The Decemberists and the Tale of the Tale

I’ve talked about music once  before on this blog, but today I’d like to talk about some music in particular. I want to talk about one specific band: why I enjoy them, and the lesson that I’ve learned from their music.

I’m talking about the Decemberists. Have you listened to them? They’re fucking ace.

It’s funny; I got a Decemberists CD from a friend some years ago, back in the ancient days of high schooling. It was Her Majesty the Decemberists, I do believe, and–well… I didn’t like it. That’s right. I thought it was pretty boring. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll recall that I once mentioned that I don’t typically listen to music for the lyrics. I’m usually all about the music itself unless it’s something like hip-hop, for which the focus is much more obviously placed on the lyrical content. For me, lyrics were all about having something slightly coherent for the melody to sit on top of.

Well, I’ve very recently started appreciating lyrics more, and it’s all thanks to the Decemberists. Why? Well, when it does come down to lyrics, the Decemberists write almost exclusively one of my favorite varieties of song. That is, they write story-songs. Their catalog is lousy with the things. There’s a song retelling Shakespeare’s tempest. There are fairy tales about a man who transforms into a fawn by day and falls in love with a forbidden young maiden. There are tunes about all manner of events historical and fictional, realistic and fantastic. And holy shit, do I appreciate that.

Story songs are something that has fallen out of favor in modern music for the most part, and I think that’s a shame. Songs used to be all about storytelling, you know. There are plenty of well known traditional examples to prove this. The Railroad Boy, Whiskey in the Jar, Greensleeves… American folk music is also filled with story-songs. So why have they gone out of fashion?

Well, normally I’d answer that apparently rhetorical question in the next paragraph. But the truth is, I don’t know. Songs about abstract concepts and boring love songs seem to be more popular these days. Even old-school dancing tunes, when they did have lyrics, were usually stories. Nowadays they’re usually about… I don’t know, dancing? They seem to even be about dance songs. You know, that seems pretty meta now that I think about it. Like a movie about the making of the movie itself. Or a TV show in which the main character writes the script for the next episode. Whoa… This is turning into some stoner shit right here.

The thing is, story songs have probably fallen out of favor because people focus less on the lyrics of music than they used to. Even the Beatles, man. The Beatles were an amazing and influential group, but let’s be honest–a lot of their lyrics were complete and utter balls. Mostly vapid love songs. One of the best songs lyrically is Eleanor Rigby, because it tells a tale. And even that is a bit abstract. You get the idea that some of the lyrics are less metaphorical and more, well… malarchy. And the idea that lyrics should get more appreciation makes me rethink my previous feelings about music. Sure, I still do like the sound of music alone. But the lyrics aren’t just there as fluff. They shouldn’t be, I mean. As stupid as it sounds, lyrics should speak to the listener. And they usually don’t. When is the last time you heard a Kesha song (I refuse to write a dollar sign in place of the “s”) and thought to yourself, “Yeah! She’s right! This place is about to blow!” Exactly. What happened to our musical tastes that we accept that kind of shit as lyrics? It’s empty, meaningless… It’s Kesha, God damnit.

The stories that the Decemberists tell aren’t all the sort of realistic tales that I like to write in the form of prose. Some are dark, some are uplifting… but nearly all of them, even the love songs, tell a tale of some kind. There is something about the sweetness of a touching melody that allows even a simple story to move us. The perfect high note can make that pleading cry for love that much more touching. The heart-wrenching dissonance of two distorted guitar tones fighting to overcome each other can help drive the accompanying lyrics into your heart and your mind to stay. They don’t have to be complex lyrics, you see, because they have the music to help them, and music speaks to people in a way that words alone cannot. So why has popular music been largely unable to tell even simple stories in what seems like such a long time? Maybe storytellers are just being driven underground, I don’t know.

I appreciate story songs for another reason. As a would-be writer of music (I dabble), I find them easier to write. Thinking of melodies is hard. But sometimes the melody will just find your song after you’ve got some words for it to cling to. The natural rhythm of words works that way. Whenever I’d think of a melody first and then try to stick some words on it, they were utter shit. They still usually are. All vague ideas and empty “messages.”

