Music To Write To: “Switzerland”

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Hope you’re enjoying this Tuesday, or should I say, this iTuesday? I hope someone makes an app that warns you when a street magician is taking your watch off without you noticing. It could devastate the street magician industry!

Anywho, here’s some music. “Switzerland” by The Last Bison is an excellent song that I bumped into the other day and has already made it’s way into my retinue of writing music.

Monty Python and the Holy Trope

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Before you read any further, I’d like you to watch a trailer for a movie. It is a historical epic, set in a long-ago time, featuring brave knights, foul beasts, titanic struggles, and an epic quest.

Alright, so we know that movie, right?

At least, we think we did. It’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of the finest comedic films ever concocted, by five Brits and a strange American in the wilds of Scotland.

This trailer, masterfully edited by Stéphane Bouley, paints Holy Grail as the traditional action/adventure film, one that we’d expect to follow a formula. Our hero, King Arthur, assembles a crack team of noble knights to join him in a dangerous quest to find the Holy Grail. It’s the kind of movie that celebrates the Road of Trials as though it were the only thing that mattered. Around a decade ago, there was a movie about “King Arthur” that absolutely conformed to the tropes we associate with modern action/dramas. It also starred Clive Owen and was very silly.

Not Monty Python silly, though. No, the goofiness we know and love from Holy Grail is very intentional. It is deliberately anti-trope, or at least it is built around aping the tropes of historical/mythical tales, and as such becomes what I’m going to call the frustrated hero’s journey. It is satire in it’s purest, most manic form.

I sat down to watch Holy Grail recently, not just because it is one of my favorite movies and I hadn’t seen it in a long time, but also because I wanted to observe and think about the film in terms of the classic monomyth structure. I knew it didn’t really follow the monomyth, but I wanted to see if some of the comedy arose as a result of turning it on the head. Here are my results.

The Chosen One

The trope I’m beginning to loathe the most. And if you’ve read my book (plug trope) then you may be like, ‘zuh?’. But I, like Holy Grail, am all about subverting and upending this trope.

The scene that exemplifies the ludicrous divine right/Chosen One thing that is plastered all over history is the anarcho-syndicalist commune scene. Dennis, the not-old, not-woman mud farmer, puts poor King Arthur in his place. He’s got the gall to suggest that power and the right to lead aren’t granted via a “farcical aquatic ceremony.” This makes our hero upset, which is a common theme in the movie.

The lion’s share of the humor surrounding Arthur comes from his expectations and how they aren’t met. A quick breakdown of the scenes involving Arthur (largely encompassing his road of trials):

– Opening scene: Arthur is seeking the lord of the castle to join him at Camelot. Gets two dudes arguing about coconuts and swallows.

– Seeks another lord at another castle: Get’s Dennis basically calling his claim to the throne ridiculous and schools him in government. Represses him for it.

– The Black Knight: He’s a loony. Arthur chops his arms and legs off.

– Knights Who Say Nee: Gets them a shrubbery (because Road of Trials?), and when they demand another, he gets frustrated and ignores their task to go off with Sir Robin.

– The Beast of Caerbannog: Finds out it’s just a bunny, then finds out it’s not just a bunny, blows the shit out of it with a grenade.

– The Castle Arrrrrgh: The second time the French have gotten the drop on King Arthur. In the legends of Arthur, he conquers Ireland, Gaul, and Rome. Here, he’s got French in his own backyard, with the Grail, and they’re not playing nice. His reaction? Materialize an army out of nowhere to kill every last one of them.

Five-Man Band

A lot of the old legends of Arthur and Camelot are split up into tales of the various knights, which I suspect is the reason the movie was fractured like this after God gives the knights their quest. We’ve got a team of heroes, each with their own stories.

But to get to their exploits, first we must have a Gathering the Team sequence.

