Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Putting your talent to good use: on adjusting your expectations and putting your nose to the grindstone

Hello, internet! Tom here. 

It is, once again, my turn to entertain you for a week here on The Art of Writing. It’s been a while since my last post, and I have to confess that my writing hasn’t been going very well in the interim. I feel a little disingenuous dishing out writing advice when I’m not doing much writing myself, but writing a blog post can be a good of way of solving your own problems as well as helping other people with theirs. So today’s post is going to look at why we sometimes find it hard to write, and how we can get past that. 

The German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote that “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I entirely agree with him. I have always wanted to be a writer, I have had a talent for writing since I was ten or eleven years old, and I have honed that talent over time to the point where I consider some examples of my writing to be quite good. I still can’t think of anything else that fills me with the same passion as writing, or anything that I want to do more than creating entire worlds and using those worlds as the backdrops for entertaining stories. But none of that means that I am ‘a good writer’, because our definition of a writer must be ‘a person who writes’, and our definition of a good writer must be ‘a person who writes a lot’. I do not write a lot. For someone who would like to write for a living, I am extremely good at avoiding writing, and there’s an obvious problem there. If we went to a party and met someone who said that they wanted to be a rock star, but then we found out that they hadn’t played their guitar for weeks or written any music in the last few months, then we’d smile and nod and walk away and find someone else with whom to quietly share our scepticism about the aspiring rock star’s artistic ambitions. That person at the party is us, if we spend months without writing anything and still go around considering ourselves to be writers. 

I have a fairly uncompromising view of what constitutes a writer. I think a writer is a person who writes about 3,000 words a week (or preferably more), even if their cat just died or their significant other is hurling breakable objects at them or they’re suffering from an advanced case of gout. I do not meet this definition. I went through a period last year of reliably writing 3,000 words a week, but now I barely manage 500, and I don’t have a cat, or an angry spouse, or even a mild case of gout (that I know of). I fall well short of my own estimations of how much a writer should write, and I feel horribly guilty about it. But that is how much I think a writer should ideally write: or perhaps that’s how much I’d have to write every week to really feel like I deserved to go around calling myself a writer.

You may disagree with me. You may think that “writers” are writers because of destiny and cosmic predisposition, and that you can be a “writer” on some indelible vocational level even if you don’t write anything on a regular basis. If you think that, then keep reading. 

There are legitimate mitigating circumstances in which aspiring writers might be forgiven for not meeting my definition (although that doesn’t stop them from not meeting it). Selayna, my fellow blogger, has a crazy schedule and works much harder than I do. If she wanted to write 3,000 words a week then she’d have to do it all during the weekend. Some authors do that, but I’d rather Selayna was using the weekend to get some rest and talk to her loved ones and do whatever it is that normal people do during the weekend when they don’t have writing ambitions. 

Unlike Selayna, I have plenty of free time. My own circumstances leave me with no excuse not to write, and I am left wondering why – if I truly want to be a writer – I find it so difficult to get into a productive, reliable writing routine?

In an attempt to answer this question, I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

War of Art

Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and moved on to write epic works of military historical fiction, several of which are on the reading list at US military colleges. He also writes self-help books, and The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is a self-help book targeted specifically at struggling writers.

I have a deep-grained and inherent scepticism of self-help books, especially when other people recommend them to me, but in Pressfield’s case I can definitely advocate that you should get yourself a copy. The first read-through left me feeling energized and optimistic, and if you’re feeling discouraged or poorly motivated as a writer then you can open it to any page for an instant self-esteem boost or kick in the ass. He also writes a lot about the concept of ‘Resistance’ – that force that sometimes makes it so hard for us to get around to doing the things we want to do. He writes, “the more important a call or action is to the soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it”. 

The War of Art made me think a lot about how I’m viewing my writing, and how I’m viewing myself as a writer. Pressfield places a lot of stress on the differences between an amateur writer and a professional. An amateur has different habits, different ideas of what success will look like, and different levels of emotional investment. The key lesson I’ve taken away from his book is that it’s a mistake to get too personally invested in what I’m writing. That may sound surprising, but it makes a lot of sense once you think about it.