The point is, I wish that songwriting would follow the tack of the Decemberists and lean back towards storytelling. It’s not as if the concept is inapplicable in modern music. Nas did it, and that’s why he kicks so much ass, or used to, anyway. Don’t you even dare tell me that Nas didn’t used to kick ass. Shut your mouth.

We all like stories, is what I’m saying. In any case, aren’t you tired of hearing autotuned party-boppers tell you what a club looks like? I sure as hell am. Bring back the stories, man. It’s time for a revival.

Peace, friends.


Tabletop Role-playing: Revenge of the Worldbuilding


Oh, tabletop role-playing games… You have brought me back to my roots. Back to the pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I first felt before ever I became bogged down in the drudgery of writing complex characters and interesting plots. Or the successive disappointment I experienced when I realized that my plots and my characters were pretty shitty after all. But oh, role-playing games! I find myself once again reliving my salad days: drawing maps, doing write-ups of city histories and regional lore, imagining political and religious conflicts…

Yes folks, I’m talking about worldbuilding, undeniably the most fun part of writing a book and, luckily for me, the largest part of creating a module for a tabletop RPG. Now, I know that to most people a lot of that stuff up there doesn’t seem very fun. Political and religious conflicts aren’t exactly the stuff of daydreams. At least not for normal folks. But I’ll tell you why it actually is fun, and also why you’re wrong if you still disagree. Why do you always need me to convince you, reader? You’re really starting to piss me off, you know.

Er–well. The point is, the worldbuilding is fun because it is the sole reason that most of us got into writing fantasy in the first place. When we all read Tolkien for the first time, those of us destined to write in his genre were struck by a few things: his languages, his cultures, his histories, and his beautiful, beautiful maps. But most of all, we were impressed with his creativity. And that’s what worldbuilding is–pure creativity. That’s why we got into books, right? That’s why we’re fantasy nerds and not just people who like to read.

Or wait.. I’m the fantasy nerd. I keep assuming that you and I are the same, reader. But you probably wear cool European clothes and read Noam Chomsky, and you’re only reading this blog until you inevitably discover that other people know about it too, at which point you’ll toss my paltry words to the wayside proclaiming, “I read Discipulus once in a bar with, like, five other people.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing my worldbuilding nonsense. I’ve been just creating. Not worrying about the structure of the writing, but just recording made-up facts, drawing maps, and relishing every moment.

So. A status update. At this stage in our journey to Tabletop-Gamingtown I’ve written six pages of material. I’ve drawn a city map of our starting location. I have come up with a number of potential quests. I’ll share with you two revelations I have had about the process while doing these things.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid clichés. I have a bit more sympathy now for people who design video games. Perhaps I’ll complain a little less the next time I have to do a fetch quest or escort some wuss without any semblance of artificial intelligence through a dangerous sewer. These clichés happen, I now realize, because of the restrictions of a story-telling game. Namely, if you want your characters to fill out much of the story for themselves (and in tabletop RPGs especially you do), then your options are limited. It boils down to: I can have my characters go somewhere to collect something, I can have them escort someone, and I can have them go somewhere to kill something, plus any combinations of those three quest types.

It’s the background of your tale that makes these simple types of story compelling. So the realism with which you portray your world has a serious effect on how seriously your players will take the quest. Fighting might be fun, but if all of your fights are against mere goons then people will stop giving a damn after a while. Some of this comes down to your live storytelling skills, but a lot of it has to do with how much effort and thought you really put into your world. A play that takes place on an empty black stage might impress a few theater snobs, but it’s hard to argue that the experience isn’t a hell of a lot more immersive when the actors are surrounded by a spectacular set, and their lines and behaviors reflect their surroundings and their times.

The second revelation is this: that I have no clue how a city is organized. Drawing a map of a city (the first time I’ve done something with this level of detail) was an eye-opener. “Wait… where do the churches go? How much of the city is walled? How much open space is there within the city, again? Wait… where do the markets go?” During the creation of this map I probably spent more time staring, drooling, and scratching my head than I did actually putting pencil to paper and sketching.

But in the end I like the way things have turned out so far. So now I need to meet up with my fellow GM, the man who will run the numbers while I tell the majority of the story, and hammer out the details of how to get this thing started. More to come on my descent into the heart of dorkness in future episodes!

