A Call To Arms

I remember when I started this blog a few years ago. I had no precise idea what the purpose of it would be or the range of topics I might cover.

It’s since evolved. To some extent.

One of my earliest posts focused on common writing tendencies — encountered in as much published writing as editing clients’ “books to be” — that bothered me. Like, actually bugged me enough to write about it publicly.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a number of articles (and other things) regarding The Craft that I found useful. Today, I’ll highlight a few of them that I feel are worth your time. I’ll also touch on a couple of the writing terms mentioned that might need some extrapolation.

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Let’s start things off with discussing the use of vulgarities, profanities, swear words. There’s a gentleman whose posts have garnered some steam in the NaNoWriMo group Facebook Group,occasionally circulating amongst us aspiring writers with varying degrees of opposition or acceptance. I, for one, rather enjoyed both what he had to say and the manner in which he conveyed it – that is, with extreme profanity.

The words of John Hartness in these two articles, Five Reasons You Won’t Make it as a Writer and Why Your Self-Published Book Looks Like A Pile Of Ass And Won’t Ever Make You Any Money come off as unsurprisingly irate. I imagine they are written as much to dissuade the dissuadable as to encourage the competent. If one were to read these articles and these articles alone, one could quickly and easily surmise that the anger boiling in this man’s belly is like the stomach acid of a sarlacc.

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Any would-be writer would do well to read these two articles simply on the basis of knowing what’s going on out there; whether or not Hartness’ words are news to you is besides the point. If you find yourself discouraged, then perhaps indeed you must rethink your path. While not in agreement with everything he says and I’m not exactly endorsing him, I will make one quote that I believe in:

“…I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.

A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. …”

But, as has been pointed out by both unknown commentators and even some of my peers, he isn’t saying anything particularly original in these articles. His use of excessive profanity is meant to be attention-grabbing (you will indeed notice a shameless plug for his own work somewhere between the fucks he doesn’t give) but I will say I learned something.

One thing that stood out to me is his mentioning of the passive voice, something I learned about from Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft many years before writing this post, and have since endeavored to reduce it’s usage whenever possible. I do, however, often enough forget the terminology used to describe the passive voice, and why it’s sub-optimal. I, for one, am in the camp that using it does indeed weaken your writing. I also did not know there was term for what’s known as “filter words,” which I’ll talk about in a moment.

A colleague of mine wrote a post in response to John Hartness’ articles I linked, talking specifically about the use of vulgar language in blogs. You can find Joy’s post here – she, too makes a solid point.

 

The Passive Voice 

So what exactly is the passive voice? Perhaps it is best to demonstrate. passive 02

Passive Voice: Tired and blood dripping from the blade, and the sword was gripped by John.

It was, eh? Well, we can glean easily enough that this was a night in the Simple Past tense, but that’s not quite what is meant by a passive voice; it is passive in the sense that stuff happens to the thing, rather than the thing doing something. Compare that with:

Active Voice: Tired from the fight, John gripped his sword, blood dripping from the blade.

The active voice, even in this very rudimentary example, so
unds noticeably more immediate. Stuff’s happening now, and has a more urgent energy to the imagery you paint in your mind. The passive voice is especially damaging to faster-paced action scenes. Also, there’s this nifty trick…

 

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Not sure? Take the example I provided a moment ago:

Tired and blood dripping from the blade, the sword was gripped by John.

[by John] can easily be replaced with [by zombies]. Anything that was written in the passive voice can be capped off with [by zombies]. Or, conversely:

Tired and blood dripping from his blade, John was gripped by zombies.

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What I have read, and what I do,  to avoid this is simply omit the usage of the word “was” as much as possible. Nowadays I see it mostly as a sort of ‘word inefficiency,’ and sometimes, at its worst, I see it as downright lazy. At first, I was ruthless about cutting it out of my prose, because I found strengthened my writing. If you don’t allow yourself to use the word “was,” you force yourself to reconstruct the entire sentence. More often than not, the result turned out to be more expressive and articulate.

I suggest you attempt the same, but one must always strike a balance. I’ll let it slip occasionally, but very rarely in straight-up prose — and when it comes to character dialog, well, they say whatever they say (‘cuz real folks don’t much cotton to grammar).

A final words (at least in this post) in regards to the passive voice from are none other than the King himself.

“[One] of my pet peeves [has] to do with the most basic level of writing, and I want to get [it] off my chest before we move along. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.

You can find the long version of Stephen King talking about the passive voice here. And if you’re unfamiliar with Stephen King to any degree, you’ll soon learn that he’s not particularly afraid of using profanity and cutting through the bullshit to make a point.

