Climb

Another weekend, another painting done. “Climb.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, 4 x 6 inches.

This one took about 6 hours to make.

This one took about 6 hours to make.

The two figures at bottom right are Kedil Ahmlen (left) and Sathra Wolfglen (right), two characters from my books. I might find a place to put this scene.

The slope climbed up and up, bordered by steep ridges that protruded like harsh granite ribs around the mountain’s belly. Snow swept back and forth between the ridges in a white river. Nearer to them, the occasional pine tree poked up from the frozen plain. Perfect place to get caught in an avalanche, Sathra thought.

A blue guard tower that must have stood a hundred feet high rose against the nearest fold of rock, a lighthouse about to be toppled by a brutal wave. Every window was alight, and Sathra entertained the fantasy of stopping for the night. She shivered in her cloak, colder for tempting herself.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Kedil said, drawing her own cloak closed with a shaking hand. “We cannot stop. Tonight, we must climb.”

Copyright, of course, belongs to me.

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A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

The First Six Paragraphs of My Book

I realized I’ve done a lot of talking about writing, and the writing writers who write about writing. Did I mention it involves writing? Well, that’s enough of that. Not writing in general. Just writing about writing. Let’s go back to storytelling! I’m resuming a journey back to the dragons and engraved swords, the buildings of high beauty and strange color — the beautiful things that drew me to writing in the first place.

Time to throw some specificity into the recipe. I’m sharing what are currently the first six paragraphs of my novel in progress. If you’ve got a work in progress as well, I invite you to share the first six paragraphs in a blog post of your own.

These words are completely open to suggestion and critique. If you’ve got something to say, feel free to comment or email. As if I even need to say this, but copyright belongs to me. Obviously. Hope you enjoy it!

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Heavy eyelids opened at a hint of light. The young man’s sight was unfocused, as if underwater, and his body burned. Every movement ground his nerves like a file. He tried to moan, but his sore throat only permitted a gurgle. A blanket’s weight pressed on him. He could make out the walls of a small room and murky shapes of furniture. His only illumination filtered through a window to his right.

Memories were scattered and fragmented, retreating like a swarm of moths when he tried to grasp them. At first he thought it was just a dream. But the blanket’s itching fibers scratched him too coarsely, the sore muscles hurt too much. Where was he? How did he come here?

The young man couldn’t even remember his name.

Heavy footsteps pounded from behind a door at the room’s other side, a door as tall and black as death itself.

His heartbeat rushed. He stumbled around the corners of his brain, probing for clues, for any inkling that could remind him who might be outside. Still the moths fluttered about, turning to dust and forgotten as soon as he caught them. The footsteps receded, leaving him in silence again.

Then his mind grabbed hold of something, tiny and fragile. A name, the most familiar name to him. Josh. Yes, that sounded like it ought to be his name. Josh…Kingston, he thought. My name is Joshua Richard Kingston.

Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!

Writing Suggestion: Fictional Gambling

Having trouble coming up with new ideas for a story? Here’s one possible solution: Gamble.

But not for money. Almost certainly, the spinning roulette wheel is just going to be the accretion disk around a monetary black hole. The house always wins, and writers make little enough money as it is. So instead, gamble for ideas. All you need is a little bit of creativity, a die (with any number of sides you want), and a list of possible outcomes.

Let’s say you’re having trouble finding the personality and occupation of a character to write about in your story, and you have a six-sided die. You can write a list that might look a little something like this:

1. Hard boiled bounty hunter.

2. Optimistic surgeon.

3. Big-hearted bouncer.

4. Alcoholic florist. (Don’t ask)

5. Kleptomaniac plumber.

6. Philandering cyborg.

Then, of course, you start developing the character that the die rolls on.

One advantage of this is the variety, both in outcomes and in the aspects of story creation it can be applied to. Thousands of combinations can be found if you write similar lists for possible plot developments, character fates, worldbuilding, possible villains, subplots, inciting incidents, and possible stakes in the story.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this game, however, is that it can be ignored. If the die rolls on the philandering cyborg but you really wanted to write the alcoholic florist, then of course you can dispose of the bucket of bolts and overactive flesh. Sometimes just thinking about different options gives you the push you need.

Now go create, and may your imaginings never run dry.

The Three Essentials for Character Development

Whatever else a writer seeks to do with their work, the thing readers will care about the most are your characters. I have, rather strangely, been building up everything else and have found the process of making my own make-believe world and plot so fascinating, I could easily forget the characters themselves, and why their particular stories mattered. Thus my fiction tends to be…not exactly cold, but half-thawed and waiting for an oven’s heat. It is in characters, their suffering and clashing personalities and heartfelt needs and desires, where fiction finds its true potency.

Here are three questions I have slowly been learning to ask, the three most essential questions for the most essential reason to write fiction. If you do nothing else to deepen your own characters, ask these questions and answer them in as much detail as you can:

1. What makes them winsome or likable, or at least interesting?

2. What are their flaws?

3. Why should your readers care about them and where their story goes?

Answer these, and you are off to a good start on making your characters come to life. They will start to get more relatable, more understandable, and become a way for author and reader to connect in a profound way. They will form the core of a story that matters, a story that goes somewhere and gets us invested.

Writing Prompts for May 3, 2012

Here are a few more little assignments for the writers who may need inspiration today. Feel free to alter or contradict them at your discretion. The point is merely to get an idea and run with it. Farewell and good hunting!

1. Anxiety tastes like…

2. “I brought her here to see if we could trust her.”

3. A moment of unexpected good.

4. How is your character attached to a certain place in your story? What are sounds, textures, sights, or memories of specific events? How does your character perceive those details? Do they trigger a strong emotion in him? [Many thanks to Donald Maass for this exercise]

5. The gun didn’t shoot.

6. Describe someone’s tattoo of an animal. Why did they get it? Or might there be a tattoo on an animal? What’s your explanation for that?