Thursday, 29 June 2017

Milestones

Any time you try to take on something new, you're taking a risk. Will you be able to do it? Will you fail? Will you be laughed at? This is nothing new. Common wisdom. Perpetual cliche. The stuff motivational speakers mine to make a point.

But that doesn't make it any less true.

I've been taking this writing thing seriously for just around six months now. I don't know how many writing, publishing, and marketing podcasts I've listened to. I don't know the total number of words I've written. I don't know how many pages of writing advice books I've read or listened to. But I know I've enjoyed the ride despite the risk of failing. And I still may fail, but that's okay because at least I feel like I'm trying as hard as I can right now, and I feel like I'm improving word by word. At least I hope so. (does self-doubt ever go away?)

I'd like to share a risk and a very small victory. If you're one of the two people who has been following my blog, you know I've been taking part in monthly Creative Writing Challenge threads on the NeoGAF forums. Well, last week I took part in one and was voted the winner of the challenge out of a total of ten story submissions. The votes for these challenges are done by the other aspiring writers who contribute to them, which makes it even better, as I'm among my peers who are also struggling and pushing themselves to improve their craft.

I have to say, this feels pretty good even if there is no cash prize or prestige attached to it, and even if I personally felt the story I submitted wasn't all that great. Nevermind that the challenge is forgotten as soon as it's over and then it's on to the next one. But that's not the point even though it's neat to be given the responsibility of setting the next theme and posting the new thread for the next Creative Writing Challenge. (I post as Alucard) The point is, others liked it enough to vote for it, and that's pretty cool.

I'm not going to say this was some massive risk I took in throwing my stories out there and hoping that I got a positive reaction while fearing that I would write the worst prose ever. It wasn't. It's just an informal message forum with a monthly thread that has a small rotating community with a few regulars. Still, I risked the time it took to write the stories and polish them as best as I could given my current skill level. I've been at it for a little while, and it's getting easier and harder the deeper I go: easier to come up with ideas and easier to write, but harder to make sure the ideas are good and so is the writing.

Both of these things will only continue to improve, and I'm going to keep focusing on developing my ability to tell a story well by participating in these monthly challenges for as long as I can, always trying to win or at least get into the top three. I think this is a small goal, but it's the type of goal that's ideal for where I'm at right now.

I'll just keep going.

I'm still pushing myself to write at least three hundred words per day and to read thirty pages per day. So far so good. The productivity app I have on my phone is keeping me honest and motivating me to make sure I don't miss a beat, or at least get back on the horse as soon as I can if I do end up stumbling.

It's a long road. I know that. I knew that going in, so here I am re-stating it again. But at least I'm enjoying the journey with the small milestones and victories along the way.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Secrets of Story

My mind is totally blown.

At the start of the week, I was deciding how to spend my latest Audible credit. I knew I wanted to get another book that had to do with writing, and there was one that kept showing up on my recommendations feed. After reading some reviews on Audible and Goodreads, I finally snatched up The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird.

Holy shit. This is the good stuff. This is precisely the type of book I've been looking for to provide me with some concrete steps and advice on how to craft a story, develop characters people will care about, create interesting relationships, and so much more. It's basically a "how to" guide to great fiction writing. What I appreciate most is that it doesn't talk around issues and ideas, but instead gives direct examples - many of them - from films, TV shows, and books, to bolster each chapter's core message. 

The other books I've read up to this point have all been useful to varying degrees, but this is the first one that really starts from step one and walks you through a series of questions that you should be asking if you want to craft a memorable story. Of course, the execution of the story is still up to me, so the writing itself will still be a difficult process, but at least I now have a solid framework and a range of questions to keep in mind as I push forward.

It's not going to be easy, but I'll keep trying to load up my stories with irony, active and resourceful heroes, and concise dialogue with personality. That's not all that's required, but they are just a few of the obvious-but-difficult-to-master aspects of storytelling. 

There's even a fantastic blog/website attached to the book, and I've already bookmarked it and am scouring it for material like a starving student of letters. There are mounds of pages on how to generate story ideas, how to evaluate the quality of your ideas, how to create a character, and so much more. While some of this stuff has been covered in other books I've read, such as On Writing by Stephen King, it's never been done to this level of detail and practical application. 

Thanks, Matt Bird. You've created a resource that so many of us bumbling amateurs will use as an essential text for years to come. Also, thanks for solidifying why the Superman in Superman Returns is a bad character. James Marsden's character clearly was the better choice for Lois Lane.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Roadblock

Writing ensemble casts is hard. I'm over thirty thousand words into my book, and I've just assembled the team of five people who are going to travel together for the majority of the remainder of the story. I feel overwhelmed as hell at the prospect of trying to give equal shine to five characters while writing from the third person limited perspective of one. 

