Saturday, April 30, 2011

Good vs. Great Writing

If you read my previous post, you may have noticed that I referred to a book called "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence. T.E. Lawrence is more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia. I recently started to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I was immediately struck by the excellent writing that Lawrence exhibits.

I am feeling inspired by this masterwork, and I am trying to analyze what constitutes great writing. I think that good writing is clean, concise and communicative. Great writing takes good writing to another level. Great writing often exhibits exceptional use of uncommon words that communicate with more vigor and precision than more common words. Great writing also uses simile and metaphor to engage the reader's imagination. Attempting great writing can be perilous for a writer, because these more advanced techniques tend to have the opposite of their intended effect if they are not executed properly.

My goal as a writer is to continuously improve my craft. My specific goal for the second book is to make it better than the first--especially in the area of the writing (considered distinctly from the quality of the story, which I expect to be at least comparable to that of the first book).

I will post some impressions of Seven Pillars of Wisdom once I complete it. If you don't know much about Lawrence of Arabia, it's worth a quick read of the Wiki page, at the very least. He is one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Placeholder Clothes

Wow. I just typed a blog entry that was spectacularly munched by blogger. Never ignore a stuck "saving..." button. Well, if T.E. Lawrence can rewrite Seven Pillars of Wisdom in one week after losing a near complete manuscript, then I sure as hell can retype four paragraphs.

I finally figured out the clothing for a significant new character in the next Hemlock novel. I fear that this may be the type of mundane miscellany that could make for a boring blog post. I apologize in advance of that's true.

But this actually was a significant milestone for me. That's because these clothes weren't merely a happenstance fashion selection by this character. These clothes reflect the culture of a society that is being introduced for the first time. I thought of an initial idea for the clothes, but it just didn't feel right to me. So the issue stuck in the back of my head for months. I was paging through some wiki pages this week when I spotted a historical photo that just clicked for me. This was the missing piece of the clothing puzzle for this imaginary culture.

I had mentally referred to the initial outfit as "placeholder clothes". Since I don't hang out with a lot of writers (er, actually, I do, but for some reason we are usually gaming and not talking about writing when we are together), I don't really encounter situations to talk to other people about "placeholder clothes". Thank God for the Internet (and blogs).

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Villains and Villainy

I was enjoying the second installment of the HBO series Game of Thrones last night. I found myself feeling quite antagonistic toward a number of characters. After the episode, I started to think about why I was feeling such a hatred for these now established villains. What I found notable was not the animosity itself, but the degree of it that I was experiencing.

I have identified three acts of villainy that have occured in the show thus far, and have considered their impact on my emotions as I watched. The first is adults acting deceptively toward and manipulating children. I think that this act alone will usually cement an audience against a villain.

The second act that I noticed was violence against animals--and in this case against a beautiful and cute animal. As has often been said, people can be more sympathetic toward animals than people, since they are, for the most part, intrinsically innocent. Watching this act produced an even higher level of animosity in me. I started thinking in terms of violent revenge at this point.

The third act was outright violence against a child by an adult. (You would think that this is about as far down the path of evil that a villain can go. And I'd agree with you, were it not for an even higher degree of villainy that I've run into in certain novels: torture of children. I refuse to read any books containing torture of children. I've put down otherwise good novels because of it.) To put it metaphorically, once I watched this bit of villainy, I put away my mental dagger, and took out my mental battle axe.

So, there you have three distinct acts of villainy, ordered in increasing levels of my reaction to them. Game of Thrones has already used all three! After watching last night's episode, I was left feeling very unfulfilled. I'm not sure it's good for an episodic show to ramp up that much revenge tension in the first few episodes. Will they be able to maintain this level of tension? And how long can you string an audience along as they are frothing at the mouth for vengeance?

I haven't had any concrete villains in my Hemlock storyline (that were core to the plot) so far. I have used violence against animals in one scene, however. Still, I prefer painting in shades of grey rather than black. Game of Thrones does have me thinking about villains, though. Specifically, it has me thinking about what level of villainy is most satisfying to a reader. I suppose that villainy is something like a spice used by a chef. It needs be used judiciously because either a lack of it or an overabundance of it will likely cause problems.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Finished Chapter One

I did some writing today, and I completed Chapter One of the new Hemlock book, which now has a working title of "Hemlock and the Dangerous Depths". I'm not sure whether that title will stick, but I like it so far.
I'm tempted to release the new chapter as part of a Sample Sunday or by some other means, but I probably need to temper my enthusiasm. There's a lot of ground to cover on this novel, and the chapter will probably need some revision at some point. But there's a voice inside of me going: "So what? Just release it now. If you have to revise it later, then so be it."
We'll have to see which "side" wins out, but, as you can probably infer, I'm fairly excited about making some concrete progress.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The King Archetype

The King is an important archetype in myth. It symbolizes leadership, adherence to ideals, and stern discipline. The Queen serves this role equally well. Joseph Cambell wrote about the roles of the King and the Warrior as they exist in the myths of many cultures. I think that these archetypes are still resonant in our culture today, although their trappings (and their struggles) have changed.

