Category Archives: Creative Insanity

Here Be Dragons, And Bookworms

Yes I still blog, yes I’m still alive, yes I’m still playing with my imaginary friends and writing about it. And yes, I still read what other authors are going through in their own journeys in hopes that it helps me through mine, and I hope that my scribblings might at least encourage a few others to keep going.

Today’s topic: In Search of the Unknown. (+10 Internet Awesome Points to anyone who gets that reference without using a search engine.) A little backstory is, like in most good fantasy novels, necessary. Last December, I began writing an epic fantasy trilogy, after writing eight or nine mostly modern fantasy books that never went anywhere past my desk. I began the process by sitting with my notebook, visualizing The Writer, The Muse, and three or four actor-characters on an empty stage, discussing what project they were going to come up with next. And even though I had a lot of fun with this method, I finally lowered the curtain, took their notes, and began writing Part One, Book One, of a projected three or four book epic. Sorry, E.P.I.C. There would be competing systems of magic. There would be an old religion and an upstart. There would be Knights and young men and women and armies and riots, all caught in a string of events beyond their control. And most of all, there would be a Dragon, unlike any I had ever read about before. And so, pen and laptop in hand, I charged on in, writing 2000 or more words a day, with just about as much of an outline as what I’ve given you already.

I finished Part One at around 100 pages or so, took a breather for a day, and charged on to Part Two. By this point, the cracks were already showing up in the edifice that I’d tried to build on my ideas, but I was nothing if not determined to finish this. When I wasn’t writing, I would daydream in numbers… 60,000 words a month, 360,000 words in half a year, maybe a little more, then editing, revising, and finishing before the same date rolled around a year later. So what if I didn’t know WHY things were happening in my world? or WHY certain religions had issues with each other? or WHY the government was trying to consolidate its power, or what the Knights were doing, or what my three young protagonists were to do next after being pulled adrift in the seas of fate? I was a writer! I could push through and fix it later! I was…

Yeah, I was stuck. Hard. I fell into the type of writer’s block that resulted from me overwriting my plans and imagination, and refusing to stop and ask for directions, or to plot out a new path. Part Three sputtered and faltered a few times, and I finally found myself spending the spring and summer working on another project. The few times I looked back at Parts One and Two, I could tell that there were serious issues in my story from Day One. I felt like a traveler on the side of the road, wondering why his car just broke down in the middle of a road trip, and ignoring the fact that he had never changed the oil, checked the tires, or paid attention to the warning lights and unusual handling or shaking or braking of the vehicle for the entire trip. Yet the story, like the concept the driver had of the cross-country road trip, would not leave me alone. My characters felt like they had spent a lot of time making up the story for me, and they weren’t going to let me off the hook.

So I decided to back up and start over, something that is ten times harder for me than starting in the first place. I was inspired by either a Tweet or a Facebook Post by my writer-friend Davide Mana (link goes to his blog, though I highly recommend his books, which you can and should buy on Amazon) in which he said he was committing to writing a 100,000 word novel between September and the end of the year. He even pointed out that he would be able to write it at less than 1000 words a day to hit that goal. And the whole time I’m thinking, “Book One of my Trilogy is supposed to be 100-120,000 words… hell, I could do this. I should do this!” And that was why, after a few days of reorganizing my Scrivener folder into a Draft, an Old Draft, and a World Book, I set off on 20 September 2017, along the old pathways but heading for unknown country.

I made the decision to type everything from scratch (Scrivener’s split-window worked really well for this), which was difficult, but I think essential… copy-editing would have left all the problems I had noticed when I reread the thing, and these problems were ones that went down to the very foundation. The other decision I made, perhaps the hardest one, was to only write 1000 words a day. Understand… I wrote my first novel at that speed, my second at 1500, and from then on, 2000-2500 words a day, so it took me a little while to get used to that snail’s pace. And it took me even longer to get over the irrational conviction that I was failing by writing too slowly, or not writing the way I knew I should be writing. That took a lot more time and mental energy than I’d like to admit.

