Archive for March, 2021

writing life

Avoiding Intensity

Apologies for skipping the Friday post. I found out Thursday evening that I had an appointment for my COVID vaccine Friday morning, so I spent Friday morning driving across the metro area, waiting in traffic, and then getting the shot before driving in heavy traffic back across the metro area and then promptly collapsing. The drive was far worse than the shot itself. I ended up just having some soreness on my arm for a couple of days. It didn’t occur to me until later that I’d totally forgotten to post a blog.

One issue I’ve run into in the past year or so is that I’ve become very conflict-averse. I always have been, to some extent. I’m the weirdo who doesn’t necessarily want an emotionally intense reading or viewing experience. I worry far too much about the characters and get way too invested for me to be able to cope when really bad things happen to them. When I had my “hide behind the sofa” moments as a kid, it wasn’t generally because I was scared, but rather because things were so intense I couldn’t bear it. I still will occasionally flip ahead in a book if things are getting to be too much so I can see how it works out, and then I can go back and read the intense part without so much worry.

It’s not the big action scenes that are the problem. It’s more the emotional low points, what they call in romance writing “the black moment,” when it seems absolutely impossible for things to work out. A lot of the time, that may even come before the big action scene in the superhero movies, when all seems lost, but then they rally and fight back. The things that really get me include injustice—when the main character is framed or falsely accused, and especially if the system is corrupt, so he has nowhere to turn for help—or betrayal—when the people the hero should be able to count on turn on him. Anything that feels unfair will get to me. Physical jeopardy may bother me, but it’s the emotional jeopardy I find hardest to deal with.

But it got even worse in the past year because there was so much stress in real life that fictional stress was more than I could take. I watched a lot of documentaries because there’s not a lot of suspense there if you know the subject, and it’s less immediate. I rewatched and reread a lot of things because I’d already know a book was “safe,” and knowing how it came out made it easier to get through the somewhat suspenseful parts that are even in “safe” things (since you don’t get fiction without some conflict). I catch myself getting distracted when things I’m watching get intense. That’s when I check e-mail, Twitter, or the movie’s IMDB page.

Being conflict-averse makes writing a bit of a challenge. While I’m sure there are other readers like me who might be okay with low-stress reads, generally the books that stick in readers’ minds are those that make them feel something. There needs to be some intensity. I had to rewrite Case of the Curious Crystals a few times because I was in the middle of that book when the pandemic hit and I guess I just shut down. The first draft read like a user manual. I went back in and added emotions. Then I realized that nothing was at stake, so that took another rewrite.

I caught myself doing the same thing this week with the book I’m currently working on. There’s something that one character has been worried about the other character learning about him. He’s held back on telling her, hoping he can ease into it gently, and he’s not sure how she’ll respond. His hand gets forced, and he has to reveal this information in order to save them. And the way I wrote it going, she’s curious and asks questions, but she’s generally pretty cool about it. In the middle of the night last night it struck me that this was probably pretty anticlimactic. I don’t think I want it to be a case of him worrying too much and it working out fine. Eventually it will work out okay, but there needs to be a bit more friction at first. So, I’m going to remind myself that I know how it works out, so it’s okay for there to be some tension now, and I’ll rewrite it to make it more intense.

It probably won’t be gut-wrenching and won’t leave readers sobbing. I don’t write that kind of book. But I do want readers to worry enough about whether it might work out that they’re compelled to keep turning pages, and I want them to feel a bit bad for the characters.


Day by Day

I guess you could say that one of my hobbies is productivity. I like studying different theories about productivity and trying techniques. Not that it all makes a difference or sticks, but I try to keep doing the things that work. My latest discovery kind of came by accident, but I think it’s making a difference.

It started with Duolingo. Nearly a year ago, I decided that one of my lockdown projects would be to learn some Norwegian to prepare for that bucket list trip I may get to take someday. They’re sneaky with how they set that program up because they praise and reward you for keeping a streak going and make it sound like breaking that streak would be the worst thing that could happen to you. That means I’ve done some work on Norwegian every day for almost a year. Even during the power failures, when I briefly got power one of my priorities was quickly doing a lesson to keep my streak going. And now I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress from doing a little bit every day. I’m not fluent by any means, but I follow the Norwegian tourist board on Twitter, and when they share articles that are in Norwegian I’ve been able to get the gist of the excerpts that show up in the tweet. I don’t think I could have a conversation, but I’d be able to figure out signs and restaurant menus.

