Monday, February 25, 2013

Speculative Spotlight: The Sandman

It's the last Monday of February, which means it's time for this month's Speculative Spotlight, in which I share a hefty chunk of awesomeness from one of the many mediums of speculative fiction. Today, we're going to be talking about one of the most revered comic book series of all time, The Sandman.

What Is It?

If you've been reading this blog for any great length of time, you've probably ascertained the fact that comic books are one of the larger measuring beacons on my particular spectrum of nerdry. When done well, I think the graphic form can be one of the most effective methods of storytelling. I say that not out of any particular bias toward the medium (having never attempted to write one myself), but because I can honestly say that some of the greatest stories I've ever had the pleasure of reading were comics.

Easily counted among those is The Sandman, a series penned by eminent author Neil Gaiman. In fact, it was this series (along with others like Watchmen and Maus) that really opened my eyes to the power of the form, instilling a love for comic books that eventually had me arguing their artistic merit with high school teachers growing up. And long after my old comic book collection has been woefully lost and unaccounted for, I still cherish this series as one of my favorite reads. As I write this, I'm in the middle of a complete reread, and it's just as good as I remember it.

What's So Awesome About It?

The Sandman is ostensibly about Dream of the Endless, lord and embodiment of his namesake. His story begins with decades of imprisonment at the hands of unwitting occultists, who sought to ensnare and conquer Death herself. Upon realizing they've captured her brother instead, they leave him to rot in a crystal prison, too greedy and afraid to set him free. Much of that first arc involves the repercussions brought thereof, as Dream escapes and sets about repairing his realm and abode, which have fallen to ruin in his absence. Along the way, we see how this experience has changed the Lord of the Dreaming and his outlook on existence.

At its heart, though, The Sandman is a story about stories. After all, what are stories if not dreams? It's this hidden premise that Neil Gaiman uses to spin tale after tale as the series progresses, weaving elements of some of the oldest stories known to man together into one tapestry. One such story involves Norse gods Odin and Thor arguing with Egyptian deities Anubis and Bast (among others) over who will claim Hell upon Lucifer's retirement. Another sees famed dramatist William Shakespeare premiering A Midsummer Night's Dream for an audience of faerie creatures, including the subjects of the play itself: Titania and Auberon (to varying levels of amusement).

In this way, Gaiman manages to construct a cherry-picked cannon from the vastness of human history and mythology, giving us glimpses of the interconnectedness of dreams and that which they inspire. All the while, the framework of his own story runs alongside, and the reader bears witness to one of the most enjoyable character arcs of any graphic work ever set to paper (in this humble writer's opinion)—that of Dream of the Endless, who is also called Morpheus, who is also called Oneiros, who is also called The Sandman.

So if you're a fan of mythology, history, and the ethereal qualities of storytelling, you would be well served to give The Sandman a read. And if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman's, well, why on Earth haven't you read it yet? You can see bits and pieces of much of his later work, American Gods especially, throughout the series. And now is a great time to dive in, as it was recently announced that Gaiman will be penning a new entry in the series later this year to mark its 25th anniversary.

image credit: Anáryawe via cc

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ruthless Writing: Exploit Your Fears

Last year, I began a pseudo-series here on the blog called "Ruthless Writing," with entries on torturing your characters and murdering your darlings. I use the word "pseudo" because the entries in this series are largely spontaneous and unplanned, but a great deal of topics fit under the umbrella of writing ruthlessly. And as I've said in those past entries, I think the term perfectly describes the mindset I aim for every time I sit down to write. The path to success is paved with ruthless habits.

That doesn't just mean leaving creator's bias at the door when attacking your manuscript, though. That same ruthlessness can also be put to work when it's time to reach inside yourself and pull that story out to begin with. It's been said that our dreams fuel the stories we tell, but I think a good old fashioned nightmare can be just as compelling if you're willing to delve therein.

You might assume I'm talking about writing horror, but it's actually much broader than that. While nightmares can be an obvious source of inspiration for scary stories, your inner fears can be put to work in just about any genre, if you can find a way to harness them.

