2013/05/14 § Leave a comment
For a long time, I’ve struggled with reading (and wanting to write) fantasy. I was asking myself, should I occupy my time reading about things that don’t exist? Am I just escaping reality? Am I learning?
The answers, of course, are yes, no, yes.
I’ve come to realize that any story will be about more than its plot and characters. Every story will have ideas about the human experience, for the very simple reason that they are written by humans and for humans. Even the most basic of tale about hero X fighting the evil Y to achieve Z will raise important questions, about good and evil, about why Z is important, about struggle and heroism, etc. As to fantasy, well, first, it is never complete fantasy, in the sense of absolute fabrication. As I said before, any fantastic story will in some way relate to life because it is anchored in a human brain. Second, I think fantasy can allow for a cleaner and deeper exploration of what it is to be human (in part by confronting and comparing humanity with unhuman things).
I’ll stop there before I make an ass of myself with this pop philosophizing – I’m sure a lot of much more articulate/intelligent/educated people have discussed these questions and more in detail (please feel free to point me to any, thanks!).
Beyond concluding that writing fantasy would not be a waste of time, I’ve also come to realize that for me to write anything, I need to know what message I want to send, what themes I want to explore. I need to know that, in some way, I’m telling a story that matters.
So, what do I want to write about?
I want to write about heroism. I think it’s an important concept. It’s crucial for people, particularly the young, to have models to inspire their lives, and stories’ heroes can play that role. I’ve had plenty: Frodo and Sam, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Raistlin and friends, Paul Muad’Dib, Jason Bourne, Kaneda, the incomparable Drizzt, and many others. They taught me many things, or at least reinforced many lessons, about what counts in this world, what it is to be heroic (where I’m lacking is in the implementation…)
As I got older I’ve found that I lean more towards the grayer, more ambiguous fantasies, probably to mirror my growing awareness of the messiness of the world and of the unavoidable flaws in all of us. But heroism in that context is even more important. The crooked hero is much more inspiring than the strong and straight one, his story usually more beautiful. (Crime fiction is particularly good at that, authors like James Lee Burke or Dennis Lehane for example)
(Although I’ve found that I can be particularly touched by moments of transcendent accomplishment, which through exceptional characters show the greatness that humanity can achieve. Two I can think of, if fuzyly, right now come from Guy Gavriel Kay: first, in Sailing to Sarantium, the performance of the wounded champion at the horse race; and second, in the Lions of Al-Rassan, when the blind doctor performs surgery in the night (I’ve tried to be spoiler-free, not sure if you’ll recognize those). There are of course many, many others (Sam at Mount Doom, the arena battle between Rage and Voltan), moments of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things…)
So I want to write about what it is to be a hero in a messy world. But what kind of hero, and what kind of messy world?
I like heroes who are of above-average competence, and possibly extraordinary, though not necessarily. Ideally, their competence would come from effort and learning, rather than from talent (I tend to like when effort beats talent…). I like heroes who are persistent in the face of adversity. I like heroes who do what they must, no matter the consequences to themselves. I like heroes who are masters of their own faith, who are active drivers of their stories instead of simply passengers taken along for the ride (I don’t like Deus Ex Machina). I think I like intelligence more than physical prowess for plotting purposes (the wily detective), but I find feats of physiques always gripping. The best is when both are combined (fight/battle scenes!). I like wounded heroes, possibly cynical heroes, but not so much reluctant heroes, or if reluctant, more reluctant in words than deeds (posturing, that blazé thing…). And of course, I like heroes who have a decent moral compass.
So that’s who I’ll try to write. I have a few ideas in mind, the reformed bandit, the fallen mercenary, the young accidental protagonist… Not sure yet who’ll fit better (and if I can make them more than clichés).
For the messy world, I have this overarching idea grounded in some ways in our reality. It a universe where the way to other worlds is through magic, which I call Animancy (the ability to talk to the soul of reality, to affect its basic coding), not technology. In its distant past, in the age of its first civilizations (Atlantis, Hyperborea, etc.), humanity discovered Animancy and made its way to other worlds. But the kings of Man angered the established order of more powerful races and humanity’s empire was destroyed, with any knowledge of Animancy and its wonders erased from Earth, and with other worlds either eradicated or left adrift.
