Monday, April 28, 2014

Writer's Block

     Hey there gang, and welcome back to Shelves and Stacks! As always, I’m your indispensable host, Jamie Thomas, promoting literacy one tome at a…a…Aw, crap! Not again! Don’t you just hate that, gang? You’re hunkered down in your comfiest chair, hunched over the keyboard (or type writer for all you hipsters and oldsters), and all of a sudden….BAM! Your brain blows a fuse, and you start spewing word vomit, making a fine pile of slurry where a great work of literature in the making had just been. What a revolting development, am I right? Now, just imagine you’ve got a grade, contract, the notice of an attractive love interest, or a literary festival to read at just on the horizon.  No pressure!

Freddie knows that feel. This feeling of stress, pressure and/or intestinal discomfort may be one of two things.
1. Your Grande Burrito making its presence known.
2. Writer’s Block.
If it’s not the tex mex talking, you may be suffering from a case of writer’s block.
The first step in defeating thine enemy is to know it. Merriam Webster (.com) defines writer’s block as “the problem of not being able to think of something to write about or not being able to finish writing a story, poem, etc.” So, by this logic we can assume that writer’s block is a wily little creature, lurking around in the back of our heads, chasing down, and capturing our ideas as they rush from brain to fingers.

   Not that kind of wily. If our writer’s blocks were that kind of wily, we’d never have this problem, and we’d all be slugging it out in an oversaturated literary market.
Now that we know our enemy, why does he keep popping up, trying to lay hands on our roadrunners? Honestly, the answer to this question (like the taste of soylent green), varies from person to person. If you really want to delve into the psychological side of writer’s blocks, there’s a plethora of articles and theories (reputable and otherwise) online. Personally, I chalk writer’s block up to the three P’s: Psych outs, Pressure, and Panic.
Let’s say, you’re working on your latest novel, and it’s an awesome novel. It’s got everything: action, adventure, great one liners, dastardly villains, emotional clarity and enlightenment, vast worlds full of wonder, etc. This thing is gold, and it’s going to bring wave after wave of publishers to your door, begging and battling one another for the rights to publish your story, and all you have to do is kick back in your comfy pants and just make up a whole bunch of stuff while drinking a coffee and listening to episodes of Buffy. That’s when the horror begins.

                                                Writer’s Block in Three Acts
Act 1: The Psych Out

As the aspiring author hunches over their work, cranking out draft, after draft, they wonder, “Is my work good enough? Is it marketable? Is it worth the shed blood of the ten thousands armies of publishers slaughtering one another on my front lawn? To write, or not to write? That is the question. Whether tis nobler to see this draft through to its end, or to bail and go watch Youtube videos?” Struck dumb with indecision, the author slowly pushes himself away from his work and ponders still.

Act 2: The Pressure

Unable to speak, the author has secluded himself to a small space under his desk where he rocks back and forth in the fetal position, feeling the crushing weight of the world pressing in from all sides. Cue musical interlude from David Bowie and Queen.

Act 3: The Panic
After a solid hour of rocking back and forth, the author begins eating his manuscript in the hopes of keeping its hideousness a secret from the world at large. He proceeds to run out of his home in nothing but a robe and his striped boxers. He gets as far as the local convenience store before he is tackled, cuffed, and carted away to the Bellevue Home for the Delightfully Unhinged. He now subsists on a diet of tapioca pudding and crayons.


  Pretty gruesome stuff, gang. So, how does an aspiring writer keep writer’s block from making them…well…you know…

 The best plan is to have a plan. Lucky for you, I’ve got a whole stash of them that I’m willing to give to you (yes you!) for the low, low price of free!

You know, I spoil you kids.

8 Ways to Beat the Block (In No Particular Order)

1. Rough Drafts- If you’re approaching your writer’s block with a head full of ideas, and pages worth of notes, then a rough draft is for you. By forcing yourself to cut loose and just write your story, you’re able to lay it all out on paper, creating something tangible that you can begin revising. If nothing else, it gets those pesky investors/classmates/professors off your back. See the following link for more on the subject of rough drafts.

