Right in the Spleen

Another two weeks, another blog post. So it goes.

Really. That’s what it looks like it’s gonna be from here on out, at least for the duration of this school year. I can’t seem to find time to post more often than that. And I’ve got even more bad news.

I won’t be making my goal for the word count of my book. Not even close, in fact. Now I know you’ve already begun gnashing your teeth and tearing at your clothes in sympathy for my plight. But of course, this was a deliberate decision made by me, the reasons for which are twofold. One: I know that you, the countless masses, will be clamoring for many more posts about the creation of my first draft, and I can hardly provide those sustaining posts if the draft is completed. Two: I’m basically out of material at this point; once this book is finished, I’ll have nothing else to write about. So, bearing that in mind, the first draft should be completed by about the year 2050.

Now let’s talk about the book!

Sticking points are on the mind today. By now I’ve probably hit about twenty serious sticking points. You see, when you get set to write a book, it’s best to outline and develop a basic beginning, middle, and end to your story. That’s at least how I’ve gone about it. And when you have all of that laid out you might think, “Great! Now all I have to do is fill in the in-betweens.” Ha! Good luck, smart guy. How little you truly know, and how ignorant of your own ignorance you are! All the little transitions and pieces that fit between the pivotal moments of your story? They take ages to create. Sometimes two scenes really, really don’t want to join together, so you’ll spend a couple days mulling over how the hell to get from A to B. Other times you’ll realize that you don’t know how something mundane and heretofore unthought-of works (“Did they have rubber in 1890? How was a medieval tournament organized? Where does a merchant keep his wares? How the hell do taxes work? No, seriously, can someone help me with my taxes?”). So then you have to spend hours finding out how exactly to write your own story correctly.

This is where that previously mentioned writer’s perseverance has to kick in. Because this kind of thing really makes you want to quit. I’ll compare it to boxing. The exciting challenges of writing a good plot are like getting hit in the face. If you’ve never experienced it, you might think it hurts. But more than anything it makes you grit your teeth and try harder. The aforementioned sticking points, on the other hand, are like body shots. You can get hit in the face a bunch of times and still come back for more. But one unbraced-for bodyshot, and you’ll be ready to crawl meekly under the ropes and out of the ring. They make you want to quit, you see.

So yeah. I’ve been experiencing a lot of those recently. Literary body shots, man. Ouch.

But see, in the long run, it’s probably better to get hit in the body a lot than it is to have your braincase rattled on a regular basis. It’s just hard to keep that in mind when you’re in the moment. When you’re a wimp like me, you don’t realize that mostly it’s just pain, and for the most part pain won’t really stop you unless you let it. Writing stories is the same. You might prefer the challenge of creating a plot and characters, but sticking points are the hurdles that are really going to hurt in the moment. The trick is just not letting them make you quit. It’s just momentary pain, and you’ve got to push through it. Don’t walk away when things get hard. Either try your best, or get knocked out. And I’ve yet to be knocked out by a book, so I think my record is pretty good actually.

I just need to stop letting these sticking points get in my way. Are you ready to see my pitiful progress, reader? The current word count is 32,219. Not great. But we’ll set a new goal right now. Even with impending school work, I’m going to shoot for that 75,000 word goal by the end of October. Two months to write about 50,000 words. And this time, not even the hardest liver shot’s gonna turn me away.

If you want to sop me, book, you’re gonna have to knock me out. And I’d like to see you try.

Please don’t.

Personal Affairs

 

Well, I suppose I’d better write something, lest I fulfill the prediction that I (only half-seriously) made in my first ever post: that this blog would die an imminent and unremarkable death. I don’t want that. My legions of slavering fans certainly don’t want that. So I’m here, not to save the day, but at least to say some words about a subject with which I am most excellently acquainted.

Myself, of course.

Well, not just myself. Obviously I always talk about myself to some degree. Today is special, though! Today I’ll be writing to you, dear reader, about my own personal project. That’s right. I’m currently working on a book. It’s not the first time I’ve ever conceived of writing a book. It’s possibly not my best idea so far, and almost certainly not the best I’ll ever have. But I am determined to make it the first book I ever complete, and trust me–I am bound and determined to finish this one.

