The real meaning of “Meta”

Okay, this is exactly why I get so annoyed when fandom refers to the writing of any commentary on a show or book that isn’t itself story-telling (i.e., fan-fiction), as “meta”. Witness: last night’s episode of Once Upon a Time.

In a previous episode, the Mayor (AKA Evil Queen in the Fairytaleverse) found the “Once Upon a Time” book her son Henry had hidden from her. He has carried this prop around for the entire season. It tells the true story of everyone’s real lives back in the Fairytaleverse. Its very existence as a prop on the television show OUAT is an example of “meta”–when a story breaks the fourth wall in that subtle, non-intrusive way, and exposes itself as a story.

The Mayor destroys the book. Or tries to. But then, lo, a newcomer comes to town. He has a mysterious box. In the box, we discover, is a typewriter. This identifies him as a writer, and a more or less contemporary writer at that. Now one aspect of the OUAT television show they have mentioned repeatedly is that these characters, ostensibly modern, contemporary people, are trapped in the town of Storybrooke. They never leave, not because they can’t, necessarily*, but because no one really has a mind to. Likewise, outsiders entering the town is a strange thing. Other than Emma Swan, who as we know, is not really an outsider at all–being the biological daughter of two residents of Storybrooke–no one is new. It is a bubble-prison of the Mayor’s making*.

This week, we saw the writer repairing the tattered remnants of the story book–drying them off, weaving them back into a proper binding, then leaving it for Emma to find. This shows that the writer is, in fact, the Writer, a self-insertion of the series writers themselves, entering the story and mending it, mending hope that the spell will be broken and their old lives returned. It is absolutely necessary to the concept of “meta” that the writer be an outsider to the town. He is not part of the story. Not part of Storybrooke. He is outside the story, outside the book, mending it, weaving it.

* I found the previews for the next episode interesting. Spoilers

Merlin thoughts (up to ep 2.11)

I had a long Thanksgiving break and little or nothing on the DVR to watch due to Thanksgiving week hiatuses, so I decided to start in on a new show (new for me) that I had read about on my flist.

One thing I think about now when I watch a show is, “Is this just something to pass the time (Dexter, True Blood), or is this a show I want to share with the Sculptor (Lost, Being Human)? Merlin, so far, has definitely fallen into the latter category.

Spoilers to 2.11

Merlin

Finished Season 1 of Merlin. This will probably be one I eventually purchase on DVD.

It has lots of things that hit my story kinks: destiny, myth, inborn traits that must be kept as a dangerous secret (wonder where I got that one from), an ugly duckling/Cinderella protagonist, magic, legendary creatures, strong women characters, fabulous medieval d├ęcor (I want to redo my living room to look like that castle), and bonus Anthony Head!

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NaNoWriMo Day 23

New words: 1,670
Total words: 38,730
Goal: 50,000

38730 / 50000
(77.46%)

As my story fleshes itself out, I see myself taking an approach that I can only call the fantasy equivalent of “hard science fiction.” Hard science fiction attempts to bring scientific accuracy to the speculative elements of a story, either by basing them in actual contemporary scientific fact, or extrapolating from that fact to theoretical ideas that are likely to be confirmed in the near future based on what we know now.

The “fantasy equivalent” of this, for me, is to have the fantasy elements in my story–whether it is strange beings, their powers, or the “magic” humans do to interact with/effect these beings–be, not supernatural, but natural phenomena. I am only straying from the “hard” line by saying these fantastical elements are natural phenomenon that scientists at present just don’t have the theoretical concepts or observational techniques to deal with yet.

I sort of can’t help this naturalistic approach. Although I am perfectly comfortable with the supernatural in fiction, there is something I want to say with this story that makes taking this approach important to me.

But as a result, it is feeling a bit like I’ve sucked all the sense of wonder out of my novel. I did a Harry Potter marathon this past week since I got the final movie on DVD/Blu ray, and the thing that makes HP appeal to so many people, I think, is you can see and do so many fascinating things in his world, whether it is turning a loathed relative into a human balloon, or riding over a lake on the back of a half-bird, half-horse, or visiting someone else’s memories inside a sink full of mist. Magic is afoot in his world, and there is so much more to his world than an ordinary muggle ever suspects.

