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. 

Life Interrupted

Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary was next weekend. There were people coming in to celebrate 60 years of love. A menu was created, the food was purchased and stored in the freezer. My aunt was asking for advice on a van, since she liked their van and wanted to know the pros and cons. There was wiring being done on their house by Grandpa. There were plans to go out and eat with people for the next two weeks. That’s simply how they rolled. Last Wednesday, they were preparing to go to Ash Wednesday service. Grandpa had to drive as Grandma’s been deteriorating from Parkinson’s. It’s a horrible disease, and those who have seen it know how debilitating it can be. Her mind is still good, but her mobility is hampered more and more.

Grandpa went upstairs to get changed. It would be quick, they would make it to church on time, and he had a nice outfit picked. After twenty minutes upstairs, Grandma called for him and received no response. She, very likely, struggled up the stairs. Grandpa was unresponsive. She proceeded to struggle back down the stairs, as her cell phone was downstairs, where she called my aunt.

We received text messages and phone calls halfway through our own Ash Wednesday service. By the time we were out and I saw the text that Grandpa had collapsed, then called my aunt, she stunned us with the news Grandpa was dead. She said passed, but as a writer words have a certain levity to them. Passed doesn’t do justice what happens at the end of life. Dead does.

I was to go to Utah the next morning for a writer’s convention. The plan was after church to do laundry, hang out with mom and dad, and be to bed by nine, since I had to be up around four. I nearly did not go. I definitely did not bring the clothes I was thinking I would. Due to the grace of Mom, I ended up with clean clothes at all.

Grandpa wasn’t supposed to die. His shoulder gave him problems, he was slowing down, but he still was filled with vigor at 83. There were countless plans surrounding him and his life, and no one expected the phone call. There were no health issues.

Suddenly my brothers were flying or driving in with their families. One of them expected to drive in next week for the celebration of marriage. Neither of them expected to come back home for the mourning of a death.

Life ends abruptly. Not always. My other Grandpa suffered for years from numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the point he was basically incoherent for the final stretch. There were no plans made into the future, and every day we showed up to the nursing home and he was still breathing was a bonus. But how many people in our novels die that death?

When I was sitting in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with Grandma going through all the reasons he couldn’t be dead, when plans were made and cancelled because of death, when I heard of the project which were happening and would not be neglected, I realized something about death, something I never realized because I’ve never before been in a house with a dead body that so immensely affected me.

Death leaves threads which are unfinished.

How often do characters going into battle have no tomorrow? A Victorian novel where two characters duel in the morning, but they have no plans for lunch later on. A teen about to be on the receiving end of a slasher flick doesn’t do their homework, unless we want them to be doing their homework when the horror starts. Even those who walk onto the battlefield. Our soldiers have families at home. They plan on seeing those families. Leave is planned out in order to visit them, sometimes during important events. Maybe it’s as simple as a planned poker game that evening, even though they are aware they are going into an encounter shortly.

People don’t plan to die. Make plans as if they will survive.

Bran, in A Game of Thrones, has an entire chapter on how he has planned out his life. Then he is pushed out a window and falls to become a cripple. His plans are interrupted.

Ned plans on exposing the incest of Jaime and Cersei, until they catch him. Then he simply plans on making it home to his family, hiding in Winterfell, and taking care of his kids. Both of these plans are decapitated when Ned loses his head in a rash decision by Joffrey. Not only that, but it was for naught. By Clash of Kings everyone knows of the incest anyway.

In H.P. Lovecraft, often his characters do not plan out anything beyond the terror inducing events of the present. The men go into a cave with no thought of tomorrow, a guaranty to their own mortality. While I still love his writing, why wouldn’t the man researching a hidden horror in a crypt make plans to return to the surface, writing fanciful notes from the psych-ward he would so justly deserve?

When a healthy character is about to die, especially in an epic where tomorrow matters, have them make plans. It makes it more real. It makes us understand. We recall that death strikes at any time, and the reaper does not care what we wanted to do tomorrow. It takes us all the same.