There are loads of articles with similar advice and similar links. Yet we frequently encounter the Passive Voice, and I cannot help but agree with the King in the above quote. We each have our stages, and our paths; perhaps once I was a timid writer but I wouldn’t ascribe to such a label these days. I have restraints, sure, and there are certain topics that make me downright uncomfortable to write about. My stance on profanity is that if it helps further the point of the topic (or if a character is speaking, it does more than just “adultify the tone”), then have fun.

If you’re one of those types who either don’t yet see “the big deal” with the Passive Voice or who have otherwise staked out a tent in the camp of people who believe that people can write whatever they want, then please understand that I see you’re point.

I just heartily disagree with it.

I’ll get into a list of tips and tricks of the Craft that I follow in a future post. Until then, consider these things when writing and revising.

Happy writing!

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Today’s musical number recommendation comes from Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, the work of whom I fondly came to love while watching Cowboy Bebop. As of January 2016 (some weeks before this post) I managed to, at long last, watch the series in its entirety. Cowboy Bebop my responsible for my interest in soft Jazz.

 

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The Influence Map

Improving your writing should be an ongoing effort.

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It’s easy enough to find writing advice online, ranging from drafting the so-called perfect scene to 297 Words to omit. While much of it is sound advice, it is often difficult to find advice that is at your level, whatever level that may be. From learning how to cut out over-used phrases (for instance, my characters tend to shrug, snort, and raise their eyebrows often) to understanding how to seed information throughout your story as opposed to performing an InfoDump (very common in Fantasy and Science/Speculative Fiction), or even simply challenging yourself by going through your draft to cut out the words “was” and most any adverb (-ly words) … mercilessly.

Following even just the guidelines I just mentioned:

  • The rough scheme of how to construct a scene
  • Omission of words that serve as useless padding
  • Awareness of one’s own tendencies
  • Seeding information (avoiding InfoDumps)
  • Restructuring sentences (but not necessarily all) to avoid using an -ly adverb or the word “was”

…Following even just that, I am confident the majority of would-be writers will see an improvement in their prose.

But what if that isn’t enough?

After all, once you’ve mastered the art of storytelling (which, as I said, is an ongoing process and as such mastery is a matter of subjective opinion), what if the story itself you’re trying to tell is downright not engaging? What if you’ve spent months-worth of hours crafting and inventing a world, but the story in which it takes place just isn’t all that interesting?

There is no formula for an effective story, as Andrew Stanton says in his awesome Ted Talk, but there are clues. I have heard his points reinforced by other writers, such as those found on the Writing Excuses Podcast.

I share these with you now to cover any bases, for those of you unfamiliar with these links and methods. But to be honest, I have researched all of these things before (which is not to say I mastered the aforementioned techniques, but I feel I’ve got a good handle on them), and I was looking for something more.

That’s where mentors come into play.

If you are someone I want to say lucky enough to have yourself a mentor, no matter the field, this is a boon for your career. If you meet someone who does what you want to do, has what you want to have, and they are willing to take time out of their life to show you the in’s and outs of this, that is a magical, special thing.

However the majority of us do not have such a person in our lives. And as it turns out for me, personally, most of the writers I admire are dead. But I, too, am lucky to some degree, for the most powerful research tool in the largest library in history is readily available as well as readily taken for granted.

I discovered another Ted Talk, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (he has a book of the same name). Watch this video.

Following the idea presented in the TED Talk, I drew up my own Influence Map. This is the result after a few hours:

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A web like this makes sense to me, as a visually-oriented person, as opposed to, say, a spreadsheet or a simple list of names.

For the more technically minded, we can see from this beautiful and half-chipped white board more than a few familiar names. You can see that Isaac Asimov (specifically Foundations) and Frank Herbert’s Dune were each inspired mostly by … well, science and history. The same goes for George R. R. Martin, the works of whom I have criticized thoroughly in the past, yet I cannot deny he has had an influence on me.

Many Go-To-Influences include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings get put into the same rough genre yet differ greatly from each other. I’ve never been a direct fan of Tolkien (never read LotR, only The Hobbit), and Howard’s writing style had a profound effect on me — years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. Names like Roger Zelazney come up often as well.

Yet there are those inspirations for certain pieces and by certain authors that I may never be able to unearth. Cory J. Herndon wrote the first Ravnica books, novelizations for a particular setting in the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. He’s been relatively quiet since then, and like many of the MTG novels, creativity is doubtless involved, but for the most part, writers have the same recurring theme going on within the confines of a premade setting. Novelizations of a trading card game are, after all, promotional material at best.

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Lorwyn, one of nearly a dozen canonized worlds (planes) under the Magic: The Gathering multiverse.