Up until now, I was mostly just writing about Taris and Meryl, a husband and wife whose daughter gets murdered in a terrorist attack at the start of the book. It was difficult, but manageable. I focused on how they dealt with their grief, and how they pushed the story forward with their decisions. I then fell into the cliche of meeting up with a few other unique characters along the way. Most recently, the entire core has just escaped a major battle together, and are about to continue the journey and finish off the story in the second half as a unit. You know, every epic fantasy adventure ever.

The problem is, I'm having a really hard time managing this and keeping things straight. It's like I'm juggling five oranges, trying to focus on the one that is currently in my hand while still keeping my eyes and mind on the ones in the air. But my brain just isn't up to it. It's too hard. I'm second guessing myself and whether I should even continue writing the book at this point, or if I should go back and re-work parts of the story so that the group isn't comprised of five people, but maybe three or four at the most. That's still hard to do, but it's easier than trying to keep five of them in my head all at the same time. 

Or maybe I really should just focus on improving my skills through short story writing instead, or just blog writing like what I'm doing here. Truth be told, I feel as though my writing doesn't come across as interesting enough. It's the milkiest of milketoast. I think part of this is a result of getting obsessive over mastering essay structure in university, which also meant mastering grammar and syntax - or at least getting competent at it. 

At this point, I don't think my grammar is the problem. It's my honesty. My ability to speak the truth in the stories I'm trying to tell. Could it be that I'm trying to tell the wrong stories? Could it be that I'm too scared, too lazy, too distracted, or too overstimulated by other things in life to really dig down deep and find those kernels of truth that make me and the world tick? Or could it be that I simply don't have any interesting stories to tell? All of these answers are frustrating and defeating, and I don't know the answer to any of them, except maybe to the one about being distracted and overstimulated by other things. Those are true. You can't not be as an adult with a marriage partner, two kids, a mortgage, and a full-time job.

I'm sure I'll get past this eventually. Whether the answer is just pushing forward, or whether it's taking a step back and working on something different, I'll figure it out eventually. In the meantime, I'm not going to stop writing every day. Six months into it, I'm enjoying the habit and the process. I feel as though parts of my brain are slowly peeling back and that I'm rediscovering the core of myself and my humanity. Writing is about paying attention to details. It's about picking up a stone and describing it as slick, shiny, and smooth, and wondering how it got that way. Forcing myself to think at that level on a regular basis has had some positive effects, and I know it will only get better the more I write and the more I read.

I've committed to reading at least thirty pages of a book every day. That might not sound like a lot to more voracious readers, but it adds up to two hundred and ten pages at the end of the week, which isn't too shabby at all. I even downloaded a goal app to keep myself accountable for meeting that goal, as well as promising myself that I'll write at least three hundred words every day. Ideally, these words should be for my fiction, but just writing a blog entry like this one counts towards it too. As long as I'm writing and getting things down. As long as I'm learning more about stories, about writing, and about myself. In the end, writing is about self discovery, and in that aspect, I feel like I'm succeeding more the longer I do it.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Rediscovering an old love

At some point in high school, I fell in love with anime. At that time, it seemed like a natural extension of my love of Japanese video games, which began with Mario and Zelda, and culminated with Final Fantasy IV and VI on the SNES. These latter games were personally significant for two reasons: they introduced me to complex long-form storytelling in video games, and they made me crave more from the entertainment I consumed.

Having mostly outgrown villain-of-the-day shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and He-Man, I wanted something more - something with bite and with more relevance to my own life and the world around me; something with a little more edge and appeal to my teenage mind. Something with blood, robots, and existential angst. Little did I know that this type of entertainment was already being created in the same country that had already given me the compelling adventures of Cecil, Rosa, and Kain.

Never forget. Though simple today, this was emotional AF for me circa 1994
Oddly enough, I didn't fall into anime through the common gateways of Dragonball, Sailor Moon, or Pokemon like so many of my friends. It wasn't that I didn't like those shows; they just didn't strike a strong chord with me even if I did appreciate their aesthetics. I actually don't remember the show or series that tipped things off for me, but I'm sure the late night weekend offerings on Teletoon played a factor. Canada’s answer to The Cartoon Network frequently showed anime films on Saturday nights, and I was ready for that next level of mature animation, be it Ninja Scroll, Wings of Honneamise, or Macross Plus.

