Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Killing the Magic . . . Or Finding It?

I had several idea for blog posts for today (Kyra Sedgwick's wardrobe in THE CLOSER, my love of themes, grammar vandals) all of which I threw out the window after reading the following quote from James Cameron, the man behind TITANIC in Entertainment Weekly (because I am that kind of classy intellectual girl):

" I don't feel competitive with TITANIC . . . In all cultures in the world, everyone just happened to like that movie. But I can't run my career as a filmmaker trying to reverse-engineer the combination to that lock."

I sat there (I'm not going to mention where I was sitting) totally stunned at the profundity of that statement. How many times have I seen that happen? An author (or a film maker or a painter or a musician) scores big with something and then keeps trying to reproduce it, but it doesn't always work. The result can be cold and lifeless, because the heart that originally went into the book (movie, painting, song) just isn't there in the pale reverse-engineered duplicates. Or someone else tries to emulate the book and you get the same thing. An imitation of its external factors, but none of the internal guts that really made it work.

I know I'm guilty of it. I can think of several proposals that were shot down for various reasons, but I really think this is the real one. I reverse-engineered the life out of the story. Instead of letting the story grow organically out of my characters, I forced situations on them that I thought would fit a certain mold.

Then (because I am incapable of only seeing one side of an argument which is why even trying to pick what to make for dinner can be excruciating for me), it occurred to me that some times, reverse-engineering is really about learning my craft.

When I started working on my first urban fantasy, DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER, I really didn't know anything about the character. I'd had a snippet of a scene pop into my head and wanted to figure out what to do with it. I started thinking about which books that I'd read recently that I'd loved. Not liked. Not enjoyed. LOVED. Robin Hobb's Assassin series popped into my head.

I loved those books. Couldn't put them down. I adored the main character. I asked myself why? I did some rereading and lot of thinking and came up with the fact that the hero didn't really look like hero material at the beginning. Sure, he had some special skills, but he didn't even know how to use them correctly and some of them had to be kept secret. He was essentially a little cog in a very big machine, but ended up being the crucial piece that allowed the good guys to win. He became hero material. He had to. I wanted to make a character like that and that's where Melina Markowitz, Messenger to the supernatural world in Sacramento was born. Her story grew out of who she was and who she needed to become.

I love writing Melina. I think she's one of the better heroines I've created in a while and I don't think she would have happened without a little bit of reverse-engineering.


Kimber Chin said...

I think if reverse engineering actually worked, then copies would be the same as the originals. They seldom are. The originals have a soul the copies don't have.

It is kind of like knowing all the steps and not having any rhythm.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Great post Eileen!!

I think there's a difference between disecting what works for you about something you love and reverse engineering - or maybe not, but I totally want to believe there is. Disecting gives you a chance to make a little magic, to cross germinate or whatever - reverse engineering is like what Kimber said - all the steps, no magic.

I adore M. Night Shamalyn. Adore. He's made two of my very very favorite movies and written a few of my favorite scenes in movies - but oh lord, that man and his reverse engineering.

Eileen said...

I'm beginning to think it's a fine line thing (isn't everything?). To use Kimber's metaphor, you do have to slow the dance down and pull it apart to learn each step, but then you have to have the rhythm, too.

Virna De Paul said...

Eileen, I totally agree that reverse engineering is one of the best ways to learn craft. Looking at books I love and why is the only way I can consciously write them. Great post!

Sinead M said...

Perhaps reverse engineering is what you do before you ever put fingers to computer keyboard. Or in the plotting stages, but during the rough draft stage, I try and just let the story flow, without thinking craft.

If I think too much about the why's during that stage I can take the magic out of it, both from my enjoyment and out of the story.

And I love, love, love Entertainment Weekly...

Eileen said...

I love it when the story just flows. I think you're right, though. Without the reverse-engineering work before my fingers hit the keyboard, it's less likely to happen for me that way.

Eileen said...

