On Holidays

holiday_banner-892x267Anyone who read yesterday’s post will notice that the story writing exercise for this week was focused around holidays. I’ve written before about the importance of including holidays in our writing, and there are many reasons for this. Whether your writing is set in the modern world, a historic fiction, or a fully self-created fantasy world, holidays add a certain level of meaning and reality to your writing. In modern and historic writing this often manifests as a matter of accuracy–for instance, having a celebration of the Independence Day on the 4th of July in a story set in 18th century China is somewhat jarring, especially if none of your characters are American. In fantasy worlds this is a matter of depth and creativity instead of accuracy, but your holidays will still raise questions concerning the nature of your world and whether they fit. For instance, a joyful, high energy, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter style celebration may be out of place in a nation of the walking dead bent on consuming the souls of the world.

ChristmasThe reason that holidays are important in our writing is that they lend a level of authenticity, reality, and emotional investment on the part of the reader that doesn’t come from anywhere else. Humans love to gather and to share emotions, and they love to do so in a wide variety of ways, ranging from morose gatherings to remember a certain individual or event (such as candlelight vigils held as means of remembering some loss) to high-energy parade and decoration inspiring events such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Holidays mean something to us because they allow for an emotional release, an investment in family and friends, and a building up of community ties around a shared understanding of the special meaning of a certain day. There are some who over-celebrate (for instance, the next time someone tells me ‘May the 4th be with you’) on ‘Star Wars Day’ (which I refuse to recognize as a legitimate holiday despite my deep and abiding love of Star Wars) I might just punch him/her. Then there are other who under-celebrate (… …if you can’t tell, that’s me). However, for both extremes the holidays are still meaningful in some fashion. Alayna literally begged and cajoled me into getting a Christmas tree and then decorating it this year, and I’m honestly very thankful that she did. Our tree might be fake, and cheaply made, but it is beautiful in its own way as a reminder that we are celebrating something special this week–the birth of Christ our Lord. And, for us, there is both an emotional and a religious significance to this celebration.

Make the wise decision. Don't say it. Walk away with all your teeth.
Make the wise decision. Don’t say it. Walk away with all your teeth.

This kind of authenticity is something that many stories lack. Often, unless a story is about a holiday, it doesn’t include any holidays. There are, of course, novels written about Christmas, Independence Day, etc, but even stories that don’t center around a holiday can be meaningfully impacted by the inclusion of a holiday. For instance, a fantasy story might take place in the context of a city wide holiday festival, even though the story itself has nothing to do with this festival. The movie Die Hard does something similar with Christmas. In this usage of a holiday the emotions and meaning of the holiday profoundly effect the story, and add to our connection with the characters within the story, even though the story isn’t actually about the holiday. This kind of experience allows readers to connect with our characters at the emotional level because we can connect with the celebration of something special. We love special days, and we love to remember and celebrate them. These special days are a part of what makes life worth living. Who doesn’t look forward to their favorite holiday (or even their least favorite holiday at least a little), prepare for it, and allow this anticipation to enhance their emotional and spiritual experience of that holiday. This is a near universal human trait that we can use to introduce our readers to the emotions, personalities, eccentricities, and attachments of our characters as we write them.  And this becomes a powerful tool in the hands of a worthy author.

So, while it is easy to forget about holidays in our writing, I think that they are an important and very useful tool for the fiction author to use in a wide variety of ways. They let us provide a means of emotional connection for our readers and they allow us to express our characters in a powerful way that is otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. As a fantasy author, something that I do whenever I’m developing a new setting is ask the question: what do they celebrate? When do the gather and why? What emotions and practices tend to be involved in their holidays?

Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

How well do you know your bookshelf?

Hello internet!

I have missed you. Due to the new schedule, it has been aeons since Tobias allowed me to post anything. But now my patience has paid off, and I have you all to myself for a week!

’tis the Christmas season, and if you’re a writer who goes through the gift-giving traditions of Christmas every year, you’re probably expecting to find at least one book under the tree.

I love acquiring books, and I am hopeful of my chances of acquiring some more on December 25th. But I seem to acquire them at a much faster rate than I can actually read them.

