Saturday, January 28, 2017

Passing through Dulgath

TL;DR version

-got sick on Wednesday and will only be fully recovered tomorrow (Sunday)
-wrote about 2,500 words this week, plus 800 words of an outline to flesh out my story
-finished the audiobook of The Death of Dulgath. Excellent book
-read the 100-some-odd pages of Making The Death of Dulgath after getting it from Michael J. Sullivan in my inbox. Loved it and was inspired by it
-discovered some new features in Scrivener as a result of the book mentioned
-sent back a bunch of typos in the free book to Mr. Sullivan
-will finish Uprooted by Naomi Novik this week
-outlining is going well, and I've worked out the motivation for my big bad

The (not many) benefits of illness

I think it was the kids who did it.

Every year, I make a conscious effort to avoid sickness. I've been especially conscious of dodging germs since becoming a father four and a half years ago. That event changed the way I look at my own health and at the necessity of taking precautions to stay in the pink. (terrible idiom) I use paper towels to open public bathrooms. I steer clear of sick friends, family, and colleagues. I wash and sanitize my hands at work multiple times a day. All in all, I figure these habits are necessary if I plan to stay healthy, and I think I've subconsciously started taking pride in my ability to stay virus-free more than others I know.

Well, this week, a cold started gunning for me around Monday, walloped me by Wednesday, and knocked me down on Thursday and Friday. We're talking nose-like-a-faucet and painful-full-body-sneezing levels of cold here. I think I got it from my own kids who were both sick last week.

That said, the reason I was able to put almost anything onto the page this week was as a result of taking two necessary sick days and having a blanket wrapped around me while being confined to my home for forty-eight hours. Overall, I'd say that free time afforded me the luxury of being productive in both reading and writing, so it's not all bad. Right?

The Death of Dulgath

I listened to this wonderful audiobook this week.

Just from a production quality standpoint, the narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, is phenomenal. I've listened to around 20 audiobooks since starting with at this point, and this book ranks right up there in terms of engaging my ears with appropriate passion, distinct character voices, clear enunciation, and professional grade sound quality. Whatever he earned for his work on this book was well-deserved.

The book itself is also very good. The basic premise centers around a castle countess being the subject of an assassination attempt, and someone hiring a couple of salacious assassin mercenary types, Royce and Hadrian, to propose ways that someone would use to kill the countess, so that they could be ready for any attempt on her life. She's already survived three attempts in the past, and they'd like to ensure they're ready for a fourth. There's a lot more to it than that, including some nice hints of magic, but overall, this is a really enjoyable thriller wrapped in fantasy skin. I'd recommend it even if you're not usually into fantasy, as there's action, adventure, romance, death, friendship, and just about anything else you could think of when it comes to crafting an engaging yarn.

I'm now excited to jump into the rest of Ryria series. Yay. More books I need to find time for.

The Death of Dulgath also works as a stand-alone title, so check it out, like I did, if you don't want to commit yourself to a series, and if you just want to see if this world and these characters are for you.

Making a book

In addition to the audiobook of The Death of Dulgath, I also received a free .pdf in my email of Behind the Book: Making The Death of Dulgath from Michael J. Sullivan himself. It's rare and awesome to see someone going this far out of their way to contact readers and to make new fans, but this guy does it. High five and a toast, sir. Thank you.

The book is awesome. It's just over a hundred pages, and it offers a ton of information on a wide variety of topics, such as: the struggles of publishing and creative control; Michael J. Sullivan's daily writing process; his daily word count goals; pictures of his first outlines for the book; notes on using Scrivener; and of course, how the book itself was formed and changed over time.

From the book, I learned that I really needed to be a little more thorough in my pre-planning when it comes to writing a novel, especially if I'm attempting to develop an entire world. I've been going off a basic idea in my head of what I want the book to be, but without having some tent poles in my mind of where it's going to begin, where it's going to end, and what the motivations of the characters are, it's going to be difficult. I thought I could do the pantsing (flying by the seat of your pants) thing that a lot of writers talk about, but I really wonder if the ability to write that way is a myth, like multi-tasking and good Ontario wine.

I also discovered that Scrivener has a name generator! It's really ingenious. Check this out...

You can choose from a plethora of first and last name origins, then just keep hitting the "generate names" die at the bottom and pick and choose. Not only is this useful if you're going for naming consistency in a particular region of your world, but it's also SO. MUCH. FUN. Here, let me mix some "Canadian" first names with some "Scandinavian" last names:

Ruthie Arntson
Bryer Ness
Neleh Brand

Also, Natacha apparently falls in the Canadian first names category. Who knew? Gotta check out a PEI phone book or something. I could spend hours just playing with this thing alone, but then I'd never get to the important stuff. Speaking of which...

(Segway. It's a segue. Did you know "segue" was spelled like that?)

Doing the work

Okay, so due to being housebound for two days, I managed to hammer out around 2,500 words of content this week. I can't always rely on getting sick to afford me opportunities to be productive, but I'll take it as a minor side benefit this week.

I'm not totally happy with the last scene I wrote, which is basically an audience between a swordsman and his king, but I'll flesh it out in the future. 

