Getting Back into Writing

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We’ve all been there; life gets crazy and an embarrassing amount of time passes between our present moment and when last we were crafting our “current” work in progress. A week, a month, a year: all of it can feel like it’s an eternity since we last sat down to write our story.

This summer my wife and I had an intercontinental move and now, as the dust is settling, it has been over eight weeks since the last time I wrote/edited/hung out with my characters. I have been here before. Many people say that if you cannot write each day, to at least read over what you have written to keep it fresh in your mind. By now, I am way past that. So what do I do? How do I get back into writing and getting reacquainted with my characters and where the story was when I disappeared?

Perhaps you can dive right back into the midst of everything. Personally, I cannot jump straight into my story. I have to get my feet wet and wade in one step at a time. But this time does not need to be wasted.

I have found these times of warming back up to writing are great opportunities for writing short stories, flash fiction, blog posts (like this one) or general world building.

Maybe my main character is a bit shy or feels abandoned since I left. Another idea is to “have coffee” with my main characters. I open a word doc, imagine I am at my favorite cafe with my character, and write out a dialogue between us. I try and shoot the breeze with my characters to help them feel comfortable and bring them back to my mind. This conversation is private; I won’t post it (but I would perhaps recycle bits). The purpose is not to write story material but to pick up where I left off.

Here is the list of questions I ask my character while we grab coffee:

 

Describe the café: what is the décor (colors, style, furniture)? How loud is the room?  What are the aromas? Who are the people around us (age, profession) and what are they doing (talking, writing, studying for the MCAT)?

Where do we sit?

What is the character doing? Fidgeting? What are his/her mannerisms?

  • What drink does he/she order? What do I order? Does he/she order a pastry?
  • Is he/she happy to see me?
  • Is he/she mad at me?
  • Does he/she feel abandoned?
  • How do I explain why I have been gone?
  • Is he/she understanding of why I have been busy?
  • Did this time away stir up any fears or insecurities in him/her?
  • How is he/she feeling now?
  • What do we talk about?
  • Is he/she talkative, guarded, subdued, snarky, bored, tired, etc?
  • How does he/she feel about the story/where we left off?
  • Is he/she ready to jump back in, or does he/she need more time (side quest or backstory)?

 

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Ten Characters I Want to Write

PeopleCharacters are a critical part of a story for me. We have all seen or read plot-driven stories where tensions are high and character development is nonexistent. While these tales may be fun, my aim is to create stories with engaging and relatable characters. 

We want characters who are new and unique, but we have to balance this desire with the knowledge that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is interesting to see what stock characters and archetypes are used, recycled, and favored by society at different points in time. A certain character type may be reused because it is easy to write or because something about this character rings true for the audience.

Below is my current list of ten stock characters and archetypes that I want to write. None of these characters have names or stories yet, none of them have been crafted beyond basic character design, but I hope to soon flesh each of them out and find stories to make their homes in.

  1. The weary wanderer
  2. Femme fatale with depth of character
  3. The trickster
  4. The pirate
  5. The hero who fails
  6. The humble leader
  7. The anti-hero
  8. Loyal sidekick
  9. The happy old couple
  10. The lone wolf
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Why I Write Fantasy More Than I Write Sci-fi (Part 2)

IMG_8902In my first post (here), I describe one of the key attributes, for me, about fantasy fiction is the emphasis on wonder and amazement. I want to further explore the nature of fantasy fiction by comparison with the genre’s sister, science fiction. Of course, everything I am describing is generalization and there are plenty of exceptions to the “rules”.

Fantasy stories often depict either a lost history or a secret world around us. A fantasy setting can conjure a sense of a mythic past golden eras or instill mystery about the reality of our world. Either way, we feel connected to the fantastical setting as though it is part of our world, our past, us. Science fiction on the other hand, describes alien worlds or a future to come. We may marvel at the oddity of another planet, but we do not relate to it the same way we may feel toward a fantasy setting.

Both fantasy and science fiction can sidestep modern scientific principles with magic or advanced technology, but these two solutions around our understanding of the universe affect the characters differently. Technology is a tool; it is impersonal and communicable. I can hand you my phone or someone can steal my spaceship. Magic is often depicted as an innate ability like perfect pitch or a photographic memory. Even when technology is user specific, perhaps with biometrics, it still is external to the individual when magic is internal.

Within a fantasy setting, strange and wonderful things can exist without needing a technological or monetary reason. In a science fiction setting, most technology will require some justification for its existence. While the economics of technology in science fiction makes sense and serves the context, it often speaks to human ingenuity rather than wonderment of life and our world.

Again, these are just a few thoughts on the differences between fantasy and science fiction. What do you see as differences between the genres? What are the strengths and weaknesses to either?

