Normally, on Thursdays I use this space to geek out about something related to games. For example, I have a deck in Hearthstone that’s doing really well, I have thoughts on how important board game expansions are to a base game’s life cycle, and I want to help more people get comfortable with the somewhat daunting game of Twilight Imperium. But I can’t talk about any of that today. Last night, something happened to me that is so writerly, I just have to share it with you.
I was laying in bed last night, having trouble getting to sleep. I rolled around, trying to clear my head, but it wasn’t shutting down. There was too much noise. It took a while, but at around 2:30 am, the noise started to take shape. It was dialog. A scene. An idea.
At 2:45 I rolled out of bed and came back to my desk. I pulled out my Moleskine and started writing. It’s a rough outline, little more than the barest of bones for a story, but it got the idea out of my head enough for me to get some sleep. This morning, I’m still thinking about it. I’m turning the idea over in my head. And I likely will consider it throughout the day.
I have no idea if this story will work. It’s an extremely raw idea that could simply be unworkable. But the point is, it didn’t let me go. It grabbed my attention and I had no alternative but to deal with it before I could get any rest. This happens when you’re a writer. And the only thing to do is write the idea down.
It’s okay if you look at the idea in the light of day and say “why did I think this was good?”, since if you don’t take the moment to write the idea down, you won’t know either way. Things that seem vivid and crystal clear at night can dissolve by the light of day. But we mustn’t fear new ideas, when it comes to story or life.
We need our ideas, even the ones rude enough to keep us awake. We need to always be considering new alternatives, notions that keep us motivated, points of view we hadn’t considered. The brain, despite its composition, needs to be worked like a muscle to stay in shape. Let it atrophy or fester or dwell on the same-old same-old, and it’ll deteriorate faster than an ice cream cake at a corporate luncheon. The muse, that ephemeral and often anthropomorphised part of our minds that generates new ideas, is almost like your brain’s personal trainer. Listen to it.
There are a lot of things that can keep one awake in the dead of night. Worries over finances, anxiety about relationships, wondering if you left the gas on, and so on. New ideas are one thing that can not only be adequately dealt with, but also can lead to new patterns of thought, new creative endeavors, entire new pathways in life. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of your muse. Let it guide you to imagine, to think, and to create.
Then give it a warm glass of milk and send it back to bed because dammit, I need sleep already.
I’m happy this morning, but I’m really, really tired.
Long before things like 3-D, CGI, THX and all those other wonderful acronyms came along, films were seen as extensions of the stage. Actors brought their best Shakespearean bombast, sets were designed as you would the sort of staging you’d have to quickly break down in the dark between acts, and directors framed and propelled their shots in a particular way. If 1938’s classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood has a flaw, that’d probably be the biggest one. It’s also completely irrelevant, however, as this is the sort of movie where I can use the words ‘classic swashbuckler’ with an entirely straight face.
King Richard I of England is on his way back from the Crusades when he gets tied up in Austria. Literally. Some guy named Leopold takes him prisoner. Richard’s little brother John takes over and immediately starts oppressing the Saxon commoners, fattening the purses of the Norman land-holders to build up support for his bid for England’s throne. The big thorn in John’s side is the Saxon Robin, Earl of Locksley, who sees right through John’s public decrees that the increased taxes are to pay Richard’s ransom and vows to do everything in his power to stop the oppression and restore Richard to his throne. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, John’s aide de camp, makes a vow of his own, which is to see Robin dangling from the end of a rope, especially when the lovely Maid Marian starts warming to Robin’s roguish charm instead of falling for Guy’s Norman sensibilities and position. There’s plenty of sword fighting, swinging from ropes, and the sort of laughs men make by putting their hands on their hips and engaging their diaphragms.
As I said, this is a classic swashbuckler. The classic part of that comes from the Oscar-winning score and art direction, as well as the acting. The story isn’t all that original but it’s being told with such adventurous abandon and honest charm that the premise never gets in the way of the fun. Sure, the sets look a bit two-dimensional in places, the lighting isn’t always appropriate for the fictional time of day or night and there’s more than enough men in green tights on display to give Mel Brooks something to parody, but in the case of this Robin Hood it’s easy to brush all of that aside. The way in which this movie is acted, shot and presented is so rousing, colorful, lighthearted and satisfying that it could have been shot in the round against a black background and it’d still be entertaining.
“So, I heard you like venison…”
Errol Flynn in particular possesses so much charisma and wit that it’s obvious why he became the iconic Robin Hood for years. He takes a film with a setting, story and style that would normally mark it as charmingly camp, and elevates it to being just plain charming. He has chemistry with Olivia de Havilland, who manages to look glamorous even when she’s wearing some pretty ridiculous headgear. By this point they’d already worked together on two pictures, one of which being the equally iconic Captain Blood which also paired Flynn with one Basil Rathbone.
This is one of the earliest instances I can recall of seeing a main villain who keeps their hands clean while a top lieutenant does the dirty work with relish – a Big Bad and a Dragon, if you will. In Robin Hood, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone demonstrate exactly how this dynamic should work. Rains’ Prince John is affable, magnanimous, crafty and ruthless all at the same time, and while he never becomes physically involved in the goings-on, his presence is undeniable. Rathbone’s Sir Guy, on the other hand, has little patience for posturing and politics, spending most of his time waiting for Prince John to tell him who he gets to stab next. Long before things like powered armor or automatic weapons were born, Basil Rathbone used tone, poise and expression to show audiences exactly what it means to be the biggest badass in the room.
Prince John’s “WAT.” face
There’s even a touch of a villainous Power Trio, with Melville Cooper’s somewhat rotund and cowardly Sheriff of Nottingham revealing himself to be a pretty smart guy. However, the most interesting relationship is that between Robin and Sir Guy. These are two men who are completely confident in their own abilities, are vying for the affections of the same woman and serve two entirely different masters. Underneath the story stuff, however, is the chemistry between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. It’s particularly telling in their swordplay, which segues me into the ‘swashbuckling’ portion of this ‘classic swashbuckler.’
