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It happens to all of us (writers that is), our minds overload with ideas, jamming our train of thought and skewing our writing course.

Which means, that sometimes you just have to stop, download your brain and keep going.

Yes, download, as in downloading files from/to a computer or server.

Happened to me last week. I was gong through a bit of writer’s block. No, this time around I wasn’t bullying my characters into doing something they didn’t want to do. Instead a set of ideas bubbled up from the ether and into conscious foreground. A figure stood at the mouth of a dark alley, fedora shielding him from the pouring rain and at my feet laid a dead body. Everything was in black and white except for the bright red stain of blood in the corpse’s chest.

I looked at the figure and he said “My name is John Malone, Psychic Detective.”

How can you say no to a guy with a smoking automatic on one hand?

I sure wasn’t going to try.

So the downloading began.

How exactly did I do that? Did I invent a neural interface so that my thoughts would be converted to Ones and Zeroes and travel from my squishy brain to the desktop’s hard drive.

Of course not.

Pen and paper. Lists, time-lines, notes. That’s what I’m talking about. Now, I am not to just start writing the moment an idea seizes me. I don’t keep a notebook under my pillow. I let my thoughts marinate in the deep fryer of my mind for awhile. Sometimes they disintegrate in the slop or retreat back to the ether, but this character just wouldn’t go away.

“My name is John Malone, Psychic Detective.”

Notes, yes notes:

Setting: Grant City, U.S.A. Midwestern City, Alternate Earth, 1920s-1930s.The Great War lasted until 1920 and ended with the occupation of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Revolution spreads throughout the world. European Empires bankrupt. Prohibition becomes the law of the land, gangland violence and racial tensions are on the rise.

Main Character: John Malone-Psychic Detective. Psychic powers are all variations of empathy. Also suffers from an extreme form of colorblindness.

Influences: Comic Books, Crime Stories, Early 20th American History, Film Noir, The Dresden Files

Genres: Diesel Punk, Short Story, Alternate History, Science-Fiction, Comic Books (Watchmen and Sin City).

And so on. By writing it down I can clear my mind and refocus on my current WIP. I can also tell if it’s just a straight shot in the dark or something I can work with at some later time. Think of it as a bit of mental (not as in crazy mind you, although…) Spring Cleaning.

Rubbish out, clean air and useful thought patterns in.

At least I hope so. ūüėČ

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Final reminder that the “Behind the Headlines” Blogfest kicks off tomorrow, April 5. Can’t wait to read what you wrote.

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And now for some music by Chicane-Saltwater:

A week ago I met a friend of mine for coffee. We talked about life, politics and eventually, writing. I explained the premise of SuD and how it was based on multiple philosophical, religious and cultural references from Enoch to Cervantes. When we got to the part of the “vampires” he stopped me. “Demonkin? Interesting stuff with the Hunger, but why not call them Nephilim?”

And you know what? He had point.

I called them vampires for a lack of a better term, even though they did not fit the mold (deconstruction or not). These guys are not vamps. Leeches of human society, yes, but not vamps. So I went back over the research material (in the web, yes I know) and I found the following:

1It happened after the sons of men had multiplied in those days, that daughters were born to them, elegant and beautiful.

2And when the angels, (3) the sons of heaven, beheld them, they became enamoured of them, saying to each other, Come, let us select for ourselves wives from the progeny of men, and let us beget children.

10Then they took wives, each choosing for himself; whom they began to approach, and with whom they cohabited; teaching them sorcery, incantations, and the dividing of roots and trees.

11And the women conceiving brought forth giants, (7)

12Whose stature was each three hundred cubits. These devoured all which the labor of men produced; until it became impossible to feed them;

13When they turned themselves against men, in order to devour them;

14And began to injure birds, beasts, reptiles, and fishes, to eat their flesh one after another, (8) and to drink their blood.

Okay, so that last bit is vampiric. But they are a) sons and daughters of fallen angels (demons), b) grew to great stature (size, power, wealth), c)born out of lust, d) devourer and destroyer of all things upon the Earth.

Yep, why twist an existing archetype beyond recognition (shame on me for breaking one of my own rules) when another exits that fits even better with the themes in the book?

