Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Artistic Integrity and The Pressure to Be Other Than We Are

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Integrity is the quality of being whole, complete, undiminished.

Most people think of the word integrity as ‘adherence to moral and ethical principles,’ but there is another definition equally important to understanding the word: ‘the state of being whole, entire or undiminished.’

The two meanings of integrity are integral to each other. When one exhibits moral character, he is whole; when he displays unethical behavior, he opens himself to attack and harm from others, i.e., he breaks the one true shield he has protecting him in life.

This concept of being whole applies also to one’s creative work. The only way the work can remain undiminished is by staying true to the initial qualities that made it what it was.

One of the most pervasive (and potentially tragic) battles of integrity that artists face is how to maintain the integrity of their art against the pressure to be something else. I’ve especially seen this in new artists who achieved quick success.

An author pens a story that becomes wildly popular; their next book is highly anticipated, yet fails to catch on. A musician’s first album resonates with multiple generations, but the second hits a flat note. A photographer’s first collection has a spark of inspiration that his later work cannot seem to capture.

What is this phenomenon?

Often it’s the result of a somewhat unexamined (and thus the reason I’m writing about it) aspect of an artist’s life: that of the artist receiving praise and then trying to achieve that praise again. Rather than creating newly, with the same interest and enthusiasm for (and integrity towards) the creation itself, they either attempt to do exactly the same thing again (which falls flat with audiences – they’ve already seen this), or they change who they are and the essence of their art in an effort to produce what they think others want to see, read or experience.

Creation can be collaborative, but more often it is individual, solitary, sprouting first from a singular consciousness. While you’re bathed in that creative light, the work springs forth from you and flows outwards. Others receive it, enjoy it, contribute to it by applauding for it, purchasing it, talking about it, sharing the experience.

They interpret it, discuss it, appreciate and admire it, compare it to their lives and their own ideas and develop an opinion about it. In many ways, they make your work their own. Then they communicate back to you, the artist, sharing their thoughts, ideas, and even expectations of what they feel your work should be, now that they’ve incorporated it and made it theirs.

Sometimes this return flow is a trickle; sometimes it’s a deluge. Amid a maelstrom of other people’s opinions about your work, it’s surprisingly easy to forget who the creative work belongs to.

Artists love their fans (usually) and want to please them. Their fans are their livelihood. But the moment an artist lets that desire to please impact who they are or what they’re doing…that’s the moment the lights go out on their work.

Seeking to be liked or admired—this is the surest way to fail as an artist.

Here’s an example: an artist friend of mine gained a celebrity follower on twitter and was so desirous of keeping him that he changed the content of his twitter feed, trying to tailor it more to the supposed interest of that celebrity. The prime illogic in this action is that the celebrity started following my friend already knowing the things my friend was tweeting. In an attempt to keep one person’s interest, my friend changed the very things that had made his feed successful and lost a host of followers, including that celebrity.

Admiration is a treasure. It’s also a dangerous trap. Ask an artist of any nature which is more rewarding: money in the bank or the admiration of his fans?

Being on the receiving end of a swarm of admiring communication is wonderful, but it’s also deadly, because admiration penetrates any shield. No criticism is so deeply felt as one coming from a true and obvious fan.

Basking in admiration’s warmth can become an obsession, a craving, a canker. The moment an artist begins to seek admiration, the moment he changes what he’s doing in the hopes of maintaining it…the moment he shifts any part of his creative work from a flowing outward to a pulling inward of attention or admiration, this is the moment his art loses its magic. Thereafter, everything he makes will be tainted, his shield corroded and ineffectual.

Exploring the myriad qualities of integrity is an important theme in my epic fantasy series A Pattern of Shadow & Light, and is especially prevalent as I’m writing book four, Kingdom Blades. Many of my characters face ethical and moral questions that become a battle of integrity, even as we all face such choices in our daily lives.

But integrity is far more than making an ethical choice. It’s the making of choices that keep you whole and as impervious as possible to attack. It’s central to making the kind of choices that you can be proud of. It’s the secret to living without regret.

Author Q&A and a Plea to Aspiring Writers

Monday, March 30th, 2015
Concept art for an early cover of Cephrael's Hand. Artwork by Mike "Daarken" Lim (www.daarken.com)

Concept art for an early cover idea for Cephrael’s Hand. Artwork by Mike “Daarken” Lim (www.daarken.com)

To my readers: please know how much I appreciate your emails, mentions and comments!

Recently, many of you have written to me asking similar questions. I thought it would be best to answer all of you here on my blog in order to give your questions adequate address. I’ve lumped your questions together into these three:

“What inspired you to write A Pattern of Shadow & Light? Where do you draw your inspiration from?”

I began writing the story during a difficult time in my life. It’s long been my way when the going gets rough to seek refuge in different worlds (those of others or my own), and writing provided a vital escape. I channeled the stormy energies of my situation into something bright and hopeful. I wrote everything by hand.

That first adventure in Alorin was a very different story, full of arcane stones, elusive sorcerers, quests for magical talismans and talking dragons—every clichéd trope imaginable. But that initial foray into Alorin produced something important: the characters of Ean, Tanis, Alyneri, Björn and Phaedor. These characters arrived on the page fully formed, clothed in their attitudes, carrying lanterns of intention. They changed very little during the subsequent years, even while their entire world was changing around them.

My understanding of them as individuals grew as Cephrael’s Hand evolved—through thirteen iterations and a multitude of working titles (An Odd Sort of Magic, The Truthreader, The Fifth Magic…among many others). Along the path to final form, I churned out and threw away over a million words.

Did my situation at the time inspire the story? I don’t think so. I think the truest answer is that the characters inspired it. I fell in love with them. They became so real to me, so indelible in my thoughts, that I couldn’t abandon them—though many times I erased the entire picture around them. I cared so much about introducing them to others that I pushed myself to come up with a story worthy of their involvement. A story worth telling.

