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?
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.
I have this memory from when I was a kid and our whole family went to San Francisco on vacation. The room (suite?) we stayed in was on the top floor, offering us this magnificent view of the city through a huge window that covered what I remember to be the entire wall and ran floor to ceiling. As you can imagine, my siblings and I, being young and fearless and completely unaccustomed to beautiful cityscape views, responded by plastering our small selves against the glass and staring out at all the everything.
Which apparently made my dad a little nervous, because I remember being gently (if urgently) ushered away from the glass.
And honestly, I can’t say I blame him. Because I rather doubt I would be able to do the same thing today, no matter how strong I “knew” the glass was. Chalk it down to a greater sense of my own mortality, or the realization of just how far down it was to the ground. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a true fear of heights, but I definitely have a certain… respect for them.
That being said, I love the views you get when you do get up high. And close to the edge. I noticed this the other day when I was up several floors in some building in LA, and the hallway ended up going along the edge of the building and the entire wall was made of glass that let you see out and down. I wasn’t expecting it, and I felt a sudden excitement somewhere in my gut.
It was a similar feeling to the one I get when I’m in a plan looking down, especially at take-off or landing. When you’re already at altitude it can be easy to just accept that this is what the world looks like through the window of a plane, but when you actually watch the ground fall away or reach up to meet you, that illusion gets shattered. And it’s amazing.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to try to put down my thoughts on something that clearly touches some deeper part of me. As a writer, there’s always value in finding these things, because once you realize it, it’s easier to synthesize it and draw connections to other things. I’m never going to ride a gryphon through the clouds, but I’ve ridden a horse at a gallop and I’ve flown in a plane– so I can imagine what it must be like.
Or maybe something just took my breath away, and I want to share it with all of you.
Well… I don’t want to jinx it… but this might be the time I break my Camp failure curse! At any rate, I’ve already written more by this point in July than I have in any of my other attempts in their entirety.
It’s not a guarantee, of course, and this is all in the middle of starting a crazy new schedule at work, but I’m feeling excited! It definitely helps that my sister has been choosing some awesome prompts, too.
They’re not in anything like a presentable state yet, of course, but I’m really happy with the bones of all of them so far. And if all goes as planned, you’ll be seeing some of the finished products in the next few months.
What about you guys? Anyone else participating in this Camp NaNo? How’s it going for you?
Well. It’s here again. Camp NaNo. My nemesis. My white whale. The one that got away. The one that consistently defeats me. The one I can’t seem to best. And I, being too stubborn for my own good, am picking up my harpoon and going after it one more time. And my long-suffering sister has agreed to do it with me once again.
That being said, we are trying something different this time. For me, I’m hoping that shaking things up a little might actually help me motivate the way I want to, and I might actually end up hitting my goals (yay!) and I dragged my sister along in it because I don’t like doing things alone. Specifically, we’re going to be giving each other writing prompts every other day and writing a series of short stories– or whatever comes to mind. And the prompts can be anything! Traditional writing prompts… songs… pictures… anything we find.
I’m so excited! And here we are, June 30… the first prompts have been exchanged… let Camp NaNo commence!
It’s been one of those weeks (months?) where I’ve been having a really hard time reading. Chalk it up to the fact that I’ve chosen a bunch of really long books (like, more-than-nine-hundred-pages long), or just the fact that my attention span is more or less non-existent (SQUIRREL). Either way, the end result is that I just haven’t gotten through as many books by this point in the year as I’d like.
I’ve also, to beat a dead horse, not been writing half so much as I’d like, though I’ve at least been writing more recently than I have in a while, so there’s that. Given that reading is one of the best ways to immerse oneself in stories in general, and given that that’s one of the best ways to inspire one’s own writing, I can’t help but wonder if the two aren’t related. Then again, if I haven’t been reading much because I’ve had a lack of focus, that exact same lack would make writing just as difficult, if not more so.
There’s nothing particularly profound about any of this. Rather, this post is mostly just me bemoaning the fact that, whether there’s a good reason for it or not, I feel horrifically unproductive. It’s also me scrabbling back to a regular habit of weekly posting, which also happens to have the side effect of keeping those writing muscles more or less functional. On the bright side, it appears to be working, too. At least, the writing is starting to come more easily than it has in quite some time.
TL;DR: I haven’t been reading or writing as much as I’d like, and I’m not sure if the one is the consequence of the other or just both symptoms of the same thing.
Somehow, this will be the two hundredth post on this blog. Cue the gasps– I know I’m surprised! It’s been just over three years since I started this venture, and though I’ve hit a few bumps in the past nine months or so, it’s been an incredible experience so far and I’m already looking forward to the next two hundred posts.
So, first of all, thanks to everyone reading these things. I’m so grateful for every single one of you, especially those of you who keep coming back.
Second of all… I don’t have anything to post up yet, but the writing front for Tanner and Miranda has been going better lately than it has in a long time, which is so exciting! I think I complained a while back about the fact that I was having a hard time re-remembering how to write Miranda’s voice, but I seem to have passed that hump, and the snarky banter is coming along quite well, in my opinion. So, keep an eye out! If all goes as planned, I’ll be posting up some excerpts again sometime soon. Because I’m a writer, and it’s SO nice to be able to prove that again. Ha!
Anyway! Thanks again for sticking around thus far, and I hope you’re as excited as I am to see the next two hundred posts.
Way back in my formative years of writing, I spent an inordinate amount of time on several Redwall fan-sites that had vibrant roleplaying communities, which basically meant that we wrote up various characters and spent hours upon hours writing stories together, featuring all our characters. Naturally there was much discussion regarding what constituted a “good” character, and cliches in particular were frowned upon. In fact, saying someone’s character was a Mary Sue (or, for male characters, a Gary Stu) was one of the worst insults anyone could give.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, it is generally used to describe a fictional character* who is “portrayed as unrealistically free of weakness”. Understandably, these sorts of characters could be particularly annoying to encounter when writing with others– if Agent John B. Awesome is single-handedly destroying any and all opponents and completing all mission objectives, it doesn’t leave a lot of other room for anyone writing more balanced characters to develop their writing or explore the bits of story that can only come about when the characters encounter things they can’t handle. As a young kid who desperately wanted to be accepted, this meant that I tended to avoid that ditch so hard that I ran straight into the other one: truly boring characters. You know. The ones who aren’t exceptional in any way. The ones who aren’t special or amazing or fun. The ones that no one wants to read about. Or write about. Dun-dun-dun-dun…
Fortunately, it’s really difficult to write boring characters for any great length of time. You’ll either give up writing completely, or you’ll wise up and start writing more interesting characters. The key word there being “more”. It’s not a switch you flip and overnight you suddenly have it figured out. Rather, it’s a skill that needs practice. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Practice.
For me, this often means that I’ll start writing a character who is more interesting (to me, at the very least), only to run up against a whole brick wall of “but wait! They can’t be too cool or they’ll be a bad character.” Which, rationally, I realize is just plain false. Luke Skywalker is pretty darn cool. So is Aragorn. And Edmund Dantes. And Darrow (Red Rising). And Vin (Mistborn). And the list goes on. These characters are known and loved precisely because of how “cool” they are**, and all they manage to accomplish despite terrible odds and their own personal demons. And it’s that last bit that’s the most important– these characters have to strive and fight and scratch and claw to get where they want to go, and that’s what makes them so compelling.
In short, the answer to avoiding cliched and over-powerful characters isn’t found so much in making them smaller, but rather in making their obstacles bigger.
* Specifically, the term is often used to describe a female character, hence the variations listed above, but certainly it can be a valid complaint for any poorly written character.
** Obviously, a huge oversimplification. But the point stands.
One of my favorite tropes has got to be the one where something or someone that was lost and/or destroyed comes back. Sometimes it happens just in time. Sometimes it’s what lets the heroes know that they might have a fighting chance after all. Sometimes it’s one of the heroes themselves that returns. Whatever it is, it’s the sort of thing that gives me chills.
Given the nature of this, there’s going to be some spoilers in the following for Mass Effect 2, Pacific Rim, and the Lord of the Rings. Nothing too major, but if you haven’t read/played/watched, consider yourselves warned!
In Mass Effect, it’s that moment near the beginning of the second game when Commander Shepard gets the Normandy SR2– along with Joker. After the shock of the game’s prologue, which involved the destruction of the Normandy SR1 (which you grow deeply attached to in the first game), along with the death of Shepard him/herself and the scattering of the surviving crew, getting your first indication that the resurrected Shepard might actually have a few familiar things to hold onto in their continuing quest to save the galaxy is a powerful moment.
It’s a very similar scene in Pacific Rim when the rebuilt Gipsy Danger is revealed both to Raleigh in the audience. The last time Raleigh saw Gipsy Danger was in the battle where his brother and copilot was killed and the Jaeger itself was badly damaged. Because the movie has been following Raleigh so closely up to this point, it’s impossible not to catch some of the emotions that Raleigh himself feels at seeing the giant mech again.
Last, but certainly not least, in the Lord of the Rings we have the turning point in the battle at Helm’s Deep, when Gandalf returns with Eomer in tow. I should point out here that the version of this that I personally found most moving is actually the movie version. In the books, it’s a different commander who arrives with Gandalf, as Eomer is already in Helm’s Deep with the others. In the movies, though, it’s the very fact that Eomer was exiled that made it so powerful. Well. That and the gorgeous cinematography as our heroes’ reinforcements arrive from the east on the dawn of the third day.
At first blush, it might not seem like the third example fits with the others all that well, but let me try to explain. In all of these, we have something strong, working for good, that was broken. The Normandy was destroyed. Gipsy Danger was damaged badly enough to put it out of commission. Eomer, despite his loyalty to his king, was forced into exile because of Wormtongue’s machinations. And then, despite all odds, they come back. A new, better Normandy is built and returned to Shepard’s command. Gipsy Danger is repaired and piloted again to save the world. Gandalf brings Eomer back to save the lives of his king (and uncle!) and his people. And it all happened when the audience wasn’t quite expecting it. Or maybe, when the audience wasn’t quite daring to hope for it, because it seemed too impossible. And that, I think, is part of what makes this such a strong storytelling technique.
As a Christian, I find it impossible not to connect this to Christ’s death and resurrection as well. We have the loss in the crucifixion, followed by the period of hopelessness and sorrow and uncertainty about how things were going to go forward. And then he came back. And it wasn’t the end after all.
There’s something beautiful about the liminal. I think it’s why we are so fascinated by sunrises and sunsets, and why the twilight and predawn hours have a magic to them. I think it’s why we mark the solstices and the equinoxes, and why the first flower of spring and the first snowflake at the end of fall are so much more exciting than all the others that follow after them. And, perhaps, its why so many myths and legends involve the things and places between.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines liminal as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition”. Or, in simpler terms: “in-between, transitional”. Way back in college, I remember one of my English professors expounding on how the concept played a significant part in the writings of a specific poet (possibly William Blake?), but for the life of me, I can’t remember exactly what she told us. What I do remember is that the concept didn’t seem to make much sense to me back then, but it must have stuck in my head, because here we are. (That being said, if any of you reading this happen to actually remember what is only flitting around the edges of my memory, please, please share your knowledge in the comments below. I will be forever grateful.)
Most people will be familiar with what Heraclitus said, that “the only constant is change”, and this might begin to offer an explanation for our fascination with the things between. These liminal things are, after all, the closest thing we have to an incarnation of change itself. Summer days may stretch on, each one hot and bright and seemingly the same, but then comes one a little cooler, a little crisper, and the leaves that once were all bright green begin to fade to yellow. And time moves on.
Or maybe it’s something simpler. Maybe the value lies in the fact that these things are, by their nature, somewhat scarce. Night and day both last for hours, but dawn and dusk are much shorter and neither day nor night, despite sharing some similarities with both. There are many humans, and many seals, but only some seals are selkies, with the ability to shed their skins and walk about in human form.
Or maybe these things catch our attention for some other reason, and I’m only grasping at straws. Whatever the reason, though, its hard to deny that they do fascinate us. Why else are there selkies and centaurs and werewolves? Or why else do things happen at the stroke of midnight and the first light of morning?
P.S. Hi everyone! It’s… ah… been a while. Please forgive my sudden and unannounced hiatus. I’m still alive, and really excited to be back. Also, I’m in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo again, which has been incredibly helpful in the realm of yanking me back towards a daily writing habit. Even if I’m nowhere near my stated goal. Ah, well. I’ll have to catch that white whale another day. (Or buckle down and bump up that wordcount. One or the other.)
Either way, I’ll be back next week with more ramblings. Or excerpts!