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.

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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.