Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, it’s time for a plot challenge! I usually try to start these out with something about my life, but honestly it’s been pretty chill here. Other than struggling to understand Thomas Aquinas and avoiding overindulgences I’m doing well. Alayna and I are getting married in a few weeks, and that’s exciting. For now, I’m just enjoying research and hoping to get more work pretty soon after the wedding. Anyway, 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 – also, just a thought, in Kalagrosh, one of the worlds that I’ve included is a world in which sound doesn’t exist – you might try doing something like this. Create a world where things just work differently. The rules of physics are completely different, or something that we take completely for granted (like sound) is non-existent, and then figure out how the world works without it. Here’s your picture:

fantasy-city-221560

On Getting Married, Thomas Aquinas, and the Fine Art of Procrastination

eu4_2So, a friend of mine gave me a free copy of the game Europa Universalis. It came out of nowhere, he literally just messaged me on facebook to ask if I wanted a copy. I’d never played the game before, but it is both fun and addictive. It does teach some amount of history, geography, large scale economics, management and strategy, and all of these things are good. Honestly, I think that in manageable increments the game could be a great teaching tool (which is something I’m always on the look out for–if anyone wants to teach their kids about bioethics, policy-level politics, Japanese history, Chinese history, or large scale geography, strategy, and management in a way that is entertaining and enjoyable then I have suggestions for you). Unfortunately, the game is seriously addictive and I’ve managed to get sucked into it to the point of coming close to neglecting my other responsibilities. I haven’t yet–everything that I need to get done is getting done. I’m spending time with God, bills are getting paid, research is getting read, Alayna is being taken care of, etc. However, I have noticed that I’m spending exorbitant amounts of time with the game (…and I might add that I’m not sleeping as much as I should…).

hulkWhat I am facing at the moment is what Aristotle called akrasia and Aquinas called cupiscence. Both suggest a certain weakness of the will (actually that’s literally what akrasia means–the cupisciple desire is the desire for good things, but when those things are desired more than they should be [such as a glutton overeating] then cupiscence becomes a very bad thing). In Aquinas’ terminology I am giving something that it inherently good (i.e. rest, relaxation, and moderate education) a greater hold than it should have. Why does this matter? Well, speaking in Thomistic terms the solution to an overwhelming desire for more of a good thing than one should have is the irascible desire (or the desire to do difficult things–in this case, playing less of the game). So, there are virtues that Aquinas assigns to both the cupisciple and the irascible powers (or faculties/abilities), and these are temperance and fortitude (or courage).

aquinasSo, the answer to my problem is to practice 1) temperance in my desire for downtime, relaxation, and gameplaying, and 2) fortitude when my desire threatens to overwhelm my good sense. Now, prudence (a moral/intellectual virtue that Aquinas assigns to the practical reason [as opposed to the speculative reason]) tells me that I am, in fact, playing this game more than I should be, and that I need to cut back on it, and perhaps even cut it out complete if I’m going to be successful in playing less. It also tells me that I’m going to need to plan other things to do when I want to play the game–such as exercise or do research. So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, 1) this is (to a point) me showing off some of what I’ve learned in the last couple of months. 2) This is also me trying to actually apply what I’ve learned so that Aquinas’ theories are not merely theoretical to me, but practical as well. 3) I actually do think that Aquinas’ conception of man’s nature can be very helpful for writers. Aquinas sets out five powers (vegitative–or the ability to grow and reproduce; locomotive–or the ability to move; sensible–or the ability to be aware of surroundings and form desires; appetitive–or the ability to make choices; intellectual–or the ability to reason from a given premise to a proper conclusion). Each of these power has multiple sub-powers, but the ones that matter most are the sensible (which is broken into the cupisciple power that desires and the irascible power that resists) and the intellectual (which is broken into the speculative reason that deals with theoretical knowledge and the practical reason that deals with applied knowledge). He also identifies virtues and vices common to each power. For instance, temperance and concupiscence are the primary virtue and vice of the cupisciple power. Fortitude and cowardice are the primary virtue and vice of the irascible power. Prudence and imprudence are the primary moral virtue and vice of the practical reason while art and unskillfulness are the primary non-moral virtue and vice of the practical reason. He also assigns science and ignorance, wisdom and foolishness, and understanding and lack of understanding as the primary virtues and vices of the speculative reason (science and ignorance having to do with knowledge of mundane secondary things such as biology, geology, or positive law; wisdom and foolishness having to do with divine secondary things such as soteriology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, etc; and understanding having to do with first principles–or those things that are known by intuition and that cannot be proven [such as the rule that two contradictory claims cannot be true–for instance I cannot be both caucasian and not caucasian, though I could be both caucasian and asian]).