The swordfights that happen in Robin Hood are fun to watch, with high energy and great music underscoring the tension. The movements are large and deliberate, swords clash against one another and the hero and villain exchange blows on spiral stairs, or wander out of shot for their shadows to do the dueling. This is the textbook example of well-choreographed cinematic swordplay, even if trying to engage someone in a sword fight in real life using these techniques would quickly get one skewered. It’s the kind of swordplay that makes films like the aforementioned Captain Blood, 1940’s The Sea Hawk and The Princess Bride such swashbuckling classics – and those are good examples of how these fights are staged, a method sometimes referred to as Flynning. Guess why.
“But enough talk! Have at you!”
This isn’t to say that it looks terribly fake. Outside of the occasional set or lighting error, Robin Hood looks great all around. While the costuming’s probably not terribly historically accurate, it’s quite sumptuous and atmospheric, and being shot in Technicolor, everything’s got a bit of a bright sheen on it. And while the aforementioned sword fights aren’t necessarily realistic, they don’t look bad at all, either. Hell, Basil Rathbone was an accomplished fencer as well as a great actor, and he used his skill to make sure he let Errol Flynn have a convincing win!
Whups, sorry, should’ve put a spoiler alert on that one.
Anyway, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a classic that might show its age in places, but has definitely aged gracefully. It’s exciting and fun to watch without being dumb or terribly formulaic, which is more than can be said for a lot of films being made some 70 years later. The cast is charming, the action is well done and the story, while familiar, is told with enough touches of freshness that it’s still interesting after repeated viewings. I say give it a look. If you have already seen it, I have to ask this one question: Where the hell did the phrase “lusty infant” come from?
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
While I’m busy moving myself and my Canadian half into our swank new Lansdale pad, here are some thoughts I’ve had recently concerning what was lately called “The Project”. I’d originally planned this out as a trilogy of stories to introduce the world, build up some of its history and cultures, and do my utmost to tell a few damn good stories while I’m doing that boring stuff at the same time.
The first novel in the arc will introduce the Cities of Light, the different systems of & viewpoints on magic, and how some of the other races have gotten on since the major catastrophe that happened in that part of the world. The next major story entry would take readers across the ocean to other settlements of humans, bring out some of the religions of the world and set up the dire circumstances that cause the events of the third novel. The initial story arc concludes with a globe-trotting world-threatening race-against-time sort of deal.
Now, this may seem like a typical trilogy, but I don’t think the stories need to end with the conclusion of the third novel. Descendants may run into future problems and allegiances or outlooks may shift over time. It’ll depend mostly on how much interest is actually garnered in my writings, if any at all comes my way, but I don’t want to necessarily limit myself to just three books in this world after investing a great deal of time & energy into its creation. So it may go transmedia, more books may get written, maybe there’ll be puppet shows or something. I can’t say.
Anyway, since the first three books will have a guy named Asherian as the protagonist, I figured the titles should reflect his central role. “Citizen in the Wilds” follows Asherian as the ‘spell’ of the Cities is broken and he struggles to survive in the inhospitable world beyond the battlements that surround them. “Alchemist at Sea” will have him going over oceans for a variety of reasons. And “Ambassador at War” should be pretty self-explanatory.
This is how things will get started, if I can get the first novel off the ground. Which, considering the epiphany I had Thursday night, is actually looking more likely.
“God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” – Robert McKee (Brian Cox), Adaptation.
Originally the first novel was going to be named “Asherian’s Journal,” with subsequent titles starting with “Asherian’s” in ending in another capitalized noun. “Hey, it works for Jacqueline Carey, right?” was my thought. Then, hearing Brian Cox bellow out the preceding, it hit me like a half-brick to the face. Asherian writing in his journal between most chapters is the prose equivalent of a voice-over. Now, the character in the film is kind of taking the piss out of the film he’s in, since there’s a lot of voice-over narration that actually works, but I took his words to heart and cut some of mine out of the novel. We should be focused on Asherian, not necessarily shifting from an observer’s perspective to lengthy bits of his internal monologue and back again. It’s flow-breaking, shoddy and shallow, bordering on self-insertion.
And it was a darling.
It was a hold-over idea from when I first started this with Asherian as my protagonist, as a way to tell the reader more about his mentality and his view of the Cities of Light. But that’s what his communication with his sister is for. She talks with him through dreams and visions, and she shapes the forum in which they speak. Right there is all the in-world excuse I need to show the Cities of Light and how these twins see them, not to mention how that view shifts as the story goes on.
So down went the journal entries with a boot in the ass, followed by the Mozambique Drill. Pop, pop. BLAM.
Hopefully with that out of the way, I can get back on track with a daily word count of a thousand or more, since I dropped my projected total words for Citizen in the Wilds to 100k. Here’s why.
Anyway, there’ll be writing happening this weekend. Maybe after we unpack a bit.
The word “amateur” has a bad connotation. You might look at an art’s student attempt to recreate the Mona Lisa, or a mod for Half-Life designed to make it look like Wolfenstien 3-D, or an Uwe Boll film and say “Ew, that’s completely amateur.” By that, you’re likely to mean “poorly designed, conceived or executed, and in those cases you might be right, though I for one would give props to the mod designers for using a flexible open-source shooter engine to hearken back to those bygone days where your arsenal wasn’t limited to two weapons and your health didn’t come back automatically if you just stood around a corner making sure your shoelaces were tied.
(Okay, all right, that’s the last time I’ll rag on Halo’s gameplay, I promise. It’s really the fans’ fault I hate it so.)
The real meaning of amateur, though, is based in its direct French translation – “lover of”. An amateur is someone who does something for the sheer love of it, not necessarily for the money. Now, I want to get paid for what I do as much as this shouty beard-faced fellow, but the fact that I’m not yet isn’t going to stop me from doing it. It’s just something I need to do on my own time until I can find a way to fool the monolithic corporate world at large into believing that what I do enhances productivity or shifts paradigms or some other such bullshit.
That’s part of the reason why this isn’t getting posted until almost 4 PM, and why it’s so short. That and I do have a day job that keeps me in the category of “struggling amateur” instead of shifting me to “starving amateur.”