Unlike many writers, I didn’t really discover the joys of reading until I was already in my twenties. In my teenage years I fairly scorned reading (apart from Star Trek apocrypha) and thought, with the arrogance only possible in teenagers, that I didn’t have anything to learn from contemporary authors, even those writing the kind of books that I wanted to write.

Since leaving university I’ve come around to accepting that I am the merest novice, and I’ve learnt to welcome the lessons in the art of writing that can be gleaned from devouring as much fiction as possible. As such, I buy a lot of books. If I see rave reviews of a fantasy novel by an author I haven’t heard of, I’ll usually order it on Amazon (or get my bookseller sister to get it for me half-price 😉 ). I also have a big back-catalogue of classic fantasy to get through. Until a year ago, I hadn’t read anything by Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, and I have a lot of catching up to do to get through all of the excellent fantasy that was published during my arrogant teenage years, or indeed before I was born. And as a history graduate who wants to write fantasy that’s very historically-informed, I also buy a lot academic texts.

All of this tends to pile up.

My Desk
I apologise wholeheartedly to any readers with OCD

Currently, amidst the ever-expanding entropy of discarded chocolate wrappers, scrap paper, unwashed teacups, and loose change on my desk, I have unearthed:

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Herodotus’s Histories
  • Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Arabian-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (artfully arranged here on top of a novelty flashing Santa hat)
  •  The City Stained Red by Sam Skyes
  • Simon Armitage’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom
  • Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman, on long-term loan from my sister’s boyfriend
  • The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
  • The Incorruptables by John Hornor Jacobs
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
  • Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
  • The 722-page academic behemoth Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James
  • William Shakespeare’s ‘The Empire Striketh Back’ by Ian Doescher

And (inexplicably) the dog-eared manual for Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, a PC game which came out in 2002, and which I haven’t played for at least half as long…

On top of all of those estimable volumes, though, is The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, and therein lies the problem.

Thirteen Gun Salute

Out of that entire list of books, I have read only three from cover-to-cover: The Empire Striketh Back, (because it’s hilarious) Throne of the Crescent Moon, (because it’s amazing) and ThIncorruptables (because I read it one sitting and couldn’t put it down). The rest are lying about forlornly under sheafs of paper, in various stages of chronic neglect. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having finished the meatier academic books on the list, but I feel a certain guilt about seeing The Iron Ship or The Promise of Blood accumulating dust when I’ve only peered inside their covers once or twice before putting them down in favour of another book. And the ‘other book’ is almost invariably by Patrick O’Brian.

I love Patrick O’Brian. The Times called him ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’, and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you don’t believe me, just listen to award-nominated British YA and adult author Lou Morgan! (who I follow on Twitter!)

Lou Morgan
Heed her words

For those who don’t know (and there can’t be very many of you, given how many times I’ve mentioned him on this blog), Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, a series of historical novels starting with Master and Commander and ending with The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. It’s always hard to describe a series without bias (and without going into too much detail) when you think it’s among the greatest works of literature ever conceived by the human mind and committed into prose, but I’ll try.

At their core, the Aubrey/Maturin books are about a Royal Navy captain in the Napoleonic wars, and his friend, a surgeon and scientist who is also a shadowy operative for Britain’s intelligence services. The series is naval military history at it’s very best, but it is also so much more than that. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin go on voyages around the world, confounding the naval enterprises of Napoleon, but also struggling to overcome the human faults that make them into such interesting characters. Jack struggles with his weight, his finances, and his conceptions of honour, while Maturin suffers the ravages of drug addiction, depression, torn loyalties, and an unstable marriage. Their adventures are a sublime journey through history and through the human condition, with bold forays into naval warfare, but also into romance, philosophy, scientific discovery, and abstract existential musings on every subject under the sun. They’ve become two of my favourite characters in fiction.