2. Write Some Hooks- For those of us who’ve sat through the endless barrage of TV commercials and movie trailers doing everything inhumanly possible to pry our hard earned dollars from our tired, overworked fingers we know all about hooks. Behaving exactly as they sound, a hook is nothing more than an attractive sounding blurb that tells us the bare minimum (with a little flash) about the product in an attempt to make us say

How does this apply to writing? If the author has no interest in the work, neither will publishers, critics and readers. So, start generating buzz by getting yourself on board.

3. Organization- The most boring of my techniques, but the most effective. When your head’s brimming with frothy grog of good ideas, it gets hard to pin them all down and start fitting them together into something of a cohesive whole. Using outlines, graphs, charts, index cards, and any other means of laying out your ideas.

If it works for the cartoon guys, it’ll work for you novelists.

4. Captions- Taking a page from Gary Larson’s classic one panel wonder, The Far Side,

my next technique concerns captions. Take a picture, any picture from your scrapbook, the internet, film stills, you name it. Just take an interesting picture, stare blankly at it, and make an observation. Turn a piece of Renaissance art into lowbrow comedy. Make monster movies into romantic comedies. Turn a Family Circus comic into the next Far Side. Get creative, and remember, (almost) nothing is sacred.

5. Your Head- Sometimes, we just need to clear our heads to think clearly. I recommend it whole heartedly. Sit back, relax, take a deep breath, and just let it all go. Release the stress, have baked ideas and bad vibes. Doesn’t that feel better? Are we clear and relaxed now? Groovy. Now, I want you to do as Jefferson Airplane instructs in their song White Rabbit. “Feed your head”. Get out there and watch some movies, go for a walk, read some books, chat with friends. Get inspired! Pull from what’s around you, find something new, and just start Voltronning that stuff together. You never know what you can find when you clean house (and then fill that house with brand new junk).

6. Bouncing Ideas- While brainstorming alone is a good way to get a downpour of material, a particularly nasty writer’s block can turn it all into a weak drizzle. When this happens, get together with friends and create a raging monsoon. Using others as a sounding board allows you to look at your ideas (and theirs too) in an open, honest “not locked up inside of your own head” environment. It’s easier to inspect your logic for holes if you’ve got an extra set of eyes. If you happen to naturally have an extra set of eyes, I still recommend this tip. If you think one set of eye strain is bad, try two. It’s brutal.

7. Short Bits and Flash Fiction- Similar to the captions method, Short Bits and Flash Fiction allow you to make use of our overly social mediacentric society. Using the status bar of your favorite social media site (which typically limits the number of characters you can input), create a short, detailed, and interesting story or blurb. Post it, and let the feedback come rolling in.

8. Stream of Consciousness- One of my personal favorites, stream of consciousness is a tried and true (albeit oddball) way to get a story out of your head and onto paper. Through writing (or my favorite personal favorite talking) and shutting off your filter, you can unlock concepts, plots, and characters that you may have had stashed away all along. If you opt for the more vocal method, don’t forget to bring a tape recorder along, otherwise you may find yourself crafting your next masterpiece from…”the home”.

See what I mean?

By using one or more of the eight methods, I guarantee (well, 98 and ¾% anyway) you’ll find the means to slay your dragon, and get back to your story. If not, there’s always the teen vampire novel. It’s easy to write, and after awhile, you won’t mind the sparkles so much. This has been your weekly dose of Shelves and Stacks. As always, I’m your host Jamie Thomas reminding you to…to…Sigh…Not again.

 (Shelves and Stacks acknowledges the copyright and ownership of all videos and links used in this and any and all future posts.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Astro Boy...The Modern Prometheus?

You’re traveling through a dimension not of sound, or sight, but of addled mind. Traipsing pathways overgrown with speculation, you see a sign post up ahead. Adjacent to the last clean restroom this side of paranoia and sitting a mere stone’s throw away from a conspiracy theorists’ support group, it reads “ Hello there gang, and welcome back.”  You’ve invariably stumbled into an air conditioned plot hole I like to call “Shelves and Stacks.” 