Farewell, gentle reader.

Dialogue: Friend, or Foe?

Today we answer the question laid out in the post title. As a writer, is dialogue your friend, or your foe? The answer is foe, of course.

I’m just kidding. The answer is obviously friend. I’m sure you know, learned student of the written word that you are, that dialogue is an incredibly important aspect of a book. And I’ll be honest here, it’s also one of the things that I just can’t seem to get right. I struggle regularly to write convincing dialogue, especially on the first time through a story. It just sounds stilted and, well… is shitty too strong a word? No, I think that shitty is quite an apt description, actually. I write shitty dialogue. Now why it’s shitty is a question that demands an answer.

I often find that I’m just writing dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and that’s a problem. Dialogue is a tool. One of many tools at your disposal as a writer. And as a tool, it needs to be used properly. Writing dialogue just to have quotation marks on your page is about as useful as using a hammer just for the sake of swinging one around. Yeah, it’s neat at first–hell, it might even end up being a lot of fun. But in the end you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of broken, messed-up shit, and no good explanation for how or why it got there.

So let’s straighten things out.

Dialogue is obviously conversation between two or more characters–between two or more people. So let’s think. How do people talk to each other? And why? Well, the why is not always as clear as you might think. Often people will engage in conversation to discuss something important, that’s true. But more often people talk to avoid discussing something important. Sometimes talking is merely a way to fill silence. Awkward small talk, and empty conversation are important aspects of dialogue that should not be ignored in a book. Your goal is to write realistic characters, right? Too often writers have their characters speak only when it is expository to the plot. I am myself a victim of this trend. It’s tempting, because you want these bastards to move the damn story along. But remember, these are people talking. Their character and personality needs to show through in their speech. Here’s an example of plain old dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Betty asked.


“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar. I don’t know.”

“Ray, you can’t… Not now.”

“I’ve done everything you asked, Betty. I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests. I don’t know what else you want from me. I’m going.”


So there. That’s some straight dialogue that I just made up. It’s okay, I guess. But it needs more flavor, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes back-and-forth dialogue is good. Hemingway sure did plenty of it, and it worked for him. But the words are not always the focus of the conversation. If this written dialogue is supposed to represent two people talking, then we have to think about the way in which they might speak. Right now our selection reads like a bit from a play, and one with very little direction at that. In a play or movie, the actors and director bring a lot to the dialogue. Body language, tone of voice–there are a lot more factors to a conversation than just lines after lines of dialogue. So let’s try again, this time inserting a little bit of description.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests.” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty. I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

Now see, I like that a bit better. Don’t get me wrong. Straight dialogue can be nice for circumstances in which the speech is the most important aspect, but more often than not that isn’t the case. When we speak, we say a lot more with our hands, eyes, and tones than we do with our words alone. I mentioned Hemingway above, and I often think of him when writing dialogue. I recall hearing once that he did not think much of descriptive dialogue tags. You’ll find his dialogue scenes rarely flirt with any language more complicated than “he/she said.” He didn’t think anything more was necessary. The man was adamant about this simplicity of language, and I admire him for that.

But he’s wrong. Or well… he’s not entirely right. You see, we don’t just say what we mean to say. People aren’t that simple. Sometimes the expression you wear when you speak reveals more about your words than the words themselves. But why write, “‘I really don’t know,’ he said. He smiled” when “‘I really don’t know,’ he smiled” is so much more to the point? And sometimes the tone and volume of your voice express what you really want to say, even when your tongue is unwilling to speak the truth. So obviously the meaning of the words “Please leave” is drastically different when the tag reads “he snarled” rather than “he pleaded.”

Beyond dialogue tags, there are lots of things that we do when we speak that affect the feeling of the conversation. This is where simple description comes into play. Nodding and smiling out of sincere interest is different from stiffly nodding while forcing your clenched jaw into a rictus grin. Staring out a window while you speak doesn’t convey the same feeling that frenetically pacing the floorboards does. Those things are important to the conversation as a whole, and you can’t afford to omit them or forget them entirely.