Most of the action takes place on ships at sea, which is a setting that O’Brian brought to life in vivid detail, drawing on his amazing reservoir of technical knowledge about the age of sail. His characters navigate the world, crossing oceans, rounding Cape Horn and passing through the freezing southern latitudes in almost every voyage, against a constant backdrop of everyday naval life:

‘the old pattern fell into place again, and the ship’s routine, disrupted by the violent, perilous race eastward through sixty degrees of longitude, soon became the natural way of life once more, with it’s unyaring diet, the cleaning of the decks before full daylight, the frequent call for sweepers throughout the day, the piping of the hands to witness punishment on Wednesdays (reprimand or deprivation of grog; no flogging so far in this ocean), the ritual washing of clothes and the hoisting of clothes-lines on Mondays and Fridays, quarters every weekday with a certain amount of live firing still, mustering by divisions on Sunday, followed sometimes by the reading of the Articles of War

…Day after day they travelled slowly over a vast disk of sea, perpetually renewed; and when, as the Diane was approaching Capricorn at four knots, Captain Aubrey ended church with the words ‘World without end, amen’, he might have been speaking of this present voyage: sea, sea and then more sea, with no more beginning and no more end than the globe itself.’

As a reader, it’s easy to let yourself be lulled into the same comfortable routine as the characters. The books are laced together with masterful character arcs and strands of overarching narrative that draw you gently onwards, making it easy to coast from one book to the next without intending to.

This can become a little bit of a problem, considering the length of the series.

O’Brien wrote twenty Aubrey/Maturin books before he died, leaving another unfinished. Twenty-and-a-half books is a lot of books. I’ve been reading this epic saga since January and I still haven’t got further than the fourteenth installment. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and I’m sure that my own writing has benefited immeasurably, but I’m beginning to wonder if too much exposure to one author’s writing style can start to be a bad thing. 

For writers, reading books is necessarily a case of monkey see, monkey do. You can tell what an author has been reading by looking for clues in their own writing, the same way that forensic scientists can find out what someone’s been eating by analysing their hair. After reading his books for almost a year, all of the clues in my writing point to Patrick O’Brian.

Everybody has a favourite author, but I think it’s important to diversify the books you read, just as it’s important to…diversify the foods you eat…if you want to have strong hair….?  This metaphor is creaking slightly, but I hope you understand what I mean.

The late great Sir Terry Pratchett said that authors should ‘read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees’, and the best way to do that is probably to venture out into the forest and look at as many different trees as possible, rather than admiring the same tree over and over again because you like it’s particular shape or the way that the moss grows on it. As such, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tear myself away from the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, and launch some exploratory forays of my own, into the umplumbed depths of my bookcase, uprooting lost books from the bottom of piles and actually getting around to reading them. I may blog about the results. And I encourage you to do the same!

Short Story: Lakebed

Hello, internet!

None of my usual meandering thoughtpieces this week. Instead, I present a short story!  The original idea was actually based on Tobias’ story prompt from yesterday – the idea of magic versus science – but in the execution, I never actually got as far as introducing magic. Perhaps I’ll post the next instalment some time in the future. Enjoy!


LAKEBED

underwater starship

Putting the Canyon Diver on the bottom of a lake really hadn’t been the best start to Maz’s day.

After she’d checked herself for broken bones and made sure that the cockpit was still watertight, she’d spent nearly an hour trying to cold-start the TC drive and put the spark of life back into her engines, swearing at the Canyon Diver in four different languages and fighting with the ignition switches until her thumbs were raw. She only gave up hope when the batteries ran dry and the cockpit lights cut out, plunging her into abject darkness. She heard the fading whine of the atmospheric reconditioner cycling down, and she knew that she was totally fucked.

Pragmatically, she only had about fifteen minutes before she ran out of air. She sat for a long moment with her boots on the pedals and her hands on the control columns, staring into the abyss, until a voice in her head told her that she was going to have to leave the ship behind if she wanted to live. Her bones screamed in protest. But what were the alternatives? She was half-buried in lakebed muck under fifty feet of water, with no power and no oxygen. There was an emergency beacon in her survival kit, but if she set it off, she’d only attract the same Seven Systems cruiser that shot her down in the first place. She wasn’t much of a martyr, but being captured would only lead to her being handed over to the praetorians. Oxygen deprivation would be a far more comfortable death.