What Are You Afraid Of?

The first step, of course, is shining a powerful spotlight into the recesses of your mind, finding out where those innermost fears of yours are hiding. It might not be as easy as you think; while most of us probably have no problem identifying the obvious surface fears—like the squicky feeling you get when faced with something that creeps or crawls—some things lurk much deeper within the psyche. That's why it's useful to make a distinction between fear and anxiety, as they often come from two very different places. But in my (mostly uneducated) opinion, they are two sides of the same coin.

The raw, instinctive emotion that we tend to think of when discussing fear is generally caused by an outside threat or force of some kind. This external stimulus usually triggers the fight-or-flight response, and a whole host of physical reactions occur, from adrenaline dumps to accelerated heart and breath rates. This is what you feel when you're threatened by physical danger of some kind, and it kept your ancestors alive when they had to worry about being eaten by giant cats if they got too sloppy.

Anxiety, on the other hand, generally involves a broader spectrum of psychological and physiological responses, depending on the person and the circumstances. It usually means a general feeling of concern and unease, but can run the gamut from simple nervousness all the way into a genuine fear response. Causes range anywhere from the daily stresses and demands of life to the deeply ingrained insecurities brought on by external factors like social pressure. There's a good chance you know someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, as it's one of the more common forms of mental illness. These feelings kept your ancestors alive too, but it was because they were worrying whether or not they'd gathered enough twigs and berries to make it through the winter.

Put Your Id to Work

Once you've acknowledged the existence of your fears and anxieties, as well as the differences that comprise each, you can get to the work of injecting them into your stories. Both can be employed to great effect, depending on the kind of story you're telling. Let's take a look at those two (admittedly broad) categories we've carved out.

Fear with a capital "F" is the most obviously applicable of the two, since it relies almost wholly on external stimuli. This is where your antagonistic force comes in, threatening the well-being of your protagonist (and by extension, the reader) in some way. If you're writing horror, this might be a supernatural force out for aimless vengeance, menacing your poor protagonist with the threat of the unknown. Or perhaps it's a homicidal maniac that stalks them throughout the course of the book, building up to one terrifying confrontation in which the axe is finally raised.

If it's a fantasy world you're toiling in, you might tap into your inner arachnophobia when it's time for your hero to battle it out with the giant spider that stands in their way, transferring your own disturbed state onto the character as you envision every frightening, arachnid feature. How will your characters react to the fight-or-flight response when it kicks in? Will they run the other way or draw their sword and plant their feet? What will the reader learn from this, both of the characters themselves and of the antagonists? Think about these questions, and how best you can use the answers to manipulate reader reaction. Having your characters face their fear is a great way to reveal what makes them tick.

Anxieties are an even better avenue for revealing character, however, since so much of it involves inner struggle of some kind. More importantly, almost every one of us knows what it's like to engage those kinds of problems at some point in our lives. Whether it's stress or insecurity, we've all been there, and we all know how powerless those emotions can make you feel if you let them get the better of you. You might have your romantic protagonist falter in the presence of a love interest, for example, because he or she is insecure about their appearance in the same way you are. Or perhaps the personal stakes they're facing threaten to outweigh the perceived importance of the task at hand, forcing them to make a tough decision. These kinds of internal dilemmas can make a compelling character instantly identifiable, even  if the circumstances aren't quite the same for the reader as they are for you. If portrayed well, conflicts like these can even serve a therapeutic end, for reader and writer alike.

So the next time you're tugging at that brain of yours, trying to shape the conflict in your work into something compelling and gut-wrenching, don't be afraid to look in the mirror first. Take a long, honest assessment of yourself, and take inventory of the dark things that lurk in the back of your mind. Not only will you get a better story out of it, but you might be better off having faced that part of yourself down. And don't just conquer that Cimmerian part of your id; put it to work. Exploit it.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via cc

Monday, February 11, 2013

7 Effective Martial Arts Traits Every Writer Should Have

Last year, I wrote an entry called "10 Bruce Lee Quotes That Can Improve Your Writing," divulging my lifelong interest in the martial arts and how it influences my approach to writing. It ended up being the most popular thing I've written, and to this day it brings me more Google traffic than anything else on the site. It was an experience that taught me a few things; chiefly that it was okay to delve into my obsessions from time to time, especially when they converge with writerly pursuits.