virtue chartAquinas’ detailed understanding of the inner structure of the human being as a divinely created and inspired rational animal gives us a lot to work with when it comes to character development. For instance, understanding your characters in this way might make it very clear why John struggles to keep putting his work in the appropriate place in his life (perhaps he has an overly strong cupisciple attachment to it or an overly weak irascible nature). Perhaps Genevieve has a well-developed scientific virtue, but a very under developed sense of prudence and understanding which leads her to be a rather amoral sceptic when it comes to living everyday life. Ultimately, starting from a descent understanding of Aquinas’ view of the structure of man’s nature can definitely lead to some interesting character conclusions, but I leave that to you.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Happy-Hug-day-2013-Facebook-Timeline-covers-HD-wallpapers-Images-and-pictures12-e1387008364928Yay for politics! Aren’t you all super-psyched about the upcoming elections? No?… Really? You can’t stand the endless commercials, the arrogance of both sides, or the blatant lies that both sides then parse into something that is, in some way, beneficial for them? Good. I can’t stand it either. However, I do hope that all of you are actually paying attention to the candidates and figuring out who, if anyone, you actually want in office. While I’m not going to tell you that it is your moral obligation or your responsibility to vote (honestly, I think that there is an important place for conscientious abstainers), I am going to tell you that it is your responsibility to know whether there’s anyone that you want to vote for, and if so, who. Anyway, it’s time for 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: I want you to write a comforting scene. 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 that evokes a sense of warmth, peace, calm, or comfort. There are parts of Lars Walker, Stephen Lawhead, and David Eddings that are very effective at this. 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.

Lessons from the death of Deadpool: Consistency and Politics

My friend let me borrow the last four or five comics for Deadpool. For those unaware, a few months ago, Deadpool was sent to the great beyond.

I started at Deadpool #40, “The Magic of Gracking.” The style looked like it was done in crayons to be family friendly. The fictional oil company Exxon Roxxon paid Deadpool a lot of money to support their fracking gracking attempts, and they said everything was okay. Over the rest of the issue, they bang over your head that gracking is bad and evil, Roxxon is evil, and Sarah Silverman even shows up with super powers to tell Deadpool and the reader how evil they are.

Deadpool then goes on to help people in an undeveloped country survive against Roxxon’s attempts to kill them all. Deadpool sides with the poor people, free of charge, because he’s a nice guy.

There are two issues I have with this. First, when you do something specifically to make a political point, more often than not, it sucks. It lacks any substance aside from the propaganda, and this was 100% that. The final two comics were pretty great, as Roxxon was swept aside and became inconsequential, but before then I felt like I was in a room from 1984, being force fed information.

Let me expound. When we do art to tell the truth of the world, we are recreating the world, and through that people will glean truth. When we know the truth, form it into a baseball bat (compared to planting a seed and watching the tree grow), and proceed to club people over the head, there is no room for truth to be gleaned. There is no room for a person to grow and develop though the story, learning about themselves alongside the author. There is only room for propaganda. I’m sure they really got all the people against fracking on their side. All the green folk were out in troves, “Go Deadpool!” But I wonder how many of them read Deadpool in the first place.

Second, and actually far more important to me, they sullied Deadpool. I have to be honest, I might read a couple comics a year about him. I was informed he reached a zen-pool stage, when the comic book characters became opposites of themselves (which tells me Deadpool died in that moment). The reason Deadpool was unique, and why I liked him, is he was self-aware. He knew he was a comic book character meant to entertain, that it was all a joke, and that he was bound by shackles of ink. How do you make a true sociopath all of a sudden care about the puppets surrounding him?

