Thursday, 19 September 2013

Reflecting on Challenge

So, it's mid-September, and where am I at with my goal? Not even close.

I completed one round of edits on the (still) incomplete draft, and picked out problem areas that needing smoothing out. I took the draft from 111 pages to 131 pages, which isn't a whole heck of a lot, but it's still a respectable addition to the novel.

So what happened?

All the way back in May (when I was in a funk from getting rejected for multiple jobs), I decided that heck yes I was gonna finish that ever-elusive first novel! I was gonna finish it and edit the ever-loving god out of it and it was going to be spectacular. Was I possibly trying to prove to people who didn't care that I, yes I, was actually better off without working for them?

Maybe a little.

I started working nearly full-time in retail in June, and my personal life suddenly got a lot busier, and I let my project slip away. I haven't stopped thinking about it though, it's still kicking around in my head, waiting. To lay it all out, I want to talk about the challenges that made it easier for me to put off finishing the novel, because I encountered issues I hadn't realised would come up.

1) I hadn't actually read the story from beginning to end (with large plot gaps that needed filling, but regardless) until I sat down to edit it, and then suddenly all sorts of things started jumping out at me that I hadn't realised would be a problem until I did. Obviously, this is supposed to happen, but having all of these problematic things appear on top of trying to fill in narrative gaps was overwhelming. I tried to edit and write at the same time, which everyone will tell you, is one of the worst possible things you can try and do.

2) I started over thinking elements of the story. This ties back into the editing/writing at the same time issue, but it's slightly different. I began to mentally question every facet of the story, from characters to events to overarching themes and then became stuck in a quagmire of doubt and half-baked ideas that didn't amount to much. I lost the over-arching idea of what I wanted to accomplish trying to wade out of the mess I'd created.

3) The reason there had been narrative gaps in the first place were because I hadn't wanted to write the (necessary but slow) scenes in between the exciting drama scenes. The scenes weren't shiny and sexy, but they were important, so I did my best to slog through them, and along the way made them interesting in their own way. I still haven't finished filling in the narrative gaps as we speak, but I want to keep tackling them until I am satisfied with them and sure they won't put people to sleep.

4) I started flirting with other ideas, for other narratives that were new and sparkly and had promises of being easy and fun to write that made my current project seem....dull. As you shouldn't cheat on relationships, cheating on writing projects is equally as terrible an idea.

So what's next?

Well, I haven't given up. I'm still going to put in time to finish this novel. I'm not putting a date on it though, because deadlines I set myself don't actually do much to motivate me. I'm also going to attempt NaNoWriMo again this year in November, (with a shiny new plot), to get myself back into a writing groove. I'm going to keep writing blog posts of random things that occur to me, and I'm going to keep writing.

Because if nothing else, I will always be a writer, even if I'm not an author.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

"My Name is Inigo Montoya."

After doing a lot of practicing this weekend, I thought I might give my two cents about writing fight scenes, both medieval-style and renaissance-style, when it's a one-on-one scenario between two trained fighters.

What could I possibly know about this? Surprisngly, a lot. I've been doing historical swordplay for awhile now, and have done full-speed full-contact sparring (albeit with blunt steel weapons, not sharps), mainly longsword/bastard sword and rapier. I've also witnessed full-armor sparring, again with blunt steel weapons, but legit kits. This by no means makes me an expert on anything, but it does offer me a few insights.

I'm going to put aside the mechanics of how to describe actions, and balancing technique vs. story, and instead offer some food for thought on a general level.

1) Fighters will have some level of fear going into a combat situation, unless they are actively trying to die. Having someone trying to skewer you on a sharp steel weapon is scary, and historically, even a minor flesh wound could have become infected and caused an unpleasant death. So, for fighters with a wish to stay alive into their old age, survival instincts would dictate a physiological response of fear. How they deal with that fear depends on their personality, their experience, their training, what's at stake, etc etc.

2) Sparring is an adrenaline rush. That physiological response of fear I was talking about? Yeah, it causes adrenaline spikes. That comes with lots of fun effects like not feeling hits as much, getting into the zone, and reacting by instinct more than by thought. A character could conceivably be an adrenaline junkie, and get into  fights just for the high it gives, much in the same way some people are into extreme sports. They might also make rash decisions post-fight, when they're still riding the adrenaline and not using the analytic part of their brain.

3) There is a zone for sparring. It's not exactly having a blank mind, but more of an intense awareness of your physical self, and your surroundings. Finding that place is easier or harder for different people, because it's really easy to get distracted by other concerns, or over-thinking the fight. Sure, sizing up the opponent is a great idea, analyzing their movements, all of those good things require thinking, but I like to call it "back of the mind" thinking. While that sort of combat analysis is happening, the blank awareness dominates the main thought processes.

4) Different people have different fighting styles. Even if they've trained under the same master, and know all of the same moves, different people move differently. Some people will use brute strength, some will use perfect technique, some will be quick and agile, some will use feints, some will have an amazing sense of timing and measure. Whether any of these will always win against another, I have no idea, but I do know that it changes the dynamic of the fight a lot.

5) Continuing on the thought of fight dynamics, level of training or experience changes the fight a lot. Someone with little or no training will flail wildly; while this isn't effective, it is difficult to deal with because it is unpredictable, and can result in a lucky hit getting in. Someone with decades of training will probably move with a fluidity others can only envy, and they're challenging because their instincts have been honed far more than their opponents, and their "oh shit!" reactions will be more likely to be the correct reaction than yours.

6) Swords level the playing field. Put a sword in someone's hand, and suddenly the fact that they are a 6'7" muscular giant, or 5'0" and lean makes a whole lot less difference. They both have advantages and disadvantages to their height/weight/muscle to fat ratio, and one will not automatically triumph over the other. It will simply change their reactions to their opponents to best use their own strengths and exploit their opponents weaknesses.

7) Fighting in armor is hard. While it isn't exactly heavy when you put it on, you can feel it weighing on your limbs. I tried on a chainmail shirt, and while it wasn't heavy, it actually felt like it was constricting my lungs, and it became harder to breathe. This means that people in armor will want to finish off their opponents as quickly as possible, with the least amount of energy possible. So, hour-long fights? Not going to happen, unless their armor is enchanted to be light as a feather. It is also damn hard to find the weak spots in armor, which means that there will be a lot of scuffling and hits that have no effect until a weak spot is exploited (armpit, under the helm, etc..). The easiest way to get someone is to knock them off their feet and then finish them off from there. Having a back-up weapon like a dagger is exceptionally useful in this situation.

