Five Questions About Writing

Fellow author/blogger T.S. Bazelli recently answers some interesting questions on her blog, at the prompting of author/blogger John Wiswell, who was asked the questions by a reader of his blog and aspiring writer.

I am still an aspiring author myself, so my answers to these questions aren’t likely to be of any further use or insight to the original inquisitor of these questions.  But they were thought provoking enough that I thought I might learn something more about myself by addressing and answering them.  So, here goes…

1. What inspired you to be a writer? Continue reading

Cult of Eschatology

On Sunday I made light of the World That Didn’t End, and the people whom the non-event flummoxed.  But, truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot more about those folks than my short, flippant blog-post my suggest.  On one hand, I feel very sorry for these folks.  These people really believed that they were going to be taken up into heaven on Saturday, and that the the earth would suffer the ravages of earthquakes and various other disasters, killing most of the rest of us left behind.  I mean, they really believed.  Like, spent-their-life-savings-to-buy-billboards-warning-non-believers believed.  These people had no “Plan B“.

I feel for them.  I really do.  It must be difficult to devote yourself so fully to a belief, to an idea, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.  I understand, in some way, the pain they must be going through.  I’ve had my crises of faith, those moments when I questioned what I believed in.  But this is more than just an emotional let-down for them.  They have no pieces to pick up, no life to go back to, because many of them sold everything, gave up everything, cut bonds, quit jobs to pursue this eschatological fantasy.  They are victims. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Home Sweet Clan Home

I’d never heard of the Tulou of China before, but now that I have, I can’t help but find them fascinating.

If you are like me, and had never heard of them before, allow me to summarize.  A tulou is a type of communal housing: a large structure housing an entire clan of people.  It’s built around a central courtyard, facing inward, with earthen walls facing outward to defend against raiders and enemies. They are designed as concentric rings (circular or square) and rise up to four stories on the outside. But the description doesn’t do it justice. You need to see it to understand why reading about them inspired me:

A Tulou in Fujian

A Tulou in Fujian, by Fon Zhou (CC-BY-NC)

Another Tulou

A Tulou in Fujian, by ryanocerosk (CC-BY-NC-SA)

 

One more picture of a tulou

A Tulou in Fujian, by ksquare77 (CC-BY-NC-ND)

You begin to see why I found the idea of the tulou inspiring?  Click on the photos to go to a  “Fotopedia” page with a slideshow of more images of tulous.  There’s something oddly romantic about these archaic dwellings that housed entire clans, centered as they often were around altars to the ancestors.  There’s definitely something inspiring if you enjoy fantasy or historical fiction and period romance.  The place just screams with story.

Being Prepared for When Lightning Strikes: The Notebook and the Writer’s Journal

Continuing on the theme of being a busy writer with little or no time to write, I wanted to take a moment to talk about my notebook, again.

I first made mention of my notebook back when I first started blogging, over a year ago, and followed that little introduction up with a simple how-to guide on using the tool.

The gist of the idea is this: a simple, easy-to-obtain paper notebook is a great and portable way to keep writing in your busy life even when you’re too busy to actually write.  A notebook is small and easy-to-carry, so you can have it with you no matter where you go.  That means its with you when you catch a break in your day.  It’s with you when you have five minutes or ten minutes or more here or there.  It’s with you when inspiration strikes like a bolt of lightning from the clear blue heavens.

As I commented in my year-old posts, lots of people with more money than I might find a smartphone or other ultra-portable computing device fits this bill better for them.  But hey, we’re struggling writers!  We don’t have money for fancy tech (if drool were money, we’d be all up in that technology, but drool sadly lacks monetary value).  For us, a spiral-bound notebook, Moleskine, or a basic composition book will do the trick. 