Yet several of the MTG books stand as extremely influential for me, not least of which the Ravnica series by Herndon. Among a few other writers, he is unfortunately one of those whose background and influences I could not dig up.

And then, somewhere to the side next to “MTG Books” I’ve got Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where the Japanese creators of those geek-culture phenomena got their ideas is not so easily discovered. Granted, those were video games and an anime series — a team effort, with different members contributing different things. I would give up my legs for a translated transcript of those brainstorming sessions.

I would recommend the Influence Map exercise to anyone, regardless of what branch of creativity from which you sprout. Who inspires you? Who inspires(inspired) them? And who inspired *that* one?

Consider reading and learning from those books.

Happy writing!

 

 

Importance of Gender in Fiction

Sexuality and gender in writing brings up a whole pile of subtopics. Each come with its set of obstacles – some more subtle than others. This post is an attempt to make some observations, ask some questions, and perhaps incite questions of your own.

As easy as it is to get into the tirade of how ridiculous ‘feminine’ armor is depicted in fantasy media, that is not what this post is about. I already touched on that in why I hate elves.

No really, chill.

There, settled.

A peer in my writing group once raised a question about changing the gender of one or more of her characters. The question concerned how the characters related to the audience, and this is not an unusual question when crafting any kind of story.

The agents always ask: “To which demographic are we marketing this?” and the fellow-writers will ask “To whom are you writing this – a specific group or yourself?” Then the philosowriters may ask: “If there was no such thing as gender, would your story still make sense?”

It is no secret as to whom the majority of games and movies of the fantasy genre are aimed.

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I’ve reached the point where the amount I’m turned on is directly proportional to the practicality witnessed.

Setting that madness aside, gender plays a role in how we relate (or don’t) to characters, certainly, because as much as the feminists — the real kind of feminism, which preaches equality — will have you believe otherwise, there are some differences between the sexes that can cause barriers.

At least in the context of relating to fake people in a book.

I like to ask the question, “Does the gender of the character have anything to do with the story?” Like, if s/he is a male, does that make whatever job their holding more or less believable? If s/he is a female, does that put her motivations in question?

Unless your character is a lumberjack with a heavy interest in, I don’t know, cars or something (whatever the hell it is men find interesting), it might stretch the imagination to find this character to in fact be a lumberjane.

If the answer is no, and you can apparently swap the gender of a character without any major plot implications, then why are they that gender in the first place?

As for me, I ended up facing this question about three years ago, in my own writing. I realized the Novel Project that I’d been working on had something of a preponderance of male characters. An obvious side-effect of…

  • being a male writer
  • the setting/occupations of the PoV characters
  • stereotypes of the genre and age (medieval-esque fantasy)

Those of you who know me moderately well might recall my insistence on referring to myself as a fantasist, and while there’s no shortage of heroines in that genre (gods, sometimes it feels over saturated with them), the question boils down to “WHY is the character [insert_gender_here]?”

The following is an excerpt from an article at Cracked.com, concerning the way in which women are portrayed even by one of the currently eminent fantasy author, George R. R. Martin.

“…Right now I’m reading a book from mega-selling fantasy author George R. R. Martin. The following is a passage where he is writing from the point of view of a woman — always a tough thing for men to do. The girl is on her way to a key confrontation, and the narrator describes it thusly:

“When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest …”

That’s written from the woman’s point of view. Yes, when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing. “Janet walked her boobs across the city square. ‘I can see them staring at my boobs,’ she thought, boobily.” He assumes that women are thinking of themselves the same way we think of them.”

In my manuscript, I ended up changing one of my pivotal PoV characters from male to female mostly out of a desire for a balance in the cast, but also as something of a challenge.

In the first writings, Zayne was an old man, but by the time any readers would meet the elder I had since swapped him out for an old woman. This not only meant formatting the manuscript a bit (like changing all the [he said]’s to [she said]’s), but forced me to reconsider why he was a man in the first place.

Turns out there was no particular reason for having him of a male persuasion, and as a double-bonus I found Zayne’s character significantly more fun to write. A snarky, quick-witted and vengeful old crone comes as something of a comical surprise to other characters (and, I hope, readers as well) when the stereotype for a grandmotherly-looking old lady – the likes of whom might be expected to be pulling freshly baked cookies out of an oven or serving hot sweet tea – is turned on its head.

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I find both the character and the performance of the Queen of Thorns to be hugely inspiring. Been a long time since I saw her last playing Lady Holiday in the Great Muppet Caper.

Overall, Zayne’s personality did not change much after the transition, and I’ve always thought it liberating (as well as an active challenge) to write a character of the opposing gender. If anything, she evolved, because it opened doors to her personality that I hadn’t considered before.

