Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Author: Ben S. (page 1 of 3)

Finding the (sort of) Right Emotion

As a fantasy author, I don’t often think about how my writing reflects my own experiences in life. Part of this is due to the fact that I don’t feel like I have a great deal of life experience to draw upon. As someone who married and had children at a relatively young age and has lived in the same place for the better part of fifteen years, my life doesn’t seem all that interesting or exciting. But that’s kind of a ridiculous position when you stop and think about it. No matter their age or circumstances, writers are always observing. Sometimes we’re taking stock of our own experiences, but just as often we’re evaluating other people’s lives. On some level, every writer is a bit of a voyeur.

In many instances, though, my personal experiences wind up being far more influential on the creative process than I realize. They also have a way of popping up in places you don’t expect. When I wrote The Walls of Dalgorod, for instance, I was a bit taken aback by how much the father-son relationship between the characters Kirill and Gregorii was informed by my relationship with my father and my own son. The connections aren’t obvious, but there were plenty of times where I found myself drawing upon moments and situations from those relationships that stood out in my mind. Recollections of bad day here, an argument there, or even an internalized sense of frustration or disappointment informed the conflict between those characters even though I’ve never gone through anything so negative or dysfunctional.

When writers talk about drawing upon your experience, we sometimes make it sound like only people who have gone through exactly what you’re writing about can possibly portray those situations on the page. But what we’re really trying to say is your experiences create a window you can see through and help you find your characters on the other side. I find it to be quite similar to acting. You have to pull from your own feelings to portray how someone else is feeling. Writing is just another form of performance in that respect. The emotion you’re using to connect with the characters doesn’t have to square up neatly with their story; you just have to feel something to help convince the reader that it’s real.

The characters in Blackspire go through some horrible situations I’ve never come close to experiencing. But I’ve felt a lot of those emotions in other areas of life, maybe not to the same extremes, but at least enough to help me take a step in a character’s shoes. Once I get that glimpse, my imagination can fill out the rest. I can extrapolate the emotions and have a sense for what it might feel like in another context. Whatever I end up creating from that is still anchored to a real emotion, a feeling I can understand and contextualize. From there, I just need to credibly convey it to the readers, but that’s more of a technical issue I can tinker with and refine over time. You can always find better words and phrases to use, but you can’t get new emotions to convey.

Behind the Song: Recording & Arranging “Dirge”

Now that every Morana’s Breath release is available from online stores like iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Music as well as streaming services like Spotify, I decided it would probably be a good idea to resume work on the next album. I’d composed two tracks for it last spring, but set the project aside for some reason I can’t remember and never quite got back around to it. Working on a new Morana’s Breath album is a very consuming process for me. Once I get started, I have difficulty focusing on anything else.

I thought it might be interesting to provide a bit of a behind the scenes look at how I put these songs together. In many cases, the songs develop organically with a lot of trial and error. While I can play the guitar, I don’t actually know how to play piano. I have a decent sense of timing and pitch, so if I bang things out enough times on a keyboard I can generally identify what sounds right for a song. Sometimes I have a sound or a melody in my head that I work out over time. Other times, I flail about in the dark for a while until I stumble upon something that sounds decent and I work from there. The song I’m dissecting here, “Dirge,” falls into the latter category. It’s a song that took shape only after several fits and starts with little more than a very loose idea of what a song called “Dirge” should sound like.

The workhorse instrument for Morana’s Breath is a KORG Taktile 25 MIDI controller. It plugs directly into my laptop via USB and interfaces directly with the Apple GarageBand recording software. Very inexpensive and easy to use (albeit discontinued), the Taktile unlocked a whole new world of music for me and is probably the best music-related purchase I ever made in terms of getting more than what I expected out if it.

Ironically, however, the song I’m going to talk about here doesn’t actually use the Taktile. In fact, it doesn’t use any instrument other than the recording software. “Dirge” wasn’t so much recorded as it was arranged. When I started working on “Dirge,” I didn’t want to take the time to set up the keyboard, so I took a sample MIDI recording from another song and dumped it into a new project file. The cool thing about working with MIDI recordings is that you can manipulate pretty much every aspect of them. You can take individual notes and move them, stretch them, condense them, and duplicate them. Just by using the GarageBand software, I can take a single recorded note and turn it into an entire song. While I wouldn’t want to make every song using this process, it’s a good challenge that often produces very unique results you might not have ended up with if you recorded everything on the keyboard. I’ve used this technique to arrange an entire song only once before (the Beyond the Nebula track “Event Horizon”), but manipulating MIDI recordings to shape a song is a key part of my editing process.

