Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Arcadia

While I was browsing through my unsold science fiction stories, I happened across a story I'd forgotten about. I'd only written the first draft, and for one reason or another had never gotten around to revising it.

It was inspired by a favorite movie of mine, and rereading the story reminded me so strongly of its inspiration that I was motivated to dig it out. That movie was the 1982 anime Arcadia of My Youth.

I think most fiction writers were moved by something when they were young, a story that resonated with them and provided an inspiration to tell stories of their own. While Arcadia of My Youth did not provide the inspiration for me to write (I had already been writing for three, maybe even four, years by the time I saw it), it left a lasting impression on my teenage mind, and to this day I think of Captain Harlock as my favorite pirate of all time.

When I first saw the movie it was a partially censored version called Vengeance of the Space Pirate dubbed into English with 40 minutes removed and marketed as "Just for Kids." Never mind that the main character, Harlock, doesn't end up with much vengeance, that many of the characters die, and the reward for the main character for standing up for his convictions is a painful exile from Earth.

I was sixteen, and terribly moved by the story of a man who fought for what he believed in and was no longer welcome on his own homeworld. There is only way for a human to live on Earth, as part of a conquered and broken people subjugated by the aliens who'd won the war against them. Freedom means leaving Earth behind, never to return. Freedom means existing in a world where no one will help you. Freedom means hardship.

Harlock and his crew choose freedom.

I rewatched Arcadia of My Youth this weekend, my uncut, subtitled version, and was surprised by how much I was moved by the story. There are parts that have not aged well, largely because of things I now know are not scientifically possible or find unrealistic, but the core story, about a man and his beliefs is unchanged from my memory. Harlock is still an immensely strong, larger than life character who if he was a real person I would believe in without hesitation.

This time around though I was particularly moved by Maya, who is heavily implied to be Harlock's wife. It wasn't as though she had been removed from the cut version I'd seen as a teenager, but her messages to Harlock had been trimmed down and the moment of her death had been removed, as well as the grief Harlock shows when he realizes she's died.

Harlock and Maya's relationship is a little odd, which is why I only say it's implied they're married. We never see a ring and with the bleak world they exist in we never see the two side by side in a relaxed setting. They're hardly ever even in the same scene together, but it's obvious they know each other well and care about each other's safety.

I'd always watched Arcadia of My Youth with an eye on Harlock, but this time I found Maya to be a very strong character as well. Though Harlock is the captain and gets all the action oriented sequences, Maya is no less courageous a character for persisting in her underground broadcasts and encouraging the beaten people of Earth to aspire for more.

I'm at a loss what sort of category I'd file this movie under, which makes it difficult to recommend. It's a drama, but there are action sequences and certain moments of coolness that are more appropriate for a popcorn flick. There's just nothing else like it that I can think about off-hand.

I still like it for its message though; that even if it's hard and painful, it's worth fighting for what you believe in.

Arcadia's too close for me to go back and revise my short story now, but it was worth going back and reliving a couple hours with Harlock. It reminded me of just how important and influential a character can be for a young girl.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chopping Up An Old Story

I needed a science fiction story for a particular project, so I looked back at the work I'd done before that I had yet to sell, and selected what I thought my most suitable piece. I liked the concept quite a bit, and the story had done well enough to be a quarterfinalist in Writers of the Future (quarterfinalists are now known as Honorable Mentions).

Having reread the story I found I still liked it, but there were obvious weaknesses; portions of the story told in summary instead of as an actual scene, an unsatisfying ending, and given advances in technology part of what happened in the last third didn't seem probable anymore.

So I took a hacksaw to it. In the process the opening scene was truncated, the conflict between the protagonist and her friend was enhanced with an additional scene and the summary expanded into an actual scene, the ending was revised, and in total an additional thousand words were added to what had been a 3400 word story.

I was pleased.

I also could not have done this kind of edit back when I originally wrote the story.

Back when I was a younger writer I would write a draft, and I might do a bit of editing while I write (bad behavior!), but on the whole of it what I wrote was what went out. In extreme circumstances I might cut a paragraph or two, but on the whole editing tended to be limited to clarifications and rewording things. Line edits.

I took a story to my first face-to-face workshop that was not a college creative writing class, and I remember my instructor, Mark London Williams, suggesting that I rewrite a scene I brought into class a different way. It may come as a shock to some, but my initial unvoiced reaction was: "But I already wrote it this way!"

What Mark had suggested was a drastic change that could not have been accomplished through a line edit. Paragraphs would have to change. Maybe even the plot. The scene would be different.

It took me about a year to realize he was right. When I took that same story back to the workshop a year later, it was much better, stronger for the revisions. It was the story was that really taught me that it's okay to throw away chunks of text. About two-fifths of it was removed and replaced. The scenes that did nothing were gone. New scenes were added to replace them and better move the story along. The story also grew.

It was after the revision of that story and "Living Rooms" (which also went through the same workshop) that I realized my revision process involved cutting out dead weight and expanding what I wrote earlier. My writing grows with revision.

This also taught me that if I have to write for a particular word length, that I need to undershoot it on the first draft because my second will be longer.

It's can be difficult to understand what needs to change and what doesn't, and I think that was part of my problem as a younger writer. That and inertia.