I remember the zombie comic when there were kids he looked after. He barely flinched when they turned into zombies. They’re not real. He slaughtered the Marvel universe and classic literary characters to cut the strings, so he could die and no longer be stuck in that comic book. He didn’t feel bad for killing a dozen Spider-Men, because they were not real. Yet every time a Peter Parker dies, a puppy is kicked and small children learn truths reserved for adulthood, like Santa’s not real.

Suddenly in issue #40, a kid with cancer tells Deadpool the gracking is killing people, and Deadpool turns on Roxxon and their money. The Deadpool I knew and loved would say, “Kid, you don’t have cancer. You’re just here to seduce me from all this cash. Wanna swim in it later with me?” All of the people he ends up saving, in a story line which felt more inconsequential than usual for DP, weren’t real, and he knows it. And in his final moments, he should not be thinking about the protection of these poor sods who are inked in to draw appeal. He should be thinking, “FREEDOM!” He is the metaphysical Ultron, desiring no more strings, and he was given an out, finally, by his cruel overlords.

I know I wasn’t a die hard Deadpool fan. Maybe that’s why I don’t get it. But from the comics I read, from the character’s mentality and his ability to realize he’s a comic book character, I don’t get why he would ever care about the people in the comic, even if he reached a zen state. The only thing which would maybe change is his ability to enjoy it, instead of trying to gank himself.

For your own writing, watch out for the trap of becoming too political. There are always two sides. Sometimes a dozen. Even if you want to prove your point, use the art first and the truth will come through. Also, just keep your characters consistent. The readers shouldn’t look at what’s happening and think, “Body snatchers!” Yes there are moments that can redefine us, but how do you reach a turning point to shrug off knowing for a fact everyone around you is nothing but ink, fed dialogue by some greater being?

Write well, respect the art, stay consistent, guys!

Note: there is no picture, because it would have to be of Deadpool. To respect his wishes of not being utilized for the entertainment of others, I did not include such a picture. Deadpool had me type this at gunpoint.

Story Challenge of the Week

Because we all need a little star wars in our lives :).

Because we all need a little star wars in our lives :).

So, I hope that everyone liked Tom’s debut post yesterday. I personally enjoy the sense of humor in his writing, and I think that he’s going to be a great addition to the blog. Some friends threw Alayna and I a wedding shower on Saturday and we had a lot of fun at that. Also, if any of you have the chance to play the games Zombicide or Telestrations, I thoroughly suggest it. Actually… a zombie themed telestrations game could be a whole lot of fun, and is very doable (at least… much more doable than a game where you kill zombies by drawing pictures… Anyway, on a different subject entirely, I have 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 archetypes, 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 Right Place

Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, or Science Fantasy

Setting: This could be a past, present, or future setting, but either way, magic is very real and magical beings truly wander the world and are truly dangerous.

Character Archetypes:

1) The Ex-Soldier

2) The Escaped Prisoner

3) The Well-meaning attorney

4) The Monster-Turned-Man

Items:

1) A demon’s heart

2) An ancient sword

3) A bible (or equally significant religious text for this world)

A wild wordsmith appears!

Wordsmith

Good Morning, Internet!

My name is Tom, and for reasons that elude me slightly, I have been given the entire day of Sunday here on The Art of Writing, every week, to do with whate’er I will.

Obviously having a whole day of the week to look after by myself is a huge responsibility, which I shall endeavour not to neglect. My first concern is that I might lose it. I would hate for our patron, the beneficent Mr. Mastgrave, to have to explain to everyone that their weekend was a day shorter because one of his new feature writers had lost Sunday somewhere down the back of a cushion. It hardly bears thinking about. Especially when Mr. Mastgrave has been gracious enough to go out on a limb and give me a regular spot based entirely on the strength of a recommendation from Selayna, another regular writer here with whom I’m sure you’re all familiar.