The rest of the week will consist of information from the writer’s conference, which was a blast. Today, however, having been the funeral, this is what slapped me in the face.

grandpa

In memory of Grandpa, who gave countless virtues and blessings to his daughters, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. Who taught us faith, an even temper, and a determined approach to this world. You were taken by a thief in the night, but you’ve left behind so many great reminders as to the amazing man you were. I miss and love you, Grandpa. Until we meet again.

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?

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

On the Necessity of Writing Sabbaticals

restIf you’re, like me, an obsessive-compulsive writer who gets stressed out by not finishing things, taking a break can be difficult. This is especially true during November, or as most of you know it, NaNoWriMo. I have never participated in this insane push to write a novel from start to finish in one month, partially because the past six years of my life have been stressful enough without trying to write a whole book in such a condensed period of time, but also because the pressure I put on myself is enough to make me crack without additional external pressure. I seriously hate taking a longer than anticipated time to finish my projects; it’s stressing me beyond belief right now that I haven’t done much with my novel in two months, despite the fact that said lack of progress is due to moving to another continent and taking up a new job. Y’know, normal adult stuff that is naturally going to get in the way of side tasks in general. But something I’m learning right now is the benefit of taking a break from my writing. Not just one project, mind you. I’m talking all of my non-RPG projects. As of today, I’m on a complete writing break for a week. I find that when I’m having trouble writing and am unable to put words to paper, taking time off for a bit, even if it’s just a day or two, helps me re-exert control over the process. Suddenly it’s not that I *can’t* write at that time; I’m *choosing* not to write. That simple act of controlling the situation actually helps me with the writer’s block when I return to my work because then I’m in the mindset of “I chose to rest; now I can go back.” This only works if I take a sabbatical from writing altogether. No idea why, but that’s the tru9h of it. It also relaxes me by taking my brain out of freak-out mode and allows me to redirect my creative energies elsewhere, such as into dancing or learning Polish. If I try writing another project during a mental freak out, I end up just stressing out about how much I should be working on the other project and how annoying it is that I can’t progress any further. Sometimes, you really do just need to take a break. It’s okay to take time off (though maybe not this week, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo). Just make sure that you set parameters for yourself: how long the sabbatical will last, what other hobbies/projects you’ll work on during that time, and what you’ll start work on when the break is over. If you’re exhausted and haven’t gotten much writing done lately, take a break. Have a Kit-Kat. Listen to a Dalek Relaxation Tape. Your stories will thank you for it.

 

Interrupt your safe scenes

I was watching Psych. It was season six or seven. Shawn, our fake psychic protagonist, and Juliette, his police officer lover, were at a wedding enjoying a touching moment of alone time. The officer who got married was the happiest he had ever been. Shawn’s friend, Gus, received the long awaited phone call from his long distance girlfriend. Everyone was happy, a crime was just solved, we had five minutes left in the show, nothing bad could happen. There was nothing out there on the plate. We were happy. We were safe.

Then Shawn walked away after giving Jules his suit coat, and she had a look of consternation as she reached into a pocket. The camera panned panned away from her, to Shawn at the bar. Did she find the ring he was going to use to propose? It would be a tense moment, a moment of truth, but a happy moment. At that time, it was the only possible thing I could think of at the end of the episode.

For over a minute or so we were stuck at the bar, wondering what she found, wondering how this would change Shawn’s life. Meanwhile, Shawn sat at the bar, admiring how good life was. He was in a safe scene, where his world could not be rocked and he was going to get laid that evening.

When he returns to Jules with the drinks, she looks like an injured doe. There was a ticket stub from earlier in the show, where she realized he was not psychic, but immensely perceptive and a great guesser. My world was shattered. Things deteriorated, and soon he had wine thrown in his face. We were faced with one of the forms of death, the death of a relationship, and at a time we thought everything was gold.

For whatever reason this made me comprehend the tactic of interrupting the safe scene more than all the GRRM weddings in the world. A part of me died, and I was just thankful I had it on Netflix and could stay up until 2am watching through until some sort of resolution for the act occurred. I don’t know how you cable people live through those moments without weeping for the next week.

