Distraction Fodder

If a quote doesn't do it for you, a pic of some Avengers might.

If a quote doesn’t do it for you, a pic of some Avengers might.

A friend posts numerous resources for writers, and this one caught my eye.

I know I need the occasional shot in the brain from a good quote to remind me to get writing. How about you?

Here’s 72 of them, loaded and ready to battle my insecurity or procrastination. (Or maybe to cause more distraction from writing.)

If you like this, you might like my friend’s other resources. Check out @DebrasBlog on them there Twitters.

World History 101

There’s a world of difference between ‘The northern bandits are attacking’ and ‘The northern bandits are attacking… again.’

a recent article related to D&D

 

In fantasy and otherworldly settings, one of the pressures always lurking in the background is the need to convey a cohesive and “real” world. Thought should be given to the culture, the society, the religion or lack thereof. Even though there may never be a need to include it in the story, the writer should have a good sense of the history that shaped the setting. With that preparation, tidbits of information can be sprinkled into the story, giving the sense that the reader is stepping out of this life and into another life just as rich and vibrant as our own.

Without this, the reader may feel dropped into a pocket universe from Doctor Who, a tiny bubble of space and time separated from everything else.

The action of the story should be the most interesting moment in the fictional world’s timeline. However, it can’t be the only one.

Robert Jordan, in my mind, was a master of this sort of world-building. Subtle details pepper The Wheel of Time, like the names of the inns, the titles of various sword-fighting techniques, and the terms different cultures use for key elements.

As a musician, one of my favorite methods Jordan used was the addition of song as an expression of history and culture. Whether by name or by poetic lyrics, Jordan conveyed interesting ideas about the world his characters occupied. That enabled his readers to occupy the world as well.

Thanks to the encouragement of my critique group, I’ve been working on the long-intended rewrite of the story that got me started. (I put a hundred thousand words into the keyboard, then determined there were so many issues I wanted to fix that it would be easier to start over. If that’s not bad enough, I left my reviewer friend hanging on an unfinished sentence in the middle of a fight scene – a crime he will not let me live down.)

Chapter 5 is meant to introduce the main character to an Arcanist who presents a desirable alternative path, and introduce the reader to how “magic” works in the world. It also captures a bit of the background conflict between a harried village struggling to survive without adequate government support and the political powers using the few resources available to aid a separate allied nation to the north.

I planned for the Arcanist to put on a display to lift the spirits of the people (and to some extent, remind them who’s in control). As I prepared to write the chapter, I realized it would be fun to have the Arcanist present a bit of history to explain why precious resources are being “wasted” on that northern nation. And why shouldn’t that be done in song? The guy is already giving a performance.

So I found myself writing a ballad. And it hit me, if I’m going to try to write a poem that has the rhythm of a song, maybe I ought to actually write a song. That ensures it feels right.

But how is it a part of the history and culture? Simple: it needs an interesting title, and perhaps a sense of background. A few centuries ago, many songs (particularly church hymns) were popular tunes rewritten to tell the intended story. The song is a minor key, and the ballad is about a city under siege all winter.

Image taken from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lute

Image taken from Wikipedia at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lute

With that in mind, I picture the Arcanist turning to a lute player in the village, asking, “How is your rendition of Bride’s Elegy?” as though that’s a well-known song.

“Middling at best, my Lord,” he’ll respond.

“Sufficient, I’m sure,” the Arcanist answers, and the lute player strums the strings.

Plus, I like that title for a mournful melody.

So here’s the song: a ballad called Through the Winter, sung to the tune of Bride’s Elegy.

Even if no one ever learns all the history that shapes the world I write, it’s worth the effort to incorporate that. A little bit of preparation and imagination goes a long way in achieving the goal: transporting the reader from this world and inviting them into the world in the writer’s mind.