The visceral energy of Ninja Scroll distilled into one image

There was a magical feeling watching these weird and challenging movies on my own right up until midnight. They had blood. They had sex. And they dealt with mature and often uncomfortable topics, such as murder, war, betrayal, and the consequences of each. I felt like I had stumbled into another world and was part of a small secret club.

And I was. Kind of.

Thanks to a friend of ours who was part of it, my friends and I began frequenting an anime club called the Otaku Society for Anime at McMaster University in Hamilton. (OSAMU for short) They would rent out a theatre space at the university and show a hodgepodge of anime series and films for 5-7 hours on a Friday night. It was glorious, and it was where I saw my first Hayao Miyazaki movie, the mind-blowing Princess Mononoke, and where I was introduced to shows that would become part of the shared entertainment lexicon between my friends and I: Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Vision of Escaflowne just to name a few.

Teenagers with problems, religion, and giant sentient robots: the series
It was an awesome time. I got visceral reactions from these shows that I wasn't getting from anywhere else, and I felt like my mind was being challenged and opened to new and exciting ideas and stories on a regular basis. These shows were filling a need I didn't know I had, and speaking to me in a language I needed to hear; I could relate to the struggles of the characters, be inspired by them, or just be in awe of the epic themes and imagery unfolding on the screen. Sometimes, the visuals and the music were enough. Who wouldn't be moved by the absolutely wicked battle theme from Escaflowne, for instance?

Massive robot battles set to the music linked above made for levels of epicness rarely matched
One of the things that made these shows so special was how difficult they were to access for a teenager who only worked weekends and summers. A lot of them were beyond reasonable when it came to prices, often charging $40 for a VHS tape that would only have three or four episodes on it. It's what made OSAMU such an attractive option, what made Teletoon a must on Saturday nights, and what made any chance to see these shows a special occasion. While I did spend money on VHS copies of Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, and a few others, I mostly relied on borrowing tapes from friends if I wanted to watch a full series that I just couldn't afford.

Since that golden period, I've always kept a casual eye on what's been going on with anime, but I've never matched the level of unapologetic fandom I had for the medium when I was first discovering it.

Bringing things up to the present, I've been slowly adding to the Studio Ghibli library that I'm building for my two daughters, including classics like Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbour Totoro. As a parent, it's hard to describe the feeling of showing something that you used to love when you were younger to your child, and realizing that they love it too. I literally had to hold back tears the first time I watched Kiki's Delivery Service with my four-year-old to Kiki and saw how much she enjoyed it, even dressing like the character for Halloween, while her sister dressed up as Jiji, Kiki's black cat and closest friend.

Absolute magic
This nostalgia and wishing to pass on my love of the medium to my kids has made me take a closer look at it myself recently. I've started re-watching The Vision of Escaflowne on YouTube, and I recently finished and tremendously enjoyed a series I never got around to when I was at the height of my anime fandom: Berserk.

A bloody bromance with an ending that promises to mess you up, and a soundtrack that is just wonderful
It's incredible that many of these shows, which you used to have to pay $40 for just to watch three or four episodes, are now available in their entirety for free on YouTube. Does that take away some of the magic of having to track them down or find creative ways to get a hold of them? Maybe. I'm not sure. It's impossible to say as a thirty-six-year-old man who has been exposed to tons of television and storytelling since he first laid eyes on his first mech battle or gut-twisting graphic death. I will say that Berserk had me as captivated as any show I've watched in recent memory, though. In fact, I felt compelled to write this post just because I wanted to share my love and appreciation for the show. It gripped me, made me cheer, made me cringe, and stirred my heart in much the same way those old shows from my early fandom used to.

Going into more detail, there is a surprising amount of complexity and thematic risk-taking in this twenty-year-old show that is, at its core, about a big muscly guy who only gets meaning out of his life when he's swinging around his big sword. (plenty to take apart there, and it gets explored) Really, it's the cast of characters and how they interact with one another that makes the show worth watching, even today. There's a badass female warrior who has to struggle with being a woman in a world of men, even going into battle while dealing with her period in one episode - and it's great. There's an androgynous and explicitly bisexual leader of a mercenary group who will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of essentially ruling the world, even if it means performing sexual favours for older less attractive men who are in positions of power. And there are brutal deaths and power struggles that will anger you and hit you at the gut level. There is also rape and the implication of rape in a couple of the episodes, which is always divisive in terms of what or how much to show - if anything - but its purpose isn't to glorify, but to elicit feelings of sympathy, anger, and sadness on the part of the viewer. In those respects, the show succeeds.