    Submitted for your consideration are two tales, two authors and two creations. Penned by like minds, but separated through time, space, geography and genre, the tales in question are a two way mirror. A mirror gazed into by a monstrous mockery of man and a light hearted, childlike defender of justice. Each side a different outcome, but eerily enough, with similar origins. Can a nameless beast of the gallows and a mechanical child of light be one in the same? To you, a notion like that may, at best, be represented as a slim probability. However, the house of ideas has better representation among the Shelves and Stacks. 


    Phew! Didn’t know how much longer I could hold my Serling face. Hey there gang, and welcome back. For this week’s review, the boys upstairs thought a little atmosphere was in order. So, anybody here confused by the whole “two way mirror” and “monster and defender of justice” spiel? Yeah? Thought as much. Alright, here’s the skinny. So, while diligently pondering the complex mysteries of the literary universe, I had a revelation.

True and valid as that point may be, I’m talking about the idea that (and stay with me on this), Osamu Tezuka’s highly celebrated and praised manga and anime (comic book and cartoon show to the uninitiated) series Astro Boy can be interpreted as an indirect retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic work Frankenstein in which we can get a taste of what the monster’s life might have been like had he found his way into a safe, loving, and positive environment. Granted, it may just be simpler to watch a few episodes of this

 but, for the purposes of this little exercise in speculative pop culture we won’t for one fundamental reason. The Munsters suffers from a disturbing lack of robots and as we all know, robots improve the quality of every situation.

For the record, he does an excellent Snape impression. Really, it’s quite good.

    Now then, before we get too far into things, let’s have a quick word about retellings. Our friends over at define a retelling as follows:
retelling (noun) a new, and often updated or retranslated, version of a story.
retelling (verb)to tell (a story, tale, etc.) over again in a new way.

    Keeping this in mind, let’s take a moment and look at the whole of pop culture for a moment. Pop culture, like a rampant rumor, is rife with retellings. We’ve got Shakespearian fantasy morphing into 50’s science fiction (The Tempest retold as Forbidden Planet), classic detective novels retooled into televised crime drama (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels retold through the BBC program Sherlock) and beloved animation retconned into a Nicolas Cage movie ( Fantasia’s  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remade into a live action film of the same name).

Because, Disney works in mysterious ways Cat Bug. Mysterious ways.

    So, what’s all this have to do with the alleged retelling in question? Consider the following. In Mary Shelley’s classic tale, grad student of the damned, Victor Frankenstein (spurred on by scientific interest and grief for the passing of his mother), attempts to create life from dead matter.

The experiment is a rousing success. After Victor brings his creation (an attempt to enhance, and possibly replace mankind with a hardier specimen) to life, he makes a startling realization. Aside from looking like something that crawled out of a bin of medical refuse Victor’s work is not a continuation of life, but a mockery of it. Realizing the error of his way, and with all the grace and dignity of a brave and chivalrous knight, he acts accordingly.

Alright, he’s a little more Sir Robin than King Arthur. Left to its own devices, the rejected creature wanders out into the world. Subjected to cruelty for his cadaverous looks, the creature grows to hate and fear humanity. After years of wandering that would rank a solid seven on a scale from 1 to Lord of the Rings, the creature hunkers down near the home of an old man named De Lacey. Seeing what his life could be like if he wasn’t so corpsey, Frankenstein’s rejected creation sat tight, biding his time and learning to speak, read and write.
    Meanwhile, 134 years in the future and a few continents over, medical doctor turned cartoonist Osamu Tezuka was busy whipping up his own tale of mad science. Decidedly more light hearted than its predecessor,

Astro Boy’s first story arc was every bit as cruel and unusual as Frankenstein. Mourning the loss of his young son Tobio, the brilliant Dr. Umataro Tenma (head of The Ministry of Science in a futuristic Japan) brought together the Ministry’s greatest minds and resources to aid him in the creation of a technological masterpiece, a perfect mechanical copy of his deceased son.