In addition to description and dialogue tags, you do have to consider the words being spoken. Rather, you have to consider the words not spoken. Would Ray and Betty say all of those things to one another? Would they mention the doctor and the fertility tests so explicitly? Either Ray or his wife is infertile. They know this, even if the reader doesn’t. Taking this into account is where the real atmosphere of your conversation is cultivated. There’s a certain satisfaction to discovering the topic of a written discussion rather than having it handed to you. Not only that, but if realism is your goal, then you must take into account the way that real people speak. Betty and Ray have known each other for years–I guess that they’re either married or in a committed relationship, though I wouldn’t put it past that bastard Ray to cheat on his poor lady. He really is a jerk. In any case, people don’t speak in completely expository sentences. They leave out details, because they both know the details already. Or they skirt around the details deliberately because they’re made uncomfortable by the topic at hand. So let’s change our little scene once more.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I did everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to see… him. I took the tests. I let that bastard poke his nose into my personal life.”

“He’s not a bastard, Ray. It’s his job to ask.”

“He’s a nosy prick who can’t mind his own business!” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. Betty was looking at him with quivering lips and eyes wet with fresh tears. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty.”

“I want to have a family,” Betty whispered. Ray felt his jaw tighten.

“I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

So instead of exposition, we have hints and little details that clue the reader in on what’s really happening.

You can go too far in realism. The “um”s and “ah”s of real conversation are often too much in written dialogue. The conversation on the page has to flow, so a strict sense of realism is out of place when it distracts from the importance of the dialogue itself. But overall, writing dialogue this way gives the reader a lot more than simple, direct words. Dialogue can’t exist merely to fill up space on a page. It has to tell the reader a lot of things at once. Ideally, it should drive the plot, build the characters, and set the mood of the piece or scene all at once. In most circumstances, it will only do two, or even just one of those things. But part of learning how to write well is learning how to say as little as necessary to tell the story you want. Economy of language means a lot to the efficacy of your writing, and dialogue is no exception.

Well, I think I’ve just given myself a few ideas, and hopefully this post did the same for you. You know when you try to explain something that you don’t know yourself, and find a suitable answer in the process? Well I’m about to go off and write some truly spectacular dialogue, then bask in the warm glow of my revelation. Peace, my children. May your conversations be ever filled with pregnant pauses, tense stares, and loaded questions.

Tabletop Role-playing – The Adventure Begins


I would apologize for my long absence from this blog. But the truth is, it was a calculated marketing move. You see, now my multitudes of fans are clamoring for my wisdom in my long absence, lost and confused without the soothing power of my words. I know. It was rough. But now I’m back, and I haven’t tired of talking about myself yet. So here we go.

I’ve recently become involved with a group of friends who enjoy role-playing games. Actually, my girlfriend is one of the players. (A word of advice to the fellas out there: if you find a hot girl who’s willing to role play without the reward of sex that most women would expect upon hearing that phrase, then you stay with her. Also, you steal her lunch money, because she’s a major nerd.) So we’ve been playing a pretty fun quest so far, and there has been talks of yours truly writing a module for the next campaign. And I thought, what an excellent idea for a series of blog posts.

So that’s what this is. The first installment in a series that will go on till the ends of time. Or for a couple of weeks. You’ll get to follow me in my process of being a story GM (that’s game master for you normies). We’ll work on constructing the world in which the campaign will take place. We’ll create interesting antagonists, a number of routs for our players to follow, unique NPC’s, and probably some giant spiders, because everyone hates giant spiders.

So what’s first?

Well, much of writing a tabletop RPG is just a visit with our old friend worldbuilding. The players are the characters, and they drive the story, so you needn’t write a protagonist’s personality into the tale. You also need flexibility, because nobody likes a GM who refuses to let the players have their way. That’s part of the appeal of tabletop gaming. There’s no graphics or exciting visuals, but there are virtually no limitations in terms of where the tale can lead. The GMs of the campaign I’m currently playing meet between play sessions to talk about where the story will go next, because sometimes the players want to read the mysterious note and follow your intriguing quest, and sometimes they just want to burn it without opening it and start a barfight that culminates in the destruction of the entire city. It’s your job as GM to adapt to their desires, while still imposing some sense of direction.