A TEAM

If you want a modern example of the team-up, no movie does it more prominently than The Avengers. In fact, the corollary trope is called Avengers Assemble. There’s also a related trope I like to analyze in team-oriented stories, and that’s the Five-Man Band. For Holy Grail, the band might look like this:

  • The Leader – King Arthur – Confident and cool? Hardly. Arthur’s response to a situation is typically either “Charge!” or “Runaway!” His knights get thrown into a ravine, murdered by a rabbit, and arrested.
  • The Lancer – Lancelot – Second in command, a mighty hero in his own right? Yeah… well, in the original tales, Lancelot has a ton of adventures and quests and bests knights and kings left and right, and suffers a few attempts at seduction, notably from Morgan le Fay. In Holy Grail, Lancelot is like a guy trying hard to be Lancelot in a world that doesn’t make sense. In both myth and movie, he suffers a fall. In the myth, it’s because of Guinevere. In the movie, it’s because he cut down a historian. It’s a Don Quixote syndrome (see The End for more).
  • The Smart One – Bedivere (“and that my lord is why we know the earth to be banana-shaped”). His ‘science’ is wonderfully absurd. Just goes to show, sometimes the wisest people in society are making shit up to sound smart. Case-in-point, “what if we built a large wooden badger?”
  • The Big Guy – Sir Robin – Maybe the best place for him, chiefly for the minstrel’s song. Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin, who very nearly did a lot of heroic things. I picked him for the Big Guy role instead of Lancelot because it feels right in this parody of a team, that the knight with the greatest fanfare is the biggest coward.
  • The Chick – Galahad – Not a chick? Well, maybe he should have been. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Palin is stupendous, maybe my favorite Python, but I think they missed out not casting Carol Cleveland as Galahad. Why? Because he’s a bit emasculated. In the legends, he is the true chosen one, for being pure and all that (a virgin). In the film, he might be a virgin, but not for lack of trying.
  • Bonus Band Member – Tim the Enchanter as the Mentor – The movie lacks a clear mentor character, as there is no Merlin, but between Tim and the Old Man From Scene 24, we get a good laugh out of the subversion of the Mentor archetype, and Merlin in particular. Merlin’s a weird character, Jesus-like in that he had “no mortal father”. He pops up here and there, disguised as a kid or old man, dolls out random advice and magics, then is gone again. The team seeks the help of Tim in much the same way, guidance when they’re lost, but all he is is a silly guy doing random tricks and spitting on them.

The End

The movie got a lot of flack for its ending. It does sort of feel like they didn’t know how to end it so they just sort of stopped. But to me, whether this was intentional at the time or not, the end is the key to unlocking all the silliness and the point that the whole film was trying to make.

Imagine you are Terry Jones. You’re a very funny man, adept at pointing out the absurdity in every day life, and you’re also an expert Arthurian scholar. You read all day the ancient legends, from Thomas Mallory on down, and you can’t help but think how ridiculous it all is.

For this blog, I read up a bit on Arthurian legends. They reminded me a lot of the Ramayana, which I read a few years back, and which contained endless tales that ostensibly held lessons, but on the surface are totally bizarre to read in our modern times. Enormous armies, demons, beasts, heroes with the strength of ten thousand men, Hanuman. Arthur legends read like a laundry list of kings and glorious battles and knights and damsels and quests. Is this how medieval people perceived history? Was this their idealized version of life, of chivalric romance? Lancelot in particular feels like a caricature of himself, a honor-crazed buffoon who’d run screaming and slicing into a wedding party because of the way he perceives the world: one big quest, one big battle.

Lancelot and Arthur and the rest are on a quest, running around the countryside looking for the Holy Grail, and hacking people up all the while. And in the end, they get arrested for it. I’d liken this movie to Don Quixote, in that these characters think they are heroic knights doing great chivalric things, but are basically fooling themselves. They are a bunch of guys tilting at killer rabbits. They aren’t really Arthur, Lancelot, etc., because those people weren’t real. In the modern world, by which I mean a more incredulous place, myths like Arthur and Rama bad models for behavior.

And maybe, Monty Python and the Holy Grail circles back on the myth-as-lesson idea and itself becomes a lesson: If you live life like a chivalrous knight of Camelot, you’re going to be arrested.

Coming back to the monomyth, Arthur’s story is incomplete. He escapes the innermost cave because the animator went into cardiac arrest. His road of trials are rude French knights, a rabbit, a delusional knight, a crazy old man on a bridge, and some dudes who want a shrubbery. He doesn’t slay a dragon and return to the normal world with the boon of God. He doesn’t learn a goddamn thing, and the story just ends. That is the beauty of that finale, and the movie as a whole. The monomyth as it is represented by the old tales is completely illogical and silly now, and should be treated as such. And the trailer I posted above is exactly why. This story could be treated with the seriousness of a historical drama/action movie, and it has been, and that is the joke.

