Thursday, October 23, 2008

Holy shit, it's October.

... and I haven't posted here in a long time. It's not that I've stopped writing, its more that I have tons more stuff on my plate lately. Baby on the way, my job situation was in flux for a while. Still, though, I plan to get back to this blog soon, for all 2 of you out there reading it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Just add water.

Worldbuilding. It's one of the most enjoyable and frustrating parts of writing a fantasy story. It's essential for any story not set in "the real world", and you really need to do a bit of it for those stories to, because your "real world" is going to be different from my "real world", and they're both going to be diffrent from MTV's "the real world", which, when you think about it, actually has little to do with the real world. But I digress.

Fantasy worlds. Making them believable is not too hard. It's mainly a matter of internal consistency - does gravity work? Do dragons exist? You keep asking yourself questions like this until you come up with a framework of how things are, and then you stick to it. If wizards cast spells by waving their arms around, then when you bind a wizard's arms, then he can't all of a sudden cast spells by dancing a jig. If he IS going to break the internal consistency of your world then it needs to be a major part of the story - if you just gloss over it, it looks like you have no idea what the hell you are doing.

So, making it believable - potentially time consuming but not THAT difficult. Making them intriguing however, making them someplace that a reader will be interested in for 500+ pages... well, thats a bit trickier.

A lot of people say you should avoid making just another Middle Earth clone. It's good advice, but it's not always possible. I mean, if you want to write a story where humans are fighting some other, evil race, whether you call them snorgs, gnarlacs, or floozers, there are going to be inevitable comparisons to orcs. If you have wizards going around doing wizardly things, you're going to invite comparisons to Gandalf.

Even if you do somehow manage to avoid all of the Middle Earth tropes, you might find yourself being compared to LeGuin, or Moorcock, or other people that consciously moved away from Tolkein's model. And if you move away from them, you might wind up getting compared to more modern authors, like Martin or Jordan. Hell, you might even find yourself ripping off J.K. Rowling. And then you'll get sued!

Seriously, though. The more you try to make it different, the more you're going to look like your doing it just for the sake of being different. So just don't worry about it. If your story needs elves, then your story needs elves. No, you didn't invent the concept of elves. Yes, your elves are like Tolkein's, and the elves that populate your typical saturday night D&D game. But your story needs them, so in they go.

What you can do, what you must do, is give them a character that is all their own - you do this by doing a little thinking about their culture, their history. Its perfectly fine to have long lived, pointy eared treehuggers in your world, but you need to do some work. You start by asking a lot of "why" and "how" questions. Why do they care so much for nature? How do they live so long? Why do they shun civilization?

As you answer these questions, a culture will begin to take shape. As it takes shape, you'll naturally start filling in their history. You'll give them heroes, and enemies, gods and monsters. They will naturally start to diverge from the Tolkein archetype. Your readers will get interested in the differences, the unique ways in which your cultures diverge from what they are expecting to find. You'll cross the line from "ripped off from" into "inspired by".

I guess that's the crux of what I'm saying. If you look at the greats of fantasy, you can see the care, and the work that went into crafting their worlds. They weren't working in a vacuum either, though. Before Tolkein, there was Dunsany. Before him, there was Malory, and before them all are the collected myths and legends of the diverse cultures of the world. Everything is built on archetypes. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. However, if you put the work in, and fill your world with its own history, myths, legends, and cultures, it will be strong enough to stand on its own. It will draw the reader in, and give them things to discover.

Don't be afraid of working with fantasy archetypes - just be sure to put YOUR vision of the archetype forward, and do the work required to make that vision complete. Thats my take, anyway.

I just finished redrafting the history of AoR's world - from creation all the way up to the present day. And there are elves, and there are dragons. But I don't care, because they're MY elves and dragons.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When I Knew

I knew I was a writer when I realized that yes, everything has already been done, done to death. Any so-called original thought I might have in my head would be, at best, a clever twist on something that someone else had already done, and better. That my voice was one tiny peep in a multitude, that I could scream my heart out and still not be heard. That even as I pondered and agonized over my precious little scribblings, there were people out there, in the same situation, only getting it done, getting published. That I am, in fact, lazy when it comes to writing fiction and in all likelihood lack the discipline to finish a novel.

I knew I was a writer because, knowing all that, beaten down and discouraged by my own deepest fears and insecurities, I still couldn't stop writing. I still can't. Life has intruded quite a bit on my writing time, so I haven't been updating this blog or making all that much progress on the book, but I think about it every day, and I write when I can. Got about 15,000 words down... not a hell of a lot for a novel, but like I said, I'm not stopping, even if it takes me another 10 years.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

MS Word? I prefer not to.