If you're at all curious to see what I've come up with period for the book I'm writing this year, you can check it out here. There's even grief-stricken sex on page 6. I've asked if it feels "earned" so early on in the story, and the response has been positive from the Reddit Fantasy Writers community.

Like I mentioned above, I know I need to do more prep work before going too much further. This means research, world building, and character profiles and motivations. I've done this in bits and pieces up to this point, but at 5000+ words into the story, I'm realizing some of these details need to be better planned and known soon, so I'm taking a detour to focus on that this week. It's common writing wisdom, but if you know your world and characters deeply, as well as the basic story you want to tell, the writing itself will come much easier.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading if you've done so, and feel free to leave comments below. The first draft shit sandwich train continues, friends.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Finding your tribe and doing the (home)work

TL;DR version

-words written his week: 4,000-4,500 (first part of novel and mostly-finished short story)
-using Scrivener to write, as well as Google Docs to share
-joined the Fantasy and Fantasy Writer's communities on reddit
-posted the first part of the story I'm working on and got a ton of useful feedback (have since posted the first draft of the NEW beginning of the story)
-asked for contemporary fantasy recommendations to see what's going on in fantasy today
-went to Indigo and picked up the four books in the pic below
-got a message from Michael J. Sullivan
-picked up The Death of Dulgath on Audible
-making solid progress on the first part of my novel, for better or worse
-reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik (150 pages in or so)
-keeping notes on vocab, phrases, metaphors, and writing techniques on my iPhone for books I'm reading or listening to
-check me out on Twitter and Goodreads


So, where and how do I begin my writing journey? Contemporary wisdom suggests the first step is finding my tribe: a group of like-minded people who share my passions and maybe some of my dreams. When you're a kid in school, this is easier; you interact with dozens of people every day, so you're bound to run into another awkward adolescent who's into Magic: The Gathering or Japanese role-playing games. You're so filthy rich in time as a kid that you end up taking much of it for granted.

Conversely, once you start amassing adult responsibilities, for most of us, the face-to-face element of nerding out and finding new people to nerd out with becomes another thing on the agenda, penciled in between "lunch with Dan" and "Kid's friend's birthday party." It doesn't matter if all you want to do is sit down with friends for a few sessions of Settlers of Catan, or finally take the time to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons, time is a jackass to an adult - a merciless, unfeeling, disinterested force that keeps moving forward.

Luckily, the internet has made it easier to squeeze in nerd time, and a person no longer has to stumble around awkwardly hoping they'll run into someone new who's into the same nerd things they're into. I've always been lucky enough to find my tribe, whether online or in person. Given that I'm older and have a full-time and part-time job and a family, the "in person" part of the equation isn't always possible, so I've had to find other ways and places of squeezing in time for my interests.

A brief background to finding my tribe

I've been a fairly regular lurker and contributor to NEOGAF's monthly "What are you reading?" thread, which has a ton of fantasy and sci-fi recommendations, usually manifesting in a stream of book cover images with scraps of opinion here and there. There's also a NEOGAF writing community that posts fairly regular "Writing Challenge" threads, and I'll likely fire off some things in that direction, as I did all the way back in 2012. The people there are very helpful and kind, and a certain Mr. Gary Whitta, the writer of Book of Eli and a ton of other cross-media stories, grew from that community. I'm not sure how often he posts there anymore, as he's busy doing well-earned podcast and media tours, but good things can happen if you put yourself out there and connect with other people pushing in the same direction. I need something deeper and more specific than just these communities, though.

What I've done lately

So, last week I finally opened up a Reddit account and went searching for fantasy genre communities. Lo and behold, I seem to have struck gold by stumbling upon the /r/fantasy subreddit and the /r/fantasywriters subreddit. The Fantasy Writers community is very active and is populated by both published and unpublished fantasy writers. You can post sections of your work (provided you share through Google docs) and request specific feedback, such as "Does this flow?" "Do you care about this character?" and whatever else you want a helpful set of eyes to focus on.

It was there that I posted the first draft of a story introduction I started back in December. (You can find the story and the feedback here if you're interested) The feedback was part encouraging, part scathing, and all useful. The reply by Albin_Hagberg_Medin near the bottom of the page is an entertaining opus of criticism if you have a few minutes. As my first entry into the world of fantasy criticism, it went well. In my professional life, I've learned to give and accept feedback, and I rarely - if ever - take things as personal affronts, because they're (almost) never meant that way, and that's the way I went into this community. So far, so good.

One of the most useful things I got from the feedback is that I really need to be reading more current works in the genre. I've admittedly been trying to catch up on books that are 30 to 60 years old in some cases, and fantasy has largely evolved since the heydays of Tolkien, Weis and Hickman, Eddings, Williams, et al. They're still fun to go back to, and I will periodically go back and read the stuff I've missed, but for my own craft to develop, and to be part of the active fantasy writing community, I really do need to see what's out there now.

I asked for some contemporary fantasy homework, and I was directed to the Fantasy community on reddit, where I created this thread and got a massive round of helpful recommendations. Inspired and motivated by the community's enthusiasm, I went to Indigo that same day and returned with my homework.

