Sticking to my guns

Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instincts, knows everything.  If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path — Henry Winkler

Don’t you dare underestimate the power of you own instinct — Barbara Corcoran

Yeah, yeah. It’s a double-quote post. I don’t do those too often. I can’t remember if I did it before or if this is the first one.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about instinct. More specifically, following your instincts as a writer/storyteller. I’ve harped about it before. And I’m going to harp about it again.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I finished the first draft of my second novel awhile ago. I was excited then, and I’m still excited now. But now, I have to figure out if I have to temper my excitement when the folks who agreed to be my guinea pigs, by reading the manuscript of the first draft, start coming back to me to give me their reactions.

My writing mentor has read the entire manuscript and has told me he thinks it’s great. Goodie. I can place a check mark beside his name. I won’t reveal what he said to me in the email because I don’t feel like sharing at the moment.

I have six more individuals who have yet to finish reading the manuscript. Actually, make that five because I received an email from one of them this morning.

Overall, this guinea pig liked it. He pointed out the things that he liked. He pointed out one thing he wanted to read more about. And there were a couple of things he thought I could dial back on. I was a little surprised on what he suggested I could (or is it should?) dial back on. And then he suggested something which I’m going to completely ignore. It’s not even up for discussion, quite frankly. I’m not in the mood to handhold the reader through the story.

Ah, the double-edged sword that comes with asking for feedback. Along with this double-edged sword is how to keep from second-guessing your instincts when you hear the feedback.  It’s too easy to get derailed by it.

I think at this point, I have to remind myself again that there are millions of opinions out there. Millions of personal preferences and biases that go into those opinions. With that kind of variety, it’s impossible to make everyone happy.

What I take from from his feedback is that there are no obvious plot holes in the manuscript. Yay. Beyond that, everything he says is personal preference. I’m ignoring personal preferences. And also, personal preferences are influenced by the book publishing industry. The insistence of genres, the insistence of adhering to certain traits and characteristics that gives a story a specific genre designation. I can’t adhere to any of that. I’ve tried. I should know. My best foot forward just ends up getting watered down and I become an unhappy camper. Everybody is disappointed or frustrated.

So, the only thing I can do is follow my instincts and stick to my guns. If I’m happy with what I created, then that’s what matters. Fuck everyone else. They can go ahead and write the story they want to read.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the feedback. I asked for feedback. I also asked for the double-edged sword. But this is where I decide if I allow myself to acquiesce to the opinion of a reader/s or make it real easy by just trying to please myself.

I have to decide what are personal preference comments and what are storytelling/narrative structure comments. I have my structure comments and notes from my writing mentor. That’s plenty.

The minute I give in to personal preference comments, I’m fucked, my story is fucked and my storytelling abilities are put into question which means they’re fucked. All this because of someone else’s personal preferences.

No, I can’t allow that to happen. Not getting ulcers because of it. Fuck that.

I own the stories I tell. I own the decisions and choices I make about them. I own every perceived mistake I will make with them.

I just have to remind myself to stick to my guns. Stick with my instincts because they haven’t failed me yet.

Until the chemistry is right

Many people think that it is important to have a title before you begin writing the book, but I think you should never sit around waiting for the right title to strike before you start writing. Crack on with the story, put in the hard work and the title will come eventually — Darren Shan

I think I may have come up with a title for my second novel. Imagine that.

It took me the weekend to come up with something. I’m not entirely committed to it yet but it feels like a good fit. I’m just going to let it linger for a bit.

Kinda like trying a new fragrance. A new blend of essential oils and aromatics. My blend already has the base and middle notes. I’ve been working with those from the beginning, refining as I move through the writing process. I’ve been playing with the top notes and they are the last pieces to the fragrance puzzle. A book title, book cover art work and the discerning eye of an editor as she combs through the manuscript once I’m ready to hand it over to her. The top notes are slowly coming together. Let each ingredient settle in, one by one. I have to see how the new title takes to the characters and the story landscape. They have to mingle. They have to be a really good fit before I can commit.

There will be chemistry. The good kind, I hope. Seriously, the last thing I want to have is the lab exploding in white hot heat. With some things, I’ll let the explosion happen. With the book, I’ll only tolerate a little smoke. Just enough to not set off the water sprinklers.

Now that I believe I have the book title, I can move forward with figuring out the art for the book cover. Can I do this myself or shall I invest in someone who has a bigger wheelhouse than me? I think I’ll have the answer by the end of this week.

I can also go back to the manuscript and work on a second draft. There’s one thing I want to add to it already. Just a handful of lines of dialogue. Then I’ll go over each scene (paragraph by paragraph, if necessary) to see if I can put a little more spunk and sparkle to what’s already there.