If I think of anything else, I will add it, but as some final thoughts, if you want to find out what holding a real steel weapon feels like, find your local western martial arts group (if you're in a major city, there's probably one near you), and if that isn't possible, there are a lot of historical manuscripts from the Italian, German, French, English, etc... traditions available online, from various eras, with translations to English done by some dedicated people. Research is your friend!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Ode to Overcoming Expectations

I think the main theme of this blog is dealing with internal struggle as an author, and not on the part of characters. Maybe I tend to think about everything too much, but my story as a writer is not complete with my story as dealing with a multitude of mental roadblocks.

Today, I learned to let go.

It had nothing to do with writing, but a challenge I referred to a few blog posts back about swordplay. I hadn't met it for two days, not because I was busy, but because of my own expectations for myself. I had made it my goal to re-familiarize myself with a style of swordplay that I haven't practiced in many, many months, and although my body remembers the actions, my muscles no longer have the stamina for the particular actions required of them.

This was depressing on a number of levels, and for the past two days, I wanted to simply give up, put it off for another day. I had expected that I would have lost some strength, I had accepted that, but I hadn't realized quite how far it'd gone.

Obviously, I was conscious of the fact that I could return to my previous level of ability with practice, but my expectations were that I should be at that ability right this very moment.

It took me until today to shake off that expectation, and let it go. I had to accept that no, I'm not as fit as I was before, but that I can still work towards it.

This, I think, is still something that I need to work on for writing. I expect every sentence to come out perfect the first time, and get frustrated when they don't, so I start editing and writing at the same time which just makes me get stuck, become apathetic, or produce very little result for my effort. When I get there, I think it will be glorious.

So, here's to overcoming self-expectations, one at a time!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Review of Enchantress by James Maxwell

I've been on a reading kick, so have another review! I give it five out of five stars, based on the Goodreads ranking scale.

* * *
I want to start by saying that the moment I finished this novel I immediately went onto Amazon and purchased the sequel. 

The author has created an expansive world in Enchantress, and fleshed out the setting to the point where you can picture it in your mind. Everything is internally consistent, and the system of magic is particularly well thought out. Anything that needs explained is explained, and I liked that the author thought out how the extensive use of magic would affect the growth and use of standard technology, or even change it completely, such as negating the use of beasts of burden.

There are many separate threads of narrative that end up coming together beautifully at the end. The characters were flawed, and didn't necessarily always do the right thing, and they experienced personal growth. I really enjoyed Ella's blossoming as a character, and Killian's story line.

Another excellent point is the battle scenes: while there is perhaps an unrealistic number of soldiers and battles fought in comparison to what history tells us, they were well-written and intense without becoming eye-glazingly long. The sequences involving the bladesingers were excellent, and there was the right combination of describing technique/skill with a focus on the internal dialogue of a fighter.

To be sure, there were some cliches in the story line. There were some wise Obi-Wan figures, some mystical woods people, some warrior tribes people, orphans who find out that they're really nobility, and some minor conflicts that resolved themselves relatively abruptly. I am happy to skim over these facts, as they don't detract from the storytelling. The only point of irritation I have was the meticulous descriptions by the author of naked female bodies, repeatedly. They were all flawless and perfect, and served very little point to the plot other than to be admired by male characters. 

Aside from these few points, Enchantress is a fantastic read, and I recommend it to all lovers of a good fantasy story

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Review of The Light Keepers by Mande Matthews

This blog has now surpassed 300 pageviews! I'm more excited than a duck in a pond being tossed breadcrumbs.

There is also one person out there still using Netscape. I feel like you, whoever you are, are a time-traveler from the 90's finding out what's going to happen in the future. I salute you, Netscape user, for checking out this blog, despite the uselessness of the information that you can take back in time with you.

In other news, The Brightest Night is sitting pretty at 130 pages. I'm in a good writing space, so hopefully will get some more pages done tonight.

You lovely folk also get a book review courtesy of yours truly. The novella in question is The Light Keepers, and a preview of the next book Bonded, by author Mande Matthews. I give it two stars out of five, based on the Goodreads scale.

* * *

I was browsing the Kindle e-books, and stumbled across this. Wanting to read something fantastical, it looked the part, so I downloaded it and read it. The particular version also came with several chapters of Bonded, the first book of the ShadowLight Saga, and this review will address both.

I wasn't really expecting all that much from the read, and that's essentially what I ended up getting, not that much.

The Good: The premise of the story is fairly interesting, and I was intrigued enough to keep reading. Astrid (main character) has some interesting internal conflict, and it was kind of interesting to have a narrator who was mute, and thus not able to fully exert herself on her surroundings. There's some really lovely descriptions of setting, and the fact that it was a pseudo-Viking society becomes pretty clear quite early on. Various of the setting were quite original, such as the song of the Mother, and the idea of shadowalking. The villain (even if he doesn't get properly introduced) was pretty creepy, although the sexual tension...really doesn't make sense. Yes, the dark side is seductive, but...why literally?

The Bad: While I haven't read the entire saga, I'm pretty sure my predictions for the ending are spot on. It's a variant of a plot we've read multiple times before, although I will give it kudos for doing it in a new and different way. I have a basic understanding of Norse mythos and Viking culture, but a lot of concepts brought up were unfamiliar to me and could have used a little bit more introduction. The use of nei for no and ja for yes irked me. I understand that it was to establish the foreign setting, but if all the characters are speaking the same language, the necessity is gone.

The Ugly: There was a whole lot of action and angst, but there was no down time to digest, and a lot of internal conflict resolved itself incredibly quickly. A lot of relationships were established, but rather than being shown, were described point blank. I came away from the prequel and preview of the next book feeling unfulfilled, because there was a lot of stuff going on, but it lacked substance. 

I'm not going to touch the fight scenes, because they do what they're supposed to do for the plot and establishing characters.

Will I keep reading Bonded? Probably not. If you want something fluffy that is a quick read, then you may enjoy this book. If you want something to sink your teeth into, this book is not for you.