WHY did she give up prospects of marrying in favor of a career as an ambitious merchant? WHY does she view the women of her culture as weak and dependent for seeking nothing more than to adorn themselves like hens hoping to be plucked?

Back to the question. Should a character’s gender be reconsidered in an effort to make them more ‘relateable’ to your intended audience?

Perhaps. Though, I’ve found that over the course of my literary adventures the question of whether the character was male or female didn’t really influence whether I liked them or what they did or said was convincingly possible. If Tyrion Lannister were a snide, pint-sized woman, or if Illidan and Malfurion Stormrage were twin sisters instead of brothers, I wonder whether they would be as interesting to me back in the day?

Though I will admit that Conana the Barbarian doesn’t really work for me.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.. This is a great example of a canonically male character being swapped for a female portrayal.

Unless the character is talking about something exclusively in the realm of the feminine (such as, say, childbirth), or perhaps the social pressures present in the story affect the character’s demeanor and, by extension, the plot direction of the story arc…then I am inclined to say that the gender doesn’t really matter.

So I say, choose the gender that you feel works best for who the characters are, not who you’re trying to sell it to.

Therefore, I encourage you all, as much as myself, to ask yourself why. Why is a character a particular gender in your story?

Did you have it planned? Did it ‘just happen’ as lots of creatives like to claim? Was it the product of perhaps unlabeled, subconscious stereotypes? Or perhaps some other, specific reason?

Fear Of The Finish Line

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Not long ago, I had a strange epiphany-like moment. It happened when I was mulling over precisely why it was that I haven’t been writing fiction like I used to.

In the not-so-distant past, I eagerly strode out of my home to one of a myriad of cafes within walking distance and would sit down for hours at a time, drafting, editing and scrivenizing raw prose. Sometimes it was arduous, and sometimes it flowed like a cluster of frog eggs from your adolescent hand during a hot summer’s day.

How’s that for a visual?

So naturally, life distractions happen. Every writer’s bane is the internet itself, for all its usefulness. I have YouTube channels I like to follow that release daily content, all manner of websites full of interesting articles, and of course Wikipedia. Perhaps worst of all is Facebook, the ultimate time sink.

In case it may interest you, I’ve recently restarted using an app for Google Chrome called StayFocusdUsing this deceptively nifty little extension, you can limit how long you browse certain webpages. If you’re anything like me, and you easily lose track of time while browsing or “doing research,” it’s a great tool to help limit the internetical meandering.

By the way, no one gives me anything for this little endorsement.

Anyway, throw in any excuse with which you are most familiar. I have responsibilities, I don’t have enough time, I have a boy/girlfriend, I have appointments, deadlines, — whatever. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling one’s self these things, as though to excuse one’s self from actually working on one’s personal projects. The world is full of distracting things.

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Turns out I had the time, and still do, occasionally, have an extra hour or two between busy-ness and business. Granted, I have been monumentally distracted, but had I focus, I could turn those spare moments into productive writing time. I will gladly and freely admit that I am a fundamentally lazy person, but have endeavored to change my behavior to become more productive.

It has worked. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve effectively turned myself into the type of person that gets extremely antsy and anxious if I’m idle for too long. I’ve got more projects in my life now than I know how to complete. As far as writing is concerned, this includes:

A short story for my writer group, the Sky Writers, a short story for Masque & Spectacle (Vietnam Edition), any number of whimsical blog posts, and, of course, the all-consuming, all-powerful novel project.

The truth is I have had the time to work on any number of these. Energy, on the other hand, is arguable. Willpower has waned. So I’ve been getting very introspective, repeatedly asking myself the fundamental question: Why?

I, like many writers, think we need (or possibly delude ourselves into thinking we need) to be in the right state of mind in order for our time to be conducive to creativity. In other words, lots of us just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike us, which I’ve come to believe is most certainly the wrong way to do things. I hear it all the time, and the result is always the same: they aren’t actually writing anything.

Steven King, a man I cite often here, is a notoriously prolific writer, and in the book I cite just as often (if not more so) than the man himself, On Writing, King makes it clear that you can’t wait for the muse; you have to train your muse to know where to find you. That means making the habit of setting aside time, honoring it, and sitting in front of a notebook or a screen with a pen in your hand or a keyboard under your fingers. Make it habit. Personally, I like to have a cup of ice coffee nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert makes a counter-intuitive point to the idea of “your elusive creative genius” in her TED talk. This is among the top TED Talks that have left the greatest impression on me.

So even while knowing these things (even though I haven’t been putting them in practice quite as often as I would like, or would otherwise have you think, considering the preachy nature of this blog post), I still found myself asking the question: Why?