My story would be situated in one of the worlds originally colonized by humanity. I want a world gone wrong. A world of extremes but not far from ours in its organizations. I want a world where wealth is absolute power, where everything is for sale, where death is close and people commodities. I want to deal with the cost of power, the corruption of greed, the arrogance of lords.
And I want to put heroes in the face of all that, see what happens…
Nothing super original, and maybe too ambitious for me, but it’s worth a try, me thinks.
2013/05/13 § Leave a comment
Yeah, you heard me. Aaaeearrrggghh!
I suck. One week in and I’m already behind…
Not entirely. I gave myself two weeks to plan before starting to write for real, but this is not going as well as I would’ve hoped. It’s my eternal problem. I have all these disparate ideas, a portion of a setting, a piece of a message, a shadow of a character. They just don’t coalesce into anything writable.
I think my problem is impatience. I’m keeping everything in my head, and it doesn’t work there, but it’s as if I’m expecting for the words to pop out fully assembled into neat sentences and paragraphs and chapters.
I need to be more systematic. Put things on paper. Good planning is the key to smooth writing, as the very talented Rachel Aaron has said.
I like her 5-step method, but I’ve tried it a little bit and I’m not sure it’s the right fit. A similar approach that I think might suit me best is the Snowflake Method. Again, haven’t tried it fully, but at first brush it seems an interesting concept: first, write a sentence; then, write five, building around the first; and so on, with the plot and the characters, etc. It calls to the systemacist in me (hurrah for made-up words!).
I’ve been searching for the One-Sentence Summary of my story. Finding the “right” one is haaaaaaaaard…
I have a setting, and a general idea of the context, but the specific characters, the plot, remain elusive. What I have to ask myself is, what is my story about? What’s my Big Idea? What characters are best placed to incarnate that idea? Who would I enjoy telling stories about? What gets me engaged when reading?
Not sure yet, but getting there. I promise I’ll let you know.
2013/05/08 § Leave a comment
I said in my previous post that I would talk about the obstacles that I face in my goal to write. This could, of course, be an attempt to find in advance justifications for my future failures. I’ve decided to be more charitable with myself and view this as an exercise in introspection and in identifying what will likely trip me, so I can avoid it.
The obstacles I see fall into two categories: internal, having to do with my temperament and whatever passes for my brain, and external, linked with my environment and my situation. While the external obstacles will certainly be a pain if ignored, I think the internal obstacles are the most dangerous. Obviously, I’m not discovering the wheel here, this has been said by many before me. But it’s interesting nonetheless to actually do the examination for myself and realize that while environment is important, in the end I’m the master of my faith.
I should mention that I’ve had the luck to be born and stay relatively healthy, both physically and mentally, to come from a good family which valued curiosity, reading and education, to have lacked for very little while growing up, and to be from Canada, such that my education did not bury me under crushing mountains of debt. As such, none of my problems are real killers.
That said, these I think are the external obstacles I face:
WORK – That’s a problem every aspiring writer faces, I imagine. You need to pay the bills, and unless you’re good and productive enough, writing just has to fit around whatever it is that you have to do to earn money. That means writing in the morning or in the evening, or maybe during lunch time, and I guess that’s part of the game. My concern is that my work is intellectual, but not in any obvious way that will help me with fiction writing. I wonder whether one will interfere with the other: if I write in the morning (which is my prefered time), will my brain be fried or too much in my world when comes time to go to work? Or if I write in the evening, will I have the energy to do anything good? I’ll test both and see. Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze some decent 500 words per day sessions around my 8:30 to 18:00 work time (with commute). On the flip side, having decent work means I have money, which I can use for example to have someone proofread my stuff (see language below).
CHORES – To complicate matters a little, I’m the one who cooks at home, and it’s not about to change just for this project. So it’s not all free time in the evening. This is not so bad, because I think I’m most productive in the morning, but this, as well as all the little chores one has to do, is still something that takes away significant levels of available time. I take it as a universal law (or at least guideline) that chores are annoying.
