Category: Writing (page 1 of 81)

500 Words on Carving

No, we’re not carving you up, little calf. It’ll be okay. Here, have some sprouts.

We cool?

Okay, then.

Last night, I went to see Chuck Wendig. He’s an author I’d had the privilege of meeting once before, way back in 2009, at a tiny game convention in Philadelphia. We played a role-playing game together, jammed about writing, and I tried not to make an ass of myself. No small feat, back in those days. He was excited to see me again, and we talked about Seattle and writing with another man I’m very glad to have finally met, Phil Brucato, mastermind of Mage: the Ascension and a game I’m dying to try out called “Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy“.

All three of us, at one point, talked about carving the time out of the days in order to write.

“In large, bloody chunks,” I recalled Chuck writing at one point.

Both men gave grim nods.

From professional novelists to fanfic enthusiasts, writers cannot merely find the time to write. We have to make the time. That’s just as difficult as the writing itself. The world at large makes all sorts of demands on our time and energy. There’s always another chore, another commitment, another distraction. We want to give ourselves a break, try to get other things done, clear our decks to do nothing but write.

The insidious truth is that such a state of being, where nothing but writing happens, rarely if ever exists.

Writing happens in a particular space, a conflux of physical, mental, and emotional states, and we writers need to assure ourselves that we can, and should, ask for that space. It’s possible to think that you don’t deserve it, because you haven’t been writing anyway, or those dishes have been stacking up, or seriously I need to spend more time with my partner. It’s also possible to feel that you’re somehow entitled to it, and shirk everything else just to write, which is arguably worse than the former possibility.

Bottom line? You have to carve out the right slice of time, and make the most of it before you balance it with something else.

We cannot, and should not, exist in a vacuum. We have our writerly spaces, sure, from libraries we prefer to sheds we build just for writing — and perhaps slugging whiskey and howling and throwing poo at the walls. What happens in the Mystery Box stays in the Mystery Box. Thing is, we can’t always be there. How can we relate our words to the world if we’re not in the world more often than not?

“Carve the time,” Chuck admonished me when he wrote in my writing journal. A reminder that while the world makes its demands, I deserve to make the time to write. I shouldn’t seek to let writing dominate my time, either. I can strike the right balance, with my sharpened metaphorical knives. That’s a skill in and of itself.

He wrote something else, too.

“Finish thine shit.”

On Fridays I write 500 words.

Photo courtesy The Dodo.

500 Words on World-Building

I’m very much looking forward to introducing more people to Dungeons & Dragons. The published materials for that purpose within the Starter Set are quite fine, but even moreso than the content within the books, I appreciate the flexibility of it. It’s been a while since I’ve put together a world into which others will be introducing characters with their own motivations, drives, fears, and goals. I want to flex those muscles again.

As much as I like the Forgotten Realms setting, what’s the harm in creating what might be considered a parallel world on the Prime Material Plane? Similar, but different in many ways. Same maps, different names. Similar factions, different motivations. A history all its own that resonates with the high points of established materials. If nothing else, it’s a great exercise in world-building.

Even when set in the modern era on Earth, authors tend to create their own worlds when they set out to tell a new story. Look at Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Seanan McGuire’s October Day, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards, Lev Grossman’s the Magicians — the list goes on. I know that these are all fantasy examples, but considering this pontification is rooted my D&D ambitions, they’re what come to mind for me. I’m sure you can think of your own.

Speaking of D&D, there’s been quite a bit written about the Starter Set called Lost Mines of Phandelver. For my part, my desire is not just to integrate it into a slightly different world of my own creation, but also deepen and flesh out the characters within the adventure. Even within a D&D campaign, I’m not terribly fond of one-dimensional characters, be they cackling villains or glorified vending machines. These are, for the most part, people; people have thoughts and feelings, they have hopes and dreams, they make mistakes. To me, it’s important to convey those things and demonstrate that the protagonist (or in this case, the player character) are not alone in the world in terms of beings with agency and identity.

Not long ago, I began running an adventure for some friends at a neighbor’s house. Upon a cursory reading, I got a notion for how the local innkeep behaved and what his relationships were like. On the fly, as the players interacted with him, I created the character’s partner and began role-playing their interactions in front of the players. It was just a little flavor, a bit of color splashed into the black and white text of the pages in front of me. And it went over incredibly well.

I can’t overstate the importance of taking just a little time to flesh out parts of your world, whatever you’re creating it for and however you’re creating it. Tolkien and Martin might at times get carried away with descriptors, but would we care so much about their tales and their many characters without those passages, that depth? Their worlds persist because of the way they were built. Don’t you want the same for yours?

