Saturday, March 28, 2015

Change of Perspective

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Writers earn their chops by successfully writing from multiple perspectives.  Characters in a story have to be portrayed differently and they should have unique points of view that come through in the writing.  Good characterization will demonstrate the unique characteristics of these personas.  This will reflect the societal norms of the societies they were raised in.  Writing a character raised in an eighteenth century Native American village has to be much different than writing a London debutante.

My hypothesis, then, is writers should be better equipped to deal with differences in beliefs and attitudes between one culture and another than non-writers are.  But then I wonder how easy it is for a writer to capture these differences unless they travel or do research about life on foreign soil.  Along these lines, I wonder about my own cultural "voice"--both as a writer and a human being.  Cultural values change and morph over time.  Is it socially and morally imperative to be receptive to these changes as one advances through life?  Or is it better to anchor yourself to certain core values?

I think the ideal is to engage in a process of continuous re-evaluation of one's cultural values.  This evaluation would ideally take place in several dimensions:  philosophical, moral, social, financial, etc.  But the reality is it's difficult to find the time for all of this introspection.  Invariably, we fall back on pre-existing values.  And this can lead to situations that challenge or contravene these pre-existing values in a disruptive way (when they have "calcified" and become brittle due to age and lack of re-evaluation).

When these moments come, how do we react?  If you subscribe to the concept of the plurality of self, you might begin a process of forming a new persona that identifies with the values suggested by new emergent realities.  In this case, the older selves don't cease to exist, but may have to be gradually deemphasized or merged with newer points of view.  And it may take a while to fully reconcile these points of view.

I think it's good for a writer to go through these evolutions for the same reason that actors sometimes get better with age.  As you realize that your own self isn't static, I think you gain perspective that you can leverage when writing your characters and giving them unique backgrounds and perspectives.

So maybe a writer should book an overseas trip once a year to stay fresh or do something unusual like joining a UFO hunting group.  Maybe one should experiment with religion or explore a new subculture.  If you become adept at creating new personas, then perhaps it lessens the pain of having to retire obsolete ones.  I will have to ask some enlightened, older friends about this.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Headwinds and Tailwinds

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I've had a couple of really good writing sessions over the past couple of weeks. Before these sessions, I hadn't felt like I'd had a good session in quite some time. I'd noticed the feeling, but hadn't really reacted to it much. I just kept writing. I don't know if this was some flavor of writer's block, but I suspect it displayed many of the symptoms of it. The thing is, though, I never thought to myself that I had writer's block while I was experiencing whatever I was experiencing. I just knew I was writing with reduced efficiency and inspiration. When it comes time to edit, I'll have to take a careful look at the things I wrote during this period. My hope is they will prove to be of the same quality as I produced during the earlier parts of writing the manuscript. I am still excited by what I've written--I just wasn't as excited while I was writing it.

Maybe what I was experiencing was due to a lack of improvisation in the writing relative to the earlier books in the series. As much as I value spontaneity and allowing a manuscript to morph, the reality is some constraints are inevitable when writing a fourth book. So, many of the plot points and character developments had already been conceived prior to the writing. There's a certain "buzz" I get when I conceive an idea. It's a creative high. When I'm writing from the seat of my pants, that high is ever-present. But when I'm writing previously fleshed out ideas, the high has faded and what's left is a workman-like joy at realizing the concepts with good, tight prose. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that.

The ebbs and flows of mood and inspiration seem to be mercurial. Looking back, I can't put a finger on exactly why I had this down period in my writing and then pulled out of it. The cause could have been the lack of writing improvisation, or maybe it was a side effect of something else going on in my life at the time. In fact, I can't be sure it won't come back. When I was younger I used to become very discouraged by losing inspiration during a project. I'd often bounce from new project to new project without finishing anything. It was very frustrating. At some point I realized that it's nearly always better to finish a project than to abandon it--even if the project is no longer viable or inspiring.