 

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Why I Write Fantasy More Than I Write Sci-fi (Part 1)

As a fiction writer, my genre of choice is high fantasy. I have a deep love for both  fantasy and science fiction, but when it comes to crafting my own stories, I prefer fantasy.

The overlaps between these genres within speculative fiction go well beyond fan base, imagination, and other-worldliness. Hard and soft science fiction, science fantasy, high fantasy; the line between the subgenres within the spectrum of science fiction and fantasy is blurry.

As I describe in my post “magicis fiction,” I like to define science fiction as stories pertaining to human interactions with technology. At first, this definition seems to offer a distinction between fantasy and science fiction, but as Arthur C. Clarke, one of the great fathers of science fiction, explains “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The reason I focus on writing fantasy stories has to do with the genre’s core value of wonder. What does it mean for something to be “fantastic?” It means something is extraordinary, imaginative, and awe-inspiring. While these traits should be found amidst any work of fiction, they find themselves center stage in fantasy fiction. A goal of fantasy stories is to spark amazement.

We can think the wonder of fantasy comes from the setting or the world the author creates, and while this is superficially true, the greatest power of fantasy is that these secondary worlds of stories reflects the awesome nature of the world we live in. A journey to Hogwarts or Middle Earth cultivates in me a deeper appreciation for my real world surroundings. Again, by no means does fantasy fiction have a monopoly on this concept of refreshing how we see our world, but it is the genre which has it as a key expectation.

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My Favorite French Classroom: La Boulangerie

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When my wife and I moved to France, my ability to speak French was essentially nonexistent. I knew how to say “my name is…” (je m’appelle), “I am sorry” (je suis désolé), and the names of random zoo animals (tigre, singe, et tatou). I had studied a bit about conjugating verbs, but was still learning present tense. Turns out present tense is not be terribly helpful in day to day conversation. You can read my post about that here. Our first day in France some friends taught us the invaluable phrase “je voudrais…” (I would like).

So armed, the next day I braved going to one of our local boulangeries (bakery). When it came time to order, I said “bonjour, je voudrais” and pointed to the millefeuille I wanted. Thus began my journey of learning French in my favorite context, the boulangerie.

The boulangerie is a great place to learn French for a few reasons. First, it is a known context; people come to the boulangerie to buy bread and pastries. I have an idea of what words to listen for and can guess missed words based on this setting. Over time I learned the phrase “say too” was really “c’est tout?” (anything else?). There is also a logical flow to the conversation: greeting, ordering, being asked if I want anything else (c’est tout?), the price, and the goodbye.

This brings me to my next reason: greetings and goodbyes. Every exchange begins and ends with a greeting and a goodbye, and this is good practice for using terms like “bonjour” (hello), “bonne journée” (have a good day), “vous aussi” (polite way of saying ‘you too’) and “au revoir” (goodbye).

The boulangerie also provides practice with the ever difficult gendered words of French. Whenever ordering something, I was forced to wrestle with the question “is it ‘un baguette’ or ‘une baguette’?” (it’s une baguette in case you’re wondering) My solution, at least at first, was to order “deux (two) baguettes s’il vous plait.” As I became braver, I started guessing (I am also always wrong). I once ordered “un etoile de Grenoble” and heard the boulangère (baker) reply “une etoile” and learned etoile is feminine.

If you know anything about French numbers, you know they are quite difficult. There is no word for 70, 80, or 90 in France. Belgium and Switzerland have both remedied this deficit, but France refuses to. Instead of saying seventy, it’s “soixante dix” (sixty-ten), and seventy two is “soixant douze” (sixty-twelve). Eighty is “quatre-vingt” (four-twenty), and ninety-nine is “quatre-vingt dix-neuf” (four-twenty-nineteen). It is a confusing system, but the boulangerie gives opportunity to listen for numbers while using the price on the register to verify your answer (‘I think she said ‘trois soixant-dix’/3.70’).

One of the greatest moments occurred when I understood a joke in French (fast enough to laugh with the boulangères and not on the walk home). My order totaled 4.20 so the boulangère said “quatre vingt” to which her coworker replied “quatre-vingt?!” (80?!).

The boulangerie also offers insight into various holidays and cultural items. Starting in January they sell “galette des rois” (king cake) for Epiphany, “bugnes” (glorious French donuts) for Mardi gras, chocolate fish for Easter, and “buche de Noël” which is a special Christmas boulangerie cake in December. It is a fun window in French culture to see what special pastries are sold during the year, and you know what holidays are coming up based upon what is for sale at the boulangerie.

For these reasons, as well as my many fun, though sometimes embarrassing, memories of going to the boulangerie, I think the boulangerie is the best French classroom. The best part of course is the bread and pastries.

