Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gearing Up for the A-Z Challenge


April is nearly upon us, which means it will soon be time to dive into the deep end of the blogosphere: the April A-Z Challenge. I've been both excited and terrified of this ever since I signed up for it. If you're unfamiliar with the challenge, the gist is this: in the month of April, participants vow to post a blog entry every day except Sundays. Each entry will correspond with a letter of the English alphabet, starting with the letter "A" on April 1st.

I've given a lot of thought to my participation in the challenge, compiling an alphabetic list of topics that might be suitable fodder. In doing so, I realized I had a broad enough selection to narrow the list down into themed entries if I wanted to. So after a bit of meditation and mediation, I've decided that my A-Z entries will be themed around speculative fiction tropes.
  
What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction, to put it as broadly as possible, is fiction that deals with the fantastic. The genres most commonly associated with the term are Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Most of my writing (and a great deal of the works I admire) falls under the former two.

What are Tropes?

Originally, the word trope referred to the use of figurative language in a literary work. Over the past few decades, however, the word has come to denote the use of a commonly recurring motif, plot device, or character archetype. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien is widely regarded as the father of many common High Fantasy tropes, such as the fantastic races of Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Though he was drawing on myths and folklore for inspiration himself, his work was so influential that many fantasy works across books, film, and video games have used the Middle-earth mold to shape their own work.

So for the month of April, my blog will be devoted to exploring tropes and their use in speculative fiction of all mediums. I'll touch on some of my favorite examples, the many works in which they've appeared, and how I may have approached them in my own. Blogging this regularly is very new to me, so this is going to be tough. But with your encouragement (wink, wink), I just might get through this. I'll also be dropping by and lending support to as many of my fellow A-Zers as I can this month. I hope to read a lot of interesting new blogs and meet a lot of awesome new people. 

The next time you hear from me, I'll be on a mad dash to "Z." Should be lots of fun getting there.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Great and Mysterious Liebster Award


Thanks to the esteemed Randi Lee, yours truly has been named the recipient of the long-running Liebster Award. It was quite a nice surprise, and I can't say how grateful I am. Please give her blog a read!

This has been traditionally awarded to honor those blogs which motivate and inspire us. It is also granted to those blog authors who have accumulated 200 followers or less. Its purpose is to summon new followers and increase awareness of other noteworthy blogs.

I humbly accept this award and will follow the steps in order to promote a continuum of this worthy cause. Here is my list of chosen recipients for this award:

Jonathan Daler
Libbie H.
S.P. Clark
Juturna F.
Rachel Schieffelbein



To Accept the Award:

  • Thank the person who nominated you on your blog and link back to them.
  • Nominate up to 5 others for the award.
  • Let them know by commenting on their blog.
  • Post the award on your blog.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Inaugural Deviation: My Second Favorite Art Form


When I started this here blog thing, I mentioned that at times I might drift away from the subject of writing from time to time to talk about other interests. As it turns out, this is the first of such deviations.

At the age of four, my parents placed a video game controller joystick into my eager hands for the first time. I don't remember much about that day, other than being very happy, and arguing with my parents that this was clearly a Nintendo, not a Natari or whatever they were calling it. Having seen commercials/product placement for the original NES, my entire concept of video games was defined by the word Nintendo.


Eventually, I grew to accept the fact that what I actually had was an Atari 2600. I played the handful of games I had to death. To this day, I have fond memories of maddening Spider-Man marathons and harrowing tank duels with my dad in Combat.

What my parents might not have realized at the time is that they were planting the seeds for a love of video games that would stick around well into my adult life. Gaming is by far the most active and absorbing hobby in my life (bear in mind, I don't consider writing a hobby). I try to make time for it at least once or twice a week, even at my busiest. Though a particularly engrossing game or series can get its hooks in me and turn the habit daily if it's good enough.

One such series is Mass Effect.


