What are Your Influences?

ladyoftheriversIt’s important that we know and understand our influences as writers and recognize when those influences appear in our own writing, both well and poorly. I just finished The Lady of the Rivers by Phillipa Gregory, which is a novel that fictionalizes most of the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, wife of Henry Woodville, and mother of Queen Elizabeth. The novel focuses heavily on the relationship between Jacquetta and Margaret Anjou, the wife of King Henry the VI of England. By and large it was a wonderful novel. Not being a Medieval historian I can’t actually tell you how accurate the novel is, but a little light research has shown that at least most of the major characters and events actually existed and happened. In fact, the only point of contention that I have with the novel is one of obvious influence. There are points in the novel that are obviously influenced by concepts of modern feminism, which by and large are well-written and effective. The character of Jacquetta is both very strong and a good wife, mother, and friend to those around her. However, the author writes several scenes from Jacquetta’s perspective in which the character seems jealous of Margaret Anjou’s place as ‘a woman in her power’, normally after Margaret has done something truly horrible, like have a bunch of innocent people executed.

Henry was not exactly a good or wise king.

Henry was not exactly a good or wise king.

This obviously has my mind on our influences. The author of this work was fairly obviously influenced by feminist thought and ideals, and that influence generally comes through in her work in a positive fashion. Jacquetta is an excellent example of someone who is both a strong woman and a good person. This lends credence to her use as a positive example of ‘a woman in her power’, as Jacquetta is certainly powerful in several ways. However, the use of Margaret Anjou as a second positive example of ‘a woman in her power’ is problematic, especially in the scenes where the author makes these allusions. Where Jacquetta wields her power well and wisely, Margaret (who is doubtlessly a woman of power) uses her power for selfish ends that do not bring about good results for anyone but herself, and ultimately not for herself. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the author intends to contrast Jacquetta and Margaret as two powerful women, one good and the other wicked, but the scenes I am speaking of do not support such a contrast. Instead, they throw it into doubt.

And Margaret Anjou wasn't exactly a good person.

And Margaret Anjou wasn’t exactly a good person.

Whenever we write multiple influences show themselves. Often we are aware of at least some of them. My own writing is obviously influenced by my Christian beliefs, my research into the occult, my philosophical and theological studies, my martial arts practice, and my own fantasy and science fiction reading. However, there are usually influences that are less obvious to us as authors. It is important to make the attempt to identify some of these influences, though it is unlikely that you will ever identify all of them, and seek to understand their proper place in your writing. For instance, my own somewhat troubled childhood has certainly influenced my writing, as has my generally pessimistic/realistic view of the world, my romantic frustrations, and my generally low view of man’s moral nature. I’m sure that there are probably some influences that don’t really have any positive place in writing. I may be wrong about this, and I’m not going to try to identify any, but it is my guess that there must be at least a few influences that should simply be excised. However, by and large every influence contributes something to our writing, and it is up to us to determine how much contribution we allow, and what specific contributions we allow. From the example above, I think that feminism could perhaps have had a more positive influence in Gregory’s novel if it had a little less overall influence in her novel.

So, this is my quesiton to you on this fine July day: what are the major influences in your writing? Have you taken account of them? Have you examined how they contribute to your work? Have you sought to tease out the good and the bad and deal with them individually? All of these are things that are worth doing.

Scene Challenge of the Week

StrainDelToroHoganCoverWelcome to Wednesday! So, we’ve added a lot of followers in the past month, and there seems to be a pretty regular stream coming in. We’ve gone from around 700 to almost 1200 and I’m honestly really excited about this growth. So, I’ve set a new goal! Someday, I want this blog to have 20,000 followers. Trust me when I say that I realize we are no where near making this a reality. This is a long-term goal and I don’t expect to see it happen next year, or even in the next five years. I do think that it’s a realistic seven to ten year goal, but we’ll see what happens. As you know, today is your scene challenge, and you all should know the rules, but just in case: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Poetry: The Castle Crumbles

fantasy castle in cloudsI’m really busy with my thesis work this week, so I thought I would share some more of my poetry with you. I wrote this particular poem after a really bad breakup. It was inspired by a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Enjoy :)

The Castle Crumbles

We built a castle in the air—

and as Thoreau or maybe Emerson advise,

we tried to put a foundation under it—

and it was all I could have wished.

Though I’ve never been much for dreams,

I liked this one, perhaps or certainly because

it seemed real. We watched the thunderstorms

and listened to the rain crash around us,

beauty so great we thought we’d never want to leave.

