Plot Challenge of the Week

What is your world like?
What is your world like?

Well, as always, life continues. Alayna and I spent a couple of days with a pair of good friends in a cabin deep in the woods… which was wonderful. We talked, played lots of board games, looked for a waterfall that we never found, and cooked great food. As an old pastor would have said, it seemed like the real stuff of life. The stuff that’s actually important, as opposed to the stuff that we get distracted with all too often (not to say that keeping up on bills and working aren’t important–I did some of each as well). Time with friends and family is important to us, and these couple of days were very, very good for us overall. Anyway, I have an exercise for you. You’ve done this one a few times. Today I want you to sit down and write out your basic metanarrative. I don’t want you to building any settings or develop any characters, instead use what you already have and come up with an overarching storyline for a 1, 3, or 5 story series. Plan on these stories being between 10,000 and 35,000 words long and try to have a good flow. I want you to consider and decide on the following points:

1) What locations (i.e. cities, ruins, forests, temples, etc) is your story going to center around? What are the major powers (i.e. national or religious) forces involved and how to they currently relate to one another? How are their relations going to have changed by the end of the story?

2) What characters are involved? Who is your main protagonist? You supporting protagonists? Your main antagonist? Your supporting antagonists? How is each major character going to be different by the end of the story? Is anyone going to be dead? If so, who?

3) What is the introduction, the climax, and the epilogue of each story? What are the three pivotal events that the metastory itself focuses around? What are the major events that come in between them? Try to have a clear but general outline of your plot. Consider what has to happen in the story, and then consider what should happen in the story. Then you can start working out how to get from one to the next.

4) What are going to be your major trouble areas? What events or plot points do you just not know enough about, or are you simply bad at writing? Can you work around these trouble points? If not, is there something you can do to get better at handling them?

Plot Challenge of the Week

Happy New Year! Welcome to the wonderful year of 2016, in which all of your dreams will not come true and you will find that the future is much like the past in a great many ways. I used to operate under the illusion that each new year would bring with it some magical change of fortune and that this year (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, etc) would be my year in which everything would change. Don’t get me wrong, the last two years have brought a lot of changes–I got into and finished a Th.M. program at Southeastern, I met, wooed, proposed to, and married Alayna, I am applying for Ph.D. programs, and I finally got out of credit card debt–but none of these have happened ‘magically.’ Honestly, I do credit Alayna with a lot of these things. Honestly, if I hadn’t met her I’m not convinced that any of the rest of it would have happened. That being said, I stopped looking to the future to solve all my problems a few years ago. 2011 taught me that. In 2011 I finally landed a teaching job, after four years of applying to various online schools, and I thought–this year is going to be the year where everything changes. It didn’t. That year I was rejected by multiple women (true to form), rejected by a couple of schools (also true to form), and made less money than I ever had in my adult life (in 2011 I made less than $5000 between teaching and delivering Chinese food). I was also kicked out of my apartment because the owner stopped paying her mortgage and went through the driest spiritual period of my Christian life–a time when I truly thought that God had abandoned me and the only time since my conversion to Christianity that I have seriously contemplated suicide. All in all, 2011 truly and thoroughly sucked… of course it also laid the ground work for many other things–while my teaching job didn’t do much in 2011, it has been my longest term, most lucrative, and most thoroughly enjoyable employment. Getting kicked out of my apartment set me up to start living with a group of guys who led me to the apartment where Alayna’s friend would (several years later) become my roommate and introduce me to her (if I hadn’t been kicked out of my apartment I probably never would have met him or her). Also, that incredibly dry spell that made me contemplate suicide… God used it to teach me to seek for a deeper level of spiritual experience and relationship with him than I’d ever had previously, and to begin teaching me the virtue of joy… which I’d never had previously. So, all in all, while 2011 was a horrible year, it was also a wonderful year. It’s interesting how things work out that way, isn’t it? However, it also taught me that a new year doesn’t make old problems go away. Only hard work, perseverance, and providence do that. There is nothing magical about the changing of a year. So, will 2016 be the year that I finally lose some weight… hopefully. However, it’s not going to be because the year changed… it’s going to be because Alayna has inspired and pushed me to start a medically guided diet and exercise program at her hospital that focuses on building sustainable healthy habits, and because God gives me the perseverance to actually do it. Anyway, I do have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

(Image Source)
(Image Source)

On Holidays Part 2

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure that most of you are looking forward to opening presents in the morning, or to opening presents tonight, or possibly some of each. I know that Alayna and I will be enjoying our celebration with her family tonight. However, for the moment I want to get you thinking about the nature of holidays in your own writing: what do we tend to celebrate and why? In exploring this, I’m going to take a little bit to discuss the origins of the Christmas celebration, and then discuss some other major holidays.