Created by my favorite game developer, BioWare, the Mass Effect series and the universe explored therein are as compelling as nearly any science fiction work I've ever experienced, including books, television, and movies. It's right up there with Star Wars, Star Trek, and 2001 for me.Earlier this year, the final game in the trilogy was released. To gear up for the grand finale, I've decided to go back and play the entire series in order.

The games cast you as Commander Shepard, an elite human soldier who sets out to explore the galaxy on a quest to save it from an ancient race of machines known as the Reapers, who've made a habit of wiping out all traces of organic life in our neck of the universe every 50 million years or so. The game gives the player the freedom to pursue your goal in whatever way you see fit within the bounds of the story, either as a heroic war hero who does everything in his (or her) power to protect the innocent, or a ruthless soldier who will sacrifice anything (and anyone) for the greater good. The games keep track of the choices you make via the save data on your system, so in the latest installment you're still feeling the consequences of decisions you made five years ago in the first game.

Mass Effect is just one example of why I think video games should be held in the same light as any other medium for fiction. They may have begun as blinks and beeps in shopping malls and movie theater lobbies, but now they're telling stories. Now they're making statements on politics, life, and philosophy. When done well, games can be just as moving and rewarding as any other art form. No matter what Roger Ebert thinks.


I'd love to hear your opinion on video games and where you think they fall on the spectrum of entertainment and art. I'd especially like to hear what fellow writers have to say. Do you think video games are a medium you could use as a writer? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

With my next entry, it will be back to regularly scheduled programming. Specifically, I'll be gearing up for the April A-Z Challenge, which I'm excited and terrified for.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gadzooks, I've been tagged! Lucky 7!

The inimitable Candy Lynn Fite has tagged me to take part in the Lucky 7 Meme. If you're unfamiliar with the meme, the rules are:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines - sentences or paragraphs - and post them as they're written. No cheating
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let them know



Now, it's worth posting a disclaimer here. I've been working on short stories for quite a while now, so the most recent thing I have that reaches 77 pages is the old novel I was working on. When I stopped working on it, I was in the middle of the first draft, so this is rough stuff. Most of it will probably be scrapped when I return to it anyway, as I'm planning on completely reworking the story into something different. 

Nevertheless, here are my seven sentences:

"You didn't hear about it? I figured it'd be all over the net by now." 

"Yeah, the turncoat's the talk of the town. Didn't think I'd be trading fire with his f***ing buddies on my lunch break though. Anybody else back there?" 

"There's a girl. Don't know what's wrong with her, she can barely walk." 

And here are the 7 unsuspecting authors I've tagged to participate:

A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer
Diane Carlisle
Julz Perri
Hillary Jacques
Randi Lee
Noree Cosper
Yvonne Rupert

In the spirit of the meme, I'm tagging these people with no forewarning, so there's no guarantee they'll be able to participate. Even so, you should check out their blogs!


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Blog Hoppin'

In an effort to keep myself productive and meet lots of interesting people with interesting blogs, I've decided to join a couple of blog hops.


The first is the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.

On the first Wednesday of every month, I'll be posting about the doubts, fears, and neuroses I encounter while writing my keister off. I'm chock full of those, so that should be easy enough.





Next is the 2012 April A-Z Challenge, hosted by a slew of cool people. This is the one I'm worried about.

In the month of April, I'll be attempting to blog every day except Sundays, with each post themed on a successive letter of the alphabet. It will begin on April 1st, with the letter "A."

I don't know jack about apples or zebras. I'm terrified. But it should be fun. I'm compiling an alphabetical list of topics now in preparation.




Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tanks and Bottles


This entry is part of the Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt was “rainy days.” 





Jake let the bike fall, kicking a cloud of sand up about his ankles. He wanted to curse at the damned thing, to kick it as hard as he could, but Mom wouldn't want him acting that way in front of Dustin. So he just glared at it with clenched fists.

"Grandpa says staring at something don't fix it no faster," Dustin said.

"There ain't gonna be no fixing it this time, dummy. Motor's shot." Jake put a hand up to his brow and took a look at the sun. Lots of daylight left. "How much water you got?"