I couldn’t see the ground beneath us anymore,

but I said it was ok because our castle was still anchored.

A good castle is mostly flights of fantasy, with just a dash

of intruding reality to keep you sane.

But one day without warning,

the storms cleared and I found reality far away.

Most fantasies crack before they collapse,

but our castle crumbled at a touch of the sun.

We built too high and forgot our roots

and all I could do was watch as things fell apart.

Now, from earth, I see only broken remnants.

I’ll leave the castles in the air to the dreamers,

and content myself with the storms below.

Story Challenge of the Week

images (2)Well, I’m driving back to Wake Forest today. Yay for travelling! Okay… honestly, I don’t expect any of you to be particularly concerned with my travel itinerary, I just didn’t know how else to begin today’s post. I’m sitting here after having read a bunch of philosophy and my brain is a little… weary. I think weary is probably the best word for it at the moment. So, today is your story challenge and I’m going to connect this post to the Plot Challenges I’ve been having you do to build your world. I want you to set this story in one of the nations that you developed for this post. One of the best ways to develop a world to write in, amazingly enough, is to write in that world. The more you write, the more your understanding of the world will solidify. The key here is to remember what you’ve written before and keep your world consistent (this is where world bibles come in handy). So, pick your nation and then write a story based off of these questions:

Your Challenge: What character archetype did you develop this nation around? Who was the ruler? Now that you have that in mind, consider: what is this particular ruler’s philosophy of governance and authority? How does he rule? Why does he rule that way? What does he believe is good about his reign? Write a story characterizing this ruler and his particular ideology. If you like the exercise, do it for all of the rulers/ruling bodies that you created. As always, have fun with this exercise. If you don’t enjoy it (at least to some degree) then you’re doing it wrong.

Sunday Picture Post

So, I’m sure you probably know that we don’t usually post on Sundays. If you don’t… well, we don’t usually post on Sundays. We like to take Sundays off here at The Art of Writing (though it is possible that in the coming months you might see some satire from a friend of mine who used to post for us. Anyway, you probably also know that I like to give you all something nice to look at. So, from the abhorrent depths of the Google search engine, mined with much danger, I present you this:

The apes shall rise! ... Go see the movie :P.

The apes shall rise! … Go see the movie :P.

Philosophical Story Challenge

human_nature_by_molicious-d4x4992Hey everyone! Time for another philosophical story challenge. I’ve really enjoyed reading the responses to the last few that I posted, so keep up the good work everyone! For this week’s challenge I want to look at the idea of human nature. In the world today we chalk a lot of things up to “human nature” but if you’ve ever sat down and tried to pin-point characteristics of human nature it can be difficult, to say the least. Sure, it’s easy to say things like love and friendship are part of human nature–and they certainly are–but then we have to confront the elephant in the room: hatred. It seems hatred is as much a part of human nature as love and the desire for societal connection. I mean, if we just look at the history of the world it is filled with violence, and perhaps even more intriguing to me is the fact that most of this violence is justified by love of different things. In fact, I think it can honestly be said that sometimes both parties in a conflict can desire the same thing, but because of differences in religion or culture this common goal is never achieved. It’s tragic, really. So for your challenge this week I want you to write a story where there is some form of conflict and both sides ultimately want the same thing, but due to fear and hatred or discrimination it cannot be attained.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, first of all, allow me to apologize for the general lackadasicality of the past couple of days. I’m afraid I’ve been traveling for a wedding and I didn’t have a chance to post last night. The last I spoke with Neal he was planning to get a post up for Thursday, so I’m really not sure what happened there. However, I do want to apologize to all of our readers who’ve missed out the past couple of days. I’m sure you all remember from a couple of week’s ago that we’re trying to put together a coherent world that you can write in. You should already have a basic structure for at least part of that world. So, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world. Here’s your picture:

Sometimes the real world comes up with things we never would have imagined :).

Sometimes the real world comes up with things we never would have imagined :).

Scene Challenge of the Week

It's a good morning!

It’s a good morning!