Pressfield doesn’t necessarily think that we should aspire to define ourselves as writers. He thinks that we should simply be people who write stuff, and publish it, and don’t allow our writing to get tangled up in our own personal aspirations. He writes that, as professional writers:

“we do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognise that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur,on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright…the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”

That paragraph really made me think about how I’ve been approaching my writing. I have absolutely been paralysed by my writing, because I have absolutely been ‘overidentifying with my avocation’. That surprised me when I realised it. I had considered myself an uncompromising pragmatist, who didn’t subscribe to any ideas that writing was ‘in my blood’ or that I was a ‘writer by nature’. Yet here I was allowing my own aspirations and dreams and fears to prevent me from putting words on the page. Succeeding as a writer has seemed so important to me for so long that it has stopped me from actually writing, because I was scared that I wouldn’t be good enough to succeed: a Catch 22 scenario that would, inevitably, lead to me not succeeding or writing anything.

For myself and other writers like me, I think the key to avoiding that paralysis is just to sidestep it, face the facts, and redefine success. In my pursuit of success as a writer, I’ve acquired enough experience and skills to become decent at writing, but I have also allowed the pursuit of success – and fear of failure – to hold me back. I think the trick is to forget about success or failure, exit that mindset, and find a good use for the skills I’ve gained: almost as if I’m giving up on ‘being a writer’ and just writing something instead. I can try to write the next great fantasy series, allowing my personal aspirations and delusions of grandeur and sense of self-worth to get wrapped up in what I’m writing, and allowing them to paralyse me. Or I can roll up my sleeves and put my talent to good use, writing readable B-list fantasy books that will bring home the bacon. That seems a lot more achievable, and a lot less stressful. 

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

NerdCon: Stories, and disassociating the dream of “being a writer” from the practice of actually writing

Hello, internet!

Sorry that Tobias had to cover for me on Sunday, but I had a good reason.

I am a Nerdfighter. If you don’t know what a Nerdfighter is then this video may, or indeed may not, help.

I’ve been a devout follower of Hank and John Green for over a year now. That means I’m very late to the game compared with other Nerdfighters, some of whom have been subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel since it’s creation in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, Hank and John started out recording daily video blogs – some magnificently silly, others serious and thought-provoking – and have slowly expanded their online aegis into a vast array of web series, charity fundraising efforts, and educational shows about science and history. Hank Green also runs VidCon, a huge convention for online content creators. Their self-ascribed mission is to fight worldsuck wherever it may be, and make sure that nobody ever forgets to be awesome.

As well as a Nerdfighter I’m also a writer, and an aspiring author. So when Hank Green announced that he was going to use his famed convention-creating abilities to throw together an event that celebrated stories and the human capacity for narrative thought, I was beyond thrilled.

Initially it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go. NerdCon: Stories was being held in Minneapolis, from which I was separated by a not-insubstantial ocean.

Probably sharks

Even if I could somehow cross the Atlantic, tickets to NerdCon were limited. And there was also the small problem of being in a job that didn’t pay very well and didn’t give me much time off to attend fun conventions. My prospects seemed bleak.

Fortunately, my former employer dealt with both of those problems in one fell swoop, by making me unemployed and paying me my last month’s wages without expecting me to come into work. With free time and money to spend, I decided that NerdCon would be worth the cost. I think I might have been the only British person who thought so, although I did run into someone from the Republic of Ireland. (At a vending machine. He wanted to know if $3.50 was too much to pay for a bottle of soda, and out of all of the attendees in the Minneapolis Convention Centre he managed by sheer chance to ask the only other non-American. I had to tell him that I didn’t know.)

As well as the vlogbrothers, NerdCon had a heap of featured guests whose names might be more familiar to you. I spent the weekend soaking up the imparted wisdom of heavyweight sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Holly Black, and being entertained by humorists, musicians, and creators like Paul & Storm and Darin Ross (the genius behind Superfight). 

