Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, the process of figuring out a class schedule has begun. I have to take a class in Research and Integration, and I’m considering doing a second seminar and then auditing (not officially) a seminar that I did during my Th.M. but that is being taught by a different instructor and will have some significantly different material and discussion. This might not be what I wind up doing, but it might not. Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you 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: I want you to write a scene using sentences of six words or less. The goal of this exercise is to develop a comfort with short, staccato bursts that get straight to the point. This isn’t a style that everyone uses, though some rather well known authors have, but it can be as helpful to have in your repertoire as the long, florid style that we practice using the 150 word sentence challenges. So, your scene should be at least 300 words, preferably somewhat longer, and it should be entirely of sentences that are six words or less. Here’s you’re prompt: “The ship was sinking…”

Expecting the Unexpected

So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.

Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?

I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).

The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.

Story Challenge of the Week

We had Alayna’s baby shower this past weekend, which is why we had guests in. It seems to have been a smashing success (though I wasn’t there for culturally obvious reasons), and Alayna thoroughly enjoyed herself. I’m also eagerly following the Fragged Empire kickstarter. Again, if you enjoy either Role-Playing Games or miniatures, this would be a great one to follow and contribute to. They have very reasonable rewards levels, and the game itself looks to be extremely well put together. For this week’s story challenge I am going to give you a theme and you have to write your story on that theme. However, I am also going to give you four words (a verb, a noun, an adjective, and an adverb) and you will have to use each of those words in your story. The goal in this exercise is to write a story that includes these words in a natural and meaningful way.

Your theme: Curiosity

Verb: Bathe

Noun: Forest

Adjective: Handsome

Adverb: lackadaisically

Priorities

Well, I’m sorry about not having a post up yesterday. I’m sorry to say that insomnia got the better of me on Thursday night and I spent most of Friday a little loopy. Then we had some guests with us yesterday (Alayna’s baby shower is tomorrow… the baby is almost here, which is both exciting and terrifying), and so I generally have had a lot of distractions lately. I don’t say any of this as an excuse (honestly I don’t think I need one), but simply to explain why there was no post yesterday and to introduce my point here: it’s easy to lose focus of where our priorities should be.

I’ve done this many times in my life. Honestly, when I first started this blog my priorities were very out of whack. In the beginning I wanted this blog to be very successful (and given how many followers we have I think there has been some success involved), and because of that I was extremely focused towards attaining that goal. For the first year I wrote all of the posts for the blog myself, a post a day for a year is a lot for anyone to write (and if you’ve ever tried you know what I mean). After that I started bringing some other writers on board, but I was draconian about timely posting. I almost lost a friend over whether or not she published her posts on time.

I had certain standards, and standards, or so I told myself, are a good thing. I had been told that consistency is very important for bringing in reader, and I stuck to that and focused on consistently providing material of an accessible, but also high quality. I wanted to make sure that everyone who wrote for me had the same focus. This is where my priorities were off-target. At the time, especially in the particular situation I’m thinking of, I should have considered my friend’s feelings and what this particular person was dealing with at the time. I didn’t. All I focused on was that posts weren’t going up when they ‘needed’ to, and that was simply unacceptable.

At that time this blog was one of the few good things going on in my life. Academically I had hit what seemed to be a dead end. I applied to a number of programs, only to be rejected by all of them, and I had struggled to find a teaching job, only to then struggle to make enough money at the teaching job I did find to pay basic bills. Romantically, I had one short and painful relationship after another, and was shot down by most of the women I asked out in between them. Financially I had a mountain of debt that I didn’t see any realistic way of paying off. Spiritually I was in the driest point of my relationship with God since I converted, and while that didn’t last for more than six months, they were an extremely difficult six months.

When I started this blog, I thought it would be my ticket out of all of that (God had different plans), and I approached it as one might approach a life-changing career goal. However, since that time I have seem some (limited) success in my teaching job, I have started and finished a second master’s degree, gotten married, been accepted into two Ph.D. programs (still deciding which one), and Alayna and I are expecting our first child.

