Rote Memorization

Rote (n): routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure.

It’s been years since I’ve thought of what letters I’m hitting. For those of you who can speed type, you get this. You think of the word. It pops up on the screen. You need to delete a word? Poof. It disappears. There was a time you thought, “Alright, ctrl+delete, and bingo!” There was a time you had to cheat. “Shoot. Is my finger on y or u?”

How many of you turn on your computers and instinctively pull up the tabs in your browser, your emails, and any other programs you start up immediately? Within five seconds I have WordPress, Google mail, and Facebook up and running. Might not even be that long.

I’m sure there are those of you who cook like this. You bring out the food, you chop it up, throw it in, and you’re done. Very little thought. That lasagna has been cooked a hundred times. It is a routine.

Lately I’ve been playing a game called Paragon. It’s a moba. Basically two teams of five clash in epic battle. You purchase skills as you level, and you develop a routine on how you purchase those skills. When I was playing today, after I purchased my first ability, I thought, “Shoot, was that the right one?” Even though I didn’t remember purchasing the skill, I bought my starter skill.

This list goes on. Driving. Swimming. Mechanical work. Those who are masters do the same thing over and over in often times boring repetition. Do you know how many horrible things I said about my keyboard class? But I kept at it. Because mom said so.

Combat is rote memorization. Your body is trained to respond through repetitive exercises. In the same way I think “word” and it appears on the screen, they think “parry,” and their body instinctively blocks the blade. They think “shoot,” and they immediately aim at center mass, compensate for recoil, find cover.

But why do our heroes master these skills in months, sometimes not even?

For your characters to become good at something, they have to be prodigies (I do understand these exist and they learn select skills very quickly), or they have to train for a long time intensely.

This doesn’t just go for combat. Pick up the book Blink. It’s basically all about training your instinct through mastering a subject. By making it rote. Someone bought a counterfeit piece of art. A bunch of experts looked at it and instantly said the buyer, a museum, was making a mistake. They couldn’t say why. Years of training their brain, years of seeing real and counterfeit art, and they knew that art was fake. It’s rote. They made looking at art rote memorization.

Basically I’m just pleading with you to make your characters learn things in a realistic manner. I know there are books which do a great job. But others cheat, and it makes the book feel fake. As for prodigies, just make sure it’s important. Otherwise you’re dangerously close to a Mary Sue character.

Exhaustion in your hero

I went to Guatemala for a week. I helped pull ten teeth. Five of them were from one lady who was over 70. The heat during the day is incredible. The humidity is unbearable, to the point you sweat at 75 degrees. I was a leader, and that was new emotional and mental pressure.

The bridge is much scarier than it looks. It's an excellent test of mental stamina. At least for me.
The bridge is much scarier than it looks. It’s an excellent test of mental stamina. At least for me.

Then I had a training half the week. I found out how much I can survive on caffeine, sugar, and adrenaline. Three weeks of four to six hours of no sleep is an incredible obstacle to fight through. I’ve no doubt that more than a few of you are insomniacs. It’s amazing what can keep you up at night, too.

This week I go help lead a men’s retreat. I already have nothing to give, and I have to go one more week. I will. Like college students suffer through midterms and finals. Like an Olympian makes it through the final stretch. Heck, can you imagine how that fourth event feels? Nurses and doctors work over 12 hour shifts. They endure through life and death situations and save people. What about soldiers? Our soldiers out in the Middle East, where it is hot, dirty, and they are being shot at. They are being shot. Some of these guys were shot multiple times and continued to fight. They endured.

Is your character getting off too easily? What have they endured?

The protagonist is always supposed to be at a disadvantage. They are supposed to go into odds that are nearly impossible, usually while juggling numerous challenges at once. They do not walk in through the front door and fight the antagonist, walk up to the throne room, and fight.

Sleep deprived, hungry, with a gunshot to the left arm, the protagonist goes to the lair where three dozen goons are waiting. The antagonist is fresh, well armed. He has a fresh weapon that was made specifically for him. The protagonist is likely low on bullets, is using a chipped sword, and so on.

Cowboy Bebop is my favorite example of this. Spike walks in to kill Vicious. Throughout two episodes Spike is getting run down, sleep deprived, and the love of his life is gunned down in front of him. He’s shot, cut, and so on. After breaking in to basically a fort, he’s half dead when he faces Vicious.

Season 2 of Arrow, Oliver loses everything. Before his final battle, all the resources at his disposal are stripped from him. His mother is killed. Slade has Oliver down on his emotional and financial knees before unleashing an army on the city. Oliver must fight the army and take on Slade.