And as it turns out, the paths of the dedicated martial artist and the successful writer intersect quite a bit, when approached from the right angles. This should come as no surprise, seeing as both endeavors require a person to reach inside themselves and (hopefully) come back with something they didn't know they had in them. Many of the qualities that propel the titans of combat sport are also found in champions of the written word. Here are some of the traits they share:

#1. Discipline

Ask any coach or instructor and they'll tell you discipline is the cornerstone of a successful martial arts training regimen. From day one, most martial artists are taught to maintain a strict routine and to avoid any temptation to stray from the path. It might seem like the most basic of principles, but it often separates the weekend warriors from the world champions.

And like many of the items to follow, this is an ethic that's directly applicable to writing. I've spoken at length before about the power of a writing routine, but I'll keep shouting it to the heavens: don't just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. We all come from different walks of life and tangle with different demands and obligations, but if you can manage to set a writing schedule for yourself—and stick to it, come hell or high water—your creative output will benefit tremendously.

#2. Ever-Improving Technique

In the combat sports world, a champion's work is never done. When a fighter reaches the pinnacle of his sport, he doesn't stop learning because he's the best in the world—he works even harder to improve his arsenal. And that doesn't just go for combat athletes; walk into any respectable gym and there's a good chance you'll see lifelong black belts drilling the basics with the rest of the class (even great masters like Al Bundy).

In the same way, a serious writer never stops learning what he and the muse are capable of. Treat every book you open as a potential learning experience (even if it's learning what not to do). Pick up the odd book on writing or grammar to keep your tools of the trade sharp and well-maintained. Seek feedback, whether it's through a writing group or beta readers. And most importantly: write as much as you can and read as much as you can.

#3. Versatility

Whether training for a professional fight or just general self-defense, martial artists do their best to prepare for every eventuality. They try to see every angle and anticipate whatever their opponent throws, so they can be ready with a counter attack. Often a combat athlete will organize their entire training camp around their opponent's strengths or their own weaknesses, all in hopes of becoming a "complete fighter," ready for anything.

Writers would do well to follow suit, identifying our own strengths and weaknesses as we grow. It's always good to know what part of your story will shine the brightest, so you can emphasize those parts if you need to. But don't just write to your strengths; dive into your weak areas and do your best to cut them away. Build yourself up. Become a complete writer.

#4. Patience and Stamina

In 2010, Anderson Silva—the consensus number one fighter on the planet—defended his UFC title against a human wrecking machine named Chael Sonnen. It was the toughest fight of Silva's career, as Sonnen proceeded to beat the champion up for twenty-three minutes straight. But Anderson hung in there, and with only two minutes remaining in the fight, he capitalized on a tiny window of opportunity to submit Chael with a triangle choke, retaining his title. His patience and stamina paid off.

A writer's path to success may very well be just as long and grueling as those five rounds were for Anderson Silva. The odds of being an overnight success in the publishing world are like hitting the lotto. In fact, many of the authors who get tagged with that label built their "overnight" success over the course of several years. Take Brandon Sanderson for instance, who wrote six novels before seeing publication. So flex your knuckles and be patient. Your window of opportunity will come.

#5. A Sense of Progression

Most people know what it means to receive a black belt, even those who don't know the first thing about martial arts. It's a symbol of the years of hard work that person has put into learning and perfecting their style. The belt system varies depending on the discipline, but a practitioner generally starts out as a white belt, and is then awarded a new color at marked levels of proficiency (usually going from white to blue, purple, brown, and black). This gives the dedicated martial artist a clear, goal-based sense of progression in their art.