As many of you probably know, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. Tradition tells us that on December 25th we celebrate the incarnation of God in flesh, an incarnation that would preach forgiveness, love, and transformation before being horribly executed at the demand of his own people, and then rise again three days later, thus defeating sin and death and opening a path to God for anyone willing to repent of his/her sins and submit to God’s will. However, tradition does not tell us that Christ was actually born on December 25th. In fact, it seems most likely that Christ was actually born some time in the spring, probably some time in early to mid-April, nearer to the Easter celebration than the Christmas celebration. So, why do we celebrate Christmas in December?

The December celebration of Christmas goes back at least to the 2nd Century CE (at which time it was apparently a common celebration, so it probably dates to several decades before this) though it was not universally celebrated on December 25th, but it was almost always celebrated in late December. There are several possible explanations for this, but one of the most likely seems to be that the celebration of Christ’s birth was intentionally set to be a Christian replacement for the pagan celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice on December 21st or 22nd (a time when rituals to the gods were performed in many of the indigenous European religions). The original intent may have been to draw pagan worshipers away from their own celebrations to hear the message of Christ, but it seems more likely that the intent was to give coverts to Christianity a new celebration to replace their old pagan traditions.

Over the centuries the celebration of Christmas has been more and less ritualized, depending on the place and time, and there have been several points (including the modern era) in which it has lost most of its spiritual significance. It is quite likely that fewer people will be celebrating the birth of Christ tomorrow as will be celebrating the coming of a fat man in red pajamas with magical Caribou. The morphing of this celebration has a great many reasons, not least of which is the growing apathy towards Christian belief in North America and Europe, and the celebrations transition to societies that have no little or no historical Christian traditions (such as China or Japan). It has largely become a day on which we put up trees (real or fake) decorate them with flashing or colored lights, and spend (often too much) money on gifts for friends and family.

Similarly, the Christian celebration of Easter is a mix of traditions. The name itself is strikingly similar to the name of the goddess Ishtar, who was a fertility goddess (rabbits and eggs anyone?), but it is also broadly known as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Hanukkah has a similar origin, being the celebration of God’s preservation of his people through the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE. In fact, a great many holidays have a religious significance, even if it has been forgotten.

Similarly, many holidays have a national significance. For instance, the 4th of July is the day on which American’s celebrate their independence from Britain, and many other former colonies have similar national celebrations. In fact, it is not uncommon for governments to organize holidays to commemorate important or meaningful events in their national history, or to remember important national figures (such as Presidents Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day). However, quite often it seems that religious holidays are more broadly observed, have more staying power, and are overall more significant than nationalistic holidays.

Lastly, there are some holidays that people simply like to celebrate and remember, such as Star Wars Day, National Sock Day, etc. These holidays are more often limited to a select group of people who have a significant interest in their celebration, but some (such as Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day) gain a broader significance because they celebrate something common to everyone.

In our writing, and especially in our background writing, it is important to keep these concepts in mind. When you are developing a culture, consider their religious beliefs: what religious holidays or festivals might be observed in this culture? Similarly, consider their national history: is the nation a former colony that gained independence? Might they have a famous battle, significant event (perhaps a powerful magician once spared the nation from a disaster), or important person to remember? Lastly, consider their national character: what kinds of things do they enjoy? Obsess over? Might they celebrate the annual harvest? Or perhaps they are a culture that makes much of its money from the sea, perhaps they would celebrate the first catch of every year? Do they celebrate their parents? Or perhaps their children? Or perhaps they celebrate their ancestors? Is there a particular pastime that is worthy of special celebration?

All of these are worthy questions when we start thinking about what kinds of holidays the cultures in our own worlds might develop. And as I pointed out in my last post, while few people will likely miss them if they aren’t in your story, the inclusion of significant holidays gives your story and your world a level of depth that is otherwise unavailable.

