Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Thought Provoking Critique Of The Phantom Menace

I hadn’t planned to do another post before the end of the year, but then Lovely Lindy sent me a link to the first part of a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.   I watched it, expecting humorous jokes, sarcasm, and snide remarks, and all that abounds in this review. 

But it also contains carefully thought out, extremely sophisticated, arguments about the difference between strong characters and weak ones, between exciting plots and boring ones.  It openly and honestly lays out the necessary elements for a good story, and argues convincingly that all those elements are missing from The Phantom Menace.

Below is the first part of the series, and here is a link to it on YouTube.  There are seven parts in the whole series, each 10-minutes long. 

Yes, that’s right, this is a 70-minute critique of The Phantom Menace.  Trust me, just watch the first 10-minute segment; if you don’t like it you won’t be interested in the rest. 

But if you are like me, if you care about storytelling and seek to improve your skills, you will find yourself wanting to take notes.  This is the kind of honest, unvarnished criticism that writers always want but rarely receive.   It has given me  insights into my own attempts at writing; has prompted me to ask myself questions that I will be struggling with for some time to come. 

I Must Include The Following Warning

This video series also includes a darkly comic sub-story revolving around the narrator’s fictional private life.  I won’t provide any spoilers here, except to say that the video does contain elements which may offend some people and which are not for young children.  Consider yourself warned.

The maker of this video series also has has a 4-part series critiquing Star Trek: Nemesis.  The comments on his YouTube site indicate the Nemesis review is as funny and insightful as his Phantom Menace review.   If it is, I may well write another post promoting it as well.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Talk About Things To Come

I’ve been swamped lately, which is why I’ve fallen behind on this blog.  Given the rush with which Christmas is approaching  (and bringing assorted guests) I suspect this will be my last post before the end of the year.  After that I think my schedule will settle into a new normal that will make it easier for me to focus on writing in general and keeping up with this blog in specific.

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta as part of an unplanned trip.  Unplanned,  but surprisingly beneficial in that it gave me a chance to plow through a pile of emails that became unmanageable some time ago.  Which led to me exploring the multitude of other blogs I discovered thanks to FeedBlitz and Jane Friedman.

FeedBlitz Is Not One Of Santa’s Reindeers

FeedBlitz is a service I discovered while setting up my new website,  It lets people sign up to receive email updates from blogs and newsletters.  I added a FeedBlitz email signup box on my website, then used FeedBlitz to signed up to receive Jane’s blog, There Are No Rules, which she writes for Writer’s Digest.

Some of Jane’s posts contain links to other blogs.  A treasure trove of information from a broad swath of writers, editors, agents, publishers, and so forth.  Simply skimming over all these blogs is a daunting task.  As I went from blog to blog, reading what professionals were posting about, I began to have better understanding of the direction I wanted to take with this blog, and with the one I am going to be doing for Gods-Among-Men.Com.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the coming new year I am going to focus first upon what others are posting about.  I plan to state the positions I agree with, and argue against those that I don’t.  I will discuss how the comments and thoughts on these sites are affecting my own growth as a writer, and my understanding of the profession which calls to me. 

I shall also strive for more brevity.  I know I have a tendency to be verbose, which can be tolerated to a certain degree in novels.  But blog post should be short and to the point.

And with that thought, I shall close today’s blog by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Crazy Kwanza, and a Blessed New Year.   I’ll be back in 2010 with a host of topics to post about.  Hang onto your seats; the party is just getting started.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Creating An Online Presence

I started writing this post about two weeks ago.  I was pretty close to posting it when events in my personal life started spinning out of control.  Those events are still spinning, but there is little that I can do about them right now, so I have decided to finish this post before moving on to Christmas shopping, working on the new website, writing, editing, and the rest of the items on my list.

What Follows Is From Two Weeks Ago, With Some Recent Edits

I have spent a fair amount of my free time recently working on creating a website to host my story, Gods Among Men.  I have had numerous false starts and tried more than a few approaches that ended in failure.  This is to be expected in any new venture; it is part of the learning curve that such efforts entails. 

From the outside it may appear that progress has stalled, but I have worked long enough as a computer programmer to know better.  I have amassed the information required to sustain my efforts into the future.  The fact that there isn’t much to show at the moment is not indicative of what I have learned how to do in the last few days.

Initially I was using software called SiteBuilder to build my new website.  It had several advantages, including the fact that it was freely available on the servers hosting my site, had a plethora of sample themes to choose from, and it let me quickly throw together an initial set of pages that I could later change to suit my needs.   

Once I had the initial pages created, I planned to use Microsoft Expression Web to modify the pages.  Expression Web, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have options like those in SiteBuilder for quickly building an entire website with a few clicks.  That said, it does have terrific options for managing existing sites and building new pages.  

I soon ran into the problem that SiteBuilder and Expression Web don’t play well together.  Actually, a better description would be that SiteBuilder doesn’t play well with anything else at all.  After making various changes using Expression Web, I decided I needed new pages that would be easier to add in SiteBuilder.  When I loaded my site back into SiteBuilder I discovered that it didn’t see the changes I had made using Expression Web.  Since I had a copy of everything on my local hard drive, I decided to plow ahead and see what SiteBuilder would do after I added the new pages and republished the site.  What happened is that SiteBuilder wiped out everything I had done and recreated the website from scratch, with my new pages now added.

Nonplussed, I considered just using Expression Web to build my site.  This would give me total control of the content.  The drawback was it meant I had to become much more familiar with the ins and outs of website development.  A task requiring a substantial commitment of time and effort on my part. 

As I was debating this problem, I was also working with WordPress, the software that I chose for my website’s blog.  Here I had a different problem, namely the theme for my blog was not the same as my theme for my website.  I liked the initial theme I choose for my blog, but it had some limitations that proved frustrating.  Fortunately there are a gazillion prepackaged themes available to choose from, including a large variety of free ones. 

With a bit of exploration I found a theme called Atahualpa.  This highly customizable theme not only removed the restrictions I had been laboring under with my previous theme, but it made me wonder how far I could push its limits.  After playing with it I decided it would be possible to make my blog the home page for my entire website and create custom pages for hosting my story.  This also addressed the problem that my blog had one appearance and my initial website had another.

I still had a problem with Expression Web.  I couldn’t use it to directly manage pages hosted by WordPress, but I discovered ways around this limitation.  To be precise, I found out how to create a page or part of a page in Expression Web, then copy the generated HTML and paste it into a page created by WordPress.  While far from perfect, this process let me have my cake and eat it too.  That is, I could quickly generate an entire website that would look professional and consistent from page to page, and I could tweak it to display anything I wanted.

And Now I Am Adding New Material

Since I wrote the above I have spent some time adding new pages to my website.  I put customized, if somewhat crude, graphics of my own creation on the site.  I added an “about the author” page, and created a menu and associated page with options to go to any of the books in Gods Among Men.  I also added a page with the synopsis of the series' plot, including a spoiler alert for those who prefer discovering the story for themselves.  I designed a format for the title page I will use for each chapter I post, including copyright information and appropriate disclaimers.  I used this format to create a PDF version of the first chapter in the series and put a link on the website to download it.  I also created an XPS version of the first chapter, but have had some difficulty putting it on the site.  When I try to upload the file, WordPress bleeps out an obscure message stating that it is not secure enough.  I will do research later to find out what the heck that is all about. 

There is still much work to do, and I have grand plans for the site’s future that may exceed both my time and abilities.  Still, it is better to aim high and fall short than to never test your limits.

The new site has, in the upper right corner of the home page, ways for visitors to subscribe to the blog I have there.  Sometimes I will post the same information both there and on the blog for the Magic City Writers’ Group, such as this post.  My long term plan is to post about writing in general on the Magic City Writers’ site, and about Gods Among Men on my new site.  I hope everyone will sign up for both.

Given the holiday season and the upheavals in my personal life, new posts as well as progress on the new site may be sporadic for the next few weeks.  Hopefully things will settle down in the near future and I can resume a more normal schedule.

Until next time, take care and have fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Day In Development

I have spent most of today fussing over my new website.  It is a new experience for me, and it takes some getting use to. 

