Anime and video game soundtracks mixed in with modern Indian pop and other influences. So basically lots of Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Kanno and A.R. Rahman.
If I had to describe it now, I would say that like Savant and like the multiverse he plays around in, any soundtrack would have to be complex and varied. It would probably not be angsty (not even when he’s angsty), but it would be soulful. The kind of music that fills you both with joy and wonder. It would embrace genres but experiment, take bits from here and there and put them together in strange, unexpected and wonderful ways. No genre or type of music would be off limits, and no type of music would be treated like a sacred cow.
The three composers I mentioned earlier do exactly that. I find that composers who come from cultures other than the one in which a genre is born and settled, do wonders with it. For example, I think the work of The Teriyaki Boys and The Streets is much more interesting than any American hip-hop I’ve heard. Mitsuda does Celtic stuff with aplomb. A.R.Rahman does wonders with the entire gamut of Indian music (and beyond) because he’s a strange South Indian man with no Pavlovian training in the ‘right way’ to do a bhangra song (also, he’s A.R. Freaking Rahman, and sometimes genius can’t be explained).
3) What inspiration do you most wish Hollywood would take from the Indian film industry?
I wish they’d do things on a smaller budget. Seriously. Have you seen those Dead Man’s Chest DVD extras? Not only do they build a huge marina (a ‘tank’) to shoot boat scenes in, but on another untouched island they built a road across it and shuttle their small city of crew to the other end because the location scouts thought the palm trees looked cool there. Do you really need three hundred people on set to make a movie about a bunch of mangy pirates?
The philosophy in Hollywood seems to be, “Let’s just throw money at it!” rather than actually thinking a shoot through and doing it with the minimal impact. I’m not saying people should be walking two hours to their set, but really, when movies have “million dollar shooting days” something is seriously whacko.
And after all that, they still deliver a movie with no soul whatsoever, which, given all the mucking about with the Caribbean they did, is both a tragedy and exactly what they deserve.
Indian films are nowhere are sophisticated, we have sucky special effects and spotty technical work, but minute for minute I find myself being entertained more by the super-expensive 25 million dollar Indian film than the average budget 125 million dollar American one.
The unfortunate truth is that more Indian movies are starting to follow the Hollywood philosophy of money conquers all, but there are still a good bunch of people around who make nice movies. Also, all the good American movies are the ones made for relatively low budgets, so there is hope there too. Anything Wes Anderson does is bound to be less expensive than the average blockbuster, and is in no way lacking in the imagination and guts departments.
(And yes, I do know that the next Wes Anderson movie is set and shot in India, and I. Can’t. Wait.)
4) You have something of a knack for spotting plot holes and other problems in story structure. What advice would you give writers to help them avoid losing readers like you?
(Until this question was posed I never really thought of myself as being plot and structure sensitive, but after thinking about it — and noting the number of times I’ve discussed it in my old blog entries vis a vis both my own and others’ work — I guess it’s true: I’m a Plot Nazi!)
I’ve reached a point where I can watch a movie as a consumer of cinema parallel to appraising it on a technical level. So while I’m going, “Ooh!” at the latest special effects wizards (and/or Jessica Biel’s behind) I’m also thinking about whether or not the effect is working on a design level, a technical level and so on. I’m not one of those anal retentive people who submit things like, “His finger moves one inch between shots!” to movie mistake sites, but I tend to notice when there’s a sudden drop in pace (Casino Royale), characters behave inconsistently (Dead Man’s Chest), or that the director is masturbating behind the camera (Skull Island and everything after, Peter Jackson’s King Kong).
Weak plot points can be overcome with great characters, so keep your characters doing solid work and people may not notice the rough spots (which there inevitably tend to be). Last year’s Casino Royale did the stupid mistake of not only dropping the pace for no reason whatsoever (preceeding it was a poker game, and it despite being the most boring ‘sport’ in the world next to motor racing, was still written well), but after this drop the characters start spouting the most inane dialogue. Suddenly they’re going all Mills & Boons with cheesy lines about stripping off armour and all that. This is a James Bond movie — you can and should be romantic at times, but at least do it in character!
The Matador is a great example of good characters breezing past a few plot holes and structural inconsistencies with aplomb. So is, on a more magnified level, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Shaun of the Dead is pretty-much perfect and you can study that film to see why it works.
I think in all this seperation of plot, structure and character, I’ve failed to mention that absolutely everything in your story should be treated as these three things. Your protagonist is as much a character as he is the plot and the structure; the latter two are defined and shaped — and will appeal to you audience — based on how much they gel with and seem to be extrapolated from that character. Your world is also more than just a stage to put your stuff in. Describing it, in an indirect and abstract way, also shapes your structure, plot and character. Transmetropolitan and Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram spring to mind.
Most of these aren’t things you can plan ahead, but if you are a writer and have written enough shit you start to have strange hunches and gut feelings that won’t make sense, such as, “My character shouldn’t be eating pie here, he doesn’t like pie.” Stuff like that is your inner supercomputer crunching things far beyond your conscious thought, and you’re well on your way to being better writer.
Or, maybe you’re just a sick bastard who doesn’t like pie.
As far as technical advice is concerned, keep things consistent, first and foremost. If people speak a certain way, have them speak that way unless you wish to use a different style to generate comedy or surprise. Understand that the audience’s imagination doesn’t enjoy being thrown around, and that language is key to that: if your character is in the upper canopy of a tree don’t use language that describes the tree from the bottom up for one line. It immediately puts the mental camera at the ground level and throws the reader out of the story.
Storytelling is a magic trick. You’re using words and language to form pictures and sounds and people and smells in someone else’s head. Any magic trick needs to be well done or it won’t be as effective, even if the audience doesn’t consciously percieve it. The sloppier it is, the more attention your audience is going to pay to the funny lump in your sleeve.
Don’t limit your idea of plot structure to a particular genre. What I’m trying to say here is that you don’t necessarily need to learn all of storytelling by reading more novels. Comics can teach you a whole lot about the economy of storytelling, and both comics and movies can teach you about the way imagery affects perception, about pace. There’s a reason a panel may be seen from an askew angle (it unsettles you without saying “SHOCK!” in big red letters), and a large close up that takes up much of the page can be translated into prose structure as a large, descriptive paragraph.
Storytelling is a lot like graphic design: you’re using the symbology and syntax of a medium to deliver information in a smooth, interesting and pleasing way (while also hopefully being unexpected and engaging).
Songs are a great way to learn plot structure too. I’m not just talking about single guy with guitar wailing about his love life and the state of the world type songs that use polysyllabic words (singer-songwriter stuff as it’s called) — you can get good stories in techno!
A song appeals to us on an abstract level, just like a good story does. Try to take a song and write it as a story, and usually, if you can manage it, there you will find a well-structured plot.
The basic advice here is write, write, write. Everything you write is gold, and everything you write is shit. Look for plot, structure and character in your emails. Observe and try to deduce why some real-world conversations are memorable and entertaining without being in any way literary or theatrical. Sooner or later you’ll be able to tell what in a given story is shit and what is gold, and then rearrange the shit to enhance the look of the gold.
Then you’ll write another story and be back to square one.
5) Despite already being a skilled polymath (Gosh, thanks!), what talent do you most wish you could add to your repertoire?
This is the kind of question a polymath will never give a single answer to, but off the top of my head I’ll say I’d love to be able to tailor my own clothes. (Being able to sing, super yogic powers or growing my own food were my first answers, but Spyder already beat me to the last one!)