These books range from epic to adventure to apocalyptic to fairy tale, so I think I'll get a pretty good lay of the land in terms of the types of fantasy I myself am interested in writing. I've started with Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and I'm enjoying it a lot so far.

To study what I'm reading, I've opened up a new Note on my iPhone where I jot down evocative vocabulary, metaphors, and phrases that I come across. The vocabulary is largely common words, but maybe not the type you think of in the moment of writing, especially as a novice. These are words like unyielding, fling, hover, cower, cleanse, desperate, rush, purge, and others. Writing is a craft, and like all crafts, you have to become familiar and skilled with the tools at your disposal. Skills will only develop with daily practice and internalizing the words and advice of others who have already been at it far longer than I have. Speaking of which...

The coolest thing to come out of my reddit experience so far was coming home from Indigo and seeing a message from Michael J. Sullivan, an established and successful fantasy author, whose books I had just been glancing over while at Indigo. He recommended one of his books for homework and offered to send a free companion guide that tracked his own writing process while he was creating the story. I've just used my latest Audible credit on that very book: The Death of Dulgath. It's part of a series but is also supposed to work as a standalone. I'm looking forward to it, and I thanked Michael for immediately making me feel welcome into the broader fantasy writing community. Again, it's amazing what can happen when you just put yourself and your work out there.

Oh, that first story I posted above? I kept the characters and their main journeys in my mind, but totally changed the opening scene to add more urgency, and to provide a more solid motivation for the leads. It's the main novel I plan to work on throughout 2017, and I'm having a blast going through it while munching on books, and a ton of podcasts like Fiction School, The Writing Podcast, Writing Unblocked, Creative Writing Career, Kobo Writing Life, Writing Excuses, The Writing Show, Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, and The Self-Publishing Podcast. There is so much out there it's incredible. And it's free. Gratis. Za darmo. (Polish for free) You just have to be willing to get off your butt and look for it.

So, all that in about a week. Not bad. To finish off, I'll post a chunk of the latest section of the novel I'm working on. (it's a Google Doc) Feel free to leave feedback, or just cringe as you like. Thanks for reading!

Recent writing sample

Context: Taris and Meryl are a married couple who lost their daughter in a local market terrorist attack conducted by an apocalypse cult of religious fundamentalist dark wizards. Yeah. Trying to work on showing over telling here. Also, I know "Rivenblade" has a high cheese factor, but it's on purpose, as it was the surname given to Taris by the king after completing the swordsman trials years before this.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A beginning

Well, here we go.

Hi. My name is Alex Makar. At the time of this writing, I'm a 35-year-old lover of science fiction and fantasy in their various forms and mediums;  I've been so since the age of eleven. It was then that I got my hands on a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis from the St. Mary's Elementary School library in Hamilton, Ontario. That probably makes me a late bloomer when it comes to reading, but you'll have to cut me some slack, as I was a Polish immigrant who only arrived in Canada in 1988 at the impressionable age of seven.

Being an impressionable kid, those early years in a new country were very formative. I remember crying on my first day of school because I couldn't communicate with the people around me. I remember learning English, making friends, riding my bike all over the place, playing road hockey, being introduced (figuratively) to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and becoming engrossed in North American cartoons and video games.

Regarding those dastardly video games, I only recently discovered the main reason my mom and dad bought me and my sisters a Nintendo Entertainment System: they didn't have the time and energy to watch us at the end of the day and do everything else that needed doing around the house. I'm happy to report that Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man and Tetris did an excellent job of raising me in the hours my mom and dad couldn't, and I'm grateful that I had parents who were open-minded enough - or just tired enough - not to deny us access to alternate worlds that other parents would have maybe called a waste of time. So, thank you mom and dad.

Like most kids with the freedom to be bored and to seek out their own adventures, be they in Hyrule or the streets of Hamilton, I spent a lot of time in my own head imagining the possibilities that existed beyond my tangible reality. Then along came Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter - the four Pevensie siblings from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - whom I can definitively point to as the keystones who unlocked the power of speculative fiction to me. I've read hundreds of books since then, but everyone has their starting point. Perhaps not so strangely, I know I'm not the only one who had this experience with the book, as Neil Gaiman has notably cited it as the one that lit his literary fuse; rightfully so, as there is something universally pure, exciting, and heart-breaking about that story. With that in mind, I owe much of my love of genre and whatever becomes of my own attempts at speculative fiction to C.S. Lewis and his wonderful world beyond a wardrobe.

My plan is to use this blog as a way of holding myself accountable as a writer, but also as a space to share my thoughts on whatever I'm engaging with in the SFF world at the moment. That could be anything from book, movie, television, video game, music, or story passage analyses, to full-on commentaries and reviews. Hell, I might just blog to share what I'm doing at the moment provided it's relevant to my literary quest. In short, I intend this to be a record of my writing journey for better or worse, and I'm grateful to anyone who takes the time to watch me stumble and improve my skills along the way.

So, here we go.

The Tale of Lady Midday (words: 568)

Lady Midday loved the smell of children in spring. She delighted in their honeysuckle hair, jasmine-imbued coveralls, and the hint of homema...