Having the safe scene finally clicked, I took to analyzing it.

stuff
We are so blowing this sucker wide open! Photo by Brent Moore

There are three parts to the interrupted safe scene. You have a scene where the reader or viewer feels safe, alongside the characters who are likely destressing. After that is a tell. The audience, and perhaps protagonist, is tipped off that not all is right in the state of Denmark. Finally, the interruption, or hammer, which shatters the glass state of safety. Something horrible happens that we should have seen coming, there were hints, but we lost sight of what was in front of us.

First, a safe scene is a scene after something stressful, which had a happy resolution. Everyone is having a good time, everyone is happy, any wronged parties have been rectified. In the episode of Psych, they helped catch a mob boss to help a detective’s wedding go smoothly, Shawn had recently went through a lie detector and passed as a psychic, and he was considering proposing some time soon to his girlfriend. We were in the last two minutes of the show. Everyone was happy and there were no hints towards a hard crash.

In Game of Thrones, this is the Red Wedding. Waldor seems content, someone is marrying one of his daughters. He compliments Robb’s wife. Everyone is happy, all wrongs between the two parties are seemingly mended.

The next part is the tell. A sign something is wrong. I think Psych did the better job. In the Red Wedding, Catelyn sees the chain mail on Roose, and seconds later everyone dies. Shawn doesn’t even notice that Jules went into his pocket. He didn’t see the look of perplexity. We knew for a good minute that something was amiss, and our minds were allowed to wallow in the mists of uncertainty. But it was a safe moment, so it couldn’t be bad.

After the tell is the hammer. To create tension in a story you need the threat of death. Maybe I didn’t click as well with Game of Thrones because it was literal death. There are other kinds of deaths, whether relationships, jobs, research, or so on. In Psych, we suddenly have the death of a relationship thrust upon us. I was able to see death in a more abstract manner.

With the hammer, what you have to ensure, is it’s something that is always looming overhead, but we think it’s a nonissue. While there were signs, there were no signs immediately. Though you set it up perfectly, in that final moment, surprise us. “Remember how I put the ticket in the pocket? No? Well now it’s important, because it’s going to unravel everything.” And it only happened twenty minutes earlier.

So spend all your time planting the seeds. Create the tension, seemingly solve or push the tension aside, create happiness, and then slap the reader in the face. And there you have it, interrupting the safe scenes.

Details: Organizations

I am a member of MAFSI, WRA, and NRA (restaurant, not rifle). I will earn CPMR and CSP. I already earned ServSafe. Within these organizations, in the next ten years, I will hold office. Within 20, the goal is to hold national positions. I belong to the Den of Quills, I’ve aided the Secret Door Society, I drove past the Screenwriter’s Guild two days ago. Your local union is part of this, a tradition dating back to the Brotherhood after the Civil War. Which dates back to the guilds of the middle ages. Which dates back to….

Organizations, secret and otherwise, have always held society together. They have grand titles, items handed down from leader to leader, there are speeches, cocktail hours, due payments, and numerous other traditions which reach back thousands of years. Your city has them too. Most you will never talk about and no one will ever care about. But they are there, your characters will run into it, and there is a reason. Organizations make the world turn round.

Public organizations have been used in order to regulate members. They give self regulation, ethical standards, and shared information. If one member is weak, other members can come in and help them up. If an entire industry is weak, it gives the opportunity for even the stoutest rivals to rally together in order to change the tide. There are meetings, there are exchanges, there are politics on par with anything you find in government. People make moves, and even within these organizations, backstabbing and knee cutting are not out of the question.

These organizations will exist wherever there has been long standing specialization, with numerous people in the same career line in a condensed area.

When creating above board organizations, the question is why do they exist? What industry or ideal became large enough to warrant it? What such organization could the main character come in contact with or belong to? How does it hinder or help them? Perhaps your character is a merchant in a large city. Chances are, there is some council, committee, or board of oversight that is watching him. They go to him regularly and smash up his shop or steal away customers because he doesn’t belong. Maybe the rival across town is trying to besmirch the protagonist’s good name to get him kicked out. It could also just be the folks that our protagonist pays every month, goes and sits in on their meetings, and honestly it’s just part of the character. Not everything needs overwhelming purpose.