I stayed away from the manuscript for two weeks. But it was never far from my mind anyway. I wasn’t sure how I’d handle that length of separation but I ended up finding a couple of stories to read online that had consumed certain aspects of my imagination. Let’s just say when I go in, I find myself going in for all or nothing.

And I have to drag myself away from all-or-nothing and turn my attention to a different kind of all-or-nothing — my novel, my characters, my boys. It won’t be difficult to fall back in with my boys. They know what I’ve been indulging in and, no surprise, they whole-heartedly approve of this particular indulgence.

Now, I must head back to the lab and play with all the notes, work with my boys. Just a little more experimenting, just a little more refinement until the chemistry is just right.

Tropes and absolute truths

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth— Simone de Beauvoir

It might be a little early to be talking about Sicario: Day of the Soldado since it just opened this past weekend but that’s what I’m going to do. There might be spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet. For those who don’t care about spoilers, keep on reading if you like.

I spent Friday night watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I enjoyed the first film, Sicario, so why wouldn’t I like the sequel. I did like the sequel. But it’s not without some issues.

I had heard about about the criticisms surrounding the film brought about by film critics of colour. We know that Hollywood/entertainment industry has a problem with representation on the silver screen and how people of colour (POC), women and the LGBTQ are portrayed on film. There is also a problem where the majority of film critics are white men.

Having found some Latino critics who saw the film, they all took issue with the portrayal of anybody who wasn’t white. Stereotypes and tropes were used to move the story forward. All stuff that I had heard before.

I’m not saying the film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan can’t write because he can. An Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Hell or High Water proves that. Yes? No? He has worked hard to get where he is right now.

One film critic has said Sicario: Day fo the Soldado suffered from lazy writing. And I would have to agree. For example, the opening scene showed a terrorist illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border with other migrants. The initial premise was presented that the cartels are assisting terrorists get into the U.S. and that was the impetus for the film. It turns out this premise is a red herring. A couple of seemingly throw away remarks by Cynthia that two of the ‘terrorists’ were actually from New Jersey, makes the film’s opening scene kinda wasted. What we basically have is a film about the American government illegally operating in Mexico stirring up shit between the cartels for no legitimate reason. This action is not without consequences in the long term because this will increase the bloodshed in that country. America will never own up to instigating more blood being spilled in another country.

Way to go, U.S. government. Way. To. Go. Where the fuck are my pompoms?

The fact that the terrorists were home-grown and that it was dismissively swept under the rug in the film, mirrors the reluctance by a percentage of Americans who refuse to consider the idea of domestic terrorism.

It’s hard to say if this red herring was intentionally written by Sheridan. But the way the throwaway remarks were made by Cynthia makes one think they were inserted into the script to save a storyline that might have gotten out of hand in the writing process or during film production.

After I watched the film, I came across an analysis piece written by Isaac Butler for slate.com about Sheridan, who also wrote the first film, Sicario. To be honest, I agreed with everything in Butler’s analysis.

Some of the highlights from his analysis:

1) Sheridan’s lack of agency for his female characters (Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, Catherine Keener’s Cynthia Foards and Isabela Moner’s Isabela Reyes) which plays into the idea that the male characters holding all the power and the knowledge of what was going on the two films.

Yes, Blunt’s character, Kate, was the lead in the first film but Kate always seemed to be a step behind and kept in the dark by Josh Brolin’s character Matt Graver. The character had a specific role, was a particular archetype within Sheridan’s narrative. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as noticeable Blunt’s character was portrayed by a male actor. But it is noticeable when the character is female. The politics of gender colours everything.

Keener’s character, Cynthia, is a representative from the CIA and supposedly carries some weight. Well, I think she’s from the CIA. I wasn’t quite clear on her position. A second viewing of the film would solve that problem. Anyway, her character seems to be nothing more a mouth piece for the President and when the shit seems close to hitting the fan, she is lumped with the task of administratively cleaning up the mess. Pretty much the men around her end up doing whatever they want.

Then we have Moner’s character, Isabela, the daughter of a cartel leader. Isabela showed a lot of spunk getting into a fight with another student at an all-girl private school. But after that, she’s a victim and a pawn in the game the CIA plays with the warring Mexican cartels. She’s an interesting character with not a of room to maneuver within the narrative.

2) Aside from the lack of agency for the female characters, POC don’t seem go beyond the tropes of criminals. Heck, even the white characters don’t seem to go beyond their assigned tropes either. Everyone is a little more than two dimensional but never really reaches three dimensional territory.