Talking about my book should provide a pretty substantial source of blog posts, which is of course the real reason I’m doing it. I have to keep up the veneer of activity somehow. But I suppose in the meantime it could also afford me the opportunity to talk about different aspects of storytelling that are going on in my own narrative.

I’ll talk about subversion of common fantasy tropes, and why those tropes exist in the first place. I’ll talk about the difficulties of switching points of view, and the pitfalls of inactive protagonists. And I’ll finish off every post with a wordcount. My goal is 75,000 words by the start of September, and I almost certainly won’t be making it. Hurrah!

But today, to kick us off, I would first like to talk about the reasons for which stories are written. And the reason I’m writing my own story. There are, perhaps surprisingly, differing views on this. Some believe that the theme or message of the piece is the primary measuring-stick of its value. Others believe that literary complexity determines a book’s worth. For me, however, a story should, first and foremost, entertain. Let’s get into this a little deeper, then.

I know a fellow. He’s an old man: the step-grandfather of my beautiful girlfriend, in fact. He was once an English professor, and his library consists only of books written before 1960, none of which could ever be called anything other than “a classic” or, at the very least, “fine literature.” He spits on modern books and authors which don’t aspire to his perceived zenith of literary sophistication. Not literally, as far as I know, but if anyone’s the sort to furtively open the pages of the latest Dan Brown novel in the back of the bookstore and plant a wad of saliva inside, it’s him.

Girlfriend’s step-grandfather–we’ll call him Arthur–is of the impression that, more than anything, the thematic substance and subtext of a book determine its value. If you don’t understand what I mean, let me give you an example that should clear things right up. He claims to have liked both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, two books renowned for being impossibly difficult to read, and certainly impossible to actually enjoy. In fact, it’s not all that unlikely that the books’ author, “James Joyce,” is nothing more than a front for a government agency tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of alien beings that look exactly like us, but don’t understand entertainment.

Arthur shuns entertainment. He even scoffs at things such as The Count of Monte Cristo for being worthless “romances,” despite the fact that The Count is a classic, thoroughly riveting tale of revenge. Who the hell doesn’t like a good revenge story? Arthur, and other alien replicants like him, is the answer. For Arthur, ill-defined mysterious qualities of questionable literary merit easily trump such paltry things as accessibility and entertainment value when it comes to the important aspects of a book. Relatable characters and a page-turning plot? No, thank you. I’d much prefer dense allegory and a touch of allusion in my book.

Well.

Then there’s another friend, whom I know from school. We’ll call him… I don’t know–Rasputin. Why not. Now Rasputin reads things for the message. He listens to music for the message. Everything has to have a message. If a book isn’t making some profound statement on the state of our fucked-up society, then it’s no good for him. All art seems only to be worth a moment of his time if it challenges authority, or subtly (or overtly, whatever) discusses the shambles that is our crumbled paradise of a world.

If my tone hasn’t tipped you off yet, I’ll condense my thoughts here: I find both of these men to be a bit silly.

Yes, that’s right. Silly bastards, the both of them. Now don’t get me wrong. Much of the best literature of our age strove to accomplish something. That’s one of the reasons that both sci-fi and fantasy are so valuable–they have the capacity to criticize our world indirectly, in such a way that the issues and arguments can be shed with new light. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut if speculative fiction can be used to say something about our own world and times.

Similarly, I’m quite fond of a lot of what is erroneously named “literary fiction,” especially of the fantasy and science fiction variety. Kurt Vonnegut, again, would have something to say about the thematic quality of his work. He’d probably say that it had none, actually, but that’s part of his genius. Ray Bradbury, for God’s sake. The man wrote Fahrenheit 451, in my opinion the best of the dystopian future novels you’re told to read in high school. Gene Wolfe, a modern master of the genre. Of course, Arthur scoffed at a book of Gene Wolfe’s and refused to read it on principle. But if you wish to read a dense, multi-layered, ambiguous, altogether literary sort of book, read Gene’s The Book of the New Sun. It’s absolutely badass.

Anyway, as I was saying. I think that these qualities are important to the overall value of literature. But my comically caricatured friends Arthur and Rasputin don’t seem to understand that stories exist for one reason primarily. Entertainment.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t advise you to start work now on your novelization of Jersey Shore, or begin writing your next piece of Twilight fanfiction. Please, for the love of God, don’t. Entertainment does not mean dumbed-down schlock.