I say all of this to say that priorities are important. When I first started this blog I put an inordinately high priority on it, and was willing to sacrifice friendships for it. However, I think that in the past few years God has done a good job of refocusing my priorities. We’ve missed more that we did early on, and there is less focus on originality, quality, images, and timing. Things about the blog that used to be hard and fast rules have become only suggestions.

Other pursuits (school and family mostly) have taken precedence for me, and most importantly, I’ve learned to have a softer touch when others miss things, and learned to let some of them go myself. Four years ago I never would have allowed myself to miss a post. In thinking about all of this, I keep coming back to priorities. I treated this blog as though it was something that it can never be: a meaning for life.

Have you done the same with anything? I have said here before, and I still believe, that writing is good for us. It is important, healthy, and ultimately beneficial both for ourselves and for others. Some of you will probably make a career out of writing fiction, others probably won’t even though you want to, and some of you haven’t even considered it as a possibility. However, do you ever give your writing (however important it is) an inappropriate place in your life? It’s something worth thinking about.

So, I don’t know how many of you love either P&P RPGs or miniature models as much as I do, but I just backed this kickstarter. It looks to have a well-developed world, some great art, a fun system, and the miniatures are just beautiful. Take a look at it, if it looks like you’re kind of thing, back it with me. The basic pledge levels aren’t overly expensive and you can get some cool stuff out of them. That being said, I have a post for you. Anyway, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. 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:

med

No Rest for the Weary Writer

So, my plan was to take yesterday, today, and tomorrow to just relax. I’m in a transition period with classes, so I don’t have too many papers to grade (only about 30 this week, probably only 15 or so next week), and it seemed like the perfect time to get some rest. So, this morning Alayna and I went out to practice some spear techniques and wound up putting together the first half of a spear form. We were planning on relaxing all afternoon… that didn’t happen. Instead, my pastor called me and asked me if I could drive a very ill (long-term condition) Christian man to a city about an hour away and make sure that he got a hotel room and had some money for the next couple of days before he caught a flight home where he could be taken care of by close friends in his own church. So, I spent a good part of the afternoon doing that. Then we spent the evening with our niece and nephews at a local carnival, which was good… but not exactly relaxing.

When we finally got home, we relaxed for a little bit and then I sat down to write this post. You seem I am quite familiar with the lack of rest. We need rest–physical rest, emotional rest, intellectual rest, and spiritual rest. Alayna and I haven’t had much of any of these in the last few months. I’ve been an insomniac for most of my life, and so I can tell you exactly how a lack of physical rest affects me. I can function relatively well (70-80%) for about the first 40 hours without sleep. My function decreases progressively, but I can still be trusted to do most things (i.e. watch children, drive, do my job, etc) and I can do all of these things at a passable level. Once I hit 45-50 hours without sleep my function decreases again, this time to probably 40-55%. I can still do all of these things, but my driving is just the other side of what might be called safe, the decisions I make regarding the care of children may not be the wisest, and my comments on student papers may not make a lot of sense. Once I hit about 80 hours I stop being able to do any of my normal tasks passably well, and at around 90-95 hours I start hallucinating. By around 110 hours without sleep I’m nearly catatonic. I’ll be curled up on the bed, a sofa, or some corner of the floor muttering things that make no sense whatsoever. So, I can tell you from experience that physical rest is a necessity. However, other forms of rest are just as necessary.