(For the record, I have no idea why he’s running around in hot pants. Just roll with it.)

    After Astro is assembled and brought to life, Dr. Tenma immediately whisks him away, and continues on as if Tobio’s passing had never happened. Unfortunately, Dr. Tenma slowly realizes that his joy (much like his relationship with Astro) is built on false pretenses. Much like Victor who deluded himself into believing that a living (?) corpse was the herald of a new species, Tenma had fooled himself into believing that this lifelike machine could and would grow and behave as a normal boy. Realizing his error, Dr. Tenma…well…oh, just see for yourself.

Pow! Right in the feels! 

    That’s right gang. Tenma subjects an innocent, childlike being to physical and verbal abuse, and then sells him to a shady looking character of ill repute who carts the poor boy away and forces him to perform in a circus. Pow! Right in the feels!
    That’s right gang, whether they realized it or not, Shelley and Tezuka were pretty much working on the same wavelength. Both created a story about a brilliant scientist (grieving over the loss of a loved one) trying to make themselves feel better and achieve their dreams through the irresponsible creation of sentient life. What’s more, both abandon their creations, and leave them at the mercy of a race who they only wanted to protect, but will always hate and fear them!

Oh, yeah…heh heh…The X-Men kind of already have a monopoly on that. 

    So, you’re probably asking where and when the “re” in this telling fits in.  Well, to answer that, let’s check back in on Frankenstein’s monstrous malcontent. While hiding out on the De Lacey’s property, Victor’s creation becomes fluent in English, and learning that his unwitting host is blind, decides to strike up a conversation. Waiting for the children to depart, the creature slips in and wiles away a pleasant afternoon chatting with his neighbor.

The original text is a bit more eloquent, but you get the picture. As you’ve probably guessed, the De Lacey children return, instantly assume their dear old dad’s about to have his brain munched by a Romero refugee and chase the creature over the farmyard and through the woods. Wounded and betrayed, the creature shambles off in search of his creator and the bitter satisfaction of vengeance well wrought.
    Meanwhile, Astro had problems of his old. Sold to the circus, Astro was forced to perform feats of strength, daring, and gladiatorial combat. Despite the hardships endured at the hands of the circus’s owner Mr. Hamegg (I wonder if he’s related to Olive Oyl or Mayor Mc Cheese), Astro keeps his chin up and resolves to let his spotless conscience be his guide (Coincidentally, Tezuka sites Pinocchio as a primary inspiration for his work). As luck, and plot devices, would have it, Astro is given a kind old man of his own. Enter, the big nosed Professor Ochanomizu.  Assuming Astro is a human, Ochanomizu attempts to liberate Astro from bondage. After learning that he is indeed a robot, Ochanomizu sees greatness in the horn haired tyke, and carries out his plan to liberate Astro Boy.

 Under the professor’s care and guidance, Astro learns to utilize his robotic powers (heh heh, butt rockets) and becomes a champion for the rights and safety of humans and their mechanical creations.  Granted, Astro does still come under fire from people (mostly villains) who view him purely as a machine, but rather than allow his anger toward them to fester (like a certain monster we all know), Astro strives to be the change and progress he and Ochanomizu wish to see in the world.
    So, there you have it gang. Mostly infallible proof that Astro Boy can be interpreted as not only an analogue of the Frankenstein story, but as an alternate tale that allows readers a chance to see what could have been. For those of you interested in checking out more of Astro’s adventures, check out the following links:

You’re welcome.
    Thanks for reading another episode of Shelves and Stacks. As always, I’m your host Jamie Thom- Hang on a minute, they need me on set.

     Two creators, separated by time and circumstance. Their creations, not so different. Lost within the ages and annals of time and pages long since turned, but found and reunited as spiritual siblings. Family trees fork, but have been known to fold backwards into something between a figure eight and a pretzel in the curmudgeonly old growth forests among the Shelves and Stacks. Goodnight.

(Shelves and Stacks acknowledges the copyright and ownership of all videos and links used in this and any and all future posts.)