Then there was yoga. I started the year with a 30-day program online through Yoga with Adriene. Then I found that she puts out a calendar each month, putting together a daily practice made up of videos she’s already done. That has done a lot to keep me going every day. First, I wanted to keep up with the 30-day program. Then it became easy to find a workout because I don’t have to choose something. I just do whatever comes up for that day (though I have changed the order when there’s a really long one on a busy day and a shorter one on another day). I’ve kept up with the daily yoga almost every day this year, though I did miss some days during the deep freeze because I didn’t want to have the TV on and running a video while the power was going off and on (I get YouTube on my DVR/tuner box) and I didn’t want to get out from under my pile of blankets, since the house never really got warm during that time. But otherwise, there’s been yoga every day, and I can really feel a difference. I’m so much stronger and more flexible. When I’ve taken some kind of exercise class, it’s been once a week, and that doesn’t have the impact that daily work has.

I already knew that I make so much more progress writing when I try to do it every day (though I do give myself weekends off). I’m trying to get a “streak” going of having written at least a little every weekday. The fun thing is, if I start to get my little bit to check it off for the day, I almost always end up doing a lot more.

Last week, I decided that I really needed to make progress on my lifelong dream of learning to play piano, so I started doing at least a little bit every day. Even in a week, I think it’s working. I’ve hit the song in the lesson book where I always stall out and give up because it ties my fingers in knots and completely baffles my brain (trying to read both clefs at a time with multiple notes at a time), but I’m going to keep at it and see if I get past this point.

And now I’m looking at marketing. I struggle with it because I hate to do it, though it’s necessary. I’d rather just hide in my cave and write books, but to make a living at it, I need people to discover and read these books. So if I do one marketing or business task a day, every day, will I see a difference? Only having to do one thing doesn’t feel as overwhelming as having a whole plan to carry out. And maybe doing it every day will make me feel more comfortable with it. I’ve set up a calendar with a task of the day so I don’t have to make decisions in the moment. Now we’ll see if it has any impact.


Branching Off

In my reworking of an old story idea, I’ve reached the point where this version diverges greatly from the way I wrote it twenty years ago. Up to now, I’ve mostly added backstory and context, and the scenes themselves have played out differently, but the key events have been more or less the same.

Now, though, is where the differences really kick in, when the major events will be different, as will the settings, and it’s kind of strange. I feel like I’m in one of those stories where the characters go back in time, alter the timeline, and return to a changed world where they see the consequences of the changes they made. Or maybe a story in which the characters are subtly aware of the way things could have been if they’d made a different choice. I can still see the ghost of the original version. In a way, it’s more clear than the new one because that’s the movie I’ve had in my head for decades. I’ve actually written it. This new one is still very new, not entirely written, and the mental movie is just starting to take shape, so it’s a lot less concrete to me. It’s really weird to write something when the other version is still so vivid.

I imagine as I get further and further from the original story, this will bother me less because it’ll be so different from the original and this version will have become more solid. Right now, though, I seem to be flipping back and forth in the mental images in my head, so it’s slow going as I have to make an effort to go in a different direction, even though the new direction is so much better. It’s hard to let go of the old way.

I think there’s a metaphor about life and growth in there somewhere.



Superhero Woes

My current viewing project is to try to get a little grounding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not a huge fan of superhero movies. I’m intrigued by some of the characters. I like the concept of juggling identities, of dealing with having special abilities and wrestling with moral dilemmas. It’s just that the movies tend to be fairly boring to me because they often dispense with that stuff and end up just being about people running around and hitting each other.

For instance, I love the character of Captain America. I love the concept, and I particularly love the reasons they chose this 90-pound weakling to turn into a supersoldier, that he already had the heart. He just needed a body that could keep up with his heart. My pastor even used this story as a sermon illustration — the scene in which they prove which guy should be chosen for the program by throwing a grenade. Steve throws himself on it to protect everyone else, while the big, strong guy that one person wanted for the program runs and hides. But I totally tune out during the climactic fight scene. It’s just a bunch of hitting.