Friday, 7 June 2013

Keeping the Moles in Line

Many, many years ago, I read the first chapter of a book that had the narrator describing how her emotions were like moles. The particular narrator was focused on the point that she seemed to have less moles than other people, or perhaps a different kind of mole. [Either way, for the life of me, I can't remember the title of the book or the author, so if you know it, please enlighten me.]

Am I about to start talking about metaphors? Not even remotely.

I want to talk about writing through a variety of different emotional states.

To start, a quote from GoT's Syrio Forel, because the Braavosi is amazing:

"Good. Trouble is the perfect time to train.
When you're dancing in the meadow with your dolls and kittens,
this is not when fighting happens."

I'm sure you can guess where I'm going with this. Since ancient Greece, artists of all kinds have talked about getting inspiration from muses in the completion of their work. Others have removed themselves from reality through the use of drugs and alcohol to help get into a state where they were able to write. It would be wonderful if suddenly rainbows rained down upon me and showered me with the energy and inspiration to write a complete novel from start to finish in a glorious burst of textual orgasm. In reality, that's never going to happen.

There are, obviously, moods better suited to writing, and inspiration does strike on occasion. But, as all writers are human being, we experience the full range of emotions, from despair to anger to ecstasy. Depending on what you're writing, some of these might actually be helpful to channel onto the page. However, there is one particular mole that is difficult to write with: apathy. It's the apathy of not wanting to do anything, the apathy of post-modern existential ennui that makes everything seem pointless, the apathy of questioning the value of pursuing your writing.

I wish I could tell you that I have a magical remedy for apathy. Unfortunately, I don't. Having been wrestling with it the past few days, the only thing I can say, is that writing with apathy is difficult, but doable. If you can ignore the voice of Nietzche talking about an abyss and put some words on a page, the willful act of creation  slowly drives the apathy mole away, until it goes back to its dark lair. 

So shoo, apathy mole, be gone!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Importance of Socks

I was thinking about the role of the author's emotional state and its effect on writing, and was going to make a comparison to martial arts, but then I got distracted by my socks.

What's so special about my socks, you ask? Well, they are black and neon yellow. I have an entire collection of socks that are black with accents of neon color. I absolutely love each and every single one of those socks. Why? Because they're fun, they're cheerful, and they make me happy when I wear them.

Last night, I was having a discussion with a friend about suits. We were commenting on the fact that if a suit is well-made, and fits well, it makes the wearer look fantastic. We then drifted into a conversation on how when we wear suits, we feel kick-ass and confident, because we know we look good.

I think, to a certain extent, everyone wears a certain kind of clothing to get into a particular mental space. Wearing comfy lounge pants makes me feel relaxed and cozy, wearing a dress makes me feel pretty, and so on and so forth. As much as our clothes can make us feel safe or sexy or competent, there's also an inverse relationship. If I'm tired, I will probably put minimal effort into my outfit, whereas if I'm excited/nervous, I will put more effort into what I'm wearing.

While perhaps putting this much thought into what your characters are wearing would be overkill, if they have certain things they do with their clothes, it can reflect their personality, social standing, emotional state, etc...

For example, I always intended Riley to be a little bit ambiguous gender wise. She has a very neutral name, wears what would normally be designated as "male" clothing, and has short hair. To me, all of this is a wall presented to other people, to make her unapproachable. She wants to be tough, strong, independent, and so she wears what she perceives to be more practical clothing. (In writing this, I'm wondering if I should have more people do double-takes when they meet her.)

Kael I wanted to be a lot softer of a character, personality wise. He's very bookish, and was never much for violence or practicing combative styles. He wears more relaxed outfits, although it's all well made and decorated and what not because he's a prince. Mostly, this manifests in his habit of not wearing shoes when walking around outside. If he's travelling, then yes, he will wear shoes, but if he's at home and wants to walk around in the garden, off go his shoes. I also imagine him spending a lot of time indoors without shoes, because it's just more comfortable for him. It's a rejection of social expectations of his birthright, and also speaks to his desire to be comfortable, rather than to follow what is socially acceptable.

Minor characters also express personality in their choice of clothing, or in their lack of choice of clothing. While I don't advocate judging people on appearances, you can learn a lot about them and where they're at based on how they present themselves. It certainly is worth thinking about.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Fear Not!

This blog has surpassed 200 pageviews. Yay! Thank you everyone who has taken the time to follow my writing journey.

Speaking of writing journey, fear not, I have not abandoned it! The past few days have been busy with other things, and to be fair part of that has been procrastinating. Filling in plot gaps from bullet points is about as exciting as it sounds. I know where I start, I know where I end, but have to spin out the thread to get from one to the other. There are some dramatic scenes included in the particular plot gap I'm working on, but I'm moving there at a snail's pace. But, slow and steady wins the race, right?

At this point, The Brightest Night as expanded from 111-ish pages to 128 pages, which is a fairly big leap. I think, in finished form, it will probably end up being around 200 pages, which is a respectable sized book.

This does make me wonder how some authors can churn out several hundred page volumes on a regular basis. The entire process would be exhausting, and then it would be incredibly difficult to keep track of everything, and you'd need to write extensive notes to yourself anytime you introduced a person, animal, thing, or idea that comes back later in the plot, or even if it doesn't, just in case it does. The thought of it is mind boggling, to say the least.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Putting the Time In

I am participating in a 30 for 30 challenge in the month of June. It's 30 mins of sword fighting related activity for 30 days. Oh yes, that means doing 30 mins of mental/physical/spiritual workout for an entire month. I am already tired, and it is only Day 1.

Apparently, 30 days is what you need to form a habit. If you do something for 30 days, it becomes habit, and so you do it because you want to, rather than because you have to. (If only practicing piano was like that...I still shudder at the thought!) It also feeds into the 10,000 hours until mastery, which is an interesting theory. Essentially, you need to do something for 10,000 hours to become a master at it. This is different from having a skill; if you can do something 3 times properly, it is a skill, which means that even things like spraining your ankle or acquiring other bodily injuries can technically be skill. The 10,000 hours to mastery goes beyond that, into the idea of focusing solely on a skill for that entire time, until you know it inside and out and could probably do it in your sleep or while skydiving or battling zombies.