Even the different races have to mingle some times.
Even the different races have to mingle some times.

Then we have the organizations everyone loves to use. The secret organizations. SEAL Team 6, the Gestapo, Free Masons, and so on. They are less likely to align with an industry, and more likely to align with a goal or ideal. They could be running the country secretly, hitting threats no one knows about, silencing the people as boogie men, and so on. The members are varied in their experiences and walks of life, often adding new skill sets to the organization as a whole. If the organization is specialized, the skill sets will still vary to a degree, but everyone will have some skills in common. With military units this would be combat. With movers of the government, it will be political knowledge.

These organizations will exist when people are displeased with what is occurring, but their hands are tied by the public, government, or some other overwhelming force.

While your protagonist very likely runs into public organizations, unless they’re part of, or get in the cross-hairs of, a secret organization, there’s a good chance they’ll never know it exists. When you do put one in their path, make sure the organization fits a theme, some idea or goal. Figure out that goal, and who would flock to it. Were people recruited, or did they gravitate to it? Is it like looking for John Galt? Answering these questions will give you a quick idea as to who would be part of it, and how they’d function.

Organizations can also be regional or national. A few are just a city. Maybe it’s a corrupt governor who has to go. These are more common in city-states, or times where cities were not well policed by the head government. Others will span an entire nation, keeping some good of the people in mind (hopefully). A few even span many nations. Much more common in secret societies, especially in settings where there is hostility between nations, those societies which span many nations can truly influence the course of history. Just look at the Assassin Brotherhood.

Alright, last post for details! Hope you enjoyed it.

Details: Nations

Nations are large areas, regions which affect entire people. While they encompass religion and culture, while there are cities, while there is history, here is a broad view of what goes into a nation. Some of these are applicable within any of these other areas.

Nations have a government, one which reaches over a large swath, or it can be a city-state. Historically the most common ruling body is a monarchy (one ruler), or an oligarchy (a small group of elite rulers). While people are heard in a variety of ways, they rarely actually have a voice. Even in most democracies or republics, the people have no voice. Voting is to make them feel good about themselves.

If you decide to go the monarchy route, there are numerous paths for ascension. It can be through blood, which was common in the Middle Ages. It could be through trial by combat, common in more brutal nations like the Norse. Sometimes it’s vote by tribunal, or whatever the council is advising the king. There are countless ways to put someone on a throne, despite our stereotype of getting there by lineage. If you pick the blood path, remember incest was rather common to keep it in the family, which means there was the chance of simply a bad king, and then there was the chance of a genetically bad king. Or queen.

A monarch is never alone. Even the queen can have a hefty say. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wazari/595933166/in/photolist-46uZse-6StBms-9socEH-UEjaL-ehBaGr-qhDCuJ-839tBX-8mtSCQ-eETcww-6BCTkf-6GEZSe-ayys5T-8YUeFu-8BwDYA-8BtxzD-8BwDSQ-8BtxsP-8BtxoV-8BwDCG-8BwDzY-8Btx9M-8Btx6P-8BwDnu-8BtwXi-8BtwUi-8BwDcC-8BwDab-8BtwG6-8BtwAH-6DQ21T-bWL9E6-8bSSY9-9Dj9Fw-neLvfC-caF8nL-7Sohv1-9vbg5M-p3Wjkn-pkrioV-pipbRU-ekwtbU-pka91p-pk9QWK-pkr8Hc-feWzMS-A6wVu-aTS5VF-caENNY-81i2Uv-8riFHG
A monarch is never alone. Even the queen can have a hefty say.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/wazari/595933166/in/photolist-46uZse-6StBms-9socEH-UEjaL-ehBaGr-qhDCuJ-839tBX-8mtSCQ-eETcww-6BCTkf-6GEZSe-ayys5T-8YUeFu-8BwDYA-8BtxzD-8BwDSQ-8BtxsP-8BtxoV-8BwDCG-8BwDzY-8Btx9M-8Btx6P-8BwDnu-8BtwXi-8BtwUi-8BwDcC-8BwDab-8BtwG6-8BtwAH-6DQ21T-bWL9E6-8bSSY9-9Dj9Fw-neLvfC-caF8nL-7Sohv1-9vbg5M-p3Wjkn-pkrioV-pipbRU-ekwtbU-pka91p-pk9QWK-pkr8Hc-feWzMS-A6wVu-aTS5VF-caENNY-81i2Uv-8riFHG