Then it hit me.

I think I am afraid of completing the novel.

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Bear in mind that, once finished, this would be my first, and were I to buckle down and write the last damn final chapters, the manuscript could be completed in something like a week or two. You would think that with the end in sight, I would be rushing to the finish line, but as it happens, I think I discovered an unexpected hurdle.

You see, I’ve been working on this thing for years. It’s conception first came about like the result of a prom night gone wrong, and about as long ago. That’d put the earliest bits of development around ten years before this post — but I’ve only recently taken my writing seriously as of about two or three years ago. Before then, my stories and ideas were but musings of an idle mind. Since then, the writings have taken on various incarnations; the novel I started is far different than the novel that will be finished, as it has been scratched and started anew several times.

In fact, almost nothing in common with the original story remains, except a slight sense of familiarity. It’s like an old computer you’ve had for ages, but you’ve gone about upgrading the hardware and software over the years. At which point does it, or did it ever, cease to be the same computer you started with?

The point of all this is this:

I discovered in myself that I might have actually fallen in love with the romantic ideal of “working on a novel,” rather than actually finishing it.

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The project has been in development for so long that more than once I’ve actually lost sight of the end! I mean sure, as per the reassurances of my writer-peers, I can and will always get involved in the next book.

Like I said, there’s a series planned. Standalone fantasy books are an excellent gulp of fresh-air, but that’s not what this particular story arc is.

The problem isn’t inspiration, or a lack of time, or even being in the dark about what will happen next in the manuscript. Usually what it comes down to is forcing myself to a place where the muse will find me: in a cafe somewhere, wearing giant headphones and with one or two drained coffee cups nearby, my laptop open and my notebook at hand.

I’m in fact emulating that as I put the final touches on this post.

Swallowing that strange thing that I can only describe as a fear of finishing.

Have you ever reached the finale of a game you’ve loved? Or a T.V. series? Or even a sequence of books or movies? There is always this sense of emptiness afterward. I’ve felt this after turning the last page of a few books, but in fact I’ve felt it strongest at the end of an anime or a classic JRPG of old.

Some of the most influential games for me were Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger. Mario RPG was one of the greats, as well. Each of these games I had beaten several times, but the first time I saw the credits roll, I sat and gazed at all the foreign names, letting the magnitude of my experience sink in.

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I can even remember a sense of depression after seeing the credit rolls halt, and reading a final “~FIN” or “The End” or “Thank you for playing.”

And writing about this has actually inspired me to dig up and start a new one. I haven’t played a JRPG in years; perhaps it’s time I see what all the hallabaloo is about Earthbound.

It ended. It was really over. Sometimes there would be looping music. Sometimes dead silence. Always stillness.

Now what?

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Substitute the word “book” with “RPG” and it rings just as true.

 

Every now and then, I regain the encouragement or wherewithal I need to remember my purpose. I swear, half the things I write about on this blog are about why I’m having trouble writing and what I do in an attempt to combat that. But I wonder how many others ever have felt this same anxiety?

The truth is that once I am completed with one novel project, there will always be another one to write, whether it’s a sequel or a separate piece.

It’s just merely a matter of getting over myself in order to write the blasted thing.

Funny how we are our own worst critics, our biggest hurdles, and our own only hope.