Despite the theme of the conference, I don’t want to just tell you the story of what happened at NerdCon. I could write a 10,000 word post about all of the technical writing advice that I got from just one of the panels, or a long thought-piece dwelling on all of the ramifications of the discussion into the ethics of writing that Patrick Rothfuss led on the last day of the conference. (How many deaths from lung cancer can be causally attributed to the romanticised depiction of tobacco-smoking in the early chapters of The Hobbit?) The morning and evening shows in the main auditorium were enrapturing, full of poetry and theatre and comedy and messages every day about why stories matter. I was moved to tears by the power of John Green’s address on how we should never look down upon fiction that allows us to escape ourselves when our own bodies start to feel like our own private prisons. As someone who’s had my own bitter struggles with depression and anxiety, I knew exactly what he meant.

I can talk about all of that stuff in later posts, if that’s what people want. What I’d like to write about now is the changes that I started to notice in my own attitudes to writing, over the course of the conference. I took a lot away from NerdCon that wasn’t in the program (including a lot of happy memories and a nasty case of con flu), but I think that Hank Green was kind of hoping that everyone would leave NerdCon feeling like they attended a slightly different convention, and that they’d all draw their own narrative conclusions from it. Here are mine.

NerdCon was an excellent resource for any aspiring author, with the featured guests offering a huge amount of very practical advice that I can take away and apply directly to my own writing. For me, though, it also had the potential to be a bit of a trap. This was not NerdCon’s fault at all – it was mine – but the problem was only compounded by the warmth and personability of the featured guests. I felt like I’d made friends with all of them by Saturday night, even though part of my brain knew that it was a fundamentally unequal relationship. I didn’t go to any signings or smaller meetings where they might have learnt my name or formed an impression of me, and even if I had, I would still have just been one fan among 3,000. But being in a friendly environment with these successful writers for a whole weekend made me feel like I could bask a little in their fame and success. The mere act of being at NerdCon gave me a sense of authorial gratification that was perhaps undeserved. “Here I am, at a writer’s convention”, I could think, as I rocked up at the conference centre with my cup of coffee each morning. “With real successful writers, just like I’m going to be one day.” I watched them on stage, enjoying their well-earned limelight, and delusions of grandeur began to take root in my mind. I began to wonder how long it would be before I (inevitably) got invited to speak at writing conventions. I imagined myself on stage with the panellists when they played Superfight. Instead of listening to their advice in panels, I started to let myself think of the kind of advice that I would give if I was sitting in their place.

And eventually, after I’d wasted a lot of time doing this, I remembered how many other attendees there were in the room. They were all writers too, some of them far further down the road to publication and financial success than I was, and I realised that I was being an idiot. Daydreaming about success was very gratifying, but it was ultimately completely useless.

The latest page of Wondermark, a webcomic that I adore, sums this up nicely.


Unlike the aspirant novelist in the comic, I did actually manage to write something at NerdCon, which I was hoping to read out at one of the open mic events (alas, they were fully booked before I had the chance to sign up). But that doesn’t vindicate me at all if I still go away from NerdCon and spend the next week daydreaming about how amazing it will be when I’m a famous author on stage at a writing convention. I should be striking while the iron is hot, writing as much as I can while the advice and inspiration from all of the speakers is still fresh in my mind.

Perhaps this conclusion might seem totally self-evident to the writers who were speaking at NerdCon, and many of the other attendees, if they were to read it. Perhaps the panellists never had this problem themselves, because they didn’t have any delusions of grandeur to start with. Perhaps when fame came to them it was as a genuine surprise, rather than the achievement of something that they’d aspired towards since they’d first decided that they wanted to write books. Perhaps they just set out with realistic expectations, pressed their noses to the grindstone, and worked tirelessly over the course of years and decades to produce some truly excellent books. And that’s exactly what I need to do. Statistically speaking, not everyone who attended the conference and heard the panellists speak is going to end up as a financially successful author, even if they are naturally talented writers. I think the ones who do succeed are probably going to be the ones who sit down at their writing desks and banish any thought of fame and glory from their minds. At least until after they’ve published something.