Harry Potter’s always on a last leg, having lost more than resources whenever he reaches the climax. Lord of the Rings puts Frodo at a weak point physically and mentally when he’s about to throw the ring into the volcano.

Before the climax, make sure you cripple your protagonist. Really give us an exciting final conflict.

Persevering and shedding misconceptions as an aspiring author

Hello, internet.

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

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

Our conversation went like this:

Hurley Talk

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I’ll just stay in bed…”

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

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

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

Hurley Talk2

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

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

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

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

Character and Location Driven Stories

I recently played The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls Online. I discovered in my playing two very different and awesome ways to tell a story.

The Witcher 3 enticed me with character based stories. The major plot lines were all moved through an assortment of supporting characters. As you continued their story, you got closer to your end goal. When you finished the main story surrounding the support character you had a personal plot line which gave the relationship some closure.

Usually you were hanging with people. But sometimes you were a lonely mountain.

ESO went a different direction, likely due to the MMORPG aspect. You went from one locale to the next. At each one you were to unravel an issue. Sometimes you fought a war to take or defend a point. Other times there were plagues, spirits, and other oddities to deal with.

Both forms of anchoring gives an easy format to follow as a writer and reader. You can easily trace your story arcs, where they begin and where they end. Readers have easier cues to see the flow of the plot. When you set all conflict for an arc to move along one character or place, it allows better focus.

In The Witcher 3, character based stories hooked us from one person to the next in a hunt for Ciri, a sort of adopted daughter to Geralt, our protagonist. Geralt had to hunt support characters down. Most of them Geralt knew from past adventures, which were hinted at from time to time. After doing a search quest, there was usually some personal favor which occurred. After that, Geralt was given information on Ciri. At this point, Geralt could move on, never to look at that support character again, or he could go back and finish a final personal quest to give the relationship some closure, or provide a little entertainment.

As with anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. For the strength, you get attached to one support character. We get to learn their fears, desires, and wants by the quests they give and the solutions they come up with (or not). The support character’s motives can take them far and wide, so it is easy to change setting. Finally, it gives the opportunity to have your protagonist deal wish issues they would otherwise ignore or not run into. Motivations to keep the protagonist can be money, love, compassion, hostages, information, or any number of other incentives which a support character can provide.

The weaknesses consist of you are very heavily basing the story on a single support character at a time. Other support characters will come in and out, but really we are investing in the one with agency, and any others are in and out with a shrug. The protagonist can be overshadowed as the drive for the story is handed over to someone else. If the support character is flat, you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into their tale, and the reader will not stick around.

In ESO, you went into a location and dealt with an issue. As an MMORPG, it requires you to be tied to a place in order to gain levels before forcing you on. To make the game less of a grind, and feel less like you were chasing quest icons, there were locations you ventured into where you resolved some plot. This could be going into a town and discovering some plague. In the next town, you help a temple that is dealing with the ramifications of the fact it’s a zombie plague. You find a cure, then go on to put an end to the organization that created the plague. Each location had its own plot arc leading into the major story.

The advantages consist of you create empathy for a region instead of one character. People are tied into events greater than a single person which allows you to see more politics over a larger scope. More often than not, when a story is revolving around a setting, the character is there to change that location. The character also has significantly more agency as far as how they’re going to deal with the issue, or if they’ll even just walk away and let the location to its fate.

On the flip side, there is the issue of mobility. Your character isn’t going anywhere, so your setting better be interesting, much in the same way the support character above had to be interesting. It can be harder creating a driving force if there is a line of setting based arcs. Home town only works for one location, which is fine if they will be in that one location forever. After that, money or virtue can be excellent motivators. By focusing on a setting, there is the possibility of ignoring people. Make sure you still have a strong protagonist and support cast.

These are just a few of the possibilities. There are plenty more pros and cons, along with countless ways to tell a story, but it was fascinating to see the two very blatant ways these franchises approached storytelling.

Science Fiction and Human Nature

I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.

Details: Cities

Cities start when a person leads a group of others, sometimes only their family, off to unknown territory. Mind you, the land may be known, but there is a reason people are starting a city, and it has to do with the unknown. Did they find gold nearby? Is it going to be a future train station? Is the current government levying heavy taxes or persecuting for religious or political reasons? These people left to settle for a reason, and it’s not a bad idea to have that reason as a short sentence. It usually tells you how the city will form.

