Poems

I don’t often write poetry, but when I do…I have no idea if it’s any good.

Nevertheless, I’ve felt myself compelled more and more to write poems lately (having not written anything of the sort in long years), and I’ve come up with a few that I think might be decent (at least worth revising and/or expanding some time in the future). Here are a few for your reading pleasure (I hope!):

Turn Back Again
Where does ignorance become willfulness?
Where does fear become evil?
Is it the striking snake or the stampeding cow?
Is it the deceitful mirage or the devastating storm?
Or are these phenomena ours alone,
We who build marvels to behold,
We who write so as to move the heart,
We who sing praises as we cover ourselves in ash and dirt?
Where is the place of responsibility?
Where the locus of guilt?
Why do we only know that place once we’ve passed it?
And why do we never turn back again?

A Balm in Gilead
There is a balm in Gilead,
But it is not what you think.
For all healing requires pain,
So that we know when we are finished.
All else is only covering a wound,
Letting it fester and rot until we become numb,
Until the stench becomes too much and the flesh sloughs away,
Leaving us to exclaim, “From whence this new wound?”

Patreon Planning

I’ve thought about it since my first post on this subject, and I’m deciding to take the leap and create a Patreon to see how it goes in expanding my production and helping me to push forward toward my goals as a writer.

First and foremost, the Patreon will not replace this blog. You should still expect to see weekly (most of the time, anyway) posts on the blog on all of the usual subjects. Instead, the Patreon will supplement the blog by providing focused materials for a portion of the blog’s readers–I do not expect that everyone who reads my writings here will be interested in what the Patreon has to offer.

The Patreon will consist of setting material, RPG rules, and fiction for my fantasy world, Avar Narn. Each week, I’ll provide patrons with a minimum of 2,500 words of background material on the world. RPG rules and fiction will be included as it is written.

Look for another post soon that gives you a “pitch” for the Avar Narn setting, so that you can see what you’d be getting into if you’re not already familiar from following the blog. You can read some of the stories and work on the “My Writing” page to get a feel for things as well.

I will be setting up three Patreon tiers with the following material:

“Tourist” Tier: For $3 per month, Patrons will receive access to a monthly newsletter and the weekly blog posts with setting material.

“Explorer” Tier: For $5 per month, Patrons will receive the benefits of the “Tourist” Tier, plus access to RPG mechanics posts, access to a Discord server to participate in a community exploring the setting together in which I will directly and regularly participate, and the ability to vote on specific topics for me to address in subsequent months.

“Venture Captain” Tier: At $8 per month, this tier includes everything in the previous tiers plus access to work-in-progress fiction set in Avar Narn (including in the immediate future the revisions and rewrites of the novel Things Unseen) and “behind-the-scenes” posts on my methods and strategies for developing the information seen in weekly posts.

Money from the Patreon will most likely be used to purchase tools, books, and services (such as the creation of artwork) to further expand the material available for Avar Narn, with the plan of eventually publishing setting books and roleplaying rules to accompany the novels and short stories I hope to publish. If the Patreon income becomes significant enough (which I do not expect), then I may use some of it to pay bills and devote more time to writing (meaning more material both in general and for Patreon).

I expect to launch the Patreon with the new year. I’d really love to hear from you if you are interested, have comments or criticisms of the above-described plan. Feel free to leave comments or send me a message or email. In all honesty, I’m a little nervous about starting this venture and would love to know that there’s actually a desire for it.

I will be posting material for other settings on this blog, but these materials will not be nearly as regular nor as detailed as those for Avar Narn on the Patreon. Depending upon how the Patreon goes, I will consider adding some of those other settings to the Patreon (with an increase in detail and frequency of writing of material for them) if doing so looks feasible to add value without detracting from my work on Avar Narn or burning me out.

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

A Third View of Worldbuilding

The past month has been rather silent on the blog, and for that I apologize. I’ve got a few half-written posts that I’m letting percolate a while and I’ve spent a good deal of that time continuing to expand and refine my fictional setting, Avar Narn.

In undertaking that task, I’ve been thinking a bit about the process and craft of worldbuilding, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

I’ve called this post “A Third View of Worldbuilding” to contrast against the two most-commonly-described approaches to building fictional settings: the “top-down approach” and the “bottom-up approach.” As the title suggests, I’m going to offer a third way in this post, one I’ll call the “archaeological” approach. But first, let’s get some definitions of the established approaches.