That trick being, of course, to take advantage of the rare opportunities to jot down a few notes and tidbits of inspiration when they arise.  But I have a confession to make, in that regard. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: The Language of the Prairie Dogs

I heard this delightfully entertaining story on NPR this morning about the discovery of a “language” spoken by Prairie Dogs.  It was a funny but also a thought-provoking story.  Effectively, the researchers discovered that the prairie dogs have different warning calls for different predators entering into their prairie dog towns.  But then it went a step further.  They found that the prairie dogs changed their calls for different humans – and in fact there was a layer of their call that meant “human” and a bunch of other layers that were describing the human as short or tall, and what color shirt he was wearing. 

What I also found interesting was that the changes in the call were in the layers of tones in the call.  While I could tell the difference between the high, the medium, and the low pitch of the calls heard during the story, the Prairie Dogs hear more than that – they hear the collection of tones that make up the sound.  And different undertones could mean, for the prairie dogs, different colors and shapes and different animals. 

Which, to me, means this story has very interesting implications for artificial language development.  If you’re writing a sci-fi story with unusual aliens – maybe those aliens have a language like that of the Prairie dogs – one that’s tonal.

Now, tonal languages exist in the greater family of human languages.  But this is something different.  Human tonal language can differentiate meaning between words that are high-pitched or low-pitched, where the pitch is rising or falling, and so on.  But the prairie dog variant hears more than this top-level tone.  It hears the layers of sound that make it up, and can differentiate between an extremely high variety of tones. 

Listening to such a language might be like listening to music, from human ears.  And that’s something to be inspired by.

Tidbits of Inspiration: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Some time ago, I posted a link to a tale of a cave expedition (which was, as it turns out, at least partly true).  But today’s “Tidbits of Inspiration” one-ups that interesting tale with something that will inspire both awe and excitement.

I happened across this link that promised news of the discovery of a massive cave complex in Vietnam.  Let’s just say that Vietnam has just risen sharply on my list of must-see places (not that I’ll get to see every place on that list in my lifetime… but this would be an epic trip).

At first I was a little disappointed because the link lead to small pictures and I couldn’t get the full scope of what was being described, but imbedded in the article was a link to National Geographic with larger pictures, and much more awe.

What, pray tell, do those links lead to?  Why, those links will take you on an adventure.  Recall, if you will, the year 1864 – the year in which Jules Verne‘s book, A Journey to the Center of the Earth was released.  You may recall that that book was filled with tales of wonderous things in the interior of the earth’s crust: underground oceans, forests, prehistoric creatures, and all manner of imaginative phenomena.  Now, imagine if you will, that there was some truth to Verne’s claim.

If you allow yourself to imagine that, then you may discover it in Vietnam’s mammoth Hang Son Doong cave complex: the world’s largest cave, with a cavernous passage large enough to fill a city block of skyscrapers, and replete with a populated underground jungle, a massive underground river (making the cave untraversable in the wet season but a glorious site to behold in the dry), and enough sheer WOW factor to inspire a brand new generation of writers, if these pictures are any indication. 

So head on over to National Geographic for your daily dose of “WOW” and today’s “Tidbits of Inspiration”.  And be sure to check out the Interactive “Path of a River Cave” that maps out the expedition.  I promise you this: you won’t be sorry you did…

Tidbits of Inspiration: Ghost Cities

Today, another edition of “Tidbits of Inspiration”… this one is something eerie and a little frightening, in a way.

I invite you to visit… the Ghost Cities of China.

China’s an odd place, by all news accounts (full disclosure: I have never been to China).  But this is an oddity to top them all.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, they keep building these cities.  And despite being a country of 1 Billion+ people, yet nobody lives in these undoubtedly creepy, spooky abandoned cities deep in the heart of the country.

What strange, speculative tales could such an unusual fact inspire?  What haunting tales could these images spawn?