Monarchs do not rule alone. They have trusted advisers, whether a small council, a prophet, a wazir. Generals, friends, chieftains, governors, and any number of other councils may exist. Monarchs who listen are often good and wise. Monarchs who are tyrannical to subjects and advisers often end up dead. Looking at you Caesar. Weak rulers become puppets of their council, and are often dead as soon as they grow a spine, too old, or too temperamental. Joffrey. Due to our indoctrination to the ways of democracy, we seem to view all monarchs as cruel and horrible rulers, when in fact they were often very pragmatic and just, even if it was not noticeable while schlepping troughs. Few will see justice, but the machine works brilliantly.

If you want an excellent guide to ruling as a monarch, read The Prince. I firmly believe it’s satirical and bitter, as Machiavelli wrote it after losing Florence to the Medici, who were not very nice folks. Machiavelli would go on to never rule again. However, all the practices in his treatise are signs of excellent rulers who created great kingdoms and empires. Hence, I do not believe Machiavelli subscribed to a single word he wrote in that book, he just noticed those ruling did.

Oligarchies are made up of numerous personalities. Usually each oligarch is there for a certain skill or task. They are a minister of agriculture, war, crafts, and so on. They reach their spot by sleeping in the right beds, scoring well on exams, climbing through the ranks of their bureaucracy, and so on. Meritocracies can take this form, just as well as nepotism. Personalities clash, and that clash is what keeps a city in check. Sometimes, especially in the face of riots, there will be a voice of the people. The people put them there, and either this “emissary” works well with the upper class, or he sits there and shuts up. If he fails both, he ends up in a well. Check out Rome for more information on the poor trying to be represented.

Oligarchs will have underlings, often times entire departments. Their job is to keep the world spinning, though they rarely actually reach into the machine to mess with cogs. They have others who can do that. Many times, there are machinations in place to discredit other oligarchies, to bestow favor on subjects loyal to them, and to give that leader more edge and voice than another. The council rule may claim all votes sway the same, but this is most certainly not true.

National laws exist, created through need. Often times, early societies created laws as issues came up. We still do this today. Murder becomes illegal the moment someone commits it. Throw them in prison. People keep getting murdered? Mutilation and public execution become the price. Tired of thieves? Cut off an arm. The king had his wife cheat on him with a slave? All women who are adulterers will be branded on the forehead. If the poor are the only ones to suffer, and it does not affect the gentry, chances are no laws will be created. While you don’t need to create a story, every law does have a story. Just like I’m sure the NYC ordinance it’s illegal for monkeys to smoke, drink, and gamble has an amazing story behind it.

There are also programs. Conscription, taking slaves from outlying villages (Hunger Games takes the idea from a proud history), creating schools, allowing indentured servitude, and so on. Remember, all of this comes from something happening. Three tributes revolted, so now all must suffer humiliation and offer up slaves. There was a war, and the nation was not ready. Now all men at the age of 16 must learn to fight. Inbreeding leads to issues, and communities are too small, so the real purpose of skirmishes and wars is to capture women to diversify breeding stock. Natives Americans would use this, along with many other tribal nations. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of real wars as well, but kidnapping the women was as much necessity as pleasure.

I’m hitting my word count and then some. Next time I’ll write on secret organizations, as I really wanted to include that here. I hope you gain some good ideas and insight, and please feel free to add your own in the comments.

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

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. http://henryseclectic.com/2014/08/06/alte-milwaukee-kapital-des-deutscheramerikaner/
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.
http://henryseclectic.com/2014/08/06/alte-milwaukee-kapital-des-deutscheramerikaner/

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: Religion

In the beginning….

