Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I disagree.
When you start a work, you have something in mind, something you want it to look like when it’s done, something you hope it will say. You don’t know what that something will turn out to be, but you want it badly enough to commit to the effort of making it happen. If it is a large work, like an oil painting, or a stone sculpture, or a novel, that will take a lot of thought, time, and decision making, then you have to plan it out first, subdivide and sequence the work, or you’ll never make any progress. Each decision you make gives you more to work with. At every step, you revisit your original inspiration to stay on track. If the work takes you somewhere undiscovered, then you change directions and run with it. Even then, though, you have a direction, a goal, that something you want it to do.
If you have kept your objective in mind throughout the creative process, then you will know when you’re done. That sounds easy to say, and it is indeed harder to do, but it is not the impossible moving target Leonardo lamented.
Leonardo did set a high water mark for perfectionism. He kept coming back and tinkering with his paintings over periods of years, sometimes as many as fifteen. The problem with taking that long is you yourself change over time and you’re looking at the work with a different perspective fifteen years later. Your “younger phase” works are every bit as legitimate as your “older phase” works. If you just keep rehashing the same work over and over, then none of the rest of us will ever get to see what you have been doing all this time. And you won’t grow as an artist.
So how does one know when to stop? As an independent writer I am both cursed and blessed with no deadlines. I don’t have to hope it’s good enough while making a deadline, but I also have to fight the temptation to keep going back and fixing one more thing. I have tried setting deadlines for myself. Deadlines are very useful. I used to do competition costuming. Getting the work done in time for the show was a way of life for me for many years. In my career work, I often find that nothing motivates like a deadline. If you have a publisher waiting for you to finish, by all means deliver.
I am talking about that inner feeling, that “knowing” a piece is complete. Walk with me, for a moment, through the steps an “almost completed” work has already gone through. You started with the inspiration. Then you collected information and started making decisions. At some point you had a clear enough vision that you decided to commit. Then you gathered your materials, your research, your references. By then your enthusiasm was brimming. You started the actual construction, making decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. You got enough done that the work started giving you feedback about where to go next. You started imaging what it might look like when it was done. All through this work you have been touching base with your original inspiration and making any course corrections. Then came the day when you saw past the unfinished corners, through the unclear shadings, and knew what this piece was supposed to look like. You and time and your materials had made all the compromises and reached an accord. It wasn’t done, but you knew what done should look like.
Then you stalled. You started worrying about whether the finished piece would live up to the potential you saw. You wondered whether all the time and effort you put into it so far was going to show in the finished piece. The dark night of artist’s despair sank over you, and you stopped.
How do I know? This happens to all of us. Do not feel bad about it.
What usually follows is this. You pick yourself up and tell yourself it will be great, that you’re not a failure, and you start working to finish it. But you aren’t really finishing it. You are dawdling with it. You are fixing things that need fixing. You are moving it very slowly toward done, just because you are adding hours to it. But you missed something vital.
You didn’t go back to your original inspiration. Your dark night of despair left you not trusting your original inspiration. Get over it. You have to make yourself go back and believe in your original inspiration again. Pick up the mojo, embrace it, rebuild that enthusiasm that convinced you to commit in the first place.
You now have a clearer vision than when you started, yet finishing feels impossibly far away. You’ve made thousands of decisions that you can lean on and move ahead. The trick is to decide what you still need to do. That also means deciding what you are not going to include. You must recite this magical incantation: What else did I ever want this to do? Is it as fun as you wanted? It is as scary as you wanted? Is it as heartfelt as you wanted? Make yourself come up with a finite answer of what is still missing. This becomes your to-finish list. Then you get back to work with an achievable goal.
Some art forms lend themselves to feedback. It is all too easy after many hours invested to get too close to the fish to see the ocean. Find people who care about the medium you’re working in and get their honest opinion of what works and what does not. Their “fix this” list goes into your to-finish list.
Also listen to the piece you have built so far. In novel, listen to the characters when they tell you where they want the story to go. In a sculpture or a painting, look at where the piece leads the eye and make that work for the whole piece. Use the work so far as feedback for how to finish.
For this to work, you must be heartlessly realistic about what the piece does not need to include in order to be done. One way to never finish is to think of the piece as your masterwork that must tell the world your whole philosophy. Keep piling on requisites and it will become the neverending project.
Keep focused on what you were trying to do in the first place. Incorporate all the feedback, both from critics and from the piece itself. Polish all the rough edges so nothing throws the audience out of experiencing the piece. Do these things and there will soon come a day when you will see you have captured the essence of what you started out to say. On that day you will realize that any other changes you are tempted to make are not going to add anything to the success of the piece. It does everything it was supposed to do. You can allow yourself one last time to ask, “What else did I ever want this to do?” Chances are really good the answer will be “Nothing.”
That’s what done feels like.