A Note on Historical Analogues
I think it worthwhile to have a quick sidebar discussion about reliance on examples from the real world in building fictional worlds. There seems to me to be a sense that drawing upon real-world analogues for building nations, cultures, religions, and other aspects of the setting is lazy or uncreative. I’d argue that the use of such analogy is both unavoidable and valuable to worldbuilding when done purposefully and carefully.

Reference to our world is inescapable because humans lack the capacity to create something new ex nihilo. All human creativity is a matter of taking the blocks of what we know and arranging them into new patterns that no one’s thought about before. Lean into it and cut yourself some slack.

I’ve got a quotation at the beginning of my Avar Narn worldbuilding notebook from writer of fiction and roleplaying game content Ari Marmell, and I think it makes the point as concisely as possible. He says, “Originality is great–as a tool for writing good stories and compelling characters, or as a byproduct thereof. It should never be your goal; your goals should be, well, writing a good story and creating compelling characters.”

Some examples that I think prove his point:

The Witcher setting draws very heavily from medieval history and fairy tales to provide the core of its narratives. We don’t read those novels because we’re looking for a completely innovative setting; we read them because Geralt and his companions are interesting characters and the stories they find themselves within are fascinating and entertaining. Those stories benefit from their groundedness in the pseudohistoricity of the setting.

Abercrombie’s First Law setting likewise draws upon historical analogues (though not necessarily to the same extent as The Witcher) to build the setting (and quickly clue the reader into it). Angland has its roots in England (obviously) and in Norse/Germanic cultures. The Gurkish Empire finds its footing in the historical Muslim (and particularly Ottoman, I think) states–though this footing either purposefully draws upon some Western romantic (I hesitate to use that phrase because the Western romanticism of the Near East is rarely positive) or it curves in that direction because of the narrative and setting itself. I don’t want to imply any judgment there, because I don’t think there’s an agenda behind Abercrombie’s choices except to write compelling fiction. Styria has, of course, the feel of Renaissance Italy.

Tolkien drew heavily upon Anglo-Saxon culture for the Rohirrim (it was his academic specialty, after all).

Brandon Sanderson’s feruchemy, allomancy and hemalurgy are so fascinating precisely because they contrast so starkly with Western historical magical ideas (and thus what we typically expect in Western fantasy fiction), while Jim Butcher uses those same ideas (the historical Western ideas about magic) as a starting point to establish depth and interest in his urban fantasy, The Dresden Files.

In roleplaying games and in speculative short fiction, the use of close adherence to historical analogues can quickly establish setting, useful for getting an unfamiliar audience invested quickly. John Wick’s roleplaying games 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings are prime examples.

All of this is to say that you should beg, borrow and steal from real-world examples to build your fictional worlds. Just do so thoughtfully and intentionally and you’ll be held in good stead, no matter how much you eventually veer from the “source material.”

The Top-Down Approach
The Top-Down Approach suggests that you start with the general, the big ideas of the setting, and work your way down to the details based upon those big ideas. This approach works well for fiction writers, where the setting ought to be considered in relation to the kinds of stories you want to tell, to the themes and motifs of the works you’re considering, and to the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your audience.

No approach to worldbuilding is without its disadvantages, however. The Top-Down Approach runs the risk of creating generic settings that feel like the two-dimensional facades of buildings on the main street of some theme park–it’s just so easy to rely entirely on historical analogues to provide all of the details. Without reliance on reference to the real world, it can be hard to know where to begin with the Top-Down Approach and easy to end up with contradictory details as you develop different aspects of the setting and bring them together.

The Bottom-Up Approach
In this approach, you start with a limited part of the setting, developing in detail, before using that beachhead as a jumping-off point for expansion into larger aspects of the world. The Bottom-Up method is great for getting stuck right into a story or game–you start with only what you need to get going and add on only when the scope of your narrative needs to expand. There’s a reason that Dungeons and Dragons encourages GMs to create a small adventure setting first (a town or village “hub” with adventure sites in the surrounds) to begin a game. Sometimes you really only need the 2-d facade because all of the story will take place on the main street.

This is easier with writing rather than gaming, where a reader can’t spontaneously decide to peek behind the curtain. But it’s not a bad thing either, because the ability to improvise new setting details (or to offer your players the opportunity to fill in details) can add new and unexpected dimensions to the setting, which is both meaningful and entertaining.