Do let me know whether you’ve experienced anything like this in the comments.

~~~

This post’s music comes from an OverClocked Remix of Final Fantasy’s Prelude, a part of the Balance and Ruin Remix Album for Final Fantasy 6. It never fails to remind me of my dreams as a writer.

Why I Hate Elves

The only reason to see the movie Elf was to watch Will Ferrel get drop kicked by Peter Dinklage.

So this is not so much a post designated to convince you of why you should hate elves as it is a simple rant. Let’s start with the basics.

At the very least, I despise the word ‘elf.’ Variations of long-eared humanoids are nifty, but for the most part they all follow the same Tolkienien tropes that are so overdone that I, personally, tend to lose interest very quickly. Along with Orcs and Dwarves, Elves are not what make a fantasy story a fantasy, yet all too often they make an appearance, as though there’s some recipe out there that says the formula is incomplete without a healthy dose of elf powder.

Fantasy is about imagination, about exploring worlds new and arguably familiar. To have your own world populated with carbon copies of what we’ve already seen in Faerun, Azeroth, Dominaria, Thedas, and countless bloody others doesn’t say much. They always have long lifespans, possess superior proportions, are almost unerringly attractive (so I hear), and are always better than you at everything. I get it, that’s what modern society seems to think elves are.

And it’s boring. I find hyper-sexualized characters to be irritating, however pleasant they are to look at and imagine.

Elves are more often used for fanservice than anything else, I’ve seen. They appear to have been fetishized, with effeminate men and blindingly attractive women. Practical armor optional (though, to the credit of some sources, they at least depict the men this way as well, so, yay for equal rights. I guess). Not that I have any particular problem with “effeminate men” or “scantily clad woman warriors,” rather, it’s just how those tropes appear to be what the world ‘elf’ means.

I get it. Fantasy. Exploring and/or depicting things we fantasize about. But since when does fantasy mean more of the same? I like looking at the shapely charms of well-defined female as much as the next guy, but what I don’t dig is when the woman’s body is essentially her primary (only?) asset as a character. Like, at the full expense of my willing suspension of disbelief.

Think Legolas would be as well-loved if he wasn’t some Aryan wet dream?

Maybe I should just accept that elves are just too nimble to actually get injured.

Originally, the word ‘elf’ was associated with something quite different. There’s quite the body of research behind the etymology and folklore of the old Germanic meaning – which has sorta been distilled from over a thousand years of folklore into a generalized understanding these days – and while I understand that language is a living, evolving thing, especially English, there’s something about the word elf that just bugs me.

Whether it’s the tiny little bell ringers at the north pole or archer princes sliding down the trunks of oliphants, I find myself over-saturated with the generalized and yet highly varied umbrella term of ‘elf.’

They come most often in three primary forms: we have the High Elves, the Wood Elves, and the Dark Elves (the most famous of these being the Drow. Don’t get me fucking started on Drizzt). They’re all essentially the same though, much like humans are all basically the same, with just a few tweaks of color and secondary physical features like ear length or height. I’ve always felt like usage of these, without distinguishing them in some form OTHER than slapping a different name on them, is just plain lazy.

And I know this because I used to be a much lazier writer.

Maybe certain writers love elves the way they are – and the market has told us what people like, so these depictions of elves aren’t going anywhere. I used to dig Blizzard Night Elves for awhile, because at the time they were new, and at the time I had my head stuck in the world of Azeroth. Once I actually began reading other sources and learning more, they lost their charm, becoming tropy as the rest of them – however I still dig their dress of quilts + feathers + antlers.

Honestly the most interesting elf variations that I’ve come across were the “City Elves” of Dragon Age (who were, in a drastic twist of events, depicted as petty and subhuman, rather than superior in every way possible), the elves of Lorwyn (which were cool because the creators A) hyper-expanded the trope by making their culture obsessed with superficial perfection and beauty – to the point of seeing themselves as natural “hunters of all things ugly,” and B) They actually possessed physical traits that made them unique – very satyrlike, with goat-legs and horns), and the Wood Elves from the 1977 Ranklin/Bass animated depiction of the Hobbit.

Get a load of these fair-haired bastards. Very fae-like, long before the explosion of D&D elves, followed by Blizzardian elves.

Now, with all that said, there are stories in which the common elf tropes have appeared that I have, in fact, very much adored. There have been numerous occasions where I totally dug the elves or elven characters of various mythos encountered. But as I grow older, I keep encountering the same things over and over. It gets kinda stale.

So what does this mean? It means that one must adopt the philosophy of “Writing What You Wish You Could Read.” After reading Dune, among other works, this is the story-writing philosophy that I’ve decided to adopt. I confess that I’ve fallen into the same pitfalls of writing elves the way everyone else does, which meant that for some bodies of work previously written, I had to rework quite a bit of the worldbuilding and lore. But it all came out for the better. What resulted (and admittedly, is still resulting, as more changes must be implemented) are cultures, creations, settings, and story elements that are mine.

That, I think, is more valuable than writing the same stuff you already see on the shelf.

What of you, dear readers? Tropes you see again and again that you’d rather have changed? Shaken up? Do you like elves the way we keep seeing them, or do you disagree with any of my point? Would love to hear it.

Today’s music is brought to you by Terraria, the track played when entering a Jungle zone. It hasn’t much to do with elves, exactly, but if you equate the usage of the word elf with anything lush or foresty, then there might be a connection in there somewhere.

 

Guest Post: How to Hone Writing Skills Through Fan Fiction

Today’s guest is the one, the only, Iscah, who will cover the benefits of writing Fan Fiction.
Take it away, Iscah!

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 Fan Fiction is unauthorized stories written by fans based on their favorite shows, books, and films.

Many professional authors feel fan fiction is a waste of time, and yes, fan fiction is a violation of copyright.  However many copyright holders tolerate or encourage fan fiction, because it helps keep their fanbase engaged with the world/characters and busy between releases.  Fanlore has a partial list of various authors’ policies towards fan fiction and yes, I think you should respect their wishes.

But writing stories based on other’s work is long, proud literary tradition.  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on a poem by Arthur Brooke.  Many modern, professional authors pay the bills by writing for establish franchises like Star Wars and Monk.

So this article is dedicated to tips for getting the most out of writing fan fiction for those of you hoping someday to go pro…or at least improve at your hobby.

Writing Fan Fiction is a Chance to Study a Popular Work – You know you like the world or characters you’re writing about, but stop to think why you and so many others like it.  What makes these characters interesting?  How is the plot structured that makes their struggles engaging?  What prose techniques does the author use to keep you turning pages?  Pay attention to the details and nuances of your source material.

Use Fan Fiction for Feedback – It’s much easier to get strangers to read your bad fan fiction than your great original story.  (Sad but true.)  Add a note encouraging readers to respond with their comments and suggestions, particularly in regards to your writing style.

Beta Other’s Fan Fiction to Improve Your Editing Skills – Reading and critiquing other writer’s work is a great way to train yourself to spot spelling, grammar, and logistical errors in your own.  While writing and editing are different skills, they compliment each other.  And you may discover you enjoy editing even more than writing.

Fan Fiction Betas Can Prepare You For Editors – Learning to accept and make good use of corrections and criticism is an important skill for a professional writer.  Your average beta won’t be as thorough as a professional editor, but when you’re starting out, that may be a good thing.

Use Fan Fiction to Learn Platform Building Skills – The most popular fan fiction authors tend to update regularly, finish what they start, use social media to gain new readers and keep in touch with current fans, and sometimes build websites and/or blogs to showcase their work and fan art based on it.  They may even appear as panel speakers at conventions (a volunteer role but good PR practice).  These are skills and habits that can translate well to professional work.

Use Fan Fiction to Focus on Plot and Style – Writing someone else’s characters in a believable way can be as big a challenge as writing something purely original.  However it is true in fan fiction that you’re already standing on the shoulder of the author(s) who originated the work.  Since your characters and settings are ready made, you can pay extra attention to honing your plot building and refining your writing style.  What new element can you bring to this established world?  What new territory can your explore that will engage your fellow fans?

OCs Don’t Have to Be Mary Sues – Fan fictions should rotate heavily around established characters and settings, otherwise I’d question why you tried to pass it off as fanfic and not just spin off into a $ellable original fiction.  However, smoothly interesting an OC (Original Character) or element into an established world can be a good test of writing skill.  If you do it well, readers will roll with it.  If you do it poorly they’ll gripe.  Just remember once you use an OC in a fanfic, you should expect to abandon them to that world.  If you’d like to use your OC elsewhere, best not to include them in a fan fiction.

Writing Sellable Fan Fiction With Kindle Worlds – As a general rule, you can not sell fan fiction.  However, Kindle Worlds has created a fan portal that will allow you to do so legally within certain guidelines.  I advise treading carefully and reading through all the legal.  But essentially it’s open (alternate universe) franchise writing, could be an interesting way for writers to connect with a ready fanbase.

For legal reasons, I write fan fiction under a different pen name than my original work.  I didn’t want to have to pull everything down like Cassandra Claire did once she went pro.  But it was a wonderful way for me to get five novels and a few short stories worth of experience in before releasing a novel to sell.

 

About Iscah

Iscah is the author of the fantasy novel Seventh Night  and the related novella The Girl With No Name. She was even kind enough to provide a Music of the Day!

Guest Post: The Importance of Research in Fantasy

Today’s guest is David Tufts, a former Army medic with a healthy appreciation for the craft of writing.

Here he details the importance of research in all forms of writing, focusing on Fantasy.

Take it away, David!