SLEEP – This is the corollary to the work and chores obstacles. Together they have to do with the time available for writing, and the state I’m in when I get to it. I don’t sleep so well, usually waking early regardless of the hour at which I went to bed. That could be a good thing, because it means more time awake, but this awake time is not that useful if it’s spent in a haze of sleep deprivation-induced confusion. On this one, discipline is the key – going to bed early (but it means less time…), careful with the wine in the evening (I’m a wuss), and no tv after certain hours (damn those excellent series and funny comedies).
LANGUAGE – English is not my first language (I’m a Quebec Francophone). And while I think I’m decent at it, I’m certainly not that good. My English is mostly instinctual. I can never remember all the rules and correct spelling. I’ve put this as an external obstacle because this is the state of things now, and I can’t just will them otherwise. I can improve, of course, and I intend to do so, but it’s going to take some time. In the interim, it slows down the writing (I’m always looking for the correct word) and my range is limited, but it’ll have to do. Why do I write in English then? Good question… Part of it is that I’ve been reading in English for 20 years now, so it’s the language I’m most used to for fiction, and particularly for fantasy or science fiction. To me, those universes are English universes (and, to be frank, Dragonbane or Darkslayer simply do not have the same punch in French: Fléau des dragons, Pourfendeur de l’ombre… It’s just really, really not the same). Also, and this is the capitalist in me speaking, if ever I reach a point where I can sell stuff, there is a much bigger market in the English than French world.
Now, the terrible trifecta of internal obstacles:
PAIN – This will come as no surprise to those who do this for a living (or for fun), but writing, and most importantly writing well, is hard. Really, really hard. And I have a tendency to shirk hard things. To procrastinate (by writing a blog for example, instead of writing my story). I am lazy and have little discipline, and I really hate that about myself (I greatly admire perseverance in the face of adversity as a quality – to me it’s one of the defining traits of heroes). To quote Teddy, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty”. So, writing is not only about writing, but also about becoming someone I can be proud of. Tough order…
FEAR – As I’ve said before, I have been telling people I want to write for more than 20 years. But I never actually wrote anything. Part of it is that it’s hard, but part of it is that it’s scary: what if I can’t cut it? What if I fail? Best argument ever for not trying… No chance you’re gonna fail! Not a chance you’ll have to conclude you’re just not good enough. Seriously, it sucks. With a few exceptions, I’ve mostly taken the well-lit path, the secure track (mainly school oriented – I was always good at school), rarely venturing in the shadows, where the exciting things happen. But it’s never brought me any deep satisfaction. It’s a cliché, but I want to be able to say that, even if I fail, even if I’m not good enough, at least I’ll have tried writing. Failure is okay. It’s disappointing, but it shouldn’t be so scary that it stops you from going forward. Writing is my gom jabbar: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear…
DOUBT – Fear and difficulty have a nasty cousin, and he’s called doubt. More precisely, doubt of my abilities. I think that, deep down, I have this belief that I’m not capable of doing this, or at least not well enough. This belief is reinforced by most things I read – “there is no way I can write something like that,” says I. But I’ve come to realize that this doubt is anchored in an illusion: it is about the now, not the then, but it is the then that matters. Of course my writing is not good enough! I’ve never really written. But it will get better, if I write. Whether it’ll get good enough is another question, but I will never know if I let my doubts of the present stop me. Also, doubt is a crippler if I approach this from the wrong perspective. While trying to write is important to me and I’m curious to see where it leads, I’ve come to realize that it need not be anything more than a hobby. For writing to be something that I do, it must be fun. I love creating stories, and that creation must be free of expectations. I’ve tended to be drawn to writing in great part because of the perceived lifestyle, and thus as something one does for a living. If seen in that lens, of course doubt is debilitating: if you don’t have the skills, you don’t make money. But if writing is just something I do, without imperatives other than my own growth, if I don’t expect it to draw anybody other than myself, then doubt looses all strength.
To recap, the key to facing my external obstacles, mainly time constraints, will be organization and discipline. And English lessons. For the internal obstacles, I need to embrace the zen of writing, to write for writing’s sake, without expectations other than the pleasures of the words. I will embrace pain and fear and doubt, and I will breathe, then I will burp, and they will be carried away by the wind…
PS: In a little less than to two hours of writing this post this morning I’ve managed to put together close to a thousand words of not-total crap. Things are looking good if I can do the same when the time to write my story comes!