Starting a settlement is a terrifying thing. It often is met with death. Why did your people survive? Jamestown is famous for the way the people made it through winter through a work or die mentality instituted by John Smith, a name we all know. And not just because it’s immensely popular. It will also show the economics of the village and the culture to come.

Do they mine? What happens if the mine dries up? Do they farm? Have they had to deal with Biblical locust raids? This tells you a lot about where they have been and where they are going. There will be monuments, districts, buildings named after these founding fathers. There will be cultures, codes, rules, ordinances, edicts, religions all based on these early individuals, and the brave people who followed them. Flesh it out. While not a city level, how many adages of Ben Franklin’s do we have floating around? The institutes he created, many endure to this day, created out of necessity.

My home town way before I was born. Thanks
My home town way before I was born. Thanks

As a city goes forward figure out what their economy was to get started and what it is today. Did it remain the same or change, and if so why? Are their ruins of old factories, left over when the city became a technological center? Dubai is currently using oil money to create infrastructure for tourism and other industries, because they’re aware the oil will dry up. Did your city have that foresight? Remember that economies are lively, they interact with others. How does your city get along with the neighbors, did one neighbor, in the hopes to put them under, get involved in the same industries, at lower prices?

Phone photo. I feel I could have just driven downtown. Cities change. This is within the past 100 years and the street is filled. Below is where I found it.
Phone photo. I feel I could have just driven downtown. Cities change. This is within the past 100 years and the street is filled. Below is where I found it.

If you look at Grand Theft Auto, you will always find a mixture of construction sites for buildings, along with the dilapidated houses and abandoned warehouses. This is how GTA brings its setting to life. Why? Because cities are either growing or falling apart, and often they’re doing a little of both, depending on where you go.

Poor neighborhoods go under until prices are so cheap entrepreneurs come in to raise it from the ashes. And increase land value enough to get rid of undesirables. Downtown is always warred over, whether renovating old buildings or flattening space to create a new skyscraper. There is always construction or deconstruction, and, as we say in the food industry, “Stagnation is decline.” Another great form is the boom turned into a bust. Lots of beautiful buildings started. None of it finished. The beams are rusting.

Finally, at the heart of every city are people. People build. People vote. People make laws. People have their names put on buildings or their likeness put in brass. Every city has a hero or a villain. Sometimes it’s no more than the sleazy mayor who sleeps around, has a divorce, and his daughters are suffering for it.

It could be the DA who promises he will not rest until the cartels are off the streets. Maybe he succeeds. Maybe they find out he has a thing for children. Maybe he dies a martyr when the cartels gun him down. Stories, urban legends, and myths are built off these people and these moments. You all have that, some political figure who is larger than life, and the way the media portrays him cannot possibly be the truth. Because he is a man, he is multifaceted, but his decisions will still touch the course of history past his term.

Do not leave the people out of your city, the ones who died long ago.

This isn’t perfect. A lot of what I left out will be included in my Nations piece next time. There are countless very well done city creation books. My favorite is Damnation City which is a source for Vampire: The Requiem. I haven’t even used it much for role playing. I’ve used it mostly for creating my own towns. Because they live and breathe, and when done right, they have as much life and character as your characters.

Good luck with your cities, and let there be life.

Details: History

One thing that really brings a story to life are the details. These can be pub songs, pipe smoking habits, religious factions, and other small tidbits that aren’t required, are certainly not center stage, but most certainly allow readers to live in the world. It is that touch you put on something where you wrote more than required, show less than you created, but the reader respects that, whether or not they realize it. Why do you want details? Because otherwise everything is a two dimensional way to display ideas, instead of an immersive portrayal of a world in your head.

Before we delve into this, however, a reminder. Despite the fact you’re creating all these neat details, info dumps are evil. Seriously. If there is a villain in your story, it’s three pages of detail delivered with all the grace of a two by four upside the head. Have characters notice little things, or simply state there was a statue for some guy who did something long ago. You don’t need to tell us more, as your characters would find it natural. Now on with the show.

For any world building, history is the foundation of all that is and was. It’s why an empire was created, why ruins exist, why a planet is now an asteroid field, and so on. It’s really easy to start at the point in history where your story begins, and leave everything else out. Your readers won’t even notice. They will notice, however, if you include history.

When I create history, I have a story concept. I let it ferment in my head for months to years. There is daydreaming, I may write a scene or character sketch here or there, but most of this will end up in the garbage. Orson Scott Card backs up the idea that any good idea should be allowed to sit in your head, with a few physical manifestations, for six months or more. It allows the ideas to form more fully, and you can ensure a higher chance you even have a story to write.