~~~~~

The importance of research when crafting a written work can never be understated. Research is vital when trying to produce a work be it fiction, or any other work. Since this group is focused on Fantasy fiction writing, I will focus this discussion on how research impacts the creation of a good piece of written Fantasy fiction.

Firstly, the setting of a story is large place, even if the story takes place in, and never leaves a single place, the detail of that one place can be a daunting task when one thinks about it. Research helps a writer deal with the level of detail necessary for any sort of writing task. Without a certain level of detail within a story, a writer can run the risk of losing the reader’s interest. Proper research on a subject can help prevent that loss of interest. I will use a common example of the importance of research. In the movie “Star Wars: A New Hope”, a mistake was made that could have been prevented if proper research was done. In the movie a measure of distance, a parsec, was used as reference of time to create the illusion of a fast ship. What this mistake serves to force the viewer out of the story, if this happens enough the viewer, or reader can lose interest in the story, subsequently the reader would put the story down, and move on to a different story. On the flip side of this the creators of the entire “Star Wars” series did extensive research into what makes a tragic hero. This research was important because it helped portray the main character of the series, namely Anakin Skywalker, and his rise and fall as a tragic hero figure. The research helped in portraying his character, as well as setting the stage around him. Consider how the movies would have turned out if the writers and creators of these series of movies had done a poor job in researching the different facets of these movies. I think that the movies would have turned out poorly, and would have not have made the impact they have otherwise.