2013/05/06 § Leave a comment
The Wanderer came to the Man’s house on a warm summer day at dusk. She found the Man siting on his porch sipping a cool beer and watching the night fall.
“Come have a seat,” the Man said, gesturing to the empty chair beside him. “You look weary from your travels.”
“Thank you,” replied the Wanderer. “I have long been on the road.” She walked to the porch and settled in the chair with a contended sight.
“Beer?” the Man asked.
“Please, that would be wonderful.”
The Man reached behind him and pulled a glistening bottle from a bucket filled with half-melted ice. He twisted the cap off and handed it to the Wanderer. She took a long swallow. “This is good stuff.”
For a while they sat there in silence, listening to the crickets and the wind stir the leafs. Soon the night was full, lit only by the twinkle of the fireflies in the meadows and the clear light of the fields of stars above.
“You have been gone for many years,” the Man said. “What have you seen this time?”
The Wanderer gave a small smile, the corner of her mouth turning up. So many things in that question! The curiosity and the reproach, The bitterness and the longing. She turned to the Man. He sat straight, looking not at her but into the darkness, nothing in his bearing hinting at the weight of his question. She sunk into her chair and lost herself in memories.
“I have seen many wonders, my friend,” the Wanderer said. “I have seen the crumbled towers and ruined streets of lost Andaï, which they once called the jewel of the south. I have seen and heard – the sound is terrible, a roar of the gods that resonates in your every bone – the five cataracts of the river Quel, each taller and wider than the previous, each spilling in an hour more water than Calyrshan drinks in a year. I have walked the thousand bridges of Maekhin and talked with the Necromancers of Dis. In the West, on the shores of the Endless Sea, I have seen the winddancers of the Ekemel perform their sacred rituals and summon the Kaishi-Gar. I have seen armies and walls and dead bodies littering the fields. I have seen giant trees and endless forests and prairies the color of emerald. I have seen countless cities and roads, majestic rivers and mountains, humbling storms and sunrises. I have seen the world, my friend, and now I am home.”
Her words hung over them for a moment, the rest of the world silent, as if it was holding his breath. Then a breeze ruffled their hair and the night sounds came back.
The Man lowered his chin to his chest and sighted. The sound pulled at the Wanderer’s hearth. “I wished I had come with you,” he said. “I wish I’d had the courage to leave as you did.”
“It’s not too late,” she replied. “It’s never to late. You just have to go one step at a time, and soon you’ll be boarding a barge at Urmil, on your way to the wonders of this world.”
The moon had risen now, and when the Man turned to look at the Wanderer she could see its reflection in his eyes. “A step at a time,” the Man said. “That’s something I could do. I could give myself an objective, you know, something to strive for. What about 20,000 steps to start? That should get me somewhere interesting.”
“Maybe,” replied the Wanderer. “The important thing is to get up and get going.”
“Excellent!” He was excited now, sitting at the edge of his seat. “One step at a time, 20,000 steps to start. But, now that I think about it, I walk a few steps every day. Just to go to the outhouse from here, it’s about 25 steps, so 50 there and back. Since I usually go about twice a day, that’s a hundred steps right there.”
“Wait,” said the Wanderer. “That’s not what…”
The Man seemed not to hear. “So, in 200 days, I got all the steps I need. Shit, seven months and I’m done. That’s shorter than giving birth to a baby! You’re a genius, my friend. I’ll see the world, one step at a time.”
The Wanderer groaned…
All that to say, writing 20,000 words is all well and good, but it can’t just be any crap, otherwise all it’ll do is stink (maybe I’m pushing the metaphor a little too far here). So, to go forward with the 20,000 objective, there are two more things to decide: 20,000 of what, and for when.