"Half a bottle still."

"Good. We're hoofing it the rest of the way. We can cut over the dunes, but it's still a long walk, so go easy on what you got." He shouldered the pack of supplies they were running back to town and led the way.

"Grandpa says water used to fall from the sky," Dustin said. "He says it came out of holes in the wall, whenever you wanted. People used to pour it all over themselves just because it felt good."

"Grandpa likes to tell stories. Don't pay 'em no mind. Water comes from tanks and bottles. And if I ever catch you pouring it on your head, it'll be a whooping."

The trudge home was made a little wearier by the fact that Jake knew he likely had a whooping of his own waiting. Mom expressly forbade taking Dustin along on supply runs. Figures the bike would break down the one time he'd actually caved in to the little brat's whining. She'd never believe he was at a friend's house this late. That kid would be the death of him.

~

His feet were just starting to ache when Dustin gave the end of his sleeve a yank. "Jake, look! A baby sand storm!"

He turned around to see a big red cloud of sand moving steadily toward them. When the wind died, he could hear the faint sound of an engine. Maybe this day would be whooping-free after all. "That ain't no storm, dummy. It's a truck. Come on, help me wave it down."

They jogged back onto the path and flailed their arms about until the old flatbed slowed and eased up next to them. The driver was a greasy-looking man with a wiry beard. "What are you kids doing out here on foot?" he said as he rolled the window down.

"Our bike's broke down, sir," Jake said. "If you're headed into town we'd sure appreciate a lift."

"You can ride in back, I suppose. If you got hoods on those rags, keep 'em down unless you want a nose full of sand."

~

That night, Jake went looking for Dustin to remind him to keep their little adventure in the dunes a secret. He found him up on the roof, huddled in a blanket, staring at the night sky.

"Hoping some magic water might fall out of the sky?" Jake asked.

"I'm just stargazing. Mom said I'm grounded in my room until tomorrow. She doesn't know I can get up here from my window though."

"Why'd she say that? You didn't tell her about the run, did you?"

"Nuh-uh. I told her I was at Jenna's. But she still got mad 'cause I'm supposed to call if I stay past five."

"Oh." He lay down and stole a tail of blanket. "Sorry you still got in trouble after all that."

"It's okay. It was worth it." He raised his arm toward the sky and pointed. "Jake, what's the name of that star? The blue one. You're smart about that stuff."

"That ain't actually a star. It's a planet. It's called Earth, I think."

"Grandpa showed it to me the other day. He said people used to live there."

Jake sighed and shook his head. "Like I said, Grandpa likes to tell stories."



Prompts do strange things to me sometimes. I don't know why a prompt about rainy days inspired a story about a Martian desert, but that's what I got. Check out the other bloggers participating in this chain to see what it did to them:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fear


In the summer of 2007, I decided I wanted to be an author. As I've mentioned in previous entries, writing has been a hobby of mine since childhood, something I've always enjoyed. But that summer marked the first time I'd decided to stop calling it a hobby and start calling it a profession. So, with visions of book signings and bestseller lists dancing in my head, I sat down to write a novel.


It was called I'm Paul Again, about a melancholy teen who has a life changing out of body experience, literally becoming someone else. I worked my butt off on that little story, mostly in short afternoon sessions and weekend marathons. The first half of the manuscript seemed to write itself, pouring out of me in spurts and fits. This was it. I'd found my calling. Stephen King had nothing on me.

Then, something happened. I hit a wall.

It was the dreaded WRITER'S BLOCK, or so I thought. I'd sit down and stare at my computer screen for hours at a time, biting my nails and pulling my hair out with no results. My precious novel seemed doomed, dreams be damned. In a state of frustration and despair, I decided to take a break to air out the ol' noggin, determined to come back refreshed and full of ideas.

I didn't write again for three years.