Last weekend, I started a project of trying to watch the critical movies for the overall storyline, plus the ones I find interesting, going in internal chronological order (in order in the story world, not in release order). Since I’d already seen Captain America, I watched Captain Marvel, and I really liked it. For once, I didn’t zone out during the action sequence because it all came out of character. It was about her reclaiming her power, both literally and metaphorically, and the metaphor part was what made it work because that part was something a lot of people in the audience (especially women) could relate to. Watching that movie made me realize the problem with Captain America’s action sequence. He didn’t really have anything he needed to learn. He didn’t have to grow. He was already there. We already knew he was capable of sacrificing himself for others. I’ve griped about how I wished he could have stayed in the WWII setting longer, but now I think I get why they moved him ahead. For him to have good conflict, he needs something to bounce off, so he needs the other characters and he needs a world where he doesn’t really fit, a situation where he has to choose between gray areas of good rather than clear good vs. evil. I guess when I get to more movies with him I’ll find out if that’s where they’re going with it.

Then I watched the first Iron Man, and I didn’t like that one as much, mostly because I’m pretty much done with the genius jerk character type. That does give plenty of room for a character arc since he has to grow a lot, but in this case, his growth came fairly early in the story, and just because what he’d been doing actually affected him. It’s like the guy who only takes women’s rights seriously once he has a daughter and sees what she has to deal with.

I think the first Avengers movie is up next for me. I’ve already watched the first Thor (again, I liked the characters, got bored during the action sequences) and that’s the next critical one. I’m skipping the second Iron Man and Hulk for now. They’re not on the “critical” list, and I don’t care all that much about them.

My issue with superhero stuff is fairly recent. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s because of what happened when filmmakers had the use of CGI to make the big fight scenes really big, but I used to run home from the bus stop after school so I could catch the syndicated reruns of the old Batman TV series. I watched the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman TV series in the 70s and the Saturday-morning Shazaam/Isis hour. I saw the big-screen Superman movies, the Batman movies from the late 80s/90s and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies. But around the time they started the MCU stuff, I just completely lost interest in superhero stuff, possibly because I felt overloaded by it. There was just so much all of a sudden, between the Marvel and DC stuff, and it seemed like there wasn’t a lot of anything else, so I just resisted it all. It does look like there’s some good stuff in there, so now that I have Disney+ I’m giving it a shot.

Anyway, it looks like I’ve got enough to keep me busy until more new Star Wars stuff shows up.

writing, fantasy

Names that Fit

I’ve discovered another issue with writing “secondary world” fantasy that’s becoming a challenge, and it’s even more of a challenge when reworking a story I came up with when I was about 21, and that’s naming both characters and places.

About the only name I picked then that’s sticking is the name for one of the main characters. The name of the other main character was the most obvious generic fantasy name, so I’d already changed it in the previous iteration of this book. Now as I revisit this story and do more specific worldbuilding, I’m finding that the names I’ve been using no longer fit and I need a lot of new names, but I haven’t found anything I like yet. There are a lot of placeholders because it’s silly to stop a story dead in its tracks to go look for names.

It’s a lot easier to come up with names in stories that are set more or less in our world. In a fantasy world, the names need to sound like they belong in a different world. It would be a bit disappointing to read a fantasy story about George and Ralph. You can sometimes do hearty, salt-of-the-earth type names like Sam that still fit in a quasi-medieval setting. But then you also need to have some kind of internal consistency, with names that sound like they come from a similar culture or language for the people who come from the same place. In a place where different cultures mix, you can have a mix of names, but names generally mean something.

If you’re Tolkien, you invent a language, then come up with names that mean something in that language. If you’re not that hardcore, you pick names from the culture you’re roughly basing your culture on, and then tinker with them a bit to make them more “fantasy.” Or you can just find names that sound “fantasy” to you and throw them together. That tends to be Celtic or Norse names in most American-written fantasy, and that’s a lot of what I seem to have done in my earlier pass at this story. But I find myself cringing at some of the names I used before, so I want different names.

I did do a name brainstorming session and assigned names to things, but decided that I didn’t like them. When I can’t remember what name goes with which person or place, that’s a sign they don’t fit. I’m hoping that as I write and get a better sense of the world and its people, I’ll have a better idea of names that fit and I can fill those in during the next draft.