For the particular story I came back to this week, I realized that I needed to trim the opening where the protagonist gets out of bed, eats her breakfast, and heads out to work. Since she's not an ordinary human, her getting out of bed and eating breakfast is a little different from ours, but I decided the details were unnecessary and made it take longer to get to the interesting stuff.

The protagonist's time spent doing research was originally done purely through narration. Since weeks if not months were going by and this was a short story, it did not seem prudent to go into detail. I interspered bits of dialogue that happened over the course of the research just to break up the narration, but they were without context since they were more for flavor.

When I came back to do my revision I decided to break the research up into smaller scenes (now there are actually quite a few very short scenes) to showcase more of how the protagonist's society works and her relationship with her friend, who is also involved in the research. The disagreement that had originally been done in summary I fleshed out with actual dialogue. Finally, I added a completely new scene to emphasize what these people thought their heritage was as well as the growing disagreement between the protagonist and her friend.

And finally, I changed the ending. I remembered that I'd had a heck of a time finding a good note to end the story originally, and when I reread the story I didn't like it. I found it dry and unsatisfying, more like the story had ended because it was a good stopping point rather than a change had been made.

In the new draft the protagonist's discovery is more animated and there's more at stake for her personally than there was before (since her friendship may now be on the line, whereas the friendship had not been as defined before). While we still don't learn what the full outcome of her discovery will be, she has enough information that she can feel vindicated choosing the path she has.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Random Thought: Why don't books have remakes?

I have a certain fondness for RPGs, the kind that come on video game consoles with character statistics that usually contain something called HP and MP. At first I liked them because I was terrible at action games and RPGs allowed me to enjoy a game with minimal reflexes.

As time and technology progressed, I started to enjoy RPGs for a different reason. They had good stories.

While video games aren't generally thought of as literature, story-based RPGs (as opposed to the dungeon crawling variety) often strive to accomplish much the same goal as a novel of the same genre; transport the audience to a different time and place as a form of entertainment.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite video games was Lunar: The Silver Star, an RPG for the Sega CD. By today's standards the graphics are crude. The animated sequences which were then so stunning are now laughable. But the story is still good. The story wasn't affected by the technology at the time, only the manner of its delivery.

Last year a remake called Lunar: Silver Star Harmony was released, with the localization company XSEED billed it as the definitive version of the story.

Lunar, you see, is something of the Blade Runner of video games. Silver Star Harmony is the third remake, and thus fourth incarnation, of the same game.

But, I'm admittedly a fan of this story that has held my imagination since I was sixteen. I started playing Lunar: Silver Star Harmony recently and one thing I have liked about all the Lunar remakes is that they don't attempt to tell the story in exactly the same fashion. Though the second and third remakes tend to follow the first remake's general structure more so than the original game, every installment had added something of its own.

Lunar: Silver Star Story introduced new characters and had Luna join Alex on his trip to Meribia. Lunar Legend added to Alex and Luna's backstory and a neat little twist that introduced Nash even earlier in the game as a would-be Dragonmaster. Now Lunar: Silver Star Harmony comes in with more backstory to the Four Heroes, why they were fighting, and why the goddess Althena chose to become human. I daresay Ghaleon comes off better as a villain for the changes.

And this got me thinking... why don't we see this in books?

After all, I'm enjoying traveling with Alex and friends for a fourth time, seeing what's new and different on a journey that I know will end the same way. The voice actors are different, the graphics are better, the gameplay has changed but it's still turn-based.

I know this does happen in books sometimes. I can think of Raymond Feist's Magician novel as an example, where it was expanded for the 10th anniversary, but it's not common.

For one thing, the words on the page don't immediately jump out at a reader as being different from what was read before. There's no graphical upgrade. But then, there is no upgrade between the three Lunar remakes since they are all still very much a product of 2D art and by the Playstation era there was precious little to improve. Silver Star Harmony's anime cut scenes are the same ones from the first remake.

But it's not a port. There is new art. Lots of new art. New character portraits have been added, towns and enemies have been entirely redrawn. It's like rewriting the story from the same basic outline, but using different words and adding or subtracting scenes. Would a writer ever do that?

Probably not. Even though an author could probably tell the same story much better if they rewrote it with another ten years under their belt, I don't think most of them would be inclined to do that. (They'd rather write something new.) Commercially I'm not even sure there would be a market for that. Unlike games, a beloved book from my teenage years can stay on the shelves for years, or if it lapses out of print, it may come back later from another publisher or as an ebook. The book itself doesn't really change.

Games on the other hand have a window, and old product doesn't go back on the shelf unless it's part of a collection, a port to a different system, or a remake. Classic games might become downloadable through Playstation Network or Xbox Live, but the bulk of attention is still on what's newly available on current systems, not what the back catalogue has brought to bear. People don't talk about the back catalogue at work, whereas a remake on a console system might at least get a nod.

When I think about whether I would read a "remake" of a book I enjoyed, I'd say it would have to be of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and would be inclined to read again. It would also have to be a book where the remake can flesh out or make better what had done before.

With the Lunar games, having Luna join Alex on the trip to Meribia was a fantastic decision, since it allowed all the party members except for Kyle to formally meet and get to know her; important since she needs to be rescued in the end and it helps if everyone knows who they are fighting for. But changes were also made in Silver Star Story that made Ghaleon a less sympathetic villain (since corrected in Silver Star Harmony). It's a question of what value is added if a remake is made.