On Fridays I write 500 words.

Admiration for an Admiral

“No one is immune from failure. All have tasted the bitterness of defeat and disappointment. A warrior must not dwell on that failure, but must learn from it and continue on.”

I’m trying to think of a villainous character that has affected me as thoroughly and deeply as Star Wars‘ Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo.

Writing villains seems deceptively easy. Give them a plan of conquest, add some mustache-twirling or overtly abusive behavior, make them cruel to underlings, plant petards on which to hoist them. Wipe your hands, done and dusted.

Not so with Thrawn. Yes, he’s diabolical in thought. He’s ruthless in executed action. He’s the direct and diametric opposite of our heroes.

But, especially in the “new canon” — the Rebels animated series and especially his origin novel by the inimitable Timothy Zahn — there’s something admirable about the admiral.

The Empire, in Star Wars, is just as much a stand-in for Nazi Germany as Sauron is a stand-in for the Kaiser, or Adolf Hitler. It is a brutal, xenophobic regime, dedicated to a ‘purity’ within the galaxy and the utter destruction of unrestricted thought and the usage of power, not for its own sake, but for altruism and introspection. The Empire is always looking without, never within, and assaulting the opposition and the misunderstood with seething hatred and disgusting self-congratulation.

And hither comes Thrawn, an alien, a warrior, and seemingly, the last thing the Empire would want.

Thrawn is a free thinker. He is just as much a philosopher as a tactician. He is aware of how clever he is, but he applies that cleverness to his goals, which is always the defeat of his enemy. He has his moments of weakness, and of failure, but he uses those moments as lessons to be applied to future encounters. He respects his enemies. He despises incompetence and foolishness in his would-be peers. In an Empire full of hotheads, egomanics, and demagogues, he is cool, measured, respectful, meticulous, and, in species as well as thought, alien.

I find these qualities admirable, and I wonder: is he truly villainous?

Yes, he works for the villains. Yes, he exhibits ruthlessness towards the heroes. Yes, he employs occasionally brutal tactics to achieve his desired goals — which, as befits a warrior, is the destruction of his enemies.

But does he do these things out of malice? Blind hatred? Ignorant, projected rage?

No. He wages war because he’s good at it, he finds it a fascinating application of his abilities, and, in the end, he likes it.

Not inflicting pain, mind you. He’d much rather defeat an enemy expediently, demonstrate that they will lose, and offer them a chance to surrender and save lives. He is an artist, his medium is warfare, and his materials are the ships, troops, and officers at his command. He’s loyal, dedicated, charismatic, and cool under fire. He has the wherewithal to admit to mistakes he makes, admire his opponents, and do whatever is in his power to improve himself and those around him for the betterment of all.

Aren’t these qualities we often find in protagonists, in heroes?

We don’t really attribute honor, introspection, and respect for others to the Empire, or the Nazis for that matter. More often than not, it is those we admire and those cast as positive protagonists in our stories that exhibit such qualities. And, according to Zahn in the new canon novel, Thrawn may indeed be more than just another villainous tool in the Emperor’s arsenal. I’ll put this bit behind a spoiler tag.

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Thrawn explains to the Emperor that he was exiled from the Chiss Ascendancy due to his use of pre-emptive strikes. This is a lie. The Chiss sent Thrawn as a scout, to suss out the Empire’s abilities and strengths and evaluate them as potential allies in battling threats from deeper within the Unknown Regions. This is a huge risk for Thrawn: if he is caught or killed, he will be unable to relay anything to his true superiors. That, to me, is a heroic undertaking. By the same token, he shows a great deal of trust in Eli Vanto, sending the human officer to the Chiss as a contingency a calamity befalling Thrawn personally. A friend and confidant, Vanto can inform the Chiss of a great many things, and bridge the gap between the galactic powers if Thrawn is unable to do so.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m biased towards antagonists who favor brains and cunning over brawn and bluster. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see; there are aspects of Thrawn that personally speak to me. The same way that Sherlock Holmes or Tyrion Lannister are characters who rely on cleverness and discernment to achieve their goals, Thrawn is defined by his brilliant mind and careful application of deduction and strategy. I know I could use more of that in my life.

Either way, I’ll be sad if the last season of Rebels is the end of Thrawn’s story. He’s mentioned in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy (now available in paperback, go buy some books), but his fate is left ambiguous. It’s unclear to me, in the end, if Thrawn is truly a villain, but in this case, he’s certainly cast as one.