So. The Project. Nice and enigmatic, but I doubt people will be flocking to Amazon to download it to their Kindles. Mrs. Alchemist keeps asking me why I haven’t given it a real title.
Honestly, it’s because I can’t pick one.
What we have here is a story with a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Asherian, comes from a magocracy of floating cities that exist behind a protective wall that is part stone, part magical whoseewhatsis. He’s an apprentice and his class takes a field trip out into the ‘Wilds’ on the other side of that wall. Let’s just say that doesn’t end well.
The idea is that his life has been somewhat cloistered up until this point, and he’s stranded and alone out in a world he’s unfamiliar with, where his use of magic might end up killing him for one reason or another. So it’s something of a hero’s-journey/fish-out-of-water deal. So what am I gonna call this thing? I’ve had a few ideas, but none of them really seem to be sticking.
Arrow of Fate
Ash’s instructor gets arrow’d which dooms the field trip. Now, this was what I originally called it back when this was a short story instead of a novel, and Ash was a chick with a different name. However, it has a few problems. Ash isn’t an archer so the title isn’t about him, arrows don’t play a huge role in the overall story, and the title in general feels kind of Harlequinesque. So I’m inclined to scrap that one.
Beyond the Wall
Since 80-90% of the story will be happening, well, beyond the wall, this one makes more sense. There’s something about it that bugs me, though. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Maybe it just feels too much like other fantasy novel titles. Maybe I want to avoid the whole “blank the blank” formula of title creation. Maybe it said something nasty about my mom. I don’t know.
Ash happens across a book a classmate of his had just bought which is blank, and he starts keeping track of his adventures in it. It’s something of a device to help us get a view of things from his perspective between chapters, but it’s not a very big part of the story. Mrs. Alchemist also pointed out that it “tells [the reader] nothing.”
What am I missing, here? Why can’t I pick a title? Which title do you think I should pick? Let’s make some alchemy happen, folks. Bring your disparate elements into the mix and let’s see if we can’t transmute some of these random ideas into the handle for the next bigass fantasy epic of all time. Or at least a little yarn about magic, dragons and interesting people that doesn’t suck.
“I once knew a writer who tried that route (psychoanalysis). Cured him of writing all right. But did not cure him of the need to write. The last I saw of him he was crouching in a comer, trembling. That was his good phase. But the mere sight of a wordprocessor would throw him into a fit.” – Heinlein, ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’
A dear friend of mine described the need to write as “a concrete block on [her] chest”. It took time away from chores and duties to write, but every day she didn’t write, another block was added until finally, under threat of her metaphorical rib cage collapsing, she threw the blocks off and wrote. I can’t think of a better metaphor for this.
We (that is, writers) ideally should write every day. A little or a lot, some writing should happen. And I’m not just talking about stuff like this blog post either. My wife has pointed out on multiple occasions, in the same tone of voice she uses to remind me to deal with the utilities, that writing a blog post actually takes time away from writing things that might actually end up paying me money. Not that the blog doesn’t make money, it just doesn’t make very much.
Speaking of which, have you clicked a blog’s ad today? It makes you and the blog feel good.
…That metaphor is going somewhere dirty.
Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make is that writers need to write. Just like programmers need to program, drivers need to drive and plumbers need to plumb. It isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’d be easy to succumb to letting ourselves be defined by day jobs or pending bill payments or anything else the mundane world likes to throw at us. I’m not trying to say that writing is anything supernatural, though. Writing itself is pretty mundane. Writing anything more than a few hundred words can get just as tedious as any other task if you can’t quite get into your groove.
Getting into one’s groove, however, is something that bears discussing. Probably in another post.
It seems that more often than not, stories in popular media from novels to motion pictures spring fully formed from the heads of their creators. Like Athena emerging from the cranium of Zeus, except she’s a goddess and a lot of these stories are more likely to ride the short bus than a blazing chariot. The idea get into the writer’s head, they put it down on paper and immediately rush to get it published or made into a movie – and that, right there, is the problem.
It takes nine months to form a new human being. Good food takes upwards of half an hour to prepare properly. Carving a statue out of wood, painting a miniature for a game – see where I’m going with this? These things take time.
Natural diamonds are the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of pressure on something that doesn’t look anything like a diamond. A story properly developed is a bit like that, in that odd things stick out that prevent the overall product being smooth. You need to work it over and over again, smooth out the rough patches like water moving over a rock. The more time spent refining the ideas and plot points of the story, the smoother the overall result will be.
There was an excellent post made about “Moff’s Law” – which is, in essence, the notion that anybody making a comment about ‘just enjoying a movie/tv series/novel/game without analyzing it or thinking it through’ is demonstrating monumental stupidity. I think it’s worth noting, however, that if the creator of a work doesn’t engage their brain, the audience isn’t likely to either.
“What’s your story about?” It’s a common question asked of authors, but one has to wonder how much the questions is actually pondered. Can you discuss the story beyond a brief synopsis of the plot? What are the themes of your work? From where are you drawing inspiration? Who are you hoping to engage?
Answering these questions won’t just allow you defend your work on an Internet forum. You’ll be able to assemble a better, attention-getting pitch if you can not only recap the story but also point out how it relates to current events, other successful works or deep philosophical issues. I’m not an authority on representation, but I’d be more inclined to represent a work if it’s got more to it than tits and explosions.
Not that there’s anything wrong with tits and explosions, mind you. After all, one of the cardinal rules of mass media in all its forms is “Give the people what they want.” And people, by and large, are interested in sex and violence. Both of them lead to drama, one way or another. But do these things serve the story, or is the story merely a vehicle for them?
Compare Terminator: Salvation to District 9. Both of them are sci-fi stories set in the present or the near-future, with human characters interacting with non-human ones. However, in one you have a straightforward action flick that tries to be gritty and serious and just comes off as full of itself, while in the other the story flows naturally from one event to another and the action scenes, riveting and exciting, grow organically from the story while maintaining the dramatic punch of the themes and mood.
Guess which is which. Go on, guess.