WHAT? Essentially, there are three genres I read: fantasy (including urban fantasy), scifi, and crime. They all have their pros and cons from my perspective (that of somebody settling down to write for the first time in his life). I think I’ll try fantasy. It’s my first love, what I read the most and imagine the most, and it lets you do pretty much anything setting-wise as long as its coherent. It does require more world building than, say, crime (I have concerns regarding my ability to describe stuff…), but again it will be good practice. I think the story I want to try will have hints of crime fiction in it, but we’ll see. It may also lean towards the steampunk (for the trains, airships, and rifles, mostly), but I’ll have to think on that too.
WHEN? I’ve been thinking about this one a lot (I seem to be doing a lot of that recently…). The key, apparently, is to write everyday, no matter how much, just to get the muscles going. I can probably do that, or something close. But, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to produce each day. I’ll probably write a post about the obstacles I face, but suffice to say here that between my work and my home duties and not sleeping well and this being really hard (duh), I think aiming for 2,500 words a week is a reasonable start. 500 words per weekday, with the weekend as a bonus to catch up when I’ve missed it (and that’s not counting the time to keep my dear reader(s) abreast of my progress via this blog). It’s a very tame number, and I’ll readjust after two or three weeks, but to start I think I need to be careful (the maxim of the public servant: under-promise but over-deliver!). At that pace, I’d get my 20,000 words in 8 weeks. Plus 2 for the planning, and I should be done the first draft in two-and-a-half months. Sounds reasonable I think.
To conclude, my objective now is: To write the first draft of a 20,000 word fantasy story within 10 weeks. With the start of the counter set at today, that means it would be due July 15. This is good since my birthday is a few days after that. A present to myself!
2013/05/01 § Leave a comment
I’ve made my commitment: to write (see Introductions). Now what?
Now it’s time to plan!
I’ve always be fond of planning. At this stage, sky is the limit. Everything fits together nice and tidy. You are imposing order, your order, on the chaos and uncertainty of the future. Your path is as you make it, straight or meandering, simple or tentacular, ingenuous or Machiavellian. You are the master, and the Universe bows to your will.
Then comes implementation, and the Universe shows you who the real boss is. Implementation’s a bitch.
All that to say, planning can be fun, but, to paraphrase a famous man, one has to be realistic.
For me, the first step would be to establish a writing objective. It’s all well and good to say I want to write, but what does that mean? I’m writing now, is that enough? Or is success a 1,000,000-word-plus decalogy?
Given my unimpressive history at writing, I think I need to start with something modest that will yield tangible results in the relatively short-term. Something to get me started, you know? To show me over the next few weeks/months whether I can actually do it.
Not a short story. Although I’ve read some amazing short stories, I’ve found I’m not a big fan of the genre – they usually leave me unsatisfied. (Please don’t see this as a denigration of short story writers. The skill and focus needed to wrap up a good story in so little words is impressive. I’m just more of a long-form kinda guy.)
I’m thinking something more along the lines of 20,000-25,000 words. I see that as an equilibrium point between having sufficient story space to tell something complex and multifaceted and starting with something manageable (for me). I like stories with twists and mysteries, and these need to be set up at some length. But I need to be careful not to get entangled in too many characters, too many arcs, too much world building. I know from experience that I must be wary of projects that are too long-term with nebulous ends. I’m not terribly good at getting them done. To get me on the road, 20,000 is words enough that it will be good practice, without committing me too early to the long haul that could kill my new-found resolve.
A good example that this can be an interesting length is The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, estimated to be approximately 30,000 words in length. It’s a nifty story, well told and well-rounded, and I’d love to be able to draft something even a tenth as good.
This (writing) being entirely new to me, I’m probably misguided in my assessments. But, you know what they say: a rock won’t learn to roll down a mountain if it won’t try to roll down a cliff. Yeah, they say that. What I mean is, I’ll learn! That’s the whole point of this thing. Of course, if somebody as any sort of insight, I’d be happy to hear it.
I’ve consciously set aside publishing considerations from the setting of my objective. What I need at this stage is to develop a work habit and a writing discipline, and see what fits with my other life (work, cooking diner, that sort of thing). Thinking about publication can come once I’ve written a few hundred thousand words more…
So, my objective is: to write a story of at least 20,000 word.
This is of course incomplete. It doesn’t even take care of the what: 20,000 words about what? And when do I plan to be done? Stay tuned for Part II…
2013/04/28 § Leave a comment
Universe: Hum, what’s up doc?