The Chinese have a world born from a dragon. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have it created by an omniscient God. Christianity was once unified, but slowly fractured out into different sects of Catholicism. Then it became completely different denominations with different interpretations of the Bible, not simply religious focuses. Buddhism was created when the suffering under Hinduism became apparent to a man of noble birth. Shintoism, I believe the only massively recognized animistic religion in the modern days, continues to evolve and exist, though people from hundreds of years ago wouldn’t recognize it today.

Religions are alive. They are breathing, shifting, shattered things. Whether or not the Divine breathed into it to begin, it eventually makes it the hands of us mortals, and we are a corrupting, self-serving, greedy force. In the darkest of times, we can also be a compassionate, loving, and selfless people. All of these actions influence religion in our world. It should also influence religion in yours.

When you begin, look at your world and how it came to be. It could be anything. Come up with how each culture envisions the world was created, because surely they each have their own interpretation. You don’t even need to decide which one is right, as more than likely it’s academic. Keep it academic unless you are going to reveal the creators. This gives a sense of faith and it’s true to our own world experiences.

From these creation beliefs, and using the cultures of your societies, form the religion of the time. A group of nobles may try to kill their ancestral religion, becoming monotheistic or polytheistic to buck the old trend. A bunch of villages scattered and without an abundance of learning are likely more animistic, worshiping hundreds of individual spirits.

The chances of there being no religion is minimal. There will always be faith in something. There will always be something science can’t explain, whether simple anomalies or straight out miracles. Religion may not have been big in Star Wars, but it was there. Even Mass Effect had religion, Enkindlers bless the Hanar.

At this point you have a general sense of religion in your world. Check which are simple and which are complex. Simpler religions will have a more personal edge, less doctrine, and so there really aren’t splinters in how people worship, but there are different focuses and most (though they still have taboos) are good. The hunter prays to the great stag, while the weaver prays to hemp. Worship is respect, and because of how they live they respect different aspects of life.

The more complicated the religion, the more ability for interpretation, the more likely it is for spider-webbing and eventually a complete shattering. Christianity began under harsh persecution. The people did not have the luxury to have divisions. While there were some debates as to proper attitudes and behaviors, even what Christ meant, the body of followers remained one. It’s difficult not to when your people are being burned to light city streets or they’re being fed to lions as entertainment.

Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1
Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1

In the Byzantine Empire, everything changed. Constantine, when faced by an insurmountable horde, had a vision of a cross and was told to conquer in that image. When they were victorious, he found it was the sign of Christianity. So began Christianity’s acceptance.

In the coming years it gained favor, but there were disputes. Greek Orthodox broke off due to interpretations, such as if it’s right to use images. In the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire maintained solidarity through ignorance, guilt, and fear. Unity was not out of fear from the outside, but fear from within. People were discouraged from reading, especially the Bible, and scripture and liturgy was always said in a language the peasants couldn’t understand, so they could not question.

Until Luther. Appalled by the way a merciful God was turned into a tyrant, he fought the church, and from him the protestant movement spread like wild fire. Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and many more branched out almost immediately. The Bible was one of the first mass produced pieces of literature through the Gutenberg printing press.

Today Christianity is a cluster of faiths, heretics, heresies, cults, and depending on which group you belong to depends upon which groups fall into which categories. This is just one religion in the world, each one being just as complicated and multifaceted. Each one filled with tenants we cannot possibly understand, some we do not want to understand, and others we will cling to as if the world would end if the sin was committed. Each one completely altering history and culture.

Give your religion these details. Make it so there is confusion and debate. Scripture is rarely airtight, especially after a thousand years and most people can’t even read the original texts, let alone understand the nuances. Wars are fought over religion, either because of different religions or interpretations within the same one. Families are ripped asunder, people are exiled, politicians are condemned and lose all ranking. Gods shift in and out of importance. The Hindu pantheon changed regularly as far as who was powerful and well known and who was obscure.

So go create your own religions. I generally keep this in the same book as my history, and usually enjoy making them alongside each other, as religion should be influencing history, and history influencing religion.

How do you go about religion in your writing? Do you prefer mono- or polytheism? Either way, happy writing, writers!