Thoughts From the Kitchen – (#2 My War Against the Beginning)

I used to think the beginning of stories were the easiest parts to write.  Lo, ’tis not.

The more I develop my knowledge in the minefield of writing, the more I am convinced the original conception of a story might be the most difficult, especially in the case of fabricating entirely new universes and/or timelines.  It’s all so front-heavy.  The balancing game between when to exposit and navigating exactly how much is insidious.  What’s more, at the same time, creating this framework is one of the most invigorating parts of the whole process.  The contradiction isn’t discouraging, though whether it’s daunting or not is hardly a question.  I am madly daunted by the act of creation.

We are in Quarter 2 of the year, and I’m well on my way to reaching my writing goals. (Wait, did I forget to make a post about my writing goals? Whoops.) But hey, I’m a fully functional and cognizant human being with a head on my shoulders only half filled with brick, so I’m able to recognize a decent chunk of the patterns which pass me by.  Try to pick up the trend:

  1. “Write an installment for the Puppet Kitchen at least once a week.” (25%) (About to 37.5% baby. Word up.)
  2. Write two short stories (0%)
  3. Read at least one short story each week. (37.5%)
  4. Write 10,000 words of long-form (0%)
  5. Read at least two full books. (100%)
  6. Determine new outlining system/method. (100%)
  7. Build coherent image reference gallery. (100%)
  8. Finish the “Trope Project” (50%)

There’s two goals in there with zero percent accounted for, and would you look at that, they both tie back to writing the beginnings of new stories.  Wow.  Thematic relevance.

Now, I’ve always sucked at writing short stories, so I’m honestly not bothered by that so much. In fact, I’ve got more going on in that department than the long-form.  I’m a-brewing a nasty little romp tentatively titled “The Priestess” which will count for 50% of that goal, I just haven’t filled in any of the percentiles because, well, I don’t know how far along I am in the projected 3,000 word process.  Hard to say.

The subject which frays my edges a little more violently is that long-form catastrophe. My progress has been somewhere between horrifyingly abysmal and you should just quit and die, but I’m buoyed by the knowledge that, at least, I haven’t been entirely stagnant. The outlining aspiration did give me decent reason to step back a bit before plunging into a new cosmic, supernatural urban-fantasy landscape. But you see, I’ve since figured out my new outlining format, and still the world-forming pen stays idle.  Oh, it’s not that I haven’t done any worldbuilding, either.  I’ve taken care of all that silliness and more.  No, I just can’t seem to actually write the damn thing.

Sort of.  I technically have three chapters. But this story surpasses all of my earlier endeavors in just about every regard, including the quantity of nuts and bolts. I have a pretty healthy understanding when it comes to the first draft and how it’s pretty sufficiently doomed to be a dumpster fire, regardless of who you are (unless you’re Stephen King, who I’m convinced has better first drafts than most people have final manuscripts). But I can’t seem to grasp the foundation of the story.  There’s such an abundance of available detail, and I know I have to key in on only a small handful of the most relevant information and characters, else risk death by a thousand cuts and an early grave.

But choosing those details and doing them well, while maintaining the extracurricular world which must be at least vaguely consistent around the events of the early narrative, is harder than it’s ever been in my life. In a way, I feel as though this is a good thing. My plotting, characterization, world-building, and general ideation are all objectively better than say, when I was crafting “Doubting Puppet,” my last true plunge into long-form.  But I’m not quite good enough to wrap myself around the story.

It’s like I’ve been training to overcome a wall of my own construction.  I wanted something to test myself, so I formed a wall which would loom, clad in ornate platinum or polished marble.  Something which could tower and stretch a great shadow.  I even figured out how I’d climb it.  Running start, one or two vertical steps skyward on shoes made to grip, deep breath to focus and reach.  I grab the lip of the wall!

But I can’t crest the edge. My arms are so tired from building the blasted thing, I can’t so much as lift my own body-weight enough to steal enough leverage to gracelessly yank myself over the top.

That’s where I am.  I have the wall, a tapestry of stones alchemically chosen to be unlike any wall I’d seen before.  A wall which captures my voice, with a tonal and environmental aesthetic which performs beautifully and has never been done in the scope of my knowledge, yet isn’t contrived or steering too close to the anime curse of prioritizing a unique premise over a functional one.  It plays to my strengths in its emotional narrative, character social webs, mode of conflict, and low-key moral agendas.

It’s a beautiful wall.

Which I can’t seem to climb.

Not yet, anyways. I do hope to turn the tide soon, once I shrug off this inky black creature on my shoulders with the upside-down smile I like to call procrastination.

For the moment, I take solace in that I’m not simply twiddling my thumbs.  I’m definitely enabling myself to divorce the responsibilities of certain goals from my daily schedule, but the distractions are wearing thin. Here’s hoping that when I finally become lucid enough to kick myself in the tail and just buckle down, that lucidity will come with something I haven’t felt in a long time and sorely miss: my inherent and volcanic indignance to be better.