If all you do is toss good-looking women and breakneck action at the audience, they might comment on how good those things were and not discuss anything else, all but forgetting the experience the second that discussion ends. Include more nuances, mix in an interesting theme and find ways to make the audience think about what’s happening, and your work will not only generate more interesting discussion, people will want to experience it again, to make sure they fully understand everything you’re trying to say.
The best treats have layers to them. A water cracker by itself can be tasty but a bit bland and forgettable. Spread some cheese on that cracker, maybe add a bit of prosciutto or some chives depending on the cheese, and the snack takes on new dimensions and you’ll find yourself wanting more. Along those same lines, an attractive heroine is one thing, but an attractive heroine with a driving goal, personal issues and a strong sense of right and wrong will make the audience more interested in what happens to her, not just seeing her take off her clothes.
Let’s say your heroine is played by Carla Gugino.
She’s pretty sexy on her own, but Carla has played a few nuanced roles in her time. The Silk Spectre in Watchmen, the worst-case-scenario government consultant in the underrated and short-lived series Threshold, and Marv’s lesbian shrink in Sin City are just a few examples of the highlights of her career so far. She has charisma, radiates intelligence in most of her roles and draws in the audience just as much with her delivery and pacing as she does with her physical assets. It’d be easy for a writer or producer to toss her in a role just so she can shake her money-maker, but writing a role that makes use of her other talents and ties into an underlying theme causes her to all but explode out of the screen.
In the end, it’s not enough to just give the people what they want. You have to be smart about how you make that delivery.
And I’d never do such a thing.
My career path has been, to say the least, an odd one. I knew that published fiction was a tough field to enter, and that attempting to make a living from it directly out of university would be difficult, if not impossible. That knowledge, coupled with a challenge issued by a flatmate, pushed me in the direction of honing my nascent skills with computers into usable and marketable skills.
Things didn’t go so well in that regard. I worked for a few years in customer service, specifically tech support for a company in the wilds of Pittsburgh. I managed to squeeze in some freelance web work here and there, but never really found the time to truly develop my programming skills. A renewed search for the expansion of my knowledge and marketability lead me to a course in King of Prussia for Microsoft certifications.
It turns out the network administration environment and I don’t get along. There’s a great deal of stress and immediacy, no margin for error and no room for creativity. I struggled with the job daily until I lost it. Finally, after months of searching, I found my first true programming job. I’ve moved from there to another position and it’s come time to define what I want out of this particular branch of my working life. The more I work with PHP, the more I develop object-oriented solutions in Flash, the more I realize I need to be specific about my idea of a good career if I want to be happy to hop in a car or on a train to head to the office.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a writer first and foremost. It’s the creation of new worlds, putting interesting characters into those worlds and setting events in motion that affect those characters that gets me up in the morning and makes me feel alive. Programming, however, is something of an extension of that. To that end, here’s something I’d like to call a ‘programmatic mission statement.’
The creative mind is like a thoroughbred horse – it requires a firm but flexible grip, one that does not allow the beast to run wild, but also one that permits some leeway, lest the creature rail against its control and fight to be free. Just the right balance of control and detachment puts new ideas on the path to greatness. You know what you want, but permitting your trajectory to follow its own course allows for growth, stays agile in the face of inevitable setbacks and lends a sense of adventure to the overall process.
They’ve called it “the information superhighway.” If you want to travel on it, you’ll need a good vehicle. ‘Good’ is a subjective term – maybe you want something you don’t have to worry about, or perhaps you’re looking for a high-precision machine stuffed with power and bursting with cool gizmos. Either way, you need someone who understands both the beating heart of an Internet vehicle and how the paint’s going to look to visitors after everything is said and done.
That’s where I come in.
I take the ideas that float around the subconscious mind and make them manifest. I find new ways to get things working. I get my hands dirty. It’s messy and magical all at once. I turn dreams into gold – one jot & scribble, one line of code at a time.
I think that makes things pretty clear. It’s a shame it took me the better part of a decade to finally put this notion together. I’ll still be pitching to the Escapist, working on stories and columns and chipping away at the latest iteration of my first novel. But in the meantime, I have bills to pay and mouths to feed and, unfortunately, I haven’t quite earned the writing stripes to leave the day job behind. Until I do, I’d still rather do something I enjoy than flip burgers or stand on a street corner.
Since even after the lion’s share of my first day back at work I still have a veritable mountain of e-mails to which I must respond lest a client become incensed or the universe explodes or something else monumentally dire occurs, here’s something related to the novel upon which I’d be working if I had the time. Here there be spoilers… kinda. I guess. I’m still tired from the weekend, shut up.
I’m going to jump ahead a bit. My next post on building character is going to deal with antagonists & adversaries who aren’t necessarily evil and allies who aren’t necessarily the kind of people you want to invite over for dinner. Spoiler warning: I’m going to be talking about Q.
In that future post, I’ll be talking about what makes Q exemplary in this role of adversarial ally. But that’s the pinnacle of his character, and here I want to discuss the ups and downs. It’s something that comes from different writers handling the same character with varying degrees of success. Charles Sonnenburg has discussed the Q character arc at length in his opinionated episode guide videos of his episodes, and I recommend checking those out.
When we first meet Q, in Encounter at Farpoint, he’s an officious and clearly omnipotent being with every intention of wiping humanity out of existence. Hide and Q casts Q as Mephistopheles and also establishes his penchant for playing games with mortals. Q Who introduces us to the Borg, and Q is more grounded and less flamboyant. The result is a dimension of depth to the character that will be explored later. We also see what happens when Q is stripped of his powers and interacts with other Q beings. Yet at the same time, we’re ‘treated’ to what happens when Q goes gift-shopping and, despite his protestations that humans are unevolved savages with disgusting biological processes, chases skirts.
It would have taken the writers of some of the weaker episodes in the Q arc all of five minutes to check on the characterization & information established in his previous appearances. Alas, they seemed more interest in playing his “omnipotence” for laughs. It’s one thing to take the ball & run with it. That’s what you do when you catch a ball. However, you don’t want to run in entirely the wrong direction. It’s not just a case of a writer not doing the research, it can also lead to a serious case of dis-continuity and character decay, which may become terminal.