I started watching an address by Ray Bradbury at a writer's convention. This one to be specific. It was too long for me to pay attention to the entire thing, but closer to the beginning he offers some interesting advice. He tells his listeners not to write a novel, but instead to start by writing short stories. He advises that they should try to write a short story every week, so that by the end of one year they will have 52 short stories. It's the idea of putting in your 10,000 hours; not all of the short stories will be good, but you will have put in the time and effort to write them, developing a personal style, and learning how not to write. A second point he makes, is that his audience should read 1 short story, 1 poem, and 1 non-fiction essays a night for 1000 nights.

Kind of a strange suggestion right? Actually, it's not at all. Because by reading what other people have written before you, you can figure out what you like, what you don't like, and what actually works. You can learn to pick out beauty in a phrase, and to make your prose more poetic. You can also expand your mind, so that all of the things you learn from reading an essay can filter into your work, enriching it. So his advice is actually really poignant.

Writing well requires that time be invested into the effort. While some innate sense of story is helpful, anyone can be an amazing writer, if they put in their 10,000 hours.

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Mark of Good Governance

When talking about governance, and by that I mean the provision of public goods (aka stop signs, libraries, schools, bridges, etc...) by a figure of authority, generally a hallmark of good governance in a developed country is a lack of potholes and cracks in the roads.

If this there aren't potholes and cracks, it means that a) power distribution between different levels of government is effective b) the bureaucracy is efficient c) money is being allocated effectively, and d)the people's needs are being met. Harvey Milk, the legendary district supervisor of San Francisco, prioritized the filling in of potholes and the placement of stop signs in his term, because he understood that that was people wanted, and what people needed.

I have driven a car through the equivalent of a tank trench. It was an extremely unpleasant experience, which I would have preferred to avoid.

What does this have to do with writing? I think you can guess. Plot holes. Oh yes, I'm looking at you, plot holes. Those nasty little buggers that leave you perplexed, that smack you in the face, that are the easy way out.

Good writing is very similar to good governance, in that a writer needs to govern their plot. The characters need to develop, deal with their conflict (internal or external), and find some resolution or die. The setting needs to be appropriate to the story, be thought out well enough that there aren't any jarring discrepancies (what, I thought you said the house had two bedrooms and was painted blue?!?), and be rich enough to support the characters and the plot. The plot needs to follow some sort of logic: obviously many writers break the mold, but generally there should be a rise and fall of action. There should be tension, and relief, and an avoidance of deus ex machina solutions. The writing has to be clear, eloquent, vivid, and whatever other adjective you can think of, and have good flow and great timing.

Plot holes are when one of these things falls apart, or is left untended. Ignored too long, they get bigger as they are driven over, until the entire section of road needs to be replaced. A sign of good writing is the ability to identify plot holes and patch them, or repave the road, or construct the road in such a way that there are no plot holes to begin with.

A challenge, if I've ever seen one.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Teasing the Audience

This post is a lot less flirtatious than the title suggests. It is also less of a lesson, than a description of what this post is trying to accomplish.

Oh yes. That means, I'm teasing you! Have a letter written by a side-character to the main characters, as his final goodbye.

* * *

Dear Riley and Kael,
This letter will be the last you know of me. I am dying. I have been dying for a long time. Finally, my fear of death without knowing who I am has overcome my fear of knowing who I am. I spent decades here, and there are volumes of text that I dedicated my time too, that no one will know I wrote, or painstakingly transcribed. I'm afraid of dying as a nobody. It's been so long that I don't know if my memories will even come back. I never tried to get them back, because I'd come here out of fear to make a deal, and so I never wanted to know what I was afraid of.
You may be wondering why I am writing this to you. I don't know. Maybe I want to know that at least two people will remember me, even if they don't know me. Or maybe I want to be a lesson to you both. Don't ever become complacent. Fight for your memories back. If Delia is correct, and Riley is one of the last remnants of the Pelagian Empire, then I have to believe you both must have some purpose that needs to be fulfilled. When your contract is up, please, leave. I may never see either of you again, but it will kill me some comfort in my final hours to think that you will not give into the fear as I did. Leave if you can.
Your friend,

Emil
* * *
Want to know what in the seven hells is going on? Well, you are just going to have to stick around and wait until The Brightest Night is finished.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Peculiarities of Music and Writing

I'm one of those people who actually concentrates better with music. It allows me to ignore ambient sounds, and focus entirely on what is in front of me. The effect is amplified when I have ear buds or headphones on, because I exist in my own sound bubble. I've had some people be confused this, because they get distracted by the music. I groove with it.

Now, the most obvious explanation is to use music to emphasize the tone of the piece I'm working on. If I'm working on something serious, perhaps Mozart's Jupiter Symphony might be appropriate. If I'm working on something melancholic, some Fleet Foxes, or if something happy and cheerful is needed, Katrina and the Waves "Walking on Sunshine".

I am an oddity. I don't listen to music that is necessarily the same tone of what I'm working on. Sure, sometimes I will align my music with my writing, but most of the time, if the music gets me into a groove, it can be the exact opposite in tone and still work.

I wrote several academic papers last December, listening to German Christmas Carols and Auld Lang Syne ad nauseum (to the point where you might believe that I should know the lyrics to the latter. I don't). If I tried to listen to something else, the farthest I was able to venture was other traditional Christmas Carols. I'm not even particularly fond of Christmas Carols, but they were the only thing that kept me focused enough to slog through my papers. I wrote a paper last month listening to one single song: Bastille ft. Ella -No Angels. Was it at all relevant to my topic? Not in the least.

Working on The Brightest Night, I've listened to club music, boogie/funk/disco, atmospheric, folk, rock, pop, and everything and anything in between. While I still get distracted as much as the next person, it's not the extent that I would be if I didn't have my jams playing.

It leads me to wonder, if music helps set the tone in film, what role does it play during the writing process?

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Bringing Characters to Life

If you look up, you will now find a fabulous new link to Concept Art!

When I'm reading, I don't really create a mental image of characters. I will pick up on vague things, like this one is blonde and that one has olive-toned skin, but I don't actually sit down and wonder exactly what I think the character should look like. This is one reason I never get bothered by actor choices in movie adaptations of books I've read, because I'm perfectly content to be given someone else's interpretation of the character. After all, I have no stake in it, no vested interest.