You know, Molly, I'm thinking about your M. Night Shyamalan remark. Hoo, boy, do I ever think you're right about that! The pressure of trying to recreate The Sixth Sense ruined at least a couple of his movies. I haven't seen Lady in the Water yet, though. Anybody seen it? Good or bad?

Stephanie Doyle said...

Great post Eileen - because it works both ways.

You need to pick apart what worked - so you can figure out what made it special and do it again.

But you can't try to re-create what made it special... because then it's not original and loses the magic.

Wait that totally doesn't make sense. But let's face it - neither does finding your "voice". You just do it.

M. Night. Perfect example.

Lady in the Water... sucks.But nothing NOTHING sucks worse than The Happening.

He is a perfect example of a writer... who needs to stop thinking about how to be M Night and just tell a story that he loves.


Maureen McGowan said...

GREAT post. I can get paralyzed at times trying to figure out the keys to something I've loved, but I also think that being able to understand what makes great things great really helps us grow.

I love that you say you're incapable of only seeing one side of an argument. I'm that way, too. Totally. Except when I'm not. ;-)

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, and I was thinking about M. Night, too.

Molly and I had a duel on this very blog when Lady in the Water came out. Gosh. Just did the search. It was over three years ago. Have we even been blogging that long? I guess we have. ;-)

I added the M. Night Shayamalan label to those posts. That duel was fun. We need to have more duels.

Eileen said...

Oh, man! I totally forgot about The Happening! I will make sure it doesn't end up on my TBW list. I saw both The Sixth Sense and Signs at the perfect moments in my life to hear what he was saying so I'll always have a soft spot for M. Night.

I like your take on this, Stephanie. I think that's really the key. We can learn craft, but we can't learn heart.

Oh, Maureen, I'm glad I at least have company in my total paralysis.

Eileen said...

OMG!!! Just went and read the M Night Cage Match/Duel. Awesome! Now I might actually have to watch the movie, though. :-(

Sinead M said...

Stephanie, could not agree more. The Happening.. awful. How the hell could the man who wrote and directed Signs put that on the screen.
Seriously, the resolution to the entire movie (SPOILER), was to wait it out..
Unbelievably lazy storytelling. The premise was interesting, but he failed so spectacularly in taking it anywhere even remotely interesting that I might have given up on the man's movies.

Maureen McGowan said...

I'd forgotten about The Happening, too.
He's become nothing but premise and trailer... People aren't falling for it anymore.

But still would put all 3 of Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable on my top, ummm... 200 list? Maybe even top 100. I see too many movies. I didn't hate The Village as much as others did, either. I guessed what was coming, but it still entertained me. Didn't make me angry like Lady in the Water did.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Oh I agree! How the same person who wrote signs wrote The Happening... it boggles. My favorite "bad" part was running way... from the wind! WTF. Are you kidding me?

It's like when a favorite author goes off the tracks you think... where was the editor here to stop this?

Where was M.Night's editor? Why didn't anyone tell him that running away from the wind as an intense and scary moment simply does not work.

That said - I'm a sucker. I'll still see his next one (but maybe On Demand). Lady in the Water wasn't quite as bad for me. It still showcased his ability to tell a story - which I love.

And I liked the romance in the Village. (Not surprising) Very beautiful I thought. There is a moment when they're dancing at the wedding and the screams start and she reaches her hand out to have it be immediately caught by the hero. I loved that. The twist - entirely unnecessary.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Premise and trailer -- you're so so right and yet those little moments like when in The Happening, he's telling her that he went to this other pharmacy and spent six dollars on something because the girl was pretty -- great moment. But I'm with you - terrible. Wait it out...honestly. Sinead, where were you when he needed you.

But wasn't this movie he got cut from Disney for? Big hullabalo.

Molly O'Keefe said...

OHHHH! CAGE MATCH!!! I challenge my fellow drunk writers to a cage match:

Not Quite A Husband vs To Beguile a Beast..

Eileen said...

I volunteer to get in the cage with anyone who liked Eat Pray Love as long as I'm not held responsible for the venom I'm likely to spew.

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