So here’s to cracking open the crude, molten shell which has swallowed my fighting spirit, and resurrecting something worthwhile for the sake of writing a story which might, I pray, eventually evolve into something bigger than myself.

Time to write.

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“Bloody, Merry” – Original Short Poem

Once upon a witching hour
Mary stole the light of Old Miss Flowers
Little Mary cut out her heart
A tired display
Of timeless power

Once upon her broken nails
She tread the shadows of fables and tales
Mary was mean, but very lonely
A dark visage
Of final farewells

Once upon her dripping hands
“Bloody Mary” to the mirror, thrice they’d chant
Attending, a slave to this midnight summons
And so again
The horror began

Once upon some broken glass
When at last the image of Mary had passed
The lonely girl cursed black fate
Immortally wounded
And wounding contrast

Once upon a wicked hope
Joy filled her fingers as they fit noose to rope
A servant no more, Mary would fly
Dark memories crushed
Just like her throat

“I Want to Play Piano, Dad” – Original Short Poem

I want to play piano, Dad
I want to play piano
My swelling chest
Which knows no rest
It wants to play piano

The keys open my heart, dear Dad
Unlike any else I’ve found
Remedy the pain
The spirit of rain
I want to play piano

There’s a price to learning the magic, Dad
Long, weary nights alone
But my friend is there
Notes in the air
But I’m afraid to play piano

I lost my favorite person, Dad
Now she’s an echo in minor key
In Heaven she sings
Your praises she brings
I should want to play piano

You know I need your help, Dad
But walls were formed to keep you out
My angry heart
Will fall apart
If I don’t learn to play piano

Oh how fragile we are here, Dad
But you already know that, don’t you?
Why else would you sit me down
Tell me you’re proud
And help me learn to play piano?

Visiting Tropes #1 (“Hey, Bandages Are Cool”)

In this series we explore various, popular tropes found in media. This is done by tapping that nifty “random trope” button at tvtropes.org, reading the base material of three results, and throwing our thoughts at the wall to see what sticks.

As we do.

 

“Idiot Ball”

So I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ve played the game “Hot Potato,” because if you haven’t I’m sorry, your childhood probably lacked some fundamental aspect of, well, being a child. This trope is like a cognitive game of Hot Potato, except the person who catches the potato forgets to get rid of it. A character who has “caught the idiot ball” is a character who, while normally functioning with a respectable level of intelligence, is experiencing a momentary lap in judgment or decision-making ability. They aren’t idiots on an intrinsic level, they’re just having a bad day.  Maybe they forgot to drink their coffee or something.

This trope is not exclusive to any particular genre, but seems to be utilized rather well in comedy and horror. Comedy is a low-hanging fruit in this example, because stupid is usually funny. If people are making low-caliber, uninspired decisions, the plot tends to write itself around those decisions. Miscommunication creates character drama, slapstick humor goes awry to the point of minor bodily harm, and we see windows into how serious characters might act in otherwise unusual predicaments for them.  Horror, on the other hand, has the advantage of blaming idiocy and bad decisions (like WHY ARE YOU GOING IN THE DARK ALONE, YOU IMBECILE) on fear, anxiety, and all of the other primal things that make our hearts go bump in the night. Bad decisions, such as separating from the group, serve to ramp up the tension and give the audience a sense of immersion because “that’s not what I would have done.”

This trope does suffer from abuse in more serious stories, though. Monologues, for example. Everybody and their mother knows how dangerous monologues can be for an antagonist. The assassin infiltrated the defense grid of the protagonist’s home, took out all the guards, and did it all without being detected? NICE. But then they’ll put the gun to the protag’s head and do…anything besides the obvious course of planting a round in their skull, as they’d planned. Very competent. Until it mattered. They held the Idiot Ball.

 

“Bandaged Face”

Manga and anime love this trope. Off the top of my head, I can think of five anime characters who all wear bandages around their skull, either as an aesthetic, to hide their identity, or because they actually need it on a medicinal level (the latter is almost never the case). Without looking at the examples on tvtropes, you’ve got Dosu, Danzo, and that one random Chunin proctor all from Naruto, Shishio of Rurouni Kenshin, and Eto from Tokyo Ghoul. This trope likely shows up in many video games, too, but I wouldn’t expect it to be all that common in anything Western, even animation.

There’s not much to discuss on the matter of this trope. I myself have written a story where a character had bandages over half their body (including part of the face), and I’ve illustrated a character who wore them across their arm. This trope is relatively popular, and my guess is because it makes for memorable characters in any given cast. Even within each individual narrative, most of the characters around the subject will be jarred or at least make mention of how strange it is for somebody to wear bandages over their faces. From a drawing perspective, bandages make for a gritty, easy clothing piece, what with the overlapping lines and lack of needing to adhere to a tight framework.

They just…look cool, okay?  And they’re almost always accompanied by belts.  Double the fun.

 

“Blind and the Beast”

This trope is almost required to walk hand-in-hand with some sort of arc about finding inner beauty. The premise is simple: one character is blind, another is physically abominable. Usually they are both feeling isolated because of their respective “defects,” but manage to find acceptance in one another, because the blindness eliminates the ability to judge the physically ugly by appearance, allowing them to see the heart within. This leads to a deep friendship, and frequently romance. If that wasn’t obvious by the name’s similarity to Beauty and the Beast.

I’d like to note the looseness of this trope. The individual aspects of each character don’t need to hold to any strict guidelines, like similar age or anything of such nature.  It could be a little girl falling in love with a robot.  Or an old man and a witch.  There’s a wide berth for combinations.

Also, the “Beast” end of the relationship tends to keep their secret under wraps at the beginning of things, either out of habit, or some knee-jerk fear that despite the other being blind (if they’re even aware the other is blind), they think they’ll be rejected. Hey, if you go your entire life being called a freak or a monster, it makes sense to assume the discrimination runs deeper than the surface. But usually the blind character learns the truth, and to the relief of the monster and the audience, continues to accept the Beast for who they are on the inside.

The Puppet Masters (#5 – We, the Failures)

failure_by_anokazue-d4w47o2My last couple of weeks have been delegated to conventions.  First came WorldCon (MidAmericon II) in Kansas City, and then Pax West in Seattle.  While the latter is a predominantly video-game themed convention, it is not without many other elements of fandom.  Among the many panels, tournaments, and exhibitions were a few outliers, such as the indeterminate hour occupied by a panel simply titled “An evening with Patrick Rothfuss.”

Any who know me are familiar with my love for this author in all of his quirky variables. This was my third time seeing him live and he simply never becomes boring.  If you ever get the chance, please dedicate some time from your day to be in his company.  You do not even need to know who he is in order to enjoy yourself.  You can hold me to that claim.

To the point, there was one rabbit hole Rothfuss descended during his panel which caught my attention more than anything else.  I cannot remember what exactly prompted this discussion, but it was during a Q&A.  The subject was about the perception of writing as a hobby versus writing as a profession, and how there is an unfairly strict expectation attached to the relationship between the two.

author_patrick_rothfuss_-_h_2015
The Great, Bearded Badger, Patrick Rothfuss.

Paraphrasing his words: “Writing is really unfair, because it’s the only hobby where, if you don’t make it professionally, you are seen as a failure in the public eye.  Never do you see somebody playing basketball and think they are a loser because they aren’t in the NBA.  Never do you see somebody gardening and think, well, if they aren’t on Home & Gardening, then they clearly didn’t make it.  The gardener is allowed to enjoy gardening because it gives them satisfaction and joy.  But god forbid, if you’re a writer and haven’t published anything, then you’ve wasted your time.”

There is a titanic burden placed on writers (and most creative arts, really) to become published or publically recognized.  Naturally, this is not going to be a common end for most who aspire for it, as not everyone who writes (read: many, many people) will become professionals at the craft.  Why are those people then labelled as failures, when they are doing something they love?  Now of course, if the writer has a deliberate goal of reaching publication and do not reach it, at this point they might be considered having failed at least in that regard.  But writing should not be, as a primary approach, treated like a business.  This isn’t to say it can’t be a business, only that it shouldn’t be business first, creative endeavor second.

I’ve never felt like I was wasting time in my writing.  Even if I never get published, writing has afforded me an outlet for thoughts, emotions and stress which I haven’t been able to get out by any other means.  For that alone, the journey has been worth it.  I do aspire to reach publication one day, for at least one book, but I won’t consider myself a failure if I don’t make a career out of it.  I’ll still continue to write, because I love it.  I may not always like it, per se, but I’ll always love it.

So please, if you write, or paint, or craft in any way that is seen by others as following in a similar social stigma, do not lose heart.  Even if your story never sees the public spotlight, do not believe yourself a failure.  As a whole, we struggle enough with depression and anxiety and self-deprecation as is, so we needn’t pile onto the weapons against us.  To do so is disrespectful to the art, toxic to your soul, and above all, a lie.

God bless and take care.

(If you want to check out Patrick Rothfuss, I suggest beginning with “The Name of the Wind,” the first in a projected series of three novels.  Both it and it’s sequel, “The Wise Man’s Fear,” may be found on Amazon.)

Image provided by Anokazue from Deviantart.
http://www.deviantart.com/art/Failure-295808978

The Puppet Masters (#4 Magic & Sanderson’s Laws)

The-Well-of-AscensionBrandon Sanderson has been bunkered down on the frontlines of the contemporary fantasy and science fiction industry over a decade now.  Between his acclaimed Mistborn and Stormlight Archives series, as well as being selected to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Sanderson has consistently proven his ability to create powerful tales of magic and wonder. While Sanderson has been teaching university-level courses on writing contemplative fiction for years now (at BYU, his alma mater), there is one facet of his process which he talks about more than most else.  It is his forte, both self-proclaimed and evidenced by the opinions of fans and critics alike: magic systems.

Sanderson’s ability to build a world is superb, and his utilitarian approach to magic is redefining crowd expectations for the fantasy genre. I should clarify before we continue, ‘magic system’ is a universally accepted, catch-all term for nearly any supernatural or super-scientific element within a story.  A ‘magic system’ is not exclusively about ‘magic.’ Advanced technology, superpowers, and various other forms of otherworldly abilities can all fall under ‘magic’ in this sense, as they are things which transcend natural human power.

Please keep that in mind as we continue.  In addition, many of Sanderson’s lectures can be viewed online. Here is a link to the one which contains most of what we will be discussing.

(Note: Brandon is aware that the names of these laws sound pretentious. They were originally for his own reference and when people started asking him about his rules for making magic, the names just kind of stuck.  It’s kind of an ongoing joke now.)

Sanderson’s First Law:

“Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”

Foreshadowing is always important.  Regarding the first law, even more so. If you are going to have a harder magic system (which is to say, one with more rules and limitations), it is important you help the reader understand the parameters of the magic before you start doing crazy things with it. Those crazy things need to be explainable within the context of your magic’s boundaries. If a character has the superhuman ability to lift a maximum of one-thousand pounds and no more, you can’t have them stop a bullet train when it’s about to hit somebody.  The momentum generated by a bullet train would be too great for that limitation to deal with. That breaks the rules of your own magic system and is thus an unsatisfying answer to the problem.

That word ‘satisfying’ is important.  Not only must you be consistent with the science and boundaries of your magic, but you should always strive to be imaginative, too.  There is rarely only one way to solve any given problem.  Be mindful of how your magic can interact with the environment and other characters involved, if any.

Sanderson’s Second Law:

“Flaws are more interesting than powers.”

We aren’t talking about character flaws, but flaws in the magic system itself.  Rather, the specifics of the boundaries and limitations.  Do you have a character who can summon an ancient fire beast to fight at their side?  That’s cool…but what’s the catch?  The catch is usually the best part.  A simple and common answer is that it drains the summoner of energy or vitality, but there are others with more unique answers.

Ask: what is the cost?  Is it economic? Moral? Emotional? Mental?

The author Brent Weeks has a specific element in one of his magic systems which allows for characters to gain immortality. However, and the main character learns this tidbit of information a little too late, but every time you die, your resurrection costs the life of one of the people you love the most.  Or in the Japanese manga, Naruto, the main character has access to a tremendous well of inner power that allows him to conquer most obtacles…but at the cost of going into a berserker-state, breaking down his mind, tearing apart his body, and risking harm to anyone nearby regardless of whether they’re friend or foe.  Such a power as that is not one you want to throw around without immense consideration.

Is the magic needed for travel? Is it needed to keep society moving? If possible, try to make the magic imperative to life in more ways than as a means to destruction.  Far too many series are victim to that tendency.

Also, these boundaries are obviously under your complete jurisdiction, but unless you are going for a certain tone, it’s wise not to go too far off the deep end.  Teleportation is cool, but it’s kind of weird if you can only teleport when standing on one foot.  You can turn into an animal only when you have a marble in your mouth? Saying Hitler’s name three times allows you to turn invisible?

Please don’t be too weird.  Stuff like that is funny for only a brief time and quickly grows old.

Sanderson’s Third Law

“Go deeper into magic, instead of wider.”

Here’s a problem many superhero stories such as X-men fall into.  There are so many powers that none of them get any particular attention, at least not in a timely manner.  Hollywood and amateur writers alike think it is more interesting to have this grandiose arsenal of neat abilities in the cast of characters, but they keep the utility of all these abilities at surface-level.  They have fallen into the misconception that more means better.

But if Sanderson’s success stands for anything, it’s that more certainly does not always mean better.

Sanderson’s 0th Law

“Always err on the side of awesome.”

The name of this one is kind of a trade joke, but the premise is quite simple.  Sure, the boundaries and rules can allow for creativity in your writing and story-crafting, but in the end this is science-fiction and fantasy.  The granddaddy of all laws is that whatever you do, make it cool.  We are operating within a field of writing that has greater access to the manipulation of the universe than any other genre.  If you have an awesome idea and can build your system around that idea to make it feasible, then by all means, make it work.  Don’t force something that isn’t there, but if it’s possible, do your best to bring that awesomeness to life on the page.  You’ll love it, and the readers will probably be just as awed as you were when the idea first crossed your mind.