When it comes to my own characters, this doesn't hold true. In most cases, I will draw them out before I create a worksheet for them, and they exist in my head in a fully-fleshed out form. Getting this image onto paper or screen is challenging, and doesn't necessarily work out, usually due to my own skill level and the difficulty of what I'm trying to attempt. However, yesterday, I was trying to iron out a historically-equivalent era to set The Brightest Night, and settled on early Medieval, except they have stirrups, which means they have hard-soled shoes. (On a side note, there's a fun argument that the invention of the stirrup led to the creation of knights, and since knights/horses are expensive, led to the feudal system.) I also decided that the spindle and horizontal loom had been invented, and that trade routes to other lands that produced silk and velvet had been established, to allow for greater diversity in pattern and material in clothing.

After establishing this, I went to my go-to doodle fuel: women's clothing. In this particular case, noble women. At some point I will figure out regional variations, but for the moment, enjoy my sketch:
At that point, I started  wondering if I should draw Riley and Kael. I've painted them before (some few blog posts back), and it was very, very close to what I imagine them to look like (except that Riley came out looking a lot older than I intended). So I tried. Again, it's not exactly what they look like in my head, but it's so close that I will say that it's them. 
 At some point I will start sketching male noble's fashion, middle-class fashions, and then the peasants. I'm also aiming to draw portraits of secondary characters, to fully flesh out all of them. This is, of course, in conjunction with actually writing!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Step One: Complete

As a fun fact, this blog has reached 100 pageviews! Yay!

So, after getting in a few hours of editing, I have done a complete read-through of my draft, and done the first round of edits. After nine days, it stands at 120 pages, with significant plot holes sketched in with bullet points, approximately 56,000 words of fantasy goodness. For a first draft, I'm pretty happy with it. I will be starting on filling in the plot holes in the next few days, and when that's done, I want to go back and address issues that came up when I was editing.

One of the main things I want to do is re-write the first chapter, because it makes no sense in a lot of ways, and I don't manage to introduce the concepts that I want to introduce. I also realize that the romance in the story line appears in all of five paragraphs, which does not do justice to the tension and relationship between Riley and Kael, and needs to be significantly expanded. This will also help me flesh out the magic system better, because it has rules in my mind.

There's a few details I need to solidify, like sigils and flags and rank structure for armed forces. I also need to unify the plot in terms of equivalent historical period. Currently it is floating in a semi-Victorian setting, except without the coming of industrialization. This is bothering me, so I will figure something else out. I have also realized that at no point do I ever describe anyone as wearing armor, despite the fact that army encampments feature prominently.

I'm feeling good about the process so far, and hoping that my willingness to work continues!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Story that Wasn't

I have a distinct lack of thoughts on writing today. Instead, I offer an excerpt of The Brightest Night, that you will never read in the final version. Before approaching the novel as a whole, I had written a scene, because it stuck out clearly in my mind and I had to write it out. I cannibalized some of it, mainly the dialogue, but a lot of it has been altered. Names, mainly, plot lines, character personalities. I wanted to explore the personalities of my two main characters, who are now named Riley and Kael, but had momentarily moonlighted as Riley and Kaleb. I wanted to explore the tension between them, which is also why I drew this:
But enough about me. Here's the story that could have been, but wasn't.
* * *

Kaleb paused in the doorway to the library, and his eyes went immediately to the small table in the center. There sat Riley, peering intently at one of her massive tomes that were filled with lettering that Kaleb couldn't decipher, even with his knowledge of ancient languages. A small wrinkle had formed between her pale brows from concentration, her lips were moving silently, and her fingers twitching in the air, as if pulling on invisible strings and rearranging them to a suitable pattern. She seemed completely oblivious to his presence, not looking up as she usually would at the sound of his footsteps on the tile floor. His skin prickled with energy; Kaleb knew that this meant she was practicing spellwork, which also meant she would be absolutely furious if he interrupted her.

He hesitated, weighing his need against her anger. His decision, however, was made for him, as Riley's fingers fluttered to the table, and her eyes became unfocused as she relaxed into her chair. It was now or never for Kaleb.

Summoning his resolve, he strode over to the table and planted his palms on its polished top, and leaned in towards Riley. Her gaze immediately snapped to him, and there was subtle tension in her shoulders, and the way her fingers curled on the table. Ignoring this, Kaleb stared her down for a good moment, before saying,

“You need to talk to the Fairy Godmother or whomever is incharge. I demand to be released immediately.”

Riley knit her fingers together in front of her, and stared at him back steadily. Her eyes, as were their habit, were swirling from blue to grey to green, and it was disconcerting to keep watching. He nearly looked away after a solid minute of holding her eyes, but instead blinked and kept it up. He needed this, oh he needed this.

“Well,” she said slowly, “isn't this a surprise. Little Kaleb is standing up for himself. Unfortunately, there is no leaving for you until some girl comes along and marries you. There's a contract and all. You'll probably be stuck here until you die. Sorry, better sit tight and get used to it.”

Kaleb grimaced. “You don't understand. Remember how I told you that I was kidnapped before waking up here? That should have annulled the contract immediately. Besides that, circumstances have changed. My two sisters have been captured and are being held for ransom; I need to get them back. My family may be noble, but we don't have the kind of payment they're asking for.”

Riley shrugged, and leaned back in her chair. “You have older brothers. Let them deal with it. Besides, the kidnappers don't really want a ransom, they want war. Your king can't be allowed to have his nobility threatened and intimidated. He can send someone.”

“So you're saying that you have no qualms over my sisters being killed because you were keeping me here? What kind of a woman are you?” He regretted his words instantly, as Riley's eyes glinted, and settled into a steel grey.

Her voice became dangerously soft and icy. “How dare you! If I had my way, I would never have even seen your face. You're lucky I didn't kill you the moment I laid eyes on you. I didn't make the contract, the Fairy Godmother did, and you had best remember that. As for your sisters, I will only say this once. I don't care about you, I don't care about your family, and I don't care about your kingdom. They can all go and throw themselves at the Goddess' feet and beg for her aid, for all I care.”

There was disgust in her voice, and it made his stomach churn. He let his gaze wander away, no longer able to meet the unyielding iron of her gaze. “Sorry for trying to do the right thing,” he muttered, “I thought you still had some trace of humanity left. I guess I was wrong; all spellcrafters are alike. Arrogant and uncaring.”

