Friday, May 15, 2009

"Very Well, Thank You" - Author's Musings

The question of content is one that comes up fairly regularly with Atlantis. The most frequent question of course is "When will the next Episode be out?"

A good question, but not one with a simple answer.

Episode VI is a very difficult one to write. Episode 5 has left us with some very hard questions and problems to resolve, and while it's all well and good to go for the simplest, most direct solution... It never ends up being very satisfying. More bluntly, it's a 'cop-out.'

A complex plot with a simple, predictable resolution is never something to be rewarded, and usually reflects the half-baked planning that went in to the story. It's easy to appreciate, then, just how important it is for me to avoid this kind of resolution with Episode 6.

The last few months have provided a few revelations that have changed or challenged several key points in Episode 6, one particular point above all - what to do with the Atlantis herself. The series is called "Atlantis DSV", and the prospect of writing the story without the epynomous ship as the centerpiece of the plot is a daunting idea to say the least.

Nevertheless, the ramifications of what happened in Episode 5 cannot be underplayed, and Episode 6 has to respect that, even if it means making some very difficult decisions about the way things will continue to unfold. Further more - I have to get it right.

As I have been reminded so very recently on the New Cape Quest forums, writing Atlantis and expecting people to hold their suspension of disbelief is not something that I can take for granted. Indeed, I have worked on Science Fiction projects that claimed to be written for the "Average Joe", and I myself found the idea offensive. Science Fiction and literature in general should challenge the audience, and one particular post that was made on NCQ highlighted this point very succinctly.

The author of the post I had not spoken to before, but they asked the sorts of questions that a cynical author focused on an overall story can be tempted to brush aside. As a case in point, one of Star Trek's principal Art Director's, Michael Okuda, was once asked by Time Magazine how the USS Enterprise's Heisenberg Compensator worked in the operation of a Transporter. His answer was very blunt:

"Very well, thank you."

To be honest, at some level I sympathise with Okuda. When you're so busy focussing on the overall design, the last thing you need to do is get hung up on the smallest of details. If you focus on details before you've finished the structure, then it will never get finished. This is especially true if you are working on your own, without the aid of a creative team to offer suggestions. While I suspect Okuda's answer may be a reflection of a more cynical view of Star Trek fans' infamous enthusiasm, I've always tried to prevent myself from falling in to that sort of 'divorce' from the audience. For the most part, there is a reason Star Trek fans are so enthusiastic about their show, and those reasons can be strongly related to qualities that make the show work. Is there such a thing as over-enthusiasm? Certainly, I think there is, but to go back to my original point, I stated that I go to great pains to avoid cop-outs and simple solutions within the context of the story. It stands to reason that by extension, I should obey the same rules when dealing with the finer details.

This is what the audience excel at. As I writer I won't pretend to be all-knowing. I have to be educated in or aware of the material I'm writing about. In immediate instance, it would be stupid for me to write a story about submarines with absolutely no idea how a submarine works, but ocassionally I do go in to areas where my knowledge is not as thorough or reasonable, and the audience can and will point this out.

With a little embarrassment, I admit that the post made on NCQ highlighted some of this lack of knowledge. Where then, is the line between artistic integrity and admitting when you are wrong?

The answer is one that is contingent on the artist. Personally, I encourage people to ask questions, or to challenge decisions I've made throughout the stories I've written. If the audience does not understand or accept something, then I believe it's my responsibility to explain it to them or rationalize my decisions to a point that they can understand it. What the audience probably shouldn't do however (And again this is a personal matter of etiquette) is suggest changes on how to make it 'better' without first asking "Why?"

To look at this from my perspective, having sunk nearly a decade in to the development of an idea that I'm very passionate about, it can seem the height of arrogance for someone to come along and 'suggest' and 'implement' changes to that idea without first asking questions. I maintain that there is no such thing as a 'stupid question'. Indeed, if there is an answer that I have or have intended to provide at some point in the stories, then I can feel confidant that I am on the right track, and I know I'm doing things right. The question in that case is as rewarding to me as the answer is to the person who asked it.

Occasionally though, this discussion between the author and audience can stimulate thoughts or ideas that weren't previously considered, or weren't explored deep enough and in these cases, it can reveal oversights, technical gaffs and plot holes that could have (and should have) been corrected. This is entirely healthy, and at that point I have to look for ways to incorporate the audience's ideas in such a way that it's still respectful to my own work.

So, in summary - keep asking questions. I might not have all the answers, but it helps me more when I'm presented with feasible alternatives to problems that I didn't know I had. Atlantis has thrived off this in the past, and I would hate to see that stop now.

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