Once I saw the snail leading my book along take its time to step around all the obstacles and dead ends in my book, though, I fell in love with this new writing regimen. On the days when I had the time and inclination to write more (which was usually five or six days a week) I spent that time in my World Book, writing about the characters, their cities, their culture. My model was the World Building Leviathan from KittySpace, but my energy came from a drive to tell my story and a need to have more material to work with. I still had dark memories of not knowing why things in my complex fantasy world worked the way they did, or stumbling in the middle of a scene because I didn’t know what was inside my characters’ heads, or especially what the supporting characters (NPCs for you fellow gamers out there) were up to, and that made me plan and outline and write background information like never before.

That brings me up to this weekend. My rewrite, up until now, has added more depth to my story, along with at least 10,000 more words, but after this last chapter, I will be at the point where my story stalled before. And even though I have a rough outline of the entire trilogy, and a five-page synopsis/ outline of this book, I feel like one of my own characters, clutching a scrawled map in one hand, a guttering torch in the other, and facing the dark, impenetrable forest that stymied my efforts at crossing it once before. I know that this time, I’m better prepared, though I’m still concerned that all of the gear in my backpack is stuff I’ll use once over the month-long journey ahead, and the stuff I really need is back at the base camp. And I can see things in the dark trees and undergrowth, the scrub jungle, telling me to walk around, or maybe travel another day.

But, my team of adventurers behind me depends on me to forge a path, and write about it. Hopefully, I do it in such a way that makes them proud.

Good luck with your weekend, and the next few weeks, everybody.

READING:  Two books… finishing up David Copperfield (which is decent, but really testing my commitment to being a hardcore Dickens fan… I might have to go back and reread Bleak House as a present to myself, afterward), and a Victorian Ghost Novel called The Uninhabited House. The latter is not frightening at all (indeed, I suspect it wasn’t written to be frightening), but the characters are fascinating and enjoyable. This book I also tried to set down after 25 pages or so, but they (especially Miss Blake) kept stepping into my head and telling me to read the rest of their story. I’ll be back with full reports once I finish them.

 

Character Tuesday: The Villain Next Door

Happy Tuesday, happy third day of the year. Today, I’m starting my own Book Blogging meme, at least on this page. I call it Character Tuesday. Write about one to three characters that you like or don’t like, in fiction. There will probably be a theme but not always. The only other rule is that I want to keep it constructive; in other words, if I say something bad about how a character is written, I’m going to say why. If anyone else wants to play along, I’ll set this up like a regular blog-along for everyone.

Today, I’m going to talk about villains in books, and what makes the truly good ones. Well, bad ones. Whichever adjective you care to use. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m writing a villain myself. Yes, my book has a Dragon, and an enemy general, and a few sadistic killers in it, along with monsters, demons, and even a lawyer, but I realized that those kind of villains aren’t the ones I remember the most from my reading, and that’s probably because those aren’t the kinds of villains I encounter in my daily life.

These three are examples of what I’m talking about. These aren’t the boogeymen, the wights, the dragons, the unrestful dead. These are people who could run into every day.

Dolores Umbridge

sonrisa_de_umbridgeA lot of digital ink has been spilled over exactly why she’s such a memorable villain, and some people, including your not-so-humble blogger, think that she’s the most frightening villain in the series, even though her death count is much lower than any of the Death Eaters. The most frightening thing about her, though, is that she’s completely and totally believable. Most of us aren’t going to run into dark wizards throwing Cruciatus curses at us, but we will probably deal with someone who has power over us, power that we can’t do anything about whether we want to or not. Even worse, the Umbridginian Villain, even more than your average evil fantasy bad-guy, does not think that he or she is doing anything wrong. Everything she does is what she thinks will keep people safe. Whether it’s effective or not isn’t the point. The point is, individual rights have to go by the wayside when the Organization (whether Hogwarts, Public High Schools, or the Department of Homeland Security) has other concerns like keeping its subjects safe, exactly the way it thinks its subjects need to be kept. This is the villain who will punish a student for what he said in class, not because it’s a lie but because it will scare other students. These are the people who implement security theater throughout the country, and respond to reports that it might be ineffective by adding even more theater instead of actual security. (A true Umbridginian, though, would prosecute the people complaining about it, discouraging others from complaining.)