In the end, anime has always been able to elicit powerful emotions from me. To keep this post relevant to this blog, most, if not all of these shows are rooted in fantasy, and just go to show how powerful an effect the genre can have on a person, and how viable it is for illuminating social, cultural, and personal issues at a relatively high level. I'm glad I've been able to rediscover my love of these fantastic shows and films through my kids, and that they still manage to engage me and fill me with real and nostalgic pathos. All the best stories do, regardless of which genre or medium they come from.
So much pathos. All the pathos. God damn it

Monday, 12 June 2017

Inspiration can come from anywhere

Words this week: 2,000+

I've been meandering around writing the book, again feeling stuck, then pushing through to just make something happen. It's old hat by now, but I have to keep reminding myself that regardless of my feelings towards my prose and my story, I need to just keep pushing on until the end. I don't hate what I'm writing, but I'm not in love with a lot of it either. 

For some inspiration, I finished reading Starless Night by R.A. Salvatore this week.

Look at that sexy cover. I still have no clue if the old man is actually supposed to be Drizzt.
The plot left a lot to be desired and understood, but the action sequences were really well done. It reads like a blockbuster summer movie with a ton of hack and slash broken up by occasional dialogue scenes. I tried to internalize the vocabulary and movement of the action sequences, as I'm writing a big action scene in the book right now.

I'm also currently waiting for the results of the latest NeoGAF Creative Writing Challenge. I'm not going to win it, but I'm happy that I got at least one top three vote from one of the most talented writers in the group. This particular challenge resulted in some really fun stories that I was also inspired by. I'm going to keep participating in these challenges to study what other writers are doing, and to continue pushing myself to be better. I firmly believe that in order to improve, you need mentors and goals to shoot for. There are several talented people in the group whom I feel are not entirely out of my league in terms of prose and storytelling ability. They're still better than I am, but it's not like I'm reading Nabokov and thinking that I'll never reach that level. 

Speaking of inspiration, the Pittsburgh Penguins just won the 2017 Stanley Cup last night, and as a fan of the team, my mood has been buoyed, as this is just another reminder that success comes with hard word. The team played on a knife's edge for much of the season, and that's exactly where I need to be if I want to be successful. 

When I'm writing my best stuff, I feel like my mind is at the farthest point in front of me, as if I'm projecting myself into the world my story and characters are inhabiting. I don't mean that to sound strange or pretentious. I just want it to sound as close to the experience I'm having as possible. I need to keep projecting out that far, looking over the edge of my own vision, and walking out onto that edge to see and record as much as I can.

Hope you all have a great week.

(Let's go Pens)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

A Housemage Back Home (draft 2)

Well, I got some useful feedback on my first draft from the NeoGAF creative writing community, and tried putting it into action in the second draft. If you have time, here is the most recent (final?) version of what I ended up calling "A Housemage Back Home." It's around 2,400 words. This is also the version I just submitted to the most recent NeoGAF Creativing Writing Challenge. The theme for the challenge is utopia. I think I hit on it substantially enough.

On a couple of random notes, I've been listening to and reading some 80s fantasy for motivation. I've mentioned before that I enjoyed an R.A. Salvatore short story which was include in Philip Athans' Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I decided to pick up one of his old books, and ended up getting Starless Night, which is part of the Forgotten Realms world. It was two bucks at a used book store, and I wanted to get rid of some change. I'm also randomly reading pages from Dragon Wing, and re-listening to the audio book of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, both of which are written by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I'm trying to get a feel for pacing and description, and these are written at a level that I feel I should be able to achieve with dedicated practice, and I'd be over the moon to do so. It's good to have targets and inspiration.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Housemage (draft 1)

Want to read a raw first draft of a 2,189-word short story that took about two days to write? Wish granted, dear reader! Check out the first draft of Housemage (working title) right here.

I like many of the ideas I came up with for the basic premise of the story, but various parts feel clunky. I'm hoping to give it a full service wash before submitting it to the latest NeoGAF Creative Writing Challenge.

Speaking of NeoGAF, I recently collaborated on a longer short story for the previous challenge. We had a team of three people and were dubbed Master Alutan. Our group came in third place out of five. Woohoo. I actually quite enjoyed the vast majority of the story we were able to come up with. The first third of this one was written by me, and underwent a decent amount of editing before it hit this final form.

Still keeping on keeping on. These detours are pretty pleasant. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Or maybe just cringe. Either way, let me know.

Bless the Light Eternal (words: 1870)

The heretic spat at Brother Baskara, spittle flecking the corners of his mouth as his eyes blazed with contempt. “Bless the light eternal,...