We need time to relax emotionally, to feel safe, secure, and be able to shed stress and the many impacts that it has on us. Some authors have linked neuroses and even full-blown disorders such as OCD, ODD, or ADD/ADHD to stress (though they may or may not be correct in doing so, personally I believe that some disorders can certainly be worsened by stress, and that some examples of some disorders may be caused by stress, but I doubt that every example of any of the above disorders is caused by stress). So, times of emotional rest, relaxation, and stress free environments are very important for our ability to function normally. Similarly, we need play time. Now, I disagree with some who argue that we need time to turn our brains off and ‘veg,’ but we need time to engage our minds in significantly different ways. Play or ‘deep play’ can be a good example of emotional and intellectual rest in children. In many adults hobbies can serve the same function. While a child might spend three or four hours immersed in playing with G. I. Joes, an adult might spend that same time immersed in woodwork, miniature model painting, or playing a challenging game of some time. It is important to note that we don’t simply turn our brains off during such times, but we do alter their functioning to a point that they can rest from their normal duties. For instance, a laborer who spends all day figuring out how to solve complex logistical problems might come home and rest by engaging in stories and thinking about how those stories reflect the world. On the other hand, a scholar who reads all day and spends his time engaging in deep, critical thought might rest his mind by playing challenging games, solving puzzles, or engaging in stimulating creative hobbies. The point is that intellectual rest is not the same as just shutting down.

Spiritual rest is probably the most neglected and least understood of these four kinds of rest. Spiritual rest, for the Christian, is an important time of reconnection with, submission to, and reliance upon God. This can often be accomplished through prayer, bible study, or meditation, but the key is that we stop trying to do things ourselves and instead refocus and rely on God to be the sovereign lord of the universe. It is easy to engage in any of the above practices without engaging in any kind of spiritual rest. This happens when we come into these practices with the idea that we have certain expectations to uphold and that we need to manage them ourselves. This is not restful because the focus and the pressure are still on us. Instead, spiritual rest happens when we take time to spend with God simply in order to spend time with God and relax into him.

Hopefully, moving forward, Alayna and I will have some time to rest in all of the above forms. I think that we both deeply need it, and I’m guessing that some of you do as well.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Yesterday, I painted an ice troll. I think that he is the best piece that I’ve done thus far. Probably because he was a little bit bigger, and I got new brushes that are a little bit tighter. I also officially completed the first section of the Rosetta Stone for Chinese. Honestly, I need to write out all of the vocabulary from it on flash cards and just go over it again and again, and it would probably be good for me to go back through the whole first section, but hey one section out of 20-something down and lots to go! Anyway, I’ve got a scene challenge for you. 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 an busy scene scene. This should be a scene that not only makes me feel like your characters are busy, but a scene that actually makes me feel pushed and pulled in every direction. You should focus on developing a scene that feels crammed to the gills with everything that needs to be done. This is going to be similar to a rewriting challenge, and thus I want you to find something that evokes this kind of feeling that can inspire you. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a scene of your own that evokes the same feeling. 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 a similar way, but that is still completely your own work.

Living Without Fear

Honestly, I wish this was something that I was better at. I am pretty much afraid of everything. When Alayna and I first started dating I was afraid of commitment… I was also afraid that if I didn’t commit I’d lose her… and I was afraid that I’d commit only to find out that she wasn’t committing… and I was… I think you get the point. Right now I’m afraid that I’m being too domineering  of a husband, and I afraid that I don’t confront things in Alayna that I should confront, and I’m afraid that I confront the wrong things, and I’m afraid that I’m not consistent enough in my own example, etc, etc. I’m afraid that I don’t work hard enough, that I put too much pressure on her to have a solid income, and that I work too hard and that she overworks herself trying to keep up with me. With the prospect of our first child I’m afraid that I’ll get the wrong books, say or do the wrong things, not be involved enough, be too involved and micromanage his life, give an example of bad priorities, or try to be a perfect example and thus present him with hypocrisy. I’m afraid that my work isn’t good enough, or that its very good, but not what people want to hear, or that I just don’t choose the right topics, or the right journals to which to submit. In other words: I spend a lot of my time either being afraid, trying not to be afraid, or being afraid to be afraid.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famous for saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Overall, this is a fairly good saying (though perhaps dangerous if taken too literally). Fear often controls us, drives us to do things that we really shouldn’t do, and keeps us from pursuing things that we really should pursue. All too often, we give ourselves over to fear, calling it wisdom or prudence, and put our trust in ourselves, as though we could control the course of comets hurtling through space or the quasar/solar flare/blackhole/etc that will eventually obliterate our planet and every single thing on it. However, when we let fear control our actions we inevitably do stupid things, like those moms who put their 4th graders on leashes and walk them around the mall, that hurt ourselves and others.