Without bothering to wait for her answer, he stormed out. If he had looked back over his shoulder, he would have seen Riley sitting in her chair frozen, an unfamiliar stunned look on her face, like someone had thrust a dagger into her belly and she couldn't quite believe it had just happened.

Kaleb spent the next week avoiding Riley by wandering the infinite garden paths, lefting himself get lost purposely to end up as far away from the house as he possibly could. When he got tired, he would find a comfortable spot to stretch out in the unnatural, eternal sun, and napped.

He was going to continue this new routine, when he happened to be walking past the room where Riley kept her communication mirror. He heard voices talking, and he paused, before pressing his ear to the door to hear better.

“...but Godmother, if its true that it was not his blood that signed the contract in his name, doesn't that make it void?” Riley was asking.

A sugary sweet voice replied, that Kaleb instinctively knew belonged to the Fairy Godmother. “Darling, this is a business I'm running here. I'd make sure that certain criteria had been met before accepting anyone into our Dragon Watch program. Can't have people complaining.”

“Does the signature need to be from a blood relative?” Riley insisted.

There was silence on the other end, and Kaleb wished he could see the Godmother's face. It was Riley who spoke again to break the silence. “You were forced into validating the contract, weren't you?”

Silence again. Kaleb itched to know the answer. Finally, the Godmother said, “Well, in any case, nothing to do now. Contract says he must be married to leave. If no one comes along to marry him, unfortunately, my hands are tied, he's stuck. Unless of course you agree to marry him.”

Riley inhaled sharply. “Never. You know that.”

“Yes dear, I know. I'm really sorry that I had to place him with you, it is dreadfully difficult to find reliable people like you to be my Dragons.”

“Well, there are very few people who are trying to stay hidden as I am.”

The Godmother laughed, her voice chimes and tinkles, “Yes, that is very true dear.”

Riley, hiding? Kaleb could barely conceive of the idea. I'd be terrified to meet whoever she's afraid of.

The Fairy Godmother continued. “The situation of his sisters is very unfortunate, it must be said. They've been captive for several weeks, and King Aden has declared war on Queen Mathilda and the Triple Crown Kingdom. Their armies haven't met yet, but it will be a massacre on both sides. I can't see his sisters surviving. Not that Kaleb would make a difference in the fight; useless son, from what I hear. His two older brothers are supposedly glad that he's out of the way, as he can't interfere with their plans....”

Kaleb turned away, his stomach twisting into knots. He walked to the dining room and gripped the back of one of the elaborately carved wooden chairs so hard that his knuckles were white and shaking. Of course Tristan and Luke would be pleased that I'm locked up somewhere. I bet they didn't even blink when they found out I'd been captured and then put into Dragon Watch. I always was the clumsy, weak, bookish younger brother than no one wanted around. He growled under his breath. Suzie and Beth are locked up, maybe in pain, and I'm stuck here. Worthless! Useless! Stupid wasted of space!

He pushed himself away from the chair in disgust. He spun around, intending to go outside, but was stopped by Riley leaning against the door frame with her arms crossed, an unreadable expression on his face. He wasn't in the mood to put up with her today. “What?” he snarled, “Come to look at the weakling son no one wants?”

“So you were eavesdropping, then.”

“Fat lot of good it did me! I learned nothing new, except for more questions about your past that you will never answer because you never talk about anything personal, and frankly, I'm starting not to care anymore anyways. If you're going to be a bitch, I'm done with playing nice and turning the other cheek. If you will please excuse me, I'm going to go feel sorry for myself somewhere you can't see me!” His anger had exploded outwards, and he had to fight back heated tears. Instead of Riley rising to his anger, her expression softened, and she held out her hands placatingly.

“Kaleb, I'm sorry.”

The anger that had been supporting him drained away with those three words, and left him empty. His knees buckled, and he fell to the cold tiles, unable to stop himself from sobbing. Pressing his face into the floor, he let the humiliation and fear that he had built up for years flow out, and congregate in the shallow valleys of the floor. After a moment, a warm hand was rubbing his back, cradling his head, holding him close. He sunk into Riley, despite everything there was between them, and wept until there were no more tears.

Void of everything, he lay still in Riley's arms, his eyes close, letting her tell him that everything would turn out alright, and hum snatches of a lullaby to him under her breath. Finally, the ground put itself back under his feet, and he picked himself up, pulling away from Riley and wiping his face on his sleeves.

Riley sat still, a kneeling statue, watching him, her eyes a dark blue-green. Feeling the first tinges of embarrassment, he couldn't meet her eyes. “It doesn't matter, anyways,” he said numbly, “I'm never going to leave this place. I should just forget everything.”

“You can never forget. No matter how much time passes. You can pretend, but deep down inside, you will know, you will remember, and you will feel this pain.”

“Then what would you have me do?”

“Lets start by teaching you how to fight.”

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Makings of Literary Greatness

I have a confession to make. In my English (and French) classes in high school, the second my teachers started talking about themes in novels, I rolled my eyes. I didn't care about deeper meanings or the way that an author had set up character interactions and used symbolism to make a point. All I cared about was the story, the plot, the narrative. I read voraciously, but I read shallowly. It explains why I have never been a rabid fan of classic literature, and why I didn't think too much into what I wrote. I think I have finally grown enough to appreciate the importance of theme and symbolism.

I think, on some unconscious level, I began to absorb the idea of themes being important in university. Mostly, I have to thank Dracula. Once my prof pushed us to think about the interaction of technology and superstition, about the symbolism of blood, I got so excited that any paper I have written on the book have received stellar grades, because I was invested. But, my professor didn't explain it quite as a "theme" in the sense that literature normally talks about it; Instead, it was approached from a multiplicity of ways, from philosophy to history and ethics. We got context.

Some other professors managed to pull that off in literature classes. Not all of them. I still distinctly dislike a lot of French lit I've encountered. If you say HonorĂ© de Balzac, I say blech. If you say Madame Bovary, I tell you that I wanted to slap the titular character silly. If I was forced to analyze themes devoid of some other context, I hated it. I needed the psychology, the history, the philosophy, the cultural context. Because if it doesn't resonate with me, I don't care. If I don't know anything about the time period the writer is referring to, or is writing in, or the major issues the author would have encountered, I didn't care.

