Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 2009

Benjamin Solah dropped a bombshell on the comment section of this post, one so big I thought it deserved its own post.

So here we go:

Benjamin agreed with the idea behind the post that readers can go too far in search of hidden meanings or agendas.

But…

However…

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the world of letters. Just as readers enter the writer’s pocket universe with a series of preconceptions so do author’s create them with their own.

They can be about race, violence, war, politics, civilization, sex, morality, you name it. And they exists whether the author wants to acknowledge them or not. Therefore they slip into the spaces between the lines, mold our word choice and serve as the dark matter/dark energy that powers our creations.

A personal example:

If I had written a story a decade ago with two characters of different racial backgrounds, the character of the dominant sociopolitical structure would have exuded confidence in the idea of “color blindness”, that is, he would have claimed “I don’t see color, I see people”, as it that were a positive value. Having experienced racism from both sides (dominant/oppressed) I can tell you that statement is a load of bullshit. It’s the kind of statement which paves the proverbial road.

Hell is that way. —>

I never meant anything by it. It seemed, at the time, a perfectly reasonable statement made in good faith. But it wasn’t and had someone done an analysis of the character highlighting their racial bias/ignorance they would be right, no matter how many times I tried to defend it.

Sometimes the dog is just a dog, until it starts chewing on a bundle of blond hair encrusted with blood on one end. Then it is something completely different.

Authors, we write what we write and even we don’t know all that lies beneath our words.

Readers, you read what we write and sometimes you see things that we can not (or don’t want to) see.

Art lies in the points in between.

Go on, chew on that while listening to the mellow sounds of Semisonic:

Advertisements

You written the best book possible. It gets you an agent, then after a little more tinkering it nets you a good deal with a leading publisher. After that it hits the shelves and climbs the book sales charts. You’re a published author now.

Then it happens;

It could be on your first book tour,

Or when you decided to check out the forums dedicated to your masterpiece,

Or in a review from a local newspaper.

The speaker describes in loving detail some aspect of the book and then you do a double take.

Did I just read/hear that?

Did some interpret the dog as an extension of man’s need to exploit all living things under an antiquated patriarchal structure?

Say what now? It’s just a bloody dog!

It’s the main characters pet.

That is it.

Nothing more and nothing less.

But not for the reader. He has gone and injected symbolism into your work. You try to refute it by writing letters, sending emails, twittering to anyone who will listen, but it’s too late. The dog has become more than just a dog.

You write a sequel where you put a very long scene of the dog licking himself.

“That should do it!” you say to yourself. Out loud. Your wife looks at you askance from the kitchen with a look that screams I fear for your sanity, sweety.

Months later the forums explode with discussion of whether or not the fact that the dog licked himself left to right is/was more significant than the colors of the rug which somehow are a clue to the meaning of life.

Aaargh!

As writers we endeavor to inject meaning into our works. Nothing brings us more joy (besides the paychecks) the way readers unwrap the subtle layers of word play. But sometimes they go too far. They either unravel the whole tapestry with rusty scissors or seem to be reading a completely different book. The more you shout “It’s just a dog!” the more they say “but it got to mean something!

There is really nothing you can do about it except write a short paragraph in a blog saying, “This is what it means” and praying that most readers will get it.

Why?

Because as I learned in my philosophy of art class so many years before, no piece of art is complete until it meets its audience. A book is just a book until someone reads it. Reading is a deeply personal experience, a conversation between author and reader and like any conversation everything said is open to interpretation.

Everything.

People walk around with a set of prejudices, some conscious, most unconscious. As their eyes lift the words from the page an into their mind, their brains try to order these words in ways that fit their preconceptions. They want/need your words to fit these preexisting notions.

At least they like what you wrote and are willing to read it.

Don’t let it get it to you.

It get’s worse when they completely misunderstand and hate you for it.

Or use it to attack something that has nothing to do with you or your work.

Go back to writing your next book and keep cashing those paychecks. Because your wife is right, you are insane. But you’re the kind of loony that pays the bills, so who cares.

And now a word from our sponsor(s):

Glass two-thirds full or cracked and leaking the last drop of water in the middle of a desert.