We often think that the antidote to fear is courage, and to some degree this is probably true. Plato defined courage as ‘knowing what is worthy of fear and what is not worthy of fear, and acting accordingly.’ However, even this falls somewhat short because there are things that are legitimately worthy of fear (like the quasar/solar flare/blackhole of imminent planetary destruction that I mentioned above) over which we have absolutely no control, and which could very easily consume our lives and livelihoods (say, devoted to building detection equipment so that at least you’ll know that an the unstoppable galactic phenomenon is about to annihilate everything you’ve ever loved). However, this kind of fear simply destroys the joy or purpose of living. If our days are spent consumed with fear over things that we cannot change, then we never actually do the things that are really worth doing.

So, I argue that the antidote to fear is trust. A reliance on some outside force (which we will call God because I believe that the God of the Christian bible is this outside force) that does control such things. If there is a God, and he is perfectly good, and he cares about us, then we can trust him to do what is actually good. However, here, again, we tend to run into our own wall of fear: what if I don’t think that what God thinks is actually good is good? For instance, can I trust God to give my daughter cancer? What if I trust God and my daughter gets cancer? That’s obviously not good, right? NO! NEIN! NIET! IE! BU! ME GENOINTO! LO! I don’t get to decide what is or is not good. I simply don’t, and as long as you and I continue to hold on to the idea that we get to define what is or is not good, the longer we hold on to our fear. Instead, we need to accept that sometimes we don’t know what is good and what is bad. Sometimes, what we’ve decided is good is the worst thing that could possibly happen to us, and sometimes the thing that we are so thoroughly terrified of is exactly what we need. So, instead of trying to define good and bad for ourselves, and fearing things that are out of our control, we should submit to the one who can actually define good and bad, and who has ultimate control. Just a thought.

Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I spent the afternoon yesterday painting more miniatures. Also, I got a spear for my birthday (my father made it), so I’ve been looking up Sojutsu techniques for the past couple of days. I’m going to take some time and actually learn how to use the thing properly… this makes me very happy. Anyway, let’s get into it. You know the rules: I give you a picture and you give me a story of 1000 words or less (at least if you want to post it here) that explains what is happening in the picture. Remember the lesson from last time, stay true to the picture. Let the audience know what is happening in the background of the picture without actually altering any of the picture’s own details. Enjoy:

spear paladin

A different story

Hello, internet!

So over the course of the week I’ve been talking about how you can draw inspiration from video games, and how to use your in-game experiences as the beginning of writing your own stories. And I’ve been talking about the process that I sometimes go through of adapting my video game adventures into prose.

I promised you that’d I’d post a story today, to show you the results of that creative process. And I’ve been working on the story all week. But you know what? It isn’t finished. And I could rush to finish it, filling in the blanks and rounding off the conclusion in time to get it up for tomorrow morning. But what I’ve written so far is good, and I don’t want to rush the rest. I want to take my time with it and produce a story that I’m happy with from start to finish, with a conclusion that’s well thought-through. Even if it is too late to post it here, I’ll know that I’ve done it right, and that it’s the best story it could have been.

So today’s post is going to have to be something different. This week’s posts were supposed to be a trilogy, but now I’m going to have to imitate Pat Rothfuss and leave you all hanging after two instalments, without a satisfying narrative conclusion: only the vague promise of more to come, some time in the future.  I hope you can forgive me for that! I’m struggling to forgive myself. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, as writers. Sometimes it’s okay to take a little bit longer on a project, to play around with it until it really feels finished. Because ultimately we shouldn’t be writing for money or acclaim or to meet deadlines. We should be writing because we enjoy it.

With that in mind, here’s a short piece that I enjoyed writing a few weeks ago. It was written for a Star Trek roleplaying game that I’m part of, and it’s only ever been seen by a small group of other players. It’s short, and simple – just an old man sitting at a bar, quietly contemplating – but I hope that you enjoy it all the same.