But aren’t things allowed to exist primarily for the purposes of entertainment? Are we too hip and self-aware to enjoy things, and relate to characters, and stay up late even though we have work tomorrow because the book is just too damn good? I don’t want to always sit down with a mug of tea and work my way through a classic stream-of-consciousness turd of a book. Sometimes I just want to be riveted, you know? Sometimes I want to be made to feel as much as I want to be made to think. You get me?

I mean, Harry Potter’s good, isn’t it? It speaks to people of all ages. It has relatively simply drawn, relatable characters that carry the reader through the story. It’s a page-turner, certainly. And yes, the later books were good, when the whole thing became a parallel for Nazi-era Germany and the main characters were reduced to a scrabbling band of embittered, aimless revolutionaries. Trust me, I love that kind of shit. But wasn’t the series better at the start? You know it was. It was good because it had whimsy, and charm, and it was… fun to read.

So.

I’m not writing a Harry Potter type of book. Children probably shouldn’t read the end product of my personal writing adventure, as I’m sure the content of this blog has told you. And my book has a theme, and it has, if only slightly, some intended literary merit. But I don’t ever want to forget the feeling that your first great book can give you, forcing you to lose sleep and miss meals and resent your parents for daring to pull you away from the pages. And I don’t ever want to write a book that has no chance of giving someone that amazing experience. Because that’s why stories exist. They’re powerful things, stories. And authors can do many great things with them. But in my opinion, none of those things will ever be greater than keeping someone so overwhelmingly entertained that they just can’t put the damn thing down.

Until next time.

Oh. The word count, yes. I’ll try to make this a repeat feature until the book is finished. We stand currently at 29,704 words, just 45,296 away from our goal. Wish me luck on the rest. And, as always…

Peace.

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.

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.

Motivation in a Vacuum

So if you’ve read any of my other rambling posts, you’ve realized by now that this blog will have a lot to do with writing. In truth, that’s what I want to do with my life. Just like a child imagining himself as his favorite pro wrestler, or baseball player, or… I don’t know, what’s a third dream occupation? Celebrity glass-blower? Well, just like that little boy, I often imagine myself as a successful, well-loved writer of fantasy fiction. It’s not about the fame, of course. I simply love to write. But if the jolt of joy I felt when I saw that this amateur hour weblog had six views in one day is any indication, having George R. R. Martin-level success feels amazing. So that would be nice, too.

Today, however, I don’t want to talk about my future aspirations. I won’t even talk about the story I’m working on currently, although I’ll probably shed some light on my pet project later. Please, please. Return to the softer, more spacious parts of your seats. No, today I would like to talk about what it takes to write–at least, what it takes for me to write.

I think that every story–screenplays, books, and short stories alike–comes from some source of inspiration somewhere. I don’t think any writer has a problem with inspiration, at least not in their glorious creative youth, before they become jaded and angry and alcoholic. Inspiration is that little spark that sets off the story. It’s the question that must be answered, or the character that won’t stop pacing around in your head, or the world that must exist in more imaginations than your own. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but there’s on aspect of inspiration that you don’t realize when you first aspire to write: it’s very, very rare.

Inspiration can happen at any moment. Aha! Eureka! That sort of thing. It’s like a bolt of sexy, creative lightning. But how often can you expect to get struck by lightning? Even writers. I guess if inspiration is like lightning then writers are like lightning rods; they’re more prone to the phenomenon than other people, who… I guess are like people lying in a ditch? That metaphor seems to have wandered away from me. Anyway, my point is that even writers don’t get to experience the privileged presence of inspiration that often.

Therein lies the rub, my friends. Because, no matter how much you think you enjoy writing, you’re going to have to hate it sometimes to get any work done. You’ll get that delicious taste of a truly inspired idea, and you’ll be raring to go. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll make a map, or maybe write up some character descriptions. Maybe you’ll jump in and try to start writing right from Chapter One. If you’ve got a little more juice in the tank, you might even outline most of the story–enough so that you have a vague idea of where you’re going.

And then you’ll drop the project for months at a time. Not entirely–you’ll still think of it. A lot, most likely. But thinking of cool new things and awesome future scenes is easier than actually writing. So you’ll just leave it. Either that, or you’ll suck it up and do the hard work.