Just wanted to give a big thank you to my friend Sean Sakamoto, (aka flojin) , fellow writer and nerd, for turning me on to Scrivener - a writing program that beats the crap out of writing in Word, or any other word processor I've ever worked with. For me, its strongest point is the way it helps you organize the story. You can write an outline, and it will automatically link up with the chapters that the outline refers to (with a little formatting on your part). I really love the bulletin board view, too - what that does is let you view your outline as a series of index cards that you can label, and move around - again, just click on a card, and you can work on the chapter that its linked to.

It's really helped me alot with planning - I essentially have the whole book split up into chapters in the outline, and when I am ready to go, I can just jump in and start writing where I left off. Its great, because it keeps the chapters as discrete subdocuments, collected in a draft folder. I'm sure you can do it with Word too, but as with most things Microsoft, they sure dont make it easy or intuitive.

There's also a whole research section of the program that I havent really delved into, but its apparently an easy way to keep all of your research documents and reference photos in one place, kinda like a big clipboard.

So anyway, thanks again to Sean, and if you're a writer looking for some software that really does help your workflow, check Scrivener out - its a free 30 day trial, and after that its only $40.

Oh, I forgot to mention, it's Mac OSX only, so suck it, Windows peeps!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meticulously Planned Chaos

I was playing Burnout Paradise the other day, and weirdly enough I started to think about novel writing. A huge part of the game is smashing your car up in new and interesting ways. You'll be tooling along, another car will cross an intersection at exactly the wrong time, and bang. The physics engine takes over and you are treated to a slow motion spectacle of your car disintegrating into a million little pieces. The crashes happen often enough that you start to wonder whether the game is making your life difficult on purpose.

I recently added some characters into the narrative. I won't call them secondary, because there are major subplots that revolve around them. There are basically 4 different sets of characters, whose stories are all happening concurrently. As the novel progresses, their individual plots will converge, until at the end, everything gets thrown together in a spectacular orgy of violence, action, and bedlam (that's the plan, anyway). It's a pretty standard structure for novels like this, because it works well, and flipping around between the plots moves the story along and keeps readers interested.

So, car crashes. It occurred to me that in order to have a truly spectacular car crash, a lot of things need to go right (or wrong, depending on your perspective). All the cars involved have to be moving at such and such speed, hit each other at a certain angle, etc. Just think of how much effort it must take to plan a car crash for a movie, if you want it to be just so. Everything from the road condition, to the weather is a factor, but once you know what you're going for, all you can do is set the cars up at their starting points, let them go, and hope for the best.

It's kind of what plotting a novel out this way is like. I know where I want the characters to be, I know where I want them to start. A lot of the work plot-wise is figuring out how they get from point A to point B, so they can collide at the proper moment to give appropriately spectacular results.

The trick with with video games or movies, is making sure that its "realistic". If the crashes don't obey the laws of physics, they are just cartoons. In Burnout, the crashes look like real car crashes, because they use an amazing physics engine. In a novel, its not so much about realism as it is internal consistency. Not only do they have to get from point A to point B, it has to make perfect sense why they're at point B... why it was utterly inevitable that they arrive there, given what we know about them and the situation they're in.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I entered a small writing contest last month, and didn't win. In a way, I'm glad, because I was able to turn it around into something positive.

When I first got the news, I was really let down. Then, jealous and angry at the people who'd won. Then, angry at myself for being so petty and thin-skinned. As usual, I started questioning my own abilities... am I a good writer? Do I have any talent whatsoever? What the fuck am I doing this for if I can't even win a writing contest?

After a while, I realized that I really hadn't put my best work out there. I had a month, and spent the majority of it dicking around and working on other projects. I wound up typing up the entry over the deadline weekend, with no real time for revision, or to look at it with fresh eyes. Still, in my arrogance, I couldn't see it not winning. Realizing that arrogance touched off another wave of anger and self-doubt.

But then, I remembered reading somewhere that the best thing you can do when you get a rejection letter, or lose a contest, or go through anything that shakes your confidence is to write. Just write. Free write, write a short story, do anything, just write.

So I did. I started with just a stream-of-consciousness freewriting exercise, but quickly moved back to Age of Rust. A really weird thing happened... one that made me realize why writing in times like this is amazing advice. I remembered! I remembered that I could write, and write well. The feeling of "hey, I can do this!" washed over me again and reinvigorated me.