Similar case with Buffy, or the Dresden Files, or Star Trek, or anything like that. There is an element of each of these story worlds that is beyond escapist and actually transcendent, because, for a short time, these stories allow you feel as if you are touching something beyond the mundane. They do this by starting very much in the mundane, and taking you on a gradual journey to fantastical places where you can do and see these amazing things.

I have to figure out how to do that, to make my world more interesting, without turning it into a cartoon version of itself.

I don’t want to write “just another fantasy novel” with elves and magic and evil sorcerers and whatnot. I need to find a way to take my more “serious/rationalistic” approach and imbue it with a sense of magic.

Bridge over troubled waters

So I finally, finally finished the latest Dresden Files novel, Ghost Story. I think I am the last one on my flist to do so. Some folks gave it enthusiastic reviews, others were less than impressed. I have to admit to slogging through some tedium at times, which is part of the reason I took so long to finish it. The other part is, I only read non-interweb stuff for a short while before bed each night.

But see, there is a reason this book wasn’t the Best!DresdenFilesNovel!Ever! It was a bridge story. And bridge stories are traditionally kind of mediocre. Thar be spoilers beyond here!

Original fiction project – week of 03/20/2011

1829 words this week. And given that I had to work two 12-hour days at work (8 hours the other days), I am trying to figure out how I did that without collapsing. I remind myself I clocked nearly that many words on a daily basis during NaNo, but I’m still kinda impressed with myself. Especially since my story has been less inspiring to me of late.

But see, last weekend, I took some time to try to figure out why.

The problem, I think, is that my story has gotten very prosaic in tone, like it’s hardly a fantasy story anymore and more a scientific take on fantastical concepts, like you might see on Star Trek. So this week, I’ve been brainstorming ways to bring the “sense of magic” back into the story.

It was time well spent, because even though it felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything poking around the internet reminding myself of the stories I found “magical”, or researching legends and fantastical creatures I felt had nothing to do with what I was writing about, voila, a week later, almost 2,000 words.

A lot of that, of course, is me just giving myself writing exercises that may not ever become part of the story, but that forced me to “write outside the box” I’ve shoved my story into.

And it gave me an interesting insight that is relevant to my story.

Much of the “prosaic” feel of it, I think, comes from me being conflicted about what point I’m trying to make in the story, and this goes back to a conflict in me as a person. I am one of those people who wishes every day that magic were real and that I could live a life where magic things happened. But I never see any evidence of the supernatural out in the world, and that frustrates me. I am not the sort of person who takes things on faith; it is in my nature to believe only in what can be proved, and withhold judgement on what can’t.

But more than that, there’s another part of me that doesn’t actually believe in the supernatural at all, and I guess that is the closest I get to an article of faith. I think there are plenty of things out there that cannot be explained by science, but that doesn’t mean they never will be; it just means they have a natural explanation that’s beyond our present level of scientific knowledge.

So on the one hand, I want magic to be real, and on the other hand, there is a real sense in which I don’t believe any magic could be real. And that’s where my story gets muddled. I can’t write about the supernatural and not have this urge to make it just “the natural that’s beyond our present understanding.” And that takes the “magic” out of the magic in my story.

I have no problem enjoying the supernatural in somebody else’s fiction: Buffy, Dresden Files, Harry Potter. But in my own?

I need to figure out a way to encapsulate my own conflict into my main character’s conflict, because I think that’s what I’m struggling to say in this story.

Original fiction project – weeks of 12/19, 12/26/2010

Since last Saturday was a holiday and next Saturday is a holiday, this is going to suffice as my writing check-in for this couple of weeks.

Garbage in, garbage out: I’m as bound by culture, class, education, and personal experience as anyone is. And though I try not to forget that, sometimes I have to be smacked upside the head by what should be obvious.