Wikipedia calls fear a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger. Now I'm no expert, but I think the human psyche is a little less cut and dry than that. I think fear takes many shapes and comes in many flavors. It's a sneaky, subversive force that worms its way into your subconscious, expressing itself in ways that you can't possibly anticipate or prepare for. And I think writer's block is fear's bastard progeny.

There are a lot of things that can cause a writer fear. Fear of failure is probably the most obvious, considering the time and effort we put into our work. But there can also be a fear of success. After all, to be successful we must be willing to stand criticism and scrutiny from total strangers. We slather empty pages with bits of our soul, and then offer it up to the world and say, "Here! Take a gander!"

Since I've started writing again, I've looked back at my experience with that first ill-fated manuscript more than a few times and asked myself what I was afraid of. In the end, I don't think it was failure. I don't think it was success. I think it was a fear of honesty.

When I read that manuscript today, I can see that it's flawed. The story I was trying to tell was simply not meant for the longer form. It's clear as day to me now that it would be perfect for a short story, perhaps a novelette. At the time, I was so dead-set on writing the Great American Novel that I couldn't let myself make that realization. When I got to the second half it was becoming more and more obvious, and I just wouldn't be honest with myself about the work. I was dragging it out, inflating it, trying to force a novel where there wasn't one, all to the detriment of the story. In the end the muse revolted, unwilling to let me corrupt her inspiration further. Hence, writer's block.

I'm not happy that it took me so long to get back in the saddle, but I learned quite a bit from the experience. These days, the muse and I have a much better understanding. I'm nicer to her, she's nicer to me. I'm just as happy to write a good short story as I am a novel, and I'm better (and more honest) at recognizing a story's potential. This is mainly due to my own personal growth as a writer. I'm just plain better at it now. But I also had some help along the way. A book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield gave me the kick in the pants that I needed.



As for that story, it still nags at me from time to time. One of these days, I may sit down and write I'm Paul Again the way the muse intended.

For now though, I'm too afraid.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Invoking the Muse


In Greek Mythology, the muses were the personification of knowledge and the arts. Born of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, they were especially associated with music, dance, and literature.



The concept of the muse is so intertwined with the arts that even today we use words born of this association without even realizing it: music, museum, amuse, etc. The concept of a deific being or force that doles artistic inspiration is still taken seriously by some modern artists, though most of us just use the term as a nebulous catch-all for inspiration in general.

For me, the word muse pretty much refers to the subconscious wellspring from which I draw all of my strange ideas. Often I have to coax and cajole the muse into giving me even the smallest nuggets of goodness. Other times, fully formed concepts might slither out of the aether completely of their own accord, often at the most inconvenient of times.

The idea of the muse prayer always intrigued me. Even today, I know some writers who begin their sessions with a plea to the muse. Some of the greatest historic examples of the written word invoke the blessings of one or all of the muses, though often it was merely an indication that the speaker was working inside the established poetic tradition. For example:

Homer, in Book I of The Odyssey:
"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy."

Dante Alighieri, in Canto II of The Inferno:
"O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!"

John Milton, opening of Book 1 of Paradise Lost:
"Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse . . ."

William Shakespeare, Act 1, Prologue of Henry V:
"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"

I don't do any praying to the muse myself, but I do believe in the power of ritual (which is what I think muse prayers are really tapping into). I think if you have a specific routine when setting out on a creative endeavor, you can develop an almost Pavlovian response that gets your synapses firing when you need them to. For me, it's as simple as making a cup of coffee and putting my lucky writer hat where I can see it. My subconscious (the muse, if you prefer) knows by now that coffee + desk = writing. For me, this ritual is essential to the process, and anytime I'm asked for advice about overcoming the vaunted and dreadful WRITER'S BLOCK, I always mention this.

I also think it's important to set a schedule and stick to it. The muse will have a much better time of finding you if she knows you'll be at your desk at the same time every day. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it. Just ask W. Somerset Maugham, who said this:

"I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine sharp."

So what about you? Do you ever think about the muse? If so, what does the word mean for you, and how do you go about engaging your muse? Leave a comment and let me know.