Been a while since I posted any progress on Isis Rising. Been busy with Snow, but still been cooking Book Three on low heat. I’m happy to report it’s time to turn the heat up again. Just cleared page 100. And I’ve found a song to help. Music is a huge inspiration for me. For The Chosen it was Behind Blue Eyes by The Who. For Daughter Cell it was Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones. For Isis Rising it looks to be River by Bishop Briggs. Have a listen and let yourself get swept away.
Wherein yours truly once again innovates in a bubble, entertains widely, but leaves folks scratching their heads.
On Sunday, at the Baycon science fiction convention, I gathered a half dozen of the musicians who performed on The Mirror’s Revenge original cast album and led a CD release concert. That would have been the normal thing to do, and that’s what the audience of about 70 expected. But I wanted to show off the entire work, not just the music. In the tradition of musical theatre, you can follow the basic story by listening to the songs. I figured, while I’ve got an enthusiastic audience, why not also tell them the whole story that goes with the songs. I also thought to make it a party, with dancing, since most of the music is waltzes. So we had the hotel install a dance floor. I ran a slide show of images to help the audience follow the story. I even rented a fairy tale wedding carriage for folks to take their pictures in.It was going to be a chance to live the fairy tale at a multimedia event folks would never forget.
So I put on my best William Shakespeare and narrated the story from the beginning, in order to the slides, with the band playing the songs at the appropriate places. People were fascinated. So fascinated they never got up to dance or take their pictures in the carriage. I made a break between acts and folks bought lots of the CDs, so I can only assume they liked what they heard. To be as impartial as I can, my partners in creative crime, Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover, have created a soundtrack for my play that exceeds my wildest dreams. The Chair of the convention approached me at the break and asked whether I had made it clear this was supposed to be a dance. I had, but they weren’t interested in dancing. Yet the event was clearly a success. Very few folks left at the break.
After the performance, many folks came up and thanked the band members for their fine playing and singing. Then they came over to me and said they loved the story. They also said the presentation initially confused them, that until they got into it, they didn’t know what to make of it.
I later saw pictures taken from the audience’s point of view, and I now see I rather overwhelmed them. My fifteen year old, who likes to dance, observed that after every three or four minute song, the music would stop and I would tell some more story. She pointed out at dances, the band plays back to back for ten or fifteen minutes and folks stay out on the dance floor. I also now see where the slideshow, while it got a few good laughs and did its job of assisting the story, was indeed a visual impediment to anyone spinning around dancing.
A cardinal rule of the stage is to never do anything that breaks the audience’s suspension of disbelief. A stage hand moving a prop at the edge of a scene will rip an audience out of the bubble the actors are working hard to maintain. I did not think adding new ways for the audience to live the performance would distract from the story being told. It seems to have required more effort from the audience to find the rhythm of what we were doing. It was inadvertently more experimental than expected.
The audience did find the rhythm. Although I’m sorry I made everyone work so hard, I’m really pleased they got into it. There were a couple of missteps, and there was at least one large missed cue on my part, but the audience followed along happily. So the experiment worked. That does not mean I’m going to repeat it.
I think I will follow the example of storytellers and actors, and give the audience one thing to concentrate on at a time. It’s easier to hold their interest, and you can tell if you’re losing them. Traditional theatre does this. The same actors who are telling the story, sing the songs, and provide the visuals that help the story along. It all gets covered, and the audience only has to follow one thing, the actors.
I have seen what is called experimental theatre. I used to think it was odd mixings of media, like opera singers providing the dialogue for ballet dancers. But “experimental” usually means stories told out of sequence, or told by characters you would not expect to be the Point Of View characters. Even artsy challenging juxtaposition pieces try to keep the audience focused on the message being attempted. Very few risk giving the audience opportunities to be distracted by different things being thrown at them.
I wasn’t trying to invent a new kind of theatre experience. I just tried too hard, and ended up making my audience work to keep up. I am very pleased that folks stuck around and got what I was trying to tell them. I think I will leave media innovation to folks who work with tech. Things like web comix, MMP games, and VR theatre have met with enthusiasm. Good for them. I will remain happy simply to add Playwright to my business card.
Get two or more science fiction authors together for more than five minutes and they will start trading theories on why dystopian fiction is so popular. It is, but no one knows exactly why. Are people thrilled to visit bad times and be glad their lives aren’t so bad? Have people lost faith in tomorrow and want to explore our options? Are post-apocalyptic stories appealing because all the crowds are gone, or because tough times would offer more opportunities for heroism? Maybe it’s all of these, and others, or none.
One thing we can point to with certainty is how this genre contributes to the backlash against intellect. Intellectuals are nearly always the ones responsible for the downfall of civilization. Some egghead figures out how to subjugate humanity. Some egghead unleashes a biohazard. Some egghead tries to rob the system and breaks it for everyone else. If this wasn’t bad enough, the heroes of these stories almost always win the day with heart and not thought. Heroism, faithfulness, and integrity are portrayed as the antidotes to unrestrained curiosity and self-interested scheming.
In the Golden Age of science fiction, threats were exigent enemies that could only be defeated with intellect. Heart and firepower alone were useless against the ravages of space, alien invaders, or technology run amok. Educated thinking applied with a healthy dose of competency porn would find the solution and save the day.
