#amwriting Do You Even Worldbuild, Bro?

My style of book prep seems like an ever-changing thing. While everyone has their own ideas and ways to make writing a book manageable, there are a lot of differences between genres, and people writing within those genres. I’m excited to talk about what I’ve been doing to write my latest few projects, and how this differs from my earlier, young’un projects that were barely a departure from fanfic.

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Weak Writing: Characters

watch-penny-dreadful-online-streaming

Vanessa up front, Chandler far stage left, Sir Malcolm second from stage right. Also: Vanessa’s lips are thinner, eyes larger. Also 2: Note scorpions on her neck. You can tell, from this insertion, the picture was taken from Season 2, because THERE IS NO MENTION OF THEM IN SEASON 1 OR 3.

Or, A Rosy Review of Penny Dreadful season One and a Black Review of Penny Dreadful seasons Two and Three.

This isn’t exactly a post focusing on novel writing, although everything I write about in this post can be incorporated. It’s something I find fundamental to good storytelling: character development and steadfastness.

I get a lot of recommendations for storytelling: some are books, some are movies, some are poems, TV series. Today I want to focus on television series and in some senses, movie series. Particularly the anti-hero series Penny Dreadful off Showtime, currently available on Netflix.

Spoilers ahead.

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Batman VS. Superman was Phenomenal

…despite so many critiques to the contrary.

SPOILERS SPOIILERS SPOILERS.

Why did I feel BVS was phenomenal? This will probably be a long post, so grab some popcorn and be aware of spoilers. BECAUSE I WILL SPOIL IT FOR EVERYONE.

For those of you who don’t care about lengthy one-sided discussion, I’ll lay it out nice and clean, without examples, so you may continue on your way.

Multi-faceted protagonists, including Superman; strong, aware antagonists, including Doomsday (Kidding about Doomsday. Dude was just straight up mad); complex plot that allowed characters to develop, including non-super ones, a world that existed before the movie began; philosophically sound motivations that were succinctly explained and developed; appropriate insights to characters through skilled storytelling; great filming, particularly in the beginning and at the end.

After explaining all this, I’ll try and hunt down why people are so disgusted by the movie.

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Mental Rambling

I usually create the title first, topic second. I have an idea in my head, but I don’t know how it’ll pan out. Thus, I write the title last. Apologies if I ramble.

This evening, I looked at myself in the mirror, and studied my facial features. It might sound strange, but I find sometimes when I look hard enough I find aspects of my characters within my face. Spend enough time on Deviantart and you’ll see your fill of eyes. As close-up as you can possibly get, natural or manufactured or mystic to the point where you’re lost in the idea of being that close to another person.

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Let’s Talk About Drugs!

Said the clown to the priest.

No. Writing a book based on any level of “realism” (or at the very least, depth) requires the writer to study the periphery. The periphery could involve any number of things. In fact, in fantasy (and dare I say, in reality) the possibilities are damn near endless. Writing an urban fantasy novel (UF from here on out) usually brings about images of sardine-packed apartment buildings, grungy streets, dark alleys, bricks and concrete and unnatural yellow streetlights. What good city doesn’t have those? Farther on the periphery, the main character (MC from here on out) hears dogs barking–which a friend of mine once wrote a very in-depth analysis of what part these barking dogs have in our subconscious; interesting little read–or perhaps people talking in the distance. The MC passes shadowy shapes in alleys, perhaps, or nobody at all. The MC is silhouetted against bar windows or restaurants or vacant buildings. The MC stops in front of graffiti. All important.

Yet. One major aspect of the Real Life Urban scene is drug use. I haven’t read much UF with drug use as a periphery. I don’t know why. Given I’ve never done illegal drugs, never inhaled mary jane, never rolled Ecstasy, perhaps most fantasy writers haven’t either. It’s something they know nothing about, therefore it is either overlooked or ignored in the story.

I understand it. I don’t like it. We write about dragons but not drugs? We write about hellfire but not drug-use? The only time I see much discussion of it is when it’s a pivotal point of the story, where some supernatural investigator seeks the truth in some drug-user’s death–usually, where the drug is the magical, I dunno, tool used to move the story forward. Which is cool. I love those stories. I just want more of it. Especially in UF.

And high fantasy (HF from here on out) included! What? Pirates didn’t use opiates? Your scoundrels exist in a drug-free world even though there’s an ecosystem as complex as anything that exists on Earth? Hell no. I refuse to believe it.