How do you avoid this? Keep notes, and check them often. Lend an ear to feedback you receive on your work, both positive and negative. Above all, keep your characters consistent. Say what you like about Stephanie Meyer, the character of Bella Swan remains co-dependent and nearly obsessed with Edward throughout her books, so at least she got the consistency right.
In other news, this is my 100th post, so… yay?
I picked up Dragon Age: Origins because I’m a sucker for both fantasy role-playing games and BioWare’s writing. Sure, they’ll dump extensive write-ups into your journal (or Codex in this case) at the slightest provocation and some of the conversations can be a little long-winded, but the writing is so good and the character stories so interesting that I take those things in stride. However, sometimes the game system can be a little weird. The first major hang-up I’ve encountered, however, is entirely my fault. It’s something of a case of Did Not Do The Research, but I’ve been building my mage character wrong. I’m 7 levels in, and some of the time I spent on the first attempt can get shaved since I know my way around the system a bit better. But the point of me bringing up this little bit of geekery is so I can discuss something we’ve all indulged in since childhood: the do-over.
You remember do-overs, right? Someone would throw the dodge ball incorrectly, or you’d forget to fill your water pistol before shooting at a sibling. “Do-over!” would be the cry. “Do-over!” The previous attempts would be wiped away in the nascent young minds and play would begin again as if the last block of time never happened. It’s something that’s found its way into gaming in general. If a title has “replay value,” you can basically leave one save-game alone and start over, making different choices and experiencing the game in a different way.
You can pull do-overs in your writing, as well. I’ve done it on more than one occasion, most notably with my first novel, and every time I’ve declared a do-over, the resulting writing has been a marked improvement. I’m not saying you should always wipe out what you’ve written if a better idea comes along. I’m merely suggesting that you should never feel restricted by your previous efforts. If you want to try something new, try it. Nothing’s stopping you.
And it goes beyond that, as well. I’m going to wax philosophical/religious for a minute, so if you’d rather not think about it you can jump ship now.
Still with me? Fantastic.
A lot of people in authority, from conservative pundits to religious leaders to your boss, might tell you that everything in your past defines who you are now. You need to pick a career and stick with it, says the prevailing capitalist sentiment. It doesn’t matter how much pigeon crap is in the hole, this is where you belong. Credit scores and employment histories are just a couple of examples of how we like to track where people go in their lives to show that they don’t change.
But people are not generic, hot-swappable modules. The only thing all people in the world have in common is that they’re all different, and all of them are capable of change. You’ll be called a failure or a quitter if you try to change, but I only really see someone quitting if they either commit suicide or convince themselves that what they want in life is impossible to attain or not worth pursuing.
Guess what? You are the only You in existence. In all of Creation, only you can do the things you dream of doing. Your stories haven’t been told by others and they won’t get told if you don’t tell them. Sure, other people have climbed Everest or swam the English channel or split the atom. That doesn’t make what you want to do, what makes you passionate, what gets you out of bed in the morning and propels you through a generic hot-swappable day job any less unique than the things that do that for me. If you change jobs, or pursue a dream, people may think you’re a quitter. I tend to think you’re just the opposite – you’re starting something wonderful and you can’t really fail at it. You might fall short of the ultimate goal, but you made the attempt, and probably learned a few things about yourself and your place in this world along the way, which is more than a lot of people can say.
It’s one of the things that maintains my faith in Christ. Outside of the rhetoric of televangelists or the stoic zealotry of pro-life clinic bombers or the “God bless us and nobody else” isolationist tendencies of some congregations, the message of Christ is really pretty simple.
You weren’t meant to suffer. You shouldn’t have to bear the burdens of a daily life plagued by self-doubt and self-recrimination. And you don’t have to. I’m more than willing to help you with your struggles. All you have to do is ask. If you have the courage to admit that you can’t make it on your own, and the open-mindedness to appreciate this world and acknowledge that there’s more to it than what you can see, I’ll let you in on a secret. Your entire life is a do-over. Pick up the dreams you thought were shattered. Mend the heart you felt was broken. I can’t guarantee you’ll get everything you desire, but in following Me, you might just find something you were seeking without ever knowing you needed it.
I know, I know. I’m a dew-eyed optimist and the cynicism of the world is going to try and grind me into a fine powder for an unfeeling corporate master to snort off a hooker’s cleavage while sitting in traffic contained in a luxury car on his way to a meeting on the greatness of his company.
But until that day, I’ll keep believing and keep writing. Even if I have to call a do-over now and again.
“…. Writing is anti-social. It’s as solitary as masturbation. Disturb a writer when he is in the throes of creation and he is likely to turn and bite right to the bone… and not even know that he’s doing it. As writers’ wives and husbands often learn to their horror. And- attend me carefully Gwen!- there is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private, and where food can be poked in to him with a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all… and if you shake him at this stage, he bites.”
This is how Robert A. Heinlein describes writers in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. He goes on to talk about “the need to write” which is apparently an incurable disease. It can be combated with different kinds of therapy. The character in question, ex-soldier freelance writer & gentleman about Luna Richard Ames, talks of a friend of his who was so affected by writing that he checked into an asylum.
“Cured him of writing, all right. But it didn’t cure him of the need to write. Last I saw him, he was huddled in a corner, trembling.”
I think that’s how it goes. I’m not sure where my copy of the novel is located. Might’ve left it in the box with the cat, just to see what happens. Anyway, the concept of a need to write isn’t without merit. Considering the arduous, time-consuming and often thankless nature of the business, many writers probably wouldn’t be writing if they didn’t need to. I know some people who are more talented with the art than they think but don’t do it for a variety of reasons.
However, once you get past a certain point and your dreams and ideas begin to take shape outside of your own head, all of the lost man-hours and eyestrain and rejection begins to matter less and less. You take these things in stride because a strange thing happens. It starts to become fun.