Selayna told Mr. Mastgrave about my modest talent as a writer whilst neglecting to inform him about how much of a scatter-brained loafer I am, and thus here I find myself. I am charged with entertaining you all each Sunday with short stories, excerpts from my longer projects, verbose and periphrastic musings about the noble craft of the storyteller, and perhaps the occasional review of what I’ve been reading.  It is indeed an honour to have been asked. (Not an honor. Being British, I’m afraid that funny spellings and silent Us were a non-negotiable part of my esoteric contract with Mr. Mastgrave. Along with being paid entirely in Danish pastries for my services. As you can see, I drive a hard bargain.)

Selayna knows me from various online writing communities, where we’ve been writing together for years, but I was already a keen wordsmith years before we were acquainted, and a budding imagineer of fantastic worlds for years before that. What began as a passion for writing Star Trek fan fiction (and devouring Star Trek tie-in novels) developed into a general desire to write my own science fiction and fantasy stories, and – my sixteen-year-old self naturally assumed- get very rich doing it.

The kind of book I used to devour when I was a teenager

The kind of book I used to devour when I was a teenager

I have since tempered my expectations of the income of most professional authors, but I hope I haven’t tempered my determination to become one. Inspired by a strange bouillabaisse of authors including Neil Gaiman, Patrick O’Brien, Ernst Hemingway, and the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, I am doing my humble best to write the first book in an epic fantasy series. I still get distracted  every now and then by the lure of writing Star Trek fan fiction, or by other ideas which pop into my head and demand my attention, but I am making slow and steady progress on my book. I’ve written 18,000 words of my first draft, I’m going strong, and I’ll let you people know how it progresses! If pressed for a description about the overall concept, I sometimes say ‘Sharpe with elves’. If that sounds interesting, then I encourage you stay tuned.

We’ll really get cracking next Sunday. You can look forward to a small treatise on the depiction of violence in the fantasy genre, or a short story about an emperor who’s having trouble differentiating myth from reality. We’ll see which one I’ve managed to finish first!

Until then, my thanks again to Mr. Mastgrave for being kind enough to offer me this opportunity. And to all of the writers in the audience, I will sign off in the same way that I always do in conversations with my writer friends: WRITE WELL!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I hope that you’ve all had a wonderful week and that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed yourselves. Alayna and I had a pretty fun day, and some friends are throwing us a wedding shower tomorrow, which is exciting. Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot of Aquinas yesterday, and this led to a conversation between Alayna and I concerning the fundamental nature of relationship, connection, impact, and by proxy the relational concept of the person. So here is your question for today: what is a relationship? This is not simply to ask what kinds of relationships exist, but what do all of these different things have in common that make them all relationships? Does a relationship require a connection between people? For instance, can you have a relationship with a neighbor whom you’ve never met simply because you are that person’s neighbor? Must a relationship be two-sided? For instance, can you have a relationship with the earth? Can another person impact you if there is no connection between you? If so, how?

These are just some questions to get you thinking. Ultimately, the way you want to take this question is up to you. As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your response to the question, and enjoy :).

Plot Challenge of the Week

51GWQ06AQCLWell… it’s go time. Tomorrow I start into Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (again), though this time I’ll be working with sections from Part 1, Part 1-2, and Part 2-2. At least this time it feels like somewhat familiar territory and I have some general idea of what I’m getting myself into. That, at least, is encouraging–even if what I’m getting myself into is ridiculous :P. Anyway, this section of the paper needs to be about fifteen to seventeen pages long…of course, chances are that it will wind up being forty to seventy pages instead, but then I guess that I’ll just have to publish a book (figure if each of the three sections is sixty pages long, plus introduction and conclusion I’ve got myself a nice manuscript. Regardless, you’re here for a plot challenge.

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

Writing versus Editing: The Eternal Struggle

Which is more important: writing or editing?

Obviously, that’s an unfair question. To a serious writer in any type of writing, the answer should be “both.” The act of writing itself is essential because it gets you into practice and gives you raw material to work with. While your first draft probably won’t be great the very moment you put it down on paper, at least doing so gives you a draft that you can revise and improve later on. That’s where editing comes in. Even if your first draft is crap, editing lets you refine it and hone in on the good parts while weeding out the bad. Editing and revision, especially after you’ve gotten some feedback or taken some time to come at your work with a fresh perspective, are what can turn a decent story into a good one, or a good one into a great one.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

For a good writer, writing and editing should of course go hand in hand. Without the act of first writing something, editing wouldn’t exist at all. And without the act of editing and continual revision over time, writing couldn’t be nearly as good as it is. So it seems impossible to answer the question of which one is more important.