And it’s important to have a background for all of these shenanigans. That’s where the worldbuilding comes in. You need a well fleshed-out world in which to run the campaign. You need religions, politics, cities, towns, dungeons, and loads of sweet, sexy maps.

So that’s what we’ll be doing in a couple of days. We’ll begin designing our starting point, explaining the world, and I’ll talk a little about the place of RPGs in the realm of fantasy fiction.

Until next time, intrepid readers!

Building a Book

What the hell is worldbuilding?

That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.

Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.

See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).

So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.

The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.

So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.

What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.

My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.

And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.

What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.

Why All Music that I Don’t Like is No Better than Elevator Music

Today I want to talk about something besides writing. I’ve got a few ideas for writing-related posts on the back-burner, but we’ll take a short break from that after the epic conclusion to my fight-scene trilogy two days ago.

Today, I’d like to talk about music–how it affects people; why it’s so important to me and some of my friends but not to other people; and why it can be so divisive a subject. Music is something that has meant a lot to me… since high school, I guess? It actually started before then. In middle school. (By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit–where I come from, the fact that I just used the words “middle school” would immediately tell you that I am most likely not Catholic, and attended a public school. Catholic private school kids say “grade school.” Now you know.) Anyway, yes. My love of music began in middle school.

I used to play in the school band. Clarinet was my thing, and I was the best player in the class, despite the fact that I never practiced outside of school. I’m not being a braggart. It’s merely the truth. I don’t know if it just clicked for me, or what. But I really enjoyed making music. I always had favorite parts of the songs we were currently learning, and I got the sense that most of the other kids weren’t even listening, just following along, waiting for lunchtime. But I listened to those songs. There were always details that stuck out to me. And me and my friends used to teach each other how to play Iron Man and Smoke on the Water and Crazy Train on our woodwind instruments. In the later years of middle school, the band teacher let three of us form our own band and play at the Christmas concert. I got to play the Star Spangled Banner Jimi Hendrix-style with a wah pedal, and then I and two other kids played some faux-metal nonsense that we had written over the course of a few weeks. I got to see a bunch of grandparents applaud music that they would have spanked their kids for listening to.

When I got to high school, music became an even bigger part of my existence. I wasn’t the type of kid who really connected to lyrics–I didn’t start really listening to lyrics with intent to understand until I got into hip hop a few years later–but I just connected to the sound, and the feel of music. I connected to the particular atmosphere that certain songs cultivated. And in high school, where clique and lifestyle are defined almost entirely by clothing and musical taste, my ideas about music became more and more clear, and more cemented.

I realized that music is not just background. Listening to music is an activity in itself. I once listened to a whole album in one sitting while looking out the window of my college dorm, sitting in the dark and just… listening. Just the sound of the music, and the way it made me feel. The melody and the rhythm. Other times, when I do listen intently to lyrics, I really appreciate when serious effort is put into making them mean something. It’s not a deal-breaker if lyrics are an afterthought, but good lyrics can make a mediocre sounding song interesting.

A brief aside: Some people are under the impression that you must agree with the lyrics of the music you listen to–this is the basis for uninspired Christian rock’s entire existence. But that’s bullshit. I’m not so dull that I need my music to think for me, or agree with what I already think. The lyrics are a snapshot of a moment in that artist’s life. When I listen to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” I don’t suddenly think that relationships should be based around having someone to clean your house, fix your meals, and then leave. I think, Gee, that must have been a tough time in Neil’s life. I think of all the similar crazy thoughts that have jumped into my head over the years, and how those fleeting emotions are important because we can all connect to them.

Anyway, my innate sense of pacing tells me that this introduction has gone on far too long, so let me get to the point. What makes music important to us? For the vast majority of people, it seems to be the desire to dance. I hate to sound like my high school self, but much of it also seems to stem from the desire to belong–to any group, be it clique, religion, or just the masses of average, unassuming people.

For me, music is important. It speaks to me. And that’s why I have, ever since I discovered music’s power, sought it out. I emphasize this because I am struck by the fact that the majority of people don’t seem to find music. They don’t go out in search of the next little bit of sound that will really move them. They just let the music come to them. And this is whence (third time I’ve used that word on this blog–boy am I proud) much of my hatred of popular music stems. Pop music is just too easy. It’s right there. Yes, everyone’s eyes–ears, rather–are first opened by something they heard on the radio. But then you should go and discover more. It’s out there. There is so much good, underappreciated music out there, in literally every genre.