Meanwhile, I’ve reached the part that used to be the beginning of this book, some scenes I’ve written so many times that I could probably write them out from memory, but now they’ve changed drastically based on different backstories and story concepts, so I have the new version overlapping the old version in my head, and I’m seeing things very differently than I did when I was in my early 20s. In a sense, I’m mourning the loss of the old version because there was a lot I liked about it — obviously, if this story has haunted me all this time — but then I’m also seeing it come to much more vivid life in a way that makes a lot more sense. The new version will eventually take over the old one in my head, but I’ll still remember that first one fondly because it’s been with me so long.

writing, fantasy

Making New Worlds

Since the book I’m currently working on started from a very old idea, I’ve been having to flesh out what was actually an underdeveloped world, and trying to figure out what that world looks like has made me really think about worldbuilding.

Since the only world we know is the one we live in, we naturally tend to base our imaginary worlds on aspects of our world. How close the imaginary world is to our world depends on the author. Even a really different world is probably going to be at least partially based on or inspired by something in our world.

Traditional “secondary world” fantasy (in other words, an imaginary world rather than an alternate history of our world) is generally set in a quasi-medieval European society. I’m not sure where that convention got started. Maybe it comes from fairy tales, which are always in the “long ago.” Or maybe Arthurian legends had something to do with it, especially during the Gothic Revival trend of the Victorian era, with the idealized depiction of the Middle Ages that was popular in art of that time. There was the sense that this was a better, purer time, with chivalry, and all that.

The Lord of the Rings, which is sometimes considered the start of the modern fantasy genre, is actually all over the map, timewise. The hobbits are essentially Edwardian English country gentry. They have that idealized pastoral life and even that attire. That waistcoat and suit coat look wasn’t just an invention of the movies. There are references in the books to waistcoats and buttons — things you wouldn’t have found in a medieval setting. But then the human and elf societies come across as closer to fairy tale medieval.

Anyway, medieval-ish Europe has been the basic traditional fantasy setting, though the genre is now expanding a lot, incorporating elements from other cultures and time periods. How closely these fantasy settings adhere to any actual history or culture is up to the author. Purists may try to stick as closely as possible to the clothing, culture, and technology of the specific place and time they’re basing their world on. You’re not going to find potatoes — something brought back from the New World — in this kind of world if that world is based on Europe before the 1600s. These authors may be meticulous about accurately representing the cultures they’re using as the basis for their worlds, even if it’s not actually presented as that culture. Sometimes it’s really obvious which culture an author is basing their world on, even if the author isn’t being that meticulous. I’ve read several secondary world fantasies that involve a fierce, warlike culture of mostly redhaired people who wear plaid, talk like “I dinna ken, ye wee lassie,” and probably live on the northern border. Or as I call it, Not!Scotland. There are a lot of Not!Lands in fantasy. It may not be overt, but you can figure out what the various cultures are supposed to be.

Others may figure that if it’s another world, anything goes. They can pick the clothing they like, change it up, throw in different kinds of technology that’s advanced at different rates, mix and match cultures, and move things around to create something fairly new. There may be whiffs of Not!Lands that give you a hint of what might have been the inspiration, but there’s probably a lot that doesn’t come from those places.

The really tricky thing for writers is that a lot of readers assume that your cultures are Not!Lands, whether or not they are, and they’ll expect you to have represented the way that land is in our world accurately in your imaginary world. Writers get angry e-mails from readers about what they got wrong in their totally imaginary world. Frequently, they’ve guessed wrong about what the writer based that culture on. I will confess that it does kind of throw me out of a story when potatoes show up in a quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and I have to remind myself that this is another world. Potatoes may grow naturally on that continent. The potato-growing continent might be a lot closer. The Not!Vikings might have made it farther south in their New World and brought potatoes back to their continent a lot sooner.

I’m having to deal with all of this in writing now because I’m doing my first true secondary world (unless you count the portal world of Spindled). Last year, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding to create a setting for a series of books I’m still developing, and I think I went a bit overboard in trying to make it fit rigidly in the time period I chose to base it on. I’d picked a period when I liked the women’s clothing and some aspects of the men’s clothing, but there were also things I didn’t want to use about men’s styles in that era, and I had to remind myself that I was making it all up. It’s my world. I can make it go however I want to.

