A different story

Hello, internet!

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

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

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

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


“Friends in low places”

Igreb's Taverna Non-Corporeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

Short Story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 3

This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.

Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.

On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.

Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?

“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”

***

The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?

As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”

“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”

“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”

At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.

“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”

“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.

Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”

One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”

“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”

“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”

Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”

“But—”

“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.

***

Carrying Crosses
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.

 

They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.

Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!

“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.

“If you can, then come down from that cross!”

“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.

Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?

From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”

Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”

Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!

“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t

Thief on the Cross
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.

The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.

After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.

“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”

“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”

“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”

The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.

Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.

Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.

“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”

Heaven
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

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. 

Every Day I’m Prompt Writin’

 

Everyday Gambit
I had to. Because Gambit.

So, since last night was basically me scrambling to put the finishing touches on a short story I had to turn in for my fiction class, I think I’ll just make this post be a continuation of my last one. (Okay, I’ll be honest, it was always going to be a continuation of my last post).

For those of you who read my post on March 1st—or who clicked on the handy-dandy link in the previous paragraph and just read it—the first writing assignment for my fiction class included the following general guidelines:  You will be provided with one line of text each day for a week (excluding Sunday), and you are to use that line as a starting point to fill the lined side of a 4 x 6 index card with text. You can’t look at your note cards right after you’ve written them. Instead, wait to the end of the week, and then type what you’ve written into a single document. You can then make all the revisions that your heart desires.

So, here are the next three prompts, with my responses included just for fun. 🙂


 

Prompt 3: “All over town, the lamps were going out.”

All over town, the lamps were going out.

Rachel knew this would happen. You didn’t play with electromagnetic energy in a town this size and not expect someone to notice. Her rain boots crunched against the hardened snow as she shifted her feet. Call her sentimental, but it was nice to be able to look at the stars without all those lights dimming the view.

“You know, you’d look pretty stupid if you end up freezing to death out here.”

Rachel would have turned around to get a good look at whoever was giving her a hard time, but the instinctual huff she made in response told her it only could’ve been Adam.

“What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Somehow she found his answering laugh simultaneously irritating and reassuring.

“Yeah, I can see you’re busy freezing. Get inside. Dad managed to make something good before the power kicked out.”


 

Prompt 4: “A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon.”

A shawl was a hat and hurt, and a red balloon wasn’t helping.

Of course, that’s probably because a woman was giving the balloon to her crying kid in an attempt to placate him. (It wasn’t working.)

Strangely enough, she had yet to notice me, although I was sitting on a bench not far from them, a granny shawl wrapped around my head (bobby pins jabbing into my scalp as they pleased) and a pair of pink sunglasses perched on my nose. Definitely not the attire you’d want wear to the park, especially one frequented by swarms of mindless, screaming children.

But I was on a mission.

If Kate’s ear for gossip could be trusted—and let’s be honest, it’s never been wrong before— then he stopped by here every day after school. So, here I was, sitting on this bench, looking like a creeper.

Waiting.


 

Prompt 5: “The weather, I think, must be changing.”

The weather, I think, must have been changing. That was the only explanation for the fact that the little punk was out sitting on our porch again. His mother had him wrapped up in at least three layers—he looked more like a marshmallow than a ten-year-old boy—but she must have deemed the weather mild enough if he was already waiting for me.

Normally winter was a no-go for Mrs. Jackson, but if it was warm enough she’d let her son roam where he wished—so long as he brought along his long-suffering neighbor and pseudo-babysitter. I sighed, pulling on my jacket and kicking on a pair of sneakers before opening the door.

“Let’s go,” I said, shutting the door behind me. I immediately shoved my hands into my pockets. It may have been warm according to Mrs. Jackson’s standards, but I was cold-blooded.

The boy jumped, glancing back at me with wide eyes for a second before he smiled, scrambling to his feet.

“Where are we going?” he asked, tugging at my sleeve, and I couldn’t help the smile that pulled at my lips.