The biggest danger of Bottom-Up creation, I think, is that you end up with a “kitchen-sink” setting, where everything needs to be pigeonholed into the setting somewhere (I’d argue that this is the case with D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting) so that the world feels more like a theme park than a living, functioning, believable world. As a corollary to that, if you have multiple Bottom-Up aspects developed concurrently before moving to higher-level issues, you end up with a mish-mash of ideas instead of a cohesive setting with central themes and ideas. I don’t mean to say that that’s wrong–our own world has no clear cut definitions of what it means, so there’s realism to be found there as well. But in terms of narrative, having cues about what you’re about (or what your setting’s about, anyway) can be helpful.

A Third Way
Now for my own point: (not the) third way for worldbuilding. We’re going to use archaeology as our analogue here (hence my calling this the “archaeological approach,” of course). When archaeologists are excavating a site, they first set up a marked grid so that the location of each object found can be carefully recorded as they go. A single archaeologist can only work in one cell of the grid at a time, but a useful interpretation of the site only develops as multiple cells are excavated. The interpretation the archaeologist had after excavating area A1 may change dramatically after excavating cell D4, so she may need to go look at A1 again to rework her thoughts. Eventually, a cohesive interpretation of the whole will develop, but only as different cells are examined over time.

The same occurs between different archaeological sites. What is discovered in one place might drastically change the interpretation of an earlier-excavated site. And, good archaeologists leave parts of the site unexcavated and preserved for future scholars, who will arrive to continue the work armed with more sophisticated tools and, hopefully, knowledge about the site and culture being investigated that the earlier archaeologists didn’t have.

Okay, this is essentially nothing new–my point is that the art of worldbuilding shouldn’t be simply top-down or bottom-up; it’s a back and forth, a jumping around–the assembly of a puzzle rather than the construction of a building. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” are merely constructs for discussing the art of worldbuilding anyway; I seriously doubt that most worldbuilders engage solely in one method, or even in a dogmatically rigid sequence of building a setting. I certainly don’t. You have to use what works best for you: your personality, work habits and creative style. I’ll follow this with some concrete tips that have worked for me.

Tips for the “Archaeological Approach”

1. Always be ready to change what you’ve established in light of new “discoveries.”
This is one of the most effective tools for originality in a setting and one of the most rewarding aspects of worldbuilding (at least when done for its own sake). This is very much like discovering new things about your characters or plot when writing a novel. In worldbuilding, as you add details to the history, geography and cultures of your world, you’ll start to have little epiphanies about the consequences of those choices or contradictions between details that develop because of them. If you’re consistently ready to take those developments and go back through what you’ve established, metaphorically ironing out the kinks, the setting will begin to develop in some unexpected ways that add depth, detail, and verisimilitude. I believe I’ve said before in a different post that my favorite thing about Max Brooks’ book World War Z is how, if you can just suspend belief for the zombies, the stories and political events that the novel describes make logical sense based on real-world political realities and history. The more places someone investigating your settings says, “Aha! X happened because of Y and Z,” the more immersive and believable your setting becomes, no matter how fantastic.

2. Put pins in things.
To try to maintain flow in the process of worldbuilding, try to avoid letting yourself get hung up on details that you’re not ready to fill in yet. Some examples, if you’re working through your setting’s history and a new nation crops up, don’t feel like you have to go define that nation’s culture and separate history right away. Put a pin in those subtopics and continue working on the task at hand.

For me, this helps in two ways: First, it helps me to stay efficient, focusing my efforts where I’m ready to make good use of my time instead of following rabbit trails that I’m not mentally prepared for. Second, when I do run into writer’s block in my current task, it gives me ready alternatives to shift to so that I can continue making useful worldbuilding efforts instead of having to put the whole thing down for a while to let it sit.

This works both for details and–especially–for names. If I don’t have ready names in hand when I come to a new character or place in Avar Narn, I tend to change my font to bold (so that I remember I need to come back to the detail) and put a shorthand description of the thing in brackets so that I can keep going with the narrative.

3. Keep lists.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m too tired or distracted to have the mental wherewithal to conduct some serious worldbuilding, but I want to do something useful to keep progress going. I’ll play around with an online name generator, taking the output and modifying it into names I like or that I think would have a place in one of Avar Narn’s languages. I’ll make lists of interesting cultural oddities, quirks or nuances that I might be able to “plug into” a culture as I’m developing it, speeding along the development of granularity of detail. Hell, I’ll make lists of topics I need to develop, so that when I’m feeling creative (or sitting myself down to be creative–damn how I feel about it!), I have options in front of me so that I can select the one that most appeals at the time and get straight to it.