“Dirge” is a classic example of what I call a “structure” song. In a Morana’s Breath context, this means the song follows a very rigid pattern that makes it very easy to add or subtract new elements. Although the song has as many as eight distinct instrument tracks playing at one time, each one usually lasts only four or eight measures before repeating. These tracks are like building blocks that can be stacked atop one another to form a much larger building. A “structure” song is by nature repetitive, but it holds your interest by adding new elements to the song in a predictable pattern. As the song progresses, you get a sense for when a new track is coming and you subconsciously anticipate how it will alter your impression of the song. There are some limitations to this technique, but we’ll get to those in a moment.

Here’s a SoundCloud link to the current version of “Dirge.” The song might undergo some mixing changes in the final release.

The song fades in with a single, droning note on a synthesizer that reaches full volume after four measures and then sustains for another four before any new elements are added. This single note will sustain throughout the entire song, providing a “floor” for the rest of the structure to sit upon. The next element comes in at the 00:16 mark, a series of four throbbing, bassy synth notes that last for eight measures. Bass drum hits start at 00:32, each one drenched in reverb and echo. For eight measures, the drum hits fall only on the first beat of the measure, but at 00:48, a second hit is added, this one on the third beat of the measure (although the echo makes it sound like more). The song’s tempo remains unchanged, but the added drum beat makes it feel like the song is building towards something.

A bass synth progression comes in at 01:04, followed after eight measures by another drum track that injects a sense of movement into the song. Up to this point, the song has a very static feel to it. The added drums loosen things up a bit, but they aren’t dynamic enough to change the overall character of the song. A simple progression of ascending piano notes starts eight measures later at 01:36, which is mirrored by a second progression descending piano notes at 01:52. At 02:08, another series of synth whole notes caps off the structure as the eighth and final track.

It’s at this point, however, that all “structure” songs run into a problem. You can’t keep adding elements forever. Sooner or later, you reach a limit on how many separate instrument tracks a song can handle before they start washing out or clashing with one another. Unfortunately, since the tracks are repetitive by their very nature, you’re left with a song that will get very boring very quickly once you stop changing it. While you could introduce change by stripping tracks away, that doesn’t really work. Adding a track to a song is interesting because the listener has to think about how it fits in with everything else. When you take a track away, the listener notices something is missing and now thinks the song sounds empty. So you can’t just make a song by adding a bunch of tracks and then taking them away. You have to make the song do something else.

At the 02:24 mark, then, the song changes. The bass drum track reverts to a single beat per measure, the dynamic drum track alters slightly, and the synth bass line changes. Both piano tracks drop out, but the synth tracks that came in at 00:16 and 02:08 remain. It’s not a drastic change, but the dynamics shift enough to effectively “reset” the structure. By dropping out tracks during the shift, it’s now possible to start adding blocks to the structure again.

The process begins again at the 02:40 mark, this time adding a series of overlapping piano progressions of ascending and descending notes that last for sixteen measures. Listeners have already heard this piano track so its reintroduction here sounds natural, but the length and arrangement of the progression is different than anything they’ve heard before. By extending for sixteen measures, it breaks with the previously established “structure” rules. An inverted version of the progression comes in at 03:12, but this time on a noisy synth rather than a piano. It’s a grating sound that signals the song is pushing towards a conclusion.

That conclusion comes at 03:44 when the bottom falls out of everything. The song drops down to the bass drum and the two bass synth tracks set against the droning synth note from the intro (which the listener probably forgot about during the rest of the song, but now remembers). One of the bass synths drops out eight measures later and a series of four piano notes provide an outro for the song (this piano track is actually doubled for a bit more punch). At 04:16, the final bass and piano notes ring out and fade into silence, leaving nothing but a droning synth note that begins to fade out at 04:32 until the song concludes at 04:40.