“Friends in low places”

Igreb's Taverna Non-Corporeal

The Romulan Neutral Zone, for all its sins, had been the basis of a lot of livelihoods. Xon had spent the last four decades of his life flying out of neutral ports on Nimbus III and other worlds where certain undesirable elements of galactic society could conduct their business without interference. In that time he had seen petty criminal empires rise and fall, he had dined at gunpoint with pirate warlords who ruled over failed colonies like feudal barons over their fiefdoms, and he had seen more greed and desperation than he could easily stomach, the kind of naked poverty and avarice that wasn’t conceivable to most Starfleet officers or ordinary citizens of the Federation. The black market economy of the Neutral Zone had been brutal and unforgiving to the people at the bottom of the ladder, but it had been stable enough in its own way.

The Treaty of Tarod had obliterated that stability. Spaceports that had operated for centuries as havens for malcontents were now no longer beyond the reach of Starfleet or the Romulan navy. For the first time in Xon’s long life, Romulan ale was no longer contraband in the Federation, and Starfleet was delivering Federation medical supplies freely in the other direction. The smuggling industry, with its proud heritage, was at its end. Whole criminal dynasties had been built upon the presumption that the Federation and the Star Empire would always be at each other’s throats, and now the rug had been pulled out from beneath their feet. The rock had been lifted, and the roaches had scattered.

So when Xon accepted a commission to work in the former Neutral Zone, he had been expecting to run into some old acquaintances. He hadn’t been expecting to run into Igreb.

Igreb was a sort of huge luminous quantum octopus who existed laterally in four dimensions at the same time, but he was also a very fine bartender, whose infamous taverna on Nimbus III had been as old as the colony itself. Xon had never been able to figure out if Igreb was a singular entity or part of a species that had evolved beyond corporeal form, but he had certainly never encountered any other sentient beings who remotely resembled him. If ‘resembled’ was the right word. Even after forty years, it was very hard for Xon to wrap his brain around what Igreb actually looked like. You could stare at him for hours and try to build a coherent mental picture of his appearance, but your thoughts seemed to slip away like water off a stone. Besides which, if you stared for long enough, Igreb would eventually remind you that staring was rude, and that you were sitting on a barstool that could be occupied by a paying customer.

Igreb didn’t talk, or even communicate telepathically, in the conventional sense. He just floated behind his circular bar, served you drinks that you didn’t know you wanted, and embedded vague concepts inside your head. Without exchanging words or specific thoughts, Xon had learnt everything about why Igreb finally packed up and left Nimbus. With the Neutral Zone gone, the power dynamics on the Planet of Galactic Peace had shifted overnight, and a full-scale civil war had broken out, with different pirate clans fighting in the desert for control of Paradise City. Igreb’s bar had been bombed during the opening hostilities. He had heard about Starfleet’s new outpost in the region and correctly presumed that it would need bartenders.

The new taverna seemed like an exact replica of the old one. It had the same pervading emerald light, the same pointless mechanical cooling fixtures spinning slowly overhead, the same garish entertainment consoles, the same NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS sign behind the bar. It was half bar, half cargo bay, or it would be when freighter captains started using the shelves and industrial transporters to auction their wares. Igreb had even brought his famous pool tables, where the balls floated repellently over an actual liquid pool instead of the traditional green baize, either a bad joke or the result of an unfortunate mistranslation. The only things missing were the grime, the dancers, and the scent of death, but Xon was confident that the grime at least would quickly accumulate as soon as Igreb started attracting more of his usual patrons.

Xon had the very real privilege of being Igreb’s first new customer. He was only drinking Altair water, but they had still toasted the new premises, and Xon had entertained some optimistic thoughts that the taverna might grow into Eden’s premier dive bar. Igreb had projected his gratitude. They had been sitting silently for almost an hour, having a lively and convivial exchange of ideas, when Xon heard someone parting the screen of chains that hung over the bar’s entrance. He turned on his barstool, and he was surprised by who he saw…

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