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?

Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?

Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

Mindmaps for Writing

As I’m plotting the first of my currently-planned novels, I thought I’d share some of my experiences that might be helpful to other writers.

Before long, I’ll post about my own experiences specific to apps and tools I’ve found supremely helpful so far. That said, I found all of these apps and programs by searching the web, so in the interim you can, too. As a shortcut to the things I’m getting the most mileage out of: Scrivener (PC), Index Cards 4 (IOS/Ipad), Mindly (IOS 4/Ipad).

In this post, I’m going to focus on the process used by the latter app–mindmaps. If you’re not familiar, mindmaps are a way of visually organizing thoughts into webs of association. I imagine that, on one occasion or another, many of us have done something like this intuitively without thinking about it. I’m sure that there’s not just one way to do this, but the common fashion seems to be the construction of planetary orbits–a central idea around which sub-ideas float, each potentially with their own sub-ideas ad infinitum.

For me, a tool is only as good as the time it saves me, and this is why (I think) the popularity of mindmaps has soared in recent years. On paper, a mindmap will likely take more time to configure than it eliminates, as you draw, erase and redraw ideas and associations. To gain some advantage, one could use index cards to create easily-reconfigurable mind maps on a table or corkboard, but even this adds unnecessary time and effort to the process that is obviated by the use of software that handles those background tasks efficiently and intuitively.

For me, mindmaps are a consummate brainstorming tool. As such, I use them with a specific approach to brainstorming that I have found greatly helpful in avoiding mental blocks and “analysis paralysis.” I learned this process from the Great Course by Gerard Puccio, “The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit.”

As Dr. Puccio teaches, there are several stages to brainstorming (and I hope I remember them correctly). The first is to identify the problem–for a mindmap, this becomes the center of the mindmap’s universe, the first thing entered around which all else will orbit. Stages two and three are to be repeated as much as necessary. In stage two, without judgment, criticism or analysis, you simply write down all the ideas you can think of related to the problem. It is only when you reach stage three that you turn the critical eye toward your ideas, thinking about which might work and which might not.

For a mindmap, I think it’s a good idea to be fluid about how you go about applying stages two and three. One strategy is to deal with one tier of the mindmap at a time. Alternatively, you may progress to using stages two and three on subtiers before returning to higher-level orbits.

An example will be better than explanation. Right now, my favorite use of mindmaps is for resolving plot problems–not meta-problems in the structure of the plot, mind you, but the sorts of problems that are: “oh, that’s an interesting obstacle, how do my characters resolve it?”

The obstacle goes in the center of the map. Now we go to our first round of brainstorming. Here, I list all of the large-scale ideas about possible resolutions. For instance, this morning, I’ve run into an issue in my plot where the characters have run out of money and need a way to get more. I filled the first orbit with all the possible things I could think of that might make the characters money. Here, I’m not asking questions of each methodology and I’m not trying to eliminate anything–the goal is to create as expansive a list of options as is possible.

Once this is done, I have choices about how to proceed. I could go to stage three and start to eliminate the more-outlandish or less-useful ideas I came up with in the brainstorming. Typically, though, I prefer to go to an additional set of brainstorming first, taking each idea created in orbit around the problem in turn and brainstorming ideas, plot consequences, and connections that will orbit around each of the ideas I created in the first round of brainstorming. Once this is done, then I go to the first round of analysis, eliminating those first-tier ideas for which I either couldn’t come up with much further or for which the additional ideas I did generate simply don’t work for reasons of plot, logic, characters, etc.

Protip: teachers of writing and authors themselves often use the following mantra when constructing plot: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character? That’s what I’ll make happen.” You can get a lot of mileage out of that, too, I’m sure.

I’ve found this system immensely useful for eliminating or preventing writer’s block. As a bonus, more often than not, this process adds twists, subplots, additional set-up scenes and more that enhances both the plot itself and its flow.

Many of the mindmapping apps are available for a free trial–it took me exploring a few different ones before I stuck with Mindly, which seems to be the most intuitive and least obstrusive of the ones I experimented with. It has free trial for use on Ipad and is worth checking out. Regardless of the platform, though, I highly suggest you experiment with mindmaps as brainstorming tools for writing–not just for plot, but for creating characters and setting, generating writing prompts, mapping the flow of scenes and more.