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?

Plot Challenge of the Week

I currently find myself in a conundrum. My verbal and analytic writing GRE scores were excellent, but my quantitative scores were low. I’m fairly sure that, if I took it again, I could raise my quantitative score by 2-3 points (which would move me from around the 48th Percentile to around the 60th Percentile), but this isn’t guaranteed. I could do worse than I did the first time, which wouldn’t hurt my scores any (I can choose which scores universities see), but the test costs $200 each time I take it. Add to this the fact that I’m exhausted, everything that Alayna is going through with the pregnancy, and just life during the holidays in general and it makes retaking the GRE very stressful for both myself and for Alayna. Further, the Quantitative section of the GRE isn’t essential to my applications. I’m applying for non-analytic philosophy programs, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t count. Admissions committees often get many more applications than they have positions, and so even relatively unimportant factors (such as a quantitative GRE score) are often used to differentiate otherwise equivalent candidates. However, my overall GPA is also low (because I was a lazy bum in undergrad and my first masters program), so if I’m being differentiated from other candidates there is already plenty of reason to do so. So, I’m trying to figure out whether its worth the $200 and extra stress to retake the GRE in order to boost my score a little bit in order to strengthen the one part of my application that I am actually in control of. I’ve been praying about this decision for much of the afternoon, but I’m still not sure what to do. So, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

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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!

Plot Challenge of the Week

Some days are just better than others. Yesterday wasn’t one of those. Combine lack of sleep with frustrations with work, blocks in my writing, and a general apathy to do anything and you have the makings of a pretty underwhelming day. I did get to experiment a little with making hot massage oil. I’m using olive oil as a base (because it’s cheaper than almond oil and better than canola oil) and a mix of different hot peppers. I’ve got two different styles, one in which I just chopped the peppers and poured the oil over them, and the other in which I ground the peppers into a paste in a spice grinder and then poured the olive oil into the paste (though, getting the pepper paste into the mason jar left my fingers covered in pepper oil that apparently does not wash off easily… as I found out later when I went to rub my eye…). Anyway, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

This piece was found here.
                                                                This piece was found here.

Plot Challenge of the Week

I am tired. I’m almost 2/3rds of the way done with my paper, but I have to admit shifting gears between different thinkers is very difficult. Explaining Aquinas’ view of the law, or Kongzi’s, or Edwards’ is doable, not easy, but doable. However, trying to shift from explaining Aquinas’ view to explaining Kongzi’s view is a real brain-drain. The two are similar in some ways, but they come from completely different backgrounds and contexts. Honestly, I can’t really think of anything I’ve done that’s particularly similar. It’s like trying to shift your entire brain into an entirely different mode of thinking and worldview… kind of a massive project. And for some reason, as I write this, everything in my head is in a Scottish accent… … …maybe I’ve been watching too much of Peter Capaldi. Anyway, I do actually have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

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Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, I think last night has confirmed that Alayna and I have found a great church. We spent most of last night helping several members of our small group clean out a neighbor ladies house that had gone somewhat to pot while she was recovering from surgery and unable to clean up after her family. It was hard work, but we left the house looking a whole lot better than when we got there, and I think that we were both happy to have had the chance to help as well. Anyway, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started–please note that you do not need to explain the picture, or even design a location that describes the picture or is particularly like the picture. Instead, you should use the picture as inspiration to come up with something that is your own. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world – also, just a thought, in Kalagrosh, one of the worlds that I’ve included is a world in which sound doesn’t exist – you might try doing something like this. Create a world where things just work differently. The rules of physics are completely different, or something that we take completely for granted (like sound) is non-existent, and then figure out how the world works without it. Here’s your picture:

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Plot Challenge of the Week

Yay for Friday! It couldn’t get here fast enough, right? I know that all of you are suffering from a long week of work and life, but I’m going to make your weekend just a little bit better by giving you something awesome to write about. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world – also, just a thought, in Kalagrosh, one of the worlds that I’ve included is a world in which sound doesn’t exist – you might try doing something like this. Create a world where things just work differently. The rules of physics are completely different, or something that we take completely for granted (like sound) is non-existent, and then figure out how the world works without it. Here’s your picture:

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