I think setting goals for your writing is one of the most effective practices you can adhere to as a writer. Think hard and realistically about where you'd like to see yourself a year from now, break down the steps it would take to get there, and reward yourself for every goal you cross off that list. Don't be vague and lofty (I want to be published is not good enough); be specific and immediate. How many words would you like to write this year? This month? This week? Write these things down, then go do it. Earn your black belt in writing.

#6. Confidence

As I found out at the age of seven years old when I took my first Karate class, a martial arts gym is one of the best places in the world to build confidence in yourself. All of the fancy moves in the world aren't going to serve you well if you step onto a mat with no confidence, and a good instructor can turn a scrappy kid with low self-esteem into a dauntless competitor. Confidence is one of the most effective weapons in a martial artist's repertoire.

A writer should be equally as confident in the work they've poured their souls into, even with the knowledge that they still have much to learn. If you're serious about realizing your writing dream, at some point you're going to have to send that precious manuscript of yours out into the world to be judged by complete strangers. If that doesn't take the confidence and bravery of a champion, I don't know what does.

#7. Humility

Humility is the other side of the coin. The amount of hard work (and painful butt-kickings) necessary to forge a successful martial artist usually keeps that unyielding confidence from turning into outright arrogance. A true champion doesn't let his ego warp the sensibilities at the core of his training, no matter what color his belt is, and no matter how famous his skills make him.

We writers have egos too, and complimentary feedback can become intoxicating if you let it. But be careful not to fall prey to "golden word syndrome." Even the most successful among us still have something to learn every time they contend with the empty page. And the toughest, most callous feedback you receive on your work will often be the most valuable. We are never above criticism, and the day we forget that is the day we stop learning.

photo credit: Sebastian Hillig via cc

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

IWSG: A Thousand Ideas

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's words of wisdom come from Orson Scott Card, one of the most popular science fiction authors of the last thirty years. He is perhaps best known for Ender's Game, in which the titular child protagonist is trained for interplanetary war with a race of insectoid aliens. This Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel has spawned an entire franchise, including a comic book series and an upcoming motion picture adaptation (which I can't wait for). Card has made a career of molding worlds, shaping universes, and influencing authors. On the topic of creative inspiration, he had the following to say, and it's one of those quotes that I try to carry around with me every day, not necessarily for motivation or encouragement, but simply as a reminder:

"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any."

This is something that every writer probably gets around to worrying about at some point or another, and it's easily one of the most common questions I've seen posed by beginners: Where do you get all of your ideas? What if I don't have another good one? What if I've only got one good story in me? A lot of us tend to leap head first into a good idea when we've found one that's worth a commitment, immersing ourselves in the ins and outs of the story as it grows from the spark that inspired it. While this laser beam focus is generally a good thing, it can lead to those insecure thoughts and doubts when you're deep into a project and you know the end is just around the corner (particularly if we're talking about a longer work, like a novel). By indulging these thoughts, we make the Next Great Idea out to be some rare, mythical entity that only comes out when the moon is full and the planets have aligned.

I throw the word "muse" around a lot, which might give some of you the impression that I'm one of those folks who thinks you've got to attune yourself to the right ethereal frequency to make good art. Rest assured I am not. When I refer to the muse, I'm really talking about the subconscious, the "muse-brain," if you will. I don't sit around waiting for the next epiphany when the current idea has run it's course, and I don't let my insecurities get the best of me. If the sponge has been squeezed to the last drop, that just means it's time to go back to the well.

What well? Take your pick. They're all around you! Every facet of your life can be a wellspring of creativity if you look from the right angles. What's been on your mind lately? What problems are you tangling with? Does your job have you down? Have there been any wild developments in one of your personal relationships? If it's compelling enough to hold your attention, or better yet, steal your attention when you're trying to focus on something else, chances are it can become story fodder. It might even be a little therapeutic.

If that still doesn't work, then turn your gaze from within to without. If you can learn to keep your writer hat on at all times, wherever you go, the world might begin to look a little different to you. What's that couple at the other table whispering about? How did that man get such a pronounced limp? Why is that dog off his leash? Before you know it, those whats, hows, and whys will level up and become what ifs. And the land of What If is where stories are born. You might be standing next to a great story idea while waiting in line at the grocery store, but you'd completely miss it if you were more concerned with arranging your groceries in the proper bagging order on the checkout counter. Let yourself look at the world, and you might be surprised what you find.

