Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Too much traveling on the railway could turn you into a philosopher, although, he conceded, not a very good one.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam)

I’ve been traveling by plane, train, or car since I was very small. I don’t remember a lot of those childhood travels — cassette tapes were a big factor on long car trips, as I recall, and that’s about it. But as a slightly older person I remember a lot more, not least because I wrote some of it down.

The first time I was on a plane I was too young to have even the slightest shred of a memory. But the first time I remember being on a plane was for a family trip down to Florida with the grandparents. It was a two-hour flight, and the sheer novelty of being able to see the tops of clouds was amazing. If I had had a camera phone, I’m certain I would have taken a million pictures. (And later, on a plane with a smart phone, yes, I’ve taken a million pictures.) On one level, the fact that a whole bunch of people have been crammed into a giant tin can and are zooming through the air at high altitudes might be ho-hum; after all, we’ve been doing it for just over a hundred years.

It’s interesting to think about all the technology that we’re used to, that people two hundred years ago would have boggled at. But the fact that we’ve constructed these tiny worlds that go far faster than we ever could, on pavement or on rails or in the air, I think that’s pretty neat. I think, however we get used to it, we shouldn’t forget a little of that wonder.

All of which goes to say two things. The first — whatever you write, put some kind of wonder into it, no matter how familiar you are. The second — this post is a little abbreviated because, well, guess who’ll be flying in a tin can in a few hours?

See you on the flip side!

Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.

Finding Time

One of the things I miss about college is the fact that I could rearrange my schedule to basically whatever I wanted. The classes in my major I couldn’t really do anything about, but I could pick other classes to suit whatever timetable I liked, so I had nice comfortable lunch hours, or my day was over promptly at 3:20 in the afternoon. If I then wanted to spend my time goofing off on the internet — I mean, uh, conscientiously studying and doing my homework — then I could. If I wanted to go poking around town with my friends, then I could. If I wanted to write a whole series of books, then I could. (I didn’t.) The world was my small-college-town-sized oyster.

But I’ve got an actual real-person job these days — ladies, gents, distinguished guests, I am a nine-to-fiver. Part and parcel of the gig is having to plan the rest of my day around that big chunk of time. By which I mean, time management becomes a crucial factor for the writing process.

So while I was reading Books On Writing and marathoning the Mad Genius Club blog during one of my dry spells earlier this year, one of the posts that I found was this one by Larry Correia. The dude is ridiculously successful. He is rolling in money. And he started out writing while he had a day job, and worked hard enough that he could quit his day job, and now his day job is writing. I aspire to be where he is now, and I respect his work ethic; which means I’m trying to have a similar work ethic.

Which is one of the reasons why I decided to buckle down and actually finish that darn draft. And that meant coming home from work and pounding out a few thousand words every day until the draft was done. I described the process to one of my friends — earbuds in, big mug of cocoa, and squeezing as much writing as possible into two or three hours so I could get to bed on time, wake up, go to work, and do it all over again. She was nonplussed, to say the least. She didn’t have the time to spare to do something like that.

But my question is, how are you ever going to get a project finished if you don’t find the time? Heck, make the time. Wake up earlier if you have to, or stay up later (and find a strong alarm ringtone on your phone). I mean, it helps that I don’t have a romantic relationship to maintain at the same time, and that my closest friends live at least 45 minutes away. But even if my situation was different, writing is still important to me, and it doesn’t magically stop being important just because I have an S.O.

And having a finished, polished manuscript is a pretty good feeling.

Moral Ambiguity in Antagonists

One of the first things you read in any book on writing, aside from the fact that adverbs are the Devil’s handiwork, is that characters need to be three-dimensional. Our hero needs to have a few flaws in addition to his many sterling qualities; and our villain needs to have some traits aside from a penchant for sinisterly twirling his mustache and drowning kittens. I think when it comes to heroes, or at least protagonists, they need to be relatable above all else. If the hero is pure of heart, a gallant warrior, etc etc, that’s great — but if he cusses a blue streak when he stubs his toe, well then! He’s human! And I am much more interested in him as a character.

But villains seem to be a trickier business. To wit:

There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist. (“Wonderful” – Stephen Schwartz)

We say that we want three-dimensional villains, and then we protest that the genocidal maniac was just brainwashed into committing genocide (cough Loki from the Avengers movie cough). We say that we want interesting bad guys and nuanced good guys, and then we claim that the brainwashed victim was actually the villain (cough Bucky Barnes cough). Show me an antagonist who laughs when he murders people and then has tea with his daughter, and I’ll show you a slew of people who say that he’s just misunderstood. Or alternately, show me a protagonist who does his best in a horrible situation to protect his family, and I’ll show you a crowd who howls for his head.

It’s black-and-white thinking. The same stuff that says “anyone who isn’t perfectly pure and good-hearted is an evil sonovasomethingorother and deserves to roast on a spit.” Sorry? Last time I checked, people were humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s kind of built into the programming.

And our main characters should be the same way — making mistakes, I mean. Big goof-ups that make the plot twist and tangle, little goof-ups that make you laugh, and goof-ups all in between. Which means that bad guys need the chance to occasionally do something good, too.

Yeah, it’ll make us as readers uncomfortable to think that such a bad person can care about family or a stamp collection or gardening. But it reminds us that bad people are people, just like us. And more importantly, that it doesn’t stop them from being bad.

Fiction doesn’t have to be haughty literary stuff in order to tell uncomfortable truths.

Writer’s Block and Books On Writing

I’ve read approximately thirty different books about the process of writing. Whether it’s formatting in order to snare a publisher, literary devices and the erasing of adverbs (fight me, I love a good adverb), or the characterization of villains, I’ve probably read more words about writing than I’ve finished in first drafts.

Which is, of course, the problem.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve learned this the hard way. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) tends to encourage the worst parts of my procrastination habit, and going indie means I’m accountable only to myself; I don’t even have the artificial deadline of a month. On the one hand, I make my own schedule! On the other hand, if I’m not feeling like staring at a screen for hours at a time, I can easily pick up a book someone else has already written and just fantasize about how awesome my book is going to be. I’ll be a New York Times bestseller, just you wait! … I just have to actually do the work first.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, when it comes to my own writing projects, Books On Writing are resources that are only to be used for specific instances. If I need a technique for first-person narration, maybe I’ll crack open The Elements of Style for that one chapter. But it does me no good to sink deep into a book about editing when I haven’t even finished the first draft; and it definitely does me no good to read a book about independent publishing when I haven’t even finished the first chapter yet.

So reading Books On Writing is one thing to avoid when I’m actually trying to, you know, write. Or when I know I need to write but I don’t feel like it. That particular state of wretched boredom is how I think of Writer’s Block. It’s not that I can’t write; I can; I just would rather do anything else at the moment.

It’s hard going when you don’t feel like doing it. There were long stretches where I didn’t write a word at all. But getting into a routine helps (mug of cocoa, earbuds, movie playing in the background, and go!). So does telling a few people that you intend to finish this one, so that they can help you hold yourself accountable. And rereading the last bit you wrote can help you get back into the mood of the story. But mostly what you have to do is just put fingers on the keyboard and put something down. Anything. It’s a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good — but it does have to be done. And you’ll be surprised at the freedom that gives you.

Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.