I suppose it’s possible that all of the other attendees were already fully intending to do that, and I was the only one narcissistic enough to get wrapped up in wondering how I’d answer when attendees at future conventions asked me about my writing process. But I’ll post this anyway, just in case there’s anyone else like me, who needs a cold shower to get the thoughts of fame out of their head, and a motivational boot up the arse to get them back to their writing.

NerdCon itself was wonderful, and I could go on for weeks about it. If you have any questions, or you’d like me to post some of the notes I made during the panels, then please let me know in the comments!

Persevering and shedding misconceptions as an aspiring author

Hello, internet.

Today’s post STILL isn’t a continuation of my post from two weeks ago about violence in fantasy books, but I swear upon my honour as an Englishman* that I do actually have two more posts planned out, and I’ll get back to them eventually. This week there was something more important to talk about.

A few days ago I ended up having a brief Twitter exchange with Kameron Hurley, the Hugo Award-winning author of the God’s War Trilogy, and more recently, the Worldbreaker Saga. (Her work is wonderful; I’m reading The Mirror Empire at the moment, and I can heartily recommend it).

Our conversation went like this:

Hurley Talk

Despite what I’d just said about loving Twitter’s great capacity for busting misconceptions, and showing aspiring authors the (often harsh) realities of life as a professional author…that last tweet really knocked me for six, when I first read it.

I know that authors come in all shapes and sizes, and Hurley’s experience is hers alone and can’t be taken as representative of how long it takes for every professional writer to get from square one to the point of living off their writing (if they ever do). I also know that a lot of authors don’t see any success or publication until later in their lives, when they’ve had decades to hone their craft, build up some confidence, and work out exactly what they want to write about. Others have breakaway débuts which give them a lot more basis for living off their writing from a slightly earlier point in their career. I wasn’t naive enough (or confident enough in my own writing ability) to think that I was going to be one of those early breakaways, but Hurley’s tweet still threw me.

Unlike Hurley, I’m not personally the kind of writer who has been reeling off short stories since I was twelve, writing standalone pieces and polishing them to a sheen so that I could submit them to competitions and journals. I’ve started drafts of several larger stories, but they’ve never crept beyond a few thousand words until the last five months or so. When I was fifteen, I had an entire book series planned out, but I fell out of love with the idea when I grew up and realized its juvenility. In fact, the largest body of writing that I’ve ever produced is probably the varied exploits of a Romulan named Xon, my character in a text-based Star Trek role-playing game to which I devoted almost every evening from the age of twelve upwards until I went to university. I don’t have much experience of finishing stories.

It’s only now – with my first draft bubbling over like a saucepan full of pasta left on the hob and forgotten about while playing air guitar on the sofa – that I’m starting to feel like I’m on the road to publication, somewhere in the distant future. But the idea that I might still have twenty years ahead of me – or more, given that I’m starting later than Hurley did – made the road seem to stretch out in front of me. If I was Frodo walking wide-eyed out of the Shire, then Mordor had just shrunk even further away into the dim horizon, and some jerk-ass goblin king had just liberally sprinkled a few more flesh-eating spiders along the road.** It was enough to make me question why I was leaving the Shire at all.

“Maybe I’ll just stay in bed…”

Perhaps this was an overreaction. But I think a large part of my trepidation comes from my lack of aspiration to do anything with my life other than write. I have sometimes strayed into the territory of letting myself think that my day-to-day copywriting jobs are a necessary evil that must be temporarily endured to keep the wolf from the door, “until I’m published.” During my wilder flights of fancy I sometimes find myself assuming that I’ll be published within the next half-decade. But in reality it might take much longer than that, and even after I’m published, I may have to keep working jobs like this for the rest of my life to support my writing.

And that thought frightens me. How long, I asked myself, does fate or god or the Easter bunny or the vast uncaring cosmos expect me to continue in an unforgiving and unrewarding 9-5 routine, with few perks and fairly insubstantial job security, followed every evening by six hours of solid writing, willing myself not to check Facebook or play Skyrim, and prioritising my writing over things like staying fit and healthy, or maintaining friendships, or – heavens forbid – pursuing an active lovelife? It seems exhausting. Worse, it seems unrealistic. I began to question whether or not I’m cut out for being an author. But what else was there?