And yet, nonetheless, I’m still trying to answer that question now.

Well, maybe I’m not asking which is more important–just which one I should work on now. Here’s why.

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this blog, then you might know that, with some exceptions, I haven’t worked on writing novels in a long time. Two years of grad school and other responsibilities will do that to you. Yes, I’ve still been writing throughout all this time, and not just for school. But since my free time has been sparse for a while, I’ve focused my attention more on shorter works, such as poetry, blogs, articles, parodies, and maybe one serious short story. While I once dreamed of writing best-selling novels (or even halfway decent ones), I’ve barely worked on any for at least two years–probably closer to three, really.

But now, all that could change. I finished my graduate degree last month and, for the first time in about two decades, have absolutely no intention of continuing my studies in the fall. It’s summer and I have plenty of free time to catch up on reading, Netflix, and perhaps even writing. I have at least a few friends (and/or family members) who are using this summer to work on novels, and I want to join them because at least a part of me misses it.

But there’s a couple of problems. First, I’ve been out of novel-writing for so long that I’ll really have to re-cultivate my motivation for it if I’m going to make any progress at all. Secondly, there are two different large projects that I’ve wanted to work on, and I don’t know which one to start with or to give my attention to first. And that’s where my conflict between writing and editing comes in, because one project is a full novel that needs editing, and the other is an unfinished novel that needs writing.

I’ll give you a quick summary of both:

My full-length novel is a superhero story, tentatively titled Fractured Heroes (although I’m still not fully satisfied with that

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

name). It follows an ensemble cast of seven main protagonists, all superheroes or crime-fighters of some sort, with various personalities and character flaws. Some are brutal and violent; some are cold and detached; some use the outlet of heroism to seek redemption from a past of guilt and shame. But when they uncover a dangerous super-drug and a plot to destroy their city, this disjointed group of heroes has to band together and rely on something greater than their individual selves. I wrote this story throughout 2010 and 2011 (it was long enough to be two NaNoWriMos, and then some), and it’s gotten good reviews from a few friends and online forum readers. At some point in 2012, I had a trusted friend read through it and make comments or suggestions about how it could be improved. So I have a large document full of my friend’s comments…and I have made very little progress since then in going through those comments or revising my story at all. However, I would love to revisit it and get it good enough to send to a publisher one day.

And the other story I’m working on is a futuristic, dystopian one called The Joining. A couple centuries into the future, society is built almost entirely upon romantic relationships and physical pleasure. On their eighteenth birthday, everyone is expected to choose a partner and be joined with them for life. But one seventeen-year-old boy doesn’t fit into his society’s customs and doesn’t like feeling rushed to commit so soon . What is he to do with his Joining ceremony fast approaching? I started working on this story sometime in 2012. I outlined the entire plot, so I know more or less what I want to write. And in all that time I’ve written a walloping two chapters, about ten pages or so. I’ve got a story in me and I want to get it out, but I just haven’t had the time!

Of course, I want to work on both of these projects eventually, so maybe this dilemma is a bit redundant. If I really planned it and worked at it this summer, then I could certainly do some of both. Still, since I haven’t done that yet, I’m a little torn, and I’m opening it up to input.

Which one do you, my faithful readers and fellow writers, think I should focus on more so? And why? Is it better to get a new story idea out of my head or to hone the one that’s closer to a finished product? Which story sounds more interesting to you? And do you have any wise advice for a long-dormant novelist trying to get back in the game?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, I finished my reading in Rhonheimer’s The Perspective of Morality today. I was a day late from my original plan, but Alayna and I took the day off on Monday. We went to see Jurassic World (which I loved and Alayna hated), took walks, got ice cream, and generally just enjoyed ourselves. So, today I’m starting into Rhonheimer’s Natural Law and Practical Reason and then it’s on to Pope. Anyway, I hope that you are all having a wonderful day! I know that you’re here for 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 rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 300 words in sentences of no more than six words. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “I just lost it…”

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