Or the whole thing is just a series of Monty Python sketches strung together by Arthurian legends. Either way, year after year I’ve found this movie to be brilliant.


cover3I am not a professor of anything. I don’t have a lit degree or anything like that. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur who likes reading Joseph Campbell and scifi/fantasy stories. I’m also an author with a book out now, Absent Hero, the first part of the Gone To Wonder series. It’s about a steampunk theme park, a bunch of teens who know way more than your average teen about story archetypes, and it’s nerdy as hell. Get it now on Kindle for FREE (today, 9/6), or email me at beardedbards(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll internet you a copy. Because I’m a nice guy like that.

Writing terrifies me, and I hope it always will

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I’m scared to begin. I think we’ve all felt that way about something, right? There’s a moment where we teeter on the edge of something, like a skydiver hanging out of the plane and all she has to do is let go. All I have to do is let go and start.

I’m talking about Episode 2 of Gone To Wonder, but I feel this way with every Big Project I start. Sure, sometimes I’ll poke at something, write a few paragraphs, sketch some things out, but that’s not a start to me. I’ve gone into novel-length projects and done significant work, even finished a few, but the whole time I knew this stuff isn’t going anywhere, you’re not going to show anyone this, so it’s okay. It belongs to me, and no one has to know whether it’s crap or not.

But when I’m starting something I really care about, and I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, and I want so badly for it to pass my internal standards and the standards of all those that may read it someday, I’m terrified. Am I alone here, writers? Is anyone else as neurotic as I am about a silly story?

Once I’ve begun, the neurosis don’t go away, but I’ve already started, and my Cheese Monster is hungry (explanation about him in the video below). Sometimes I’ll peter out (okay, most of the time). Sometimes, the urge to find the end wins, and somehow I get there. It’s hard, it’s exhausting, it drives me insane (just ask Andrew). But before I’ve begun, before all the potential energy has been converted into kinetic, all I have are doubts and some silly ideas.

I’ve sketched out a few of these silly ideas for Episode 2, even taken a few cracks at starting, but always felt comfortable because I had my precious delete key. I love that key. I wield it like a katana in a room full of zombies. But after a while, write-delete-rewrite-delete serves its purpose. After a while, I know that I’m stalling, but I don’t want to start start.

The thing is, even though I’m anxious as hell, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I want my writing to always scare me so much that I doubt everything, because that’s how I know I care and how I push myself to improve. If I’m not scared of failure, I won’t fully appreciate success.

Time is running out, though. A deadline approaches. The pencils are sharpened enough, the man says. Time to start this shit up.

If you’re like me, wanting to start something but you’re scared, or you’ve started and you have doubts, watch Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it, then tell me about your beginnings. I want to know, am I the only one this nuts about a story, or anything? Are you scared to start things? And if you aren’t, what’s your secret?

Music To Write To: “Ekki múkk”

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One of my favorite things about Sigur Rós is how much they leave their music open for interpretation. The ethereal quality can lend itself to be an accompaniment for nearly any genre, story, or emotional state. It makes them ideal music for the writer looking for mood music to help the writing process, and makes them a go to for me for so many projects.

For a different look at Ekki múkk, check out this music video, featuring Littlefinger himself Aidan Gillen and Shirley Collins. A warning, though: this video might break you.

Fall for the Indie Book Challenge

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Just a quick update this Sunday to let everyone know Andrew and I will be participating in the Fall for the Indie Book Challenge. You know us, always up for a challenge*.

This challenge is all about highlighting Indie authors and books, which is great, especially since that’s what Andrew and I are. Over the next fifteen weeks, participants will be selecting fifteen indie books, reading them, and reviewing them. For my part, I’ll post reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and from the blog perspective, we’ll be posting reviews here on the blog.

I should note that I may not complete the challenge, but I’ll do my best around a busy writing schedule (see the link above for exactly why it is going to get busy). If you’d like to join in, visit the Goodreads page for the group and sign up, there’s a lot of indie authors in there already with suggestions in a bunch of genres. And if you’re participating, might I humbly suggest my newest book, Absent Hero, available wherever there is the internets.

Good luck to those involved, I look forward to reading lots of books and reviews.