Whilst I was contemplating this, feeling weary before I’d even started down the long road to Mordor, Hurley sent me another tweet. It felt a little like the social media equivalent of Galadriel handing me the light of Earendil.

Hurley Talk2

For those who’ve never read it, here is Hurley’s story of her career as a writer, the hardships she’s faced along the road, and the persistence she’s needed to get up every day and keep writing. I can’t put it any better than Hurley did, but I thought I’d be a good little disciple and share her wisdom with all of you.

I think it’s good for all aspiring authors to wake up and smell the roses, and shed any false ideas that being an author is a glamorous or an easy job. Persistance doesn’t just mean banishing our doubts and having renewed faith that everything will work out okay. It’s not an excuse to go back to procrastinating and swanning about calling ourselves authors, letting our wordcounts gradually rack up whenever our muse is willing. That won’t achieve anything. It means writing every day with a monastic dedication, being our own bosses, finding jobs that give us the time that we need to vigorously pursue our passions, and pursuing them anyway even if that time isn’t granted to us. It means being willing to make some sacrifices.

* I dearly hope that you haven’t known very many Englishmen…

** Not that I am in any way comparing Kameron Hurley to a jerk-ass goblin king

Role Playing Games

Well, today was supposed to be my post, and I am definitely late. I’m sorry about that – it’s been kind of a crazy week all around I think. The end of the semester can get that way. I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to keep this short. I’ve been thinking a little bit here and there about role-playing games. A few years ago a friend and I tried to write a roleplaying game set in Avnul – we got pretty far actually, until we both got busy and had to put it aside. However, I’m not entirely ready to give up on the project, and I’m hoping that he’s not either.

Our original outline and rules-set was probably too reminiscent of those games that influenced it, and I think that, in going back to the game, I’d like to push us in a somewhat more original direction – fortunately, I think that Thomas Aquinas could provide some impetus for that direction. You see, Aquinas, following Aristotle, breaks human faculties down into five parts: Generation – or the faculty of maintaining and creating life, Locomotion – or the faculty of movement, Sensation – or the faculty of sense and desire, Volition – or the faculty of choice making, and Reason – or the faculty of memory and reaching logical conclusions from given premises.

Now, it struck me the other day that these can make a perfect set up for RP statistics. I’m not going to break them down for you, though I think that it might be somewhat obvious how they might break down. One of the things that I think is cool is that this set up opens up the strong possibility of having fertility as a secondary or tertiary stat. This means that GMs can 1) have a mechanic for holding players responsible when they want to go around trying to have sex with everything – and yes, unfortunately there are players who do that… unfortunately – now you can have kids, and there’s no contraception in this world, so your going to have to deal with either being responsible or being a dead-beat parent and all the social malignance that comes with that (especially in some cultures in Avnul). 2) It makes it possible to have games that last for generations. Real people don’t generally move from one crazy adventure to another. They might have crazy adventures sometimes, but they generally settle down and have a family, or they get “too old for this.” If you have a character who does want to settle down, then maybe you can actually have a kid, and then RP the kid as he tries to follow in his honorable parent’s footsteps. I don’t exactly know how that’s actually going to work out, but I like the idea overall.

Anyway, these are some of the things that my mind has been on when I haven’t either been teaching or learning :P.

Write, but Don’t Write for the Money

2c9cb67So, my fiancee just beat me horribly at a game of monopoly… seriously, my luck in this game was just plain pathetic… and I might have made a bad trade call that effectively ended the game… still, with better luck I could definitely have pulled it out. Anyway, I was low on money, and even mortgaging my properties wasn’t going to pull me out of the hole I was in. A lot of us have been at this point in real life as well. I know I have… honestly, most of my friends are tired of hearing my story about the time I could only afford to eat a can of green beans (which I got for free) a day. It was rough, and when things are rough it’s easy to put your faith in stories. As writers, most of us have heard about how J.K. Rowling was living on the British welfare system until the first Harry Potter novel brought money flowing in, or we hear about some self-published author who’s making a living wage off of one book that sells for $.99 a copy. Now, I’m sure that there’s more to each of these stories than we often think. I have no doubt that a lot of sweat, tears, and yes, possibly even blood went into the books that sent these author’s into the literary stratosphere. However, even if you are willing to put in the work, which most of us generally aren’t, and have the skill, which most of us probably don’t, something similar still probably won’t happen to you.