“I’m amazed at how in-depth you go with the Laws of Patterning. How did you come up with the Laws and Esoterics?”

The Laws of Patterning are based on this world’s physics but with a magical slant. I posed the question to myself of how energy might manifest in a world where human life could directly manipulate it. I translated some basic energy axioms into the vernacular of elae, and the rest followed quickly.

The laws are easily expandable since they’re based on an understanding of the interaction of energy in this (real) physical universe.

“What was your thought process in creating Alorin’s world? How do you develop and create these places, people and ideas?”

I talk a bit about story development and my process in my post on How to Avoid Cliches (or the 4 Things You Must Know Before Starting a Novel). To summarize here: I write organically using milestones. These are scenes I’ve envisioned that more or less chart out a character’s story arc. My goal is to take each character from one envisioned milestone to the next. When you have twelve viewpoint characters, that’s still a lot of scenes to envision.

I try to chart out a character’s path with major scenes plotted through the first half of the book. I don’t bother with the last half because I know each character’s path can change drastically along the way.

I don’t develop lands or peoples ahead of time. I develop them when I get to them, when the story calls for them. In those moments when we reach a new city or need a new character, I’ll pause and ask myself, “what would be entertaining here? What kind of character would be interesting to meet or fun to write?”

I’ve never created a character to fit a certain role (hero, sage, best friend). I can’t think with those kind of mechanical techniques. I often feel like the characters develop themselves; I provide the initial description, but who they are, who they become…this is sort of up to them. I get to know them through their dialogue and interaction, just like you.

Yet there are times when the character just appears, fully formed, the moment I get to him or her in the story (Thrace Weyland in Paths of Alir is such a one); there the character stands, smiling and ready to take his position in the story, as an actor hovering off stage anticipating his cue. Isabel is a similar example. Years ago I got the idea of a woman who could fight blindfolded with a staff. I held the description in reserve for the right character, but when I gave this description to Isabel, she emerged on the page as Isabel. The blindfold and staff contributed to her overall mystique, but in no way did they define her (as I had initially intended them to do). Isabel brought all of her beingness with her the moment she stepped into The Dagger of Adendigaeth.

To create Alorin’s varied kingdoms, I borrowed customs and cultural traditions from earth’s earliest empires: Greece, Persia, Babylonia, India and Rome; civilizations that inspired me with their ideological philosophies, religious mythology and folklore.

“I’ve always wanted to write. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?”

I encourage everyone to follow their creative passions. If writing is yours, my suggestion is this:

Read my post on the 4 things you must know. Then start writing!

Or better yet, forget all the advice you’ve ever heard except this: a writer writes (and as a corollary, a writer also reads). If you’re observant of other works in your chosen genre and have the desire within you, don’t quash it by spending all your creative energy laboring over the details of story structure. In my view, that’s putting the cart before the horse (and then twenty carts before the horse), until you have those carts piled so high you can’t see anymore the story idea that once had you so excited.

Just start writing. The rest will come along the way.

If you have other questions regarding A Pattern of Shadow & Light or my writing process, leave them below!

How Much Should Authors Interact with Readers?

Monday, February 16th, 2015
"There are as many viewpoints in their world as there are points from which to assume a view."

“There are as many viewpoints in this world as there are points from which to view.”

This new age of social media makes it easier than ever for readers and writers to interact. Whether via reviews posted online, comments on a blog, forum discussions, Facebook or twitter, authors now have the opportunity to engage with their readers via multiple direct lines of communication.

This is generally fun for the readers. For authors, it can be a real Pandora’s box. An open channel of communication has no filter, and along with the good comes the bad. If you’re the type to read reviews, you have to be able to swallow the negative ones as easily as the glowing ones to maintain any measure of self-worth. If you’re going to interact with readers online, you have to be willing to answer those tough questions with as much honesty as the simple ones—or be called out for it.

And if you engage, how much are you (or your story) changed by the interaction? Can you really receive insightful criticism from a reader who clearly understands your story and not let their critique influence your future work?

One of my readers presented this question to me this week:

“This thread caught my attention mostly because of your willingness to change your work based on feedback from your readers…but how much should we as readers influence your work? I’m not sure this new world of interacting with writers gives the best result…”

This question so fascinated me that I felt it deserved a blog post to discuss my thoughts in reply.

The situation referenced above involved a scene with Isabel and Pelas, two characters in Paths of Alir, book three of my epic fantasy series A Pattern of Shadow & Light. This was an emotionally charged interaction dealing with difficult issues. I wrote the scene because of the valuable moral and philosophical questions it opened for further exploration, but I knew from the outset that it would upset some readers.

The ability to assume viewpoints and write from these points of view is vital for any author—it’s part and parcel to making characters appear real to the reader. But just as important is the ability to assume the viewpoint of the reader  as they’re reading the scene. Writing is communication, and communication by definition includes a sort of “duplication” of what is being communicated. If I say “apples” and you hear “oranges,” we haven’t really communicated because there’s no understanding, no duplication, there.

Part of my job as an author is to ensure that my communication (via my characters’ actions and viewpoints) is understood and correctly received by the reader. To do this, I try to assume as many possible reader viewpoints as possible. I try to envision how readers will interpret each scene; I ask myself what questions the scene will engender, what difficulties it will present. I try to anticipate my readers’ questions, confusions and emotional responses.

Obviously, I cannot assume every point of view—there are as many points of view as there are people in this world—but I have a responsibility to assume as many viewpoints as possible in order to ensure my communication is received the way I want it to be received.

When writing the scene with Isabel and Pelas, I missed a vital point of view; I didn’t anticipate that readers might interpret the scene in this particular way. None of my beta readers had even beeped on this viewpoint. Thus, when I learned that a reader had a particularly strong emotional response to the scene based on a mistaken understanding of my intention for the scene, I felt a responsibility to make some alterations so that future readers could in no way land upon the same interpretation.

If I’m doing my job, the emotional responses you have as a reader, the thoughts you have and the questions you have are exactly the responses, thoughts and questions I intended you to have. I’m generally good at my job.

The situation with Isabel and Pelas was an isolated occurrence—I’ve never before or since changed the story as a result of a reader’s interpretation. But it still begs the question: would I be willing to make changes to other scenes based on reader interpretation (or misinterpretation)?

Dialogue with my readers offers a window into new and sometimes unique perspectives on my story. Do these perspectives change my view of the story or the characters. Generally not. I’m more inclined to answer criticism with further explanation than by questioning my original choices.

What the reader-author interaction offers is more of those innumerable reader viewpoints to take into account as I’m writing. For example, if a reader tells me they don’t understand why a character did something, I can make sure their confusion is resolved in a later chapter (or the next book). If I know readers might interpret a scene a certain way, I can include explanations that steer them in a specific direction—away from that unwanted interpretation. I can prevent those questions or confusions with well-placed answers offered before the reader even has those questions and thereby head off unintended reactions or conclusions.

This is all part of anticipating the reader and is a pivotal element of a well written novel. You have to be able to anticipate in order to influence.

With all this said, maintaining a close author-reader interaction is a perilous path to walk. The more an author engages in dialogue and discussion with readers, the closer he or she skirts that edge where criticism becomes harmful and interaction, invasive. You have to have a firm moral conviction about your characters and their choices, about your story, and your message. You need iron-clad integrity.

But I believe the author is responsible to a large degree for the reactions his/her readers have to his story—through intention or neglect of assuming enough viewpoints, the author did somehow bring about those reactions. Personally, I take that responsibility very seriously.

***

What are your thoughts? How engaged should an author be with his or her fans? How much should they let this interaction influence their work? How much should they feel responsible for the effect their story has on readers?

 

Immortality and Gods in Fantasy

Monday, January 19th, 2015
immortality

“Our hope of immortality does not come from any religions, but nearly all religions come from that hope.” ~Robert Ingersoll

It’s interesting to me how many novels, plays, poems (and even, dare I say, religions) deal with immortality without really dealing with immortality, i.e. immortality is automatically assumed, more understood than explored. In our concept, gods are immortal. In fact, immortality is usually a qualifying aspect to being considered a god.

In my experience, even when an author writes from the viewpoint of a god, often the god’s perspective has been tainted by humanist ideas. Gods in literature are represented as having human emotions, human failings, even what might be considered mortal goals. In general, we don’t just anthropomorphize their forms, we anthropomorphize their viewpoints as well.

The gods of the ancient Greeks were lustful, meddlesome, fractious and belligerent—much like the Greek states. The Sumerian and Hindu gods in early writings were considered the rulers of earth, benevolent guides to a wayward humanity. They concerned themselves with instructing the race, that we might improve ourselves. Even in our deepest channels of faith dealing with the souls and spirituality of man, our gods are represented as having undeniably human characteristics—compassion, mercy, intolerance, patience, wrath.

Gods are often shown similarly in fantasy. Sometimes the gods are merely forces of ultimate good or evil (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea). In other works, the author may have given the gods human bodies (Jennifer Fallon’s Gods of Amyrantha, David Eddings’ The Belgariad, or N.K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Whether or not they appear in the story, are represented by advocates, or are merely forces for good or evil, fantasy gods are quite often ascribed undeniably mortal viewpoints (although N.K. Jemison makes strides in giving Nahadoth a broader perspective).

Yet I have to wonder how many of us have really looked at what it would mean to be truly immortal?

So often when we think of gods, our viewpoint is colored by concepts long ago set down by earth’s religions. Gods must be as the sacred writings describe Brahman, Zeus, Ea, Yaweh, Allah…and so do our fantasy gods often follow in the footsteps of these preestablished characterizations.

The word ‘god’ for much of humanity carries a connotation of a being who is concerned with or connected to the human race in some way, whether that’s with benevolence or resentment, adoration or lust. But what of an immortal who has the abilities of a god but no inherent connection to man, who is as alien to us as human bodies are to immortality? I describe here godlike beings not of our world, unrestricted and undefined by preconceptions associated with the gods of earth’s religions. What would that kind of immortal be like?

I’ve had to take a good look at this, because four of the immortals in my series are nearly omnipotent (though not omniscient). Taking on their viewpoint in writing Kingdom Blades has required me to dive in and inspect what godlike beings (i.e. with the creative and destructive power of a god) would really be like. What would they think like? What sort of viewpoints and attitudes would guide their decisions?

1. To start with, time would have no meaning to them. The ages would not lengthen before or behind them (as we often see with many immortal beings represented in fantasy, from Vampires to the Fae). But true immortals would have no concept of time. They would be eternal. Conversely, think how many of our decisions are prisoners to time (“never have enough time,” “need more time,” “time is always against me” “if only I was older/younger”).

2. Bodies would be inconsequential to them. Beings with godlike power can create bodies at will. As mortals, most of our critical decisions concern avoiding bodily harm. Immortals of the nature I’m speaking of wouldn’t consider this a reasonable rationale for any decision.

3. They would have zero concept of right and wrong as humanity views these terms. Right and wrong would be completely meaningless to them, because right and wrong are survival concepts. In the simplest terms, an action is deemed right when it takes one towards a survival end, wrong when it results in something non-survival for the individual, the group, the race, etc. But right, wrong and survival are equally meaningless terms to a true immortal. Their survival could never be in question. Therefore, none of their decisions would take survival concepts into account (whereas nearly all of ours do).

4. With an infinite ability to create, a true immortal would have little, if any, concept of loss. Loss is only experienced when someone fears they cannot now have something that they once had. But if a being can create anything at will, over and over again as many times as desired, when would they ever have experienced loss? Yet for humanity, loss is a very real threat and the fear of loss an effective deterrent against all manner of action.

Perhaps you see just from these points how differently a true immortal would think from us.

Which begs the question, what would such immortals base their decisions upon? What attitudes would frame their viewpoints of existence? What rationale would drive them?

I think three things, simply: Interest. Purpose. And the playing of a game.

Interest precedes action. It also precedes purpose. A being has to be interested in something to find a purpose surrounding or involving it. But once interest is established, purpose would drive them. That purpose could be as simple as achieving the goal of a game. But a game for an immortal…my, the scope of that game, that goal, that purpose, could be truly immense, for time wouldn’t factor in it. Neither would survival, nor a fear of loss. Infinite capacity for creation means a purpose, goal, and game on a cosmic scale.

Which brings us full circle, because ultimately that is the game we’ve ascribed to our gods—the creation of this world, this universe, and all of us.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have on immortality and gods in fantasy. Share them below.

 

Writing Kingdom Blades (PSOL Book 4)

Monday, January 12th, 2015

light tree kingdom blades

Many of you have been asking when book four in A Pattern of Shadow & Light will be released. All I can tell you right now is that I’ll have Kingdom Blades to you at some point in 2016 (the Muse willing). For comparison, each book in this series runs around 300,000 words, and the first three books each took around a year to write and six months to edit.

On Sequencing

I’m about 200 pages into the story of Kingdom Blades now, and it’s proving an interesting challenge. When I wrote Paths of Alir, I was able to write almost each character’s story thread independently and then interweave them all into sequence at the end. That’s proving impossible with Kingdom Blades. The threads are so interwoven now, the actions of each character so interdependent on another character doing something else, that I’m having to write four or five viewpoint characters at a time. If I wrote the story otherwise, I would hit a section of a scene and not be able to complete it, because I wouldn’t know how another character’s scene ended.

I’ve heard that many writers can do this—leave scenes incomplete and come back to them later. This is impossible for me. When I write a chapter, I can’t leave it until it resonates with me as being “true.”

I may go back through the chapter later and change some wording around or add more (or less) explanation, but the dialogue, the action, the message of the scene—everything that drives the story forward or develops a character—those all have to be “correct” for the characters and for the story overall before I leave the chapter.

Another element that may be unique to my creative flow (authors, chime in and let me know your experience) is that I can’t move on with the story if a chapter is bugged or incomplete. I have to keep working on it until it has that resonance I’ve come to expect. The upside of this is that I have very little editing to do after all chapters have been written. Once a chapter is finished—once I leave it and move on to the next—it’s basically final.

On Character Threads

Kingdom Blades has five primary character threads so far: Ean, Trell, Tanis, Franco and Darshan. It has nine secondary character threads: Fynnlar, Alyneri, Carian, Sebastian, Viernan hal’Jaitar, Felix, Nadia, Marius di L’Arlesé and Errodan val Lorian. Some of the secondary characters may end up becoming primary, based on how many chapters it takes to get them to their next major resolution. Then there are tertiary characters (such as the Sundragons, Vaile, Bjorn or Valentina) whose viewpoint I may claim as part of telling the story on another major character’s thread. But I’m basically writing fourteen viewpoint characters.

Kingdom Blades Scrivner binder

Scrivener Binder

Here’s a snapshot of my Scrivener notes binder to give you an idea of what this looks like. Many of these main sections represent primary story threads. Most of them intersect at some point, if not throughout the story. Where I’ve minimized a section, it’s to save you from spoilers.

As you may be able to tell from the way I’ve grouped my notes, some of these characters are incredibly interwoven with each other. For example, along one major character’s arc in the first half of Kingdom Blades, I’ll be writing Viernan hal’Jaitar, Dore Madden, Darshan, Ean, Sebastian, Pelas and Nadia all at the same time.

On a different major character’s arc in the first half of the book, I’ll be writing Viernan, Dore, Trell, Gydryn, Sebastian, Errodan, the Sundragons, Vaile and possibly introducing Creighton Khelspath and/or Katerine val Mallonwey as viewpoint characters.

Then there’s the thread of Franco, Carian, Gwynnleth, Fynnlar, Alyneri, Niko, Alshiba and Björn, which intersects with the thread of Marius, Valentina, Vincenzé, Felix, Nadia, Pelas, Shail and the Dane’s king, Ansgar.

These are just a few. There are many.

My only point is that this book is complicated in terms of how interwoven the character and story threads are, which makes it a little slower to write, because I’m having to keep so much sequencing straight, i.e. A can’t happen until B and C happen (on thread #2) and over on thread #5, Q, R and S need to be simultaneously happening… *sigh*. It’s also complicated for me because it’s important that it doesn’t feel complicated to you.

But the good news is the story is moving forward, awesome things are happening, the ideas are flowing, and chapters are stacking up in the done pile.

Next week I’ll touch on some of the themes I’m exploring in Kingdom Blades.

I promise to keep you posted.

4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Lonely road

“[Creativity is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Think of writing like sailing a massive ship. There are an enormous number of mechanical actions that synergistically combine to keep the ship plowing forward through the waves. It behooves you, as the captain of the vessel, to have an understanding of all of those mechanical workings. Yet if a ship’s captain spent all of his time below decks listening to the engine turbines for knocks, or examining the bilge pumps, or adjusting the steam gauges, he wouldn’t be where he is most needed—on the bridge, guiding the ship.

You need to be on the bridge of your story, standing at its helm, charting its course, guiding its objective, and keeping the story plowing forward. When you leave the bridge to spend your time developing characters that may or may not need to exist, or trying to chart the story’s course far in advance of your current position—without any reference points or knowledge of weather and currents—you’re no longer manning the helm of your story. You’re down below buried among the mechanical operations of the boat, and you have no real view towards your objective.

Organic writing produces storylines and characters that feel alive and real. Mechanical writing can feel formulaic, and characters created through formulas often feel like cardboard cutouts, stiff and unrealistic.

Last week I talked about two ways to help you write organically. Point #1 covered using milestones. Point #2 talked about the importance of capturing scenes as you think of them, but not writing the scene until you’ve reached its place in the story.

This week I’m covering the last two of the four ideas to help you write organically (plus a bonus idea):

3. Assume viewpoints.

Some writers struggle to invent characters who feel vibrant and unique. They turn to lists of traits and descriptions to help them fill in those character details. This is like the captain leaving the helm of the ship to fiddle with the engine’s mechanics.

Character creation is easy or difficult in direction relation to how well you are able to assume a viewpoint.

Assuming a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as seeing someone else’s point of view. Doubtless you’ve been in a discussion with someone where you were able to “see their viewpoint,” but in such instances, we’re still sitting in our own shoes, behind the window of our own view, looking across the road and through the other’s window from the outside in.

Assuming a viewpoint means being that person or character. Actors do this all the time. The really talented actors seem to become their character; you can’t see where the character ends and the actor begins. It’s a seamless transition.

Like anything else, truly assuming a viewpoint takes practice. It means standing in that person’s (or character’s) shoes and taking a good look around at how the world looks from their perspective—based on their education, their experience, their upbringing. If you don’t know these things for a character when you step into their shoes, you invent them then and there in order to frame their perspective. Assuming a viewpoint means imagining what the character would be feeling in each moment, and speaking and acting from those feelings. You have to understand why characters think the way they do in order to express their feelings realistically to the reader.

Until you put a character in a situation where they have to react and respond, you really can’t know much about them—no more than you know about the guy standing in line next to you waiting for his coffee. Even when you invent a character to fill a need (such as the pirate in my first week’s post on avoiding clichés and writing organically) you still can’t know much about him until you start thinking and acting from his point of view.

I’ve found that the characters I end up keeping the most notes on (in relation to their motivations or plans) are the ones I’ve spent the least time with as viewpoint characters. It’s rare that I need to record the motivations of my main characters. I know them too well; I understand them completely. I trust that when I’m writing in their viewpoint, I’ll decide in that moment what to do—and I’ll be capable of being true to their views.

If you invent and write your characters as the story calls for them, and if you let their personalities develop as the story develops, the characters will not only feel alive to the reader, they’ll also feel alive to you. They’ll take on their own personalities, and oftentimes they’ll surprise you with the choices they make and the things they say and do.

There is a great and wondrous magic that is created in this organic process. Don’t miss your chance to experience it by staying below decks messing with the mechanics.

4. Observe and mimic.

To become a good writer, it’s necessary to be a keen observer—not merely of the environment but also of the interrelationships of human beings.

Part of gaining success in conveying a character’s viewpoint is an understanding of human nature. The better you understand your character’s motivations and how his experience influences his ideas, the better you can show his rationale to the reader.

We gain an understanding of human nature through reading great works of fiction (both old and new), through a study of history and the humanities, and through our own experience and observation.

We can learn much from history, but there is no substitute for going out into the world and seeing what you see. Susha Guppy said, “It is very important not to become hard. The artist must always have one skin too few in comparison with other people, so you feel the slightest wind.”

Let life inspire you. The more you open your eyes and observe the world, the more inspiration you’ll find in it.

As part of mindfully observing life, make a practice of looking at both sides of an argument and really trying—not to “see” another’s point of view, but to truly assume their point of view. You’ll find over time that there is quite a difference in these two perspectives. Then take your observations and apply them to your characters and story.

Life mimics art, but art well done mimics life.

5. Cultivate your imagination.

“Great imaginations are apt to work from hints and suggestions, and a single moment of emotion is sometimes sufficient to create a masterpiece.” ~Margaret Sackville

Imagination is what connects us to divinity. It’s the thread linking creativity and the muse, the true source of inspiration.

If you’re one of the ones who struggles to imagine new things, cultivate this skill. Turn every cloud into an animal. Think of ways that what is, isn’t. Practice thinking up stories based on vignettes of observation. Let a sound or a brief comment spur a story idea. Watch the world and think of ways to describe it to others. Find whimsy in the mundane.

Some of us leave childhood with our imaginations unfettered. Others find that we’ve left imagination somewhere far behind us like a treasured toy, once loved and then abandoned. We may feel a deep desire to create, yet for all of this desire, we cannot seem to find that creative spark.

Imagination can become buried beneath layers of loss and experience, criticism, or too many “it’s time to get serious about your life” lessons–especially from those who’ve closed a door on their own spirit of play. Unburden yourself of the “now we must do’s” and “work is hard” attitudes, and you’ll find the buds of imagination making their way back to the surface.

When a man loses his imagination, when he loses the ability to wave a magic wand and make his world beautiful, he’s lost everything that’s truly important in this life.

Unburden your imagination, and the rest will follow.

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Did you find any of these ideas helpful or similar to your own creative style? Do you have a completely different way of writing? Share your thoughts below.

Pantser or Plotter: 4 Steps to Writing Organically (and the Science Behind Why You Should) – Part 1

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Pencil tree writing organically

After my last blog post on the four things you must know before starting a novel, in which I suggested not inventing a character, kingdom or creature until the story calls for it, a number of readers wrote in to ask, should nothing be planned?

My answer is absolutely plan the four points on the list I gave you last week. But my list didn’t include how to write when you’ve got so little planned out beforehand. How do you just wander off into the great unknown without any sort of map? I’ll answer that here, as well as why you should.

There’s a fundamental reason why a story written organically feels less formulaic than its counterpart (and not for the obvious reason that it is less formulaic). The answer actually lies in fundamentals observed in quantum physics.

Life imposes consciousness (decision, thought, will) upon the physical universe and shapes energy and matter. A quick look around proves this truth. Though it cannot be measured or touched as its own unit (i.e. separate from the thing it animates), Life is proven to exist on a higher plane that monitors (monitor: to oversee, supervise or regulate) the physical universe.

Life is the senior creative impulse, and below this creative plane of existence lie all other observable physical phenomena.

So how in the world does this relate to writing?

Simply: when you operate primarily in the mechanics of a subject, you’re operating below the level of prime cause. Creation is prime cause. Mechanics are the observable effects of prime cause codified into physical laws. They fall below prime cause on the scale of causation.

Still wondering how this applies to writing? Simply, when you’re writing (and especially when writing fiction), you need to be thinking, imagining, devising and designing from that higher creative plane, not slugging through ground-level mechanics. Imagine if an airline pilot was charging through the bowels of the airplane moving levers and opening and closing electrical circuits and doing all of the mechanical things that actually keep the aircraft aloft? Who would be flying it?

Prime cause is where the magic happens. Prime cause is the pinnacle of creativity. Prime cause is where the god of inspiration dwells.

When I say to stay out of the mechanics, I’m not talking about grammar or true basics of craft such as “show don’t tell.” The rules of grammar and style are like musical scales; you practice each one until you know them all instinctively.

What mechanics of writing am I talking about then? Drawing up comprehensive lists of character descriptions or detailed charts illustrating the rise and fall of your plot; spending hours determining what kind of character arc fits your protagonist, or classifying characters into primary, secondary, tertiary… (Don’t ask me what you’re supposed to do with them once they’ve been properly sorted.)

You know the irony in all of these “writing rules?” Few of them entail actually writing.

Now, assuming any of this makes sense to you, how to do you apply this practically? Here are some ideas to help you (this week I’m covering the first two ideas. I’ll cover two more next week):

1. Use milestones.

A milestone is a scene you’ve envisioned. It can be as little as a piece of dialogue between characters or even just a snippet of story that happens in some future chapter. But you know it’s a milestone for your journey because it has importance to the overall story or is essential in a character’s development. Milestones are scenes to be inserted into the story at some future point. You write towards them. They act as landmarks that guide you through the great story unknown.

Your conflict could itself be a milestone. My conflict spans five novels, and while I know what will happen in the final resolution (the world will be saved), I have no idea how that resolution will ultimately come about. (How can I predict so far ahead, when my characters are still growing, learning and changing?)

I write from milestone to milestone. Once I finish one scene, I focus on the next milestone along that character’s path. Sometimes it is still many chapters distant, but it orients my thought process, as I know I’ve got to get a certain character to the point where that milestone scene can occur. Because I write from multiple viewpoint characters, I have multiple milestones moments plotted along each character’s path.

2. Capture scenes for any point in the story, but write them in linear sequence.

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Some become milestones, others flesh out the path between each point. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to jump out of the shower to record some complicated bit of dialogue I’ve just come up with on my phone, and I’m constantly devising scenes and conversations while driving—it’s my most productive plotting time.

Often a scene will be so vivid in your head, you’ll want to write it then and there. But here’s the caveat when writing organically: you can’t write the scene until you reach its place in the story.

There’s an old law about storytelling: you always tell it best the first time, so you never talk about any parts of your story that you haven’t yet written. Not writing the scene until you reach it in the story is a similar law.

There’s a sort of creative spark captured in each imagined scene. Talking about it before you’ve written it drains that magic from the moment. It’s a similar thing with writing a scene before its time. Not only can the story change dramatically by the time you actually reach the scene (making it obsolete), but also the synergy that’s created through writing each scene in sequence—a sort of building, budding energy and momentum—is often lost. There is true magic found when writing at the level of prime cause (and not referring to exhaustive lists or charts to tell you what your character needs to do next.) Pure creation is glorious and unanticipated and an adventure every time.

So make notes of those imagined scenes; keep all of what you’ve envisioned, the dialogue, the description—whatever it is that has come to you—but don’t write the scene until its time has come.

An added benefit to this linear approach is that these captured scenes become the fuel you use to keep writing—because you just can’t wait to write that scene! I still recall the moment I finally wrote a milestone scene in the second book in my series three years after I first envisioned it. It felt sublime.

Are you an organic writer? I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences. Or if you have questions, share them below. Next week I’ll cover a few more ideas, including assuming viewpoints and observation and mimicry.

How to Avoid Cliches (or The 4 Things You MUST Know Before Starting A Novel)

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Writing circle of woe

A reader recently wrote to me and asked, how do you write a novel when every time you start (oh, so many times!) you get a few chapters in and suddenly become deluged with doubts? And how, when you’re so well-read in the genre that you’ve read it all and seen it all a hundred times…how can you possibly devise a story that’s not cliché?

Though asked of me in regards the writing of fantasy, these questions are ones every writer struggles with—because every writer is possessed of the same demons. These parasites of our insecurities don’t all whisper the same demoralizing words, but they all originate in the same hateful level of hell. Their entire purpose is to keep writers (and all artists) from creating, and it’s frightening how good they are at this task.

But here’s a truth those whispers obscure: Nothing can occur if you don’t start writing.

There are two mantras that have always guided me:  1) A writer writes.  2) You have to waste a lot of creation on the way to achieving a great story.

The more you write, the better you hone your craft. If you let your insecurities stop you from writing, you’ll never get far enough into anything to be able to do something about those things you consider so cliché. As to that point about wasting creation…

On the road to finishing an award-winning first novel, I wrote eleven versions of the same book. I would write 500+ pages, then read something else published in the genre and say, “this has to be better” and scrap it and start over again with some new idea. I’m not saying everyone should spend that much time on one novel (it’s not very efficient) but I learned a lot about my craft. More to the point, I was writing the whole time.

To all aspiring authors, I plea: Let writing a novel be a learning experience. Let it be an adventure. Don’t think you have to land on THE IDEA from the first moment you start out—especially if you think you can’t even start writing unless you’ve achieved THE IDEA. There’s nothing like the thrill of watching a story assume its own momentum and pull out of your control; or of seeing characters appear out of nowhere and capture your heart. Don’t deny yourself these joys because you’re listening to the demons that say your story is cliché, or it has to be better. Make it better. Eliminate the clichés, but do it while you’re writing.

Keep in mind that every writer struggles with the tropes of their genre. You can’t avoid everything that’s cliché; some of the clichés are likely essential to making the genre what it is. Even so, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth trying to come up with things that are different and new. Other times inspiration strikes and the pages just flow out in a warm, delightful rush. But here’s the point: inspiration strikes far more often when you’re actively involved in creation.

Fledgling writers—especially fantasy writers—spend a lot of time sitting at their kitchen tables trying to come up with characters and kingdoms and languages ad nauseam. Listen, please don’t do this. Don’t spend all of your writing time planning and plotting, devising character descriptions or trying to piece together kingdoms, races and magical creatures (or romantic love triangles, or every type of fae in your series, or all the people your protagonist could possibly meet…).

Instead, start writing. Invent it when you need it.  

Whaaaat? you say. No world map? No complicated plot chart? No characters beyond the main one or two I’ve been writing five clichéd chapters with over and over again? Whaaaaaat?

Here’s the thing: trying to think up creatures and characters and kingdoms ahead of the story is what is getting you into trouble, because you have no basis on which to ground your inventions. The characters, kingdoms and creatures are not organic to any world you’ve created, because you haven’t truly created the world yet, because you’re not even writing the story! So all you can do at that early stage is borrow ideas from someone else. Is it any wonder that you get five chapters in and think, “this is so cliché!”

Inspiration comes as you’re writing. It’s the payment the muse demands: that we first make an effort upon the sacred act of creation.

So start writing, and invent it when you need it.

How do you do this? Here’s an example: Your character is going into an inn and you ask yourself, who does he meet? What does he do there? Your next question has to be, what would be interesting? What would be entertaining? What would reveal more of my protagonist’s character and/or drive the plot forward? Let’s see…let’s have him meet a pirate (because who doesn’t love pirates, even if they’re cliché?). Now, where is the pirate from? Let’s make up an island. Okay, what shores does he pirate? Who are his enemies? Who does he trade with?

You make it all up right there. Now you’ve got all of that invented (just enough to finish the scene) and a whole new part of your world has come into focus organically. The best part is, it feels organic. It works, because that’s how real life works. You don’t go into a tavern knowing everything there is to know about the people in it. You don’t go through life that way. And neither should your characters—because when you’re writing with everything figured out to the nth power ahead of time, it often feels contrived, because it is.

So what do you need to know before you begin your novel? Just four things:

1) You need to establish your essential conflict. You need to know who your bad guys are, why they’re bad, what’s behind their motivations (at least in part), what they can do (what makes them powerful, scary or problematic) and why they’re in conflict with your protagonist(s). If you’re thinking you might write a series (kind of a must if you’re a fantasy writer) then you have to make sure your conflict is sufficiently encompassing so as to require three (or more) books to resolve.

2) You need to have a clear enough concept about who your protagonist is to make him/her interesting to you. Don’t think about whether they’ll be interesting to others. Writing to appease the potential opinions of others never works. Make your protagonist interesting and entertaining to you. If you’re honestly interested in them, it’s more likely that others will be interested also.

3) [For genre writers] You need a clear concept of the essential elements as it applies to your genre. For fantasy, this is a solidly devised magic system. For SF, it’s the science to support your story. For mystery, it could be the pivotal points your protagonist follows in solving the case. For romance, it’s your love triangle or the person/thing keeping your lovers apart. For any of these, all you need to start with is a good premise. You’ll come to understand the magic or the science or the complexities of your mystery as your characters advance through the tale. So long as you have a sound premise, the rest will follow. And if it doesn’t? Well, you can go back and change the premise to fit what the story or world has developed into. You’re the god of your novel, after all.

4) You need a clear concept of the overarching purpose or theme which grounds the story and drives your passion to write it.

For example, in my fantasy novels, I wanted to explore a different kind of evil—the kind that is really only “evil” from a certain point of view. I wanted to show people that you can’t always pick one side and say “we’re right and you’re wrong.” So many conflicts in our world are conflicts of viewpoints (religions, doctrines, political outlooks). Right and wrong aren’t absolutes. They are assessments based on a gradient scale of survival, and what is survival for one group may not be survival for another.

This premise is where my dominating interest lies, and it’s something I’m very interested in, something I’m passionate about. That passion to explore philosophical ideals drives my work. I do it through fantasy because I love magic and sword fighting and castles and princes, and I love the freedom to invent anything I want, in any way I want it.

So to summarize all of this in three words: just start writing.

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Have I missed any important points from your own experience? Do you think these points will be helpful in your writing? Share any comments with me below.

4 Steps to the Ultimate Compelling Villain

Monday, August 18th, 2014

good versus evil sea

I want to talk about villains. Not the blackened-to-the-core, maniacally twisted kind or the ultimate evil, soul-devouring kind—I’d say genre fiction is all too familiar with stereotypical antagonists of this ilk. No, I want to talk about the villains you love to hate.

Once upon a time in fiction (say, twenty years ago), good and evil were starkly portrayed in black and white. The villains were all soulless monsters, blackguards or psychopaths (or the ultimate evil overlord), and the only thing readers really cared about was seeing the hero incinerate them.

Flash-forward to 2014 to a growing trend in grey or “grimdark” fantasy, which has antiheroes adorning book covers and entire series solely exploring the murky shades of amoral grey. In the YA market, we see a plethora of books featuring fallen angels, werewolves and sparkly vampires all just trying to be understood. Genres beyond fantasy are seeing a similar turn: suddenly we’re looking through a serial killer’s dark glasses, interpreting the world via the twisted logic of a corrupted mind.

The blogosphere is alive with articles questioning the advisability of writing from the viewpoint of morally muddled heroes (or psychopaths and criminals). Does helping the reader identify with a villain’s rationale de-emphasize the victims’ plight? And with so many anti-heroes stomping their devil-may-care way through genre fiction, is the perceived line between good and evil in real life becoming blurred? There are a host of rationales trying to explain this shift of focus. It may be a complex reflection on the state of Man, or it might be simply that after decades of reading the same formulaic stories, genre readers are getting bored with biblical extremes.

For decades, fantasy followed the Tolkienian model of absolutes—ultimate evil versus ultimate good, and the only side foray was into the cravenness of man. There are plenty of great fantasy books that still follow this model, and more hitting the shelves every day. But while I’ve rarely ventured into the twilight of grimdark fantasy, I admit to needing more from my villains now than a maniacal outlook or soul-crushing magic.

In my ideal story, the villains are as frightening as they are intelligent, both compelling and repellant. I want to be inexorably drawn to them and hate myself for it. Because my own epic fantasy series is equal parts philosophical exploration and entertainment, I need my villains to be intriguing, and I need the reader to understand their motivations. There’s value in exploring the grey shadows of moral ambiguity if the journey enlightens us to the real truths of this world.

For those writers interested in creating compelling villains, here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Villains should have a goal that is entirely justifiable from their point of view.

In real life, no one sets out to become the villain. The criminal takes his first steps towards iniquity as a result of some event (or sequence of events) that crushed his self-respect. The greatest conflicts that trouble governments today come not from a diabolical outlook but from the view of a righteous cause. That this cause seems diabolical to those on the receiving end of its hatred is entirely the point—there are at least two sides to every quarrel. Present each viewpoint equally and compellingly, and the reader will become as conflicted as your characters.

2. Villains should have skills, abilities or knowledge that remains unexplained.

While their aims and the motivations beneath them should be explored, the reader shouldn’t understand everything about your villain. That sense of mystery is what glues the reader to the character.

3. Let the reader spend time with them in small doses.

Here again, mystery, mystery, mystery—this is the mantra. Give the reader glimpses. Make them want more time with the character. No matter how terrible his actions are, the reader can usually accept them if given in morsels. Tantalize, don’t gluttonize. The less is more approach works best.

4. Give the reader hope of reform.

Nothing captures the heart of the reader more than the possibility of reform—especially if the reader truly fears the villain as much as they’re drawn to him or her.  There’s nothing quite so effective as hope of reform to endear a reader to a villain. You can drag the reader through enormous turmoil and treachery so long as you maintain that hope of redemption in the end.

What qualities do you desire in your villains? Do you have other approaches that work for you? Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. ~ For the many of you who’ve been asking, you’ll get to know A Pattern of Shadow & Light’s own villains in altogether new and uncomfortable ways in Paths of Alir, A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book 3, which is now available for pre-order on Amazon and coming soon to B&N, Kobo, iBooks etc.

How Not to Write Yourself into a Corner (in Your Novel and in Life)

Monday, July 28th, 2014

man-in-maze
There’s something known as writing yourself into a corner. This phrase might be used to describe any number of authorial ailments, from the scene that mystifyingly “doesn’t work,” to the sinking realization—many chapters in—that your entire plot resolution hinges on something your protagonist can’t possibly know about. While trying to finish my third novel, Paths of Alir, I became mired in one of these situations. It felt like there was no way out and no way through.

The more I thought on the matter, however, the more clearly I began to see the real issue emerging. My problem wasn’t the plot, or the characters, or some other tangle. My problem was that I’d forgotten who was creating the story.

As writers, we make the rules. We decide what will and won’t be in our stories. For genre writers, this encompasses everything from new physical universe laws to the types and names of trees, but the concept applies for other fiction writers equally.

In those moments of prime decision, you the author are the omnipotent god of the universe of your novel. You’re the pinnacle of causation. You make decision after decision about how the world of your novel will function and where its story is destined to go. Maybe you have it outlined, or perhaps you have only a vague idea of its path. But you make decisions that lay the story foundations, and thereafter, you channel your characters through topography formed by these decisions.

In those early moment of creation, you are prime cause, but in the next moment, you go forward into writing the story and become the characters. The instant this happens, you necessarily become the effect of the rules (decisions) you established only moments ago as the omnipotent god. Creative writing really has to work this way. You must assume the characters’ viewpoints in order to tell their story, so you have to take that walk into terra incognita and forget you made the rules.

It’s inherent in that surrender, though, that when you become lost in the tangled threads of story, you forget how you got there. You forget that you’re the one who designed that maze of plot paths. You forget that you can change the maze into new shapes—or eliminate it completely. In fact, you can just make those topographic foundations disappear in the blink of an eye (and the pressing of a delete key). There’s nothing you can’t do in your story world.

Except, apparently, remember in the most important moments that there’s nothing you can’t do.

A writer is limited by what he can envision. Or as you’ll see it written in my series, the phrase is, “a wielder [one who works magic] is limited by what he can envision.” But it works out to the same meaning. We make decisions, and then we limit ourselves by them—most often by forgetting we made them.

This truth is readily apparent in the microcosm of novel writing, but if we take a deeper look, we’ll find decisions we’ve made about ourselves, our goals, our lives—decisions that limit our ability to reach farther and live life larger. Decisions that invalidate our potential and ultimately send us—just like those decisions framing our story—into a corner in our own lives.

So here’s the conclusion I reached after this inspection: we can’t avoid making decisions, but we can get better at remembering we’ve made them. And we can certainly keep a weather eye towards those decisions or self-invalidating statements that limit our potential, our goals, or our reach towards a bigger and brighter future.

We can be the gods of our own universes. We just have to remember, in those dark and cornered moments, who is actually writing the story of our lives.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I would love to hear how you found your way out of your proverbial corners.