On a personal level, many people struggle to connect with their inner Kings or Queens. Until they do so, they are like tumbleweeds, being continually blown to and fro by the winds of fear and desire (the sources of suffering according to Buddhism). Some people are in touch with their inner "regents", but have not connected with their warrior spirit that enables them to fight against adversity, and to live by the rules that their Kings or Queens set forth. This usually results in self loathing that can be very destructive.

On a tribal level, aspiring Kings and Queens now wear business attire and wield laptops and briefcases. Their challenge is to realize their potential as leaders in this modern age. Modern leaders no longer wield absolute power by default. Most are beholden to processes and forces that periodically measure their performance against short term goals. It is the rare leader that earns enough credibility to assume the mythical role of the King, which is to lead with absolute authority. I think it's fair to say that we have a shortage of true Kings and Queens in the world.

The theme of the pursuit of a King or Queen is one that I'm thinking about for the subsequent Hemlock stories.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Never Give a Wizard a Glow-Stick

I was like Will Farrell on ecstasy, jamming on a glo-stick at a rave. I realized tonight that I went nuts with the glow effect on my map. So, in a rare exercise in restraint, I've gone back and removed most of the glow.

Initially I was just thrilled that the map didn't look terrible. Now I'm starting to look at it more objectively. It doesn't really look like a hand drawn scroll map, which seems to be the best look that I've seen for fantasy maps. It has a semi-"Legend of Zelda" vibe going on. Maybe not a bad thing, but I've seen better. I may go back to the drawing board and see if I can do something in Campaign Cartographer's vector mode. Trouble is, the out of the box vector "clip art" selection seemed weak to me. And I was hoping to resist going nuts with the add-ons.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hemlock and the Wizard Tower Map

Here is the map. It looks better zoomed in. The zoomed in version is approximately the resolution that it would have on an e-reader. It's a little busy, but I think it holds up OK. I will post more about the map soon, including some more perspective on creating it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A day of mapping

I spent my time working on mapping today. I am using a tool called Campaign Cartographer. Last weekend I had watched some video tutorials, and had taken a stab at a first map. When I went back to that map today, I wasn't totally happy with it.

So I decided to start a new map and try to learn more about the product. After some initial frustration, I finally started to get the hang of it--at least on a basic level that should allow me to produce maps that I'm satisified with. Some aspects of the interface are not very intuitive. For instance, I am still not sure how to select and move something within a layer or sheet.

I am currently working on my fifth map, and I think this one may be a keeper. I'd estimate that it's about 60-70% done. I just figured out how to create text along a curve, and now I'm trying to figure out how to apply glow and other filters to text. The key breakthrough for me was figuring out sheets (which are like super-layers).

It's been pretty fun to see the terrain features from my imagination crystalize on the map. It actually pulled me a little closer to the world. For instance, as I was drawing the Elite district of the City from the story, I actually felt a little resentful that their large, nice homes took up so much space around Hemisphere Lake, when I know that their population is less than the smaller, run down Warrens section.

This brings up one key value proposition of CC: the clip art. You get a pretty nice selection of clip art--enough to make nearly any type of map. This includes terrain features as well as buildings. I'll tell you what though: you still want more. The company offers several packages of clip art updates, and I definitely see the appeal. In fact, if you were to purchase their entire suite of clip art, you could rack up over $800. It's crazy, but I see the temptation.

I hope to have an example map to post soon. I'm a little reluctant to post any works in progress.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Are we there yet?

I've written the introductory parts of the next Hemlock story, but none of the serious action has been written yet. It almost feels like all of the characters have packed their things, have piled into a figurative wood-paneled station wagon, and are ready to embark on their next great adventure. I suppose that the image of a "family truckster" isn't really appropriate for the fantasy genre, but the thought made me chuckle a bit this morning, so I thought I would share it.

It's a different feeling this time around to have planned the story (up to) three books out. While there's bound to be forks in the road, I'm much more certain of the final destination this time around. Rather than operating in the mode of "just get in the car and drive", this time around there is a pretty good route planned. My excitement is now about realizing my vision as opposed to discovering the story and the characters. But it's still pretty exciting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finally writing

I've been uneasy for several days now, and I realized tonight that I just had to do some writing. It is not the best time for it (should be asleep now), but I feel an inner peace now that should help me sleep better at least. I got some pretty good stuff down for the new Hemlock story.

It's interesting how I think of myself as being introspective, yet I so typically find myself out of touch with what seems (in retrospect) to be a clear cause and effect situation. Cause: unrealized creative energy, effect: uneasy me, resolution: write, dammit!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Started a map

I started a map yesterday. I am using a product called Campaign Cartographer. I sort of splurged on it and got their world builder bundle, which features the base product, a dungeon mapper, a city mapper and a fractal terrain generator. I'm not sure whether I really need all of those products, but the bundle name called to I answered the call.

I had watched their tutorial videos on their website, so I figured I would jump in and see what I could do. Well, I felt a bit lost at first. But I managed to stumble through it and now I have something that may develop into a final map.

The key value proposition for the software in my mind is the way it allows you to draw with curves and then fills in details for you, the glow effect that it has (which seems like it is the cornerstone of many appealing effects), and the rich library of symbols that it offers. The layering system that it uses (called sheets) is also useful because it creates a sensible set of layers by default, and then provides a nice interface to manage and interact with them. Keep in mind that I'm not a photoshop whiz, so I can't really say whether a product like this would be justifiable for that type of person.

So far I've got a basic continent layed out, and I have filled in the northern desert area. Next will be the western Witch Crags region, eastern mountains and southern plains. After that I'll add rivers and then the next adventure will begin: the City itself. I'm not sure how integrated the City builder and basic product are, so that will be a new frontier for me. At worst I could do them separately and combine them in a paint program, but I am hoping for better integration than that.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Flesh on the bones

Ideas continue to come to me about the next Hemlock story. I am very anxious to get back to writing, but part of me is a bit hesitant because the flow of ideas that are fleshing out and refining the story has been fairly continuous.

I also have some side projects that are competing for my time: map making and compiling a glossary of names and places. Both of these will be nice resources for readers to have--especially for those coming into the second story who may have forgotten some of the details from the first.

In fact, I'm trying to resist going "nuts" with maps. I'm going to have this cool mapping software, so maybe I should make maps for everything! Wahoo! I'll have to make sure I don't go overboard. But maps are pretty neat.

Part of creating this second Hemlock story has been exploring areas of the first story that were only peripheral. One example of this is religion. At one point in Hemlock and the Wizard Tower I mention a church, but I don't elaborate on it at all. What is the role of religion in the City? You'll find out in the next story.

That's another challenge though: how to weave in all of these additional details without making it into a history book. Hemlock and the Wizard Tower was praised and criticised for being detailed. I want to flesh out the world, but I need to do it in a way that truly engages the reader.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What are your foundations?

Do you have things in your life that are your foundations? By this I mean are there aspects of your life that underpin your grip on reality, your ability to be who you are, and perhaps even your sanity?

How many people in Japan were loosed from their metaphysical moorings as they watched their entire lives washed away in dramatic fashion? Charlie Sheen is another example of a person that seems to have lost his way.

So much of modern life is based on structure. Seemingly every situation has a prescribed set of behaviors deemed appropriate for it. Rituals exist to try to guide people along life's transitions, but what happens when people forsake these rituals, or circumstances thrust such dramatic change upon them that there simply aren't any social supports to fall back on?

This is a question and a theme that has been on my mind lately. Sometimes I wonder whether we don't all have monsters lurking inside of us, chained up by the restraints of society and our perception of what is real. TV is real. Those intense feelings that you're experiencing? Maybe they're unreal? Because if society doesn't have a nice little box with a label to put them in, then what are they?

Monsters aren't frightening simply because they threaten physical safety, but because they challenge a victim's fundamental notion of reality. All of the structure that the person's mind has relied on for guidance is suddenly shattered like plate glass. The monster tries to seize control of the victim's mind.

I've seen real acts of heroism and bravery. It doesn't take a sword and magic to be a hero. What is heroic is looking into the face of a terrible monster, knowing that it is in control, accepting its control, and by doing so taking away its control on a more fundamental level. People who can do this realize that true foundations of inner strength can be indestructable if they are built strong and deep.

Here's hoping that none of us are confronted by a terrible trial; but that if we are that we are able to confront it heroically.

A nemesis develops

A character in the next Hemlock installment that I had seen being a longer term enemy is evolving into a shorter term nemesis. This is partially because I think that the next book (of what is intended to be a trilogy of sequels) needs a strong enemy with a conflict that can be brought to a "resolution" within the first volume. Nobody likes a story with an unsatisfying ending, right?

I did get a flash of inspiration for a plot arc on this path, so I think that I am heading in the right direction. Still, I need to get writing again. Real life has intruded on my writing time over the past few weeks. It's a real bummer, but the creative energy is building up, and (hopefully) when I finally do sit down to write, my fingers will be flying, and lots of good writing will be the end result.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hemlock and the Sewer Creature

The new book is really coming together. I don't think it will be a problem to reveal a glimpse of the plot. It's going to be about Hemlock's struggle with waste management in the City. It turns out that, unbenownst to everyone, the wizards were the primary source of magical waste removal. When the magic wanes, Hemlock is forced to come to grips with trash in the streets and, even more menacingly, sewer backups.

She leaps into action as usual, wielding her sabres to cut through municipal red tape, and even showing how her signature whirlwind of death move can condense a field full of trash in mere minutes. But what is lurking in that backed up sewer, having collected years and years of excess magic in its dark, malevolent stomach?

I hope that you are as excited as I am about this next installment of Hemlock's adventures. Look for it to release on 4/1/2012.