*Not sure we mentioned it, but there’s been an additional challenge between Andrew and myself over this writing deadline. If one of us does not finish a first draft by Oct. 1st, then that person must sing the entire score for HMS Pinafore, and release it for the world to hear via podcast. If neither of us finishes in time, you’ll get to hear us both. I’m counting on hearing Andrew belt out “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

How Not to Do Something

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Learning how to write is a long, slow process. There’s the technical bits, there’s the craft part, and there’s the intangibles that come from learning how to communicate not just effectively, but artfully. There is also learning how not to write.

It’s as important as anything else to learn what not to do in your writing. A good way to make sure you’re not going to end up writing crap is to read crap, and understand why it is, well, crap. Here’s a couple resources that will give you a quick and dirty lesson in things not to do.

Awful Fantasy

I don’t know who manages this Twitter account, and I don’t care. All I want is for them to keep doing what they are doing. Every tweet is a microcosm of terrible genre sins. Heres a few highlights:

Worst Muse

Another great Twitter account, all about encouraging the worst desires in every writer. Please, do not follow this muse.

Red Pen of Doom

One of my favorite blogs to visit is this one, devoted to how to edit well and not write bad. This post in particular is excellent, but the whole blog is worth reading and subscribing.

Cringe Writing*

For a laugh (and some lessons), check out the subreddit Cringe Writing, where redditors share stories and examples of particularly cringe-worthy writing. Hopefully, nothing of mine has been passed around there before. . .

Read Bad Books

Finally, maybe the best of all, is to read bad books. It can be tricky to find them, not because there aren’t a lot of bad books, but because you want to find just the right kind of bad. Books that are written and self-published by people who do not have a literary bone in them won’t teach you much. Instead, seek out the popular books, read them with a critical eye, and see what you find. I read Twilight for this reason. It taught me a lesson in writing and characterization, and also that even weak writing can sell (a lot!).

In the end, it may not matter if your book is a masterpiece. One could write like a marketer, targeting audiences ruthlessly and writing exactly what you think could sell. I don’t do it that way, because I have this illusion that someday I’ll be a great writer. And that means never forgetting how not to write.

*Redditor readbeam pointed out something very important with regard to this subreddit. It contains some examples of writing taken without peoples permission and criticized. I don’t condone that sort of thing. Writers should have the freedom to write whatever they want in private, without the threat of being judged. Critique can serve a constructive purpose (or should), mockery is only for amusement at someone else’s expense. Deconstructing published works is one thing, lambasting someone’s private writing is something else. If you are a writer, you know what it would be like having your material viciously mocked. Cringewriting does not distinguish much between the two. I’m not going to remove it from the list, because that’d be too revisionist for me, but I will note that I discourage people from the practice of mocking writing. This list is about personal growth through analyzing the missteps in other authors’ writing, not amusement.


 

cover3I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so I’ve learned over the years some things not to do, and hopefully someday I’ll learn all of the things not to do. I’m also have a book out now, Absent Hero, the first part of the Gone To Wonder series. It’s about a steampunk theme park, a bunch of teens who know way more than your average teen about story archetypes, and it’s nerdy as hell. Get it now for Kindle.

EVERYTHING IS FREE!

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HI THERE, KA-RAZY ZACH HERE…

Ahem, excuse me, I turned into a terrible used car commercial there for a second. But there’s a deal going down right now that has me in that frame of mind. Yes, prices have been slashed to historic lows! Hundreds of hail-damaged digital books that must go now!

My book, Absent Hero, first episode of the Gone To Wonder story, is absolutely free this weekend on Amazon. It is free every weekend and weekday if you ask for it, but I thought I’d throw poor Amazon a bone. They’re hurting right now, folks, and they need all the traffic they can get.

So if you’d like to get a copy of Absent Hero for your KindlePad Phone, go on over to Amazon this weekend and download it. Remember, this is about helping them.

 


 

cover3The first episode of Gone To WonderAbsent Hero, is available now from Amazon.com. Seventeen-year-old Wendy Danek is a superfan of the revolutionary theme park Finnegan’s Wonder, a place where stories come alive around you. But her world is thrown upside down when the Wonder pulls her into a story she never imagined she could experience. Will she save the Wonder, or end it? Pick up a copy of Absent Hero and be Gone to Wonder!