Have you even noticed that women get something of a short shrift in the sci-fi/fantasy world? Whether it is in comic books, novels, movies, etc women are often depicted as oversexualized objects or playthings or as overpowered and interminably alone (because no one can match them) or as overdependent and incapable of any significant action of their own. Now, this is not to say that all science fiction and fantasy depict women in these ways, and there are some very good female characters in science fiction/fantasy works, but a lot of it does depict women in these ways. There have been many theories about why this is–the most popular is generally that so much of the science fiction/fantasy world is dominated by men, but the fact that female authors generally portray female characters in the same ways seems to discount this. I think that it is more likely that the American view of women as a whole simply varies between unhealthy extremes of dependence, use, and conquest rather than seeing women significantly as whole people who struggle, need, provide, and triumph. However, this is just my theory so, take or leave it as you will. Anyway, let’s get into the exercise. You know the rules: I give you a picture and you give me a story of 1000 words or less (at least if you want to post it here) that explains what is happening in the picture. Remember the lesson from last time, stay true to the picture. Let the audience know what is happening in the background of the picture without actually altering any of the picture’s own details. Enjoy (and try not to fall into the above tropes):
So, Alayna and I are exhausted at the moment. I’m actually sleeping better (meaning that the therapy is working), but I’m not sleeping very long each night. Alayna is at that point where the baby is dropping (or has dropped… or is about to drop… this is our first time doing this) and absolutely everything is uncomfortable, including sleeping… which means that she doesn’t much. Exhaustion makes everyday tasks, like work, reading, or helping a friend, much more difficult and it especially makes stress more difficult to handle. It makes you crankier, more easily frustrated, and less able to take a joke. It also makes it that much more difficult to do something that you just don’t really feel like doing. I bring this up because it’s your topic today. I want you to write a story about exhaustion in a stress-filled situation. You know the rules. Take your subject and run with it. Write me a story of 1000 words or less and stay on topic. As before, if it’s in any way applicable, you should use this to try to develop your world a little more :).
Your Challenge: Write me a story about exhaustion in a stress filled situation. This could be a story about exhaustion makes stress more difficult to deal with or how it makes your responses to stress less likely to be appropriate. You could focus on the emotional, physical, or intellectual challenges of exhaustion and the impact that they can have on stress responses. In some way though, your story needs to have a strong focus on exhaustion in a stress filled situation.
“Poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”
You’ll have to forgive me, because I am a bit uncertain about the original source of this quote. Originally I had thought it was C.S. Lewis, but upon further research I think that either 1) I was misremembering, or 2) I may have read it in a Lewis work some time ago, but even Lewis was quoting someone else and not attributing the quote to himself. (I want to say it was in An Experiment in Criticism, but I couldn’t find it after briefly re-skimming the chapter on Poetry; I’d have to read more thoroughly to do so). In any case, upon a quick internet search this morning, I’ve found a few different sources attributing this quote not to Lewis at all, but to French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.
According to a literary magazine entitled The Paris Review: “Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, ‘But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.’ ‘But my dear Degas,’ the poet replied, ‘poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.'”
Now, after opening with an inspirational-sounding quote, I may surprise you. Because I’m actually not going to take the side of that quote. In the above exchange, I’d put myself in the shoes of Degas, knowing that my poems aren’t always the best or deepest ones in the world, but saying (despite the rebukes of the more deep, artistic poets), “Sure I can write poems. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. That’s what it takes to write a poem, right?”
Yes, obviously, poems contain words, and they shouldn’t be just any words haphazardly thrown together, but words arranged in a specific way based on sound, structure, etc. And I realize that. But for me, a poem still starts with an idea. Every writer is different, of course, and there’s no one correct way to do everything, but for me a poem starts with an idea, a feeling, etc.–and it’s not until later that I can translate that idea into the words which make up a poem.