Phoebus

phoebusNow we’re getting away from the bureaucratic villains and into something different. I can only barely begin to describe how much I loathe Disney for how they treated this character. In the book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (which is just as good as Les Miserables, though it doesn’t have anything about dreaming a dream and such) the action is put into motion by Phoebus. Everything bad happens because Phoebus is a spoiled wealthy knight who gets what he wants. And when the crap hits the agitator blades, he ducks out of the picture, ignores everything going on because of what he started, and STILL winds up with a happily-ever-after for him. (He’s about the only main character in the book who gets one.) He’s the kind of person the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote Psalm 73, AKA When Good Things Happen to Bad People. If I could somehow enter the pages of a book and slap the nosehairs out of a character, it would be him.

So, you can imagine how I felt when I saw a commercial for the then-upcoming Disney treatment and I realized that Phoebus was rewritten to be brave and ultimately, the hero. I might have screamed a little. I haven’t much been able to enjoy Disney cartoons since.

The Chief, AKA Sharkey

SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THE LORD OF THE RINGS. THIS WAS NOT IN THE MOVIES.

(Here, look at the picture of a dog and his puppy, posted by /u/emoposer on the subreddit /r/aww)

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Alright, for those of you who have read LOTR, I’m going to talk about the second-to-last chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Every time I reread this book (I think my last rereading was my fourth) I like this part more; indeed, it’s thick enough in concept and character to justify a complete novel of its own. Even before we learn who The Chief is (which actually kind of disappointed me, and I would have liked it better had he just been a regular man who saw an opportunity and jumped at it) we see what happens when there’s a power vacuum during a war or other disturbance. A group of men took advantage of Frodo’s absence, made inroads into the community by offering money and power, and soon (within a year or two, perhaps) were running Hobbiton like it was their own person fiefdom. It’s a shocking bit of realism, probably informed by what happened in a lot of cities and countries after World War II, and it’s again an example of casual greed and opportunism doing as much damage as intentional evil and destruction. It’s the most underrated chapter in the book (I’ve rarely heard people complain about its omission like they will about missing Tom Bombadil) and yet, one of the most relatable to our own world.

So, those are my villainous inspirations. Now I need to go back to my notes and work on one of my own.

Tell me about your favorites in the comments, or write a post and link back. I think this is a conversation worth having.

Shelf Control: War and Peace

Yesterday was one of those horrible/ wonderful days in the life of a working writer. For the last week I had been struggling with organizing Part One of my project and plotting out Part Two, and after six days I felt like a mountaineer who had spent all that time climbing to the top of a ridge, only to look down and realize that I was actually on the top of Crapbucket Mountain, and the view was more crap, and I was really only a foot or so off the ground, and not a mile or more. But, for various reasons (most of which are unfit to print in a blog written for the sane and well-adjusted) I kept on going, and a series of revelations Monday and Tuesday helped put me back on track. Monday evening, I realized that I didn’t know the answer to the question “What happens if they fail?” Every author should be able to answer that, I think, and I think I’ve been guilty of not answering that in the past. Today looks to be a good day of inserting a few pages in Part One that answer that question, and moving on with Part Two. If you come back here Friday and my post is written backwards in crayon, that means I failed.

The other thing, perhaps the main thing I’m going to talk about today, is my reading. Bookshelf Fantasies hosts a weekly discussion called Shelf Control, and as someone who really only has shelf control because he travels with his family for the better part of the year, I highly recommend it. I’m kind of cheating, though. Instead of writing about a book I own, haven’t read, and want to read, I’m going to write about a book that I own, started reading, stopped reading, and now want to pick back up and finally finish. That book is War and Peace.

warandpeacemaudeThis is my second-and-a-half time attempting to read this. I’ve read much longer books before (Remembrance of Things Past, Joseph and His Brothers) and I’ve read nearly everything by Dostoevsky, so I’m determined to make it through this one. And it’s not a question of the writing being difficult of boring… I can’t speak for the Russian original or other translations but this is remarkably clear and concise writing. But, a few weeks after I started this, we moved to our winter digs in Florida, and I started writing a novel, and I got distracted by another book I’m reading, and I set this down somewhere in the middle of Part Five, in the ‘Peace’ section. (There are a couple. The book should probably be titled “War and Peace and War and then More Peace, but WAIT! There’s WAR!!!” but I can imagine that Tolstoy’s editor wouldn’t have liked it. Today, and every day til the end of the year, I’m picking it back up, finding out how everyone deals with the uneasy peace of failure and impending war and invasion, and getting this off my list.

