Musings

[Blog] Imitation and Flattery

Sometimes, you find a story that lodges itself somewhere deep in your soul. Maybe you know why, or maybe you just can’t figure it out. Either way, whether it’s something you watch or something you read, something about it resonates with you and grips you and won’t let go. And then, if you’re like me, you want to figure out what it is so that you can make your own stories do the same thing. Which then leads to the fear that you’re going to accidentally just rewrite the thing that inspired you in the first place.

Now, first. I know. There’s nothing new under the sun. So-called “originality” is an impossible dream. But that’s not what I’m talking about here; there’s a huge difference between writing a story that involves elves and halflings and an evil world, and writing one about a halfling called Fauxdo and his loyal friend Hamwise saving the world by throwing an amulet of power into a river lava. And unfortunately, when trying to capture the same sort of excitement that is caused by a specific work of fiction, it can be far too easy to fall back on the specific scenes that were your favorites. Or the specific characters who captured your imagination.

Then again, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So maybe there’s a middle ground.

At the moment, my best answer is this: try to figure out what it is that captured your imagination in the first place, and why it is that this particular story seems to resonate with you the way it does. I know. That’s hard. REALLY hard. Because to do that, you have to get through to the heart of the story, past all the shiny stuff on the outside that you might also really like. But if you can do that, if you can figure what the story is actually about, at its core, then it becomes easier to tell a story about that same theme. For example: Fringe. Fundamentally, it’s a story about family, and how a family has to face truly terrible odds and dangers together. Yes, I’m still talking about Fringe. Because that’s the latest thing that’s lodged itself in my mind.

So if, to continue the example, you enjoy a particular story because it’s about a family and how they have to survive insurmountable odds, if you were to write a story about a different family and their own insurmountable odds, then perhaps it will create the same sort of soul-nourishing yearning that the other story created. And yet, it won’t be the other story. It will be your own, because you are answer the same question in your own words, colored by your own experiences and knowledge. And unless I miss my guess, that’s what writing is all about.

Musings

[Blog] Scavenger

Writers are scavengers. We ought to be, at any rate. We pick out pieces of the world we live in and leave them in the words we put on the page like a magpie stealing shiny trinkets. Maybe it’s a word we like, one that means the same thing as two or three others but has the perfect connotation– such as exasperated; it’s like annoyed, and even more like vexed, but if your character is exasperated there’s a lighter note to it that’s missing from the others.

Or maybe it’s the emotions that well up inside us when we are reunited with a dear friend we haven’t seen in years. I imagine they’re the same feelings that surge in our characters’ bellies when they finally, finally return to their loved ones after the chaos of their story.

Or it’s the cold gust of autumn wind that chills a warm day, reminding us that summer is over and winter is coming, and it’s the smell of wood smoke and fallen leaves beckoning us homeward before the early darkness shrouds our way.

Or it’s the aching exhaustion that clings to your bones after a long day of hard work.

Or the way you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can trust your closest friends.

Or maybe it’s just the last story you read, or watched, or listened to. The one that wrapped the vines of its tale around your heart, sharing with you some truth about being human in a broken world that resonated like a rung bell.

In some ways, even the best writers are anything but original, and the best pieces of their stories are made up of truth, and not whole cloth. Because that’s why we can connect with them the way we do. And that’s what makes them so important.

Musings

[Blog] Weird Things Happen on Planes

If you’ve watched a certain type of science fiction, you’ve probably noticed something: weird things happen on planes. I recently started watching the show Manifest, the premise of which is that a plane goes missing and then reappears years later, to everyone’s surprise and consternation. Fringe had at least three episodes dedicated to bizarre happenings on planes. I’ve never seen it, but I imagine the accurately titled Snakes on a Plane fits this mold as well, as I understand the title is an accurate description of the entire movie.

So the question is: why?

The simplest answer is that planes are a convenient box to put your characters in. No way on. No way off. If something happens, no help is coming. You have to try to deal with it by yourself. It’s the perfect setting for a Blake Snyder style Monster in the House story.

Another answer is that we recognize the madness inherent in climbing inside a metal tube and hurling ourselves across the world at ridiculous speeds. The fact that we do it so often that it has become normal doesn’t change that. Telling ourselves stories about strange things happening while undertaking this wild endeavor is its own sort of catharsis: an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is a far cry from walking, or running, or even climbing on the back of an animal five times our size and riding it to get from place to place.

Or maybe it’s because of the opposite. Most of us have ridden in planes frequently enough that it is commonplace and accepted as safe. Having something strange, dangerous, or bizarre happen in such a familiar space immediately draws us in and heightens the tension. After all, if it can happen on that plane ride, why can’t it happen on the next one we take?

Whatever the reason, it appears often enough that I’ve noticed it while just casually watching. Out of blatant curiosity, I did a quick search over at TV Tropes (yes, yes, foolhardy, I know) and discovered that I had just barely scratched the surface. This is unsurprising thanks to the aforementioned casual watching. Which speaks to my point. If we write enough stories about things happening on planes that there is an entire list of them, then clearly there is something about it that catches the human imagination. Or. You know. Several somethings.

Musings

[Blog] Hurting Each Other

If you interact with other humans, chances are you’ll end up either hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Most likely, it’s both. Maybe it’s accidental. Maybe it’s not. Most of us try not to, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. And naturally, we are more likely to hurt those we interact with more often, meaning that when we do wrong someone else, it’s more likely to be a friend or a family member than the stranger we pass in the grocery store.

As with so many things in life, in part because of its inevitability, the most important thing ends up being not whether or not we hurt or are hurt, but how we respond when it happens. Does a harsh word or a thoughtless comment destroy a relationship? Or do we find a way to work through it and forgive? Do we accept that some friendships are not worth saving? Do we decide that this one is, no matter how hard you have to fight for it? There isn’t a single right answer that fits every situation. As a Christian, I am called to love my enemies–not to mention friends or annoying coworkers–and forgiveness heals much.

But that’s a topic for another time. Today, I want to talk about what hurting each other has meant in some of the relationships I value most. And then about how my writer-brain connects that to good storytelling, because we all knew that was going to happen.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but my closest friendships are the ones where we have hurt each other. More than once. Often deeply. We’ve said things, or made assumptions, or lashed out, or… the list goes on. I don’t have to continue it, because I know anyone reading this will have a list of their own, with specific events and particular people. And, I hope, anyone reading this will also know that the story doesn’t end there with the argument, or the silent treatment, or the unexpected ghosting.

Or it doesn’t have to.

Those same friendships I was talking about have thrived because when we did hurt each other we also forgave each other, and we worked through it. Love covers a multitude of sins. And thank God for that.

(A quick note: this, of course, does not meant that there is never a time to end things. David didn’t keep hanging out in King Saul’s court after a certain number of thrown spears; he left. He also straight up refused to hurt Saul, even when given multiple chances, which says plenty as well.)

As for how this applies to storytelling, if working through mutual injury in real life relationships can end up strengthening them, then the same is true in good writing, which aims to be an accurate reflection of the real world. Your characters, even your heroes, will not always agree. They might betray each other, or their values, or do any of another thousand things that create a rift between them. And they might realize it, or they might think they were in the right the entire time. Either way, it’s those moments that create the most compelling story: the ones where the characters end up going head to head in a conflict that can’t just be explained away, where it can’t be resolved unless something fundamentally changes.

Unsurprisingly, I noticed a particularly good example of this during my most recent rewatch of Fringe (shush, everyone’s allowed to be a fangirl every once in a while). There are a few episodes near the middle of the third season where a couple of the characters have to work through some things. The sort of things that only apply when you’re a character in a dramatic science fiction setting that involves alternate universes, but the point remains. And it hurts to watch. Because you understand both of their points of view. And you know that they both have completely valid points. And you also know that the harm done is real, and it’s not just going to vanish on its own.

And it’s resolved! The characters talk through it, work through it, and find a way to move on. They don’t just let their relationship float in whatever direction it wants, they choose to put the effort in to make it work. This could be it’s own blog post, but I can’t give enough praise for mature, intelligent characters. Conflict is so much more compelling when it’s not caused by one or both parties being idiots.

Now, I’m not going to lie. Despite knowing all this, it’s still incredibly difficult for me to work that into my writing. If several of my favorite characters aren’t getting along and are actually at odds, it make me sad. I don’t like it. I want it to stop. And it’s a lot easier to make it stop by not writing it in the first place than by putting in the work to figure out how those characters are going to have to get through it. I need to fix that. Because once I do, it’s going to make me a better writer.

Musings

[Blog] Research

In college, I was terrible at doing proper research. I mean truly awful, though I usually still managed to write decent papers. Probably in part because I really just wanted to do the writing, and not the researching. Or, since these are essays we’re talking about and not fiction, it’s possible I just wanted to get to the end and have done with it.

Fortunately, a fantastic teacher my senior year managed to explain what research actually is and how to do it in a way that clicked with me, and though I only had about a half a semester in which to actually make proper use of it, I now get it. Or I do enough to keep an interest in it, at least!

For me, it’s tied into the idea of writing what you know. I’m going to have a much better chance of writing an epic and believable sword fight if I know the first thing about how sword fights usually go. And not just what it looks like in various blockbuster movies, no matter how much fun they are to watch. If I know what it’s supposed to look like, then I know what I can tweak for the sake of the “cool” factor without running the risk of accidentally taking out something structural.

It’s also a great way to immerse myself in the world I’m trying to create. Instead of feeling like research is something I have to get out of the world before I can get to the actual fun stuff, it’s a way for me to get into the same world I’m planning to write about at a deeper level that will make it easier to write once I actually get down to it. I may not be a skilled sword-fighter myself, but if I know how long it takes someone to become a master in our world, and what weaknesses they might have, and what the strengths of their particular style are, I’ll be able to add those details in (or at least make sure that I don’t accidentally contradict them), and that’s only going to add to my writing.

With an essay or a research paper, the trick was to make sure I worked on a paper I was interested in. Which sadly, for research papers, was sometimes a lot easier said than done, or else the topic was specific enough that it was tailored to what we’d already read in class. But the paper that helped me figure out how to research was one that I was curious about but didn’t feel like I already knew the answer to, and that motivated me to go looking for them.

Or in other words, to do research.

Kind of on a side note, but that’s also what got me to start reading non-fiction for fun as well. If a writer is writing truth about the world, about people, about reality, then the more we learn about that same world, about psychology, history, life, death– everything– the better we will be at writing. And that takes a certain humility. It’s hard to look for answers if you already think you have them all. But if you know there’s everything you don’t know, there’s nothing at all to stop you from looking and learning.

Musings

[Blog] Fluff Reads

A couple weeks back, I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t managed to do as much reading this year as I’d liked. That is still technically the case, but it’s certainly gotten better– enough that I at least don’t feel guilty when I tell people I’m an avid reader.

For the most part, that’s meant that I’m reading through the last five books of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. They’re fun. Horatio Hornblower in space, basically. The space battles are incredibly detailed, and the characters are fun. And it’s undeniably light reading, for the most part. As much as I enjoy them, I can’t argue that they’re high literature in any way.

And that’s just fine.

It can be easy to fall into this idea that there’s less value in “lower” stories. Most people don’t go so far as to say that you shouldn’t ready anything but the best stories, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a general belief that it’s more valuable to spend your time reading them than the alternative. If there’s no way you can read everything worth reading over the span of your life, why waste time on anything but the best?

To some extent, that’s a reasonable point of view. There are so many fantastic and truly well crafted stories out there, and it would be a loss to not read and enjoy them. But at the same time, sometimes you don’t have the focus to appreciate or even follow the complexities you find in those sorts of stories. Or sometimes you just want to read something fun and easy– just like you sometimes just want to eat some popcorn instead of a real meal. And that’s why it’s so nice to have easier reads. Like the Honor Harrington series.

Yet just because a particular story can accurately be described as a fluff read doesn’t mean that it loses all capacity to touch the reader. Sometimes reading something light and easy what it takes for us as readers to let down our guard more than we would with something else. There’s a point of diminished returns, of course. If something is too poorly written it will distract from any good points it might actually have. But outside of that, if a story touches you, it touches you. And sometimes a fluff read can touch you just as much as anything else. Or if not, then it can entertain you and prove enjoyable for a while, and that is valuable too.

Fiction

Emergency Medical Werewolves

Hey guys! So, my schedule at work has me working 24 hour shifts on the ambulance. It’s “just” interfacility transports, but I still find it pretty awesome. That being said, the hours do get funky. So maybe we can blame the following on a late night, sleep deprived brainstorm. Because I think that’s actually pretty accurate. I hope you find it as amusing as I do!

Look. Just hear me out. Because if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Werewolves would make fantastic EMTs.

Wait! Stop! Quit backing away slowly and just listen! Ah, shoot– and put down that little silver figurine you keep on your desk! You don’t need it! What are you…? Yip! Quit throwing things! That’s completely uncalled for.

Alright, look. I’ll stay here on this side of the room, you stay there on that side of the room, and we can talk about this like civilized people. At least one of us is? Now that’s just mean. You’ll give me two minutes? Great! That’s all I need.

So! Werewolves as EMTs. First, the obvious. Ambulances run all night long. Werewolves are great at night! We– ah– they do their best work when the moon is up and the sun is not, so no need to worry about them not being awake.

Second, werewolves are strong. Great for lifting gurneys and moving patients. Also great for general emergency situations. Need something moved out of the way so you can get to someone who might be injured? They got you! Can’t find a jack to help change that flat tire? Just have your friendly neighborhood werewolf lift the car for you! Need an imposing presence so that no one gets in your way while you’re patching someone together long enough to get them to the hospital? No one wants to fight a werewolf.

Okay, so that last one may have more to do with teeth and claws than strength, but the point stands.

Third, rumor has it that the weirdest stuff happens when the full moon is out. So why not harness the weirdness (look, even I’ll admit werewolves are a little weird) and have it work in your favor? If your partner’s a werewolf, you’ll get that fuzzy advantage any night, but especially when the moon is full– when you just might happen to need it the most.

Fourth, ‘wolves are naturally familiar with using something like a siren to communicate with their surroundings. Because basically, a siren is just a howl that tells everyone where you are and to get out of the way.

Fifth, werewolves are great team players. Comes with being the sort of creature that thrives in a pack. Plus, all those scary stories you hear about werewolves being “bloodthirsty monsters” are from the ones that aren’t socialized and don’t have a pack. I can already guarantee that any ‘wolf that wants to be an EMT is going to be the type that is well socialized, and they’ll form a pack with their partner anyway. Problem solved!

And– what’s that? My two minutes are up? Okay, cool. That’s all I needed to say. Will you at least think about it? Great!

Wait, who are you calling? The local paranormal detectives? Ah, heck, those guys are mean. Fine! I’m leaving! I’m going! Just think about it?

Yip!

Musings

[Blog] Success!

HaHA! I did it! Fifty thousand words in July! And now I’ve got sixteen stories in various stages of presentability, and I’ve already started working on the edits for the first one. Actually, technically, I’ve just got fifteen to edit, since I had one of them pull double duty and act as my entry for the recent contest over at The Write Practice, so it’s actually in good shape and I’ll share it with you all here in about ninety days, once the rights revert back to me. In the meantime, you can go check it out here!

Other than that, since I don’t have much else to share, I can share the list of current titles for the various stories I was working on last month:

The Shadowed
The Day We Lost
The Hartwood Faeries
Wolf Road
Candle in the Window*
Caer Modnaan
The Secret Wood**
Aeternatus
Runner
To the Horizon***
We Went Home
A Page Worse Than Death
The Windbringer
The Lost Ones
The Willow Book
The Smallest Messenger

Most of these are (surprise, surprise) science fiction and fantasy. Which ones sound the most exciting to you? (Or in other words, which ones do you want to see me finish first?) And feel free to ask questions in the comments below!

* This is the one that’s already finished!

** I’m almost certainly going to change the title on this one. The story sorta got away from me…

*** This one… I never really figured out where this was going. But I like the title. We’ll see what happens!

Musings

[Blog] Last Stretch Camp ’21

Three days left! And after a quick writing session this morning, my current wordcount for this Camp NaNo event is sitting just above 42k. My sister and I have exchanged fourteen different prompts, so I have fourteen different stories in various stages of being written, and while most of them are terrifyingly rough, I really, really like the ideas, and I can’t wait to start polishing.

At the risk of jinxing myself, I think I might actually be making this goal, and I’m very excited. I am also looking forward to the time next month to start working on Tanner and Miranda in earnest again, this time with the rust knocked off and a writing habit formed again!

How about you guys? Anyone reading who’s also doing Camp NaNo? How are you feeling about your projects?

Musings

[Blog] Sci-fi vs Fantasy

In case you haven’t noticed, I like science fiction and fantasy. (If you hadn’t, allow me to point you to the rest of my blog.) Now, for the longest time, I thought the two were roughly the same thing, just in different settings. And to some extent, that’s probably true. There’s certainly a reason they often get lumped together on bookstore shelves and are usually said together in the same breath. Yet as I’ve thought more about why I like both so much, and as I’ve had more time to focus on the worldbuilding side of my own various projects, I’ve come to the conclusion that the two really do have different strengths and are certainly different enough to warrant the distinction.

First, fantasy. My first love, mostly thanks to the fact that such stories can and often do involve things like dragons, unicorns, and grumpy wizards. Growing up, that usually meant that I was giddily excited by anything that fell under the swords and sorcery category. Lord of the Rings? Loved it. Anything to do with King Arthur? Sign me up. Wanna watch Dragonheart? I’ll be right there.

These days, while I still have a fond appreciation for all the stories mentioned above, I’ve also found myself branching out a bit. For instance, anything that involves magic in what might otherwise look like our world today tends to at least pique my interest. For instance, I really enjoyed watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And playing Shadowrun.

And for all the differences between these various stories, there are also a lot of similarities. For one thing, ancient evils crop up with a worrisome consistency. Magic is old. Our heroes find themselves caught up in traditions that have existed for ages. As a gross generalization, fantasy stories are full of wonder at the old, whether that looks like a medieval fantasy or a modern one that finds itself uncovering those things that happened long, long ago. There’s a reason fairy tales start with the words “once upon a time”.

For me, when I find that some story idea or another seems to want to turn itself into a fantasy story, that usually means that it has something to do with the past, at least in my head. Maybe it’s just a chance to re-imagine the parts of history that are so much fun to romanticize, or to interact with a so-called simpler world. Or maybe it’s a way to come to terms with the past.

Either way, it boils down to a focus on what once was, with perhaps a nod to how that affects things today.

Science fiction, on the other hand, looks to the future. Maybe these stories are just ways to imagine what we might be able to figure out someday. Or maybe they act as a warning for what might happen if we don’t mend our ways. Or maybe they give us something to strive for. But whatever way you look at it, the science fiction genre is as much about the future as fantasy is about the past.

Are there exception to this? Oh, absolutely. But Star Trek (all of them) is very purposely imagining what humanity might be able to do in a utopian setting (whether you agree with them or not on the methods chosen to get there). Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series takes place in a solar system that is nearly unrecognizable after the advancements humanity has made, and while not all of the advancements are good, it’s hard to deny that they’ve got some really, really cool things going on. Science fiction stories have a remarkable ability to provide a space to imagine what might be, and so to imagine some of the things we’ll have to think about if and when we get there.

Of course, it’s not all black and white. Of the top of my head I can name off several fictional worlds that have some distinct elements that I’ve argued belonged to either science fiction or fantasy. For example, Star Wars. The fact that it both involves spaceships and is set “a long time ago” with a bunch of knights running around is evidence enough of that. And then you’ve got Stargate, which has the humans of Earth finding ways to make these fantastic technological leaps… in order to fight old false gods. Or you’ve got J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean books that just say to heck with it and do both. Because they can.

In other words, like I said before, there’s definitely a reason they get pushed together so often. And there’s certainly nothing that says a story can’t look both to the future and the past at the same time. In fact, I think a lot of good ones do just that. But if you’re looking to imagine something about the future, that’s what science fiction is meant to do. And if you’re looking to engage with the past, fantasy stories have all sorts of things to say about that.