Which goes too show you, oh gentle reader, that a little perspective is a good thing. Writing is a solitary process, but finding someone you trust to take a peek can and does help. It may be just a name change, but it’s the difference between an awkward term that doesn’t fit and one that embraces the theme(s) central to the narrative.

As that same friend was fond of telling me, “Life is in the details. Because life is made of little details.”

And now for some music:

Oh boy, I’m going straight to Hell, hand me that hand basket, okay, thanks!

Which just show you that writing about religion is hard. That’s why most speculative fiction writers, especially in the fantasy genre/sub-genres avoid it, at least when it comes to Abrahamic religions (it seems Wicca and other forms or paganism are fair game).

The reasons are multiple:

  • The writer doesn’t want to offend anyone.
  • The writer doesn’t want his book to be a dissertation on his religious beliefs.
  • The writer fears that he will get it wrong.
  • Most writers, even if they are agnostic or atheist still come from a religious background (mostly the above Abrahamic religions or sects/cults there in) and unconsciously anthropomorphize the Supreme Deity (God with a capital G for those keeping score t home).

My problem is that, considering the modern concept of what is God (yes, the capital G-man) makes him (or it) to be omniscient and omnipotent, ergo any but the most vague descriptions of the Almighty himself (does not include discussions on the theological/historical/social aspects of religion by the way) will fit the bill. If you turn Him into a character, then he is not longer, well, Him but a lesser copy, thus not worthy of having the title, unless you’re writing in the post-modern tradition of the “Jerk-God” (yes, with a capital…oh never mind).

So what is a writer to do?

  1. Polytheism: Although many fantasy stories are written in a High Middle Ages milieu (knights, stone castles, feudalism) the write creates a cosmology full of gods and goddesses. Most of these act like a combination of Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, or Greco-Roman pantheons, although it is not uncommon for these deities to have “churches”, “clerics” and other attributes of modern Christian (especially Catholicism) sects. Common in D&D and works inspired by it and previous authors, such as Robert E. Howard.
  2. Henotheism/Molotraism: Other gods exist but the story/characters focus on worshiping one above the others, either because it is the patron deity of a city, culture or nation or simply the belief that others are not worthy of worship. Does not preclude the existence of other deities, only the preference/worthiness of these vis-a-vis the chief deity. May be a step toward monotheism. In Urban Fantasy (American Gods by Neil Gaiman or DC Vertigo’s Lucifer) it serves as an explanation of why the old gods have faded from the world but not disappeared completely.¬† Also serves to establish that all myths are true.
  3. Distant God:¬† Deux Ex Machina, God is in the machine or at least he is IT, everything, the All or the supreme architect. He exists but for some reason he is either preoccupied with running the universe or he is everyone/everything and can not be reduced to one person/thing. Basically a cop out by the writer, as in “yeah, it’s there, I just don’t want to talk about it”. The world now belongs to Man and does not need a powerful deity mucking about and interfering with free will.
  4. The Absent/Uncaring/Malicious Deity: God has either moved on with creation, doesn’t care what happens to its creation or set up the whole thing as a great cosmic joke. Mostly a take that against organized religion (think Dogma or for that matter, anything by the late, great George Carlin). Many of these stories pit humanity against demons or the Devil, and the most it can expect from the Powers That Be are a few angels here or there and they may not be good guys or may not even know where their boss is. Supernatural is a great example of this.
  5. Christianity by Allegory: This comes in two forms, Christianity (or the chosen Abrahamic tradition) By Any Other Name or a Thickly Veiled Allegory with symbolic stand-ins for modern religion of the writers choice. The first is common in many computer RPGs like World of Warcraft. You have priest, churches, paladins and priests, and the worship a stand in for God (called The Light or some such). The second may use elements of other mythos or modern analogs to retell biblical stories or the like. C.S. Lewis was a master of this. Yes, the Lion was Jesus.

So, there you have it. Pick your poison. And if you end downstairs before I do, please save me a seat!

And to make sure I get there in style, here is a double dose of Eddie Izzard:

In the spirit of full, honest and complete disclosure, I am a liberal.

Why did I just write that?

Because it informs my worldview and by extension my writing. So does my religion or lack thereof (I am an agnostic).