If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend the book. Some parts are a little simplistic, some parts are predictable (and not just because we know who wins) but the characters are very accessible and it’s still fun, for some reason, to watch them do the worst possible thing they can do, and then deal with the repercussions they KNEW were probably going to happen anyway. Tolstoy also does a very good job of describing PTSD and battle shock, and if you’ve ever served in the military, or know someone who has, you’ll relate to what he says. It may be a famous classic work of literature, but it’s also famous and classic for a good reason.

That’s my post for today. It’s time to dive back in the trench and fire away at this thing until I either have good copy or I pass out from a tea overdose. I’ll be back Friday with a book review and more news from the front. Stay safe.

Bed Making and Other Composing Techniques

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m a writer, and I’m manic-depressive… but I repeat myself. I don’t think there’s a requirement for a writer to be bi-polar or clinically depressive or any other mental illness that requires us to spend a lot of time huddled in a blanket fort and threatening to Taser the face off anyone who bothers us (and in my case, that would be my face more than any other), but it does seem to go hand in hand. I think it’s because we as humans like to be entertained, and when you spend as much time alone as a depressive person does, whether by choice or because you can’t bear to move from your spot no matter how much you want to, you have to tell your own stories.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of a supremely low period, like I was yesterday (and like I suspect I might still be) I wonder how I ever get anything done, but I still manage to push through, day after day, in my journal at least, if not in my manuscript and any current programming project. My journal might be nothing more than me complaining about how I not only suck, but my pages of complaints aren’t even written very well, but I still manage to get things down. I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write something every day, I wind up in an endless feedback loop. Being depressed about not writing for a day makes it harder to write the next day, and if I succumb and take two days off…

This post is about a few things, including my return to blogging, my announcement of a new book project, and my pledge to fill people in on it, along with blips and blurbs about what I read, what I hear, and what I do on those days I decide to leave Fort Blanketopolis, but it’s also about how I learned my Mom was right. If she’s reading this, this is where she says “Oh, that’s nice, he’s writing fiction again,” but I do mean it this time. My Mom, a German immigrant who was born a few years after the war and came to the US just in time to experience Patti Page once she knew enough English to sing along, is a lot of wonderful things. And I really hate to indulge in a stereotype, but one set of genes my Mom got were the ones that dictated order and routine. Apparently, she liked those genes so much she decided to keep them all to myself and decided not to pass them down, and I spent a good part of my childhood arguing about how my clothes didn’t need to be folded, my room was okay as long as nothing was crawling around, and as long as my books were in order, nothing else had to be. I couldn’t see the point of a lot of the things she had me do, since everything was just going to get messy and disordered again. For example, I *DID* think it was nice to crawl into a made bed at night, but was it really worth spending a few minutes doing that every morning, especially when those few minutes took away from the little bit of reading I got to do before the bus showed up? I didn’t think so.

Fast-forward to me now, after serving twenty years in the Navy (where everything had to be in its place, but for a good reason: if something wasn’t, it could fall and trip someone on a damage control party or a firefighting team, or float away during flooding, or hit someone in the head, or in some way cause all manner of horribleness to happen) and I’ll admit to liking things in something resembling order. And I do like having a wide uncluttered workspace, since I know how easily I can get distracted. (Plus, I have long arms, and they need room.)

But, since moving into our new place a month or so ago, I’ve discovered the joy of bed-making as therapy. Originally, I started doing it because we had very little in our room at first, and I liked the idea of seeing everything straight and simple and in place; I wanted to preserve the way it looked when we first moved in. But even now that we’ve settled and arranged all of our things, I still find myself pulling down the covers, pulling up the sheets, and making the bed look decent, and I can’t do much else now until that’s done. Even yesterday, when I had trouble doing anything except for staring at the ceiling and wishing my brain would shut up and let me read, I had to make the bed. And after I did that, I was able to sit down and at least write four or five pages on my projects. I’m next to positive that the three or four minutes of routine activity helped jostle my working brain loose from the crowd he’d been hanging out with (the “I suck everyone hates me” brain, and the “read another chapter/ blog post/ funny comment on Reddit” brain are two particular friends of his). And that part of my brain has been responsible for me having a 110-page Part One of a novel, and is pushing me forward on the rest of the book, too.

So, thanks Mom. You were wrong about a few things, like how you think lamb is disgusting and mayonnaise is delicious, but you were right about this.