Day 2

The millefeuille from our second day in France

 

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Magicis Fiction

Isaac Asimov, one of the great fathers of science fiction, defined the genre as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” (Modern Science Fiction, 1953). I like to describe science fiction as stories about humanity’s interactions with technology. No matter how bizarre, alien, or futuristic the story, science fiction is about exploring through technology what it means to be human.

With ideas like robots, authors can examine concepts of our humanity. Asimov’s I, Robot and  Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? use the idea of human-like robots to ask how are we distinguishable from robots? What makes us human? If we make a machine human-like enough, is it human? How can we know and how can we tell?

Science fiction can speculate how humans would cope with long periods of isolation during interstellar travel, how teleportation would affect our daily lives, or how we would react to encounters with aliens. Through these examples we can consider how we need social interaction, how current technology expands our world, and how we respond to meeting new or different groups of people. 

While science fiction enables us to imagine how near or distant technologies will affect and describe us, it is not the only means for exploring these anthropological questions. As science fiction utilizes technology grounded in science to investigate our humanity, fantasy fiction can explore these same ideas with magical or magic-based technology. As Arthur C. Clarke describes “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Instead of using a positronic brain, how can the idea of a love potion probe the nature of synthetic versus genuine human thoughts and emotions? Instead of a person becoming invisible by sophisticated optical technology bending light around himself, what if he used a magic ring or an invisibility cloak? The story is not really about the magic or the science, but what humans would do with the technology and what that says about being human. The human question at the heart of the story is not affected by the means it is fictionally achieved.

I use the term “magicis fiction” to describe stories with magic-based technologies. These stories are able to question human behavior like science fiction, but within a fantasy setting. Through magicis fiction stories, I can use magical technologies to speculate about what it means to be human, while expanding my fantasy world.

What are your thoughts on science fiction, technology, or my idea of magicis fiction?

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The Heart of Fantasy: tLotR vs. aGoT

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Why do I write? What is my vision for storytelling? These are essential questions for every storyteller to ask. Our worldview and beliefs, the lenses we see life through, affect how we tell stories. Our perspectives influence what themes we explore, the plotlines we develop, how our characters behave, and a myriad of other details.

What ideas and philosophies do I want my writing to affirm? Storytelling will always reflect some viewpoint. We as storytellers cannot void our writing of all philosophical perspectives, nor should we. Just as no human lives outside of some human culture or another, all stories display views about life. As storytellers, we must ask ourselves how will we encourage readers? What do we want our stories to inspire in others?

This brings me to the topic of philosophy in high fantasy stories, specifically the Lord of the Rings (tLotR) by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Game of Thrones (aGoT) by G.R.R. Martin. Both tLotR and aGoT are beautifully written stories and are known for having huge casts of characters and being set in worlds with long histories. While these stories are staples of fantasy writing, they affirm opposing perspectives on life.

Tolkien’s story has an optimistic worldview: tLotR is written to inspire wonder and vision for who we can become. Martin’s story has a cynical view of the world and humanity, and aGoT highlights humanity’s malicious capabilities.

Tolkien’s writing reflects the beauty of our world through the majesty of his “secondary” world of Middle Earth (see his essay “On Fairy Stories”). The characters of tLotR are stout-hearted people who, when faced with hard decisions, choose good over self. The characters’ resolutions to reject power and temptation endears them to us. They choose wisely and we love them for it. They inspire us to do the same in our own lives: to stand for good and do what is right.

In contrast, the characters of aGoT are largely selfish and the story showcases their abilities to perpetrate evil. The story, rather than highlighting good people’s willingness to stand for what they believe in even against impossible and unjust circumstances, glorifies the manipulative characters power to hurt others with impunity. There is no justice nor hope for the noble character in aGoT.

Though I enjoyed both stories, aGoT left me feeling frustrated and discouraged. Martin’s story paints an unfortunately accurate depiction of human depravity, but I do not need him to tell me about how evil people can be; I am well informed on this subject by the media. aGoT reflects humanity, history, and the terrible things we have shown ourselves capable of inflicting on each other. tLotR presents who we can be and what we can aspire to be like rather than to cynically collapse back into the worst of ourselves.

My own beliefs and goals for my writing are similar to those of Tolkien. I want to encourage people to consider how wonderful our world is. Through my writing, I want to ask questions which stimulate reflection. I want to inspire hope, love, and creativity. I believe these are fundamental to who we are as humans, and I love seeing the humanity of others expressed through these values.

This does not mean Tolkien’s or my views are somehow “right” or better than Martin’s. It would be ridiculous for me to say his or anyone’s perspective on writing is wrong, but this contrast demonstrates a fundamental difference in our goals and philosophies of storytelling.

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