Anyone that thinks that you can write anything without a trace of bias is deluding themselves. And Speculative Fiction is riddle with great stories written by authors that showcase their religious, philosophical and political views.

Heinlein

H.G. Wells

C.S. Lewis

Rod Serling

George Orwell

These are but a few of the authors who have used speculative fiction to explore and engage their readers along political, religious or philosophical lines. There is something about creating your own world universe that allows the author too expand on his views, mainly because said world works under the rules he created for it, thus it is malleable to his worldview. When done well the author engages in a thoughtful conversation with his audience, one that allows the audience to question the material and engage in their own quest for understanding.¬† When done poorly, the reader feels like the author dropped an anvil on his head while screaming “I’m right! I’m right! I am always motherfucking right, you ignorant turd!” in his face.

So, what is an author to do?

  1. Be upfront about your positions: You don’t need to repeat them every chance you get, but being upfront about them means that you are not disrespecting your audience with some stealth morality lesson or political view.
  2. Somebody, somewhere will disagree: Specially on the interwebs. It’s the nature of the beast. Know how to separate the genuine concerns/critiques from those that use your work as a straw man for their views.
  3. Do the research: If you don’t want to sound like a doofus talking about the evils of Capitalism/Communism/Evangelism etc, do the research, specially if your mocking/criticism those views.
  4. Don’t let your bias get in the way of the story: Story first, second and always. Let the story reflect it’s own values. Write the story, and let the readers figure it out.

Whether you want it or not, and whether you admit it or not, your writing is a reflection of who you are and that means that your views will seep in. It’s the nature of the beast.

Write what you know….

Or write what you like.

But what if I’m not comfortable with what I know or like?

I like fantasy and I know a bit about Medieval European history, so it seemed like a good idea.

Except I was not comfortable with it.

I love reading it and playing fantasy theme games (computer and tabletop).

But my real comfort zone exists somewhere between Today and Some Time in the Future.

With guns, politics, intrigue and travel (I like to put my characters on the road as soon as possible).

Doesn’t require a lot of world building or language manipulation (Ye Olde English gives me a headache).

So for now fantasy remains distant, while urban fantasy and science fiction are comfortable and easy.

So what (or where) is your comfort zone?

nano_09_blk_participant_100x100_1.png

I was going to write about something else, and the draft is on this blog post folder, but¬† I decided to “borrow” a meme from Bejamin Solah about NaNo:

When and how did you find about NaNoWriMo? How did it go?

I heard of it a couple of years ago from a gaming/RPG forum I’m a member of. I tried to participate a few times but I would always quit before it even started.

How many times have you done NaNoWriMo?’

Once, last year (2008).

How many times have you won? If you haven’t won, what was your best result?

I won last year, by something like 39 words. So I’m 1:1 when it comes to NaNo.

How did it go last year?

Stressful. I tried to write at least 2,000 words a day, but kept falling behind.  The stress can be terrific, but it is also a great motivator. Once I was done I realized that I had only about a third to half of the story done so after a short break I continued to write and finished the first draft in February of this year (2009).

Where do you write and with what do you write?

I write whenever and wherever I can. Pen and legal pad (white). Although for NaNo I usually do it as a series of blog posts which remain in draft form (wordpress rules) which then I cut and paste to Word.

How do you find time to write?

You got to make the time. I usually work an hour or so before my bedtime. Knock out a few hundred to thousand words and then hit the hay.

Are your partners, friends and allies or enemies?

I keep most of my writing to myself. Most of my online friends are allies, but the people around me hardly know what I’m working on.

What are your strengths and what do you use to help you get to the end?

Excitement, Stress, Dedication and Caffeine, although do to resent events I’ve abandoned the last one.¬† Of all of those factors, excitement is what keeps me going. Once I’m into a story I like to see it through to the end.¬† That and the more I write the (hopefully) better I get.

What are your weaknesses, obstacles, and challenges that hinder you from finishing?

Laziness and an obsession with perfection. Self-motivation is hard to come by sometimes and also I’m a stickler for internal consistency. I hate getting “lost” not knowing where to go next in the story. Mind you I do not outline as that simply kills the whole writing experience for me, but I do write notes while I write, which helps me keep track of things (characters, locations, plot points).