It’s never fun to get rejected, don’t get me wrong – form letters never lose their impersonal sting. That’s not what I’m talking about. The fun comes from the act of creation itself. Who cares if some berk over at Generic Adventures Monthly or Want More Twilight Publishing House doesn’t think your work is good enough? That’s their opinion. Your work is an entity onto itself and really doesn’t need the approval of others to justify its existence or its merits.
On the other hand, writers don’t write in a vacuum. If they did it really would be akin to masturbation. So if the more personal response from the potential publisher says they want tweaks in the story in order to pick up your work, by all means tweak away. The plants that bear the prettiest flowers and juiciest fruit don’t do it without some pruning. Be it by your own hand or the red pen of an editor, some metaphorical shears need to come into play before the words get baked into a delicious pie for general consumption.
The fact of the matter is, either way writers have a need to write. Rejection or acceptance, publication or obscurity, riches or poverty, writers need to write. If you can get good enough to make a living doing it, more power to you. But it’s a long, hard struggle to get to that point even if you are good enough, and that’s something I intend to explore more in-depth.
Especially once I get the panel pictures off of my camera. Those panelists really knew their stuff.
And are pretty damn good looking to boot.
From the beginning, my intent was for this blog to be about, for the most part, storytelling. From reviewing movies to posting my fiction to discussion the ins and outs of the publishing industry, I’ve wanted above all else to outline what I feel makes for a good story and the best ways for those stories to be told. Granted, this means the blog will likely have a smaller audience than some, as it has a more focused appeal rather than a universal one, but I really should take that with good grace.
I lost sight of my original goal when I started putting political rants in this space rather than my LiveJournal or Facebook. Sure, some of my diatribes are amusing and there are points to be made, but this is probably not the place I should be making them. I won’t take any of my previous posts down – I have nothing to be ashamed of and am in fact proud of the stance I take on things – but I’ll refrain from posting such things here in the future. If this is to be my place for telling and discussing stories, I should not be discussing politics. I’ll find other forums in which to do that.
There is philosophy among UNIX programmers. They write their scripts to “do one thing, and do it well.” It’s a simple, straight-forward philosophy that made Orville Redenbacher make such good popcorn and brings hundreds of thousands of fans to AC/DC concerts. Orville didn’t try to make snack mixes or granola bars, he just made popping corn. AC/DC doesn’t put hip-hop or electronics or country or jazz into their music, they just give us rock, the whole rock, and nothing but rock. And it seems to me that in that way lies success.
I am not a journalist, nor am I a biographer. I’ve given thought to offering my services to men other than Fritz Sprandel to help them writing their memoirs – this time getting it in writing, of course, because of how it turned out the last time. I’ve also thought about writing a philosophical/spiritual work (perhaps adapting Sun-Tzu’s “Art of War” to a truly Christian mindset, without bringing in things like guilt or evangelism or burning people at the stake) or an examination on how certain political climates of the past mirror some of the undercurrents of the current state of affairs. But are these things I really want to be known for? Are they things I really see myself as being good at?
I’m a dreamer. I’ve spent a lot of time with my mind in places other than where my body was. I’m a gamer. I roll dice, push buttons and deal cards to escape from the rigors of everyday life. I’m a traveler. I want to go places I’ve never seen before and do things I would otherwise not do. And I feel all of these experiences are, more often than not, better when shared. In roleplaying on World of Warcraft, participating in tabletop games and writing speculative fiction, I invite those around me to join me in a journey. I don’t always know the end destination, but sometimes I think that’s less the point than the actual journey itself.
This journey will be a bit more pleasant, I think, if I can move away from the emotionally-charged rants about neo-conservatives. Going from a discussion on the creativity or lack thereof in a given story to an angry response to conservative stupidity and back to movie & television reviews can be somewhat jarring. If I’ve managed to retain readers more interested in the geekiness than the politics I’ll be very surprised, and I’d rather lose the politicos than the dreamers.
I need to focus on doing one thing, and doing it better than the Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyers and Laurel K. Hamiltons out there – produce original speculative fiction that captures the imagination of the reader and takes them somewhere they had no idea existed before opening the cover of a book that I have written.
So. Let’s move on, shall we? The journey into the unknown and undreamed can’t continue unless we take a step in the right direction.
In the midst of my day-to-day workflow, the aftermath of my nuptials, and trying & failing to keep several financial chainsaws in the air while ducking for cover to avoid losing limbs, the news coming from my various writing prospects has taken a rather positive turn. I need to push forward on writing my fantasy novel, but some of my other writing has been getting attention or might earn me some scratch and, more importantly, notoriety.
Since my first article was published there I’ve been keeping my eye on their upcoming issues. I have one query in to Tom Endo, the acquisitions editor, and hope to brew up a couple more in the next few weeks. People actually seem a bit surprised when they realize I write non-fiction as well as my usual flights of fancy.
About a year ago I wrapped up working with Fritz Sprandel, a man who found himself on quite a few journeys in his life. I helped him chronicle one of his many sojourns, a solo canoe trip down the east coast that landed him in Castro’s Cuba. It’s a good tale and I hope he gets it to print soon. I heard last night my name will be prominently featured on the book’s front cover. More on this as it develops.
I was made aware of this by a dear friend of mine. This anthology of horror stories will have a second volume produced soon, and they were looking for submissions before September. I pointed them towards Akuma, which was quickly accepted. It’s a free contribution on my part, but it’s another way of getting my name out, this time in the realm of fiction.
For now, however, I have bills that need to be paid and a bank account waving its arms at me after getting tossed overboard by a wave of life events, so I’d best get back to work.
I really couldn’t think of an appropriate image for this little literary trip down memory lane, so here’s a picture of a mountain lion. It’s semi-appropriate, I suppose, since the first iteration of the first novel I ever wrote was entitled “Project: Lion,” and if that doesn’t betray the fact I wrote the thing in junior high, wait until I get into the particulars of what I’d at this point laughingly call the plot.
The premise of “Project: Lion” was that I basically wanted to create an American James Bond. This involved a personable and professional spy by the name of Morgan Radcliffe flying all over the world, shooting up bad guys and chatting up women. The charming, exotic female he encounters turns out to be a double agent, his school chum is killed and the friend’s hot sister leans on Morgan for support. Morgan shoots up dudes, drives really fast, shoots up more dudes, gets yelled at by a superior and manages to save the day anyway with nary a scratch or reprimand for being so flagrantly awesome.