When I posted one of my poems earlier in the week, I mentioned that some people are talented enough that they can write a beautiful and poignant poem about almost anything–something in nature, a tiny episode out of their day, something they see just walking down the street, etc. Personally, I am not one of those people. In order to make a halfway decent poem (at least, one that I think is halfway decent), in order to really be inspired and care about what I’m writing, I need to base it on something important to me–a feeling, a life experience, something I’ve been going through or thinking about already, etc. It starts with an idea, a strong and powerful and weighty idea that is close to my heart, and I translate it into words later as I go along (sometimes over the course of two or three or more revisions).
I vaguely remember one poem I wrote in a creative writing class in college. It was about nature–something about winter, and the snow melting as spring begins to come along. I may have called it “Waning Winter Wonderland” or something alliterative like that. But I didn’t write it because I was passionate about it and I really felt a deep sense of inspiration to write about the snow; I only wrote it in response to an assignment or writing prompt for class. My professor (who I’m quite certain is a better and more experienced poet than I) seemed to like it, and wrote in a comment that I should “please keep working on this one!” But I don’t think I did. I’m not sure if I even still have the poem anymore or could find it again at this point. While it may have been wise for me to at least take my professor’s advice and continue honing my craft, the poem wasn’t one of my favorite ones, because it wasn’t one that was important to me at the time. It wasn’t born of personal inspiration. It wasn’t about something I was passionate about, and it didn’t really come from my heart.
For me, poems that I write have a very close and personal inspiration. I think that’s why I’ve been told–and I agree with this–that my poems are often like stories. They’re about things that happen or things that people deal with rather than just about things that one might see in nature, for example. Each one contains a story, or at least is born of a story in my mind. When presenting them or reading them aloud to an audience, I may often say something like, “So I wrote this poem at a time when [X] was going on, and that was kind of what made me want to write about it…”
In fact, I do believe that prose and stories are my forte more than poetry is, which is part of why I don’t write poems super often. And when I do, my poems are born of personal experience and personal inspiration. I don’t just sit down and write a poem arbitrarily (unless a college class requires it). I write one every so often when I have a feeling or idea or inspiration that means a lot to me and that I think would be worthy of a poem. Admittedly, it may not seem like the most literary or artistic approach compared to Mallarmé’s lofty philosophy. But it’s what works for me, and as I said, I don’t think there’s any one right formula that works for all authors all the time.
So which way works best for you? If you’ve ever written a poem, do you make them out of words? Or out of ideas? Or out of stories?
Here’s another new poem that I finalized just recently and debuted at an open mic night this week. I’m calling it “Secret Identity.”
Question for discussion: do you prefer poems with a definite rhyme or rhythm (like this one will be), or ones written in free verse (like the last one I posted)? I feel like free verse is more “in vogue” these days, and so for a while most of what I wrote was free verse. But personally, I find that when I write for spoken word or specifically for performance (as I have been doing lately), I like to go back to consistent rhyme and rhythm if I can. Having a rhythm and a pattern or beat helps me to keep my pace when the audible sounds are the focus more than the written word.
Anyway, here’s “Secret Identity.” I hope you enjoy it.
My shirt and tie may cover me.
These glasses hide my eyes.
But still this outer man you see
is merely a disguise.
By day I speak on words and books.
Your minds I try to fill.
I may give disapproving looks
or tell you to sit still.
But underneath there’s so much more
than what you could dream of:
a soldier fighting holy war,
a heart that’s full of love
and far-too-idealistic hopes
in my heroic quest
to talk of more than tomes and tropes
but make your life feel blessed.
Behind the desk, behind the beard,
behind the endless puns
lies something more than first appeared:
deep care for broken ones.
I see you there, alone and lost
like sheep, a shepherd needing.
You don’t know I’d pay any cost
to simply stop the bleeding.
You’ll never know how much I care
or how I long to hold you
or how I wish I could be there
though outwardly I scold you.
Oh, how I longed to draw you near
like a hen unto her chicks,
to chase off every hurt and fear—
to shield, to heal, to fix.