For much of the day I tinkered with WordPress, getting the website’s blog fully functional as it were.  This consisted largely of finding plugins, installing them, activating them, and setting their properties.  At this point I am cautiously optimistic that the blog is in good shape. 

I have installed plugins that should allow users to subscribe to the blog and sign up to receive e-mails of blog posts or RSS feeds.  Users can also have the blog post to their Google home page. 

I also installed plugins that should help prevent spam and perform regular backups automatically.  One plugin will provide ping-back tracing, which should increase traffic to my site.  Another plugin will make sure that all the major search engines are notified of new blog posts.

One problem I face is that the blog has a different style than the rest of the website.  And its menu’s don’t link back to the same pages as the main website.  I am going to worry about correcting that later, however, as the bigger problem of the website itself demands my attention.

To put it simply, the main website looks like crap.  Between the wrong pictures, dull colors, and crummy fonts the site is repugnant.  I have identified the primary style sheet used and have replaced the onerous fonts with ones easier to read.  I need to tweak with the size of the fonts and the colors, but already it looks a smidge better.

I also discovered a way to take output a Microsoft Word document as either a PDF or an XPS.  This means I now have a safe way of putting my documents on my website the preserves the font and formatting.

These are baby steps towards having a more sophisticated online presence.  Small advances to promoting my writing and seeking an audience for the tale I wish to tell.  I look forward to when I have the major technical issues solved and can focus again on writing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Decision Has Been Reached

As those who have been following my post are aware, I have been in a quandary for some time about whether or not I should posts parts of my epic fantasy/science fiction series, Gods Among Men, onto the wild and wacky world wide web.   I have dithered and dallied about whether I should post at all, or if I should only post out of context vignettes, or if I should post on a different blog or website than this, and so forth. 

I sought the advice of friends and searched the web for the opinions of those more professional than myself.  In the process, I stumbled across Jane Friedman.

Who the Heck is Jane Friedman?

Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer's Digest brand community at F+W Media.  She oversees Writer's Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer's Market series. 

For those who don’t know, Writer's Digest is one of, if not the best, resource and community for writers.  For almost 90 years they have published the best-selling annual reference guide, Writer’s Market.

Jane herself  is the author of Beginning Writer’s Answer Book and maintains a blog on the industry as part of the Writer's Digest community, called There Are No Rules. 

So What Does She Have to Do With Anything?

Jane’s blog posts contain a wealth of information, and I was impressed with how clearly she covered complex topics.  I wrote  to her asking for advice, and she was kind enough to reply.  What she said deeply affected my  internal debate, and I thought it would benefit others like myself.  I asked her if I could include her reply in a blog post.  She agreed, and so I shall.  To give her answer context, I shall also include my original missive to her first.

Here is What I Wrote

I am an amateur writer with delusions of grandeur.  I am working on a very long, very complicated story that I hope to have published some day.   I have a public blog at where I post regularly.  The blog is ostensibly for my writers' group, and others do post there on occasion, but the vast majority of posts are written by me. 

Recently I have been considering posting parts of the first draft of my story as I write it.  I believe doing so would motivate me to complete my first draft faster.  Also, I think I can organize my work better by assigning appropriate search tags to my posts.  As a side benefit, I might be able to generate interest for my story among those who stumble across my blog and read the sections of the story that I post.

I am concerned, however, that by putting parts of my work in a public blog that I will harm my chances of later having my story accepted by a publisher.  I fear that I might be rejected simply because significant portions of my story are in a blog, either public or private.  And I am uncertain what effects such post would have on my rights and copyrights concerning my story.

I have tried to find information that could offer guidance on this issue, but have not had much success.  In the process I stumbled across your blog, "There Are No Rules", and was impressed by the quality of your posts.  This in turn prompted me to ask for your advice on this subject. 

I understand, of course, that your advice would simply reflect your opinion.  That said, you are a professional writer with significantly more knowledge and experience than I have. Any help or insight you care to offer would be much appreciated.  I would also be interested in any web sites, books, or other materials you know of that might enlighten me on this subject.

Thank you in advance for your you time and consideration.

And Here is Her Reply

Thanks so much for writing.

I hear from many writers who are concerned about making their work available online before publication, but you really have no need to worry.

On my blog, I've touched on this topic, e.g.,:

Always keep in mind that the online world (and the audience you might find there) is often a good start to developing a fan base, but it's a very different audience than what a traditional publisher would typically reach through bookstore channels, and rarely will a publisher see your online following as a detriment. In fact, it's often a big plus.

Scott Sigler ( is an excellent example of someone who has made his work available for free (as podcasts) and used it to succeed and land a traditional publishing deal.

By posting your work online, you are not relinquishing any rights to it (you still hold copyright), and you can always take it down later if it becomes advantageous to do so.

Hope this helps. For new writers trying to get established, the more exposure, the better.

And My Final Decision Is…

It is hard to imagine someone more authoritative giving advice that is more clear.  The post she links to is even more explicit and addresses exactly the questions I have been wrestling with.  I recommend all aspiring writers read it.  

Ergo, I have decided to make parts of my story available online in the very near future.

In the process of making this decision, I have also concluded that this blog is not the right venue for me to post my story.  It would be impossible to organize Gods Among Men in a way that would make it easy to follow here.   Plus, I just don’t feel right about co-opting this forum to that degree.  This blog is supposed to be about science fiction and fantasy writing in general, with a focus on the Magic City Writers, plural.  It is about the challenges commonly faced by writers, not a soapbox dedicated to my personal self-indulgent preening.

The posts I have written about whether or not to make my story available online do raise legitimate topics for discussion here.  The choices I have faced reflect decisions all writer’s must grapple with at some point.  But if I were to post my stories themselves here it would dilute the purpose of this blog more than I believe is acceptable. 

I could start another blog and force it to reflect my story’s structure,  but that isn’t terribly easy to do, nor does it address longer term needs that might arise. 

Instead, I have decided to create a web-site dedicated solely to Gods Among Men.  I have purchased a domain,, and have begun developing a place designed to host my story appropriately.  Right now the site is nothing to look at, just a few lines of text that I scribbled out to create a home page and a WordPress hosted blog.  I have published my first post on that blog, but that is all I’ve had time to do so far. 

I will organize the site so that it is easy to follow Gods Among Men in sequential order, or jump to specific chapters. I will start with posting my most finished chapters, then later post first drafts and even partial drafts of scenes and chapters.  I shall label each accordingly, so those who decide to follow the development of my story can see the transition from drivel to final version.   I shall make blog posts there as well as here on a regular basis.  On the new site I will focus my post at that site on the details of my story (such as the background mythology and my insights into the plot and characters), while here I shall focus on the problems faced by writers in general.

Fear not, I shall keep you informed as my new site develops.  I will, no doubt, face many challenges common to other writers in my position.  Such problems are topics worth discussing here and may well be valuable to others.

I will let you know when the new site is ready for visitors.  I hope you will come and visit it often.  Until next time, have fun.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When Last We Met…

On Sunday November 16, 2009, the Magic City Writers met and reviewed the lovely Lindy’s latest submission, Marked.  I can safely say, tho’ we beat her and flayed her, by the livin’ Gawd that made her, you are a better writer than I am, Gunga Lin.

A big fat No-Prize to whomever can name the famous poem I pay homage too above.

But first, lets talk about the food. 

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

The food, as always, was excellent. 

Kathryn was suffering from a slight sinus infection, and her laptop suffered a stroke, so she didn't have time to whip up her normal culinary delight.  But, she did suggest Brant mixed berry smoothies to drink at the meeting.  Snacks consisted of pretzel twists and club crackers.  For dinner Kathryn and Lindy made potato gnocchi (thick round noodles) with creamy pesto sauce and grilled chicken.  Along with garlic toast suggested by Lindy, dinner was quite delicious.

And Now Back to Flaying Lindy

Lindy submission was more than well received.   Nicole was unable to attend, so it was left to Kathryn and I to voice our opinions.  We both agreed that quality of her writing in Marked was good enough to capture the eye of some publisher of agent.  I went further and claimed, and maintain, that I have seen worse writing in published stories.

On a first read I found very little to correct.  My second closer read found minor problems and inconsistencies.  The type of details that plague all early drafts.  Lindy’s biggest problem was that her story was set in a post-apocalyptical world and the people had too many pre-apocalyptical attitudes and items. 

Our biggest problem as a group is we kept going off in tangents, discussing what such a world would be like.  Intense brainstorming dominated much of the meeting. 

Fortunately, this time I remembered to record the session so Lindy can go back and review the discussion to find the gems among the dross.

Overall, Lindy’s style was good, her characters interesting and convincing, and her plot intriguing.  Excellent work Lindy.  We are all proud of you.  I’m sure that when you flesh out this work it will be an excellent novel.  I, for one, look forward to reading it when it is done

The Remains of The Day

After we chatted and ate, the three of use moseyed upstairs where we watched a couple of short videos from Kathryn’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 collection.  One was on the world of communication in the future, as seen from about 1960, and the other was on the usefulness of springs.  The snarky commentary made both of these quite enjoyable.

Then we settled in to watch the debut of AMC’s mini-series remake of 60’s cult classic, The Prisoner.   Heavily symbolic, allegorical, and often surreal, Kathryn and Lindy did not care for it.  I, ever the fan of heavy symbolism and surreal tolerant, am withholding judgment until I have seen more.  Right now I rate it as, “interesting”.

For next time, I re-submitted chapter four of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, entitled …And Strikes Down the Inner Circle. We did not set a date for the next meeting, but given the approaching holidays, along with Nicole’s awful schedule, it seems likely that the earliest possible meeting will be in December or, God forbid, January.  Fear not, I shall make sure to keep those interested apprised of the happenings whenever the next meeting occurs.

Until next time, have fun and party down.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

To Post, Or Not To Post: That is the Question

Last time I dithered about whether or not I should post parts of my story, Gods Among Men, on a blog.  Either this one or another one devoted solely to my story.  I concluded by asking for other people’s opinions. 

Since no one was forthcoming with their opinions, I cornered various people, shot them with tranquilizer darts, and then water-boarded them until they were willing to say anything to make me stop.  Naturally, I took what they said as honest advice freely given.

I was able to determine that either A) no one cares if I post parts of my story on this blog or on another one, or B) people are deathly afraid of me and will say whatever they think I want to hear.  In either case, no one specifically objected to me posting parts of my story on this blog, but neither did they encourage me to do so.

One person did, however, raise a substantive point about whether it was a good idea for me to be posting my story online at all.  There are two good reason I can think of to be wary of doing so: 1) running afoul of copyright laws, and 2) ticking off potential publishers.

The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Lawyers

Copyright laws protect the creator/owner of content, such as the text of a book.  If someone tries to steal, copy, plagiarize, or otherwise appropriate material that is not theirs, the owner of the copyright can sue the dirty rotten thief with fair odds of winning the case.

So what would it take to ensure my story is covered by copyright laws?  It would appear that I need do nothing at all.  Apparently, creating an original work is, by itself, sufficient to have it covered by national and international copyright laws.  You don’t even have to put up a notice saying the work is copyrighted.  All you need is reasonable evidence that you are the creator of the work.

Enforcing the copyright, however, is another matter.  Enforcement means being paranoid, sending letters to those who violated the copyright, and paying lawyers when your copyright is infringed. 

All this assumes someone would be interested enough in my story to bother stealing it.  At this stage, I think that is the least of my worries.

Don’t Anger Those Who Buy Ink By The Barrel

Ticking-Off off traditional publishers is a different matter.  It is entirely possible that posting a substantial amount of my story in a blog would make traditional publishers extremely reluctant to work with me.

How likely is it that would happen?  How the heck should I know?  I’m an amateur writer, I don’t really know how professional publishing works. 

Perhaps posting the bulk of Gods Among Men online wouldn’t be a big deal to some publishers.  Or if I actually gained a sizeable following it might be considered proof that there is a market for my story, which would increase my odds of being published 

But it is entirely possible that it would convince most publishers that I am not worth spending time and money on.  That I am an amateur writer with no serious intention of transitioning into a professional author.

I feel it is important here to emphasize the difference between writer and author, a distinction I have written about before

In brief a writer has a need to put a story down in words, but may not desire to share that work with anyone else.  For a writer it may be sufficient to express their imagination just for their own enjoyment. 

But an author craves an audience.  Is in not sufficient for an author to tell their story to themselves; they desire, even need, others to experience the story with them.

Neither author nor writer is better than the other.  But it is important to decide which you wish to be.  This decision establishes your ultimate goal, determines the choices you must make to achieve that goal, and establishes the compromises you must be willing to consider.

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

I want to be an author.  It is not sufficient for me to write my story and be the only one who reads it.  I do not crave adulation, but I do feel the need to share with others the world I see so clearly in my imagination.

That said, I have talked with professional writers and editors on occasion.  Based on the little I have learned from those conversations, I already know my odds of being published are not good.   

Publishers rarely accept new novels that are over 80,000 words long, or roughly 300 pages.

In addition, publishers like new novels to be self-contained.  That is, they want the novel to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  It’s fine, even desirable, to leave room for later novels to pick up where the first leaves off.  That’s how series of novels starring recurring characters come about.  But the publisher wants proof that there is an audience for the first novel before they risk investing in later novels by the same author or in the same series.

Care to Play A Game of Chance

I don’t blame publishers for adopting that attitude.  New authors are unproven quantities, as are new novels.  The cost of printing and promoting new books is extremely expensive.  Taking on an untried author who proposes writing a lengthy series of  long books is taking a riverboat gamble with a lot of money on the table.

And that is what I would be presenting to to them. 

Currently the first book in Gods Among Men is 231,000 words long, more than 700 pages.   As I edit the various chapters the length will shrink, but I cannot imagine this first novel ever being close to their desired 80,000 word limit.   I expect the later novels will be of similar length.  Gods Among Men will take seven books to tell in its entirety, which means I must write approximately 5000 pages, or about 1.5 million words.

Moreover, the first book in the series, At the Lady’s Behest comes…, ends not on one cliffhanger, but on several.  Potential publishers would likely want me to radically change how it ends, and that is not possible without destroying the overall arc of the story I want to tell.

This is not to say it is impossible for me to have Gods Among Men published, merely that the odds are seriously stacked against me. 

I would have better odds of success if I were to write several self-contained novels first, establish myself as a professional writer, then try to have my epic published.  

Of course that plan requires years of effort, with no guarantee of success.  There is no reason to believe that I would be published if I wrote self-contained stories. Nor is there reason to expect those other works would sell well enough to establish me as a reliable writer in the eyes of publishers.  In the end, such efforts might well be wasted time.  Time that I could have spent crafting the story I actually care about.

Put Your Money Down and Roll the Dice

Which brings me back to the idea of posting my story online.  It is another riverboat gamble, but this time the risks are on me. 

Do I post Gods Among Men online so that a small number of people might read it?  Doing so risks alienating publishers, possibly restricting me to only those people who know of my work by word of mouth.

Or do I avoid publishing online and try to beat the odds?  Dare I hope that Gods Among Men is picked up by a publisher that would provide me with a much wider audience?  Doing so carries the distinct possibility that no one would ever read my story.

To Post, Or Not To Post: That is the Question

And since the decision does not need to made immediately, the safest course of action is to make no decision.  Which brings to mind a quote from Hamlet, part of the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Act three, scene one.   Hamlet refers to what lies beyond death as “the undiscovered country”, but you can just as well take his words to be about the future.

The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Or in simpler words, the fear of unknown future consequences can stifle the ability to make a decision in the here and now.  Indecision leads to delay and dithering, until the moment is lost and the consequences of inaction are upon us.

I am prone to introspection, to analyzing a situation over and over.  But I am also capable of quick, even radical decisions made with little evidence or thought of consequence.  Decisions not made based on logic or reason, but made based on spur of the moment gut instinct.  I am (metaphorically) capable of leaping off a cliff without knowing what lies below, trusting on good luck to provide a safe landing.

For the moment I shall wait, postpone making a final decision, but I will not wait long.  I will set my course of action soon.  Perhaps not this week or the next, but likely by the end of the years.  I will, of course keep those interested in the outcome informed. 

If anyone has advice or insight they care to share on this matter, please feel free to voice your opinion.  I am genuinely interested in hearing what others think about what I should do, especially the reasons you may have for or against me posting my story online.

Until next time, take care and have fun.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dithering in Space and Time

I have been delaying writing my next post, not because of a lack of subjects but because a lack of time has intersected with my propensity to dither. 

Time is Not on My Side

I have previously written about a few of the distractions I am currently coping with.  There are others as well, various personal commitments that individually don’t require significant amounts of time, but which collectively drain away the minutes and hours of the day.

Even poor writing requires time and effort.  Lately I find that when free time bubbles to the surface of my schedule the idea of settling in front of computer to spend hours writing seems to require more effort than I can summon.  It is easy to say, “Not today, maybe tomorrow.”  And tomorrow becomes the day after, and the day after that, then next week, then next month.  Once I managed to let the days go by one at a time for so long that two years passed without me writing a word on my story. 

My self-imposed requirement that I maintain my blogging efforts has forced me to return to the keyboard.  To stare into the unforgiving white page and cover it with words.  It isn’t fiction writing, it doesn’t directly advance my efforts to tell the story that dominates so much of my mind.  But it is writing, and the effort alone counts for something.  Only so many days are allowed to go by before I must express a thought or emotion, describe an event, or simply write something and publish it to the world.

NaNoWriMo Is Not Something Mork Said

This is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.  (No, I have no idea why they went with that terrible abbreviation.) The idea is that you are suppose to dedicate yourself to writing 50,000 words in the month of November.  This equates to about 175 pages of prose.  Given my tendency to verbosity, that is a long chapter for me.  I exaggerate, though not as much as those unfamiliar with my writing might think.  One of my chapters qualifies as a self-contained novella.

The point of NaNoWriMo is to write as fast as you can.  To pour words onto the page with abandon.  To not worry about whether you use the right words or write characters consistently or believably or any of the other issues that can slow writing to a crawl.   To just type as fast as your fingers will allow.

To break my logjam, I decided to throw my hat into the NaNoWriMo ring and begin work on the second book in my Gods Among Men series, …Demiurge, Unbound,….  The first book, At the Lady’s Behest Comes…, is written, though much of it is still terrible.  (No, this is not false modesty, just an honest appraisal of the vast bulk of the novel that has not been properly edited.)

My reasoning when I started was that, while I have plenty of ideas and requirements  for …Demiurge, Unbound,…  precious little of it has actually been written down.  If I were to generate 50,000 words on that novel in a short period of time then at least I would have something that I could edit and improve on later.  Plus, I thought the effort would help me practice  pantzing character interactions, something I had been planning to do anyway.

So How’s That Working Out For You?

I think it is safe to say I will not achieve the stated goal of 175 pages by the end of the month.  Ignoring the fact that I started late, the truth of the matter is I have too little time.   My slow typing speed alone is enough to prevent me from putting 50,000 words on the page in the remaining time.  With dedication and effort I might reach 20,000 words, but even that seems unlikely to me.  Still, it is a goal worth trying for.

In the process of writing on …Demiurge, Unbound,…, I was struck by a thought.  It was a glancing blow which, no doubt, will heal in a few days, or perhaps a few weeks.  In the meantime, the aftereffects of this thought bothers me enough that I continue to pick at it in my mind.   If I am not careful it will leave a scar.

The thought was simple enough: Why limit myself to the end of the month?

I want to be clear here.  I am not trying to break the idea behind NaNoWriMo.  (Seriously, whoever came up with that abbreviation needs to avoid both writing and marketing as their chosen profession.)  I am seeking to expand the idea and incorporate it into my writing methodology. 

A Time to Edit, And A Time to Write

I have been struggling for some time to discover how best to tell my story.  To call it a “work of a lifetime” is is not quite correct.  At the rate I am currently churning out finished pages it will take considerably more years to finish writing Gods Among Men than I likely have left to live. 

I am faced with the clear fact that I must write faster or Gods Among Men will never be complete, meaning actually written down.  I don’t think it ever shall  be complete in the sense that I will be fully satisfied with my telling of the story, but it is possible for me to write the story arc in its entirety from beginning to end.  To construct a first draft that expresses the plot, describes the characters and their relationships to each other, and reveals the world that consumes so much of my waking thoughts.

I want to go beyond arbitrary deadlines (50,000 words by the end of the month, so many words each day, etc…)  and avoid the bog of infinite editing.  I want to bring the phase of endless planning to its long overdue end and find a structure that forces me to move the story forward at a steady pace.  A way to whittle down the mountain of complex plot and characters and construct a draft that has all the elements required to tell the story, even if it is not told particularly well.  I want a structure that forces me to write and removes the excuses that allow me to dither and delay putting words on paper.

Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant

To that end, I am going to perform an experiment pulling together several threads of thought that I have been toying with for some time now.

In essence, I am considering broadening my idea for writing character vignettes.  Instead of limiting myself to out of context scenes, which I was having great difficultly doing, I would instead spend time each week crafting a first draft of Gods Among Men.  To write as quickly as possible and tell my story from beginning to end.   I would not edit any of the new material at this time, just strictly focus on the flow of the story and the character interactions.

To keep myself honest, I would regularly post what I have written.  Perhaps not every word; I reserve the right to keep the worst tripe safely hidden until I can replace it with something better.  Still, if once or twice a week I am required to post something then by incremental steps I will make concrete what currently exists solely in my overactive imagination. 

This also allows me the opportunity to practice the various skills in which I am less than adequate at the moment, most notably character interactions.  Also, it would let me write my mythology out as part of the story in which it fits.  To weave the relevant details into the dialogue and descriptions in a way that hopefully would be both clear and natural.

I would continue to edit my existing chapters as well, polishing that text until it is of acceptable and perhaps even publishable quality.  But, while I am improving on what exists, I also need to create new material that completes the story arc the existing work begins.

I have Issues. Yeah, I Know, You’re Shocked 

There are two questions which I must resolve before I begin this effort. 

The first question is whether this blog is the proper place for this material, or should I start a separate blog dedicated to posting my fiction, à la Kathryn’s blog about her story, Moonlit

As originally constituted, this blog was about writing in general and the efforts of the Magic City Writers’ Group.  I am the most prolific of the posters on this blog, but I am not the only person contributing to it.  And, while I have often indulged myself by posting material relevant only to me and my story, the effort I am proposing may be inappropriate for this site.  Which raises the question that perhaps I should move all of my story specific material to my own private blog.   But doing so would require a fair amount of effort, and would mean that I would have to maintain two blogs instead of one.  In a word, yuck. 

The second question concerns the content of what I post.   Namely, should I also post completed or recently edited sections from the first book, or constrain myself to just new material as it it written.  My purpose is to create a complete first draft of the whole story, which would suggest posting only new material. 

But the new material would be confusing to those who have not read the earlier material, which includes everybody other than me.  (The writers’ group has read only the early chapters, and even Kathryn has not read the last several chapters.)  In addition, the blog (whether this one or a new one) shall over time become a reference source for me.  A place I can go to find scenes and other materials that I have stored with tags to make them easier to find.  These facts suggest that I should include the older material for the sake of completeness.

No doubt I shall dither and dally over this a bit more before making my final decisions.  I am interested in the opinions of others on these questions.

Until next time, have fun.

Monday, November 2, 2009

When Last We Met...

Taking a departure from the normal blog poster, I have decdided to cover the last meeting. Actually it was suggested to me, since it was my chapter that we were reviewing.

But first, lets talk about the food.

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

This meeting happened at the end of the week Brant and I celebrate the anniversary of our first date, so we decided to make a little something special for the festivities. For dinner, we made a simple but delicious chicken tortilla soup that I had made before for the group. It is made with steam-cooked chicken breasts, shredded and put in a crock pot with lots of chicken stock. Then I add 5 kinds of beans (garbanzo, pinto, black, great northern, dark kidney), white hominy and yellow corn to fill out the soup. For flavor, I added Mexican style rotel tomatoes and lots and lots of Texan-approved spices (chili and cumin, mostly). Heat for about 4 hours and voila!

For dessert, I was planning on making small cakes with a mousse-filling. But, for some unknown reason, half the cakes I made refused to be removed from their pans, and ended up being shredded. Still, the cake was too delicious to throw out, being a vanilla rum cake, so I eventually calmed down and thought of an alternative. I bought a pineapple (that was fun to cut!) and banana, and created trifles in our parfait glasses. The cake bits were layered with my vanilla rum mousse (a homemade recipe, I might add), whipped cream and the fruits. It was very pretty, and quite delicious. We ate ALL of it before everyone left.

And Now Back to the Savaging

This time around we were reviewing the third chapter of my new novel, Moonlit. I am trying the 'pantzing' technique, where I don't formally plan out the plot of the story. I have a vague idea of where I am going, but let the story lead me where it wants to go. So far the comments have been favorable, although it is completely obvious it is a first draft that needs work. This chapter was no exception. It had problems, but I believe the editorial comments were more structural based that about the story itself. The first and most glaring problem that everyone noted was the lack of continuance from the cliff hanger at the end of the last chapter. It was a bad omission on my part. I had meant to put it in, but simply forgot. Oddly enough, it is an easy fix.

This chapter dealt with interrogating three lycanthropes who had been arrested following attacks on a FLI agent (think werewolf police) and two civilians. I had used advice from an officer friend of mine and got questions right, and generally the interrogation scenes were well recieved. However, it did tend to wander off topic a lot, and needed a few nips and tucks to keep the flow of the story going. On a positive note, they loved the character Lexi, who was the main focus of the first half of the chapter. As a new recruit, her eagerness needed to be reigned in a bit, but Brant, Nicole, and Lindy all agreed that they would like to see more of her. the other characters showcased in the chapter - Boxer, Boris, and Ranulf - needed to be fleshed out a little bit better.

Praise was actually given for one attempt at humor and stab at realism. Boxer tried to give Lexi a false name - Wile E. Coyote - and it went over as well as I had hoped it would. And Boris' anger at being ostracized as a werewolf was well received also. I got a little worked up at some of the semantics changes that were brought up - mainly because I didn't see the difference between what I wrote and what they wanted - but I believe the overall vote was positive.

On another note, Jeremy Lewis, author of Staked and Revamped, was unable to attend the meeting. His wife became ill and family matters - of course - took precedence. I believe I can speak for everyone when I say that I hope his wife is feeling much better. In this climate of fear of illness, you can never be too careful. And there will always be other meetings that he is more than welcome to attend.

The Remains of The Day

We had to wrap up the meeting earlier than usual, because of other obligations. We finished up around 5 pm, and Lindy and Nicole left. Feeling bereft, crying just a little bit, Brant and I - along with Rusty and D'argo - cried and whined as everyone left us alone in the dark.

Just kidding.

Brant and I proceeded to watch a movie, like we tend to do after the meetings. We watched Sleepy Hollow, and enjoyed every minute of it.

That concludes the summary of our latest meeting. The next meeting will cover Lindy's chapter of a new story, called Marked. We will be meeting on November 15, and will be at Nicole's apartment. Well, that's all for now. Keep on keeping on.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Birthday, Alex!

All Together Now.

Happy Birthday To You,
Happy Birthday To You,
Happy Birthday Dear Alex
Happy Birthday to You!

A Special Birthday Wish

Today, Sunday November 11, is the birthday of Magic City Writer member in absentia, Alex.  As in the person I like to tease in my ongoing segment titled, Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate.

Alex was a member of the group before we started calling ourselves the Magic City Writers.  Her snarky humor and insightful comments made her a valuable member and a dear friend. 

Some time ago, the vagaries of life led her to a far off land populated by strange people with unusual customs.  I think the natives of this distant northern realm call it “Rhode Island”. 

Since then we don’t see Alex too much, though we do receive text messages, e-mails, and Facebook post from her from time to time.  Some of these conversations get a little weird, such as the one where I promised to sign a llama for her, but that is a part of her appeal.

On behalf of all the members of our little group, I offer the following birthday wish:

Alex, I hope you have a great Birthday today and many, many more in the future.  May happiness follow you throughout your travels, brining you as much joy as you bring to others.  And should you ever wander close by, please feel free to stop by, for we would love to see you again.  Heck, let us know in advance and we might even feed you.

Take care and Have Fun.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Host of Distractions

Nerve pain is a bitch.

About two months ago I herniated a disc in my back.  The L5-S1 disc to be precise.  I don’t mention this to garner sympathy or complain randomly.  This event has drastically affected, among other things, my ability to write.   It, along with other events, has led me to consider the daily distractions that can pull a writer away from their passion.  And that is a subject relevant to this blog.

The Writer’s Burden

Writing well takes a lot of time and effort.  It requires devoting a significant amount of your free time to a pursuit that may well yield nothing.  It can be a frustrating, even depressing, pursuit. 

The joy writing can bring is often long delayed, and unexpected.  It may be years later when you read something you wrote and think, “That is really good.”  Or when someone compliments you for something that entertained of enlightened them. 

At those moments writing is worth the struggle.  Up till then it is obsession that must drive a writer.   Yes, obsession.  There is no better word to describe what brings someone back to a work that demands so much and offers so little for such a long time. 

But obsessions are rarely all-consuming.  I am obsessed with my story, but I  have also always been prone to letting outside forces dictate the amount of time I spend on my obsession.

The Wasteland of Distractions

The new TV season has always been a dreadful time for me to try and write.  For many years the start of the new season pretty much brought all my writing attempts to a screeching halt.  Fortunately, TV these days is bad enough that relatively little draws me to it.  I suppose I should thank reality shows for the amount of dreck cluttering the airwaves, but they are so god-awful I can’t bear to say anything nice about them. 

For the last year or two I maintained a schedule that let me write fairly regularly.  At least several times a week, about 10-20 hours total.  Not as much as I would like, but enough that I felt good about the progress I was making.   I even managed to keep this schedule when new episodes of my favorite shows were airing.  Quite a feat, if I do say so myself.

Then I hurt my back a couple of months ago and my schedule went to hell.

At first glance, you might think something like this would let me spend more time writing.  After all, I can’t stand for long, nor can I lay down.  I practically live in chairs, and one of the few that doesn’t make me feel worse is the one at my computer.  While there, why not write?

There are a few problems with this chain of reasoning, namely pain, drugs, and treatment. 

Oh the Pain, the Pain

Back at the top I said nerve pain was a bitch.  Back when my pain was at its worse it felt like a wild animal was trying to rip my leg off.  Perhaps there are those able to focus past that kind of agony, but I am not one of them.  Crafting a single sentence became extraordinarily difficult, often require many long minutes just to piece together a few words. 

And then there were the drugs to control the aforementioned pain.  If you are looking for a good way to reduce a groan man to a drooling idiot, I can heartily recommend a cocktail of Neurontin and Percocet.  Together they pretty much destroyed my ability to perform any task taking more than a few seconds to complete.  Granted, I was so high that my imagination took flight and I had great ideas and insights into my story.  But I lost much of my ability to put any of those thoughts on paper.  On top of this, I had a host of bad reactions to the Neurontin which resulted in more time spent with doctors.

Which brings us to treatment.  Treating a hernia goes through several stages, all of which takes time; both for the treatment itself, and in recovering afterwards.

First there was the time it took to see doctors, and the time spent recuperating from the terrible chairs in most waiting rooms. 

This was followed by the (wasted) time in physical therapy that in my case actually made my hernia worse.  

Then I had surgery.  No only was this not pleasant (a significant understatement on my part), it took quite some time to recover from.   The surgery, however, did (eventually) relieve much of my pain. 

With my pain reduced I was able to begin going to a gym where I could do water exercises designed to strengthen my back.   It took long hours to find the right gym, and I now spend many hours each week there. 

When I am done exercising I return home, often so tired and in enough pain that writing is the last thing I want to do.  Instead I take my narcotics and play a game or watch some TV for a couple of hours, then go to sleep in my chair. 

Yes, I still can’t lay down for any significant period of time.  My sleep is still fitful, and I am tired most of the time.  All of which reduces my ability to write fiction.

Is All of This Going Anywhere?

I have not been able to write on my story for many weeks now.  I have been able to write about it in blog posts, but that is not the same.  Writing a blog post is easier than fiction writing where you must worry about characters, plot, descriptions, and so forth.

My desire to write, as always, is still there.  The obsession has not diminished.  But the lost time caused by all these distractions is dramatically increasing the frustrations writing incurs, and further delaying the rewards that normally inspire me to keep pressing forward.

A while back, Nicole and I began a regular exchange of writing and editing.  It was certainly beneficial to me, and surprisingly enjoyable.  This exercise forced me to do something every day, especially on those days when I wanted to set the effort of writing aside.  Unfortunately, events in her chosen career have made it impossible for her to continue this exchange for some time to come.  I mention this to illustrate that while my tale may be singular in its details it is indicative of a broader pattern affecting all writers.  Namely the tendency for outside forces to interfere with the work and joy of writing.

This is not to imply that I intend to stop writing.  My point here is not to throw a pity party, but to illustrate how easy it is for life to disrupt the effort required to produce a work worth reading.  Telling a story in its entirety becomes a quest with hardships that encourage you to turn aside.  Perseverance is required to push through to end.  Perseverance, and obsession.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Vignettes: Where to Begin

In my last post I wrote about my problem with writing convincing characters.  I said:

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  … I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.  

I received some support for this idea, enough to make me seriously consider it.  The problem is that I am uncertain how to begin.  This style of writing is foreign to me.  My thoughts first leap to my plot, followed by the settings, followed by other concerns that I have typically let take precedence over the characters.  The idea of putting some collection of characters together and letting them interact without a broader context is bizarre to me.

Add yet, that is the whole point of the exercise, isn’t it?  To break my current paradigm for writing so as to improve my overall skill.  To discard old assumptions and start looking at things from a fresh perspective.

This is easier said than done.

As I sit here, flipping through my characters in my head, I find myself paralyzed by indecision.  Who do I pick to start with?  Do I start with a single character alone?  Or should I have two or more in a conversation or perhaps some kind of conflict?  Would it be better to focus on major characters first, or to practice with secondary characters instead?  Should I try to write a scene already in my head, one I know I will want later?  Or should I focus on fixing a scene that I have already written, but which has problems? Or would it be better to focus on something I have no intention of keeping, but which might flesh out the character’s background and behavior?  Should I incorporate descriptions of their current setting, or should I leave out such details for now?

I am tempted to write names and ideas on little scraps of paper and throw them together into my hat.  That way I could draw one at random and just force myself to write on whatever I pull out.  Hardly a great idea, but it would break my current logjam.

Another aspect of my dilemma is that I am a slow writer, prone to editing my work as I am creating it.   I tend to analyze each sentence, each word, in an effort to form the right phrase.  But what I need to do is capture characters in a visceral way.   Analyzing sentences while engaged in that effort seems akin to losing sight of the forest because you spend too much time studying the trees.

And so I dither and instead write a post about the difficulties of making the effort, rather than making the effort itself.

Hopefully by next time I will have a better grasp on how to begin.  If not, I may delay the vignettes a bit longer so I can vacillate some more.  Certainly I have a host of other topics I can write about.  I believe, however, that it is my weakness with characterizations that needs addressing most urgently.  It is this problem that keeps my existing chapters from feeling finished. That forces me to edit them again and again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Link to An Article on How to Improve Your Vocabulary

I stumbled across an article I thought others might find interesting.  Is is titled Marzano's Six Steps to Effective Vocabulary Instruction. The focus of the article is on helping students learn subject-specific academic vocabulary, but I think it illustrates techniques useful in broader contexts.  I particularly like the way it highlights features of Visual Thesaurus, a product I have found to be very helpful to my own writing efforts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

When Last We Met…

On Sunday October 19, 2009, the Magic City Writers met and ruthlessly savaged my second chapter, …Awakens The Outer Circle…, leaving me a broken shell of a man (again). 

But first, lets talk about the food. 

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

The food, as always, was excellent. 

Kathryn baked fresh pumpkin bread (with a hint of orange flavor) and banana nut bread, both served with apple butter.  She also baked tandoori chicken, made with various herbs suspended in Greek yogurt and drenched over juicy chicken breasts.   

Nicole also displayed impressive culinary skills by improvising a tasty recipe for curry fried rice with stir-fry veggies on the spot. 

Needless to say, we were all well sated by the end of the meeting.  And best of all there were leftovers for me and Kathryn to dine on for the next couple of days.

And Now Back to the Savaging

With regards to the reviews of my new and improved chapter two of Gods Among Men, I am saddened to report they were mixed.   The chapter is substantially improved over last time, and some parts are quite good.  Unfortunately, only some parts are quite good.  This is not to call the rest rubbish, merely not good enough.

My most serious problem is structural.   The climax of the chapter requires an ambiguous point of view that is hard to get right.  There are multiple characters interacting in a way that creates two sequence of events happening at the same time.  I switch back and forth between different character’s perspective several times.  My intention is to help the reader understand what is happening and how the characters are affecting each other.   However, the switch between the different points of view, as written, is disconcerting and disrupts the reader’s ability to become absorbed in the scene. 

The group had few suggestions on how to resolve this point of view problem, and there was no consensus on the right solution.  None of the proposed solutions felt satisfactory to me.  I fear I may have to be satisfied with minimizing this problem rather than eliminating it.  My best hope at the moment is that once other problems in the chapter are fixed this point of view problem will not be as important as it is now. 

Another prominent criticism was that my secondary characters don’t feel real enough to maintain the readers suspension of disbelief.  Essentially, the group felt that I was forcing the characters to act as I wanted them to act and say what I wanted said, as opposed to the characters doing or saying what a real person would. 

This problem with the secondary characters is addressable by fixing certain key interactions.  As I reflected on this criticism, however, I concluded this problem was indicative of a weakness in my overall approach to writing. 

Houston, We Have A Problem

The first time I submitted any of my initial chapters, the group complained my characterizations were all over the place and unrealistic.  I fixed the main characters and the secondary were still problematic.  I fixed the secondary characters and tertiary characters continued to have similar problems. 

I am, by nature, a plotter, which means I first came up with the major concepts for Gods Among Men and from those concepts determined the details that must occur.  From there I extracted broad themes and formulated a complex tale, complete with an in-depth mythology of its own.  Then I focused on descriptions of settings and other such imagery.  It is characterization that I let linger until the very end. 

Given the type of tale I am trying to tell, I think  focusing upon plot and mythology to a certain degree is warranted.  But the result is that my skills for describing people in a realistic fashion is wanting. 

Perhaps this is an advantage of the “pantzer” style of writing.  If you focus only upon the situation at the moment and your characters’ reactions and interactions, with no thought as to where the story is going, perhaps you get truer characterizations.  I don’t know for certain that this is true, but it is worth considering.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Practice is what makes perfect, and practice requires a consistent devotion of effort over a long period of time. 

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  My reasoning is thus:  A fixed schedule is the best way to ensure that effort is maintained.  I intend to keep putting up new blog posts, preferably twice a week.  (Though lately it has been closer to once a week.)  Since I always need something to write about I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.   Posting these experiments on the blog also has the advantage of organizing them with attached tags I can use for looking them up again later.

I am still in my waffling stage on this idea.  It might work, or it might be a total waste of time.  The main point here is that I am searching for ways to improve my ability to write realistic characters.   Suggestions are welcome.

The Remains of The Day

After eating and editing, we sat around for a long time talking about various subjects.  Then we went upstairs to watch/listen to the RiffTrax for the movie Daredevil

A RiffTrax is an audio file of snarky comments that you play alongside a movie.  The worse the movie, the better the RiffTrax that goes with it.  Given how truly putrid Daredevil is, the RiffTrax for it was absolutely hysterical.

After the movie/RiffTrax, Lindy had to go to work.  Nicole, Kathryn, and I finished off the evening by watching episodes of the new Battlestar Gallactica.   I personally believe this series is the best science fiction show of the last decade, and one of the best and most daring television shows of all-time.

That concludes the summary of our latest meeting.  Kathryn is set to submit her first draft of the third chapter of her story, MoonlitShe will be mailing out copies of that chapter to the group in a few days.   Our next meeting will be on November 1st, again at my house.  As always I shall try to describe what happens in an interesting or at least entertaining way.

Until next time, have fun and party down.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Big Picture, Part 4: The World of Tomorrow


This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

The World of Today

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I see Gods Among Men as being set on earth in the very distant future.  At some point where Arthur C. Clarke's adage, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has finally come true.  

In my last post, I explained how in my mythology the faerie world exists, but broke off most contact with humans in our early pre-history.

Adopting this mythology lets me both claim that supernatural entities—and hence supernatural or magical powers—exist, and explain why mankind at our current moment in history would be largely unaware of that fact.

It also, however, begs the following question: From this point, meaning our present, how does our modern society twist and turn to become my fantasy world of the future?  A world that draws heavily on Medieval and Renaissance imagery with Gothic overtones.  A place where Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedies are plot elements in a battle of wills between the protagonist, Damon Roth, and the antagonist Demiurge.  The kind of world where spacecraft coexist with spellcraft.

Where Do We Go From Here

It is my belief that certain trends in mankind’s past will continue into the future.  First and foremost, there will be scientific and technological progress.  Mankind will learn more about biology, genetics, physics, and a host of other subjects.  Computer technology will advance, as will space travel, engineering, and the like.

Take these assumptions forward an indefinite period of time; a thousand years or more, tens of thousands if need be.  What might be possible at the furthest reaches of these broad trends?

In my mythology, in the far future there will be practical space travel within the solar system.  There will be many colonies on asteroids, moons, and planets that are functionally self-sustaining. 

Nanotechnology is perfected and able to operate down at the atomic and possibly sub-atomic level. 

Genetic engineering has reached the point where building custom life forms from scratch is possible if one has the right tools. 

The differences between quantum mechanics and relativity theory have been resolved, and we have discovered how to draw vast amounts of energy from the universe itself.  (Or from alternate universes or parallel dimensions or the space between universes or some other techno-babble explanation.  The details here are not important. What matters is that there is nearly unlimited energy that can be tapped and converted to a myriad of uses.)

The Daemons in these Details

But I do not have a utopian view of the future.  There are now, and will continue to be, those who oppose progress of the nature I describe.  We have terrorist and dictators now who seek to disrupt the stability and peace of our world.  Who, if given a chance, would cast us into a dark age. 

I doubt the current batch of thugs have much chance of success, but suppose that desire continues to burn in one form or another for generation after generation.  Suppose evil itself has a form, perhaps intangible, that will return over and over, searching for a way to break the foundations of civilization. 

In my mythology, at the very height of our technological prowess, those who would do great harm found a way to do so.  A way beyond their imaginations or ability to control.  These evil men and women destroyed themselves, and unleashed forces that sent earth spiraling into a new dark age. One which isolates people on earth from their brethren in the space colonies. 

In the process, the destroyers of civilization unleashed Daemons on the world of tomorrow.

Daemons are hybrid humans whose descendants will be called Wizards because of the powers they command which appear to be magical.  Powers rooted in the merger of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, computer science, nanotechnology, biology, and genetic engineering.

I shall go into further details about daemons in a later post.  One point worth noting is that my antagonist, Demiurge, is the last and most powerful of the original daemons.  At the height of his power his name became synonymous with the honorific people hailed him by: God Among Men.

What Is Important To Damon Roth?

The events leading up to the fall of the scientific and technological civilization give rise to the magic that permeates my story.  In a later post I will detail the scientific nature of magic in my mythology, and how its creation resulted in the new dark age.  The key point right now is that Damon Roth and Demiurge are the only characters who have knowledge about the true nature of magic.  This knowledge allows both of them to control people and events in ways impossible for anyone else.

Damon also has detailed information about how the societies on earth and in the space colonies developed.  He knows the strengths and weaknesses in both, understands their history and goals, and is prepared to bend both to his will.

Damon’s plan to confront the future threat he knows of requires those on earth and those in space to unite with elves and other races.  Both humans on earth and those in space must agree to abandon their existing governments and social structures and adopt new ones of his creation.  Damon gives each side the chance to do so willingly, knowing their leaders will refuse.  After their refusal, Damon violently destroys those who oppose him, saving those who are more amendable to his plans.

The details of what happened to those on earth and those in space are important, and beyond the scope of this post.  Later posts in this series will explain what happened to each and how their respective experiences are needed for the survival of humanity and the rest of life on earth.

And On Another Note…

I am approaching the complex hub of my mythology.  The events that foreshadow the tale I am trying to tell in Gods Among Men. Many times in this article I have had to use a phrase like, “In a later post I will explain…”  This is because there is much information that I developed in fits and starts over many long years.  Details which I have never formally expressed in spoken or written words. 

I hope I am clear in my explanations, and the world I describe understandable.  I believe this exercise helps me order my thoughts and answers my own questions about my own work. 

It does take a long time to write these posts, however.  Much longer than it took to write most of my earlier posts.  The amount of time I spend actually writing and editing on Gods Among Men has decreased dramatically in recent weeks. 

I may need to intersperse some smaller, less complicated topics amidst this exploration of my mythology.  But I don’t want to stop writing on this subject out of fear that the clarity I have been blessed with recently will fade if I do.  I am uncertain how to resolve this quandary, so I will have to wait and see where inspiration leads me next.

Until next time, have fun.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Big Picture, Part 3: The World That Never Was


This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

Starting With the Threat and Working Backwards

In a previous post, I summarized the major plot of Gods Among Men as follows:

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying a civilization to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

I will explain the threat Damon perceives in a later post.  For now, accept that the threat is real and that his solution to it will work.  Implementing his solution, however, requires a concerted effort that must be maintained for eons. 

This fact exposes the fundamental problem I faced in Gods Among Men.  I don’t believe any short-lived species (such as humanity) could implement, on their own, a complex plan requiring constant effort for perhaps millions of years. 

It is unreasonable to expect a reader to suspend more disbelief than the writer can.  For me to “believe” that Damon could create a society capable of confronting an eons long task, I had to include an immortal race, or one so long lived they can be considered immortal.  One whose fate is tied to that of the earth’s. 

A Choice of Races

In fantasy and science fiction literature there are numerous ways to create immortal or nearly immortal races.  For a while I toyed with the idea of using robots or some other kind of automated machines to address my story’s needs.  I opted against this approach because it felt hokey, I disliked the symbolism, and because it led to a dénouement that felt false and boring to me.

I decided I wanted an immortal race that has existed since the earliest periods in earth’s history.  A race that once interacted with man frequently, but then retreated behind some mystic veil.   A race which we today either know nothing of, or believe to be the product of fairy tales.

And thus J.R.R. Tolkien inspired a simple solution: Elves, though Faerie Folk might be a better description. 

In The Lord of The Rings, and Tolkien’s other tales, elves were immortal, powerful creatures that left middle-earth at the dawn of the age of man.  The elves he described, and the manner in which they retreated from the world of men, were not perfect for my situation.  But my thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas combined with my knowledge of other mythological concepts surrounding elves and faerie folk until I arrived at my eventual solution.

The Unrecorded Past

In my mythology, elves (and other faerie folk) exist on more dimensions than we can perceive.   They interact with us by “projecting” part of their essence into the dimensions we inhabit, à la Flatland.  This lets them appear to change shape, sometimes appearing much like beautiful humans, and other times looking like animals such as white stags or black cats. 

It is possible for humans to “crossover” into the elven dimensions and interact with them in their native environment.  But the limitations of human perceptions hamper our ability to understand or clearly remember what happened.  And time does not flow at the same rate in these other dimensions as it does in ours.  A person who spends a few weeks living among the elves may return to our world only to discover decades have passed, while they have not aged.

In our pre-history, men interacted with elves regularly.  The graceful--and at times terrible--elves, with knowledge and powers no human possessed, inspired stories that in later generations became the foundations for mythologies and religions. 

Elves are immortal, but are highly susceptible to metal, especially iron and steel.  Weaker elves can die by touching something made of iron or steel. As mankind learned to make items out of metal, elves retreated from the dimensions they shared with us to protect themselves.  Near the dawn of our written history, elves cut off almost all contact with humanity and became just legendary creatures inhabiting fairy tales

How Elves Fit Into Damon Roth’s Plans

There are other faerie creatures, such as unicorns and the like.  But Elves are the ones important to what Damon Roth is planning.   Being immortal they can provide the stable core for the new society he plans to build.  Elves can guarantee that efforts to thwart the long term threat to the planet do not falter. 

But Elves will not ally themselves to a society dominated by wizards, for reasons I will explain in a later post.  At the start of Gods Among Men, wizards control the upper reaches of a world spanning empire called The Guild.  These wizards do not believe elves exist.  They think elves are just  products of Damon’s madness.  Thus the wizards refuse his demands that they relinquish power.  This results in Damon’s decision to destroy The Guild and create a new society that elves will ally themselves with.

Tolkien wrote about a crisis that ends with elves retreating from the world.  I write about a crisis that ends with elves returning to the world in order to ally themselves with mankind.  This is not the totality of Gods Among Men, or even the primary plot thread, but it is a crucial fact that drives much of Damon’s motivations and machinations.


The following is a list of key points explaining the founding logic of my world, the importance of elves to Damon Roth’s plans, their relationship to mankind at the beginning of Gods Among Men, and how this relationship must change by the end of the story.

  1. The world is our earth in the distant future
  2. Elves have existed since before humanity evolved.
  3. Elves are effectively immortal.
  4. Elves have a well-developed, highly stable, culture and society.
  5. Elves and other faerie creatures cannot tolerate metal, especially iron and steel.
  6. Elves and other fairy creatures retreated from the “human” dimensions when mankind began using iron and steel.
  7. By the start of Gods Among Men, most people have forgotten even the tales and legends of the faerie folk.
  8. Damon Roth is one of the few who know that elves exist.  (I shall explain how he came by this knowledge in a later post.)
  9. The future threat that Damon is aware of is real.
  10. Elves are aware of this threat, and it endangers them as well.
  11. Damon’s solution to the threat will work, but requires a sustained effort for perhaps millions of years.
  12. Elves are aware of Damon’s proposed solution, and accept that it is the best answer to the future threat.
  13. Elves are incapable of addressing the threat by themselves.
  14. Damon believes, with cause, that the world’s only hope is for mankind and elves to form an alliance dedicated to enacting his solution to the threat.
  15. Elves, for good reasons, will not ally themselves with any society dominated by wizards.
  16. The Guild, the dominate power in the future is largely controlled by wizards who do not believe that elves exist.
  17. These wizards refuse to relinquish power and turn control of the government over to non-wizards.
  18. Damon decides to destroy the current society and create one where wizards play a lesser role in world affairs.
  19. Elves will neither interfere with nor aid Damon.  They shall wait to see the outcome of his actions and, if he succeeds, form an alliance with the society that forms after the fall of The Guild.

The final point is crucial.  The elves in my story feel they must remain neutral.  They want Damon to succeed, but they are afraid of interfering lest some factions of mankind come to see them as enemies and not allies.  In fact, part of Damon’s plan is to identify and eliminate any who might react violently to an alliance with elves.  Therefore, while elves are crucial to the finale of Gods Among Men, and are essential to Damon’s motivations, they are little more than spectators to the major events of the story. 

I would not go so far as to call the elves in Gods Among Men some type of MacGuffin.  Some of the elf characters are very important to the scope of the story.  But none of these characters are the primary focus of any central story arcs.  Rather the elves in my story are structural elements, secondary characters that provide depth and meaning to the main characters.  They fill this role because, to me, elves have much better symbolic value than robots, and the dénouement they provide is far more satisfying. 

A Link To An Article on Phrasing

Here is a link to an interesting article by Michael Lydon entitled The Art Of Phrasing.   It delves into the grammar surrounding phrases and clauses, and I found his points quite insightful and easy to understand.  I hope others derive similar benefit from this article. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Big Picture, Part 2: One Influence to Rule Them All


This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

The Tolkien Effect

In my opinion, it is all but impossible to discuss deeply modern epic fantasy literature without touching first upon J.R.R. Tolkien and his masterpiece, The Lord Of The Rings.

Tolkien is the father of modern epic fantasy and his work influences, directly and indirectly, every novel in the genre.  Almost any epic fantasy writer working today has read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times.  Ask them what they think of the work and they will recite a long list of what they admire and dislike about it. 

Then read those writers own works.  You will see what they liked in The Lord Of The Rings reflected in their stories, albeit in a distorted mirror of their own words.  What they disliked they either avoid or change.  Thus each writer’s visceral reaction to this seminal story influences how they write new ones. 

This is not to say that all novels in the epic fantasy genre are just retellings of The Lord Of The Rings, though I do know some people who have made that dubious claim.  Rather, it is more accurate to claim that many writers want to be the next Tolkien; the originator of a genre, movement, or trend.  To do so they, perhaps subconsciously, try to emulate Tolkien and distinguish themselves from him at the same time.

With regards to my own work. Gods Among Men, there is one quality of The Lord Of The Rings that I definitely want to (partially) emulate.  Tolkien made his world feel real, as if the events were taking place long ago in a forgotten age. 

For myself, I want my work to feel like it is taking place in the far distant future, on an earth where Arthur C. Clarke's adage “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has finally come true. 

Note that I specify the world, not the characters or the plot or other aspects of a story.  For now I am focusing strictly on the setting in which my tale unfolds.

The Quest for Realism

Tolkien proved it is possible have fantastic, utterly unrealistic worlds that nonetheless have a sense of realism about them.  The devil is in the logic of the world; in the consistency of the world as perceived by the reader, combined with how characters in that world react to what they perceive as fantastic or mundane. 

The way Tolkien addressed these intertwined criteria for a realistic world is by understanding, in great detail, the culture and history of the world and its inhabitants.  He developed an elaborate history containing events that are only hinted at in The Lord of the Rings.  Much of this history is never discussed in the story itself, only in his appendixes or in works finished by others and published after his death, such as The Silmarillion.

Tolkien detailed history answered questions he had about his own work.  The history he created told him how characters would react to events, and what they might know about places and things and people.  It gave him insight into his character’s worldview, which made it possible to write them in a consistent manner.  This in turn created a sense that his fantasy world was real.  He did not need to include the history directly because it indirectly permeates the entire finished story.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has multiple scenes with the hobbits talking about “elven magic”, but the elves are confused by that description.  The elves in his world do not see the items they create as being magical and treat such “magic” items as being quite ordinary.  The hobbits see the same items as remarkable beyond description, and never fully understand how they work. 

Why did the hobbits see elven items as magical and fantastic?  Because of their history and culture.  Hobbits formed agrarian communities and had little contact with those outside their close circle of friends and family.  Their skills and knowledge were those of simple folk, and that shaped how they saw the world.

Why did the elves not see how special the items they created were?  Because of their history and culture.  Elves are immortal, curious, and creative.  They mastered sailing to travel the world and study everything they encountered.  The knowledge they acquired let them make items others found remarkable, but which to them were useful tools that served specific functions. 

To put it into more mundane terms: Imagine someone who grew up isolated from any knowledge of our modern world, then show them a television, or cell phone, or computer.  Assume they are  brilliant in terms of their culture, and learn to operate the devices.  Nonetheless, could they possibly think these items as anything less than magical? 

What Does a History Need to Cover?

I want the world in Gods Among Men to have a sense of realism.  I want the reader to see the magic, and believe there is a technology behind it.  And I want the reader to feel that in some ways they understand the world better than the character’s do.  To do this I must understand its history so that I can paint a consistent picture for the reader. In particular, I must know:

  1. What are the various races.
  2. Where does each race comes from.
  3. What do members of each race know about the other races.
  4. What attitudes might a member of one race have towards a member of another race and why.
  5. How do different societies develop and interact with each other.
  6. How does each society shape the behavior of its individual members.
  7. What are the different societies like at the beginning of Gods Among Men.

As I mentioned earlier, I think of this world as earth at some point in the very far future.  Therefore, our current world is part of the history of my fantasy world.  Any mythology I create must take into account what we know or believe now.

And, most importantly, I must craft a history that when woven into the story as backdrop, the reader believes is in fact a possible future, no matter how impossible it actually is.

I find this to be a daunting challenge.  Perhaps an impossible one, or more accurately perhaps it is a task impossible for me to accomplish.  I feel compelled to try, and so I shall.  Others may be the judge of whether I succeed or fail.