As much as we fans loved those stories, the general public never bought into the notion that scientists were going to save us all. The public saw plenty of evidence to the contrary, with the atomic bomb, oil spills, and breaches of medical ethics. There is a reason why hard science fiction was always and will always be a very small market segment.
More importantly, we have recent and compelling reasons not to trust intellectuals. When the economy failed, Congress called in the heads of Wall Street banks to explain their role and to justify their ludicrous commissions. The bankers didn’t bat an eye. They hire only the best and the brightest who deserve disproportionate pay. They play a vital role in the economy and we should all be glad we have them managing the economy for us, regardless of how they crashed it with unmitigated greed.
The novel I want to see is where the security guard standing behind the banker is smart enough to see through the lies, pulls out his gun and caps the bastard.
Wouldn’t that feel good?
That’s the problem.
When real life paints intellectuals as evil, it only makes sense people would flock to a genre of fiction that has perfected the formula. How far has this gone? Check the box office. Check the bestseller lists. Ask random people around your workplace. Everyone loves a rousing dystopian tale, even hard science fiction fans who believe in intellect.
So is dystopian fiction causing a backlash against intellect? No, but it is fanning the flames. We are at the endgame of a social engineering experiment that started in the 1960s. The Republican Party saw an opportunity in the wake of the Civil Rights movement to win over disgruntled white Southern voters who had historically voted Democratic. This tactic of appealing to people’s baser instincts proved successful, and became the model for divisive politics ever since. Strategists were able to paint silver spoon candidates as everymen by playing negative cards such as racism, classism, and anti-intellectualism. The irony of our times is that evil intellectuals are gathering support from folks who have been bred by those intellectuals to hate intellectuals.
I have no solutions. I have to clench my teeth, grip tight my faith in Jefferson’s majority rule, and hope a majority of people in the upcoming election will see the manipulation for what it is. This is not a foregone result.
As writers we should be aware of the impact we have on the public. There is a lot of money to be made in dystopia right now. But unless you want to see it come to be, I can only plead for you to think twice before you paint another coat of hate on your intellectual bad guys.
Note: Until I can figure out how to get the RSS feeds to work from my new website, I will continue to post from here. Please visit my new site to stay up to date on all my projects. Thank you for your support! jaywrites.com
I have moved jaywrites.com to a new site and expanded it to include everything I have had scattered over the old Chosen promo site, WordPress, Facebook, Amazon, and GoodReads. Everything ME is now all in one place at jaywrites.com.
With that in mind, this will probably be my last blog entry here on WordPress. I will leave this site up as an archive of many years of sharing and working things out with you. Many of my essays and articles only exist here. This has been a good space, but now I need to build one strong house under one roof.
Please come visit jaywrites.com. And visit often – I will have an active presence there updating all the projects I have going. (The Mirror’s Revenge, Isis Rising, and Mermaid Steel are just the one’s I’ve told you about so far.)
One performance only!
Why did Snow White’s stepmother go insane with jealously and try to kill her? Whatever happened to Snow’s father and how did his death set events in motion? How happily ever after could she live after being dead for six months?
Join Bay Area musical favorites Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover with dark fantasy novelist Jay Hartlove as they showcase The Mirror’s Revenge, their musical theater sequel to the beloved Grimm Brothers’ classic. Come live the fairy tale at this interactive storytelling party with live music and dancing, and discover the rest of the story you think you know!
Baycon. May 29, 2016. San Mateo Marriott, San Francisco Airport. http://www.baycon.org
Once again the Oscar nominations are out, and once again it seems the movie industry is openly demonstrating racism by not including a single actor or actress or color, in either a leading role or a supporting role. Nominations are submitted by people who work in the categories they nominate – actors nominate actors, producers nominate producers, etc. So why, with so many actors of color working in film, do we get an entirely white slate of nominees?
The answer is history has created an enormous bias, but it can be easily corrected, if the industry wants to. The nominating members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences amount to about 6000 folks. To be a member, you have to have enough screen credit to be allowed in by the existing membership. The current breakdown tells the tale. 94% are white. 76% are male. The average age is 63. So how is it that 3000 members are over 63 and only 3000 are under 63, when new actors get on screen every day, and old actors die every day?
Up through the 1960’s, studios signed actors for multiple picture contracts. Once you were signed, you could expect at least two films a year for many years running. Since the 1980’s, studios no longer sign such contracts. Actors are all free agents, and roles are open to competition. So a lot more actors under 63 have appeared in one or two films, and a disproportionate number of older actors have dozens of films to their credit that they made decades ago.
Given this pattern, it is no wonder we have the membership demographics we have today.
The solution is to open up membership to actors who have shown their commitment to the craft, but not wait until they have multiple films released. I do not know enough about how the industry sees itself to propose a simple formula, but if the Academy wants to be taken seriously, they need to fix the membership demographics immediately. The membership needs to reflect the people who actually work in film, not just the ones that have the biggest track record.