So the brew of imagination is ready to boil over and you need to sample the goods. Sometimes I will jot down random ideas, but it all eventually comes around to the history. I sit down for an hour or two in order to complete the task. Any more time than that and I’m wasting time.

I come up with dates and why the calendar system exists. Why is this important? There are countless calendars in our world, and each one is based on major events, the edicts of emperors and kings, or other reasons. The reason for how your people tell time is very showing of who they are. I’ve never created full week calendars, only seasons or years. From there I start to insert major events.

Could you imagine coming up with every hour for a name? Picture courtesy of an awesome friend, because internet laws scare me.
Could you imagine coming up with every hour for a name? Picture courtesy of an awesome friend, because internet laws scare me.

In the past six months, I’ve already figured out most of the events even if I haven’t assigned them years. Now and then I’ll throw in something random, especially if I go a thousand years without something note worthy. Most are blanket and very general, but give enough information it makes sense and creates a sense of setting.

Viola, you have a brief history. It can lead to short stories when you want to pop out something quick as a distraction. It’s also great for hooks. It can create festivals when you need a celebration. Perhaps a fallen tower destroyed a century ago becomes the perfect place for your MacGuffin plot line where the protagonist needs to find an ancient spell or artifact.

Before you get too carried away, there are three major points to keep in mind when creating history. First, your original vision of the culture for your story needs to be malleable. Creating the history may enrich what you already created, and don’t fear that.

Next, your history is malleable. If you find you need to revise it for the plot to function, whether adding or removing, do it. Your timeline is in the background and no one actually knows how it flows.

Finally, do not over share your history. It took you an hour or two. Use one or two tidbits and it’s time well spent. Do not, for all that is benevolent, share your entire history. The only exception is if your history is of the utmost importance, you become ridiculously famous, or you share your short stories about those moments on your blog for publicity. Otherwise, in the novel, do not share.

With that, go forth and make history.

There are several more of these detail oriented posts to come! Do you make histories? If so how do you incorporate them? If you write science fiction, do you make them for each planet? That would be maddening, but aren’t we all a little mad? Have a fantastic holiday season!

Defeating Writer’s Block 3: Do Not Edit

I’m on this topic as I face a writer’s temptation, and to succumb to these snares sends one to the purgatory of a special kind of writer’s block. I write at a speed of approximately one chapter a night. Sometimes it’s more, often it’s less, but at a point I run into a wall and can’t move forward. At this point I take pleasure in the finer things in life, since I’ve already cleaned the house as an excuse not to write.

When I get closer to finishing, I do not appreciate this open space. I want to write all the time, dedicating every waking minute not at work to my literary pursuits, so there is now the temptation to edit. I want to print it out and start editing and fixing plot holes once I hit that wall of productive writing.

Often times, people don’t get this far without editing. I had someone tell me you’re to write three chapters, then go back and edit them. Write another two chapters and edit all five. This is going to be great in making sure everything is put together in a solid manner. It will also take you a decade to finish a book.

For those who like going back and editing what is there, some of you are very capable. I have a friend who goes back and rereads what she wrote the other day (a very good practice), and does minor grammar fixes and that’s it. She has amazing willpower. Here is my problem, and the problem with many others who go back and edit. You see all of the errors, the clunky dialogue, the plot hole you dug, and you freeze. Your eyes go wide, you start to freak out, and you go into perfectionist mode.

Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer.
Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer. And is that a bottle of wine?! I don’t remember it, I swear, but it does help with the self doubt of editing. Not the grammar, though.

Instead of writing that day, you go back and completely edit everything done. You edit it again and again, pull out your hair, and when baldness has nearly taken root, you throw out the manuscript and swear never to write again. While returning to the beginning once finished will still surely put you in a funk, the book is finished. It just needs refining. Better to finish and refine, than to refine as if to finish.

While this advice may not work for all of you, I am betting the vast majority has hit this block. I will roll the dice that several have reached a point where they thought it would be fun to edit, only to enter a Twilight Zone which disbanded any courage to finish the story. If you have found you are one of those people, heed these warnings. While I highly suggest reading a few paragraphs from the previous writing session, do not sit down with the intent to edit until the final words are kindly placed upon the document. That negative inner editor will hate you, but that part of you who always wanted to finish a novel will hug you until you feel smothered.

Happy writing!

Defeating Writer’s Block 1: Write Sideways

I’m going to do a few posts on how to defeat writer’s block. I have four or five already in mind, and I write this because recently it was a true issue that I had to fight through.