For me? It was the first option. For two years the story I’m currently working on milled around on my hard drive wishing someone would talk to it. I still thought about the story. A few times I’d open up the document. But I rarely touched a key after doing so. Because motivation and inspiration are not necessarily the same thing. And motivating oneself in the absence of inspiration is a truly difficult task.

That’s the shitty part of being a would-be writer. You think you like writing. But you won’t enjoy it a lot of the time. Getting those first words down on the paper is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Finishing a first draft–not worrying about making it sound pretty, but just getting the damn thoughts out of your head and onto the page–that is a nightmare of a challenge. It sure as hell is for me.

But I’m not letting my lack of motivation halt me anymore. Sitting around always telling yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow, and just letting the fun ideas run the show is not the way to go. I won’t be a slave to the whims of inspiration, and if you’ve ever yearned to be a writer, published or otherwise, you shouldn’t either. Have your idea, and then kick that bastard book’s ass.

More on my stuff later, friends.

Pro-tip: Listen to Neil Young’s Harvest. Shit is the mood music of the gods.

Why History is just like Fantasy, and I’m Sorry but You’re Wrong if You Disagree: an Essay

Alright, folks. I would like to talk about my third major interest. So far I’ve divulged to you my love for both fantasy fiction, and good old ass-kicking. Now I’d like to discuss history. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how a good history and a good fantasy story are valuable and enjoyable for the same damn reasons.

I’ll preface my argument by recognizing that a lot of people have no interest in history. Well, you’re all wrong. Rather, you’ve been misled. I’m convinced that this distaste is the fault of poor teachers. You see, I’ve been blessed with good ones, and it’s likely the reason I enjoy the subject so much. History teachers (and teachers in general, for that matter) are best served by being weirdos. I’ve been taught by plenty of strange, eccentric instructors, and those are of course the ones that I remember. They’re also the ones whose material I remember best. One collected hand-painted figures of knights and castles. One had us reloading mock muzzle-loaders in a Revolutionary War reenactment. Another had us mummify one another in toilet paper, placing paper versions of our most treasured guts in jars. And the rest have been a bunch of clever, funny, and all-around different people.

That’s the thing about history. Just like its teachers, history is best when it’s different. It’s best because it’s different. It is the strangeness of history that makes it appealing to me, and to other people, I should think. Taught well, there is no subject that can fascinate like history. Shit’s crazy.

And that’s exactly why fantasy is the best of all genres. This is fact, of course. Ever since Howard and Tolkien decided the future of the genre by creating its two main branches–Sword & Sorcery and High Epic Fantasy, respectively–fantasy has been tied inseparably to the history of our own world. Both Howard and Tolkien wrote in worlds that were actually intended to be prehistoric versions of our own. Since then, we’ve moved towards the model of totally separate worlds for our characters to inhabit. But they’re all a lot like ours. The people and cultures that inhabit them are often straight out of our history, too.

George R. R. Martin’s Dothraki are obviously Mongols. His Seven Kingdoms? An admitted imitation of War of the Roses-era England. Joe Abercrombie’s Gurkhul is clearly based on the historical kingdoms of the Middle East. His Midderland is an island version of the Netherlands. Patrick Rothfuss’ Edema Ruh are gypsies. Tolkien and Howard both obviously drew from Celtic and Norse mythology and culture.

So does this make us writers of fantastic fiction unoriginal assholes? Yes. But it also gives us an opportunity to make our genre of choice sound really important and meaningful. You see, fantasy can let us look at our own world in a new light. In Lord of the Rings, we have the obvious anti-industrialization message that comes with Saruman’s destruction of the Isen valley. But it doesn’t seem too broad. You don’t read that and get pissed off because Tolkien is trying to push a message on you. Because you’re just as annoyed as the professor wants you to be. This isn’t Earth Saruman’s destroying–it’s Middle Earth, a place filled with creatures and people and plants that rely on us to protect them! Now that I think of it, Earth is like that too!

See what I mean? If you want, and you don’t have to, you can use fantasy fiction, especially alternate world fiction, to sell a message that would come across as heavy-handed in normal fiction.