Backstory

I am working on a project for my main blog, which (among other things) incorporates tabletop gaming with family and friends as a recurring topic. A friend started a group for the purpose of trying out the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Next, the newest version of D&D currently in the playtesting stage.

I made a character for our adventures, but we never got to flesh out his story. My friend asked some questions and I thought about what I wanted to incorporate, which got me thinking about developing characters in our writing.

The worst thing one can say about characters in a given piece of fiction is that they are cardboard cutouts, one dimensional and overdone examples of something everyone has seen before. We want to write about real people, because the real people who read our work want someone they can relate to or at least find believable.

The mustache-twirling villain out to destroy the city because “I’m eeevil” is a great example of the cardboard character. He has a temperamental cat that hisses at everyone, and he wears a long black trench coat and top hat. No doubt he shakes his fist at the hero and screams “Curses! Foiled again! I’ll get you next time!” simply because that’s what villains do.

That’s what we want to avoid. Similar to that, the hero with the rock-hard jaw and butt chin who fights for truth, justice, and the American way, for no reason other than because he’s perfect… lame.

This is why heroes like Spider-Man and Batman work. They’re flawed, and their flaws push them to do better. They’re haunted, and no matter how much they do in the present, the ghosts of the past are still whispering, urging them on in the face of overwhelming opposition.

When writing a character, I want to take time to get in their head. What inspires them? What do they fear? What past failure is driving them toward future success?

My friend asked me for backstory on this D&D Next character I created as a joke. He asked for family connections – who does Lamoncha still talk to, and who does he avoid? He brought up goals: What is Lamoncha trying to do with his life, and how does he plan to do it?

I wanted to take it a bit off course, and feed some backstory to my friend to work into the campaign. Taking some time to think about these questions led to an easy 500 words explaining Lamoncha’s place in the world. If I was writing his story, maybe none of this matters to the plot. But it matters to understanding how Lamoncha reacts to the world around him, and that makes the responses and actions I write within the story more real, more true to life, something the reader can either relate to or at least believe based on what they know of the character.

Take time to figure out the character before trying to write them. On top of many helpful exercises one might find, I would add those questions:
1) What connections does the character maintain to his past? What connections did he/she sever and why?
2) What aspirations does the character have, and what actions does he/she take or plan to achieve them?
3) What fears motivate the character? What inspires or compels them on the path they’ve chosen?
4) Who does the character look up to, and why? How do they strive to emulate this role model?

Answer that, and the character takes on some depth, some body, some realism in the context of the story.

Here’s Lamoncha’s backstory, if you’re interested:

Lamoncha comes from a very strict clan of wood elves, something like how we might view the Amish today. They eschew mechanics and most technology, preferring the druidic connection to nature. Most of what they “build” is through the use of sung wood, where treeherds commune with the living plants through meditation and chanting, persuading the trees to grow and take on the necessary shapes.

Life is precious to the clan, and so any effort that requires destroying life to advance a society or a technology is viewed as anathema. For example, the elves view with anger and hatred the environmental impact of mining (so necessary to the working of metals) and the creep of urban civilizations into nature’s domain.

They also lived a very communal life, where just about everyone in the clan is considered family. Lamoncha actually doesn’t have a clear family tree sorted out in his head, due to the unique (and perhaps inappropriate) convoluted relationships of the clan members. As a result, while he is happy to be away from his home, he’s also unsure of how to adapt and relate to people in ‘normal’ societies, which contributes to his status as a loner.

He had a childhood friend Aerathiel who fled the clan as soon as she reached her 15th vernal equinox – the date the wood elves use to track age. She was forever in trouble for “outlandish” ideas and interest in things forbidden. She had a natural aptitude for magic and an interest in how magic and gearwork could be combined. When he left, he went to the nearest gnomes he could find in the hopes of tracking down “Rathie.”

Due to his frustration with his clan, Lamoncha has an outward hatred for druidic communities and orders. In addition, he figures they’re fairly connected, and he doesn’t want word of his whereabouts going back to his clan. He’d heard of some in the clan who were tasked with keeping the secrets of sung wood from getting into the outside world, for fear that opportunistic races might take advantage of it to force what they desire from plantlife. There are druids in the clan called the Coda, whose task it is to silence the song of any who might misuse the power they learned within the clan. Lamoncha wants nothing to do with them and fears they might hunt him if they knew where he was.

Finally, among the gnomes, there was one in particular to whom Lamoncha owes the greatest debt: Daneel Grixwin, the gearbinder Lamoncha served as apprentice. Daneel stood before the council of elders and made the original argument that Lamoncha should be taught, based not on trustworthiness but on an impassioned defense of the universal value of knowledge. Despite being over twice his height, Lamoncha looks up to Daneel as an individual possessed of great wisdom and insight.

Using Pain

From www.quotespedia.info

No image in the blog, no readers of the blog.

The quote isn’t news to anyone, I’m sure. But it is truth that we have to consider when we write. No one’s interested in a story without struggle, a character without conflict, a plot without pain.

If I want to move the reader, I think I ought to have been moved in a similar way in the past. Then I need to take that and pour all of it, unvarnished, unprettified, into the feelings and emotions of the character.

At our writer’s critique group, I’ve been submitting pieces of various stories, testing out how to write different magic systems or mechanics. If the non-fantasy-reader Christian ladies can make sense of what I write, and if they enjoy it, then I think I’m communicating clearly.

Last week I submitted yet another “Chapter 1” involving the outcast in a small village. My fellow writers connected with this character. They got her motivations, her feelings, her concerns. All said it was fantastic, a couple said it was the best they’d seen of my work thus far.

I have to think that’s because I borrowed from my real life experiences to glimpse how this character feels.

About a month ago, I had an evaluation at work, and I screwed up a couple of items. The overall grade was a passing score, but it felt like failure. I had to complete some additional training to get back up to speed before being allowed to work on my own.

When I went to work in the days following that failure, I would see grins on people’s faces and wonder, were they laughing at me? If a conversation stopped abruptly, or started up as soon as I left a room, were they talking about me? How did my friends and close coworkers feel about my grade? They all said nice things, but did they really mean it? After all, I’d seen this happen to other people before. I’ve probably talked about those other people.

Voices whispering, judgmental smirks, expressions of disappointment… these haunted me for days. To some extent, I still hear them by default.

I put all of this into my outcast character’s mind. I transcribed my thoughts in italics in her voice and put words to my fears.

And in doing so, I got the best feedback I’ve had thus far.

An assassin that can bend time, sure, that’s cool. Might be fun to read. A commoner thrust into the military machine because he has the power to hear the voice of the Elements, okay, fine. Seems interesting, maybe.

But everyone knows what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people, to hear laughter and know that it’s about me. That’s a character readers can relate to and understand.

Using painful experiences lets me lock the reader in on the main character’s heart. Then I can throw in cool powers and technology. Or not.

Either way, the critique story is getting a chapter 2 next time, not another chapter 1.

Character Issues

“We demand an ending! Our story’s worth defending!”

The Halfling chanted and waved a large cardboard sign as he stomped back and forth. His cloak and bandolier of throwing knives betrayed his profession – more than a burglar, darker than a common thief. The cherubic features of his face twisted in rage.

And he was not alone.

A reporter described the scene into the camera. “Creation in Crisis: Discontented characters on strike! This is Jessie Storm reporting live at the scene in the Unfinished Works folder, where several key members of various plotlines have come forward to express their displeasure.”

A warrior marched in full plate armor, the shaft of his sign tucked away under a tower shield that glimmered in the noonday sun. Behind him, an old man in a diner uniform hobbled with a cane, his voice croaking out the protest cry. “Our story’s worth defending!”

A person much like a wild-haired midget trundled along in the line, holding up a sign and staring in silence. His rattle shook with each step, issuing a faint shuuu-Ka. Next came a woman in gleaming armor, her icy blue eyes like scales weighing the hearts of the crowd. A woman in flowing robes trailed behind her, with eyes drooping down between furtive glances at the onlookers. 

A cloaked assassin stood off to the side. Jessie Storm approached and asked, “Miss, do you have any comment?”

“I saw this coming,” the assassin muttered. “And I already know they’re not going to change anything. The joys of seeing the future before it happens… I can identify and avoid lost causes… even the good ones.”

“That’s… depressing,” Jessie fumbled for words.

The assassin’s frustrations burst. “No, what’s depressing is being left trying to escape after a hit, standing in the middle of a busy street just because the Creator is caught up with some other idea at the moment.”

Jessie backed away and turned to the protestors. She knelt down to ask the midget, “And why are you here?”

He paused his march and locked eyes with the reporter. Then the woman in armor spoke. “He never says anything. Just plays that bone-rattle of his. I think he’s not right in the head.”

“Not surprising,” she added, “since – as I hear tell – the Creator left him aware of a source of great power that could satisfy his hunger, but never gave him the chance to take hold of it.”

“I can see how that might be maddening,” Jessie replied.

“No, maddening is being left unconscious in the middle of a fight, not sure if your friends even win the day.”

The shy woman behind her mumbled something, and the warrior woman spun around. “I know you say we were about to win, but I don’t know for sure. Can’t you see how irritating that is?”

Then the halfling spoke up. “At least He didn’t leave off mid-sentence with what happened to you. ‘The hook whip latched onto Ellers and the bloody man yanked with all his might. Ellers flew several feet and crashed into the ground, then slid and.”

Jessie looked at the protestors, all of whom seemed to ignore the halfling. “I’ll bite. And what?”

“That’s it!” he barked. “Then slid and.” The sign waved back and forth as the halfling vented. “He couldn’t even be bothered to finish the sentence. That’s where He left me… sliding across the floor and.

The woman in robes spoke up. “Oh, it’s so hard for you, isn’t it. ‘The Creator didn’t finish my fight scene. Waah!'” She pointed a finger. “I don’t even know if I’m in my right mind, or if the power I’ve discovered is going to help me or kill me.”

Jessie turned back to the camera. “There you have it, folks. A Creator who has abdicated His responsibilities… unfinished scenes, abandoned plotlines. Will these characters ever get the answers they seek? Stay tuned to Channel–”

A voice boomed from the heavens.

“Cease this nonsense. You think you have it bad now…”

In the distance a new folder opened, shedding inviting light onto the crowd. Another appeared from the ether on the other side of town. Letters flashed across the sky. At first, the onlookers stepped forward, but then they recoiled.

The letters on the first read, Game of Thrones-style storytelling with a subtitle Red Wedding.

On the second, Twilight Fan Fiction.

The crowd dispersed, each returning to their own stories and settings.

Sometimes it was better to be forgotten.

Burst the Bubble

“I thought my book was good enough… and then I went to critique group, and found out it’s like a cake without the frosting.”

That’s a quote from one of the members of our monthly writing group.

Whatever I do, whatever I create, I do not operate in a vacuum. I want to know what my customer wants, and whether my product meets their needs or interests.

Keeping my babies to myself is safe, comfortable. A story or song I write sounds great to me, so the temptation is to hold on tight.

But we learn from the insights and yes criticism of others. We find out what works and what falls flat. If you’re creative in any vein, don’t give in to the safety of the bubble. Find a group, find a critic. Do it in person if you can, online if you can’t.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. – Proverbs

Fading Words

Tonight ideas fill my head

They dance around like fireflies

Voices and the words they said

Characters live out their lives

As faith without some work is dead

So words unwritten often fade

And now it’s time to go to bed

But there has been no progress made

So now I hope tomorrow proves

To be a more productive day

So long as I recall this truth:

For what we love, we make a way.