Universe: So, what can I do for you?
Me: I want to tell stories.
Universe: Okay. Good for you!
Me: Stories have done so much for me. They’ve carried me, entertained me, made me think. They brought me to other worlds when ours was disappointing. They introduced me to a thousand people, made me live their hopes and dreams, made me understand their fear and hanger. They taught me much, on good and evil, on values and aspirations, on living and living well. I would like, is some small way, to do that for others.
Universe: I applaud the sentiment.
Me: I want to tell stories of adventure and mysteries. Of war and peace and love, of intrigues and deceit and murder. I want to tell stories with guns and swords, with lost civilizations and spaceships, with corrupt politicians and reluctant heroes and secretive sages. I want to tell of magics and dragons and cyborgs, of knights and AI’s, of doomsday weapons, of invading hordes, of detectives and ghosts and priests. I want to create worlds of strange vistas but familiar souls, where one can get lost and live, if but for a brief moment. I want to tell stories where all is lost and all is gained but at what price. I…
Universe: Pardon me. Could I interrupt for a moment?
Me: Of course.
Universe: Why are you telling me all this? I mean, telling stories is what your species does, how you build your cognitive structures. If you were, let’s say, a Païrouki, then you’d have a problem. They don’t have a speck of a narrative bone in their body (they actually don’t have bones at all, but you get my drift). But you’re an Earthling! Telling stories is in your DNA, for Me’s sake!
Me: Yeah, I know.
Universe: So, again, why the rant? Why not just tell stories?
Me: Well, I want to be a writer.
Me: But I don’t really write.
Me: What was that?
Universe: What was what?
Me: I thought I heard a groan. It seemed to be coming from your left clavicle.
Universe: Oh, that. That’s nothing. It’s just my writerverse. I think I pulled it yesterday playing squash. It’s been bothering me ever since.
Me: Nice try, but it’s okay. It is ridiculous. If there’s just one rule out there for writing, one that everybody agrees on, it’s to write. Every day. As much as you can. It’s that 10,000 hours thing. It’s the only way to get good. I know there is no shortcut. To be a writer, you need to write.
Universe: So, why don’t you?
Me: Laziness? Fear? I tell myself I can’t do it, that I’m not good enough, so why try? I’ve been brewing story ideas in my mind for twenty years, the outline of a character here, the opening gambit of an intrigue there. They’re always there, but they’re incomplete. I can never get to the complete story, I never feel I know where I’m going, so I don’t write. But I know that to get the full picture, I’d need to start writing, to put things to paper, to progressively build. I don’t, so I’m stuck.
Universe: What’s changed? I’m assuming there’s a purpose to this conversation other than you flogging yourself.
Me: Well, I’m getting, not old, but older. I’ll be 35 in a few months. And my job, while a good, well-paid job, it’s simply not doing it for me. I can’t put my heart and soul into it. It’s not enough. And reading stories and watching movies is not enough either. I’m finding it harder and harder to find stuff that’ll transport me. It may be I’m becoming more discerning, but I think it’s also that, as I read or watch, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says “That’s not where this should go.” or “This is what I would have liked to see.” or “Hey, this is my idea!” or, most often, “I wish I could do that.” I need an exorcism. I’ve been telling myself and my friends that I would like to write for most of my life. I need to be able to say that I tried, even if it comes to nothing. I don’t want to have the regrets on my deathbed.
Universe: Alright. Where to from here?
Me: This blog, it’s my commitment to you, the Universe, to write, to produce stories and try to sell them. By consigning my goals to the Internet and its multitudes, I’m betting that I won’t be able to invoke the easy excuses of the past, and that I’ll actually write. In return, I’m counting on you to smite me with the full fury of your karmic retribution should I fail to hold to my commitment.
Universe: You sure? Karmic justice can be a bitch. You could end up the hamster pet of an eight-year-old who never changes the litter, or a mold in somebody’s basement, only good to give emphysema.
Me: It’s a risk I’m willing to accept, if it means I don’t waste this life.
Universe: Jay P. Brass, we have a deal. I’ll be watching.