Guilds, Bargains, and General Deviousness

Writer’s block, as we have mentioned before, is a real pain in the…er…plot. Mine’s lasted for about three months. I’ve spent agonizing hours in front of my computer screen, trying desperately to write something, more agonizing hours plotting chapter outlines in the showers, and even more…less agonizing hours doing everything but writing as I pretend that I’m not working on a novel. However, someone has finally dipped the Bucket of Motivation (+5 to Stamina, +3 to Persuasion) into the Well of Lost Plots, and I find myself writing again, quite enthusiastically. Such a happy occurrence, is, of course, not due solely to sheer force of will (iron though mine may be) or a new influx of brilliant ideas (even though I’m sure those are en route). Rather, my new and improved page count is due to a potent combination of three motivational strategies that I thought I would share with you today, in the hopes that something in a similar vein may work for any of my fellow suffers.

I joined a Guild. Well, of sorts. We call ourselves that for motivational purposes and because most of us are writing fantasy stories, so it fits the tone of our works. That, and it just sounds cool. Anyway, there’s a group of six of us in a six-week program. We set individual goals and milestones for the duration of the program, public for everyone in the group to see, and let the coordinator know what kind of feedback we’re looking for. Each person is paired with two reviewers and two reviewees. I post what I’ve written every other week, and my reviewers comment on what I’ve written, using the requested feedback guidelines, after which I do the same for my assigned reviewees. I’ve been a little bit behind on my deadlines, but I’ve kept working at it, and writing is being done.

Why it works: Double accountability. General accountability doesn’t often work for me; just knowing I’m supposed to write a certain number of pages every week so I can show it to someone at the end of the week doesn’t put enough pressure on me to break the writer’s block. The Guild’s system, however, means that I have to comment on and provide feedback for other people’s writing, and that means terrible self-inflicted guilt when I don’t meet my own goals for them to critique. The threat of that guilt and (for me, anyway) embarrassment is enough to make me write, even if I feel like what I’ve written is crap.

guild
More fun than this, I promise.

Bargaining. As most of you know by now, I am an avid Star Trek RP’er. Tom and I both role-play on The USS Intrepid (now recruiting, if anyone’s interested) and the new Play-By-Email site Outpost Eden. Both sites are a great deal of fun, and I spend a lot of time writing for my various characters. Tom has even more dedication to the sites, and he has also been wrestling with writer’s block. So we made a deal: I can’t post on either site until I’ve written 500 words on my novel that day, and he can’t post until he’s written his 500 words. I let him know when I’ve met my goal, and he does the same (or, if I finish first, I pester him until he reaches his goal, because that’s what a good First Officer does).

Why it works: it’s the reward system, with (for me) high-stakes consequences. I’ve been role-playing for almost a decade, and this writing forum is extremely important to me. I love it very much. So knowing that I can’t do anything with it until I accomplish another task makes me focus very, very hard on getting those 500 words written.

intrepidbanner
Photo credit: Tom

General Deviousness (aka, Netflix). When I write academic papers, I can’t have any distractions. The only song I can bear to listen to is the 24-hour playlist version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Knowing this, I’d never tried creative writing with any background noise, thinking it would just distract me. However, this past weekend, I put on an episode of Suits, pulled up my Word document, and started writing. Lo and behold, I managed to get almost a thousand words written in the space of two episodes of one of my favorite shows. Repeat attempts at this strategy have proven successful (as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this blog post now), and so I’m rather happy to have discovered it.

Why it works: Distraction. Writing brings out two of my biggest neuroses: perfectionism and linear thinking (logical plot progression). My need to make everything perfect the first time and know exactly how each detail fits into the plot often makes my writer’s block the major problem that it is. I overthink. But when I turn on Netflix, my focus is split, and the perfectionist bit of my brain gets distracted. I write almost on autopilot, and my subconscious brain takes over. Writing gets done, and it may need a good bit of revision afterwards, but the important part is that the words are there.

netflix
Netflix came to Poland in January, and there was much rejoicing.

In summation: Double-accountability, the reward system, and distraction. On their own, none of these three methods worked for me, but together? They’re magic. I’m writing. My characters are speaking. And the story happens. I encourage you to try combining methods, when you have difficulty writing. Find what combination works for you, even if it’s weird, and let it fuel your writing. What strategies work for you, and why?