Tidbits of Inspiration: Stone Money

So, I heard something interesting today while driving in the car.  And, as I thought about this story I heard, it made me think about how, every once in a while, I run across something unusual or interesting or bizarre or inspiring in the world, on the web, in the news, and elsewhere that make me think, and make me wonder.  The sorts of things that can inspire little bits of story.  I don’t always know what to make of them.  But, I realized I should be sharing them…. Continue reading

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

The Story Unfolds

On Saturday I began telling the 20-year story of my novel.  But so far, I’ve only told a part of the story.  Granted, though, it’s the part with the most drama: the moment of inspiration and the beginning of my life-long love of fantasy fiction and of writing.  But I hope it doesn’t remain the most dramatic part of the story forever.  However, I’m not at that part of the story yet…

Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” were definitely the inspiration for my initial effort.  I borrowed a few ideas and motifs, modified character names to fit to my own characters, and sought to replicate the flavor of his work.  I even intended, from the very beginning, to follow the multiple-volume structure with a second and third in the series.  The plot and story, however, were of my own invention – subject to the constraint that my imagination was primed to retell the same sort of generic fantasy story I was coming to know and love.

When I began the story, I was in the middle of Elementary School, still in Germany.  I hand wrote everything on lined notebook paper – kept in a binder – and drew pictures of the scenes I attempted to describe on the back.  Since these earliest years drawing and writing have always been linked for me.  Art was simply another means to express the same story.  It took me several years to write, and I only ever made it about two-thirds of the way through, to a chapter numbered in the 20’s or 30’s.  Somewhere, I still have that old, very first draft of my book.  It’s a strange artifact.  The first few chapters are clearly the work of a very young child, but the chapters successively increase in length and sophistication, and the style evolves and improves.  And the accompanying pictures grow fewer and farther between.

It was sometime in Middle School, with varying degrees of support and encouragement from my English Teachers, that I began the first of many rewrites.  At this point, I already recognized that my early attempt was infantile in execution.  My ideas were more mature and more nuanced.  During these years, I first began to use a computer instead of writing by hand.  But over time, I’ve lost the original files they were stored in (on programs that have obsolesced many times over in the years since).  It is here that I learned the true value of a hard copy: work printed on paper never goes obsolete and, if protected, will never be corrupted.

It was in these years that I also first learned the sting of competition mixed with a sense of inadequacy.  Upon learning that I was writing a novel, one classmate heartily bragged that he’d already written a novel.  But to show he wasn’t too far above it all, he even deigned to “help” me start writing mine.  At the time, I couldn’t type, so I accepted his help.  I never made it very far into that draft of the story – no more than a few chapters.  But I must admit, I questioned myself.  Was I really that far behind the curve that this classmate, whom I wasn’t particularly fond of, had already written a novel and I was just now starting a stuttering second draft?  In the end, I was undeterred, and over time I continued to work and write.

Still, throughout this period, I continued to read fantasy and science fiction novels, and my sources for inspiration increased.  From Tolkien to Robert Jordan, I read as much as I could – though I admit that I’m not as well read as other fans might be (I apparently read at a fairly leisurely pace).    I mention Tolkien and Jordan by name because, in large measure, they have had the biggest impact on my development as a writer alongside Alexander.  I was impressed by their style and scope, and their approach to their work.

Some time in High School I finally learned to type.  And the regular essay-writing and story-writing assignments in English class gave me plenty of writing practice.  By the end of my senior year, I was ready to flex my new writerly muscles – I started a new draft, fresh and clean, with a new title both for the book and for the series.  And I worked at a steady pace, turning out a new chapter roughly every other month (which, in hindsight, isn’t too terribly fast a pace of work, but I hadn’t yet developed a solid work ethic).  By my second year of college, however, my pace was beginning to slow.  and, I’d begun to notice a trend again: my higher-numbered chapters were once again of a higher quality and sophistication than my earlier chapters.  Still, I reasoned, they were pretty good.  About as good as some novels I’d seen published (though clearly not as good, yet, as the best).  But I put those first few chapters up on-line, hoping to get useful feedback, and continued to write.  I only ever got a handful of comments on that draft.  And my pace slowed even more.

And then something terrible happened…

I liken this part to the sagging middle of a novel – the dull part, I’m afraid.  On Wednesday I’ll finish this tale, as the danger and intrigue ramp up, and everything I’d worked for comes crashing down.  Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about last Thursday’s Decision Modeling class.

Happy writing.