So that’s a pretty detailed overview of the way the song was arranged. The story of how it came to be structured that way is a bit more complicated and harder to explain. In simple terms, though, I assembled each track one by one and stacked them together. For most of this process, then, the song was only eight measures long. Once I knew all the parts would fit together, I had to decide how to break them apart, figuring out through trial and error when each section should be introduced. The latter half of the song took shape after this point, when I had to find a way to change things up to keep the song interesting after the “structure” was built.

I could talk a bit about how and why I went about choosing which instruments to use on which tracks, but I think I’ll save that sort of analysis for another song. “Dirge” is more interesting from an arrangement standpoint than an instrumentation standpoint because of the way it was assembled in the computer. The entire process probably took somewhere between six to eight hours over the course of about three days. That’s a fairly typical timetable for me to record a Morana’s Breath song regardless of the process used to conceive it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview. “Dirge” will be included on the next Morana’s Breath album, Dust, which will probably be finished by December. Until then, be sure to check out the first six albums on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Music as well as streaming services like Spotify.

Morana’s Breath Albums Now Available on iTunes & Spotify

About a year ago, I started selling the electronic music I recorded under the name “Morana’s Breath” on BandCamp. While BandCamp is a great site, it’s not the most convenient way to buy music. After mulling over the available options, I finally decided to take the plunge and invest a bit of money to get the albums listed on more popular music stores.

As of today, you can now buy every Morana’s Breath album on iTunes and stream them on Spotify. Google Play and Amazon Music listings are in the pipeline as well. You can simply click on the links below or search the associated apps for “Morana’s Breath” (works with or without the ‘).

Buy on iTunes         Stream on Spotify

If you like what you hear, leave a rating and a review on iTunes (or whichever service you’re downloading from). If you’re streaming on Spotify, be sure to follow the artist profile to get updates for new releases and to give it a boost in whatever sorcerous algorithms Spotify is using these days to help people discover music. Adding it to playlists will probably help too.

Searching for Truth in 2017

2017.

Where to even begin…

Although there’s still two months to go in 2017, I feel pretty confident declaring that it’s been the most difficult year of my life. The perpetually swirling controversies of the Trump administration have provided a fitting backdrop for a year marked by ongoing personal, professional, and creative struggles. Every time I feel like I’m about to get myself back on track, some new situation always seems to get in the way and leaves me scrambling for answers. I’ve found myself second-guessing every decision and constantly reassessing the goals I’m working towards at any given time. Time slips away in the process, leaving me exhausted by day’s end and desperately hopeful that maybe, possibly, if I’m lucky, I’ll “get something done” tomorrow.

But “tomorrow” doesn’t exist. Not really. “Tomorrow” is a fantasy, a mystical and indefinite period of time in which the concerns of day-to-day life will melt away and leave me free to pursue the things I “really want to do.” You can always think about “tomorrow”, think about how it will be different from all the other days, but the problem is you never actually get there. You only have “today.” And if you can’t figure out what you’re doing about “today”, thinking about “tomorrow” won’t do anything more than drive you crazy.

I once wrote an article on my old website about the importance of keeping to a schedule. Some of us need an arbitrarily imposed structure to help us work towards the goals we value in the time available to us. But this concept of “tomorrow” is something different. It’s the belief that, in the absence of any conscious efforts to bring about change, the future will somehow embody a reality unlike the one you’re experiencing now. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting things in your life to be different. The problem arises when you spend all your time wishing things were different rather than thinking about how to make them different.

Obviously, this isn’t a revolutionary idea. We all understand this intuitively even without reading a badly written motivational book, so it should be an easy problem to fix. But there’s another layer to the puzzle: honesty. When we think about what we don’t like about “today”, are we REALLY being honest with ourselves? Are we identifying things we actually want to change or are we tinkering around the margins to avoid dealing with bigger, perhaps even unpleasant truths about our lives? Anyone who’s ever tried to fix a problem knows that even the best efforts are a complete waste of time if you don’t accurately identify the source of the problem.