Ultimately, projects are units of work, and work is often something we do because we feel compelled to do it. It's true that work can also be fun. Work is fun when the tailwinds of creativity and inspiration are driving us forward. But it isn't always fun. Sometimes we are becalmed and unmotivated. Sometimes we even have to work in the face of adversity, which is like headwinds holding us back and retarding our progress.

There's probably been a lot written about how to create writing tailwinds. Maybe I should read some of it. But, for now, my stubborn approach seems to be keeping me moving.

The Hemlock Book Four manuscript stands at about 50,000 words. I am now getting into the meat of the final part of the story. I don't mean that I'm at the end of the manuscript but rather that I'm writing scenes I had always imagined as being part of the end of the overall story arc. They are epic almost by definition since they will prove to be pivotal to the outcome of the tetralogy. Hopefully they will be as exciting to read as they are to write! How can I say exciting to write given my topic in this post? Writing is always exciting--it's just the degree of excitement that varies sometimes. Writing=good!

I wish you all a happy and healthy 2015! Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Adding Flair

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I've been slowly writing my way through the fourth Hemlock novel, and approaching it in a methodical fashion.  I think there's a point when an author completes the outline of a plot for a novel and the exercise of writing the manuscript can become monotonous.  There's an acute risk of this happening if the writer doesn't allow for the plot and characters to morph and evolve around the planned outline and events.  This is why I always try to allow for these changes to emerge while I'm writing.  Sometimes this causes delays, but I think these detours are very important to the overall motivation of the author and the success of the writing process.

Another aspect of embracing this variability is making sure what gets written has the necessary detail and individuality in terms of setting and characterization.  Every scene needs to stand alone in the sense that it should be interesting, advance the plot and/or advance the character development.  It's easy to settle for executing a scene competently, but I always shoot for trying to write the scene with a certain "flair".

The word flair makes me think of the period in the history of chain restaurants where the wait staff was encouraged to wear innumerable buttons and other personal items.  This practice was later satirized in popular comedy.  There is such a thing as too much flair.  An example of this might be something like having dragons being ridden by dwarves in purple power armor.  Interesting?  Maybe... OK, probably...  But "spirited" to the point where it could negatively impact the atmosphere that's been established in your fantasy setting?  Yes, I'd say that would be a risk--unless your setting is a humorous, flamboyant fantasy/sci-fi hybrid.

Part of the work that goes into achieving this flair is trying to come up with a vivid visualization of a scene and then boiling the description down to an optimal level of detail that fires the imagination but doesn't become excessive and bog down the flow of the writing.  This is an area I've been trying to improve in my writing.

Here's an update on my work in progress!  The manuscript for Hemlock Book Four stands at around 45,000 words.  I am in the midst of writing an exciting quest/action sequence and the overall narrative is approaching what appears to be a climactic encounter.  Note the word "appears" in the preceding sentence.  I still envision this novel being at least 100,000 words before all is said and done.  The thought has crossed my mind that I could go the way of popular movie franchises and release the novel in two parts.  I always despair that my slow writing might cause people to forget about me between releases!  But I'm still reluctant to split this novel into parts because this tale does not divide cleanly.  I think the reader would be left unsatisfied.  But I always welcome your feedback!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Belief Systems and Fantasy

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about the origins of belief systems.  We talked about how early humans created deities based on what they observed in the physical world around them. They saw the power of the sun to deliver light and warmth and worshiped it as a God.  They developed a familiarity with the land they lived on and soon worshiped it as the manifestation of an Earth God.  In both cases they developed belief systems that gave them comfort and helped them to emotionally cope with the world around them.

Our modern world has many similar belief systems such as religion, law, ethics, and morality.  I've been thinking about why fantasy still seems relevant to me as adult with access to all of these other belief systems.  And I am starting to think pop culture has become the dominant new belief system--one that is "broadcast" on a daily basis to billions of people around the world.  Our novels, shows and movies embody the more formal underlying belief systems of law and morality.  Some overtly demonstrate these values, some challenge them, while others allude to them. 

Fantasy stories that are widely appreciated usually involve heroic quests undertaken by brave individuals who often make sacrifices in support of their ideals.  Other stories present deeply flawed protagonists--but they always have some virtuous characteristics.  A good story that we enjoy informs our lives.  Even if it seems like an escapist activity, immersing ourselves in a good story usually reinforces the dignity and importance of our own daily struggles.

Fantasy is perhaps the greatest form of storytelling because it has the widest latitude.  A fantasy can paint any scenario--completely unfettered by the boundaries of our reality.  Fantasies create their own reality--but the good ones do so in a way that echoes and reflects back on our own.  Without this aspect, a fantasy story becomes a silly account of the escapades of sword wielding primitives.  But with it a fantasy story can speak to the noblest and most sacred aspects of our existence.  

The word count on the Hemlock book four manuscript stands at around 40k.  I am hoping to accelerate my pace of writing, but I'm not sure my other responsibilities will allow it.  Hemlock is about to embark on a quest at this point in the story--and that's a fun part to write for me.  The political and interpersonal parts of the story are more challenging because you have to weave together many different threads.  Quests are often more constrained--the one I'm about to write certainly is.  That allows the author to just let the story flow.  And that is usually a great feeling!  Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying the fall (or whatever season it may be in your part of the world)!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fantasy 101 Anthology!

I am thrilled to announce that I will be part of the forthcoming Fantasy 101 Anthology!  This anthology brings the lead-in novels of four fantastic indie series together in one box set!  Think of it as an on ramp into four cool series.  And the best part is you get four full length novels for only 99 cents!  The anthology goes on sale tomorrow and is going to be promoted on iTunes via Smashwords.  If you are reading this you may already own Hemlock and the Wizard Tower--my entry into the anthology.  Even if you do, consider that you'd still be getting three novels for 99 cents.  I think it's a pretty strong value proposition.  The other authors are Jeffrey Poole (Lost City - Tales of Lentari Vol #1), Lindsay Buroker (Encrypted - Encrypted Series #1), and Steve Thomas (Klondaeg the Monster Hunter - Klondaeg #1).  It is a noteworthy group and I am humbled to be a part of this with them!

Here is the iTunes link:   Link

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reality Engine

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I've been thinking about the nature of consciousness, lately, and reading some philosophy on the subject. I was initially drawn back into this line of thinking by an interesting argument about whether we are living in a computer simulation. This argument presupposes that you accept that the human brain and consciousness itself will eventually be modeled by the advanced computers of the future. I don't accept that line of thinking myself (more on that below), but if you do accept it you can make a very interesting argument that you are living in a computer simulation of reality rather than a "real" physical reality.

The argument goes something like this. Assuming future humans design future computers that are powerful enough to model the functions of the human brain, chances are, given the nature of computing power becoming constantly more powerful and affordable, there will be numerous simulations of reality being run. So, simply based on probability, if there are X number of simulated realities and only one physical reality then as X increases the odds of you living in a "real" physical reality diminish rapidly.

The notion that consciousness is an emergent behavior of the physical matter of our bodies and not a separate phenomenon seems to be the vogue idea amongst scientists and philosophers these days. At least, that seems to be the prevalent viewpoint I'm reading and hearing expressed on the internet. While I find the arguments for this to be interesting, I don't subscribe to them. I certainly listen to them, though, because the people making them are often very, very intelligent.

But I believe in the concept of dualism, which advances the theory that there is a soul and consciousness is (at least partially)separate from physical reality. Now, I consider myself to be a proponent of empirical reality versus faith based takes on reality, so you may wonder how I can accept this notion of dualism.

 If you accept that consciousness can be modeled by a computer then aren't you accepting that free will is essentially an illusion and we are all deterministic machines? Doesn't that crush the notions of morality and liberty and lead one down the path to nihilism? Beyond the philosophical arguments, life just feels too significant to me for me to believe it's just a mechanical procession of sensations and predictable reactions. Perhaps that's just my survival instinct or ego talking, but I believe that life is critically important and part of a path of spiritual evolution for all beings.

One thing that has fascinated me about this theory of living in a computer simulation, however, is how this could be true if we accept the theory of dualism. In my mind, these two theories don't have to be mutually exclusive. Any computer simulation has data about data. This is called meta-data, and it's not observable from within the simulation itself--it exists outside the simulation but governs behaviors inside the simulation. I think this is how theories of additional dimensions outside of human perception might integrate with the computer simulation theory.

 And what is a computer other than a computational engine? Why wouldn't a deity use a computational engine to create a subordinate reality like ours? After all, something has to enforce the physical laws of our universe. The mathematics of the world are perfect. It's not incompatible with the notion of the divine to consider that we could be living in a reality of divine origin created using a divine computer.

These are big ideas and have been the subject of many books and papers. If you are interested in these topics, please read up on them and forgive me any shortcomings that may exist in my explanations of them.

The word count on Hemlock book four stands at about 36,000 words. At risk of being redundant, I must comment that I am having a blast writing this book! Writing a series finale means that you are writing scenes with very significant events occurring. And that is always fun!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Strange Evolutions

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Life is full of strange evolutions.  At one point in your life you might find yourself shaking your fist at authority and later in life you may become an authority yourself.  As a man, you could spend your youth trying to decode the enigma that is woman, and later become the father of a daughter.  In our youth, we might shake our heads in disgust at the seemingly anachronistic habits of the elderly, but as we get older perhaps we start to develop those habits ourselves.

Maybe hypocrisy is built into life as a means for the universe to keep our egos in check.  It seems like many strong stances I've taken over the years have devolved and turned on their head as I've gotten older.  Some examples of changing points of view in my life have been liberalism vs. conservatism, appetite for country music, opinion on the desirability of red-heads, level of passion for gummy bears...  The list goes on and on.

But some old behaviors die hard.  I've always loved video games.  For the first thirty five years of my life, every time I went to the shopping mall I invariably veered toward the video game shop.  To quote some vernacular from a past life: "it had to be done."  But a lot has changed in the gaming space over the years.  Now, I play predominantly PC games and I buy my games from the Steam online store.  I still feel the pull to go into the mall game store, but when I do I mostly just mill about, deflect an inquiry from a youthful employee and then leave slightly dissatisfied.  Maybe I should buy a gaming console so I can experience the sensation of a physical gaming purchase again.  I miss that.

What is the fashionable ratio of anachronism vs. youthful behavior for a middle-aged person?  I've been asking myself this question, lately.

I went to a party recently where a middle aged man got stumbling drunk.  It was quite humorous in one sense, but it bothered me, too.  On the humorous side, it reminded me of the primal joy of having a party produce a memorable event.  So many parties with mature hosts end up being rather mundane.  It's a shame that my definition of a memorable event is often someone making a fool out of themselves.  I'm sure there are other classes of memorable events--although I can't think of any at the moment.  Hmmm...  Anyway, it was entertaining to watch this person make a fool out of themselves--and do it with exuberant moxy.  Think of the charms of the Animal House movie and you'll get the idea.

The dark side of this behavior was the following.  First, this man's pre-teen boy was at the party and had to witness this behavior.  Second, such behavior suggests either the lack of a personal code of conduct or a breaking of that code.  One thing I don't know is what the surrounding context of this event was.  This man was a stranger to me.  Maybe he'd just survived a plane crash and was embracing the devil may care attitude of an unlikely survivor.  Or maybe his code of conduct includes getting heavily intoxicated and falling into muddy streams and thrashing about.  How you'd react to that being a part of his code is a bit of a litmus test for the type of person you are, I suppose.

So, what is the appropriate line between anachronism and exuberance for someone in middle age?  I guess it's a decision every person has to make for themselves.

Progress on Hemlock book four has slowed a bit over the past weeks
due to some competing priorities, but I will be getting back in gear this week.  Word count stands at about 31,000.  I'm still experiencing a buzz from getting to write scenes I envisioned over five years ago.  It's an amazing blessing that I've gotten this far and that I am going to finish this quadrilogy.  Thanks for reading and I hope you are having a wonderful summer!