But not all those cast as villains truly allow evil to fester in their hearts.

I would like to think that if Thrawn truly feels emotions like hate, he can examine, disassemble, and reorient those energies. His few moments of anger are still incredibly restrained by Imperial standards, and it shows a quality of character rarely seen among the one-dimensional jackbooted thugs around him. It speaks to someone who is more than the sum of their parts, more than the mere sketch of the role into which they are cast.

And, in the end, who among us isn’t more than they seem or are reported to be?

500 Words From Heinlein

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

I lie. Not all 500 of these words come to you from the pen of Robert A. Heinlein. But most of them will. Mostly because, after several years, I once again picked up (or, in this case, began listening to) The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, a seminal book of my early teen years and the one that pushed me towards this writing business in which I engage.

… I have this one nasty habit. Makes me hard to live with. I write …

At the moment, writing is not my primary profession. But it’s always there. In the back of my mind, a prodding need persists. I’m a storyteller. I have to tell stories. It’s a basic imperative, like my need to eat and breathe and gallivant as urbanely, responsibly, and respectfully as possible. Those things cost, and writing, at least in the stage I linger at, does not pay.

… writing is a legal way of avoiding work without actually stealing and one that doesn’t take any talent or training.

I’m in a perpetual state of “I’m working on it,” with a few projects. I am, hopefully, in a place where I can carve out more time to do it. And none too soon, because it’s really started to bug me.

… writing is antisocial. 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 …

I of course am not so ignorant as to blame my writing for the skeletons hanging in my closet. My mental illness and prior emotional instability were the impetus for several bad decisions, but as any storyteller would tell you, a good character becomes aware of their shortcomings, and seeks to overcome them. So it is with me. And yet, if writing is a shortcoming, I do not seek to overcome it.

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 …

If nothing else, writing is a way for me to express my emotions in a safe environment. The lines of journals become a padded room. And as plotlines and characters take shape and grow over the course of my writing, parts of myself and my experiences and emotions flow into them. I have professional therapists — and a battery of medications and vitamins — but my pen, perhaps, is the best tool for how I continue to get better.

Besides…

There is no way to stop. Writers go on writing long after it becomes financially unnecessary … because it hurts less to write than it does not to write.

Indeed.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

500 Words On Failure Rate

not a clever man

It might seem to the outside observer, who only keeps track of me through this blog — and I do believe there are a few — that the last couple weeks have seen me sitting around doing nothing but play Star Trek Online (which I do every night, no YOU’RE the one with the problem) and eat vegan bonbons. The thing is, though, I’ve been very busy. I have a new dayjob that includes a hellish daily commute, which is a problem that will solve itself once I can telecommute, and my drastically increased income has brought along with it a greater proportion of my home life’s responsibilities, the combination of which occupies the bulk of my time. While I do carve out time for writing, thinking about writing, and doing research for writing, there’s an unseen factor that some may not take into consideration: many of my projects fail before they even see the end of a first draft.

It’s not just because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and also a bit of a magpie in terms of attention span. There’s also the fact that I can start a project, get well into it, then realize that it’s a bad idea. I set out towards a goal and get lost along the way. I end up in a bad place. I look back upon my work and say to myself “I am not a clever man.”

This is an over-simplification, of course. Having the wherewithal to exercise self-awareness to the point of realizing the flaws in one’s own work indicates a base level of cleverness. But I digress.

This failure rate is due in part to ill-defined scope — I have an idea and can visualize key moments but there’s no connective tissue or narrative flow — and an over-abundance of self-interest — characters and situations that resonate too much with people and events from the real world. While we write what we know, to write based on experiences to the point that direct parallels can be drawn feels, to me, a bit self-indulgent. It’s cathartic, sure, but not everybody is interested in seeing me work out my problems in publicly available prose.

So, into the bin it goes. Either I turn to a new page in my writing notebook, or I leave the draft to sit incomplete and ignored somewhere on the cloud before I eventually mine it for ideas in a better story, or just delete it entirely. This can also happen mid-project: there’s a reason I haven’t recorded a vlog in a while. The format wasn’t great and my delivery needed tons of work. I also wasn’t terribly confident and, as mentioned above, a little self-indulgent. Not my cleverest work.

Still, you can’t get a gem without hacking it out of rock. Alchemy happens with fire, patience, and destruction of imperfections. You have to dice your veggies before you add them to the scramble. So on and so forth.

I’m still here, still working, still being awesome.

Despite my failures.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

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