Of burdens I would bear the brunt—
but alas, I am unable,
for I stand up here at the front
while you sit at your table.
For after all, I’m only one
flawed, finite, mortal creature,
and when it all is said and done,
I’m just a high school teacher.
But I’ll always be here on your side.
I’ll always be your fan.
I couldn’t save you if I tried,
but I’ll do what I can.
I haven’t written much fiction lately, but I’ve been working on some poetry. And as our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me this week, a poem can often be a form of telling a story. In my case, I certainly believe that that’s true. Some people are gifted enough that they can write beautiful poems about almost anything, but I can really only bring myself to write one when I have the right inspiration, usually when it has been influenced by something from my life—-a story, if you will.
Later in the week, I may write a post analyzing poems and storytelling a little more thoroughly. For now, I’d just like to share with you some of the latest ones I’ve written. The following is a work in progress born of an emotion inside me, but I didn’t really put it down in words until yesterday–so I reserve the right to edit and change it later on as I revisit it. (But I am planning to unveil it to the public at an open mic night tonight, so hopefully it’s ready enough for that at least!)
I have named this poem “The Wanderer’s Lament.”
Home is not the mattress I sleep on
in a brick building far too uptight
to be anything more than a temporary dwelling.
Home is no longer the four walls
where I talked and laughed with two best friends
right up until everything changed.
Home is not even where my parents live, or my brothers,
or the simpler, more idealistic version of myself
I can still glimpse within my mind,
reading a book or doing homework
in that familiar house ten years ago.
Home is not a past that can never be repeated–
but neither is it the ever-fleeting present
or some hopeful future still in flux.
Home is not a grand adventure
where I crossed the river to chase my dreams
and learn how to grow up a little more
and just maybe begin laying down some roots.
Home is not the winding halls
of the university I still love,
or the classroom where I spend so many hours
to earn a living and hopefully make a difference.
Home isn’t found under a steeple, in a pew,
or even a friendly living room full of smiling faces
with a Bible in my lap.
Home is not my friends,
the ones who have stood by me for years,
or the ones who so graciously welcomed me
into a strange new land.
Home is not any loving community that I’ve found,
or any that I’m likely to find in a week,
or a month,
or a year.
If one day I find love
and build up a family in a house,
if I hold a wife close to me
or cherish the sweet laugh of a child,
even then the home I long for
will still be far from me.
Home will finally quench my deep desire
which nothing in this world can satisfy,
because, most probably,
I was made for another.
I don’t know what home will look like,
but I’ll see it when I go.
So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.
Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?
I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).
The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.
Well, I’m sorry about not having a post up yesterday. I’m sorry to say that insomnia got the better of me on Thursday night and I spent most of Friday a little loopy. Then we had some guests with us yesterday (Alayna’s baby shower is tomorrow… the baby is almost here, which is both exciting and terrifying), and so I generally have had a lot of distractions lately. I don’t say any of this as an excuse (honestly I don’t think I need one), but simply to explain why there was no post yesterday and to introduce my point here: it’s easy to lose focus of where our priorities should be.
I’ve done this many times in my life. Honestly, when I first started this blog my priorities were very out of whack. In the beginning I wanted this blog to be very successful (and given how many followers we have I think there has been some success involved), and because of that I was extremely focused towards attaining that goal. For the first year I wrote all of the posts for the blog myself, a post a day for a year is a lot for anyone to write (and if you’ve ever tried you know what I mean). After that I started bringing some other writers on board, but I was draconian about timely posting. I almost lost a friend over whether or not she published her posts on time.
I had certain standards, and standards, or so I told myself, are a good thing. I had been told that consistency is very important for bringing in reader, and I stuck to that and focused on consistently providing material of an accessible, but also high quality. I wanted to make sure that everyone who wrote for me had the same focus. This is where my priorities were off-target. At the time, especially in the particular situation I’m thinking of, I should have considered my friend’s feelings and what this particular person was dealing with at the time. I didn’t. All I focused on was that posts weren’t going up when they ‘needed’ to, and that was simply unacceptable.