Consider that Rowling is a truly excellent writer. Of course, there are plenty of published author’s whose works I pick up and the first thing I think is ‘I can write better than this.’ This is the first lie that we tell ourselves – 1) even if it isn’t a very good author, if I’m honest I can probably write as well as that author, but maybe not better. We all tend to exaggerate our own skill, especially when comparing it to someone we don’t like reading very much. The second lie we tell ourselves is ‘this will happen to me.’ Note, we often phrase this as ‘this could happen to me.’ However, I have to admit that when I decided to self-publish my first book I did a lot of research. I knew the stories of several self-published authors whose work took off, but I also knew that most self-published books were lucky to sell ten copies. Even though I knew that, there was a little part of me that said, ‘I’ll be the exception.’ My book will sell, people will love it, a publisher will find out about it and beg to give me a huge contract to write a series, and soon stickers will be put on my books that read ‘2 Million Copies Sold’… …my book sold about a hundred and thirty copies, give or take ten.

tumblr_lv4ndj59en1qi5zdvPublishers receive tens of thousands of manucripts a year, and even with an agent (and your chances of getting an agent for a first novel aren’t incredible), you book isn’t likely to get published. Further, even if it does, most works of fiction don’t stay on the shelves for very long. The books that stay on the shelves are the ones that sell. Often the ones that sell are the ones that 1) are written by household names or cult favorites, and 2) the ones that are advertised out the wazoo and receive stellar reviews from influential critics. So, even if you do get a book published, don’t expect to make a living off of it. I met an author a couple of years ago who was a good writer… he’d written over 150 books and most of them were out of print. When I met him he was working on two different projects just to keep a reasonable income. On top of this, even if you book does sell fairly well, it’s likely that you’ll never receive royalties that overrun your forward. If you do publish a book the company will generally pay you for the right to publish it and make money off of it up front. I’m told that this is usually about $5000 for new fiction authors. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it… how long did it take you to write that book? Now consider – most people make over $20,000/year, and you’ll probably never make more than that first $5000 off of your book.

So, with all of these challenges, why would anyone write, much less try to make a living writing? Well, first of all, the majority of authors in the world don’t make a living writing. Most authors have a day job and write because they love it. They don’t expect to live off of their income from writing and this is actually less true now than in the past. Further, most writers who do make a living writing actually write non-stop, and they’re good at it. I remember reading a passage from Terry Goodkind… he pointed out that he generally spends 12-14 hours a day writing. Also, many writers who write for a living are journalists, not fiction authors. Writing magazine articles is a lot different than writing novels. So, as a writer, don’t expect to make a living off of your writing. Keep your day job (at least until you’re making enough to live on).

1090078Second, as I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, writing is worth it even if you don’t make money. The point of all writing should be, in the words of Aristotle in Poetics, ‘to entertain and to educate.’ If you make a little money along the way, that’s great. However, the best works of fiction are those with a point. Think about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Herbert’s Dune, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Asimov’s I, Robot. Here we have two works of moral philosophy, a work of philosophical theology, a work of theology, and a work of speculative science and philosophy in the guise of fiction. Truly great books have something to say and what the author’s are trying to say is more important than making money. Now, this isn’t to say that we should sacrifice story for message, but it is to say that writing for money masks the real purpose of writing – to say something meaningful to the world.

Third, writing is catharsis. I mentioned this as well a couple of weeks ago. The book I wrote was, honestly, as much for me as for anyone else. I think it’s a worthwhile novel with a worthwhile message, a good story, a strong voice, and an original world. Those who’ve read it seem to agree. However, it also helped me deal with some serious questions I’d had, and with a difficult time in my life. Write for yourself and your message first, money is a bonus.