How does this relate to the Fantasy genre? Consider one of the staples of the fantasy genre. Long has sword and sorcery been a part of the Fantasy genre. At some point in most Fantasy stories that involve the use of hand weapons, research must be done on the actual use of these weapons. One can’t just pick up a sword or an axe, and immediately be as good as Conan in their use. Most writers don’t have experience with physical combat, and the properties of the weapons that antagonists or protagonists are using. That is where research plays a vital role. Writers can create a vivid life and death fight between two opponents. What ruins a scene like this for the reader is the interjection of unrealistic aspects that could easily become a part of this fight. By doing proper research a writer could understand the ballet and rhythm that happens when melee battle takes place. Every weapon has it uses based on the reasons why that weapon was created. For example, an axe, as a weapon, was created for a different reason, and a different function in a fight, than say a war hammer. Research would help a writer understand the differences between each different type of weapon, and their uses. It would also allow the writer to understand the subtle differences that would be present when using the various types of weapons. This understanding would allow the writer to better craft a fight scene.

This is only a small portion of what research can do when writing the next great Fantasy novel. Look at the world of Middle-Earth. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien is a prime example of what is possible when proper research is done, even in regards to a work of Fantasy. Without plenty of research done the stories presented in the world of Middle-earth may not have stood the ravages of time as well as they have. There also would not be the level of spin-off work if research was done, and documented. J.R.R Tolkien, with his research, made it possible to have two fully functional languages that were completely made up languages. This could have only been done with comprehensive linguistical research. In addition to this, the modern remakes of Tolkien’s works into elaborate movies, would not have been possible if the research done by J.R.R. Tolkien was not available for the staff of the movies to use as resources when filming the movies.

My first wife worked as a Fantasy Romance writer full time. She had published multiple Romance novels under a pen name. Who she was, and what titles she wrote are not important to the discussion of the importance of research to a Fantasy work, but what is important is that all of her works we set in the same world of her creation. How she created this world, and the detail of her world, was by in large due to the research that she conducted while creating her world. She spent long hours researching articles in libraries, and eventually using the internet. When she started writing the internet was young, and the resources that are available now, were not available when she started her career. How she kept the details of her world consistent and as realistic as she could was possible with comprehensive research, and subsequent documentation of her world. When she died, one of the projects I worked on was the creation of a Fantasy Role Playing game based on the world that she created. That project was easier because she left detail notes on her world, and included all the research she had done that helped her create the setting of her Fantasy Romance stories. I have even toyed with the thought of finishing her last novel, which would normally be impossible, but I have her notes, research, and material that she had about the world she created, and her last incomplete novel.

One last point about the need to use research when writing is that research does not mean that only doing research in a library or on the web is the only good research. Research can be more than just a written work. Research can be consulting experts in fields that the writer may not have any experience in. I have been used as a resource when a fellow writer had questions about the Army. I spent many years in the Army as a combat medic. As a result, a fellow writer used me as a practical source when he was writing a military science fiction story. I in turn used a friend when creating an action sequence that involved martial arts. Research can include any source that helps the writer create a vivid scene within their work. So it is important to remember that research can encompass more than just the web of the library. The television series “Deadliest Warriors” is a prime example of multiple layers of research come together for a common goal. In these series of shows historical warriors were pitched in a head to head fight. Different sources were used, both historical, and actual weapons and fighting experts were used as sources. Without historical and practical sources an accurate depiction of the warriors used would not be possible, and the series would not be a realistic portrayal of how each warrior would stand up against another.

These are but a few reasons why research is important to just about any form of writing. A creative idea is very important. It serves as the inspiration that can set one down the path of great adventure, but a vision is only the beginning. If a writer spends the time, and adds research to their creation, then they add depth and color to their creation that will shine through and help the reader see a similar vision. Online generators may be able to provide guidance, but these generators are but a tool, and a poor tool at that. They will never replace a vision that a writer comes up with on his own, and the online tools will never replace the importance to conduct good research, and the integration of that research into the writer’s vision.

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David has worked in the technical writing field while in the Army. 

He has also worked in the role playing community for a number of years as technical support. 

He has a couple of current writing projects in the works, and can be reached via gmail at the following address. jumpinjacksplat99@gmail.com