4. Be Able to See the Forest.
Organizing your work is essential in worldbuilding. If you don’t, you’ll lose details altogether or have to rework some of the work you’ve already done to account for them. More important than that, though, is the ability to take a quick high-level approach to see how things are fitting together. How developed is your setting at this moment? Are you working on helpful details or just adding more to the setting that may never come into play? If you’re worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake–and I think it is a worthwhile exercise even if you never plan to do anything with your setting–this doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re developing a setting for a roleplaying game or for fiction and you’ve got some extrinsic or intrinsic deadline for kicking off the game or writing, you want to be able to make sure you’re not spending in the weeds–naming that delicious pie shop at the end of the world your characters will never visit.

Overall, I mean to say that you should be able to move into a temporary top-down approach when that suits you.

5. Be able to see the trees.
Modern historians no longer view history as a collection of the exploits and ideologies of the elite–they rightfully recognize that most events have multiple confluences of causes that come together to trigger them in a particular place and time. Looking at the finer details allows you to make larger-scale choices that seem to flow naturally and consequentially from those smaller choices.

In other words, be able to move into a bottom-up approach when useful.

6. Be a sponge.
Samuel Johnson said, “Never trust a man who writes more than he reads.” Fair point.

Soak up all the information you can: about how the world works, about how people work, examples of real-world history and culture, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If you accept as true that human creativity is a matter of rearranging the blocks we already have into new structures, put as many different blocks in your toy box as you can. But, don’t let sponging up knowledge be all that you do. This is an excuse I often use myself; I’ll tell myself I’m sponging up information right now, and when I have enough, I’ll get back to the worldbuilding. There’s never enough, so use what you have even as you’re getting more.

Conclusion
I won’t say that there are “a lot” of worldbuilding books out there, but there are a few. I personally find them useful for providing with checklists of things to think about as I’m building my world, but I’ve never found any of them to be a panacea or ready guide to doing the damn thing.

In my mind, worldbuilding is and should be an organic process, difficult to predict in its details or course, much less in its results. It’s a journey you have to walk, not an engineering plan to rigidly follow. Your experience may differ vastly, of course.

As a final thought, lest you think that I am blind to the downsides of the approach I’ve argued for in comparison to top-down and bottom-up methods: this organic, back-and-forth approach of worldbuilding is time-consuming and risks becoming the object in and of itself. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of it, that’s not a problem. But if you have purpose(s) in mind for your setting once it’s “ready,” remember that at some point you’ve got to start actually running that RPG or writing that novel.

Nano-Update: Final!

It is finished.

Last week, both of the kids had the flu, so between trying to get work done and staying home with them, it became difficult to put all of the time into writing that I had hoped to. Neither K and I seemed to have caught it (thank God!), but I think we’re both still feeling a bit exhausted in scrambling to make sure they were comfortable while meeting work deadlines and trying to plan for the holidays.

Nevertheless, while I didn’t write as much as I’d wanted to, I did get enough in to hit my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Yay! I win! Although, I have to admit that I don’t actually feel much at all about hitting that deadline. The things I feel good about–a constant schedule of writing, feeling productive and creative while writing, reaping the benefits of the massive amount I’ve time I put into plotting the novel–really don’t have much to do with the event itself. And, given that the novel is looking more and more like it’s going to be right at 150,000 words when complete, 50,000 doesn’t feel like quite the big milestone it might be. I realize that this kind of treatment of NaNoWriMo might make me an asshole (I feel like it does given that completing NaNoWriMo is a significant achievement on the way to finishing a novel for aspiring writers such as myself). But, as they say with unassailable logic, “It is what it is.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m trying to finish (the first draft of) the whole thing by the end of the year; while I’ve previously been optimistic about this, the events of this past week especially have made me wonder whether I’ll be able to keep that up in light of all of life’s competing demands (though I do now believe that, if I didn’t have to work a “day” job, I could be a prolific writer). In order not to stress myself out overmuch, while I will continue to try to get the draft done by the end of the year, I’m going to focus more on making time to constantly work on it until it gets finished than worry too much about the deadline. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ve got a few side projects that will make their way to the blog in the near future. One, a set of optional rules for cybernetics and human augmentation in the Fate RPG system, should be out in a week or so.