But back to that thing about fantasy being different. I was always fascinated by medieval history, because Europe in the Middle Ages was a place that was just so different from our own time. Not in a pretty princesses and brave knights way, either. It was a rough, unforgiving time. The majority of people were poor peasants, often exploited by their noble lords. Men didn’t fight dispassionately with rifles, but with cold steel, face to face. And I’m not so naïve as to think that that’s a good thing, either. Battle was common, and it was awful. Kings ruled, and society was ordered by military prowess as much as by money and land.

The point is, I like fantasy and history for the same reasons. And history’s been letting me down. These days, it seems to be all about theory. Let’s theorize why Taft was imperialistic. Let’s talk about the social implications of Orientalism. We only seem to be asking questions about things that we already know, anymore. And I want something fantastic. I want the smell of five hundred year-old parchment. I want to see the scrawled words of someone who’s been dead for centuries–words that no-one has read for nearly that long. I want to discover the stories of the human past. And I want to create stories that ring true to those experiences, foreign, but oh so familiar.

So there’s my long-winded rant. I’ll try to think of something more exciting to talk about next time, after I finish my little action-writing series. But seriously folks. Read history. Read fantasy. You’ll live longer.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part One

What up suckas. It’s your good friend Discipulus again, and I’m here to make another hullabaloo. Last time I talked about fighting. Why I like fighting sports, why I desire to be an ass-kicking machine–you know, the good stuff. I thought it was about time I talked about writing on this blog, since that’s another passion of mine. But jumping straight from tapping bad guys to tapping keys seems like a big jump, so I figured I would segue.

So tonight I want to talk about fighting in books.

I’ll clear up a little first. I write fantasy. It’s mostly what I read, too. I always feel a little embarrassed when I say this, considering the state and reputation of much of modern fantasy–all Lord of the Rings rip-offs and stories about young farmer lads destined to defeat Not-Quite-Middle-Earth’s version of Satan. That’s not really my kind of fantasy. Not that I don’t like simple, predictable tales like that on occasion. But my true interest lies in the realm of gritty fantasy, a relatively new subgenre named in such a cliched fashion that, the term gritty having become a buzz-word as of late, you probably know instantly what kind of story I mean. And it’s not books filled with sand.

In fact, it’s likely you’ve seen Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on the book series that pretty much started this whole movement.

Ooh, I’d never thought of it like that. A movement. It feels good to be part of a movement. I’m suddenly empowered.

Anyway, that’s the sort of fantasy I like. The word fantasy sounds so wrong for this genre. What I really prefer is harsh medievalesque novels that flirt with the supernatural. But we’ll stick with fantasy for now, I guess. Easier to say, and I’m lazy.

Now, I don’t only like fantasy, but I do tend to read and watch things with a touch of realism to them. Some even go beyond realism into the realm of the downright pessimistic. Things like The Black Dahlia (which I just started reading–fantastic book so far), Joe Abercrombie’s novels, the Wire, Donnie Brasco. You get the idea. Things with a dark tone. Stories that don’t play around with idealized versions of the real thing, and often show the worst possible scenario instead. Tight focus on realistic characters that just live life the only way they know how.

Alright, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk more about people kicking ass.

You see, as a writer of fantasy, I have occasion to write an awful lot of fight scenes involving guys with swords wearing metal shirts. A good swording is great no matter how you color it, but as a lover of both medieval history and actual fighting, unrealistic fight scenes kind of irk me. They really irk me, in fact. Not only the action itself, even. I get annoyed at all manner of things that have to do with fighting and how it’s portrayed in books.

Things like wearing your sword on your back, whence it is literally impossible to draw it. Seriously, you’ve probably never thought of it, but it cannot be done. Same with giant, super-heavy swords. Why does Cloud from Final Fantasy need to use the almighty Buster Sword, a weapon so heavy that only he can lift it, not to mention wield it. It just doesn’t make sense. If you’re strong enough to lift a ton, you’ll be even more effective with only six to eight pounds, which is about how much a real sword of the same length as the Buster Sword would weigh.

So you see, as a writer, I understand visual appeal and all that, but I’m far more concerned with the real. I like things that feel like real life, even when they’re fantasy. Something else that people don’t seem to get. But that’s for another day. And so is the rest of this post! Soon, I shall talk about the actual writing of a fight scene, and why realism matters.

Piece.