I think, something changed with the first novel I attempted for NaNoWriMo. Because even though I was primarily concerned with plot and characters and narrative, I also wanted it to make the novel about choice. Making choices when options are constrained, having no choices. It was also about having choice taken away from you. It's asking a question. It's...dark. The context was essentially modern, although fantastical. I don't know where to begin in describing how many things I dislike about the novel, but if I do ever go back to it, I know I will continue to emphasize the theme of choice.

For The Brightest Night, I don't have anything that clear-cut. It wrestles with religion, with destiny, with inevitability, with making the best of the situation, and with love. I won't call it cheerful. But it has hope. I'm not writing/editing with a theme in mind, but I know that they are there, lurking, waiting to be teased out.

Because a good novel has great character, an amazing plot, tight dialogue, and intriguing conflict. A great novel has all of the above, and something more. It wrestles with itself, with the time it has been written in, and with all the great philosophical, ethical, moral, social, economic, psychological questions out there. A great novel tells us something about ourselves and the world we live in. A great novel teaches us.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Duty of a Writer

I once read an article (that I sadly do not have the link to anymore) that commented on how in George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, there's this whole dynamic of "who makes the best king/queen/ruler?"This whole question of leadership and what not is examined, but, no one questions the fact that there had to be a ruling monarch in Westeros. The characters don't question it, and the readers don't question it either. We assume that since it is in a quasi-Medieval setting, that there is supposed to a king or queen.

I was linked to this fabulous read, "We Have Always Fought:Challenging the Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative", about the standard tropes that female characters slot into. It led me to this article: PSA: Your default narrative is not apolitical, which is also an excellent read, again dealing with the unspoken accomplishments of historical women, or even contemporary women. I then read a response to this, The underserved population of readers where the author essentially challenges writers to do better than ethnic/racial/religious/gender/sexuality stereotypes, and speak to the underserved (not undeserved!) population, the ones who aren't white middle-class males.

As a caveat, this particularly applies to white, anglophone writers. I will try not to get sidetracked into a discussion of world literature, but I want to point out that not all narratives fall into the trap of lazy stereotypes.Writers of La Francophonie, aka former French colonies, offer diverse narratives and complex characters, even when they're talking about stereotypes like working on a sugar-cane plantation in the Caribbean or being a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (don't believe me? Watch Rebelle/War Witch). There's also what I suppose you can call immigrant literature ( though I feel really uncomfortable with that label because it's a box that sets up parameters that aren't justified), such as by author Khaled Hosseini, the writer of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. These are obviously just some examples of the multitudes. If you want to find it, it's out there.

So, there are a diversity of narratives out there that don't fall into in tired traps of stereotypes of non-white male individuals. This doesn't negate the point made previously, that the dominant mainstream narratives feature white, middle-class males who are able-bodied and probably not gay. So here's where my point comes in, about the duty of a writer.

A writer is meant to tell a story, hopefully with a good plot, great characters, fantastic dialogue, with excellent structure and pacing. It might bring you into reality, it might bring you out of reality, it may make you so angry you want to burn every single copy ever published (I'm looking at you, Waiting for Godot). I think that in general, mainstream writers of fiction fancy themselves to be outside of politics, to be behind some magic curtain that protects them from the dirty, nasty world outside. The truth is, we're not.

There was shock to some moviegoers when Rue from The Hunger Games turned out to be a little black girl. Apparently, when said moviegoers had been reading, they had glossed over the description of Rue and assumed that since she was innocent and cute and a little bit spunky, and since they became attached to her character, that Rue must be white, preferably blue-eyed and blonde-haired. Without getting carried away with this point, even if a writer is writing fantasy fiction that is set in someplace else, there are expectations about the characters.

If we write about white 20-something male going on adventures and getting the girl, we're buying into a majority narrative. We're valuing a particular kind of story, from a certain perspective. We're saying that it's okay that this is the mainstream that we know and trust. It's easy, so easy, to use tired stereotypes, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of it.

We can do so much better. If we consider how we are approaching characters of different genders, of different cultures, of different ethnic groups, of different abilities and ages, even if they're just minor characters, and ask ourselves if maybe we're playing into stereotypes, and if we are, change it.

I don't think that all writers should suddenly become political activists and only write characters who belong to a visible minority, who are living with only one leg and a speech impediment, who are transgender and living in poverty. That narrative is important, don't get me wrong, and it should be celebrated as a good story and character and embraced in the mainstream. Instead, I'm saying we should give equal weight to all characters, to our stories, and push outside boundaries of what does/does not make a good character, and a good story in the mainstream.


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Drive to Write

If you're waiting with eager anticipation for a plot summary of what the heck The Brightest Night is all about, you're still not getting one. Sorry to disappoint folks, but I have something else on my mind. I want to talk about what is driving me to pursue my project of editing and writing today (and also stroke my ego a little bit, because who doesn't like stroking their ego?).

The easiest way to do this, I think, is to tell a story. The story of my life as an amateur author.

All children tell stories when they're engaging in imaginative play, even if the stories are as simple as Barbie and Ken are going shopping at the mall, and Ken is going to buy a pretty pink skirt to wear to his friend Nancy's birthday party, but Barbie's wearing a blue dress, leading to an argument over colors.  There's character, there's plot, there's conflict. As we grow up, a lot of people stop using that part of themselves, that inner storyteller, and lose that ability.

I didn't. Somewhere, buried away so that no one will ever see them, are notebooks of half-finished stories I wrote as a child, the characters all being wolves or other animals, because it was easy to understand their motivations. Food, shelter, family. I'm pretty sure if I ever read any of them again I will want to burn them all.  Then my horizons expanded, and I started to create human character, that had some magical ability or went on grand fantastical adventures. Escapism has always been my standard writing and reading fare.

Somewhere in my teenage years I got into roleplaying. Creating characters, having them interact with other character, having them grow and change and even die, changed the way I wrote for myself. Stories became more complex, and I will freely admit, more dark. I think the time I spent roleplaying taught me how to be a better writer, and I am glad for all the wonderful people I encountered. Somewhere in these teenage years, though, I made the decision that I would not pursue writing as a professional career, because the idea was too scary to contemplate, and so I found a back-up plan.