3) What does Sheridan’s America look like? As Butler puts it, Sheridan’s America is where “men do manly-man things.” A guy’s guy is another way of describing it. Any female protagonist in Sheridan’s screenplays is somehow sidelined by the men around her or is in need of their help because of some self-perceived weakness that they acknowledge to having. And we’re back to the issue of Sheridan’s female characters lacking agency.

After reading through Butler’s analysis, there are some things I’d like to say.

It’s pretty clear Sheridan is critical of the American government. And he tries to work in the grey area that exists between good and bad. But when you work with tropes, that grey area sometimes doesn’t get explored very well. Sheridan tries in Sicario. Any grey area he hints at or tries to touch on is mitigated by Kate’s lack of agency. The male characters lack grey area. del Toro’s Alejandro comes closest to being a complex character. His motivations for being a sicario are explained and his interactions with Kate are coloured by his motivations.

In my opinion, adherence to genre, stereotypes and tropes are part of the reason for the problems that exist in Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. But the second film suffers from a screenplay that quite doesn’t match up to the first film. I think it suffers too from the fact Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and the late cinematographer Roger Deakins were not part of the production of the second film. There were moments that I thought were really interesting and thought-provoking. But the reliance on stereotypes and tropes in order to tell the story is problematic. I can’t stress that enough.

It’s stuff like this that motivates me to try to avoid in my own writing. I don’t know how successful I will be in avoiding it but I can certainly do my best to not fall into that rabbit hole.

Apparently, Sheridan had said that the screenplay for Sicario: Day of the Soldado wasn’t intended to be a sequel to the first film. It was supposed to be a standalone. But before the film hit theatres nationwide, there were stories reporting that the idea of a third film is being discussed, with Blunt returning to reprise her character, Kate Macer, to finish the trilogy.

Well, I have a few thoughts on the idea of a Sicario trilogy and if the third film is actually made.

1) If there is a trilogy, the final film must include the characters Isabela Reyes and Miguel Hernandez, the boy/man who is recruited by Alejandro to become a sicario at the end of the film. Given what the second film hints at as their fates, their individual story arcs need to be played out in the third film.

2) If Miguel returns (and the film certainly hints that we probably haven’t see the last of him), I would like to see how the relationship between Miguel and Alejandro has evolved from the second film to the third film. Are they still student and mentor? Are they working together? What are Alejandro’s motivations for taking Miguel under his wing to shape him into a sicario?

Considering how Miguel and Alejandro first lay eyes on each other and how it escalated to Miguel being forced to shoot Alejandro, it is interesting Alejandro is giving Miguel to the opportunity become a hitman. Does Alejandro know that Miguel was the one who shot him before he made the offer to show Miguel the ropes a year later? Hard to say how Alejandro would know this since those who knew Miguel was his ‘executioner’ are all dead. Does this become a surrogate father/son relationship? Depending on what both characters know about each other, this is a relationship that can end up being very good for the men or turn into a complete disaster. The interesting thing is both characters were inherently good men before cartels and gangs entered their lives and changed them. The potential of this relationship and how it will play intrigues me a lot.

3) What happens when Matt Graver discovers Alejandro survived his execution? Or does he know Alejandro is alive before the start of the third film? How will their relationship play out?

4) If Blunt returns, what is her narrative now? Will her character, Kate, finally have agency instead of questioning everything and being seemingly a step behind everybody she works with? Can she finally play the game everyone else is playing while inhabiting the ‘good guy’ archetype? Or maybe she’s not the ‘good guy’ anymore. Maybe Kate inhabits the grey areas between good and bad. The fluidity of changing sides is one of the most interesting ideas to explore and play with. This is why Kate’s character development from first film to third film could be so rich if written to take this direction. The potential for her character to become one of the most interesting and dynamic characters in the third film is limitless.

It’s clear that in Sheridan’s world, everybody is flawed. There are no outright good guys. But he still follows certain tropes. For the third film to succeed, not being a slave to archetypes and tropes, showing more complexity of the characters through subtext will be paramount.

There is a bit to unpack in the Sicario films. There is no denying the fact the screenplays were written by a white man. I don’t think that is a problem if the story and the characters are handled fairly. But, the definition of ‘handled fairly’ can be subjective. Maybe we need to understand Sheridan’s perception of the world. Or maybe not. But it is a specific kind of world Sheridan puts down on paper. It is a world where men’s experiences and views of the world are taken as absolute truths. From those absolute truths is a particular viewpoint with regards to women and POC. That viewpoint will rub some people the wrong way. As a storyteller, it really is impossible to make everybody happy. You just tell your story no matter what.

It’s also a given that that particular viewpoint can (and usually does) go against having an honest representation of those whose skin colour is not white. We all have our own viewpoints and truths. But one specific viewpoint should not always repeatedly be presented as the absolute truth.