Month: December 2014

Meditation for Inspiration

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Where do I get my inspiration? The simple answer is: from everywhere and everything, but that answer is as complex as it is cryptic. Watch a movie, listen to a song, read a book, talk to someone, listen to someone, go someplace beautiful, go someplace desolate, go someplace disgusting, get scared, become ecstatic, do something exciting, or do something boring. In short live, because everything in life, everything you do, everything you see, every experience is something you can put into your stories. But putting all those experiences into your head won’t inspire you to write. It might just do the opposite, it might just cloud your mind with so many conflicting and disparate thoughts that you can’t see how those experiences, actions, and emotions fit into the story.

The Assassin’s Cradle takes place in a complex universe, and is just the first book in a larger story, so I needed to plan. But a plan is not that inspiring. In fact, the vast spaces between bones that form the outline/skeleton can seem intimidating and lifelessly static. Inertia. Not something that is normally considered inspiring, I certainly don’t think it is.

First, the little things. I spent most of my years working for other people as an analyst. In other words, I spent a lot of time looking for problems and ways to solve them. Something very simple in my everyday life reminded me of where I got one of my ideas. I was walking past a supermarket door, and even though I was walking parallel to the doors, they opened. In The Assassin’s Cradle, Idries notes how the building concierge opens the doors as he approaches. Okay, there is nothing special about it, but the idea came from my belief that door sensors should be more intelligent. The sensor should recognize whether you’re approaching or not. Simple, but recognizing a flaw or a mistake in something, whether it’s technology, a conversation, a relationship, a sporting event, a restaurant, or a piece of furniture, anything, can inspire you to write.

Now for the big things. To really get going on a chapter or section of the story, I like to have an internal sense of rhythm or flow, a feeling that I’m in concert with the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the scenes I will be writing. Just like approaching a paper or novel, I start with preparation. Preparation means going through the scenes I plan to write the night before. By getting them into my mind before I go to sleep, I can dream about them. Several questions I had while writing The Assassin’s Cradle were answered when I woke the next morning.

Once you’ve put the scenes and questions into your subconscious, it’s time to take your conscious mind out of the way. I do that through meditation, and I meditate by walking. I am very fortunate to live in a hilly area with houses, parkland, and natural areas. I have so many potential paths and trails that variety is never a problem, sunrise, sunset, shaded, exposed, everything is available. The rhythm of walking and the fact that I don’t need to engage conscious thought allows my subconscious to flourish. I’ll walk for about an hour to an hour and a half. It often takes about a half hour for the thoughts to start flowing, but I’ll run through scenes, conversations, and action sequences while walking. Most recently, I put together significant portions of the outline for The Assassin III while walking.

For me the formula is simple: think about what I want to write the night before, then walk for about an hour the next morning and I’m ready to write.

The Marillion Influence

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I cannot say for certain, but Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood was probably my first album without breaks between songs. Clutching at Straws probably has a more coherent progression of lyrical themes, but Misplaced Childhood combines lyrical and musical progression. Eh, I’ll say that Clutching does a good job of musical progression as well, it just doesn’t do it seamlessly for the entire album.

Emotion, drama, tension, release, and a clever path through highs and lows. Both albums establish a storytelling style with the music serving as more than just a soundtrack for the lyrics. The music establishes mood, emotional color, movement, and pace. The themes move between guitar and synthesizers with strong rhythmic support from the bass and drums. Complexity varies but never gets too complex or obscure.

The lyrics, on the other hand, can wander into obscure territory, requiring more than one listen to fully appreciate. In fact, both albums benefit from multiple listens, especially when listening to the entire album in one sitting, which I highly recommend.

There are plenty of other Marillion albums worth listening to, but those two really stand out in my mind. They demonstrate how individual songs can benefit from the songs around them and how well crafted collections of songs can take the listener on a journey where the sum is significantly greater than the individual parts.

That “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” intention is one of my great motivations, and something I am trying to deliver in the Assassin stories. It’s something I want to deliver in each book and between books. I want the individual chapters and sections to offer something to the chapters and sections around them, and I hope to accomplish something similar with the characters and settings, and to some degree with the technology used. I try to take the different elements and present them in a sequence and manner that creates a specific kind of mood and flow, elicits certain emotions, and stimulates thought.

Albums like Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws showed me what is possible, they set some high-water marks and established a creative pinnacle. They might not be for everyone, but the way they touched me made me want to replicate that type of artistic expression and hopefully give you a similar experience.

Notes: Just for the Record on Clutching at Straws was the song that hooked me on Fish-era Marillion. I first heard it while working as a holiday replacement disc jockey at Kansas State University while I was in the Army. The version of Clutching at Straws I was exposed to did not have the song Going Under on it, and I personally think the album flows much better without it. Sadly, Fish (lead singer and lyricist) left the band after the tour for Clutching at Straws, so I never got to see the band with him at the helm.

Ghost in the Shell Influence

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My first exposure to Ghost in the Shell was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. It is definitely not the introduction I would recommend to anyone, but after working my way through the theatrical release twice, I was ready for more. I can hardly remember the story anymore, but I do remember the mind-blowing loop that Batou went through near the end of the film. The number one impression I walked away with was: What the heck was that about?

As soon as I could find it, I spun up the DVD for the original movie and was blown away: therm-optic camouflage, ghost-hacking, memory alteration, combining memories, virtual body-swapping, actual body-swapping (prosthetic bodies of course), a communication network accessed internally or externally, etc., etc. The story itself barely touched on the possibilities, and it touched on quite a few. Further, it went beyond the mere technological ramifications, it dug into the psychological and philosophical aspects of human-technological integration, fascinating.

But then, I happened upon a late night showing of a serialized story centered on the Laughing Man: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Now the world came to life. The relationships between the characters (some of them, at least) were fleshed out, additional aspects of the human-technological interface were explored, and what was a clever concept with endless potential began to reach that potential. Follow the original Stand Alone Complex with season two, and more focus on the human end of the H-T combination and additional background on our heroine Motoko Kusanagi and I think you have an alternate universe without parallel. Solid State Society and the new Arise prequels add stories that neither take away nor add significantly to the legend (they extend the number of stories in the universe without adding significantly to the depth or breadth of the universe).

The original Manga are quite interesting, if not as easily digested as the movies and television series. They’re a little harder to follow, and the characters and interactions aren’t as seamless, sometimes wandering into quite goofy situations which add to the charm but detract from the serious nature of the content. The SAC series’ contain some of the same goofy interactions, but integrate it more naturally, retaining the charm of the Manga without replicating the sudden and distracting cartoonish nature of the drawings.

The biggest influence Ghost in the Shell had on me was in the way it dealt with human-technological integration. It didn’t present it as oppressive or invasive. It didn’t present it as an antagonist. It treated it as just another object in human existence, an object that can be both benefit and bane, assistance and obstacle, risk and reward. Surprisingly, we don’t lose our humanity because of it, we don’t lose our souls. Quite the contrary, human integration with technology increases the importance of our souls, it sharpens the focus on what makes us human. But human integration with technology brings about a revolution in definitions such as privacy and crime, expanding into new areas and shifting where age-old lines are drawn. It expresses new boundaries and breaks old barriers.

The Assassin’s Cradle crosses some of the same barriers and thresholds, stepping into territory where we have redefined existing concepts. Like Ghost in the Shell, I present a humanity that has accepted and integrated these new definitions and the technology that has brought them. Unlike Ghost in the Shell, I don’t delve into the philosophical and existential questions this new integration suggests. I merely use the H-T proliferation as a foil to further explore social integration and self-identification questions that exist today.