Again, this probably seems obvious, but being honest with yourself is a hard thing, especially when you realize you’ve spent a long time not being honest with yourself and, by extension, others. For someone like me, a person strongly motivated by feelings of obligation and guilt, honesty can be difficult to embrace. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this difficult year, it’s that you have to find a way to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want out of life. If you can’t do that, nothing else really matters. Sure, you can fake your way through life trying to be someone you’re not, but you can’t fool people forever. Sooner or later, your façade will crack and expose the truth lurking beneath. You might not notice it right away, even if it’s obvious to everyone else in your life. Denial is a powerful coping mechanism, but it’s also destructive, causing you to lash out at any suggestion that the lie you’ve wrapped around yourself isn’t true. And, of course, it’s impossible to fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge. You can grind your fingers to the bone trying to get to where you want to be, but if you can’t be honest about what you want, those efforts are doomed to frustration and failure.

For me, 2017 has been an exercise in frustration and failure, but I’m coming to understand it now as a necessary, if painful, process I had to go through to get down to the truth buried beneath many years of denial. Coming to terms with that truth is frightening because, unlike the comfortable fiction I’d built around it, the truth is real. It has substance and integrity, making it far more difficult to manipulate into a different, more pleasing shape. But those same qualities also make it a stronger and more stable foundation for my life, even if it will surely cause some pain in the short term.

Truth, in other words, is something you can build “today” upon, and if you can get that right, then you don’t need to spend all your time waiting for “tomorrow.”

Of course, realizing you haven’t been honest with yourself is one thing. Acting on that newfound knowledge is quite another. If 2017 represents the end of something, 2018 carries the promise of a new beginning. As any writer can tell you, beginnings are often painful and difficult to write, but always worth the effort in the end. Oftentimes, the biggest challenge is convincing yourself to get started; once the words are on the page, you can always find the truth of the story.

It’s long past time for me to start writing.

The Culture Tsar: Valerian’s “John Carter Problem”

The Culture Tsar has been looking forward to seeing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets since seeing the trailer for it during the Super Bowl. Although the early critical buzz wasn’t particularly good, this movie wasn’t exactly promising to be a Best Picture contender, so the Culture Tsar didn’t put too much stock in the prerelease chatter.

Okay, enough with the preamble and on to the main question: Is the movie any good?

Answer: It’s fine.

Not a resounding endorsement, to be sure, but it’s certainly not a bad movie. The pacing drags at times, the writing can be a bit cringeworthy at times, and none of the performances are particularly good (although Ethan Hawke’s sleazy cabaret show proprietor is pretty fun). On the other hand, it looks beautiful. The effects and production design are spectacular and probably worth seeing on the big screen. There are a few memorable features, like the comic relief trio of misfit aliens who peddle information and Clive Owen’s cyborg bodyguards, and some imaginative setpieces like the multidimensional marketplace. On the whole, though, this is a movie that bets everything on spectacle, on astounding audiences with something they’ve never seen before.

The problem, of course, is that we have seen most of this before.

Valerian suffers dreadfully from what The Culture Tsar refers to as the “John Carter Problem.” When the film John Carter came out in 2012, many critics and viewers criticized it for not really offering anything new to the sci-fi adventure genre. It felt derivative and a bit uninspired. The problem, of course, had to do with the source material itself. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series had a major influence on generations of writers, but the stories themselves are over one hundred years old. The most interesting aspects of those stories have been absorbed and recycled by subsequent works so many times that most audiences can’t identify the line of transmission anymore. People watched John Carter and dismissed it was a Star Wars rip-off not realizing that the original Star Wars took a lot of its cues from the John Carter books.

Now, none of this excuses the fact that John Carter just isn’t that great of a movie (although The Culture Tsar has a soft spot for it). The problem is the filmmakers relied on the strength of the property and sheer spectacle to turn an otherwise lackluster story with bland characters into something memorable. But audiences weren’t impressed by the spectacle because they felt like they’d seen it before. John Carter might have been able to get away with this if audiences were more familiar with the property. Fans will turn out for mediocre adaptations of their favorite book series provided the movies are reasonably competent. But while John Carter more than meets this competency threshold, there just aren’t that many hardcore fans of the series dying to see it on the big screen.

Which brings us back to Valerian.