Then university happened. I think the biggest change that happened was that I stopped reading for pleasure as much, because I was suddenly confronted with massive amounts of required reading. I learned a lot about theories, literature, history and politics, and while I began to draw more than write, I feel like all this soaked up knowledge began to flesh out my writing with details that added complexity, and I began to think about themes and meanings to my work. In the two final years of my undergraduate degree, I completed two NaNoWriMo novels, one which is so twisty I don't want to touch it, and the other one is The Brightest Night, the novel I am currently editing and expanding.

There's one moment that I will remember for many years to come, in the last semester of my undergrad. I was taking a course on ethics in international relations (which is actually fabulous and fascinating), and had gone to see my prof to run my final paper idea past him. He was really excited about my topic, and ended up giving me an impromptu pep-talk. I don't know why, but I will be eternally grateful for it. The sentence that sticks out most to me was when he said, "You have something important to say, so say it."

Since then, I have graduated with a shiny piece of paper, moved across the country, and gone through my first year of a Master's program. I moved to writing poetry, because it was quick and easy and I wanted to expand my writing horizons away from essays without having much time to invest. I attempted a third go at NaNoWriMo, but unfortunately found that I couldn't complete it and keep up with my demanding school work. I quit.

This brings us to the present. I applied for co-op positions, a lot of them, pouring time and energy into my job hunt. I got five interviews. None of them hired me. I was feeling pretty dejected, contemplating the fact that I had no job for the summer, when one of the people who interviewed me called me up to give me feedback. She did the usual feedback structure of good-to improve-good, and one of the things that struck me was that she told me, "I'm sure you've been told this before, but you write beautifully."

I found that hilarious, as the only writing sample she had from me was a cover letter  and a two-paragraph biography and explanation as to why I wanted to work for them including such lovely sentiments as 'wanting to make a difference'. I ruminated on this for a long time, and realized two things: if I could impress a stranger with my prose while writing on the most mundane subject ever, I could impress a stranger while writing fiction, and I owed it to myself to not take this jobless summer as a bad thing. It was an opportunity. I haven't had a free summer since I was sixteen, working summers to the point where I had no energy for anything else. My sudden free time, I realized, is a gift.

So my inspiration, my drive, is to make the most of this gift of time (and maybe rub it into the face of all the people who didn't want to hire me). That's why I'm editing and writing. It's why I'm doing it now.

What drives you?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

On the Bravery of Writing

This post was going to be a plot summary, perhaps a tidbit of what it is that I'm writing. Instead, this post is going to be about bravery, and writing. You can thank my friend/landlady for that.

I was happily preparing dinner and having a conversation with my friend/landlady about my plans for the summer, and casually mentioned that I was working on a novel. Her reaction to this was not one that I was expecting. She told me she thought that writers were brave.

I found this idea odd. I normally associate bravery with firefighters running into burning buildings, kids standing up for a bullied peer, facing a terminal diagnosis with determination and the willingness to leave a legacy behind that will maybe stop future people from having that same terminal diagnosis. To me, bravery is action in situations where most people would rather runaway and hide, and I suppose, a state of mind.

I thought about it some more, and decided that yes, there were definitely brave writers out there. War correspondents,  investigative journalists, people who actively seek out darkness to illuminate it, to drag it kicking and screaming into the light so that hopefully, something will be done about it. The writers who risk their lives and careers to find truth, and bring change.

I continued thinking about it, stretching the definition of bravery to small every day acts. Saying hello to a stranger. Asking a man taking pictures of underage girls on the bus whether or not he had permission to do so. Accepting the consequences of your own actions.

When I framed it that way, I began to understand. Writing, for anyone, is an act of love. I'm sure there are a lot more eloquent people out there who have talked about what writing is, using birth metaphors and everything else...but I firmly believe that anyone serious about what they are writing, is writing it out of love. Love of the story, love of the characters, love of the truth, love of the crafting of sentences, love of words, love of sounds and images and expression. Above all, love of self. Writing is the most personal expression of self there is, even if you're not talking about yourself. Because if you're writing a journal article, an essay, a novel, a poem, a song, and you need to write it so much that it hurts, it's because what you're writing about is important to you.

Taking this personal, private, thing that you have created and showcasing it, means that you are opening yourself, and what you think is important, up for critique, for ridicule, or worse, for indifference. Every time someone publishes a piece of their writing, they are risking the fact that people may not like what they wrote, or may not read what they wrote. That's kind of scary. So people shuffle their scribbles and stories and put them in a cabinet, in a folder on their computer, and let it sit there, because it's easy, and safe. To step beyond that comfort zone, that takes bravery.

I would like to think I have that bravery, that ability to offer up my stories, and myself to the world and listen to the answer, whether good or bad. I don't know yet, and I won't know for awhile, until I have finished editing and writing and start looking for an agent and publisher. For now, the courage to keep going is all I need.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Goals

So, I have my lofty project and a concrete end goal, but there's a timeline to it too. This summer has been disappointing in the job search department, and until my next semester of school starts up, there's a few months. So, my goal is to have fully written the novel, and done at least three full rounds of editing on it before the first of September.

Sounds like a short time line? Very. However, it's entirely achievable, as I managed to complete 50,000 words of the novel in a month in addition to keeping up with school work. Do I want to pour my heart and soul into this? Absolutely.

At this point, I'm not worrying about looking for publishers or an agent. This is just about me, the words, and the story I want to tell. Once that is through, then comes the quest for publishing.

One step at a time, right?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Not the beginning, but a beginning.

I've had a story kicking around in my head for a long time. Years, really. The characters were fleshed out, they had personalities, they had little backstories, but they didn't have what they needed most: a plot outline, and a novel to give them life.

Two (or was it three, I honestly can't remember) years ago, I participated in NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month. I completed it, being left with a 50,000 word novel that had plot chunks missing for the sake of expediency. Schoolwork reared its head, and I put it to the side, promising myself to edit and finish this tale...and it's been a long time coming. I have finally started the first round of editing, but I haven't yet gotten to the parts that were left in point form.

This process, I realise, will be long, and it will be hard, and I will want to give up. This blog, even if it never gets a single reader, will be my commitment, my link to the world that promises that I will go through with this task that I have undertaken, and I will finally write a complete novel.