I became aware during NaNo of an emerging theme in my story, something I wanted to write about that had me quite engaged. I was all excited about it until a few days later when I realized it was very much a Western liberal intellectual’s problem, one that a lot of other people probably couldn’t relate to, or wouldn’t find problematic at all. I had a main character inextricably locked up by scientific skepticism entering a world of the apparently supernatural.

That particular quandary is not by itself a bad problem to base a character on, but I had pretty much built up an entire plot/story mythology concept around it (the details of which I won’t go into here), and though the concept made sense for some of the Western World, A.D. 2010, it didn’t make much sense for a fair fraction of the Western World, and, you know, the rest of the globe, to whom it was supposed to apply equally.

Rather than scrap the whole thing, I’ve been working on refining my idea so it makes more sense as a global state of things. I’ve been reading extensively in world folklore, philosophy, science, and the borderlines where cutting-edge science becomes speculation.

I can get quite caught up in that, and forget I’m doing it to write a better story.

But I think it will be a better story in the end because of that.

Why, to this day, “Wrecked” still doesn’t work for me

My understanding of Willow’s Season 6 journey, and correct me if I’m wrong here, is that she is addicted to magic for the power it gives her. But she spends this episode having things done to her. She is not the agent, she is the passive recipient. If this is supposed to be the episode where she really “turns a corner” into darkness, it fails to understand the core of that darkness completely and utterly. “Smashed” did a much better job of illustrating what her problem was.

Original fiction project – week of 04/11/2010

Another big-picture planning week, in which I tried my hand at something that I am not as good at as I’d like to think I am: plotting. Plots are important. Plots make the story. How many great premises with great characters end up suxx0ring due to weak plots? Too many to count, as we all know.

As I well know. And yet, I have difficulty with plots, one of the most obvious being that when I’m writing the first draft of a story, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen next. I want it to “come to me”, and then I write it, and then wait again.

And before anyone starts wagging a finger at me for this, let me just say that this has been successful for me. This is not a pie-in-the-sky style of writing for me. The plain fact is, my right brain has better ideas than my left brain. My left brain is the top-down, before-hand plotting organizer, my right brain is the “let me stew on that, and I’ll get back to you when you’re in the shower covered in soap.” And almost invariably, the ideas I set out before hand are not as good as the stew-and-soap ones, because those come from somewhere deeper, the part of me that actual yearns to write.So I’ve always written this way, at least during the years when actual words got written, as opposed to the years where I just planned out stories and never wrote them.

So there’s that. The other thing is, when I sit down to draw out a general outline, a fuzzy watercolor version of my story, I can never think of anything. I do my best, but….

One of the things that was helpful to me when I was working on The Destroyer, where story-telling with an active audience demanded I have some CLUE where I was going, was to borrow from the classics in plotting out a seasonal arc. Season 1 of The Destroyer, for example, was a retelling of the myth of Odysseus, except from Telemachus’ (Connor’s) POV, rather than Odysseus (Angel). The bad guys of the season–Penelope’s (Faith’s) “suitors”–were demons trying to take over L.A. in Angel’s absence, which I renamed the Syndicate. Having the basic outline of Telemachus’ attempt to find his lost father and Penelope’s struggle against the Suitors gave me the basic idea for the season, including its climax, and the details could be made up by me as I went along, which worked well.

Similarly, season 2 was based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and I used the different phases of that journey to plot out various episodes.

I picked the stories I picked for those two seasons based on what I wanted to go with Connor. In season 1, I needed him to fully reconcile and develop a relationship with his father. And I did that by giving him a mission to find his lost father, who was in hell after the battle in the alley in NFA. In season 2, I needed to turn a young man who was still traumatized by his early years and overly-enamored with “being normal” (as a result of his implanted memories) into a hero.

So I am doing something similar with my original characters. Figuring out who they are and what their basic situation is was something I had to do through writing. I wrote as much as could of the actual story before it stalled out due to a lack of a plot, and now I am revisiting the stories that I love, seeing if I can borrow from them to give an actual spine to character journeys I am writing now.