Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cho on the Practical Merits of Genre Structures

Over at her blog, Zen Cho (Sorcerer to the Crown) discusses how two failed novel-writing attempts led to her finally completing her highly anticipated debut. Excerpt:
In October 2012 I was ready for a new project and I found 10,000 words of an idea I’d written in early 2011 squirreled away in my hard drive. ... It seemed to me that they had promise. A frothy magical Regency romance with an earnest dude protagonist and a reckless female counterpart—it sounded fun. It sounded potentially easy: clearly I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to plot and structure, but I could just steal the structure of a standard Regency romance here. So I spent some time outlining the novel and in December 2012 I started writing the first draft.

This was the book that eventually became Sorcerer to the Crown.
I have wondered why it was this book that worked out, when most of my previous published work was set in Malaysia/primarily about Malaysian characters, and I think it’s because of the structure thing. I really did not know how to construct the shape of a novel and this is something I’m still learning. ... When you adopt a trope or subgenre like a Regency romance or, say, cosy mystery, that gives you a shape to work with. You make it your own, but you get some help with the bones.
Read the whole thing. Cho’s praise for the practical virtues of genre is part of the reason why I prefer it. I mean, I don’t hate literary fiction or anything like that. (Dare I offer the tokenism of saying that some of my favorite books are literary?) It often boasts beautiful verbiage, complex characters. But so very often I find myself at sea while reading it. The traditional literary preoccupations mean that its books tend to deemphasize pacing and plotting. Somewhere around the midpoint of most literary novels, I usually find myself wondering just where the author is heading, what point he’s trying to make, what the sum of this great whole will end up being. There’s nothing wrong with making a reader have to work hard to grasp The Big Picture. After all, the writer worked hard in creating the story. But it’s hardly controversial to say that that’s far less fun for most people. Not only does genre structure provide narrative signposts for readers, it frees up writers to focus on something they should never forget—enjoyment.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Owen Benson; Hat Tip: io9)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Kazan on Discouraging Procrastination

In the May 12, 2015, edition of The Atlantic, Olga Kazan discusses recent research insights into discouraging procrastination. Excerpts:
Procrastination is, in essence, stealing from yourself. The reason goals are so hard to reach, many psychologists think, is because each person believes they are really two people: Present Me and Future Me. And to most people, Future Me is much less important than Present Me. Present Me is the CEO of Me Corp, while Future Me is a lowly clerk.

“Instead of delaying gratification,” people “act as if they prefer their current self’s needs and desires to those of their future self,” write psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California in a new study in Psychological Science. ... So Oyserman and Lewis asked themselves: What if people could be made to think of their future selves as more connected to their current selves? ...

Through a series of experiments, Oyserman and Lewis found that if subjects thought about a far-off event in terms of days, rather than months or years, they seemed like they would happen sooner.
Read the whole thing. Call it self-denial, ambition, an overactive ego, a goal-focused perspective, or what have you. Successful people think differently, and I believe that the way they perceive the future truly plays a part. A family member who achieved substantial success in the thoroughbred horse industry liked to tell a story about how he lost his first big management position before he ever worked a day. (The owner canned him to provide a position for a relative.) He kvetched to friends, drank a few too many, and woke the next morning with a headache and a plan. By keeping that plan in the present, he eventually managed to go places that made that first job seem trivial.

Of course, there are downsides to a future-oriented approach, particularly for writers. The first that seems evident to me is the danger of developing an auteur's attitude, the belief that the unwashed masses are fools for failing to recognize your genius, which time will undoubtedly soon reveal. The second is magical thinking, a conviction that you don't need to sweat the details because Things Will Just Work Out. That's nonsense. No one owes us acknowledgment, and knotty matters should wring the dew from our brows. Our job is to realize that the present makes the future, put our shoulders to the grindstone, and push.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Matt Gibson)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Fury, Frustration, and Finally Joy (Dark Souls 2)

As I’ve continued to fritter away my lunchtimes with electronic entertainment, I’ve begun cutting my teeth on something other than sandwiches: FromSoftware’s 2014 hacky-slashy action role playing game Dark Souls 2. In it, you play as a protagonist seeking to restore his or her sanity, shed an undead curse, and discover the secrets of the crumbling kingdom of Drangleic. “By then, you’ll be something other than human,” a wizened crone intones during the introduction. “A thing that feeds on souls. A hollow.” The game has plot aplenty secreted away item descriptions and beautifully realized settings. But that's not why you'd play.

Really, you'd play it because you like to suffer.

The whole Dark Souls franchise seems founded on the idea that today’s video games are Just Too Easy. It’s not that the games don’t hold your hand; rather, they punch you in the gut and steal your wallet while you’re gasping for breath in some trash-strewn alley. Dark Souls 2 delivers body blows by pitting players against almost unfair gameplay mechanics. See, most roleplaying games provide a way for you to improve your character and buy better gear, and Dark Souls 2 is no different. But the way in which it works makes things devilishly difficult. You get new stuff and better abilities by acquiring souls, those evanescent balls of light left behind after vanquishing enemies. If you yourself die, though, you drop any unspent souls. Sure, you can go back and pick them up again. One of the perks of being undead is that your character never stays in the grave (although each death robs you of your overall health and makes enemies reappear). And what enemies they are. You’ll run into a knife-wielding bandits who can cut you half a dozen times in the blink of an eye, knights wielding a bastard swords the size of Texas, and bug-eyed basilisks that breathe out petrifying fumes. Die to any of these, and those souls you dropped are gone—forever. What's more, monsters start disappearing after you beat them multiple times, which leads to a sickening realization: The supply of souls is finite. Failure has permanent consequences. And you'll fail time after time after time. "Remember, hold on to your souls," the crone from the introduction cackles. "Oh, I'll fool you no longer. You'll lose your souls. All of them. Over and over again."

I'm sure you're getting the picture even though I'm leaving out plenty of details. Beneath its swing-sword-kill-monster exterior, Dark Souls 2 fairly seethes with complexity. Weapons and armor break at the most inopportune times. Secret locations hide in plain sight behind statues that seem a little too human. And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, other players can invade your world when you least expect it, ready to extract their pound of flesh. It's the kind of game where frustration and fury can suddenly give way to ecstatic joy when you triumph over the enemy you once thought unassailable, find a new bonfire (the only respite from conflict), and get one marginal step closer to finding the ruler of Drangleic.

In other words, it's the perfect game for writers.

Surely I’m not the only one who finds the act of writing every bit as brutal as Dark Souls 2’s unforgiving action. I start with a sentence, and my mind seems to congeal like motor oil in mid-February. I pen a paragraph, strike out half of it, and start over. I create and consume and create again. Pencils snap. Computers crash. And friends and family often carve out their own chunks from whatever finished draft they happen to peruse. Disaster is common. Triumph is rare. But such small successes, such iterative steps are so sweet that they compel you to push on. Fury, frustration—and finally joy. That’s just the way I like it.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Midhras)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Monster Hunts Up Smart Fun

Even before the famous theological controversy that fractured their friendship, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis didn't always see eye to eye. Though both allegedly entered into a friendly wager to try penning genre stories, they had distinctly different approaches. Tolkien favored meticulously crafted, internally consistent secondary worlds. But Lewis? He employed a methodological melting pot, mixing up a supernatural jambalaya compounded from characters and conceits across ages and cultures. (My undergraduate literature professor Alan Jacobs vividly dubbed it "mythographic promiscuity.") Tolkien sniffed at such a hodge-podge approach, which makes me wonder what old John Ronald Reuel would think of our age's genre-fiction landscape. From Gaiman's Stardust to Butcher's The Dresden Files, Harry Potter to Discworld, the field is positively saturated with Lewis' methodology. You can add to that list Larry Correia's guns-and-grue first novel Monster Hunter International.

Owen Zavtava Pitt tries his darndest to live an ordinary life, but it’s more challenging than you might think. You can trace his odd upbringing in his name. His survivalist, ex-military father named him after the Owen Machine Carbine, an Australian automatic weapon that kept him alive during clandestine operations in Cambodia. Owen has tried to compensate for his dad's odd apocalyptic outlook by pursuing that dullest of professions—accounting. However, any attempt at normalcy evaporates when he discovers during a full moon that his boss is secretly a werewolf. Owen nearly dies during the ensuing encounter, but holding a lycanthrope off with only a snub-nosed pistol and his bare hands earns him the attention of a small private security firm called Monster Hunter International. For a century and a half, the group had garnered bounties on ghouls, vampires, zombies, wendigos, and unnamed horrors that go squish in the night. Intrigued by the group’s pitch (and a raven-haired beauty who’s a dead eye with a sniper rifle), Owen signs up. Little does he know that he’ll soon be up against monstrosities from beyond the veil of space and time that make his dad’s idea of the end of the world look like a tea party.

Monster Hunter International is every bit as big and loud as you’d expect it to be. Owen is a hulking beast of a guy with a penchant for mouthing B-movie one-liners while he’s turning monsters into jelly or receiving a vicious beatdown of his own. A chapter scarcely goes by without fierce fisticuffs or blazing gun battles. And speaking of firearms, Correia fills the book’s page with weapon descriptions that are so lovingly described it’s almost erotic. For instance, take the fully automatic shotgun boasting a 20-round drum, underslung grenade launcher, and fold-out silver bayonet. It’s name? Abomination. Yeah, you get the idea. "For a competition nut like myself, these [things] were the kind of thing that I dreamed about," Owen intones. 'Normal men had pornography. I had gun magazines." But you know what? The book is also more intelligent than it has any right to be. The occasional political and religious asides not only make for humorous moments, but also prompt serious consideration about the nature of society. The monster hunters have adopted sic transit gloria mundi ("The glory of man is fleeting") as their slogan, which adds some philosophical heft to the proceedings. And Correia’s cryptozoological catalogue includes critters from all sorts of stories both mythical and modern. (There’s a fun inversion of Tolkien’s mythos that had me grinning from ear to ear.) Unfortunately, the romantic bits are stilted and a couple of plot twists seem suspect. But who really cares? Monster hunts up smart fun.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Antoine Gady)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Watterson on Making Creative Fundamentals Fun

In 1990 commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame discussed the importance of cultivating a curious, creative mind. Excerpts:
It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I've learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it's how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. ...

We're not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery—it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of "just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people's expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you'll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you'll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you'll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.
Read the whole thing. A kaleidoscopic array of memories scattered through my head as I read Watterson’s speech. A undergraduate philosophy professor telling me that the best writers have an abiding love for thinking deeply. The condescending smile of an older friend who said that reading was a luxury in which I wouldn’t be able to indulge as I aged. The way acquaintances’ eyes dull whenever conversation strays into anything more complex than sports scores or sitcom season finales. Heinlein’s famous quote on focused living. (“In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”)

For the adult, time is tight. Engaged thought is a luxury. Finding mental and chronological space to write? That’s beyond precious. I believe that’s part of Watterson’s point: Given that it’s so difficult to engage in the worthy stuff that makes creativity possible, why not make that very stuff part of our ever-shrinking recreational lives? In other words, we should make the fundamentals fun if we want to create.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Brad Arnold; Hat Tip: Between Two Worlds)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Get Ready for an Obsessively Enjoyable Niche Read

When I was a kid, my dad threatened to throw my Nintendo off of the balcony of the condo where we were living. I can’t say I blamed him. An eminently practical man who made his living farming, he couldn’t stand the idea of electronic entertainment. So when he came home one day to find me clutching a controller in a room with the shades drawn against the sun, he blew a gasket. “You’re just sitting there like a goon in front of that box!” he exclaimed. “It’s a goon box, and I’m going to throw it out the window if you don’t go outside!” I’ll wager that I’m not the only individual of my generation whose parents just didn’t get the idea of video games. But to many children of the eighties, they were a cultural influence every bit as potent as Elvis or the Apollo landing. And it’s for those individuals that I suspect Ernest Cline penned his debut cyberpunk novel Ready Player One.

You wouldn’t say Wade Owen Watts’ world is in decline. Rather, you’d say it’s a semi plummeting down Pikes Peak with its brake lines cut. The worst part? Everybody knows it, which is why OASIS has become so popular. OASIS is essentially Second Life with spells and lasers, a virtual universe studded with planetoids upon which the impossible is commonplace. In OASIS, Wade isn’t some pale, chubby teenager. He’s Parzival, a medieval warrior who goes about killing monsters. OASIS was created by one James Halliday, a neurotic programming genius whose only solace in life was consuming copious amounts of eighties media. A multibillionaire at the time of his death, Halliday pledged his fortune to whoever could find an Easter Egg (or secret content) within the virtual world, a treasure whose location is hidden in cultural references so obscure that egg hunters (a.k.a. gunters) keep encyclopedic cross-referenced commonplace books filled with trivia. The virtual arms race has been going on for five long years with gunters battling the corrupt corporate drones of conglomerate Innovative Online Industries. What no one realizes is that Wade himself in going to stumble over the first clue to Halliday’s fortune almost entirely by accident.

There’s a reason why Crown Publishers put a blurb by Charlaine Harris (whose Sokie Stackhouse novels inspired HBO’s True Blood) at the top of the hardcover I read. (“This non-gamer loved every page of Ready Player One.”) The marketers obviously didn’t want Cline’s first book to be pigeonholed as a geeky nostalgic exercise. True, the book is more than that. Cline makes Wade into more or less a fully realized character with all the hopes and frustrations, dreams and despondencies, achievements and agonies that you’d expect from a teen in a high-tech, opportunity-constrained context. The action also proves enjoyable, and the ending is a truly a nailbiter. But the people who’ll enjoy Ready Player One the most are those who dig obsessively detailed descriptions of Atari-era videogames, Dungeons & Dragons, and virtual combat. Cline also goes all-in with cyberpunk tropes, filling the proceedings with online hijinks, crumbling urban cores, and a corporation so WrongBadUnGood that it’s comical. I don’t see how you could imagine Ready Player One is anything but a niche title. But it’s still a darn enjoyable one for all that.

(Picture: CC 2009 by moparx)

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Fostering"

Before Theresa even opened her eyes, she knew the rain had stopped. The air hung still and silent, devoid of the near-ceaseless pattering that skittered over her roof in the cold months. She knew that the gray dawn sky would soon be filled with gaggles of geese. She knew squirrels would stir from their winter nests.

She also knew that it wouldn’t let Richard lie still.
As a Kentuckian living in south Florida, the state of Oregon is an ongoing mystery to me. The summers are some of the most lovely I’ve ever encountered, temperate and blue-sky-clear all the day long. The region’s long tradition of producing strong coffee, craft beer, and crisp white wine is also equally enjoyable. But the winters are positively hellish, and I say that as someone who studied for four years in Chicago. The sky turns to slate, a color promising snow but only delivering a dour drizzle that continues unabated for months, the world becoming a damp patchwork of gray and green that's colder in its own insistent way than any snowstorm. And I’m not even going to get into the area’s sociopolitical preoccupations, which I find completely perplexing. (What do you mean I can’t legally pump my own gas?!) Still, my wife is from Oregon, and as I’ve gotten a little more familiar with it over the years, I’ve found the region creeping into my fiction.

“Fostering” started as a story my mother-in-law shared with me. (My wife’s parents maintain a homestead farm that’s big enough to almost entirely sustain them, yet small enough to render it manageable.) One day, she explained how something had killed two of their sheep, a lamb and a ewe that didn’t belong to one another. This was problematic in ways I didn't expect, because it left the surviving lamb without any means of sustenance and the surviving ewe at risk for mastitis. Apparently, sheep aren't keen on adoption. The solution was simple, if more than a little macabre: They skinned the dead lamb and made its hide into a coat for the living one. Over the next week or so, the ewe would come to accept the foundling simply because of it bore the scent of her dead offspring.

The horror scribe in me couldn’t let that gruesome image lie.

“Fostering,” a story about the compromises circumstance and time can convince us to make, appears in Acidic Fiction. You can read it for free here. Many thanks to Sharon Roy and Michael Roy for their help with the details of farm life, as well as Scott Garbacz and Acidic Fiction editor Steven Davis for helping whip the manuscript into shape.