The two sides of the Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism or as TV Tropes puts it:

  • In a heavily idealistic series, Humans Are Good. The starry-eyed pacifist will be able to settle wars, get people to understand each other, or destroy the Big Bad in a glowing ball of goodness entirely by accident. The cynic, on the other hand, is often depicted as a primitive who would just make matters worse, or a Knight Templar General Ripper advocating Nuke Em All as a solution to every problem without even stopping to ask any questions at all.
  • In a heavily cynical series, Humans Are Bastards. The starry-eyed pacifist is cannon fodder at best, someone who needs protection from the people who know how the world really works, or at worst a naive fool who puts everyone else in danger through his/her reckless naïveté, or who is actively working for the bad guys under the deluded impression that they’re doing the right thing and working for peace. The cynic, on the other hand, is the person who knows how the world works, the smart, street-savvy tough guy who knows that the only way to solve some problems is to beat them into submission.

Now life doesn’t work that way, at least for most of us anyway. We are always looking for a happy medium, a golden mean if you will (beware of the inherent fallacy within), but as authors we need to set the tone early in the work and go from there.

That doesn’t mean that stories full of pathos can’t have their funny moments. Nothing says “the Hero is one cool mother” like having him throw a quick one liner that tickles the readers funny bone in the middle of a ambush. Want to ground a lighthearted scene? Try interrupting it with a phone call announcing the death of a character’s close relative. The best stories play the slide like a fiddle, but in the end they remain firmly rooted in their starting position.

Of course one could skew the mood by starting on one end of the scale and ending on the other. Ending your buddy comedy with a funeral is a good way to show that life is transitory and you must live for the moment. The heroes getting the girl/peace in our time after a fight to the death to save all creation means that the characters (and by extension the readers) have earned their happy ending.

The key is to play it by ear without falling from either end of the spectrum. Too much sugar or too much blood will spoil anyone’s appetite unless they area a saccharine vampire.

If that’s the case run, run for your lives!

And now for some music:

Yes, my vamps are different.

Please don’t hit me?

No hitting, good.

Mind you, I do agree that vamps have been domesticated to the point of absurdity. And my vampires do not share most of the weakness of “standard” vamps.  So much so, that I agonized over I should call them vampires at all. Then I proceeded to break down the vampire mythos to see if mine fit the bill, in their own way:

  • Undeath/Immortality: My vamps are not dead, their very much alive. However due to their “condition” they are immortal (or very long lived). Only an accident or a deliberate act can kill them.  Since the mark of both of these conditions is that the monster in question is very hard to kill it fits.
  • It’s in the Blood: My Vamps, being alive can reproduce, problem is that the survival rate of a woman impregnated by a vampire is extremely low (1-5 or 20%) which makes it hard for them to reproduce in large numbers. Also a condition of their demonic bloodline so it is transmitted from parent to child even if one of the parents is not a vampire. The type of blood line determines which type of vampire it is (Lust or Wrath).
  • The Hunger: Most vampires feed on blood (and to a lesser extent sex). Mine are a bit different. Their bloodlines dictate that they have to indulge in their ancestral demonic impulses. Those of Lust must engage in sexual acts which tend to be destructive to their victims (rape, pedophilia, sadism, torture and sexual slavery) while the children of Wrath seek to destroy/kill (murder, cannibalism, arson to name a few ways). In a sense they are consumed by their need to feed this hunger for destruction and failure to do so makes the impulse stronger until it drives them mad, not unlike an addiction.
  • Aversion to Sunlight: These vamps are not afraid of the warm rays of Sol but they do shun the spotlight. Secrecy is key to their survival, or as one character explains “we put power in the service of secrecy”.  They prefer to exist in a criminal/political underworld trafficking in weapons, wars and lives.  After all somebody who needs to murder another human being every few weeks/months needs a way to cover his tracks. After all even they can’t dodge a torrent of incendiary rounds flowing from a mini-gun at 3,000+ rounds per minute.
  • Other Weaknesses: Their immortality is based on their ability to regenerate, which means that while bullets will hurt nothing short of immolation or decapitation will finish them for good. A stake through the heart will leave a bruise and hurt like hell, but it is also a good way to piss them off.
  • Inhuman abilities: These vamps are at least 3-5 faster and stronger than your top Olympic athletes.  It would take a platoon of well armed me to take down a single vampire or somebody with magic sword. Somebody who is crazy prepared may, just may, stand a chance.
  • Vampires as Parasites: These vampires, like most vampires are also parasites of human society. They “feed” on human victims (those who are destroyed physically/emotionally by the Hunger) as well as human society as a whole. They lie,cheat and steal to get what they want. The foment wars, exploit conflicts, and play on addictions to gain power. They wrap themselves into the fold of humanity’s flesh like a leech and they are very hard to pry off.
  • True Monsters: They are not cuddly or cute (as if all the rape, murder and mayhem didn’t clue you in). They wear expensive suits, live in prime real estate and have just enough money to make Scrooge McDuck look like a pauper, they may even seduce the panties off a pornstar with a single look, but you don’t want to know what happens behind close doors once the Hunger hits, unless you’re into snuff flicks. They can’t be redeemed for it is in their blood.