I realize now that writing contests maybe just aren't for me, at least not at this point in my career. I don't need the distractions, and I take it way to hard if things don't go my way. They turn writing into a zero-sum game, and that's not what I am looking to get out of this whole exercise. I'm writing for my own edification, not to be better than anyone else. I get all the competition I need when I look in the mirror.

Would this post be different if I had won? Probably. I'm sure I'd be gushing. But then, I think the realizations that have come out of this are more valuable for me as a person and a writer. As Bug Eyed Earl says, "When life gives you poop, you make poop juice."


Monday, March 10, 2008

Ennui... not conducive to writing.

Monday, January 28, 2008

I give you... The Age of Rust

The Lord of the Rings. A Song of Ice and Fire. The Chronicles of Amber.

Every fantasy setting has a name. Those are some of the greats. The Age of Rust is mine... it's greatness is yet to be determined.

It's not something I planned to do or worry about for a long, long time. Write the fucking book has been my new mantra, and for all intents and purposes, that's what I've been doing. And yet, there it was. Unexpected, unasked for, but there.

Maybe its a working title. Maybe it's the real deal. Maybe its the "marketing" part of my brain putting its two cents into this particular creative endeavour. Whatever it is, I like the way it sounds, and the images it conjures.

I credit my friend Tom Clancy with planting the suggestion that the concept of rust would fit well in a fantasy story with heavy steampunk elements. He just sent me an email one day with the idea that bad guys in a steampunk world should worship something called "rust". He hadn't thought it out any more than that, and it's good, becuase I'm not using that idea exactly. I do thank him from the bottom of my heart though, for dropping that little pearl in my lap.

I love what rust represents, what it stands for. Decay and disuse. Poor maintenance. Slow death for the great works of man. Its very evocative to me. My novel takes place during the twilight years of a great empire. Old and decadent and rotten to the core. It's a world of machines, mages and madmen, and while nobody worships rust, everyone serves it, in their own way.


Work continues apace. Chapter 3 is put to bed, and chapter 4 is soon to follow. Chapter 3 is very short, which is the sort of thing that used to worry me in my younger days. But, that was before I knew the rules about chapter length. There aren't any, really. A teacher once told me that a chapter is as long as it needs to be. Crazy talk, I thought. There must be some kind of rule, some kind of formula, like x words times y pages = fucking awesome writing.

Turns out its not that simple. I mean its still simple. Just a different kind of simple. I've come to realize each chapter is like a scene in a play, or a movie. Some are long, some are short. If you make a long one short, it will seem rushed. If you stretch a short one out, it will drag. There's no way to know until you're writing the damn thing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Location, location, location

So, once again, I found myself at the Grey Dog on monday night. I meet my wife there after her pottery class and then we go home together. Usually, I leave work, grab a quick bite, then head down there. This generally leaves me about 2-3 hours to write. I finished up chapter 2, and got midway through chapter 3 this monday.

I don't know why, but I find it really easy to write there. It's usually very crowded, very loud, and they don't even play music I like half the time. Still, something about it is just conducive to a "writing state of mind" for me. I get the same feeling to a lesser extent at most Starbucks, but when I am at a starbucks, I tend to slack off more and just surf the internet instead of working. Ditto for when I try to write in the office on a quiet day, or at home when I have nothing to do.

It's really working for me, so I guess as long as my wife is taking pottery classes downtown, I'll have at least one productive night per week. I'd really love to be able to get into that zone in other places though. Who knows, in time, I might be able to. Perhaps its not so much the place, but what it invokes in me. Would be nice to carry that around with me, though. For now, at least, location plays a big part in whether I write or not, and I'm happy to have a place that works.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

It's on.

So, an amazing thing happened earlier tonight.

I opened up word and started the new draft. I was at an old coffee shop that I used to work near, called the Grey Dog. I used to write in there sometimes, so maybe the setting had something to do with it. I have been trying to get started for weeks, but I kept finding ways to put it off... eve ndoing the prep work like outlining was a way of delaying the reality of actually having to start writing the fucking thing.

But, once I started writing, it started to flow. I'm still getting to know the characters, but the dialogue is flowing smoothly. I've written about a chapter and a half... one is pretty heavy with action, the other is mostly dialogue so far.

It felt really good to be writing again. I've been under a lot of stress lately, but somehow, like midway through chapter 1, I hit a zone where I was just writing, not worrying about anything going on in my life, not obsessing over details, just writing as it came to me.

It was a good feeling.