There’s a number of reasons for writer’s block. Children, too much alcohol, not enough alcohol, significant others, pets, an unruly character, a poorly developed [insert plot, character, setting], a computer that doesn’t work, fear of success, fear of failure, and I will promise you a hundred others I will never experience or understand, and a few hundred more you will never experience or understand. But they’re out there, and just like a traumatic moment with a child, it’s real to them and you should treat it as such.

The other day something horrible happened: a character went against me and changed his role in the story. This caused a block because, though it wrapped up one loose end, it caused the next chapter to falter. I didn’t know what direction I would go in. For three days I stared at my computer any time I brought up the document, wondering why I was vexed so immensely by malignant characters.

I daydreamed and eventually came up with what would happen next, and while daydreaming is one of the forms to defeat the great wall dividing us from our creativity I will talk about later, the first one is to write sideways.

The Northern Wall from Guild Wars. Sometimes our writer's block looks as insurmountable.
The Northern Wall from Guild Wars. Sometimes our writer’s block looks as insurmountable.

A visual if you would. The mind is like this huge board, and there are different channels running down the board. Each one is an idea. Some go farther than others, but they’re all important because they’re all venues for you to explore.

When we start writing an idea seriously, we have a tendency to go down one chute, ignoring all the other ideas. Look at it as our time is water, and we dam off all the other outlets. So we’re rushing down the one path, excited, perhaps even elated, as our writing rushes forward to fill the cavity. Then we realize the path is filled but the story isn’t done. We’ve filled the channel and there’s obviously more to it, but a dam has been imposed upon us which we have very little control over.

Often at this point we stare at the stopper. We curse and shake our fist, but we’re impotent to remove it. This is a path to futility.

Why do I call it writing sideways? Because there are all those other fabulous ideas that you can open up. You can write on them for a little bit, outline, brainstorm, and just generally lose yourself to something other than your core work.

I wrote a number of mythologies that would tie into my world. I wrote a few that had absolutely no immediate importance. Even outlined book number two. All the while I continued to think of my story, but at least I was writing, creating, and moving. I was writing sideways, and suddenly, yesterday, the floodgates opened.

So if your path is blocked, travel down another one until you’ve opened up your original route.

Next time we’ll explore more writer’s block! If you have a specific issue, let me know, shoot me an email, check out my other website, and so forth. I’ll try to include it.

G’desh: Using Religion

First, when it comes to fantasy, religion is going to exist. Many writers create actual gods which walk among men and say “This is right, this is wrong, I do exist, and these are the curses and blessings you may expect.” If there isn’t that, there will be ancestral worship, animism, or a number of other simple religions at the least. You can even make it complex with a number of rituals, gods, and other facets.

Religion should be reflected by something which exists. These provide the best foundation, and from there it’s pretty easy to manipulate to the needs of the story. There are some obvious differences, though. Sometimes in fantasy the gods can actually exist. It’s possible in science fiction to reveal those gods as not real. Perhaps they were even killed. There are a lot of variations you can use. Just make sure it matters to your story. This could be a main plot line, a foil or parallel, or setting for what is to come.

If religion will add nothing to your story, mention it briefly from time to time, but then move on. Song of Ice and Fire had set up the the religion of R’hllor as early as the tournament when they talk about Thoros running out into the tournament with his flaming sword. We can’t even tell that this was a sign of the religion until season three. I’m only on the second book.

Why wouldn’t Martin tell us about R’hllor in the first book? It didn’t matter. Until we see Melisandre and Stanis, the religion would only detract. He simply left us enough hints so we could see that it existed already on the peripheral. The same as the Drowned God. Until we reach the second book, he really doesn’t matter. So even if you have a religion, unless it means something, hint at it lightly and otherwise ignore it. Just like R’hllor.

Old school book images.
Old school book images.

In my own story I called upon Judaism and Islam, with a point of origin and a point of extremism. The point of origin is a peaceful religion that believes in true tolerance. From there, one faith believed in the purification of blood. Only man could live (there are other races), and the soul and body must be put through fire. If one does not believe, fire will consume their doubts.

From this, another religion is created. When the Purifiers start taking land through war, some of those who were peaceful take to violence, creating the Followers. They believe they are right and pure, but in time motives are corrupted. Mimicking the Crusades, they become blood thirsty, while alienating the peaceful origin of the religion.

Religion is used to show the nature of man overall and to show the corruption of ambition. It’s also used to move along the story in ways I do not want to tell you quite yet. So use religion in your own to further the story, to show generalizations, and to give information overall. Next week I’ll talk magic.

How have you used religion and what have you come up with for your own stories?