Given the state of American reading audiences it might have been able to find a market and possibly even make some money, but neither of those notions detract from the fact that it was rubbish. Morgan was a Gary Stu of the highest order, and while he was capable of emotions other than smug self-assuredness, I realized after finishing the work that I was way too close to the character and projected too much of my own unattainable dreams onto him. I knew there were things about the character I liked, and others would as well, but the character needed to develop differently which meant I had to rethink the character from the ground up.
So I gave Morgan a sex change.
College did wonders for my social skills as well as my writing ability. I realized that having Morgan be female instead of male added an element of separation between us, allowing for more interesting plot points and deeper characterization. How different would it be for a woman instead of a man to stand out in the male-dominated genre of espionage fiction? Rather than having her be just a pretty face, or a cookie-cutter badass action grrrl, I added elements such as her expertise in cryptography, a relationship with her father who preceded her in the intelligence community, and an element of mystery concerning the evil mastermind against whom I pitted her. It made for a more interesting and involving narrative that got some very good feedback from people, and due to the fact I broke it up into a series of days rather than chapters, I renamed the endeavor Fortnight.
Unfortunately, of the two to three dozen queries I sent regarding the work, not a single one even requested sample chapters. Even talking to an agent in person at last year’s Philadelphia Writer’s Conference yielded only silence after what I felt was a positive experience in speaking with her. It could be that I came across as overly eager, but I’ll never know for sure. So Fortnight lingered, and given the decline of the genre in recent years, I began to feel that it was time for me to move on. I started working in earnest on my fantasy novel, and while that is still a positive experience, I’m struggling through some of the newer chapters.
When I established this blog, I knew I’d need consistent and interesting content to keep up interest. I turned to Fortnight and examined both the plot and the state of fiction at large. With the surge of supernatural fiction such as Twilight, the Anita Blake novels and the Southern Vampire Mysteries from which True Blood was born, two things occurred to me: There’s a thriving market for supernatural stories featuring female protagonists, and I have a female protagonist and a solid idea of how I’d want supernatural beings to be depicted.
This lead me to Shattered Code, but even after posting the first day of it I knew there were problems. The story starts to slowly, and I hadn’t developed the premise enough. With help from my fiancée, and more research as to what’s out there (a good excuse to watch the first season of True Blood if nothing else), I built a stronger foundation and began writing the story from scratch once again.
Day 1 of Lighthouse should be up tomorrow, provided I can polish things off tonight. I look forward to feedback from those of you still reading this stuff.
Inspired by a quick rant I did over on GeekTyrant, I thought I’d get some of my thoughts on how I’d like to portray vampires “jotted down”. I’m doing it in this way to get some feedback, so please, feel free to comment. Also, in case I need to mention this for the casual passer-by, this is all fictional information.
Differences between vampires and humans.
The human body is operated by the nervous system, which uses neurons to transmit and receive various kinds of bioelectric energy, which travels through the body on a certain wavelength. The difference between vampires and humans can be explained (though grossly over-simplified) in saying that humans operate on an AM frequency, and vampires on the FM band. Human blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the various systems of the body, maintain bodily temperature and removes wastes. Vampiric blood does none of these things on its own, as the vampiric body is dead and no longer requires oxygen or produces wastes. However, both human and vampiric blood perform hydraulic & repair operations. Vampires heal very quickly in comparison to humans and are capable of feats of strength and agility beyond human scales due to the specialized nature of their blood. The higher frequency of the vampire’s nervous system also means a typical vampire has enhanced senses and higher intelligence than a comparable human – that is, provided the new vampire isn’t a corpse that’s been lingering in a grave for decades.
Vampires, blood, and reproduction.
In order to maintain function, fresh blood is required on a regular basis, as the dead organs of the vampire’s body can no longer produce living cells. The heart of a vampire still beats, though typically at a higher rate than a human’s, but other organs, such as the pancreas, liver and kidneys, begin to atrophy due to disuse. Vampires do not reproduce sexually, but sexual behavior can be emulated through the use of blood in order to attract and ensnare prey. A new vampire is created when a body drained of blood, preferably one recently dead, is fed a small quantity of blood from a vampire, then has its lungs filled from the lungs of its vampire ‘parent,’ jump-starting the technically dead systems. The ‘offspring’ must feed from a fresh source soon after this in order to maintain function. Recently dead ‘offspring’ are more capable of discerning their predicament and coping with it in various ways, while corpses dead for a lengthy period of time have typically experienced such decay of their brains that they are little more than zombies (though they crave blood instead of brains, head wounds just bleed more).
Vampires, cold iron, garlic and sunlight.
Cold iron, that is to say iron in a pure form with a minimum of refinement, is seen as a ward against evil spirits. In the case of vampires, this is more than superstition. The ferrous nature of the metal causes disruption of the hyper-active nervous system of a vampire. An iron stake stabbed or hammered into the heart of a vampire will immobilize it. Wooden stakes suffice if the vampire is at rest, as the stake will make it difficult for the vampire to rise, allowing hunters to behead it and thus destroy it – you can’t kill a vampire, as they are already technically dead. Stab a vampire who’s up and about with a wooden stake, however, and all you’ll get is a bloody shank of wood and a very angry vampire. Clever vampires being hunted will often pretend to fall when staked with wood, only to devour their would-be slayers and remove the stake, more dangerous than before. Also, refined iron and iron alloys like steel do not have the same disruptive effect. This is a fact that leads more modern vampire hunters to shoot a vampire in the heart and then stand motionless and shocked when the vampire doesn’t fall down ‘dead’. Finally, a large enough amount of iron will utterly repulse a vampire, which is why graveyards often have wrought iron fences. Despite a vampire’s ability to vault such obstacles, the nature of the wrought iron keeps the vampire out and thus deprives them of possible ‘shock troops’ or a safe haven from hunters.