With no power, there was only one way out. She managed to make her hands unclench from the controls, then to unbuckle her harness, and grope beneath her seat for the survival kit. She tried not to think about what she was doing. Or about how long she’d owned the Canyon Diver. Or about how it had been a gift from Hera, to apologise for a row they’d had, a few weeks before Hera got herself killed. Or about how it had saved her life twenty times over since then, even though she didn’t fly it half as well as Hera ever did. The little ship’s bright blue hull had acquired a lot more scratches, dents, pockmarks and plasma burns since Maz became its pilot.

She was biting back tears by the time she got the survival kit open, but she managed not to cry or vomit. There would be plenty of time for crying and vomiting once she wasn’t at the bottom of a lake.

The kit folded out into pouches and strips of webbing, which she slipped awkwardly over her shoulders, hitting her elbow against the Canyon Diver’s canopy in the process. It made her stomach clench to think that she’d never hit her elbow on that canopy ever again. Unless she did it in the last five minutes, which was more plausible than she cared to admit.

Once the kit was fastened up she reached to her hip and pulled out her Aegis multitool from its holster, taking comfort from its pebble smoothness against her hand. The status light flashed, casting the whole cockpit in a momentary green light, to show that the biolock recognised her DNA. She thanked the Sisters for that small mercy. Now would have been a terrible time for her Aegis to break.

The first thing she did was to switch on the tools’ flashlight setting. Light returned, white and blinding. Once she’d blinked away the afterimage from her retinas, she moved the light over the small panel of analogue instruments on the control bank. The lake had been broiling around her when the Canyon Diver plunged into it, still hot from its descent through the atmosphere, but now the water temperature was dropping again. Once she was out she’d have to get on dry land and warm herself up as quickly as possible.

But first she had to get there. Which meant getting outside the ship. The water pressure outside the hull wasn’t registering as high enough to crush her to death or break any ribs, but it would be too great for her to open any of the hatches. She had to equalise the pressure first. And she could only think of one way to do that, off the top of her head.

If she thought of another, more sensible way, sometime later, she was going to feel really stupid.

She ran her thumb over the controls on her Aegis to activate the tool’s photon maser setting. Then she took a few deep breaths, looked around the Cave Diver for the last time, and thought about Hera.

Hera had been an awful, wonderful human being. Maz hated her, most of all for getting herself killed.

Maz aimed the Aegis, squeezed the trigger, and blew a giant hole in the canopy. Part of her imagined that she was shooting Hera. But then frigid water hit her in the face like a five-tonne block of ice.

Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently

Neeeeerd

Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?

Jerjerrod

In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

Just Say “No”

Procrastinating Panda is Procrastinating.
Procrastinating Panda is procrastinating.

The Procrastinating Panda pretty much sums up the fact that I’m currently avoiding the paper I’m supposed to be working on for a graduate class. Before I succumb to the panda’s call and take a nap, though, I think I’ll leave you with a writing exercise that I’m totally stealing from my creative writing class in undergrad.

Our class had been reading up on using dialogue to build character when we came to a section in our book called “no” dialogue. According to the authors of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, “Tension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other” (Burroway & Stuckey-French 82).

So, with this idea in mind, here’s the prompt: take 10-15 minutes to write a scene where two characters do nothing but say “no” to each other. This criteria can be met in more than one way—for example, you could have one character ask a question that the other never actually answers.

Have at it, and feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Surprise Me!

Not Today
I would tell you to read the BuzzFeed post where I found this, but it is full of spoilers and written by people who advocate NOT reading George R.R. Martin’s books.

I really hate spoilers.

As my roommate can attest to, if I get so much of a whiff of something that’s going to happen in one of my television shows, there’s a pretty good chance my entire week will be ruined. This happened with Once Upon A Time back when the show was in its prime: (Spoiler Alert) I was forced into watching an episode that referenced Rumpelstiltskin as Henry’s grandfather, and I seriously considered abstaining from the show altogether.

Although the spoiler I just mentioned was a significant one, my enjoyment level significantly goes down if I know even the smallest detail of a story. Even if I’d normally be moved to tears by a particularly poignant scene, if I know it’s coming I just shrug and say, “Okay, what’s next?”

I think the main reason that I hate spoilers is because I want to be surprised.

Despite this need to have stories surprise me, though, I often wonder how much the stories I write actually surprise my readers. The key to crafting works that surprise your readers, according to several books about fiction writing, is that you first surprise yourself—a statement that I’ve always found difficult to put into practice.

Buy it. Read it. Trust me.
Buy it. Read it. Trust me.

I’m not a crazy person (okay, that’s debatable). I haven’t quite gotten the hang of breathing life into the characters of my stories in such a way that allows them to run rampant in my mind. They don’t live inside my head, and they stubbornly refuse to tell me what happens next in their stories. So, how exactly am I supposed to “surprise” myself if I’m the only one writing the story?

The only answer I’ve been able to find lies in the creation of lifelike, fully developed characters who have distinct wants and desires. According to the authors of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, one of the keys to writing good fiction is to have protagonists who “want, and want intensely” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 251). If your characters aren’t striving for something, there’s nothing propelling them to action—and characters are the source of action, of plot.

Once you’ve managed to create characters who act (and react) realistically based on their wants and desires, the plot in a sense makes itself.

Everyone’s an Antihero

Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.

I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.

PunisherWarZone1It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.

But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.

14904391768_66a2aeb0f8My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.

My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.

And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your  values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.

One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.

The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.

As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?

Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.

Writing While Wandering the World

I hope you all took the time to appreciate my awesome and aesthetically alliterative appellation for this post. Anyways, greetings from Poznań, Poland! I safely arrived here on Sunday evening (well, evening for me…it would have been late morning/early afternoon for those of y’all in the States). It was a long and glorious trip that involved 18 hours in New York’s JFK airport, a very cold layover in Moscow, frenetic dashing through two separate and highly confusing train stations in Berlin with 100 pounds of luggage, and my first ever ride on a European train as I departed Germany for Poland. I traveled through four countries in three days, and needless to say, I practically passed out from joy of arrival and exhaustion from carrying everything when I arrived, so thank you Lorien, for taking over my post for Tuesday whilst I recovered 😀

My response to finally getting here.
My response to finally getting here.

During the three day journey, I thoroughly intended to actually get some creative writing done. Ever since I got the job offer about 5 weeks ago, I’d been so overwhelmed with moving preparations and paperwork that the only writing time I had went into my posts for the Art of Writing and for my personal travel blog. Other than that, I had absolutely no energy for writing, so my poor novel had been eagerly anticipating the travel time as a period in which I would have time to work on it again. What the book didn’t consider was that even though three plane trips, three long layovers, and one three-hour train trip give you plenty of *time*, they leave you without much energy (and usually leave your computer in the same condition if the planes, trains, and automobiles don’t have electrical outlets), so physical writing isn’t always an option.

That, and you get distracted by all the random Russian words in the plane.
That, and you get distracted by all the random Russian words in the plane.

At the same time, however, I knew I also needed to get some work done on my novel so that I could actually get some pages written out once I recovered from the journey itself. Also, my characters tend to throw temper tantrums and get into trouble when I neglect them for too long, and I don’t want them trying to unionize like the last batch did. That…didn’t end well, let’s say. *shudders* The compromise I reached with myself on this issue was that I would do some of the mental work that would facilitate later writing. I’m an internal processor, meaning that  work through things in my head, constantly examining and dissecting them to figure out where they fit and what I need to do with them. It can be quite helpful when it comes to writing. In each location I went to on this trip, I ended up working on a different element of my book. In Phoenix, Arizona, where the journey began, I did some mental outlining of where I need my next chapter to go. In the JFK airport in New York, I fought a courageous battle against the urge to revise some later chapters I wrote a few weeks ago instead of working on the next chapters that needed to be written (I won, though the fight was bloody and the victory came at great cost – more on that in another post). Moscow, Russia, was the site of some social hierarchy construction, while Berlin inspired some ruminations on the necessity of a writing plan for once I get settled. Now that I am here in Poznań, I am back to work on the actual writing of my chapters (one of which should be done relatively soon), and I am resisting the urge to call myself the World Wide Writer. If I didn’t already have a title for my blog, that’s what I’d go for 😀 The process of writing my novel has officially gone global! And now it’s time for me to get back to work on it.