So, do they fit the mold or break it? I betting that yes they do, although your mileage may vary.

And as a peace offering to the wild vampire fan spirits I offed this humble offering:

I like to distill basic concepts to their base forms in order to understand them. A quest in search of the lowest common denominator. Nothing is more basic, more essential to literature (and its associated artistic forms) than the Hero.

So what is a Hero?

The Main Character in a narrative?

The guy with the cape, gun or title?

No.

The Hero is that someone who will do what needs to be done.

Actor + Need + Action= Hero.

Whether charging into a burning building to rescue a child or standing up to a bully each situation requires someone to do something in response. Success is not guaranteed but the price of failure is well understood. A good story builds on the tension between these three elements.

Is the actor capable of action?

Does he recognize the need for action?

Will his actions be enough?

What about the consequences of said actions?

Go back to every book or movie you have ever read and think about them using this framework. Whether the story is about mythic heroes saving the known world/galaxy/universe or a personal struggle to overcome deep seated fears each successful narrative presents a compelling actor facing a real need doing something about it.

That, in a nutshell, is what a Hero is all about.

Indeed I have. Not one but two books which every aspiring fantasy writer should have in their reference library:

A word of caution, these are reference books, the stuff that they professor’s back in college warned you were second tier sources. If your looking for in depth studies of myth cycles, ancient history and the like you might want to start with The Hero with a  Thousand Faces and go from there. Or grab copies of El Cid, The Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur.

But if your looking for a quick answer and don’t want to spend the next 6 hours in a wiki walk then these books are the answer.

The first, as the title suggest, is an encyclopedia of myths and legends from around the world. It concentrates on Ancient Europe but it does cover the rest of the globe in some details. It also tends to cram a wide series of subjects under certain meta-headings which works most of the time although I found that dropping the Arthurian Mythology under the Celtic setting heading was inaccurate to say the least (Arthur has its own mythos created in Post-Roman Western Europe). Plus a few errors and false assumptions creep here and there but as a well research reference guide to all things mythological you could do far worse. Especially if you pick it up under $10 in the bargain bin, as I did.

The second book is a collection of essays geared for the fantasy writer searching for research material on medieval settings. Like the first it concentrates largely on medieval Western Europe (500 CE to 1600 CE with some material extending to the modern era). It has some fascinating essays on magic, sources and uses as well as handy list of terms.  Again, it does not make the claim to be the end all and be all of sources for writers but it is a compact enough to sit on your desk while you work on your latest WIP.

I recommend both books as excellent places to start your research and as handy guides to all thing ancient, fantasy and fantastic. See if you can snatch them in your local book store (search the bargain bins first) or ask for them in your local library.

If you have any books to recomend, please do so. I’ll like to check them out.

That’s all for now folks, see you around.

Oh and before I forget, here is a video for ya!

NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) is just around the corner, well OK, three months away. Still not too early to start the preparations.

As you probably guessed from my last few posts, I’ve been knee deep in world building, title writing and research. All of that leading to the NaNo kickoff on November 1st. I enjoyed last year NaNo (my first) although the stress was unbearable. Cranking 50K words in 30 days is not easy, especially when you have never done anything like that before.