The film is based upon a French comic series called Valerian and Laureline, which ran from 1967 to 2010 and had a massive influence on a generation of European sci-fi artists and writers. Unfortunately, many of them have already incorporated much of what they loved into their own work. Even the film’s director, Luc Besson, has done this, with many aspects of the comic appearing in his mid-90s sci-fi cult classic The Fifth Element. The original Star Wars almost certainly took some inspiration from the artwork of Valerian and Laureline. But this wide-ranging influence also means that audiences will automatically feel like they’ve seen everything Valerian has to offer. Even worse, for all its influence, Valerian and Laureline isn’t widely known outside of France. The Culture Tsar considers himself a massive sci-fi and fantasy nerd and he’d never heard of the property before seeing the trailer for the first time earlier this year. In other words, there’s no readymade audience waiting for this movie in the US like there would be for even a “second string” superhero movie like Ant-Man.

All that aside, Valerian could have been a great success. It could have followed the example of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a little known comic sci-fi property that wisely emphasized character over spectacle. Instead, it went a more predictable and conventional route of subordinating the characters and interpersonal conflict to the spectacle of the source material. While Valerian is fun enough, it’s also forgettable due to its bland characters and a predictable, “by the numbers” story.

Maybe The Culture Tsar would have liked it more if he’d read Valerian and Laureline, but that’s the crux of the “John Carter Problem”. If you have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the movie, you’re probably doing something wrong.

The Culture Tsar: Curb(stomp) Your Enthusiasm

Sometimes our enthusiasm can get out of hand.

The hyperbolic nature of our cultural discourse encourages us to take strong positions on the things we like. Everything has to be either “amazing” or “terrible”, with little room for variation in between. These sorts of statements are driven primarily by emotion, even if they’re nicely dressed up with logical arguments (or at least the pretense of them). But emotions are a tricky thing; they can mislead you or cause you to overlook things a less enthusiastic observer might notice. There’s nothing wrong with being emotionally invested in the things you like, but at some point, if you ever want to have a productive conversation with someone about it, you need to be able to set that enthusiasm aside.

Take, for instance, one of the Culture Tsar’s favorite films of the last five years, Mad Max: Fury Road. When this movie comes up in conversation, the discussion goes one of two ways; either the other person loves the movie as well and proceeds to describe just how much they love it, or they bristle and mutter something about “not getting what all the fuss was about”. In the latter situation, sharing all the reasons the movie excites you isn’t going to get very far. Instead, you have to remove those emotional responses and talk about the film from a critical, pragmatic standpoint. In this case, the Culture Tsar usually deploys the “art film as action movie” argument, pointing out that the structure of the film as a two hour long car chase is the whole point of the movie and then indicating how the cinematography, production design, and practical effects all combine to serve that concept. The goal of the conversation at that point is not to make the other person “like” the movie, but rather to make a persuasive case for why it’s a good film even though they don’t care for it.

Internet commentary has largely debased what we used to call “criticism” because most people can’t seem to put their emotional attachments aside. There’s also a tendency to project one’s own feelings onto the general public. A friend recently related to the Culture Tsar that he argued with someone who believes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the greatest video game of all time and that it “changed gaming forever.” Now, despite the fact that the Culture Tsar loves Skyrim, he found this statement to be completely and objectively ridiculous. Setting aside question of whether it’s the best game ever (spoiler alert: it’s not even the best game in the Elder Scrolls series, but let’s save that for another post), what on earth does the phrase “changed gaming forever” actually mean? When pressed on this statement, the person said vague things about gameplay options and open world game design, but all of these things existed in various degrees long before Skyrim. Furthermore, Skyrim didn’t spark an entirely new breed of video games afterward. Open world rpgs existed for more than a decade before Skyrim’s release in 2011, and even if you restrict that category to first person rpgs, even those had become fairly common by the early 2000s.

But the person wasn’t making an objective argument; he was defining the game according to his own experience. For that particular gamer, Skyrim changed the way he viewed games forever. The problem is that he couldn’t set his emotional response to the game aside long enough to recognize that his enthusiasm said more about him encountering something for the first time than it did about the game itself.

Everyone wants to play the role of critic these days, but not enough people out there understand the role of criticism. Put simply, it’s not about you. Just because a work of art provokes an emotional response from you doesn’t automatically mean it’s objectively good. The Culture Tsar may love listening to Bryan Adams songs, but he’s never going to make the argument that Adams was one of the most influential and important artists of his era (tempting though it may be). If you want to engage in serious critical discussion, you not only need to curb your enthusiasm, you need to curbstomp it.

The Culture Tsar: The Star Wars Reformation

There’s a great scene in the film Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in which Ben Affleck’s character remarks that the internet has given people around the world the power to share information and ideas like never before and they’ve decided to use that power to bitch about movies. The Culture Tsar thinks about that comment every time some fan-driven controversy breaks out over (insert media franchise here) and overloads his Twitter feed for 12-24 hours.

As the saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Now, the Culture Tsar obviously has nothing against bitching about movies in principle. There’s a big difference, however, between debating the merits/flaws of a film as cultural products and debating them as extensions of someone’s personal identity. In the former, disagreements over the work in question are defensible positions easily set aside after the debate. Someone can like or dislike a film for various reasons, but that in no way affects anyone’s enjoyment of it. For instance, the Culture Tsar thinks the Transformers films are equal parts dumb, vapid, obnoxious, and tedious. Their continued existence and success, however, doesn’t affect him beyond forcing him to watch the trailer for the next one every time he attends a movie (honestly, The Last Knight feels like it’s been “Coming Soon” for five years now).

But when a work of popular culture becomes deeply entangled with a person’s identity, criticism ceases being criticism and instead turns into an existential threat. The most obvious and intense example of this phenomenon is Star Wars fandom. Seriously, there were Catholics executing Protestants during the Reformation who felt less strongly about the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures than some Star Wars fans feel about the franchise’s canon. Take a look on any Star Wars forum and you’ll find people decrying, well, just about anything that’s happened with the franchise since it was sold to Disney. From the decanonization of the “Expanded Universe” to the casting decisions behind each new film, there’s a rabid cult of fans out there who are on a crusade to defend the “true” Star Wars from “outside” meddling. Never mind that many of these people were not even born when most of the films came out or lived through the shock of the prequels upending longstanding assumptions about the original trilogy; they view the entire canon as an internally consistent scripture that must be adhered to down to the last detail lest the entire franchise be invalidated.

There’s a reason the Culture Tsar compared this situation to the Reformation: it’s because this intense form of fandom only makes sense through the lens of religious scripture. The Catholic Church persecuted Protestant Christians because it feared that if erroneous interpretations of Holy Scripture were allowed to take root in society, scores of unsuspecting Christians might be led into heresies that could endanger their eternal souls. Of course, there’s also the more cynical interpretation that Protestantism threatened the religious authority of the church (and the political power that came with it), which is equally viable here. While Protestantism wasn’t particularly democratic in form in those early days, it did represent a broader democratization of the faith by making it possible for Christians to worship in multiple ways.

The Reformation also swept away centuries of Church practices that had little, if any, basis in actual Scripture. In this sense, Protestantism literally changed what it meant to be a Christian. Methods of worship changed, sources of authority shifted, and expectations of behavior were redefined. For devout Catholics who remained invested in pre-Reformation practices, this change represented an existential threat. After all, if minor changes were permitted to gain strength, they could potentially lead to greater heresies down the line.

It might seem glib, if not sacrilegious, to compare Star Wars fandom to the Reformation, but the analogy fits quite well. Longtime Star Wars fans who resent Disney-era Star Wars are largely motivated by a sense that the franchise has been taken from them and redefined by people who lack their deep commitment to the rituals of fandom. Virtually every internal religious conflict in human history boils down to an argument over which sacred texts are considered legitimate. When Disney/Lucasfilm announced that the “Expanded Universe” would no longer be considered canon for the franchise moving forward, it was tantamount to Protestants declaring that numerous Catholic sacraments were no longer necessary elements of salvation.

This argument might seem ridiculous if Star Wars was just another media franchise, but it isn’t. There are people all over the world who have a massive personal investment in this fictional universe. For many people, being a “Star Wars fan” is a form of personal identity every bit as strong as a religious identity. It’s simply not acceptable for them to allow just anyone to experience Star Wars however they want because that would diminish the value of their fandom. They also want to be able to claim a form of scriptural authority. To have someone, especially someone who doesn’t conform to their image of a “true believer”, dictate what is legitimate canon and what is not is the ultimate offense. It’s as if instead of heresy festering at the margins of the Catholic world, it’s being handed down by the Holy See itself (perhaps the controversy over the Second Vatican Council of 1959 would have been a better analogy, but that’s a deeper cut that would take longer to explain and the Culture Tsar isn’t about to rewrite this entire damn post).

And for the true believer, there’s only one way of dealing with heresy…

Star Wars is the most obvious example of this phenomenon, but it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps this is an idea the Culture Tsar will explore in later posts, especially if this little thought experiment manages to generate some controversy. For now though, he’s happy to provide eager readers with an opportunity to make relevant use of all that history they had to learn in school about Martin Luther’s 99 Theses, John Calvin’s Geneva experiment, and the causes of the Thirty Years War.

And if those references mean nothing to you, well, maybe you should put down that dumb Expanded Universe book about the Yuuzhan Vong and catch up on some history…

Why You Should Join a Writing Group

You can find plenty of advice on why joining a writing or critique group helps to improve your writing. Setting aside the rather obvious point that having more eyeballs reviewing your work provides more opportunities for feedback, it’s important to consider some of the benefits of these groups that have nothing to do with your own writing, at least not directly.

The novelist John Gardner once remarked that alcoholism was the primary occupational hazard of the author. As much as I love this comment, I think he mistook the symptom for the cause. The real occupational hazard of the author is isolation. Writing is a very isolating endeavor. You can be as outgoing and socially engaging as you want, but at some point, the only way writing is going to get done is when you sit down alone with the keyboard (or pen and paper if you’re self-consciously old fashioned). Once that process begins, it’s easy to become cut off from anything that’s not directly related to the work at hand.

In some respects, this kind of intense focus is a good thing because it allows you to tune out distractions and pour your creative energy into the writing. At some point, however, you need to come up for air and remember that your project doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your book isn’t the “only book in the world” even though it often feels that way.

Before joining a newly formed writing group earlier this year, I’d never really associated with other writers. I showed material I was working on with a few close friends, but none of them were writers themselves. After a period of frustration over how to direct my writing energies, I joined the group in the hope it might provide me with new perspectives.

After a few weeks of reading various works in progress, I learned that my approach to writing fiction and the topics I choose to write about are merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. This is something I knew intellectually, of course, but it’s one thing to read completed works you might not normally be drawn to and quite another to engage with the authors of those works as they’re writing them. Discussing and critiquing someone else’s writing isn’t just about the writing itself; it helps you to imagine yourself behind another writer’s keyboard, to understand why and how they write. Learning different approaches and techniques to writing can help you to reevaluate your own creative process, which can be quite valuable if you feel yourself falling into unproductive habits or simply want to try something new.

I think it’s healthy for writers to get out of their own heads every so often, and a good writing/critique group can do a lot to bring their thoughts and assumptions about writing out into the open. If you’re stuck or frustrated with your work, exposing yourself to other writers going through the same struggles might just provide you the perspective you need to get moving forward again.

And yes, you’ll have plenty of knowledgeable people to help critique your works in progress, but you already knew that!

The Culture Tsar: Retro Rewatch Week

Privyet, Comrades!

The Culture Tsar is pleased to be making a return to praising and damning works of popular culture in all their varied forms. This week, he had a rare opportunity to sit down with a few movies he hasn’t seen in quite some time. Sometimes our memories can play strange tricks on us, causing us to elevate or diminish films far beyond their actual merits. Of course, sometimes those memories are entirely accurate. Upon a recent rewatch, for instance, the plot and premise of Prometheus made more sense but that didn’t make the movie any less terrible than the Culture Tsar recalled.

Without further delay, then, let’s take a look at the fruits of this filmwatching labor:

Dragonslayer (1981)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: A decent, but deeply flawed film that’s only memorable for the spectacular dragon effects. For God’s sake, the nerdy, curly haired guy from Ally McBeal plays the hero (Peter MacNicol). If it wasn’t for the dragon (which was THE standard for movie dragons until 2002’s Reign of Fire), nobody would remember this movie.