So why the hell don’t people look for it? When I tell people what kind of music I like, I usually start by saying “I listen to just about everything.” Which is broadly accurate. I like my fair share of metal (screaming and singing alike), bluegrass, folk, indie (which isn’t much of a genre description, but whatever), classic rock, hip hop–you get the idea. It’s a mix of whatever I like. But then I realize that that’s the answer people give when they don’t give a shit about good music. When most people claim that they listen to “everything,” what they really mean is “I listen to the top 40 on the way to work.” See, that’s not everything. It’s not even remotely close. And I don’t want this person to think that I don’t give a shit about music. So I’ll add to my statement. “Well, I listen to a lot of music. You know, metal, rock, some underground-type rap…” Hm, I’ll think, how do I clarify this jumble of words? I know: “I listen to basically anything that isn’t on the radio.”

That usually clears things up. Now they at least know that the music I like they won’t have heard of, so they’ll leave me alone. Time to pop the headphones back on. But recently someone picked that little statement apart. “So,” they said, which much snark and self-satisfaction, “You just don’t listen to it because it’s on the radio?”

“No, no,” I replied, not wanting to look like an obnoxious hipster. I covered my tracks with some lame explanation, but I was left thinking about the remark. And I realized: yes. I do avoid things that are popular. And I recognize that that’s stupid. The fact that something is well-known does not guarantee that it is of poor quality. But I’ve associated pop music with a lack of creativity for so long, that I can’t help but make the distinction. My wiring has officially changed, and my brain now designates just about everything I hear on the radio as sub-par. I know I’m like the kid who eats liver and onions and loves it until dad tells him what it is, but I can’t help it.

Because music is important to me, and it truly irks me that it’s not just as important to other people.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part the Third

This might be a long one. So if you don’t feel like hearing some asshole tell you what he thinks about writing over the course of several paragraphs–well, you’re probably on the wrong blog altogether. If you missed the first two parts, you can find them over here: Part One and Part Two.

Now let’s get to the killing!

There are lots of ways to write a fight scene. How you choose to do it really depends on the way you want the fight to impact your audience. Do you want your reader marveling at the epic scale of your conflict? Counting the columns of soldiers crawling across the hills of your battlefield? Or do you want the reader wiping blood out of their eyes, crawling through the mud, worming their way through the tangled legs of your frenzied combatants? Or do you want some blend of both, or some other effect entirely? Cold, distant, calculating? Or visceral, emotional, horrifying? It’s up to you, and the way you write.

Today we’ll talk about battles in particular, as the style of the piece really has a great effect on the way the reader perceives something as meaningful and important as a pitched battle. You see, writing style is very reminiscent of camera work in a movie. I’ll explain.

The way I see it, there are two main styles in which to write a battle: cable rig and shaky cam.

Now the term cable rig is interchangeable with any number of long-distance camera techniques. Shots from a helicopter, a crane shot–it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what this conveys to the audience. It’s far-reaching and huge in scope. There is a sense of order implied. A general surveying the battlefield does not feel the same that the soldier on the front line does. That’s the effect of distant, sweeping camera work. The corresponding technique in writing is not merely in the description, but the style of the description. Long, flowing sentences that focus on large movements rather than tiny details give the reader the same sense of order and understanding. This is an expository, descriptive writing style rather than a character-driven, immersive style. Of course those things can be written in, but they are less emphasized. So it sounds like this:

General Markham brought the looking-glass to his eye and surveyed his men. The field was theirs, or his rather, and he cast his eye on their progress with pride and confidence. But something was wrong…Was that smoke?

Thick black plumes coiled above Captain Berthol’s column, twisting their way skyward with a patient ease that was quite at odds with the chaos beneath them; angry red tongues of flame could be seen at intervals among the Captain’s troops, who were roiling about in evident panic. General Markham swept his magnified gaze across his battlefield to determine the source of the conflagration–and found it. A small troupe of enemy horsemen carved their way into a nearby field of barley–returning whence they came, Markham guessed–only to come careening out of the grain at a different location. They hurled projectiles at Berthol’s column, and though General Markham could not hear the noise of the battlefield, he was certain by their expressions that they raised quite a din as their missiles exploded into gouts of searing flame, the black smoke from which was now beginning to crawl up the hillside toward the general’s position.