The book I’m working on now keeps trying to turn into a western. It’s that kind of terrain in part of the story, and there’s a small town that the loner hero arrives in. My mental imagery of how they’re dressed is closer to western than medieval, and yet there’s a lot of medieval in the structure of the society. I was struggling with the back and forth, then realized I didn’t have to pick one or the other. This doesn’t have to be an alternate history of the Old West in the United States. It can be a European quasi-medieval world with a western flavor. Heavy boots and twill trousers are a lot more practical in that setting than doublet and hose. The guy dressed kind of like a cowboy can have a sword belt instead of a gun belt. I’m not sure how much of this will actually make it into the book. It’s mostly an aesthetic, my mental images, and I don’t know if the way I describe it will give the same mental image to readers, but I think having this in mind might make my world a little different from the generic quasi-medieval European fantasy world. The important thing is that there be an internal consistency to the world that makes sense.


Recent Viewing

I finally got around to getting Disney+, and I’m going to have a lot of watching to do. There were a lot of things I was interested in seeing, but the first thing I ended up watching was The Emperor’s New Groove because I was just in the mood for that sort of thing. It’s a hysterically funny movie with a lot of heart.

I’m currently catching up on The Mandalorian and really enjoying it. I like that it’s in relatively small bites. I’m not much of a binge watcher, but it’s nice to be able to watch about 40 minutes of something, take a break and watch another 40 minutes. The series gives me Firefly vibes, but then Firefly was basically the original Star Wars from Han Solo’s perspective. It’s all that space Western esthetic. In some respects, this show is like Have Gun, Will Travel in space.

I like the idea of the tough guy who has a strong moral code that keeps causing him trouble, and I especially like when a guy like that ditches everything to protect a child. I’m almost done with the first season, and it’s going to be sad when I run out of episodes.

Meanwhile, I found an interesting fantasy movie on Amazon last month. I’d put it in my watchlist as potential “Fantasy Cheese,” but when looking for something to watch, the reviews for it really intrigued me because it sounded very different from what I expected. The movie is I Am Dragon, and instead of being the kind of Fantasy Cheese that used to show on the SciFi channel on Saturday nights, it’s a Russian fantasy/romance that’s sort of a Beauty and the Beast story, but with dragons. It’s in Russian with subtitles (the reviews said to avoid the dubbed version because the voice acting is terrible, while you get the real emotion hearing the original performances and reading the subtitles), and is beautifully filmed and acted. There are some gorgeous visuals.

It’s set in very early Russia (back when it was still essentially a Viking land — yeah, the original Rus were Vikings). The people have to make offerings to a dragon, sending maidens in white out into a lake in boats and singing the song to summon the dragon that will come pick one to take. The betrothed of the chosen maiden sets out to slay the dragon. The dragon is no longer a problem, but some bits of the ritual make their way into wedding traditions. Generations later, a descendant of the dragonslayer is marrying a spoiled, shallow princess, and he wants to honor his heritage by doing the full ritual — and then a dragon shows up. Oops. The movie follows this princess and what happens when she finds herself a prisoner on the dragon’s island and meets a mysterious fellow prisoner. There’s a nice character growth arc as she finds inner strength and turns out to be pretty clever. It’s definitely a romance with not a lot of action, but if you like romance with your fantasy, character-based stories, pretty people (a rather hot guy who seldom wears a shirt), and are willing to read subtitles, this one is worth a watch. I might even end up watching this one again, just to look at the pretty. The way they film the ritual that summons the dragon is really beautiful and evocative.

I think I’m going to attempt to get into the Marvel movies. I’ve seen the original Captain America and wanted to follow his story, but there’s a lot to get through to set up the other movies where he appears. I’ll try it in small doses. I have very mixed feelings about superhero movies. I like the characters and am intrigued by the character side of things — how they get powers, how they deal with that transformation, the moral and ethical dilemmas, handling the secret identities, the clash between the secret identity and the real identity (and which is real?), etc. But most of these movies devolve into people running around and hitting each other, and then I get bored. So we’ll see how this goes. It’ll take me forever to get through all these movies at the rate I watch. I’ve seen suggested viewing orders that include everything, including the TV series, and I’ve seen some lists of only the ones that are critical to following the main story. I may start with the “critical” ones and fill in later if I’m interested.