In fact this blog was born out of last years efforts and will served as the platform for this years enterprise.

So are you ready for your NaNo 09?

Mine will be Age of Iron (working title) and to inspire me (and all those NaNo overachievers out there) here is a video for you.  Enjoy:

Cartography (in Greek chartis = map and graphein = write) is the study and practice of making geographical maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.

I suck at drawing. I suck so bad that if I draw a stick figure, it looks at me and gives me the finger. So when it comes to maps I am no good.

But why are maps important in speculative fiction?

Because they tell you the shape of the world/universe you created.

I mean, yes you can always do the old “Here be dragons” bit. That works fine when you’re on your first draft. All you need is a starting location and then you go from there. However, if you want to inject a sense of realism into your story (or at least create a logically consistent framework of reference) you need to start pinning down where everything is.

For example, your story begins in a charming village at the edge of a pine forest. That village could be anywhere. Then the Big Bad shows up and razes it to the ground. Now the hero has to pick himself from the ground, grab his father’s old (yet surprisingly non-rusty) sword and hunt down the murderer?

So where does he go?

To the Mile High mountains in search of one of the Big Bag’s henchman so beat some info- I mean question him on the where about of his master?

Go to the local lord’s castle and ask for help in his quest?

Perhaps go to the nearby city and warn them about the approaching army of darkness?

Go down into the bowels of a ruined temple and search for the Masterful Sword of Awesome Ass Whooping?

So where is it?

A three day ride to the south, across the Chasm of Doomed Idiots or over the Mountains of Nosebleed?

A gentle five week cruise across the Hell-O-Spont?

You can make it up as you go along, relying of massive amounts of handwavium to stave off the equally massive headache of graph paper that awaits you.

You might even pull it off.

So why bother with maps?

It’s a good way to keep everything straight. Think of a map as graphic note taking. As you build your narrative you build the map(s) which tells you where everything is in relation to everything else.

But that assumes that  your building your world as you write. Many a world builder starts big and works his way down. Or you can borrow from the “real world” (or existing fantasy worlds) and simply change/drop names of towns, cities and regions to your heart content.

Whatever your approach you should avoid the patchwork map syndrome. Yes, your world has magic or sufficiently advanced technology, still no need to be that lazy. High enough mountains will create rain shadows, the planet’s rotation will cause changes in temperature (and seasonal changes), rivers always flow to the ocean, etc.  Not only thus this gives you ye ole taste of realism (yummy!) but can give you ideas that expand your setting, characters and cultures. While the the debate between Nature and Nurture will outlast us all, no one can dismiss the impact the environment has on human (or alien) culture, so getting your maps right and by extension the geography, climate and other factors can really enhance your world as well as the readers experiences in it.

Now where did I leave that graph paper?

And because I never get tired of the anime, here your video of the day:

Some writers write without titles. Titles seem something you slap on your manuscript after the fact. As you have guessed (by the title of this post) I don’t work that way.

Well, usually….

But not this time.

My current WIP is going well, as in, I’m writing it, but it doesn’t have a tittle. I really don’t know what exactly this WIP is. Among the possibilities are:

  • A novel. A single manuscript from beginning to end.
  • A short story. It begins and ends as one.
  • A short story collection/serial.
  • A (gasp) book trilogy.
  • The seed of a NaNo.

Whatever it is (or will be) it has not title.

OK, I have a title, of sorts.

Age of Iron

An alternate history/fantasy “work” based on the European Dark Ages (500 CE-1000 CE).

But…it sounds so generic, so much of a ripoff. Yes, I know, you can’t copyright titles, but still, doesn’t feel right.

I done the research.

I’m working on the world building.

I have a good idea of the general plot points.

It feels like a gone diving without checking how much air is in my tanks. I’m all for discovery writing but I need a clear starting point just in case I get lost. That navigational point that allows me to navigate the unknown waters of imagination. A beacon in the dark night of creation. Up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle.

So, what am I to do?

And because you actually read through an entire post full of wangst here is a video to make all better: