Experience: Writing From It

People get their inspiration from all kinds of sources. Anyone familiar with this blog would know that I often recommend folks to go out and do things. But often enough it’s not so much the things we do that give us perspective and life experience, but rather the things that happen to us.

I’ve been debating on tackling a short story idea that has sort of manifested as a result some Life Circumstances I’ve had to wad through. On one hand, they say write what you know, and on the other, the Writer within me observes the world at all times with one of two thoughts happening: “How can I use this?” and, preferably “I can use this.”

It is my rudimentary understanding that people don’t really write all that much if they’re happy, or more to the point, write so much about happy things. Lack of conflict is boring, every storyteller knows that. The question is, how can one utilize their emotions, their tribulations, their experience, constructively.

I once did work for someone who took this idea by the reigns and went and wrote a book about some serious relationship turmoil she had been going through for a year. Not long ago, I met up with an old friend-of-the-family who was in the process of her own autobiographical novel. I confess having done something similar once – a rather specific scene – in a yet-to-be-refined-and-published work of mine, but the entirety of that scene was fictionalize. The only part that was true to experience was the emotion involved.

So my short story idea has in part been inspired by what these folks I know have done (and do), as well as the Life Circumstances themselves. The tricky part is, for me, that my goal is not to tell a believable human interest story set in the Real World. My goal is to express myself, but through the filter/lens of my adored medium: Fantasy.

I have read that whenever a writer writes and an author authorizes, every character they create has some piece of the creator in them. Makes sense, yea? How much or little is up to you, but in the case of this short story – sort of a standalone origin story for a non-protagonist character in my novels – there’ll be just enough to make the person expressive for my own therapeutic purposes, but also (hopefully) interesting enough to give the character unforeseen depth.

On the other hand, I could just end up churning out another rag. But I prefer to be optimistic. After all, as of this post, I’ve got a month to see if I can pull it off in time for Writers of the Future.

Happy writing, dear readers. As a closing, here is an excellent and optimistic chiptune track I discovered recently.

Florida Trip

So the short of it is that, as of this post, I just returned from a four-day excursion to Florida. As a (rural) New Yorker, in February, this is a cataclysmic change of scenery, seeing as I’ve never before been to Florida except “when you were a baby,” (doesn’t count, Dad) and some years later as a teenager (where I was mostly stuck indoors). In other words, I was in a town just outside Orlando – known as Kissimmee – and as a sentient adult with (limited) independent mobility (we had a golf cart), I was able to actually explore the locales.

But no bloody alligators.

The purpose of the trip was in fact to visit my ninety-seven year old Hungarian grandmother, whom I have not seen personally in upwards of ten years. She is as pruney and dependent as any near-centennial could be expected to be, but she is a woman who is more at peace with the world than practitioners of Buddhism I’ve met, and retains a sharp mind. To put it short, this is a lady who is the closest thing I have to a living ancestor, someone who lead an extremely busy and good life, and is now in the process of winding down. “What’s the point?” she’s said with a shrug and a smile, in regards to people mentioning that they hope she makes it to ninety-eight.

The family at large is about as prepared for her passing as she is, and her children (my mother among them) visit frequently. It would seem that Nana is largely unconcerned with herself, often insisting that the rest of us not be terribly bothered by … things about her, though she is delighted to see us regardless. It’s just like a cantankerous old German blacksmith once told me: “Ze Hungarians, yes, zey are hard-heads.” I assume he means stubborn, but I’ll keep that in mind next time I get into a street fight and must resort to assuming my well-trained Ram Stance.

But it is a sobering moment, to meet someone who was almost born in the 19th century. We were in a cultish, Lutheran/Methodist (I don’t remember which and honestly don’t care about the difference, and neither does Nana) golf course slash elder-person habitat. Not a mountain in sight, and I’m a country-boy-turned-computer-jockey – I feel lost without mountains to put my back against when orienting myself, and the fauna.

Lizards! Egrets, whooping cranes, and lizards. Anoles, to be precise. Like, everywhere. Anyone who’s been to Georgia or further south must not find this interesting, but as someone whose principle source of reptilianhood has been garter snakes and painted box turtles, it felt like going to another country. Seeing all the Spanish Moss and unraveling palm trees heightened this sensation.

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But not crocodiles, in spite of the hints.

Aside from observations of flora and fauna, and the memorable company of a progenitor of me whom I, like I said, hardly saw for most of my life, there was considerable progress in terms of writing. Alone in the apartment we rented or cramped in the giant tin bird on the way two and from from the Land of Flowers, I nearly filled out half a notebook full of prose.

To that end, I may have discovered my ideal writing retreat: somewhere 40,000 feet above the ground where sunlight dances off golden cloudscapes and where claustro-acrophobics curse existence.

Happy writing, dear readers!

A Time Travel Surprise

Never been much of a fan of time-travel themed stories. Perhaps it is a concept that is inherently paradoxical, and often in pop-fiction it serves as little more than a means of saying “What if a modern character were placed in [this time period]?” Or of course vice versa. Aside from the shear physics-defying mechanics and technology that would be involved, usually there’s a bit of accountability lost in some of these stories.

Now don’t get me wrong, few can argue the greatness of Back to the Future. And sure, there’re others that come to mind, but there’re also a few less-than-good ones that come to mind as well. As far as I’m concerned, Time Travel as a genre or theme is kind of a turn off for me.

Now, had I known this, I might not have tried a certain audiobook I picked up from the Humble Bundle some time ago known simply as Found, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Having finished it with a smile, I can safely say that I was pleasantly surprised by the time-travel element that sorta came out of left field for me. Now, this can be totally attested to my ignorance of Margaret Peterson Haddix – and her Missing series – but I’m not afraid to admit it.

Let’s just say this: Normally, I don’t like Time Travel (much). Normally, I don’t like Young Adult, either. But Found was both of these, and I rather enjoyed it. I wonder whether not knowing anything about the book beforehand before reading it enhanced my experience, but I know for certain that no previous knowledge might have prevented me from experiencing it at all. Let that just be a word of caution to everyone out there!

Try reading something outside of your genre, or outside of your interest-range. Or, better yet, pick up a book (or have someone pick one for you) that you know nothing about, and just give it a shot. I have heard of a ritual that people will do where they give each other book-gifts, with brown paper bag covers – so no one but the giver knows what the title, author, genre or whatever is. I guess I’d do this if I knew more people who read books, but hey, in the meantime I’ve got a pile of audiobooks from that Humble Bundle left to go.

Not to mention something that was handed to me by a stranger once, a little paperback called Random Harvest by James Hilton. Was told it was immensely popular – a New York Times bestseller –  and, looking at its Wikipedia entry, apparently it was.

70 years ago.

But anyway, as for Found, I’d recommend it for anyone into Time Travel, Young Adult Fiction, or mysteries. This is something I would, along with Redwall and The Hobbit, read to my nephew one day.

What books have you found surprising in either content or quality?

Badass Evolution

So some of you may have heard the latest bits regarding crocodiles learning to climb trees. Apparently this has been reported in the past, but never really took hold and spread in the public consciousness/media.

The crocs do it more likely to bask in the sun than to hunt though; as predominantly aquatic reptiles, though they might be able to get themselves up a tree, they’re not really equipped for lashing out and grabbing things like birds and inquisitive tourists, unless they’re willing to take the fall on the way, and I don’t see that happening. Anything with a mouth can bite, sure sure, but it’s not like crocodiles suddenly learned to do this anyway.

Here I am speaking like some biologist trying to calm down the masses from the brink of panic. Honestly, I just like animals, and the fact that I happen to be visiting Florida at the end of this week seems to be most apropos.

So here’s to some of the oldest, biggest, and most ferocious reptiles in the world. I’m grateful they’re not the saltwater variety down near Orlando.

The flash of tree-climbing crocodiles, though, brings up an interesting story-telling concept. Take it as a writing prompt, if you will, but the idea of a creature that everyone can recognize and name (the discrepancy between alligators and crocodiles notwithstanding) seemingly doing something unexpected is just a story waiting to happen. What’s next, apes being capable of language?

Oh wait.

What unexpected animal behavior would you love to see? Better yet, what unexpected animal behavior would you write about?

 

Concept: Leadership

As much as I dig the Starsiege: Tribes game, back in the day anyway – though I feel compelled to mention that the soundtrack for Tribes: Ascend, the latest one (which I haven’t played much), has a few tracks that’re utterly phenomenal – what I am talking about today is something quite different.

Having recently discovered Seth Godin, an author of a multitude of books that tend to focus on personal change and entrepreneurship. I like to consume these so-called self-help styled texts in between fiction works to shake things up, and Tribes is – in a nutshell – about leadership, about how people in modern society, more than ever, are conditioned to follow, and how because of this, leaders are needed more than ever. Regrettably, negative people will shoot down what Godin has to say as nothing new or helpful. Clearly, his works are not for those folks. I found his writings, even if some of it was obvious, to be worded in such a way to be made quite clear to me, and that’s all I needed to make some changes.

Now to understand his concept of tribes, as well as leadership, it must be said that for one, being part of a tribe is a natural human tendency. We’re pack animals, after all (though I have heard humans being referred to as herd animals, on occasion). Therein lies some of our greatest strengths, but also some of our weaknesses. Following a group is not always a good thing, but it’s not always bad either. To be in a tribe, there must be some sense of belonging yes, but also exclusion. This, too, is not always as bad as it sounds.

One’s tribe need not be that of bloodties, such as a clan, but rather a group of people who share ideals, goals and world views. The tribes of Apple and Google are cited as examples, who not only have formed a corporate tribe – for the employees – but also a tribal following. The same can be said for churches, political movements and anything to do with improving a skill.

As an author, Seth Godin also has a bit to about self-marketing and entrepreneurship, which easily ties into the main point of being a leader. And, perhaps biggest of all, he emphasizes that leadership is not a born skill: it is acquired. It can be learned; charisma is a choice, not a gift. After interviewing a large body of leaders from many fields, it was found that there were those who were shy, those who were extroverted; those who were great at public speaking, and leaders who froze in front of a crowd. It isn’t about forcing people to follow you, it’s about finding like-minds who see something in common, and wish to realize that goal, whatever it is.

I also took away an excellent tidbit that I found hugely inspiring for a secondary character in my own fiction. This character is meant to be one of the greatest leaders of the age, but how could I write a leader without falling into cliches about Just Doing It And People Miraculously or Before The Big Battle pep-talks? Certainly there are many ways, but as I said, I was inspired by a simple point made by Godin: What makes a great leader is not someone who tells everyone what to do – it’s someone who allows their “subordinates” the freedom to do what they do best. In other words, the leader knows his men/women/soldiers/etc., and trusts them to do what they do.

One really ought to read Seth Godin’s books; I intend to absorb more, and have myself been inspired to lead, even if for a start, it means steering my life the way I want it to go. I urge you all to do the same!

Happy writing, dear readers!

Review: American Gods

I once heard Neil Gaiman on an interview with Chris Hardwick over at The Nerdist. It was one of the best and most effective interviews of a successful author I’ve ever heard. Whether your a fan of Gaiman or (like me) never really had him on your radar until now, you really ought to give it a listen. The advice he gives are alone worth blogging about.

Hearing him spurred my interest, and after some brief research I saw the same book title appearing again and again, particularly on lists like “5 books that will make Neil Gaiman your favorite author.” Thus I discovered American Gods, and was not disappointed.

This review will continue with the rough assumption that you’ve read the book, so mild spoiler warning.

Basically, I really liked this book. I am by no means a seasoned Gaiman reader, and I have this lingering feeling that he is unconstrained by the restraints conventional ideas. I get the feeling that his work often leans into the weird, which would sort of explain his preoccupation (and moderate fame) with his association with Doctor Who. As someone who is not a Doctor Who fan, this is sorta news to me.

American Gods follows the character Shadow, an ex-con with a penchant for coin tricks who is revealed to be a son of Odin. There is an elaborate plot involving an unambiguously Ragnarok-ish battle between the Old Gods (those of which everyone might be familiar) and the New Gods (such as the gods of Media, the Internet, of Television, Pyschology, etc.). Characterization is believable and the dialogue is often witty and quotable; I had the pleasure of listening to the 10th Anniversary Edition, which sports a full-voice cast interspersed with “coming to America” interludes read out by Neil Gaiman himself. The voices no doubt helps with the individualization of the plethora of gods and characters, but the prose in and of itself was, at times, nothing short of imaginative. One of my favorite bits, involving someone entering an old, musty house, was (paraphrasing): “…and there was a faint, sweet smell, like the house was haunted by the ghosts of long dead cookies.”

That is brilliant on multiple levels.

While the concepts of “gods exist because people believe in them” and “when you believe in something you give it power” are not new, I gotta hand it to Gaiman for deifying modern concepts of our current world and mode of thought, such as the aforementioned Media and Internet. Heck, there’s even a god of the FBI, and the subtle wit behind their existence is commendable. Have you ever met an FBI agent? No doubt you’ve seen, possibly even met, people involved with the Media, but have you ever met the media before? How about the Internet? Most of you reading this (I wager) are familiar with the Internet’s use, but who among us can truly grasp it? Can truly understand what it is, how vast it is?  With very few exception, chances are the answer is no.

But you believe they’re there, donchya?

Writing Thoughts: Distance Traveling in Fantasy

When making up a fantasy realm, or any story involving long-distance trekking, people often include a staple creature: the horse.

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Art by limsh

But not every writer has ridden a horse, and fewer and fewer people have even touched one, let alone taken care of one. I guess there are exceptions, but even in those circumstances that does not make anyone an expert. But still, it’s important to learn whatever you can, when you can. Here’re a few things I’ve come across in my research regarding horses, riding, and how they may be applicable to a fantasy story.

Horses poop. A lot, and pretty often. As grazing animals, they spend a lot of time eating, and that continuous stream of fibrous material means frequent pit stops.

Horses do not whinny or neigh nearly as much as the movies would have you believe. Much like how swords should not be making a metal-on-metal shink! sound when drawn (don’t do that!), this is something depicted often in popular media. Horses communicate with much calmer sounds (as well as an array of body language), and generally only make the iconic sounds we’re used to hearing when extremely alarmed or irate. A battle scene? Sure. Walking along peacefully through the forest with nothing but a rider and some companions? More likely the horse is quiet.

A human can outdistance a horse. As reinforced in this article, humans can outrun dogs, wildebeest, even horses, after a certain period of time. The article gets into great detail…

“…what most sets us apart as runners is that we’re really cool—we naked apes are champion sweaters and can dissipate body heat faster than any other large mammal. Our main rivals for the endurance-running crown fall into two groups: migratory ungulates, such as horses and wildebeest, and social carnivores, such as dogs and hyenas. They can easily out-sprint us by galloping. But none can gallop very far without overheating…”

The way a friend described it to me was this: humans evolved, eventually, into predatory animals, but instead of the route in which lions and wolves took – which involved strategy, yes, but mostly sprinting and catching running animals – we grew not to match or overtake prey with speed, but with endurance. The simple scenario is sighting some antelope or what have you, beginning the chase with whatever tactic you have in mind, and then going after it. Eventually the animal would exhaust itself and all our ancestors need do was walk up to it, weapon-of-choice at the ready.

It can pay to have things like this in mind, whether designing and adventure or a courier system in your world. Here’re some links to excellent resources:

There’s the trope for automaton horses, when they never seem to need food, water or care, and related, blatant ignorance of horse biology. Heck, I didn’t know horses couldn’t vomit, either.

Then, aside from the internet, there are indeed specialized books on the subject.

Happy writing, dear readers! Ever have a horse-related experience you’d like to share, or a certain animal-related peeve seen in stuff you’ve read?