Another (which I’m quite proud of) is an Excel spreadsheet to make adjusting Fate’s “dials” easy for planning new settings and campaigns in the system. There is a single-page Fate worksheet for this, but the dials it includes are relatively basic and do not account for many innovative rules mods that have been added by the many books that have been published since Fate Core first released. This spreadsheet will incorporate (by reference only–I’m avoiding any copyright issues by providing explanations of the rules referenced) sources from the Fate Toolkits to the Fate Plus and Fate Codex periodicals to rules from various published settings (like Transhumanity’s FateTachyon SquadronInterface Zero 2.0, etc.)

“Dials” will include variables such as number of character aspects, general category each aspect should fit, special aspects rules, whether you’re using Approaches or Skills (or both!), what your skill list will be (from options I’ve developed for my own games), what starting Refresh will be, how magic, gear, weapons, armor and human augmentation will be treated (if they need to have special rules at all), how many and what type of stress tracks you’ll use (and how they’ll be calculated), whether you’ll be using rules for Resources and Contacts, how consequences will be factored, how recovery will work, how character advancement will work and much more. It makes me excited to plan out different potential settings and games, and I hope to share that excitement with you. It is certainly possible to do all of this planning without the kind of tool I’m working on, but the spreadsheet (I think) allows you to look at the “big picture” and think about various rules mods you’re going to use will all fit together. I know one of my issues with the customization of the Fate system is that I get tempted to do too much when simpler methods can often accomplish the same results (or similar enough) while better keeping to the elegance and efficiency of the system altogether.

Spreadsheets with automatic referencing and drop-down menus is about the closest I get to computer programming, but I do enjoy it when I need something a bit more rote and that doesn’t take too much brain power to work on. This has been a little respite for those times when I’m too tired to write creatively but not ready to sit still and passively watch TV or something (at least not without multitasking, a bad habit of mine).

All of this is to say that I’ll be returned to doing some more regular posting on the blog in addition to trying to keep up with the novel’s progress. More to come soon!

Nano-Update 3

I’m in the home stretch. As of this post, I’m at 40,588 words written, and that’s still after having some of my worst days writing this NaNoWriMo (one dismal 600-word day and an 1100 word day this week).

At my current average pace and goal, I’ll finish by the 20th or 21st. With NaNoWriMo at least. More and more now, though, I’m thinking about the goal of having the whole thing finished, in first draft, before the end of the year. If I can keep up this pace, I can do it. As I’ve mentioned, it’s looking like the novel will be somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished, so that gives me somewhere between 35 and 47 days to the end of the novel. As of today, there are 44 more days in the year.

I worry about keeping up that pace, though. I’m worried that I’ll do the same thing I do when I’m running–I’ll push too hard to fast and then tire myself out early and be unable to run the entire distance I’d planned for. I’m not a distance runner by any means (and I like having run much more than I like running), and I’d like to think that I’m a much better writer than runner (certainly I write much more consistently than I run), so maybe this isn’t the best analogy. But, having not attempted to write at this pace for that long before, its the uncertainty that threatens. Isn’t that always the way of things?

On the other hand, though, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe this pace is relatively easily sustainable. The goal I’ve been setting for myself is to write 2,700 words per day, and I’m hitting that more days than I’m not. It’s been taking me about two hours to hit that word count when I’m focused, and I’m finding it a bit easier to focus each time I sit down to write.

What’s more, I’m finding that, at the conclusion of a session, I still want to write. I often want to work on some side project rather than continuing the novel, some of which will make their way to the blog in the near future, I’m sure, but I don’t feel that my creative juices are exhausted at the end of a session. I’d almost equate that feeling to the runner’s high–it’s a damn good feeling.

Of course, trying to maintain this pace likely means fewer posts on the blog until I finish that first draft, so I’ll beg your forgiveness in advance.

On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly requested readers for the novel-in-progress, so if you’re just dying to read something of mine in the meantime, you have that option!

If you’re a fellow NaNoWriMoer, I wish you the best of luck. Put up a comment and let me know how you’re doing and how you feel about it!

Nano-Update 2

It’s 10:45 am on Sunday morning. I’m at home while K and little Marshal are at church; Hawkwood has been sick the past few days and is, thankfully, resting comfortably at present.

Writing has been good. I’m now at 27,293 words and beginning to focus more on my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year than the fifty-thousand-word goal of NaNoWriMo, which now seems like it will not be any issue. This is nine-and-a-half chapters into a text that is plotted to forty-something chapters, so I’m also feeling pretty good about the likely end length.