At that time this blog was one of the few good things going on in my life. Academically I had hit what seemed to be a dead end. I applied to a number of programs, only to be rejected by all of them, and I had struggled to find a teaching job, only to then struggle to make enough money at the teaching job I did find to pay basic bills. Romantically, I had one short and painful relationship after another, and was shot down by most of the women I asked out in between them. Financially I had a mountain of debt that I didn’t see any realistic way of paying off. Spiritually I was in the driest point of my relationship with God since I converted, and while that didn’t last for more than six months, they were an extremely difficult six months.
When I started this blog, I thought it would be my ticket out of all of that (God had different plans), and I approached it as one might approach a life-changing career goal. However, since that time I have seem some (limited) success in my teaching job, I have started and finished a second master’s degree, gotten married, been accepted into two Ph.D. programs (still deciding which one), and Alayna and I are expecting our first child.
I say all of this to say that priorities are important. When I first started this blog I put an inordinately high priority on it, and was willing to sacrifice friendships for it. However, I think that in the past few years God has done a good job of refocusing my priorities. We’ve missed more that we did early on, and there is less focus on originality, quality, images, and timing. Things about the blog that used to be hard and fast rules have become only suggestions.
Other pursuits (school and family mostly) have taken precedence for me, and most importantly, I’ve learned to have a softer touch when others miss things, and learned to let some of them go myself. Four years ago I never would have allowed myself to miss a post. In thinking about all of this, I keep coming back to priorities. I treated this blog as though it was something that it can never be: a meaning for life.
Have you done the same with anything? I have said here before, and I still believe, that writing is good for us. It is important, healthy, and ultimately beneficial both for ourselves and for others. Some of you will probably make a career out of writing fiction, others probably won’t even though you want to, and some of you haven’t even considered it as a possibility. However, do you ever give your writing (however important it is) an inappropriate place in your life? It’s something worth thinking about.
So over the course of the week I’ve been talking about how you can draw inspiration from video games, and how to use your in-game experiences as the beginning of writing your own stories. And I’ve been talking about the process that I sometimes go through of adapting my video game adventures into prose.
I promised you that’d I’d post a story today, to show you the results of that creative process. And I’ve been working on the story all week. But you know what? It isn’t finished. And I could rush to finish it, filling in the blanks and rounding off the conclusion in time to get it up for tomorrow morning. But what I’ve written so far is good, and I don’t want to rush the rest. I want to take my time with it and produce a story that I’m happy with from start to finish, with a conclusion that’s well thought-through. Even if it is too late to post it here, I’ll know that I’ve done it right, and that it’s the best story it could have been.
So today’s post is going to have to be something different. This week’s posts were supposed to be a trilogy, but now I’m going to have to imitate Pat Rothfuss and leave you all hanging after two instalments, without a satisfying narrative conclusion: only the vague promise of more to come, some time in the future. I hope you can forgive me for that! I’m struggling to forgive myself. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, as writers. Sometimes it’s okay to take a little bit longer on a project, to play around with it until it really feels finished. Because ultimately we shouldn’t be writing for money or acclaim or to meet deadlines. We should be writing because we enjoy it.
With that in mind, here’s a short piece that I enjoyed writing a few weeks ago. It was written for a Star Trek roleplaying game that I’m part of, and it’s only ever been seen by a small group of other players. It’s short, and simple – just an old man sitting at a bar, quietly contemplating – but I hope that you enjoy it all the same.
“Friends in low places”
The Romulan Neutral Zone, for all its sins, had been the basis of a lot of livelihoods. Xon had spent the last four decades of his life flying out of neutral ports on Nimbus III and other worlds where certain undesirable elements of galactic society could conduct their business without interference. In that time he had seen petty criminal empires rise and fall, he had dined at gunpoint with pirate warlords who ruled over failed colonies like feudal barons over their fiefdoms, and he had seen more greed and desperation than he could easily stomach, the kind of naked poverty and avarice that wasn’t conceivable to most Starfleet officers or ordinary citizens of the Federation. The black market economy of the Neutral Zone had been brutal and unforgiving to the people at the bottom of the ladder, but it had been stable enough in its own way.
The Treaty of Tarod had obliterated that stability. Spaceports that had operated for centuries as havens for malcontents were now no longer beyond the reach of Starfleet or the Romulan navy. For the first time in Xon’s long life, Romulan ale was no longer contraband in the Federation, and Starfleet was delivering Federation medical supplies freely in the other direction. The smuggling industry, with its proud heritage, was at its end. Whole criminal dynasties had been built upon the presumption that the Federation and the Star Empire would always be at each other’s throats, and now the rug had been pulled out from beneath their feet. The rock had been lifted, and the roaches had scattered.
So when Xon accepted a commission to work in the former Neutral Zone, he had been expecting to run into some old acquaintances. He hadn’t been expecting to run into Igreb.
Igreb was a sort of huge luminous quantum octopus who existed laterally in four dimensions at the same time, but he was also a very fine bartender, whose infamous taverna on Nimbus III had been as old as the colony itself. Xon had never been able to figure out if Igreb was a singular entity or part of a species that had evolved beyond corporeal form, but he had certainly never encountered any other sentient beings who remotely resembled him. If ‘resembled’ was the right word. Even after forty years, it was very hard for Xon to wrap his brain around what Igreb actually looked like. You could stare at him for hours and try to build a coherent mental picture of his appearance, but your thoughts seemed to slip away like water off a stone. Besides which, if you stared for long enough, Igreb would eventually remind you that staring was rude, and that you were sitting on a barstool that could be occupied by a paying customer.
Igreb didn’t talk, or even communicate telepathically, in the conventional sense. He just floated behind his circular bar, served you drinks that you didn’t know you wanted, and embedded vague concepts inside your head. Without exchanging words or specific thoughts, Xon had learnt everything about why Igreb finally packed up and left Nimbus. With the Neutral Zone gone, the power dynamics on the Planet of Galactic Peace had shifted overnight, and a full-scale civil war had broken out, with different pirate clans fighting in the desert for control of Paradise City. Igreb’s bar had been bombed during the opening hostilities. He had heard about Starfleet’s new outpost in the region and correctly presumed that it would need bartenders.
The new taverna seemed like an exact replica of the old one. It had the same pervading emerald light, the same pointless mechanical cooling fixtures spinning slowly overhead, the same garish entertainment consoles, the same NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS sign behind the bar. It was half bar, half cargo bay, or it would be when freighter captains started using the shelves and industrial transporters to auction their wares. Igreb had even brought his famous pool tables, where the balls floated repellently over an actual liquid pool instead of the traditional green baize, either a bad joke or the result of an unfortunate mistranslation. The only things missing were the grime, the dancers, and the scent of death, but Xon was confident that the grime at least would quickly accumulate as soon as Igreb started attracting more of his usual patrons.
Xon had the very real privilege of being Igreb’s first new customer. He was only drinking Altair water, but they had still toasted the new premises, and Xon had entertained some optimistic thoughts that the taverna might grow into Eden’s premier dive bar. Igreb had projected his gratitude. They had been sitting silently for almost an hour, having a lively and convivial exchange of ideas, when Xon heard someone parting the screen of chains that hung over the bar’s entrance. He turned on his barstool, and he was surprised by who he saw…
In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.
My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.
So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.
I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…
…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…
…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.
I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.
Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.
For those interested, it works a little like this:
Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.
Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.
Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health
Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…
And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.
Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories. I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.
But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.
I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?” Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.
I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.
One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?
My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.
I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik. “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.
So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?
I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.
Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.
I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.
I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.
Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.
Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.
One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.
Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature). I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.
Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).
Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.
That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.
If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created, I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.
I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.
I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.
In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…