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.

Update 6-18-19

The blog’s been quiet for a little over a week and, as usual, I like to explain myself a little bit when that happens.

The Writing
I had planned to wait until NaNoWriMo to start working on finishing a novel again, but those plans have been happily dashed. What started as a short-story ended up as a twenty-thousand-plus-word text, one that needed a lot of work on pacing and a lot of filling in of details. So it just made sense to turn it into a novel. That’s been the bulk of my writing time in the past few weeks, both in the original story and now in plotting out the novelization.

Plotting is almost complete and I’ll begin the writing (and re-writing) proper shortly. If posts to the blog are sporadic over the next short while, that’s what’s going on.

This novel does not yet have a name, but I’ve also already got broad-stroke plans for three sequels; two of which will likely be part of an initial trilogy and the last of which (which also started as a short-story that expanded out of hand) will likely be the start to a second trilogy. The story is set in Avar Narn (of course) and is something of a noir story. Saying it feels in some ways like a bastardized mix of noir fairy-tale and dark fantasy is pretty close to the mark, I think.

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you may remember that, in 2017, I began work on a different Avar Narn novel, tentatively called Wilderlands. I fully intend to finish that novel, potentially as part of a trilogy between the two trilogies discussed above (the characters in the current novel and Wilderlands are entirely different), but it’s on the proverbial back burner for now.

Kiddos
Any day now, K and I could get the call that brings kids into our lives again. We’re going a little crazy with the wait, to be honest. But, when it happens, you’ll see the Fatherhood section of the blog come to life again.

Shadowrun
If you’ve been keeping a weather eye out for RPG news, you’ll know that a Sixth Edition of Shadowrun has been announced for release this summer, boasting a “streamlined” ruleset.

Shadowrun: Anarchy disappointed me greatly in its failure to translate some of the most fun things about the Shadowrun universe into a more narrative-focused design. As such, while I’m excited to see a new edition, I’m not sure that it’s going to provide what I think the rules need to really present a modernized and excellent take on the game’s design. So, look out for two things: (1) continued posts for my Cortex Plus/Prime hack of Shadowrun (which may end up remaining the sweet spot for me for playing games in the Shadowrun universe), and (2) a thorough review of the Shadowrun Sixth Edition Rulebook when I get my grubby hands on it.

Theology
More to come and soon.

Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

Blog Update

I completely missed posting last week and haven’t posted anything this week. This post is not going to be as substantive as usual, unfortunately (I’ll try to get a substantive post up over the weekend!), but I wanted to let my readers know what’s going on and what to expect in the near future.

NaNoWriMo is not a go.
Last November, I made very good progress on the first draft of my first novel set in Avar Narn by participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I had hoped to participate again this year to get the first draft finished. Unfortunately–at this point–I’ve made the decision not to participate this year.

K and I are still waiting on a placement of kiddos, which could happen at any moment now but (obviously) hasn’t happened yet. I’m concerned that, as November nears, I’ll need to be focusing more of my time on the kids when they arrive. As much as I’m yearning to get the first draft (and then revisions) done on this novel, it simply must take a back seat to the children and their needs.

Additionally, K and I are purchasing a house and will be closing and moving around November. K’s got a lot going on with her worklife right now and into the near future, so I intend to take on the better part of the moving efforts.

That doesn’t leave much room in my schedule to try to fit in 1667 words a day in November, so I’ve decided to give myself a little break on that front.

This does not mean I won’t be writing–just probably not as intensely as I would be if participating in NaNoWriMo. I’ve been spending time working on (and reworking) some of the setting information for Avar Narn (mythology, legends and history, religion, geography, etc.) that will be the basis for (hopefully) many short stories and novels in the future. Expect some posts related to this “background” information.

I’ve got one Avarian short story currently underway (though I’m not sure I’ll end up happy enough with it that it will get posted) and plotting in the works for at least half-a-dozen more. I have more plotting to do for the rest of the novel (and some changes in the part that’s already written, which I’ve been slowly working through) and I hope to get some writing done towards the novel in the near future.

I had said not long ago that I’d be working on some sci-fi short stories (and a few are in their infancy), but Avar Narn is my truest passion and that’s where I’ve decided to really focus.

On Publishing
I’ve been thinking a good bit about how to approach publishing some of my work. That’s a daunting set of decisions, and I’m not fully decided, but I am currently leaning toward some form of self-publishing. While I’d love to have a large readership, I’d rather follow some advice from Joss Whedon. On talking about making TV shows, he reportedly said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’d rather make something that a few people have to watch than something that a lot of people want to watch.”

For me, the major issue (other than perseverance through mountains of rejection letters, which I could live with) is control over my projects, staying true to the story for its sake rather than caving to market demands, and taking things in the direction I want them to go. This likely means a smaller audience and less money (to the extent that there will ever be any money in my writing, which is not a guarantee) but more personal freedom. It is a quirk of my personality to prioritize my independence and doing things my way over most other advantages–for better or for worse.

This may merit a full post, and I’d love to hear the thoughts of any readers who are themselves published (I know there are a few of you out there!).

On Theology
One of the reasons I failed to get a post out last week is that I’ve recently been teaching for a Sunday school class at the church. I love to teach and its an honor to have been asked to teach by people I so deeply respect and admire. We did two weekends on the history and polity issues confronting the United Methodist Church relating to our position on homosexuality (and the LGBTQI community in general) and are now doing two weekends on the Trinity.

There are certainly some posts in the works based on this research and some other reading/studying I’ve done recently. I’ll of course have a post on the Trinity in the near future (and why it’s such an amazing aspect of orthodox Christiany faith), but I’ve also got some ideas kicking around about theories of salvation, about William of Ockham and his theology, about (modern) Gnosticism and more.

On Reviews
I’ve finished a few Great Courses on medieval history recently and I’m currently in the midst of one on Imperial China (which, as K will attest, has really gotten me geeking out a fair deal, though perhaps no more than usual). I may do some reviews on these sometime soon.

I’m also working through a few theology books which I may have some comments on.

There are a number of video games either recently out or that will be out in the next few months that I’d, one, like to play, and, two, like to share some thoughts about. The Pathfinder: Kingmaker isometric game just released; it both takes me to an RPG setting and ruleset that’s always interested me (though that I’ve found far too complex and, ultimately, flawed to play on the tabletop) and to the isometric RPGs of the 90’s that were the mother’s milk of my early (digital) gaming life. The last installment of the recent Tomb Raider trilogy is also out and I’m definitely interested in following up on the first two very-well-done games of that series.

Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Cthulhu will be out soon, both of which I’m excited about. I was in law school about the time the first Red Dead Redemption came out, and I distinctly remember sitting with a judge in his late-sixties or early-seventies at lunch during a summer internship as he ranted about how great the game was. He wasn’t wrong.

On Roleplaying Games
As those of you who are interested in such things may have noticed, most of my recent posts on the truest-and-highest art of gaming–the tabletop RPG–have been about the Cortex Plus/Prime system. I’ll be continuing to post about my Shadowrun conversion for those rules.

I have always dreamed of an RPG to go along with Avar Narn. I’ve run several games set in the world over the years (using rulesets as diverse as The Riddle of Steel, Cortex, Fate, and D&D), but my ultimate desire is to build a roleplaying game specifically designed for the unique nature of the world (said every RPG designer with a pet setting ever, I know). While I love “generic” roleplaying games like Fate and Cortex for a wide variety of play, I am also a believer that systems specifically designed for particular settings are usually better, because the mechanics can reinforce the setting and vice-versa.

One of the most annoying things I see in D&D is the assumption by some players that the rules of D&D are the immutable physics of any setting using that ruleset rather than the rules serving the setting (and being subordinate to both normal and narrative logic).

Both Fate and Cortex intend to be rulesets that bridge the gap between the completely generic ruleset and the one-setting ruleset by using modularity and a toolbox approach that encourages customization. But even this, I think, will not be sufficient for my purposes.

I see games like The One Ring with mechanics that really bring forward the themes and motif of the game as a whole–not to mention indy games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Houses of the Blooded and Torchbearer that really push the envelope of rules for narrative games or RPGs (however you parse those two out)–and I am inspired. We’ll see what comes of it, so expect posts as I struggle through issues of design and ask for feedback (and, hopefully, some eventual assistance with playtesting).

I had mentioned a ways back that I was working on a massive campaign set in the Warhammer 40k universe. That is on a backburner, to be sure, but still in the pipeline.

I’d like to do some review of the newer Warhammer Fantasy and 40K rulesets in the future as well.

Reader Involvement
In case it isn’t apparent, thinking critically and imaginatively and then writing about those thoughts. Maybe it’s a disease–I’m just not happy if I’m not doing it, and I find a lot of fulfilment just from writing and from posting here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know that people find some usefulness in what I write! I’d love to have more comments, requests for topics, questions to follow up on from posts and more reader involvement in general! Drop me a line, even if it’s just to tell me what you think of the blog in general–or if you think there’s something I could improve on. And invite your friends!

Conclusion
Well, that’s a long list of things I’d like to do, perhaps more than can reasonably be accomplished. But it seems worth trying to do anyway, so we’ll see what comes of it.

Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

For the previous entry, click here.

Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

For the next entry, click here.

Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

NaNoWriMo Debrief

Well, I finished. Fifty-thousand words in twenty-nine days; I finished a little early on the 29th.

I don’t know why I didn’t attempt this earlier, and I owe a special thanks to my friend Lauren (herself a longtime veteran) for spurring me to participate this year.

What I found is that it was easier to get my words in every day than I’d first thought. That’s good, because fifty-thousand words isn’t even half of my novel.

What did I end up with at the end of the month? What I’d consider a more complex plot outline–I’m not sure that I’d really even call it a partial first draft. Maybe this is me being too hard on myself; there are parts I feel very good about. But I also think I’m going to have to go through and rewrite almost everything–perhaps several times.

My plan is to finish this rough draft, use that to rework plot gaps and what I like to think of as “narrative circles”–those plot lines, events or references to things that come back around by the end of the novel to make the reader think, “Oh, that’s why that was in there.” I’ve been reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies when I’m not writing (expect a review soon), he’s an absolute expert at this.

Once I’ve finalized the plot where I’m happy with it, I’ll do a rewrite for quality of writing and “style.” I spent two months plotting the novel (not the full thing either, but more than I’ve written in fifty-thousand words).

That provided one of the interesting experiences in the writing–those places where the plot morphed and mutated on its own in my hands. I’d start writing and realize, “Nope, that’s not how that should happen, let’s do it this way,” or “Wouldn’t this be even better if this character was responsible for this event; everything holds together better that way.”

I’d heard about this phenomenon in reading the advice books of other authors, but (mostly because I’d never plotted before writing–I always will from now own) I’d never experienced this joy of writing before. It is exceptionally rewarding when something you’ve been working on begins to come alive–even for you.

I’ll likely be taking a short writing break from the novel (maybe a week or so) and then trying to continue the momentum into finishing the first draft. I’m nowhere near happy with it at this point, but I’m also confident that it will become something I can publish.

In the meantime, my hiatus on this blog is at an end; export more posts shortly. Hopefully fast and furious!

Wilderlands

The blog has been dormant for a few weeks, and for that I apologize.

I’ve been working on plotting the first part of the novel I’m working on ahead of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been challenged by a good friend and talented writer to see who can get to 50,000 words faster during the event. I’ve never participated before; she’s successfully completed the challenge eight years running.

So, I’ve been diligently working my outline and characters in the hopes that this will allow for smooth writing with a minimum of writer’s block. I haven’t written anything that will be in the novel yet (that would be unfair), but I am trying to detail scenes with specificity and to get faults in the plot out of the way from the outset.

This, I hope, explains the lack of posting on the blog. A few things have come up that I’d like to write about, but everything is likely on hold until the end of November. Once I’m done with the competition, I’ll go on to plotting the rest of the novel and return to writing blog posts more regularly.

I’m (very) tentatively calling the novel Wilderlands.

See my NaNoWriMo debrief here.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

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.