Life is expensive. One way or another something always comes down the pipe that winds up costing money. Often, whatever it is coming down the pipe costs more money than you actually have, and sometimes it’s multiple things coming at once that each cost more than you have. Taken together, that can be a little bit overwhelming. However, God provides. This is one thing that I have learned well in my Christian life. God always provides, sometimes in ways that you don’t expect, and often in ways that you really couldn’t have expected. Sometimes he even provides in ways that seem completely and thoroughly normal… until you sit down to think about it for awhile. So, as Paul says, rejoice. Rejoice in your happiness, rejoice in your plenty, rejoice in your pain, rejoice in your grief, rejoice in your poverty. In all things, rejoice (and again I say, rejoice… …I just had to throw that in there :P). Anyway, today’s exercise is a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about real joy. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie about struggle and find a moment of pure joy in the middle of it. Honestly, you’ll probably be surprised how easy it is to do that. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

Defeating Writer’s Block 2: Slugging it out

I know. Those of you who are keeping up are saying, “But Paul, last week you told us to write something other than our novel.” But fear not, I will not deceive you. There are many ways to skin a cat (though I don’t know any of them, I keep getting told this by people who I believe know how to skin a great many things), and there are many ways to get around writer’s block.

I was stuck on the same chapter for a good long while. There was laundry, dishes, a dirty toilet (the entire bathroom was dirty, but I pace myself), I only needed 30 more Pokemon, my brother wanted to play board games, my nephew lost control of his bowels so I had to hand him off to my sister-in-law, etc. I’ll bet each one of you reading this post has had more than one moment where you looked at your current work and said, “I’m not inspired to do this because I’m hungry, the apartment is dirty, and I could really use a nap.”

It took me an hour to find a female saying I need to write. Very motivational.

It took me an hour to find a female saying I need to write. Very motivational.

This isn’t an issue of sitting down to write and you have nothing to say. This is an issue of not sitting down, and often times it’s cured by an egg timer set to an hour and a comfortable chair which electrocutes you if you show signs of sleeping. When you start writing again, you will find your rhythm. And you will inevitably lose the rhythm again

Here is how you slug it out. Put on good music. Place some kind of timer down. Maybe use some software (check below for the link) which forces you to write at a quickened pace. Tell friends.

You know what motivates me? People in my industry know I’m writing a novel, and when we talk for business reasons they ask, “So Paul, when am I getting my signed copy?” With a sheepish grin, I respond “First quarter,” and then “Third quarter,” and now I’m resigned to, “Fourth quarter, I promise.” And it’s looking like it might happen. But when I get that phone call during the day, it haunts me the rest of the day. You know what I do when I get home? I write. Forget the toilet. The creature growing in there gets to live for one more day.

To sum it all up, I’ve heard people say this is cruel advice, the “Just write” advice doesn’t take into consideration we have lives. I don’t comprehend the struggle of kids and a spouse. Or even a significant other, for that matter (it’s been 500 days or so, I think). I go home and sit around in my underwear, watching TV, playing Pokemon, and writing at leisure. But I know a lot of people who have kids and they still pop out 500 words or more three to four times a week. Some find the ability to do this six or seven days a week. I hear the “But if you love me, you’ll take the kids for an hour,” works wonders. They either do it, or the marriage becomes brief and suddenly you have time. Honestly, though, I’m not trying to be cruel by telling you to sit down and write. I’m just trying to tell you it really does work. So please, sit down and write.

As with last time, if you do have some suggestions on how to kick writer’s block, or if you have a question for me, please do ask and it’ll show up next time I post! I love feedback, I prefer positive but I’ll take negative attention if it’s all I can get, so please do comment.

Link as promised. Because we all write better under severe and unrelenting pressure.

I'll be in my bunk. Writing.

I’ll be in my bunk. Writing.

Story Challenge of the Week

Well, my good(ish) computer is down for the count at the moment, though hopefully I’ll have it back up and running by tomorrow. However, until I do, I’m using my backup, which is very old and doesn’t work well. Thus, no photo for today’s post and I’m going to keep it kind of short. I also just watched the first episode of The Strain, adapted from the novels by Chuck Hogen and Del Toro. So, you know where my brain is at the moment. Anyway, today is the day for a story challenge, and it’s time for my favorite story challenge. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archtypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.

Theme: The New Vampires

Genre: Fantasy/Horror

Setting: Up to you. This could be a modern world with modern vampires, a classical fantasy world for classical vampires, or something entirely different.

Character Archetypes:

1) A woman at the end of a difficult divorce

2) A surly homeless man

3) A king or high-powered laywer, banker, attorney, or politician

4) A kid who loves baseball

Items:

1) A silver plated sword

2) A watch

3) A large transport of some kind (place, train, ship, etc)

 

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