“Shit,” he said.

So there’s your cable rig/chopper/crane shot. The length of the sentences, the measured diction, and the overall tone–they give the passage a sense of control. The general is still a personal part of this story. But his experience and confidence is felt in the style of the writing. I (the author) don’t want you (the reader) to feel panic, because the general, despite the unfortunate turn of events, has not begun to panic. Yet.

The next passage will illustrate the other style. For fluidity’s sake I’ll get right into it, and then I’ll break down the stylistic choices.

The smoke was seething over the crest of the hill, and in an instant it had swallowed General Markham’s camp. His fellow officers hacked and coughed as the gritty cloud enveloped them. Markham tried to maintain his steadfast composure. But something distracted him. A noise… What was that God-awful noise? Over the whooping and wheezing of his associates, a thunderous growl was growing. Markham knew that sound. It had been a long time since he’d heard it so clear. But he knew that sound for sure. His bowels twisted in his gut.

He knew that sound.

He amended his previous statement. “Fuck,” he said. And then the riders were upon them.

Awful, tortured screaming replaced the pounding of hooves in his ears. He had to move; his legs were frozen in place. It had been too long. This wasn’t supposed to happen. What the hell did he do? With an inhuman wail one of the riders appeared  out of the smoke. And began riding toward Markham. He brandished a sword in his free hand. His eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark. A horrible sound then, like a rotten cabbage being kicked, and the horseman’s blade buried itself in the face of a nearby officer. The body fell, rolled over with the rider’s momentum as he jerked his weapon free.

Markham’s legs suddenly decided to move. But in the wrong direction. He buckled to his knees on the turf. He couldn’t stop staring at the dead man. Ander. That had been his name. Markham had met him at a ball once. His face… Not a face anymore. Almost unrecognizable. Blood and splintered bone. Markham felt the bile churning in his throat. But he didn’t get any time to be sick.

Because the horseman had come back. The cries of Markham’s cohorts were dying out as they themselves surely did. The horseman sat his horse and stared at Markham. The wildness was gone from his eyes. The bloodlust was gone. Instead there was a cold joy. An expression Markham had worn himself many times. The look of a man who had planned everything perfectly. The look of a leader, victorious. General Markham swallowed.

The rider spurred his horse.

So that’s shaky cam. You see the difference? Though the passage was longer, it reads more quickly. Choppy. Erratic. Lots of. Interruptions.Very annoying when. Used inappropriately.

Erhem. Sorry.

You see, shaky cam in movies is of questionable value. A movie is different from a book. Sometimes it’s best to just see what he hell is happening onscreen, and shaky cam gets in the way of that. But in a book, the equivalent effect–that of disorder, confusion, and mayhem–can be very desirable. The difference is in point of view. I’ll call it PoV because I’m lazy.

With few exceptions, movies are very loose in terms of PoV. The audience is free to see things that the character cannot. Books, on the other hand, are made and unmade by their authors’ effective (or ineffective) use of PoV.The most common PoV is limited third, and it’s a doozy. The writing is not directly from the character’s point of view. The author has some freedom to explain things about the character that said character wouldn’t notice by him or herself. But the author also explores the character’s thoughts. Observations and descriptions are colored by the character’s personality and understanding of the world. So when the character panics–you guessed it. The writing reflects that.

Short. Choppy. Sentences. Hard, sharp consonants. “The jagged blade twisted into his guts” has a lot more immediacy and violence to it than “the knife slid smoothly between his ribs.” Both styles have their place, but they both tell the reader different things.

And that’s how you write blood, gore, and violent death. I’m by no means an expert on writing, but I read a lot of books about people who stab other people with sharp things, or get stabbed themselves. And I hope my experience with the subject can shed some light on your future reading and writing endeavors–at least those that involve some amount of stabbing. So next time you want a character to fall gurgling to the ground with an arrow in his throat, think of me, dear reader.

And, as always, go in peace. That means keep the murder on the page.

Bye, now.