Also, I have a (very early) working title: Things Unseen.

What’s more, I’m finding the writing easier. I’m averaging about 2,700 words in two hours of writing each day, and that feels very sustainable. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I finished, and early, but I seem to remember having a tougher time dragging out the words and spilling them onto the page, spending more time in the writing altogether, and more of that time frustrated.

I’m still having the ups and downs of going from “I’m a brilliant writer!” to “This is crap, why am I spending my time on this!” but I’m more comfortable with the struggle than I have been. I’m learning to forgive myself (and my writing) a little bit more. The biggest part of that is rejecting the myth that brilliant writers get it right the first time, can write something down once and be done.

Some of the things I write do feel really good in the first draft (hence the highs), but I’m reminding myself that writing a novel is a long journey and there’ll be a lot to clean up, rewrite, rework and improve on subsequent passes through the manuscript. In some ways, it’s like a sculpture. At first, I’m getting the general shape of things, the suggestion of the lines and contours of what I’m chiseling away at. But there will be additional sessions necessary to bring all the details into focus and then to smooth the lines so that everything flows together as it should. I’m becoming comfortable with that idea. This is also helping to put me in the mindset that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. Pacing myself is important, which is why I haven’t been pushing to write more faster given that I’m at a pace that is good, comfortable and sustainable.

Another influential factor is accepting the fact that I have to write. It’s just part of who I am. Yes, I very much want to write things that are good, that people want to read, that give me a way to send my voice, ideas and stories to thousands of people are more. I want to write things that would allow me to be a writer, full-time. But those desires are not the point. I write now because I must; because I’m not me–and I’m not happy–when I don’t. Even if it doesn’t turn out as well as I hope, it’s still mine, part of me in an essential way.

So far, so good, but we’re only ten days in. We’ll see if I still feel the same about the pace and sustainability next week.

Who else out there is participating in NaNoWriMo? I’m sure some of the people who read my blog are. Let me know how you’re doing! And, if you’re brave enough to read along with my first draft and want to give me some feedback, please reach out! You can email me at FaithFictionFatherhood@gmail.com.

NaNoWriMo Eve

I’ve mentioned before that I have a (probably unrealistic) goal of finishing a first draft of a novel I’m working on by the end of the year. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, this is not the same novel I was working on the last time I did National Novel Writing Month (hence NaNoWriMo)–I will return and finish that novel, but not yet.

The novel I’m currently working on is, of course, set in my Avar Narn fantasy setting; it is a noir-ish story following a thaumaturge’s investigation of a haunting in the castle of the town of Vaina inland from the Seven Sisters (seven major cities on an island in the central sea famous for their independence, importance to trade, intrigue and “loose morals”). Our protagonist, Iaren, hails from one of the Sisters, Ilessa, and finds himself in a very different world in the noble estates that fill the interior of the island. He’s in a race against time before the haunting drives the Lady amn Vaina to death or insanity in a town where everyone has a secret to keep. It’s a little bit Dresden Files mixed with the grit of Joe Abercrombie or Glen Cook, some of the intrigue of Scott Lynch and a developed magic system much more “traditional” than Sanderson’s feruchemy and allomancy, but just as detailed.

I’m excited to write it and have high hopes that it will turn out to reveal that I’m a pretty skilled writer of fantasy fiction after all. Of course, it will surely need a good bit of work after the first draft, but I’m optimistic and that’s better than the alternative!

Practically speaking, here’s where I’m at: I’ve got a pretty detailed plot outline for the entirety of the novel, though there are still some details I haven’t fully resolved. I’m having to replot the last several chapters to adequately close what could be plot gaps and have the major issues tied up at the end (though I’m a believer that not everything should be satisfactorily concluded by the end of a novel–it never is in life). I’m currently importing my outline notes from Word into a fresh Scrivener project (after doing my initial work in a different Scrivener project and then using Word for the separate detailed outline; that’s not the most efficient way to do things, I know, but it kept me more in the flow).

So, my prep is not as complete as I’d like it to be (I let myself get distracted by other projects this month), but it’s good enough to instill confidence. We’ll see how it goes.

If there’s not much posted on the blog over the next month, it’s because I’ve got nose to grindstone on the novel; my apologies in advance. I further apologize that this means you’ll have to wait for the rest of my series on running piracy games in Fate Core (if that’s something you’re eagerly anticipating).