Fun Fantasy Worlds

One reason I wanted to do my deep dive into fantasy this winter was that I was looking to recapture some of the wonder I had when I first discovered the genre. I remembered wanting to crawl into the books and visit places like Narnia and Middle Earth, and it’s been a long time since I felt that way. I wondered if it was just because of being an adult, experiencing the difference between being 11 and being all grown up and aware of practical things like indoor plumbing, electricity, good beds, and not having Evil Overlords constantly trying to kill you.

I found in rereading The Lord of the Rings that I do still have that sense of wonder. I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to join in the quest, but I’d love to hang out at places like Rivendell. I’m quite certain they’ve got good beds and have figured out things that work like electricity and indoor plumbing.

But now I’m wondering why I so seldom get that feeling from the fantasy worlds in more recent books, and I suspect that on some level, maybe we’ve (fantasy authors) become too good at worldbuilding. When the world is so fully planned out that you’ve worked out not only the magic but also the political and economic systems and cultural interactions, is there much room left for wonder? I keep seeing Tolkien on lists of “hard” worldbuilding, but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, he has detailed histories and created entire languages, but I’d argue that what’s in the books is pretty “soft.” The magic is really nebulous. There’s only a vague sense of what magic can do, who can do it, and how it works. There’s definitely no economic or political system of note (in fact, if you think too much about it, the economics don’t work at all). There’s a lot that remains totally unexplained. There’s a rich backstory and a lot of poetry in made-up languages, but that’s the extent of the worldbuilding. That leaves Middle Earth as a bit of a blank canvas. Readers have a lot of room to fill it in to suit themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of critiques of the worldbuilding in the Narnia books, mostly that there’s no consistency. Figures from Greek mythology are right there with things from northern Europe, and throw in Father Christmas and a lamppost, and none of it fits. But I think that’s actually the entire point of Narnia. It’s the ultimate fantasy world, full of all the things a fantasy/fairy tale/mythology reader would want to run into in a magical world.

Basically, it’s the fantasy version of Neverland. Neverland is a bizarre amalgamation of all the things a boy from that time period would have read about in the fiction (pulp or otherwise) of that day. There were pirates, of course, because authors like Robert Louis Stevenson had popularized them. And there were “Indians,” which were staples of pulp novels, plus Buffalo Bill had brought his Wild West show to London. Throw in some mermaids which, if you want to get Freudian, are the perfect women for boys of the age when they’re fascinated enough to want to look but not quite ready to touch, and it’s basically a heaven for a pre-teen boy of the late 1800s/early 1900s who’s read a lot of adventure stories and wants to have all the adventures.

I imagine Narnia was Lewis’s idea of a dream world, with all the things he’d read about existing in one place, with talking animals, naiads and dryads, unicorns, giants, witches, and dragons. And, what the heck, Father Christmas, too. If you’re going to visit one fantasy world, Narnia would be a good choice because it’s all there.

Have we lost some of that wonder and fun when we spend so much time on creating coherent worlds that have consistent cultures with religious, political, and economic systems? If the world feels too real, does it lose something as a fantasy world? I’m still pondering this question and how it might apply to my writing.

I’m sure there are other factors at work. With the popularity of “grimdark” fiction, the worlds aren’t really places we’d want to physically visit. Being in Westeros would probably suck. It’s fun to read about, but I wouldn’t want to go there. It would not be a fun place, even outside the events of the story. There are a lot of fantasy books I read, and even in my mind’s eye they’re gray and brown, full of mud and dirt. Yeah, that’s realistic. The real Middle Ages wouldn’t be a treat to people from our time. Some of the clothes are pretty, and castles look cool, but that life would be pretty unpleasant from our perspective, even if we lucked out into an upper-class life. But do “realistic” and “fantasy” have to go together? Should they?

I’ll have to dig back through my bookshelves and memories to think of other fantasy worlds I’ve loved and wanted to visit. And I’ll have to consider these things as I build my own worlds. It may be tricky finding the balance between a place where things can happen where there’s something the heroes need to do, and a place I’d want to visit.

Do you have any favorite fantasy worlds you’d want to visit?