Upon rewatching: Holy shit, this movie is actually really good! The whole look of the film is great, effectively evoking the dreary, grim environs of 6th-7th century Northern Europe. Aside from a few questionable costuming choices (the king’s garb and the captain of the guard’s dumb helmet), everyone looks like they belong in that pitiful little kingdom. The performances and the writing are much stronger than I remember. Peter MacNicol is great as the unlikely hero, striking a believable balance between bumbling and bravery. While the dragon effects are a bit dated, most of them still hold up quite well. If you enjoy fantasy films, you should absolutely rewatch this one. It’s MUCH better than you remember.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: A stunning film with intense action sequences and fantastic character moments. It lost out to Gladiator for the Best Picture Oscar and the Culture Tsar distinctly recalls bitching about how it was robbed. A modern classic.

Upon rewatching: Eh…maybe not. Time has not been kind to this movie. Maybe the action sequences were far more groundbreaking at the time, but they aren’t particularly impressive by today’s standards. The “flying through the air” stunts are awkward and not very convincing. While many of the character moments are still quite good (Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat both deliver standout performances), the movie drags, and the mid-story flashback subplot involving the governor’s daughter and her bandit lover is tedious. While the Culture Tsar still enjoyed the film, it’s definitely dropped quite a bit in his rankings of great films.

Dark City (1998)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: One of the Culture Tsar’s all time favorite films. Wonderfully evocative and creepy, with great character moments and inspired art design.

Upon rewatching: Still one of the Culture Tsar’s favorites. The film’s sets and scenery look a bit different in high definition, which only enhances the sense of artificiality permeating the entire city. That artificiality extends to some of the cast, with William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly both turning in strangely stilted performances that perfectly convey the discomfort just beneath the surface of their characters. Kiefer Sutherland makes a good turn as the crippled doctor, which is all the more interesting considering he would be playing uber-manly man Jack Bauer in 24 just a few years later. This film certainly deserves its reputation as a cult classic.

Predator 2 (1990)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: In a barren wasteland of shitty sequels, Predator 2 managed not to suck. Competent, but not particularly memorable, the best thing you can say about it is that it didn’t embarrass the franchise. What more can you ask from a sequel, really?

Upon rewatching: Turns out, you can ask a whole hell of a lot more. And Predator 2 delivers. WAY better movie than the Culture Tsar remembers! The writing is good, the characters are fun, and the action sequences get quite inventive. Sure, the effects are a bit dated, but they were about as good as could be expected for purely optical effects of the late 1980s. The image of “near future” 1997 Los Angeles as a warzone of gang warfare only seems like a caricature because it didn’t actually turn out that way. Back in the late 1980s at the height of the “war on drugs” and the crack cocaine epidemic, it was a perfectly plausible future. That aside, the movie does a good job of taking the rules established in the first film and building upon them to give the audience something it hasn’t seen before. In fact, Predator 2 is probably only a couple of great one-liners away from being better than the first movie. That might seem like overly high praise, but when you start adding up the memorable sequences, Predator 2 compares to the original quite well.

The Culture Tsar hopes you’ve enjoyed this little exercise and encourages you to take a look at your own backlog of movies you haven’t watched for some time. There might be more gems (or duds) among them than you remember.

Lastly, a special thanks to everyone who migrated over from the old Culture Tsar website. There may come a time when the Culture Tsar branches out to a separate site again, but for now he’s working to keep everything consolidated. Hopefully, that will lead to more posts like this one in the near future.

A New Home for the Culture Tsar

Several years ago, long before The Walls of Dalgorod saw the light of day, I decided to try my hand at blogging. I’d jokingly assumed the title of “Tsar of Popular Culture” among a group of friends after sharing my rather strident opinions (or pronouncements) on the latest music releases of the time, so I used that as a springboard to start a blog called “The Culture Tsar.” I went through periods of sporadic activity, but as I became more focused on writing fiction, it became difficult for me to decide how to manage my author blog along with the Culture Tsar blog.

Generally, I wound up ignoring both of them.

I’d like to start providing more than simple author updates on this website, so in addition to providing occasional writing/editing advice, I’ve decided to migrate the Culture Tsar persona to this page as well. I considered simply reviving the old Culture Tsar website (which is still active over on Blogger), but I don’t want to create a parallel online presence. All future Culture Tsar posts will be flagged as such and placed in a special category accessible from the main website menu for ease of use.

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