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!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Superflying Doubt!

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I've decided to break from my normal writing routine and try something different.  I usually blog in the evenings after work, but, lately, I've found that my fatigue level is too high in the evenings to do much of anything that requires concentration.  So, I'm taking a writing session away from working on the new Hemlock novel to write this.

It's important to at least nominally stay in touch with readers and interested parties via this blog.  I have to admit that my inclination lately has been to crawl into a hole and just write.  While that's potentially a good approach from a productivity standpoint, nobody is going to notice my books if I just write in solitude.  I have to get at least some exposure.  And this blog is one of the main vehicles I use for that.  Not updating for too long is probably a very bad thing.

So, here I am, in my usual lunch spot--untethered from the numbing fatigue of the evenings.  Now, I reflect on some of the recent happenings in my life...

I got stranded in Charlotte, NC recently and had to spend the night in the airport.  That was an interesting experience.  I was surprised and amused by the readiness people displayed to fall asleep in public amongst their fellow travelers.  Initially, it was just a few brazen souls asleep against the wall of the terminal concourse.  But, as the hours wore on and fatigue took hold, folks began to congregate in odd, slumbering clusters.  It had a primal quality to it--almost like there was a feeling of security in sleeping amongst the anonymous, adhoc airport tribe.

Eventually, I succumbed to Mr. Sandman myself.  I laid under a row of airport seats--which are cunningly crafted to prevent stretching out by all but those who are slender to the point of deformity.  Strangely, this partial cover made me feel a bit more secure falling asleep amongst total strangers.  And maybe that wasn't just a feeling.  Imagine, for a moment, that the airport terminal was assaulted by a horde of arena wrestlers descending on zip lines and then releasing at a height of twenty feet to superfly the hapless, sleeping travelers below them.  In that scenario, I--one of the smart ones--might have avoided being superflied because half of my torso was under a steel chair.  Or perhaps my wrestler would have been injured and my triumph of ingenuity would have inspired an angry counterattack by the suddenly awakened airport denizens!  Huzzah for planning!

Other than the airport incident, not too much has been happening.  I've had a few feelings of complete inadequacy as a fantasy author while watching Game of Thrones on HBO.  But, then, I came to the realization that Martin uses a technique that I employ--character simulation.  That realization felt like an unlikely validation of my approach to writing.  So, rather than rebooting my writing, I think I just need to stick with it and continue to improve.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  I did--for a fleeting instant of terrible self-doubt--consider not finishing the Hemlock series.  What a bullshit thought that was!  Not finishing a creative project is always the worst possible outcome--no matter what rationalizations you use to sugar coat it.  Sometimes it gets discouraging because I'm not getting the auto-magic exposure and sales I was enjoying for a few years.  But I figure it this way.  There will always be time for marketing--especially once I have a full series under my belt.  And then when I move on to my next project I'll have a back catalog.  How cool will that be?  Very cool.  So, yes, I'm human... I have doubts sometimes.  But, fortunately, I talked myself out of any rash action.  Ultimately, I love writing and I love the Hemlock series.  That's really all that matters.  And maybe having a writing routine is a little like sleeping under that row of airport seats.  It provides an important bit of cover when doubt tries to superfly you!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Change Reaction

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I've blogged about this before, but sometimes I get a terrible feeling of restlessness.  My greatest desire in these moments of anxiety is to change something.  Part of me yearns for a sense of adventure that seems lacking in my life.  But adventures are usually risky, and I am in a risk averse period of my life right now.  But this feeling or force in me keeps searching for an outlet.  Will I give in to the urge and make a frivolous purchase or take an unwise action for the sake of making a change?

There's a buzz that goes along with novelty.  There is a line from Frank Herbert's Dune that describes the importance of change.  "Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.  The sleeper must awaken."  The trouble is I'm not sure if I'm asleep or awake!  I used to enjoy the risks of startup tech companies, but it seems like life is fraught with peril in today's economy--especially as a middle aged worker.  I'm also not big on risking my life in dangerous sports.  I'm a father and I have a responsibility to stay alive.  So thrill seeking is out.

They say organisms have a natural tendency to grow and expand.  But unchecked growth and expansion can kill an organism.  Organisms can exceed their environment's ability to sustain them or encounter unexpected predators.  Is the most difficult thing in modern life to try and control the impulse to always expand?  Or perhaps the trick is to focus the expansion and growth inward and away from the material world?

I am someone that prides myself on being somewhat wise, but I am constantly surprised by how misguided I am.  The anecdote about wisdom leading to humility must be true.  We are all like spinning tops bumping around on a table.  We lurch back and forth between life's events.  The choices are bewildering and our spins carry a lot of inertia.  Plus we're all scared to fall over--but we all do in the end.

This world is so chaotic that I think a person needs to be their own psychologist in order to stay on an even keel.  I suspect the people that seem to be the most together in this life are the people with the greatest level of self-awareness.  Maybe that's the real meaning of Herbert's quote.  The awakening he refers to could be awakening into self-awareness.  Our daily routines tend to dull our self-awareness.  If I can't make large scale changes to my life then maybe I can make a lot of small ones.  I do notice that I'm usually refreshed by doing something different.  Perhaps that's the key.  Making changes in small, manageable ways and staying refreshed and renewed in the process.

The current word count on the Hemlock Book IV manuscript is about 18,000.  I'm feeling good about the story and staying productive within my writing routine.  I'm getting to some exciting scenes that I'm dying to talk about but can't.  I'm also having additional ideas about existing scenes and that's always rewarding.  These are the ideas that take a solid scene and make it noteworthy.

I'm still planning to continue my posts on gaming as a metaphor for life.  I decided to just write this blog post by the seat of my pants instead of doing something more regimented.  But I will continue that series very soon.  I hope you are having a wonderful beginning to spring!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Losing Control and Gaining Sanity

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We lost power last week and I had an interesting experience roughing it.  When we first lost power, I spent several hours setting up the small generator we have and running extension cords into the house.  I had a devil of a time starting that generator.  I eventually had to get some ether to turn it over, but I didn't figure that out until I had tried a couple hundred pulls and injured my shoulder in the process. But I got it going, and then I had a space heater running in one room.  That one room was tolerably warm, but the rest of the house was very cold.  There's nothing quite like sleeping in a cold house to put things in perspective.  And getting out of your warm bed and going out into the cold, snowy night to check on a stalled generator at 4am puts an awful lot of things into perspective!

I know a lot of people hated losing power, but I found the experience to be oddly cathartic.  It was a break from the normal routine and it imposed some physical hardship that re-focused the daily pleasures we take for granted.  When the power came back after about thirty hours, I felt renewed and refreshed.  Every part of my normal (warm!) routine was now a joy.  Alas, this feeling of bliss only lasted about a week.  But, on the bright side, we may lose power again tomorrow.  I look forward to the incoming "Nor'easter" storm with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  I don't really want to lose power, but my soul might need to.

Maybe this positive take away from losing power is telling me I need to plan some camping trips or other outings to get away from modern civilization and its myriad of tempting and mind-numbing conveniences.  I'm still parsing the whole experience (and there may be more data to collect tomorrow), but this is my early conclusion.

I've been reading some varied books lately.  I've read books about alien abductions, men in black and government conspiracies.  I've also read a book about the American campaign in western Europe in World War II, and now I'm reading a medical drama set in east Africa.  It's a diverse set of topics.  The modus operandi here is people give me books as gifts and I read them when I need a break from my usual genres.  I am enjoying the variety.  And it's nice to read something unusual and outside my normal comfort zone from time to time.

Work on Hemlock book four is proceeding at my usual slow but steady pace.  This novel will hopefully be the Magnum opus of my writing life.  Actually, it may end up being the Magnum opus of my life.  It's hard to see past this book and this series.  I have a couple of book ideas waiting in the wings, but the Hemlock books are different.  In addition to being pure adventure stories, they represent nothing less than a distillation of the sum of my total life experience up to this point.  And by that I mean there is a spectrum of ideas from the various epochs of my own evolution as a person "baked" into these tales.  I think the first novel has parallels to a figurative representation of my teens and twenties.  That book was like a creative explosion of writing energy built up over decades of dormancy.  The sequel was still frantic in parts, but it was more measured and thoughtfully constructed--maybe like my thirties?  The third book is too soon out of the gate for me to put a finger on where it will fit.  I think it's the first book where I had to start weaving the story toward a conclusion as opposed to introducing new elements.  Is that a parallel to middle age?  This fourth book is bringing it all home, and it's building toward pivotal scenes I imagined many years ago and will finally be able to write.  The melody from "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) comes to mind.  This is probably hubris but it's no coincidence.  I'm swinging for the fences on this one!

The next installment of my "Gaming as a Metaphor for Life" series should be posted soon!  Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gaming as a Metaphor for Life

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The following is the first post in a blog series I'll be writing about the parallels between real life and video games.  I used to be a big gamer, and I applied many of the concepts I learned in games to advance myself in real life.  How, you ask?  Read on!
I used to be a person that was crippled by social anxiety--a person who was more comfortable interacting with machines than other living, breathing people.  I loved video games--probably to a fault!  I still love them, as a matter of fact.  But my love for them is now as much sentimental as it is based on current experience.  I've evolved into a different place in my life.  Games don't hold the same meaning for me anymore, but I do still love them!

When I played video games as a kid it felt like I became everything I wanted to be in the real world.  I was bold!  I was powerful!  I took risks and they paid off!  Even though games were comparatively crude in my formative years, they still managed to be incredibly immersive to me.  This was an era before I fully understood computers.  Somehow, as the years have gone by, my understanding of the nuts and bolts of computers has diminished my sense of wonder about them.  But, back in my youth they were the stuff of dreams.  These plastic boxes created virtual realities, and in my mind they were boundless.  I had no sense of the constraints of the simulations.

As I got older something about the games began to bleed over into my real life.  I realized that the power I felt in video games could become power in the real world if I was able to properly direct my thoughts.  The decisions I made in the games were made in the absence of the crippling anxiety I often experienced in real life.  If I could be cold and calculating in a game, could I learn to be that way in real life?  I began to suspect that I could!

One of the immediate effects of this "transformation" was that I started to become bolder in real life.  I began this process by mapping certain stressful situations into video game parallels.  This taught me to do empirical risk analysis in the real world.  I learned that I could apply the same cold logic I'd apply to a battle in one of the old gold box RPGs to a decision about taking a risky new job with a big increase in salary.  Before I crossed this chasm of self doubt, I probably would have been too fearful to risk a voluntary plunge into an unknown scenario.  But I became confident enough to take a chance, had a few successes, and suddenly realized that I loved the freshness of new experiences.  The fear of change left me completely.

If you are a young gamer, I want you to think about how you behave when you play video games.  I'm not talking about killing spree/rampage games like GTA, here.  I'm talking about games with tactical and strategic elements that require care and planning for success.  Realize that your life isn't that much different than a game like this.  Sure, it's a bigger stage, so to speak, but many of the behavioral concepts are similar--especially when you have to devote a real world resource like your precious time to achieve an in-game goal.  Empirical risk analysis is one of the key parallels, here.  When a decision presents itself in the real world try to take a step back from any emotion you may feel.  Pretend you have a re-spawn in your back pocket.  What would you do?  If your answer surprises you, then take a hard look at the risks associated with that course of action.  Are you young?  It's best to take risks when you are young!  But they should be calculated risks!  And you need to understand the risk/reward associated with any risky decision.

This isn't the full story, of course.  You'll want to read about my next parallel between gaming and real life which is that real life is like a level grind.  Watch this blog for the next installment of this series!  Thanks for reading!