Now if you want a fairy tale with no drugs, that’s fine. Plain and pure and storytelling at its best? Sounds perfect. Go for it. It has its place. Drugs are a dark side to society most people want to escape from. It might not have a healthy place in your story.

But I want more of it. I want the guy that’s high as a kite, he just might, stop and check the MC out. I want the Trent Reznor-type in an intimidating-as-shit black duster roaring in the MC’s face as he’s hyped up on PCP. Why not? It’s scary. A kind of scary a lot of people don’t want to get involved with. Perhaps a little Too Real. But it’s UF. And, if you do it right, it’s a damn easy way to make an intimidating Antagonist downright terrifying.

Take The Professional, for instance. The movie made in ’91 (or was it ’94?). Gary Oldman stars as the bad guy, a crooked cop that’s actually head of the DEA. The guy’s a loose cannon. Not someone you want to play Russian Roulette with. Add his little pill he pops (literally pops) in his mouth, he transforms into something else. Every single aspect of what makes that man sane, and with boundaries, is gone. Whisked away with the intense high.

Here’s the thing. It can be just on the periphery. It can be a secondary character that simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It can be an average joe the reader trusts. And he can change in an instant. That stuff is powerful.

To extend the thought–magic. Oh crap, magic! You can have a magical drug that does nothing to most but changes a few. You can have a time-delay magical drug that simply gives all the peaceful effects of a steaming cup of tea, but have three successive loud noises, whoa Nelly! Run for the hills. It allows you to create monsters out of timid mice, sleeper agents who truly know nothing of their place, or just, heck, plain old frostbitten Josh Nobody looking to take the edge off his gangrenous foot. For as long as humanity has existed, drugs have coincided. Alcohol aside! I think there’s a huge market for any writer willing to get his fingers dirty, understanding drugs and, farther in, humanity’s need of them.

A professor once told me to use the rule of ten doors. Major decisions require ten outcomes. Write them down. Pick the best. Go to a smaller choice. Rule of ten. Write them down. Choose the best. And so on. It helps with writer’s block and everything. It also does a great job of painting the picture when it comes to drug use: drugs have different effects for different people, even the same dose. It makes for wonderful storytelling and, given the magic world the MC lives in, could possibly turn bad into worse or good into terrible.

I’ll do it now!

Dashing Tom Perfect just had a run-in with Josuha Random Reefer Toking while on his way to deliver a medallion!

1) He puts his head down and ignores him, creating foreshadowing for JRR Toking later in the story
2) He takes a moment to listen to JRR Toking and his far-out stories of Nevernever Earth and inadvertently adds humor to the otherwise stoic, dry story
3) He realizes Mr. Toking is smoking Magical Marijuana, and any contact high could relinquish DTP’s perfect mental control over himself, creating small conflict
4) He listens to JRR Toking, who is really an escaped torture victim for (Antagonist’s name here), and he can only survive this hellish life by smoking the reef and drifting through the world as a vagrant
5) JRR Toking is smoking to get up the courage to talk to Dashing Tom, because he has Vital Information!
6) DTP has had a negative experience with potheads, where his half-brother (half-elf) smoked too much pot and burned his life away to mediocrity, despite having a brilliant mind. DTP therefore puts Toking in a choke-hold and ties him up in the back of his pedivan.
7) DTP smells more than marijuana on JRR Toking’s breath, recognizing the effects of a much more damaging drug, the Soulfie, where JRR Toking slowly gives his soul away to a powerful douche-cerer.
8) JRR Toking is a conspiracy theorist who loves to think about the possibility of a universe whole-mind, where everyone can talk to each other psychically and nobody has to poop. That’s all. Oh and he’s a cunning thief in disguise and steals the medallion.
9) DTP recognizes the sociopolitical ramifications of JRR Toking walking the streets in such rags–but wait, isn’t that the insignia of a freedom fighting group he wears as a patch on his skinny jeans?
10) JRR Toking reminds DTP of a friend DTP once had, stops the man, talks to him a moment, and realizes the poor bastard is a war vet with A WHOLE LOT OF STORIES TO TELL. And firearms training.

Alrighty. That’s just one line of decisions, all rife with information. I’m not feeling particularly inspired at the moment (Really stressed) so I bypassed some of the deeper thoughts. Any one of those decisions could lead to another major decision. So on and so forth.

So. I advocate drug use. In fantasy novels.

My Brand of Fantasy Magic

…isn’t really fantasy at all. Magical realism, perhaps?

I recently re-watched Constantine (starring The Man of One Face: Keanu Reeves), where the protagonist spends his life fighting to keep the balance between heaven and hell via magical relics, know-how, and insight into traveling to hell and back. He’s dark, brooding, quippy, and so self-destructive he’s dying of lung cancer. It’s a delve into what I consider magical realism: people, many people, believe wholeheartedly that the ability exists (even if it’s only for one person) to… insert random miracle here. Be it travel through hell, talk to the dead, turn water to wine, transform into a totem-animal, talk to rocks, converse with ancestors long dead, see auras, dowse, possess another person/animal.

A lot of people don’t. And that’s cool. A lot of people pursue religion as a form of self-government, so instead of spending the time to understand themselves, they look to religion: “This is bad (according to the Book), so I won’t do it.” It also kills multiple birds by creating a community of similar-thinking people, which reinforces the feeling of “this is right.” Which is cool. That’s what certain governmental bodies do. And we’re governed by many circles, be it personal, family, friends, religion, spiritual (separate from religion), communal, work, local, federal, world. And that’s just what I pulled off the top. This is a digression and I’ll stop it now. I’m trying to show how this also holds its own forms of power: any single one of these bubbles could specify “this is bad” and a person follow it simply because, well, someone says to. Even the “personal” circle. Which in itself is a form of mind control.

I had a simple purpose when I began writing twelve years ago: have fun, connect with people, share my thoughts. It’s still the same purpose, albeit a little evolved. My thoughts developed into something a little stronger: magic is real. Some magic is real. Not all. Magic Missiles and two hundred foot orc giants with enchanted tree trunks for armor isn’t. Science keeps trying to say it has all the answers worth knowing (while people touting Science as the new religion also try to say, like a marijuana enthusiast, Science has ALL the answers), but it doesn’t. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, “That’s what’s so great about science. You don’t have to believe in it for it to be true. It exists without your permission.”

Mostly.

I know enough about Science to know the importance of “observable” and “human fallacy.” I’ve been reading about human beings having more than five senses. More like nine. Pressure, balance to name two. It really doesn’t matter how often Science revises what truths it accepts as fact. What matters is it’s always changing in its definition, always updating its databases.

Next, to define science into two subcategories: hard science (physics for one) and soft science (psychology for two). I know too many well-meaning Science worshippers who put it all together. Soft sciences, the stuff our thoughts are made of, the stuff of our dreaming, of our extra-sensories, of our deeper knowledge, of our abstract pattern recognitions, is very wide open and mostly unexplored, despite the 100 or so years we’ve had to study it. Why? Unobservable. Or, difficult to observe. Assumptions based on calculations and patterns of tests.

Magic is a soft science. In fact, eventually, all that “magic” will fall into some sub-sub category of either a sense or quirk of one or two chromosomes in some errant mutative family line (or, you know, something a person develops through meditation and a proven set of practices). Since our realities are subjected to the extent of our senses, there is nothing–absolutely nothing–to say I can’t dream another person’s dreams, for example. Or travel a place constructed wholly of peoples’ thoughts, over time, like a great big living world placed overtop our own. Or fight constructs of modern religion with sheer self-certainty alone.

We all give off energy. That’s a fact. We exist because of it. Byproducts of processes going in in our bodies. We can’t see it. We assume the effect of said energy release is negligible to our surroundings simply because, since we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

I find a new awakening going on, in this culture. In this society. A long, long time ago, during the time of the birthing religions (200 BC to, say, 1000 AD), the understanding exploded of a second, third, and perhaps even fourth sublayer above the Real. This is the stuff of the new old religions. It is the backbone. Now that religion is failing so many people of this time of “Scientific Certainty,” they’re turning to Science and Atheism. Which is cool. They do their thing. As long as they aren’t killing in the name of Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s all gravy.

The New Reformation, I guess, comes. Or a Second Enlightenment. I’m only sorry I don’t get to know it fully.

So the magic I use in my writing comes from a deep place, a sub-tonal to the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Gitas, and the Books of the Dead, and whatever else. It comes from a constructed place–a governing place similar to those I listed–where the reality is multi-faceted, science is currently too short-sighted to involve itself, and energy talks with the voice of long-dead preachers. The magic I use is energy, plain and pure, built up on the shoulder-plates of imaginative thinkers and socio-pariahs like Einstein and Twain and Jung who, in another century (or life), would be heralded as prophets or even gods.

My brand of fantasy magic comes from the coupling of intelligent thought and passionate realization, of fever dreams and deep stillness. My brand of magic is the extent of the human condition, of spirituality that exists for itself, of ripe power sieved through governing filters. And that’s just in the reality.

In my writing, it collects the results of What Ifs and runs tests until the pattern is undeniable in its repetition.

Sorry. Magic is a lot of things. For me, it must stem from reality. It must stem from science and its branches are religion. Its fruits are you and I, the readers and writers, and it’s more than simply an axe-like tool. It’s a whole undiscovered place, like a continent with slightly different rules. It’s a way of breathing. It’s a way of bleeding. It’s a way of interaction.

It’s so. Fucking. Sexy.

Broad Strokes (A Writing Story)

I’ve been writing for fifteen years. Since I was thirteen. My first story was Animorphs, Dinotopia, Power Rangers fanfics. Don’t laugh. They were perfect daydream fodder. I moved up to slightly less fanfic-ish “group of five friends with superpowers” writing, which was a big milestone for me because my writing turned serious. I evolved then into a scifi about a boy “coming of age” (and watching the world end, emo-style), then devolved into a high fantasy with 250 main characters. It stretched into seven books, then fifteen, then I stoppped the project(s).

Went to college and dabbled in poetry. Went to college a second time and turned into a “BS machine” and wrote some of the most syrupy-slow introspective “fantasy” I’ve ever written.

I spent so much time desperate to get everything right, from square one, I forgot about the story. What everyone teaches you in college about writing, what everyone shows you as “Good writing” like Faulkner and Rilke and Shakespeare and Joyce and Morrison and Adams, is an end result.

I slathered over Faulkner. One of the few in my advanced writing class, actually. Even academic writers hate Faulkner. In many ways the education system taught me to write in reverse to how these greats ended up: go big. Learn as much as you can. Then simplify. I learned about sentence structure and all the punctuation marks and everything from tildes to elipses and I ended with a dearth of knowledge.

Dearth, yes. See that’s the problem. When learning all you want, you end up looking at a word and asking yourself, is this right? You spend precious minutes distilling the words to make everything as succinct and/or poetic and/or complex as possible. After all that training, after I’ve forgotten half of what I learned, I come to this keyboard a different person. It’s like, in a distant way, you learn all the possible ways to kill a man with your bare hands, but don’t know how to get your hands to where they need to be.

David and His Shade was supposed to be a novel of fundamentals. My writing has always been a kind of inaccessible to the general audience because of my complexity (or as my brother calls it, “poetic license;” as my wife calls it, “psychoanalysis crap;” as the average joe calls it, “slow going”).

Broad strokes. I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and, somewhere between his collecting religious stories and developing a legendary everyman, something clicked. Broad strokes.

Nobody taught me that. Nobody sat me down and said, “you can write a boring day about a character in a sentence or two. You don’t need to have him gaining insight.”

It sounds dumb as hell. Maybe I knew this back when I wrote my first non-fanfic. It read fast, aggressive, and I left out all the pointless crap about school studies and the like, unless it was important. I don’t know this now. I picked up some dumb habits along the way to writing like Faulkner.

Don’t be afraid to write away the slow spots. In fact, don’t be afraid to write away some of the fast spots. It makes the reader work in a way the reader likes.

Two beta readers (one of which is a professional editor/journalist) told me DaHS is slow because of my MC’s “insights.” He talks about otherwise pointless stuff the reader would collect without a thought. Symbols and the like. He tries explaining, through florid prose, things he sees as important. I apparently don’t give the reader enough benefit.

The reason I say this is I decided to copy Rothfuss’ writing style and simply speed through days and weeks of a character’s life, only slowing down to reference important conversations, or encounters. It’s my latest project, a project I’ve dubbed Acorn King Revisited, or AKR (it’s set in the same universe as my previously stated syrupy-slow fantasy). The editor read my second try at a story and said she nearly told everyone around her to shut up because she enjoyed the read. It’s a good thing. I might finally be on the right path.

I’ll return to edit DaHS, and even though I thought it was a finished product, it’s far from done. It needs a facelift. Characters need to talk differently, and my MC needs to stop caring about every leaf of grass that blows sideways to the wind.

Broad strokes. How’d I miss that?