So the next time you find yourself wondering how you'll be able to pull another good idea out of thin air, don't worry yourself too hard about it. Instead, take Orson Scott Card's advice. Get about the business of your life, preferably with your eyes open a little wider than they were the day before.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Eldritch

It's the first Monday of February, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, we're delving into that which is beyond us, as we discuss the Eldritch.

People have always held a certain fascination with the old things that came before, especially those that might still be hanging around. It's only natural that this interest bleeds into the stories we tell, where our imagination is the only limit to the strange and wonderful ideas we can explore. And of course, some of them have been a little . . . well, dark. Such is the eldritch, inconceivable beings and creatures (if they can even be described as such) whose scope of power and mere existence is beyond mortal comprehension. Simply witnessing the alien majesty of these Old Things may be enough to drive the minds of men toward blithering insanity. Their very presence warps the fabric of the reality we think we understand.

Like most of these tropes (I sound like a broken record at this point) eldritch creatures abound in some of the oldest stories known to man. The various folklore and mythologies of the world are chock-full of them. Ancient Greeks spoke of Typhon, the last son of Gaia, who was known in Greek mythology as "the father of all monsters." Descriptions of him vary, but in one text or another he is said to have a hundred dragon heads with eyes of fire, a body draped in wings, and legs made of viper coils. As tall as the stars themselves, he was feared by all of the gods but Zeus, who he defeated in their first battle.

Norse mythology has Níðhöggr, a titanic dragon that gnaws at the roots of the World Tree between meals, which consist mainly of human corpses. To give you an idea of his size, our world is said to rest at the end of one small branch of Yggdrasil, which he lives beneath. He is described as so immense and powerful that the Ragnarök itself will not destroy him.

Even the Judeo-Christian texts of the bible describe great creatures like the sea-dwelling Leviathan and the elephantine Behemoth. These monstrous animals were cited as examples to Job to demonstrate the futility of questioning God, who alone created these terrible creatures, and who alone could tame them. We won't even go into the Lovecraftian beasts of Revelation—we'd be here all day.

Speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, this entry would be a big fat fail without him. Lovecraft literally wrote the book on eldritch terror. His tales of cosmic horror describe a reality teeming with otherworldly undercurrents, even the smallest glimpse of which can destroy the psyche of the unwittingly curious. Most of the eldritch creatures in his works were literal aliens, though often worshiped as gods by those who stumbled upon whispers of their existence. The most famous of these Great Old Ones is undoubtedly Cthulhu, who has become a strange cultural icon in recent years, mainly among übernerden like myself. Cthulhu patiently dreams at the bottom of the South Pacific, awaiting the conditions for his return.

Though I've never considered myself much of a horror writer, Lovecraft is definitely a big influence on me, and I've flirted with the eldritch a time or two in my own work. One of the unpublished stories I'm shopping around now delves pretty deep into Lovecraftian territory, though to reveal exactly how and why would be giving too much away. Hopefully it will see publication one day soon, and won't drive any of you too mad when you get a glimpse of it. My first published story, A Giant Mess of Darkness, also flirts with eldritch concepts, though it's left to the reader to decide whether the Old One in this story is the cause of madness or the product.

These kinds of stories are the perfect meeting place of the horror fan and science fiction nerd within me, and I love the idea that there might exist a form of cosmic life out there so great and terrible, so alien and incomprehensible, that just catching a glance of it would rend your mind like a meat grinder. The fear of the unknown is a powerful human instinct, and when done well, this kind of fiction plays that facet of the ego like a drum. As a reader, I can't get enough of it, no matter how cute and cuddly Cthulhu becomes over the years.

Recommended Reading:
H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Collection
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
It by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
Event Horizon
In the Mouth of Madness
Cast a Deadly Spell

Recommended Gaming:
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth