Musings

[Blog] Well-built Worlds

Several of the books I’ve read most recently have reminded me of something that I already knew– namely that I really enjoy stories with an interesting, creative setting. You know. In case my preoccupation with science fiction and fantasy hadn’t already given it away. I also can’t remember if I’ve written about this in the blog already or not, so please bear with me if it starts sounding like I’m just rewriting an earlier post.

Anyway! Consider this another entry in my continuing quest to figure out why certain stories grab me and refuse to let go. Because I’m pretty sure this is part of it.

To some extent, I suspect this is why most fans of sci-fi and fantasy enjoy it the way we do. There’s a reason those of us who grew up with it spent so many hours daydreaming of ways to get ourselves to Narnia. And also why we have discussions about which Hogwarts House we would belong to, and why those “who would you be in X fictional world” quizzes are so popular.

I imagine it also helps that when something is well-known, the fact that we can talk about them (giddily) with other like-minded fans only feeds our enjoyment. But then there’s the stories that are not as widely known, or with a less rabid fanbase, that– for me– result in the same level of borderline-obsessive focus.

Like, for instance, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The books are definitely fun, particularly the earlier ones, and though I know he’s written more in the same setting beyond the ones that focus around the titular character, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Unlike some of the other stories I’ll mention in this post, Weber does enjoy a pretty decent following. Probably because there’s a lot of us who think that “female Horatio Hornblower in space” is a whole lot of fun. That being said, the books, fun as they are, also aren’t the masterpieces that, say, The Lord of the Rings or Red Rising are. The stories and the characters are fun, but there’s a reason this little gem makes so many of Mr. Weber’s fans laughing.

Then you’ve got stories like Andrea K. Höst‘s brilliant Touchstone series, which I just reread and got a forcible reminder of why I should really look up more of her work. The writing is lovely, and while I know some people don’t particularly like the journal format that the books use, I think it works very well for the nerdy, comforting story she’s telling.

And for all these two series are very different, I found that they have something in common. They captured my imagination. Completely. It’s stuck. Not going anywhere. In Weber’s case, it means that I will happily read for hours on end about the technological advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s missiles, and how it changes the way their massive space battles play out. In Touchstone, it means I will read everything about Cassandra Devlin and the Setari and the spaces that I can get my hands on.

And in both cases, that is in large part thanks to the worldbuilding. These authors succeeded in creating worlds so compelling that I am happy to visit them again and again and that I think about them randomly even when I’m not reading their stories. J.S. Morin does a bit of the same, especially with the way magic works in his various Black Ocean series. Fringe does it in the way it creates a world so similar to our own, just with weird science causing all manner of mayhem.

Perhaps all of this is just outing me as an escapist, though even that’s hardly as damning a truth as some people make it out to be. But whatever way you want to slice it, the fact remains that some authors do a remarkably good job at creating strange, new worlds, and it’s a particular pleasure of mine to go exploring them for a while.

Musings

[Blog] Plot holes

It is easy– so easy– for us writers to get bogged down in plot holes. Those funny, niggling realizations that something about our carefully crafted stories doesn’t quite make perfect sense. That our characters could have found a better way of doing things that would have greatly simplified everything and kept them out of a great deal of trouble. And to some extent, all that is good. If we find the holes we can plug them and make our stories tighter and more streamlined. Better. And that’s what most of us are trying to do, right?

And yet. What happens when filling those plot holes ends up burying our plot itself? Some plot holes absolutely need to be filled in, of course, and I don’t mean to argue against that. But sometimes when you do it, the choice is between making it all make sense logically and letting it keep that weird spark of magic that attracted you to your idea in the first place. And I think when it comes down to it, it’s better to keep the magic.

Or maybe I just need to get better at filling in my ok holes.

Musings

[Blog] Tanner and Miranda update

Just a quick check-in this week! After a stretch of time with the writing just coming slow and difficult, things are starting to move along a little more easily again, which is so nice.

Part of it, I think, was just the fact that I was changing gears to start the next story/chapter. I’m enjoying the very episodic nature of this particular project, but it definitely comes with some of its own special difficulties. Like finding a good way to work the pacing.

I also think it was working a lot better than I thought it was, because when I opened up a new document and essentially retyped the 1400 words or so I already had just to get back into the flow, it wasn’t half as bogged down as I thought it was. So yay!

Musings

[Blog] Music and Story

Speaking as someone who rarely (if ever) writes without a soundtrack, there’s an undeniable connection between story and music. And I know I’m not alone– my sister and I regularly exchange writing music recommendations, and various other fellow writers and I have frequently discussed the best tracks to use for inspiration for a given scene.

Of course, it’s not just writing. Any form of storytelling seems able to reap some benefit from a good soundtrack. Exhibit A: movies. When done particularly well, the scene will stand on its own, but add in the perfect music to your thriller and what was only mildly nerve-wracking becomes wildly unsettling. And that’s not even mentioning what effect you can have by removing music at the right time, too.

Or how about video games? Sure, most of our favorite video game soundtracks are written specifically to be more or less ignored as you try to make your character look like they know what they’re doing, but the good ones are adding to the experience while they do just that. And how are you supposed to stay perfectly unaffected when the first epic chords of a boss battle track start playing?

Writing and music both aim to interact with our feelings. Our thoughts, too, of course, particularly in the case of writing. And while it’s a relatively recent thing that most anyone reading this post has easy access to both music on demand and writing materials, there’s a reason not so far removed from all this for why we still have ballads kicking around from hundreds of years ago.

Musings

[Blog] Hey dol! Merry dol!

Alright, friends. The time has come. I’m going to argue today in defense of why Tom Bombadil fulfills an important role in the saga of The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies), and how the hobbits’ encounter with him is more than a quirky side quest. Naturally, all the rest of this post is going to be full of various spoilers for the trilogy, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want it spoiled, you should avoid the rest of this one. Otherwise, read on!

So. Tom Bombadil. At a glance, it’s easy to see why he is a figure met with such confusion and so much shrugging. He’s a strange character who speaks in “nonsense” and weird rhymes, and he appears completely unconcerned by the fact that the rest of Middle Earth is in dire peril despite the fact that he seems to have strange powers that could help in the fight against Sauron. In fact, there’s a reason he almost feels more like a cameo than anything else.

And while I grant that he exists in the narrative for the reasons mentioned in the article above (tldr: Tolkien wrote him in when he still imagined LotR as an episodic children’s story much like The Hobbit, and Bombadil was a character who was well known by his own children), I would also argue that the finished narrative we all know and love benefits from his inclusion.

First, the fact that he was there to rescue the hobbits (twice!) is a way to show us readers how dangerous things are beyond the Shire while still having a way for our heroes to survive and continue their journey in one piece. Second– and I recognize that some might view this as an argument against his inclusion– having a character exist beyond Sauron’s influence the way Bombadil does makes a statement on the nature of evil itself without changing how important it is for the quest to succeed for the sake of Middle Earth. And finally, he is the first of three major encounters throughout the saga where an unfamiliar entity is found in the woods and proves to be a friend.

If you’ve read the books, you probably remember that the hobbits meet him almost immediately after leaving the Shire when they decide to go through the Old Forest instead of following the road in an attempt to avoid the Black Riders. The trouble with this, of course, is that they end up running into Old Man Willow who does his level best to end their journey right then and there, and would have succeeded if Tom Bombadil hadn’t come along at just the right moment to save them. From a storytelling perspective, this does two things: one, much like Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the trolls in the second chapter of The Hobbit, it shows the reader that the adventure has well and truly begun and the characters will need to be on their toes from here on out; and two, it shows that the characters are not alone. They might not have Gandalf with them, but there are people out there who can and will help them when trouble inevitably comes knocking.

It’s also a way to ease us into what will be an epic tale that takes the characters into great peril and darkness. The adventure might have started and the dangers might be entirely real, but we are still quite close to the Shire. And while we, like the hobbits, might have no idea that the Rangers are the ones responsible for keeping that delightful country safe, we do know that the Shire is a uniquely good location in Middle Earth. Doesn’t it make sense that even a half awake forest so near its borders would have a benevolent force like Tom Bombadil in it?

Putting that aside, let us come to the fact that the Ring seems to have no effect on Bombadil, and what that in itself means for the story. I can understand the argument that Tom’s apparent immunity to the powers of the Ring hurts the stakes of the story. After all, if anyone exists beyond the reach of this great evil, doesn’t that lessen the danger? The answer to that, of course, is that it doesn’t. Not for those who do have to contend with it, which is why Frodo’s quest is so important. But having Sauron and the Ring’s reach be something less that absolute is an important statement of Tolkien’s worldview: evil might be great and possessed of overwhelming power, but even at its worst its reach is not complete. Evil is not the greatest power in creation.

And finally, Tom Bombadil’s existence is the first example of help unlooked for appearing in the woods. Because while forests, particularly old forests, might not be safe in any way, neither are they beholden to Sauron. This is something that occurs again and again throughout the entire trilogy, starting with Bombadil and happening again when Merry and Pippin are found by Treebeard after escaping the Uruk-Hai. Given what they do to Isengard after being roused there’s no doubt that the Ents are incredibly dangerous– to their enemies. To the hobbits and those working against Sauron they are strong allies. And the pattern continues when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum meet Faramir in Ithilien, and even to a lesser extent when the Rohirrim are helped by Ghan-buri-Ghan and his people to reach Gondor in time. And with the exception of Faramir, the rest of these encounters, like Bombadil himself, are more or less contained to their smaller corner of the grander story. Yet, like Bombadil, they add to the story as a whole.

So, there you have it. My arguments for why Tom Bombadil is a worthy inclusion in the epic trilogy, and not just a strange leftover that somehow remained. Given the different pacing necessary in a film adaptation, I understand and agree with his exclusion from Peter Jackson’s movies. Movies are an entirely different medium with different pacing requirements. But in the novels? He is a perfect fit.

Musings

[Blog] Character Voice

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to do some text-based roleplaying* again, which has been amazing for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a return to my roots, as it’s absolutely the hobby that kept/started me writing throughout most of high school/college. For another, it’s phenomenal practice for writing character voice.

I think I’ve bemoaned the difficulty of that particular skill in the past, particularly when I’ve spent too long away from one story or another, and especially when the story in question is written in the first person. With this particular brand of roleplaying, it’s all done in third person, and I have four or five different characters that I write at various points, all of them with their own personalities, quirks, and feelings. Even in third person, they come across in wildly different ways, and getting into the habit of switching back and forth between them all rapidly is a skill in and of itself.

For example, there’s Shovar, the sensible and somewhat laid-back Admiral. To some extent, writing her is the easiest, because she’s more or less who I want to be like, and her values general line up with mine (she’s just way more patient). Then there’s Evva, the 14-year-old daughter of (essentially) a crime lord, who asks way too many questions, has no filter, and is, generally speaking, Trouble. Writing her is just fun. Then there’s her mom and the aforementioned crime lord, Thrinn, who also happens to be one of my oldest characters, as she was the one I was writing most often during high school. She’s gotten even sneakier in her old age.

If nothing else, the character practice has been more helpful than I’d realized or expected. Progress on Tanner and Miranda, while still slow, has been moving faster than before, and I’m more or less happy with what’s appearing on the page. The narrative sounds like Miranda, at least, and I’m happy to call that a win.

* On a little site called The Vulpine Imperium. Started out life as (more or less) a sort of Redwall fansite. Has taken on a life of its own (think PotC meets anachronistic Victorian-esque society, only it’s all anthropomorphic animals) and only recently come back from the dead, to my great surprise and joy.

Musings

[Blog] Wonderment

I walked outside at dusk the other day, just in time to see a pair of bats swooping and flittering a little way from the house. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen bats. It wasn’t even the first time I’d seen them recently– they’re always around, eating bugs like the awesome pest controllers they are. But something about them just struck me this time.

Bats are really, really cool.

Think about it. They’re basically mice that fly. Sounds like something straight out of a fantasy world, right? But they’re real. As real as you or me. *

There’s so much about this world that’s fascinating like this. Like wind: sometimes the air just moves. Sometimes just a little, just enough to toss your hair or shake a few leaves; sometimes so much that it destroys everything in its path, an invisible force of destruction. That sounds pretty crazy too.

And then there’s the fact that we’re all spending our time walking around on the surface of a large (or small, depending on what you’re comparing it to) rocky sphere that’s going in circles around a huge ball of fire that is millions of miles away but also just so happens to be our main source of heat and light.

Or take gravity, the invisible force that is the only thing keeping us on the surface of the planet, along with everything else, including the atmosphere that we need to breathe. And that keeps the planets all orbiting around the sun. And our whole galaxy spinning around its center.

If you ask me, it’s all pretty amazing.

* Maybe that’s a blog post for another day. Ha!

Musings

[Blog] Wordcounts and Wondering

In one of my recent searches for estimates and guidelines for how long drafts and novels tend to be, I found that some of the advice suggested that most rough/first drafts are significantly shorter than the finished product. Which surprised me. As I think about it more, it probably shouldn’t have, because I know how quickly I end up glossing over things when just trying to get words on the page, but there’s so many other times when I end up waxing eloquent on things that really don’t need an explanation, just to keep the words flowing.

Right now, for example, I’m working through one of the Tanner and Miranda stories, doing a pass that’s more or less a second draft (yay!). The thing is, the first draft got bogged down because I kept getting distracted and writing in scenes that murdered the pace and, while fun to write, did next to nothing for the actual story. Scenes that I will need to cut out wholesale this time through, which will probably halve the word count for this particular story.

Hence my confusion. Because this is what my writing always looks like in the early stages, leading me to believe that a completed first draft (one that doesn’t end up suffering from the end of NaNo I’m-running-out-of-steam-so-I’ll-just-do-glorified-summaries thing) would probably come in at almost double the size of a more polished draft.

Clearly, the answer to my question can only be found by finishing more drafts and then actually finishing the editing. You know. For evidence.

Those of you who write, what does your drafting process look like?

Musings

[Blog] Checking in ’22

Technically, this post is a little late. Not the most auspicious start to the new year, perhaps, but that’s okay. Now that we’re almost two weeks in to 2022, I can already say that my reading life, at least, is much more robust than it was last year. Also, apparently I’m on a Brandon Sanderson kick; I can’t believe it took me so long to finally get around to reading The Bands of Mourning, and the wait for the fourth Wax and Wayne book is going to be a bear. I guess I’ll just have to distract myself with more books.

As for writing, I’m still puttering along, doing definitely more than nothing and yet never enough. I’m still trying to beat out the general structure for Tanner and Miranda, which is going way slower than I’d like. Mostly because I have some decent ideas but not enough depth to them that they feel full and real.

More or less accidentally, I took several weeks off from planning and structuring both that and last November’s NaNo, which was actually rather needed. I was edging up on burnout. Oops. But I’m feeling refreshed and ready now, and once I kick off the faint accumulation of dust, I’m looking forward to digging in to both with new eyes and a fresh perspective. Which is what I’m off to do right now!

Musings

[Blog] Farewell, ’21

As I write this, there’s right around sixty-three hours remaining in the Year of our Lord 2021. I’m not quite sure how that happened, but here we are. For me, as for so many others, it has been A Year, and I’ll admit to being tired (though that’s also partially due to plain old sleepiness), though hopeful and a bit excited for the year to come and its changes and challenges both known and unknown.

To send out the year here on my blog, I want to share a few of my favorites from the past twelve months. Books, movies, songs, whatever it was that I enjoyed or that struck a chord with me and burrowed deep.


Favorite Book (fiction): Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Why? Because reading it was like taking a break from the twenty-first century to go hang out on a British navy ship. And sometimes that’s just what you need.

Favorite Book (non-fiction): Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Why? Because it’s an incredibly important and intelligent take on something that we desperately need to be talking about. It’s a difficult read in places due to the nature of the beast (death, mortality, aging, etc.) but I can’t recommend it enough. Go read it.

Favorite Song: The Light Will Stay On by The Walkabouts
Why? Just click on the link and listen! Oh, more specifically? Well I found this song while hunting for musical inspiration for NaNo, and this one slotted in like it was written for my main character. But beyond that, the entire mood of it– the almost wistful, almost resigned yet still pushing on just resonated with me.

Favorite New Music Group: The Hound + The Fox
Why? There’s a ton of amazing cover-original-independent-whathaveyou musical artists on YouTube, but these two have to be my favorite. Their stuff is gorgeous, and they’ve got a great mix of originals, folk songs, and nerdy covers. I can (and have!) listen to them all day.

Favorite Video Game: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Why? Because the storylines are ALL MAKING ME CRY. This game is unabashedly over the top epic in places, and I love it, in part because it’s driven by a huge cast of well developed characters to whom you will get thoroughly attached.

What about you guys? Any new favorites from the past year? Anything exciting coming up for you in 2022?