Also, garlic repels vampires because their sensitive senses are especially vulnerable to the smell. Very loud noises, such as explosions or jet engines, are also irritants. Finally, vampires tend to get sunburnt more easily than humans, since their skin lacks some of the proteins living humans produce on a daily basis, but are otherwise not instantly reduced to ash by the rays of the sun. Sunlight, however, carries a great deal of power and tends to disrupt a vampire’s nervous system, though to a much lesser extent than cold iron. Walking around during the day for a vampire is not unlike a human walking around at 4 am after a full day of work starting at 6 am the previous morning; entirely possible, but the vampire will eventually grow drained, lethargic, and may begin to hallucinate. Fresh blood can maintain a vampire in the same way cans of Red Bull or lines of cocaine can sustain a human during this time, but eventually, they both need to just take a break and get some sleep.
It should be noted that vampires, in sunlight, do NOT sparkle.
Vampires are subtle.
Vampires are predators. They move through the sea of humanity the way a lion moves through the long grass of the savanna stalking its prey. Just like the ill-fated herbivores of that grassland, mortals shouldn’t know the smiling, funny and intelligent person buying them drinks and chatting them up is a blood-sucking fiend from beyond the grave until it’s far too late. This means you don’t flash your fangs at the earliest opportunity. Wearing nothing but black leather and matching longcoats is a good way to get spotted, and while the look is very badass, it’s not very subtle. Neither is an open war with lycanthropes, but the big fuzzies are a subject for another notes session. My thinking is that vampires would try to maintain their habits, dress sense and mannerisms from when they were technically alive. This would become more difficult as time goes on, of course, with ancient vampires acting in anachronistic ways and possibly being kept from humanity at large by their subordinates for the good of their society.
Vampires are a selective minority.
There was a time when vampirism was more rampant, when countrysides and villages were terrorized by these creatures of the night. But power corrupts, and having absolute control over an area leads to a vampire growing decadent and unrestrained. Just because you can rip a peasant’s head from their shoulders with a minimum amount of effort doesn’t mean you necessarily should. The Inquisition and witch-hunts of the centuries in the middle of the last millennium showed that humanity will not stand for too much that is outside of what they consider ‘normal.’ They fear what they do not understand, and how someone can remain not only mobile after death but maintain their complexion, charm and holdings is certainly difficult to understand.
This means that vampires need to be careful who they choose to bring into their fold. A potential ‘offspring’ has to have potential that is otherwise going to waste in their daily life. Most vampire ‘parents’ look for like minds who are frustrated by the restraints of mortal life, be they restrained by their job, circumstances or family situation. Some present the alternative of vampirism in a private and frank manner, while others become intimately involved with their future ‘offspring’ and bestow vampirism as a gift, which may or may not be received kindly. The minority among this selective minority are the ‘accidents’, humans who are drained to death and given vampiric breath and blood in order to save their life. This is often seen as an act by someone inexperienced or immature, as not everybody can handle the reality of vampirism and becoming emotionally attached to humans is seen by some of the older vampires as an utterly idiotic act. How attached, they reason, did you become to your steak or salad when you were alive?
Vampires are dangerous and societal.
The high frequency of the vampire’s nervous system coupled with a highly specialized circulatory system makes them powerful creatures. On instinct, the circulatory system can lengthen the incisors of the vampire into the distinctive fangs used for feeding as well as defense. With training, a vampire can use their blood to lengthen their nails as well, which make for sharp but brittle defensive weapons. The most dangerous vampires have trained themselves to strengthen these weapons to the point that they can perform truly superhuman feats when their superior strength and agility is taken into account, such as climbing walls without visible support, tearing the door from a car and hurling it away, and surviving leaps from tall buildings without breaking a single bone. While such displays are frowned upon by vampire society at large, there are times when a vampire has no other choice but to reveal the full extent of their powers. It has been argued that these powers are part and parcel of being predators of the human race, but that the most dangerous power a vampire possesses is time.
Given enough time to research and train, vampires can use their unique nature to explore powers, theories and abilities hitherto unknown amongst humanity. Use of blood in the brain’s largely dormant areas can spark even higher levels of intelligence, reportedly unlocking the potential for telepathy or telekinesis. It has been theorized that the vampiric body is something more than its dead tissues and is capable of changing shape, density and even state, leading to the myth of vampires becoming “as mist” – if there is truth to this myth, vampires aren’t confirming it. In order to remain capable and unpredictable predators, vampire society cultivates an atmosphere of secrets and mystery, maintained by a codex of laws governing how vampires interact with humanity, the ‘legal’ scope and nature of research into the vampiric condition, and punishment for infractions, ranging from dismemberment of varying degrees (severed limbs can be reattached) to incineration while conscious, the most severe and final of penalties.
Vampires are territorial.
Also governed by laws are the territories of vampires and the ways in which one vampire may enter, contest or even seize the territory of another. After the Inquisition, it was decided by the oldest surviving vampires that such interactions needed to happen under certain guidelines, that would allow vampires to hunt without worrying about confrontations that might lead to the use of overt superhuman abilities and thus draw undue attention to the society as a whole. However, like any species of predators, hunting grounds will be contested and fought over. It’s become less common for these contests to be physical altercations, more often resolved in more civilized formats such as chess matches, poker games, or elaborate high-stakes gambits involving sports venues, politics or banking ventures.
Vampires are monsters.
Being formerly dead, vampires are no longer human. This can be difficult to cope with in the case of the victim turned vampire. Those who do learn to adapt, however, grow comfortable with their new state and even revel in it. Just like a wine connoisseur enjoying the perfect merlot, or a steak fanatic sampling a cut of top sirloin, vampires become selective of their prey and truly enjoy the act of feeding from a particular kind of human, with the act of feeding releasing endorphins not unlike the act of sex for humans. And with the hyper-sensitive systems of the vampire, this feeling is all the more potent. Feeding from animals does not have quite the same effect, and drinking blood from bags is the vampiric equivalent of eating cold pizza. While feeding from humans is inherently monstrous, it’s also the best and most enjoyable way to gain sustenance. It behooves individual vampires, then, to grow accustomed to the act.
That’s all I can think of for now.