Do you plot/outline/plan or do you write by the seat of your pants? How much do you plot or how unprepared are you?

I don’t do outlines. Writing an outline feels like I already wrote the story, but without any of the important parts. I do brainstorm about genre, title and the like. I write down a few basic notes and go from there. Everything else happens at the point of the pen or the tip of the fingers as I write.

Do you participate in the real life community, go to write ins and meets ups in your area?

No, I don’t know any NaNo groups so I don’t participate. Besides I think that would make it even more stressful that it already is.¬† I like to focus my energies on my story.

What are your writing aids? Special snacks, music, totems, reward or punishments?

I set up a themed songlist to play on my iPod or computer while I write, that’s about it. Failure is punishment enough.

Well those are my answers to the meme. I hope you enjoyed them.

I like prophecies (at least in fiction). They make for great story telling frames. They are an easy way to establish The Call to Adventure. Nothings beats a prophecy when it comes to raising the stakes. It’s not just a master less mercenary saving the snooty daughter of the local lord from the monster of the week.

Oh no!

Now it’s the whole kingdom that’s at stake.

Tempt Fate if you dare.

Become a plaything of the Gods.

Having a tough time believing that the local yokel is destined to save the Galaxy from the Overlord of all that is Eveil? Just check the prophecy, second stanza, third line. Aren’t you the man Man not born out of a Woman (whatever the hell that means)? Great! Now grab the shiny sword your father buried in that big honking rock in the backyard and off you go!

Sounds perfect, got prophecy will have fantasy blockbuster.

Or not.

Wait…

What?

Like I said, prophecies are great but there are so many ways to screw them up.

Let me counts ways:

The Forgotten Prophecy. The one you see early on in the story and completely disappears until the second to last paragraph of the book. If it’s that important you would think it would exert some pull on the characters who know about it. Otherwise why mention it.

The Retconned Prophecy, or the I happen to have prophecy that explains what otherwise defies the internal logic of the book. You know the type that crops up on page 315. Mr. Exposition every illogical twist and turn based on the prophecy and the reader is supposed to accept his explanation without question.¬† It’s the speculative fiction version of in-story CYA (coughBSGcoughbushitcoughsomemore), especially when he knows how baldy he screwed up the internal consistency of the narrative.

The Detail Free Prophecy. Everybody keeps talking about THE PROPHECY but NOBODY bothers to tell the hero or for that matter the reader what does it say let alone how it fits the story.

The Nonsense Prophecy.¬† Look it, we got a prophecy! And after reading it backwards and forwards it means absolutely nothing.¬† Bring Balance to the Force my left nut! Now, prophecies, by definition, are nebulous things, but c’mon!

The Pulled it out of my Rear Prophecy. The writer started with a few verses of the prophecy and it was good. Then he wanted to do something else, so he needed more prophetic words to justify that. And then some  more because he just sign a 6-book deal and now he needs to write more prophetic sounding crap because the reason the hero is doing the whole save the Universe bit is because Fate told him so. Now everything he does has been foretold and it will ALWAYS fit with whatever he does or fails to do.

The Ripped from the Ancient Headlines Prophecy.  I need a prophetic verse, stat! Oh, here is one:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles

Nobody with access to a computer and Google will figure that one out. Yeah, right. Now if your novel is an alternate history work, or some such, this would make a great shout out to the King of Sparta. Otherwise it’s pretty flimsy.

As cool as prophecies might be, they are not a cure all for what ails your story. So be careful how you use them, if you use them at all.

And now for another Nostromo AMV. Enjoy!

And NaNo which stands for National Novel Writing Month. It starts on November 1st. But what exactly is it? I’ll let the folks over at their About page explain:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

A great way to kick start the inner author and put the inner editor on ice, at least for a month. Depending on your past writing experience (as well as daily time allotments) 50K words may seem to little or too much. But the idea is to write, just write.

This year’s entry will be a Dark (Age) Fantasy, although like many works in this sub-genre it flirts with historical accuracy (it actually pinches it in the bum and gives it the old bedroom eyes, but still).

So what are you waiting for? Gear up for NaNo ’09 and make this year the year of writing dangerously.

And now for a bit of Nostromo for your enjoyment:

According to an online personality quiz for fantasy writers I am:

Congratulations! You are High-Brow, Peaceful, Traditional and Cynical! These concepts are defined below.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is definitely one of the most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writers of all times. Her most famous fantasy work to date is the Earthsea suite of novels and short stories, in which Le Guin created not only one of the most believable societies in fantasy fiction, but also managed to describe a school for wizards almost three decades before Harry Potter. Although often categorized as written for young adults, these books have entertained and challenged readers of all ages since their publication.

Le Guin¬†is no stranger to literary experiments (see for example Always Coming Home(1985)), but¬†much of her story-telling is quite traditional. In fact, she makes a point of returning to older forms of story-telling,¬†which, at her best, enables her to create something akin to myth.¬†One shouldn’t confuse myth with faerytale, though. Nothing is ever simplified in Le Guin’s world, as she relentlessly explores ethical problems and the moral choices that her characters must make, as must we all. While being one of those writers who will¬†allow you to escape to imaginary worlds, she is also one who will prompt you to return to your actual life, perhaps a little wiser than you used to be.

You are also a lot like Susan Cooper.

If you want some action, try Michael Moorcock.

If you’d like a challenge, try your exact opposite, C S Lewis.

Your score

This is how to interpret your score: Your attitudes have been measured on four different scales, called¬†1) High-Brow vs. Low-Brow, 2) Violent vs. Peaceful, 3) Experimental vs. Traditional and 4) Cynical vs. Romantic. Imagine that when you were born, you were in a state of innocence, a tabula rasa who would have scored zero on each scale. Since then, a number of circumstances (including genetical, cultural and environmental factors) have pushed you towards either end of these scales. If you’re at 45 or -45 you would be almost entirely cynical, low-brow or whatever. The closer to zero you are, the less extreme your attitude. However, you should always be more of¬†either (eg more romantic than cynical).¬†Please note that even¬†though High-Brow, Violent, Experimental and Cynical have positive numbers (1 through 45) and their opposites negative numbers (-1 through -45), this doesn’t mean that either quality is better. All attitudes have their positive and negative sides, as explained below.

High-Brow vs. Low-Brow

You received 13 points, making you more High-Brow than Low-Brow. Being high-browed in this context refers to being more fascinated with the sort of art that critics and scholars tend to favour, rather than the best-selling kind. At their best, high-brows are cultured, able to appreciate the finer nuances of literature and not content with simplifications. At their worst they are, well, snobs.

Violent vs. Peaceful

You received -7 points, making you more Peaceful than Violent.¬† This scale is a measurement of a) if you are tolerant to violence in fiction and b) whether you see violence as a means that can be used to achieve a good end. If you aren’t, and you don’t, then you are peaceful as defined here. At their best, peaceful people are the ones who encourage dialogue and¬†understanding as a means of solving conflicts. At their worst, they are¬†standing passively by as¬†they or third parties are hurt by less scrupulous individuals.

Experimental vs. Traditional

You received -19 points, making you more Traditional than Experimental. Your position on this scale indicates if you’re more likely to seek out the new and unexpected or if you are more comfortable with the familiar, especially in regards to culture. Note that traditional as defined here does not equal conservative, in the political sense. At their best, traditional people don’t change winning concepts, favouring storytelling over empty poses. At their worst, they are somewhat¬†narrow-minded.

Cynical vs. Romantic

You received 17 points, making you more Cynical than Romantic. Your position on this scale indicates if you are more likely to be wary, suspicious and skeptical¬†to people around you and the world at large,¬†or if you are more likely to believe in grand schemes,¬†happy endings and the basic goodness of humankind. It is by far the most vaguely defined scale, which is why you’ll find the sentence “you are also a lot like x” above. If you feel that your position on this scale is wrong, then you are probably more like author x. At their best, cynical people are able to see through lies and spot crucial flaws in plans and schemes. At their worst, they are overly negative, bringing everybody else down.

It’s thorough to say the least. But I have to disagree with the peaceful part.

Thank you Amy!

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.

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