Be Nice to Your Adjuncts

This cartoon was found here. I'm not sure who it belongs to, and if its yours please let me know and I'll be happy to credit you (or take it down if you wish, but it's awesome so please don't make me do that).
This cartoon was found here. I’m not sure who it belongs to, and if its yours please let me know and I’ll be happy to credit you (or take it down if you wish, but it’s awesome so please don’t make me do that).

The week before last I graded more than seventy papers. Last week was a little better because I only had around fifty papers to grade… well, that plus discussion boards, student emails, rehearsals for a play, work on a magazine story, meeting with the guys I’m discipling, and research for a paper I’m presenting… along with all the normal stuff of life like seeing family, cleaning (not that I do a lot of that), errands, food, etc, etc. Now I’m not complaining… ok, maybe I’m complaining a little bit, but I’m not trying to complain. I love my job, and I love writing, acting, working with young men, and I even rather like research (at least when I’m in the mood). I love seeing my nephew, cooking is a joy, errands are… well… tolerable, and cleaning… like I said, I don’t do a lot of that. However, I do want to make a point. The average college professor (something like 70%) is an adjunct instructor, and most of them make less than $25,000 per year, some of them are lucky to make $10,000 per year. Very few of them have even partial benefits (most have none), and adjuncts have no job security, often teaching on a contract basis only getting their schedules a few weeks in advance. An adjunct might have to go a month or more without work between contracts.

Adjunct instructors often teach multiple classes, sometimes over several universities, just to make enough money to support themselves. When I have three or four classes going it’s not unusual for me to be working ten to fifteen hour days, and sometimes my days are longer. Oh, and all that other stuff like research, writing, and acting… I do that in on my own time. Suffice it to say that most of your adjuncts work their @$$es off trying to give you the best instruction they possibly can, and they do this for some of the lowest pay in the nation. Not only this, but it’s not unusual for adjuncts to get at least one email a week that reads something along the lives of, ‘Hey Jerk you grade wrong my paper. I away get A and you give me D you need to regrad paper now.’

This graphic was found here, and everything I said on the one above applies.
This graphic was found here, and everything I said on the one above applies.

Needless to say, many adjuncts live for the rare call or email from a student thanking them for doing their job well. Add on top of this the fact that without the chance to get involved in serious research (remember all research done by adjuncts is done in their free time), there is very little chance for an adjunct to move his/her career forward. Given all of this, you might think that teaching college is a miserable job, but most of the adjuncts I know (myself included) love their jobs. They put up with the inconsistency, the long hours, the limited career prospects, the low pay, or even the abuse from students. They’re willing to put up with all of these things because they love teaching what they teach, they love helping students, and they love seeing students succeed, and while I’m sure plenty of you are convinced that your professor’s goal in life is to fail you, I promise that it isn’t.

However, the low pay, limited career prospects, crippling debt (did I mention that it’s not uncommon for an adjunct to have $50,000+ in school loans), long hours, and consistent abuse definitely take their toll. So, this is my little bit of advice for today: be nice to your adjuncts. Treat them well, try hard, ask for help instead of demanding better grades, and thank them for putting up with all of… well… ^that so that you can get an education. Plus, pushing for better pay (or maybe some health insurance) for the adjuncts at your school would be nice as well.

Stories for Sale

Do you have any special knickknacks that you want a story about?

So, a couple weeks ago I heard a story on NPR that really sparked my imagination.  The story was about of group of people who were going around to pawn shops, junk stores, etc to find odd, old knickknacks, buying them, and then asking authors to write stories about these items.  Now, according to NPR these stories (generally between 500 and 2000 words) effectively increased the items value by 500% to 1000%, because it made the odd, old item into something special – even if only in the imaginations of the buyers.  This struck me as a very cool idea.

Now, I admit to being a sentimental person.  I have a whole collection of tiny, worthless little things that are very special to me: a flower from my best friends wedding, a little blue bear that came out of a lollipop (the bear was given to me by a ten year old girl I was babysitting at the time because my lollipop was empty), a tiny statue of George Washington that is one of the few happy memories from my childhood.  So, this idea probably appeals to me more than to most.  That being said, I really do think this is a great idea.  If something has a story behind it, true or not, it makes that thing special.  The same can be said of people.  A good story about a person can make that person feel special (this is especially true for children).  Everyone wants to be a hero, everyone wants to be important, everyone wants to be special, and there is a place for all of these needs.  While there is a definite separation between fiction and reality, and this separation must be maintained, there is a place for fantasy, fiction, and fancies in our lives.  The imagination is essential for a fulfilled life, and these kinds of stories engage those needs.

So, after a couple weeks of ruminating I want to offer my services to anyone who would like a story written about a belonging, friend, child, or even yourself.  This could be something that you plan to sell and for which you want to raise the potential value.  This could be a special item that you just want a story about, it could be a great present for someone special, or it could be something that you do just for fun.  If you are interested in this service, please contact me at tmastgrave@gmail.com and provide the information detailed below.  Payment will be made through paypal, and my prices are also detailed below.  I am also planning on adding this service as a page on the blog, so if you like the idea, but don’t have anything just now, look for the Stories for Sale page at the top of the blog.

Well, now you can buy one.

What I need for the story:

The Item/Person: If the story is about an item send me a few pictures of it.  If it is about a person, tell me something about the individuals personality, likes/dislikes, habits, etc.

Genre: Choose one of the following genres for the story – Fantasy, Science Fiction, Myth/Legend, History, Poetry

Theme: Give me a basic theme for the story, this is especially important for stories about people.  Some ideas of themes might be – heroic quest, magic, rebellion, prehistory, etc.  You could also give me a more complicated theme – I want a story about how a sorcerer enchanted this knicknack, but I don’t know what it does or why.

Approximate Word Count: While I can’t promise to match an exact word count, I will try to stay within a certain range (i.e. 2000-3000 words, 500-750 words, etc)


Flash Fiction (1000 words or less): $.05/word

Short Fiction (1001-6000 words): $.03/word

Poetry: $.07/word

Paid Work Part 2

That's right, I got paid to write a story....I'm sure I'm not the first person to be inordinately proud of that fact.

Well, it’s official.  I just submitted my first paid story.  Now I just have to wait and see what the editor says about it.  This entire experience has been interesting, its been my first time writing for someone that I don’t know, and my first time writing for money…and my first time writing in someone else’s world.  The last wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, although that doesn’t mean that it was easy.  I actually got into the other world and enjoyed writing in it pretty well, but some of the characters didn’t flow quite as easily as I was hoping they would.

In general I like the story that I came up with, although this soon after writing it I don’t really like anything that I’ve written.  Give it a week and we’ll see what I think about it then.  Working with an editor has also not been what I expected.  For the first month that we worked together there was a lot of communication about what the story would be about, the form that it would take, what was or wasn’t possible within the world that I was writing in.  Then, I turned in the story outline and didn’t hear from the editor for two months.  This really wasn’t what I was expecting, but I honestly don’t know how I feel about it.  On one hand, I would have liked some feed back about the outline I had turned in, the kind of story that I was planning to write, etc.  On the other hand, the two months without communication let me work in relative freedom.  I had this story and another one (unpaid) that I was working on during this time, and so I would up putting off starting on the paid story for nearly a month, so that I could get the other story finished.

...Editing is neither an easy, nor a well loved job. So, I guess I have to take pity on my editor, at least until he tells me what he doesn't like about my story...

This worked out well, and I got both stories finished fairly close to their deadlines.  I have to wonder if the same thing would have happened if I had been in communication with my editor during this time.  I also had my first experience of being over a word limit.  I’m usually an underwriter, and in editing I often have to go back and add in details, rather than take things out like most authors do.  This time, I actually had to go back and remove words in order to stay under the maximum word limit for the story.  So, all in all, this was a learning experience – and generally it was a good one.  I hope for more paid work in the future (obviously), and I wouldn’t mind writing more in this world – if the editor likes this story and wants more that is – so, I think that this experience was a success.