If, dear readers, you might be interested in reading along as I write and providing some continuing feedback, I could certainly use a few people to look over my shoulder and see things I might not. Send me a message and we’ll sort out logistics–it would mean a lot to me, and be exceptionally motivating, if some of you journey with me.

Some Thoughts on Writing: Plotting and Pantsing

There is no One True Way to write; anyone who tells you there is is a fool and/or trying to sell you something.

That said, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on writing fiction, particularly on plotting and “pantsing,” in this post. Maybe it will be useful for someone. Maybe someone will disagree with me in the comments and that will be useful for someone.

To me, writing fiction is really two things inextricably bound together. The first is storytelling, by which I mean the structural aspects of the craft: story structure and flow (and therefore “plot”), pacing, character creation and motivation and all of the building blocks of the a story. The second is style, the actual selection of words, grammar, syntax, etc. The storytelling never becomes a story without the application of words; but the words themselves never amount to anything without a structure and purpose to them.

Both of these things are always difficult and often frustrating. I’ll liken this to exams in law school: those people who weren’t nervous about the test didn’t understand how much there was to know in that field and just how complex its operations were. You could only be blasé about it through ignorance. Perhaps there is someone in this wide world who is naturally, innately and intuitively creative and powerfully-minded enough that this doesn’t apply to them, but I doubt it.

In my writing of late, both those projects that have ultimately “failed,” or at least not come to immediate fruition, and those that I have “finished” in a relatively complete form or on which I continue working, I’ve noticed that most of my instances of “writer’s block” occur because of the intersection of the two elements of writing fiction. I hang up when I’m in the middle of a sentence and the plot has brought me to the necessity of naming a new character. I struggle when I rewrite the same damn sentence over and over because I’m trying to make it sound right and figure out where the story is going next. In short, writer’s block ambushes me when I’m pantsing, trying to split attention between both necessary aspects of the craft.

So, I have moved to a more “structured” approach to writing, one that finds good analogy perhaps in other, more tangible art forms. In painting, you don’t put paint to canvas until you’ve done sketches to create the basics of the image or prepared the canvas. Working on story structure is like that, with the actual writing of it the painting, of course.

My approach has thus become one of meticulous plotting before beginning the actual writing. I start with the broad strokes, major plot points and characters, then parsing out into scenes, then plotting out each scene. While sometimes tedious and certainly time-consuming, it allows me to make my adjustments to structure and plot lines, to make sure callbacks, foreshadowing, etc. are all properly placed and linked, and to develop or edit side plots before doing so will cause me to do a lot of re-writing. Once all of this is done, the focus can shift almost entirely to the craft and style of the writing, since everything else will already be signposted.

This is not to say that pantsing has no value, either in general or to me. Pantsing can be a great way to get the creative juices going, and it’s how I ended up with the basis of the novel I’m currently working on–pantsing a short story became 20,000 words to provide the core plot of a larger, more complex story.

But much of the skill of storytelling lies in making sure that there is a place for everything, everything is in its place, and all the pieces fit together seamlessly. Story structure and plotting are the writer’s carpentry; it makes sense here to measure twice and cut once just as it does with lumber–so far as that analogy can be pushed, at least.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit both while working on my in-progress novel and while reading Joe Abercrombie’s stuff (I’ve just started Best Served Cold right after concluding the First Law trilogy). It’s been apparent to me that, while much of the punch comes from Abercrombie’s style of writing, the combination of that with masterful structure and plotting is what makes his novels so enjoyable.

An admission: I’m writing this in procrastination of working on the novel itself. It’s perhaps best I turn to that now.

Nootropics for Writers

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; this post is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice. It is only a description of some of my own experiences. “Dietary supplements” like the ones discussed herein are insufficiently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or other agencies and there are no serious standards for the protection of consumers or for claims made by manufacturers. I highly recommend that you consult with medical professionals before making a decision to use any supplement, chemical or “herbal treatment.” Proceed at your own risk.

I don’t, as a rule, take drugs that are not prescribed for me or available over-the-counter for the short-term remedy of mild conditions. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I suffer from clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is well controlled under my current pharmaceutical regimen, and I have no desire to threaten that careful balance. I have never used an illegal substance and have no desire to start. I don’t smoke.

That said, if you tell me there’s a way to make myself a more productive writer, you can bet I’m going to investigate. While I’m passionate about writing, my brain tends to work in short bursts rather than long slogs and I personally find that much-vaunted “flow state” elusive more often than not.

As a writer of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy but with an interest in science fiction as well), I happened to come across the idea of “nootropics” while doing research into ideas and theories about human enhancement.

As best I can tell, there is a subculture evolving, partially an overlap with the more general “maker” and “biohacker” subcultures, devoted to the use of nootropics. You will find myriad sites and forums where advocates compare their personal “stacks.”

It starts with something we are all experientially aware of: some substances seem to have positive cognitive effects when administered in proper (and safe) doses. Caffeine is the most common and widely used of these substances, it seems, and it is in fact a part of most nootropic “stacks.”

The lists of nootropics is relatively long, ranging from things like gingko biloba to hardcore prescription-strength drugs like modafinil–a military-grade amphetamine alternative. Some of the substances touted for nootropic qualities act individually, while others supposedly provide greater effects when combined with other nootropics.

Most of those experimenting with nootropics (and I think it’s still safe to say that all nootropic usage is experimental at present given the lack of strong scientific support for usage or for most of the substances put forward) develop a “stack.” The “stack” consists of a collection of nootropics to be taken together, in hopes of maximizing effect.

For those who would rather not compile information and develop a stack for themselves, there are several commercially-available stacks such as Qualia.

Because I am not recommending that anyone use these substances, I’m not going to detail the particular ones I used to develop a stack for myself to see if there was anything to this whole idea.

But I will report my experiences. Over a handful of trials of the same stack (spread out over time–none of the substances in my stack, with the exception perhaps of caffeine are supposed to be addictive, but I’m trying to stay on the side of caution), I have experienced greater focus and even what I’d call “flow state.”

I would describe the most immediate effect I experienced as increased focus combined with maintained situational awareness. This is an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. While writing after using nootropics, I did experience increased word counts (as a measure of productivity) and longer periods over which I could sit and focus on writing, which is different from my typical experiences. So, yes, I did experience what I would call noticeable improvement in cognitive function, particularly for the purpose of writing productivity.

HOWEVER, I have a number of reservations as well. First, I cannot be sure that what I experienced is anything more than a placebo effect. My evaluation is, after all, entirely subjective. Further, I cannot be sure that nootropics were the direct cause of the increased productivity–I’ve been simultaneously and very consciously working on developing my writing focus and discipline. In an age of constant-partial attention, I’m not unconvinced that my difficulties writing for long periods of time or focusing for extended writing sessions are a matter of bad habits rather than chemical brain-states. Along with this, I have to question whether there are better–non chemically-dependent–measures for the achievement of the same effect. Is it possible that meditation, mindfulness exercises, actual exercise and other means could be used to do the same thing? I don’t know for sure, but I have a suspicion that the answer is “yes.” After all, the brain is a highly sophisticated organ, one which we do not understand nearly as well as we’d like to think in this information age. I think it’s probable, likely even, that there are natural ways of tapping into the body’s and brain’s natural ability to increase focus and creativity that do not rely upon the introduction of foreign substances to them.

So, if the question begged by this post is “do nootropics help writers to write?” then the definitive answer I can give is “maybe.” While I did experience some effects in productivity (going from writing about 1500 words in a sitting to writing 2500), I can’t be sure of causation in any logical or scientific way. And I can report that there are times when I naturally match the productivity I experienced without the need for a collection of horsepill-sized supplements. Further, there is no good information on the long-term effects of nootropics, and that alone should be concerning.

Given my lack of medical background, I’m not qualified to make a recommendation about the use of nootropics. Even though I personally experienced perceived cognitive enhancement through their use, I’d highly recommend that other strategies–development of habits, regular exercise, a routine where writing occurs at the time you naturally feel most creative and focused, careful curation of the writing space to be inspiring and free from distraction, etc.–be implemented before even considering nootropics as an aid to the writer’s craft.

When it comes down to it, we all want something for nothing. We writers all want some panacea, some magic trick that makes us brilliant authors without having to face difficulties. Combine that with the myth of the suffering artist, that we must either be crazy or despairing to be creative, and its easy to see why nootropics might be an enticing idea for the aspiring writer.

But the struggle with the craft, the wrestling with turning images, thoughts, ideas and emotions into words of power on a page, therein lies the true magic of the craft. For that, there are no shortcuts, no miracle drugs, no ways but the hard way. And at the end of the day, isn’t that one of the reasons we feel so driven to do it?