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.