Category Archives: Writing

Writing is Discovery

When you write you discover. You discover aspects of your characters, you discover nuances to your plot, you discover holes in your world-building, but perhaps the most fascinating things you discover are the thing you uncover about yourself.

Recently as I have been thinking about my writing processes I discovered that I like writing death scenes.

Now that is different from to kill your characters. Sometimes I have little emotional attachment to a character’s death, sometimes there is more connection and a high resistance to disposing of that character but I follow through if it is what the story needs. No, what I am talking about id when it comes time to put the scene down on paper, the actual thought experiment of the death and the killing is fascinating. I have killed villains, secondary characters, and heroes. I have written the scenes from another character’s point of view, from close third person, and even first person. I am working on a ghost story where I follow the character from living to ghost, hence a first person death scene that is not the end of the story.

What is it about the death scenes that I find so interesting?

Well, for one it is pretty much the opposite of that old piece of advice ‘write what you know.’ I haven’t died; I haven’t watched anyone die, so this is an area of pure imagination. It truly is a place to synthesize practical knowledge such as the body’s reaction trauma and blood loss with pure imagination as you apply it to a particular person and situation. Blending the known with the invented is the heart of writing and that is a good death scene.

Another aspect of writing death scenes is that it is a chance to strip everything away from the dying character and have a snapshot of who they are at the end of all things. It is a theory of drama that I think goes back to the ancient Greeks that tragedy strips away all pretenses exposing the true character and there is no greater tragedy to a character than the final moments of their life.

Done poorly a death scene cheapens the piece, making characters feel disposable and that can alienate a reader. Done properly a death scene is revelatory broadening the reader’s understanding of the characters, the plot, and the themes of the work. Do not shy away from killing characters, but make sure you are giving their final moments the attention they and the reader deserve.

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Now I have yet to achieve the sort of success that prompts this question, but I have friends who have herd it many times and it is the cliché for something creative people get tired of hearing. However I have thought a lot about this question. Not only from a perspective of that someday I hope to have the success that prompts it but also thinking about why it is asked in the first place.

First of all I do not doubt the earnestness of those asking this oft repeated question. I think that they want to be creative people and looking at someone successful who has produced plentiful ideas and that their own fields seem so fallow it is natural to wonder if there is some process of trick that turns a person creative. It is not those they that there is a single source of ideas, jokes about a PO Box aside, they understand that creativity is process. It is a process that looks mysterious and I believe that they want a little help in getting that process started.

The sad truth is that there is no answer to the question. For each and every creative person there are multitudes of paths to a workable concept. For me there is a commonality to my paths and that is most often my idea start as questions.

Watching an episode of Star Trek (The original series) where they have found yet another duplicate Earth I asked myself what might actually produce a doppelganger of our planet? (Aside from limited budget on your production.) Answering that question became my most recent sale, A Canvas Dark and Deep. I have idea sparked by doing the dishes when a floating lid looked like a strange watercraft and I started asking questions about who would build that and why. What if humanity moved out to the stars but not unified but still yoked to nationalism? That became a series of novels. If there are ghosts why are they so rare when there are so many people? That has spawned a couple stories as I have explored different answers.

If you want to be creative the only suggestion I can give you is ask lots of questions. Particularly you must question that things that every just assumes. Flip things and ask what is the case if the opposite is true instead of what every thinks.

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The Physics of Prose

An intuitive sense I get from writing is that prose possesses both inertia and momentum. When a project is conceived, even with a well defined and through outline I have hesitancy in actually starting the piece. Applying butt to chair and fingers to keyboard is always work it seems that the barriers at the start are high and steeper than later in the creation process.

Mind you this applies not just to the me getting started but also to the speed of the writing itself. Particularly with large works like novels at the start the words and scene do not come easily. It is as if the project is large, heavy, and I am trying to push it up a hill. As I get deeper into a project the words come faster and inertia seems to lessen, though it never goes away entirely.

The idea that writing has momentum is related but slightly different. In physics momentum has a vector, that is momentum describe both how much (usually velocity) something is moving and in which direction. Something with a large amount of momentum can be light but moving very fast or very large and moving slowly. Momentum measures how ‘resistant’ a moving object is to changing that vector.

When I near the start of a story for which I have an outline I will refer to that outline often the outline gives me the direction that the story needs to travel. But as I get deeper and deeper into the story I check the outline less and less. At this point the story is moving in its direction, the vector has been set and it fights a change in that. I find it fascinating that the shape of the story tends to confirm with what I laid out in the outline but now instead of checking that document for the next scene that outlines scene simply falls into place organically.

In the end I land where I had predicted, the story wraps up the way I expected and then I have start the process all over again for the next tale.

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Real vs. Hypothetical People

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

That quote is often attributed to Soviet dictator and mass murderer Stalin, though it should be noted that the concept vastly predates him and there is scarce documentation that he ever actually said it. Setting aside the question of attribution there is an undeniable truth to the sentiment and it has important relevance to those who craft fiction.

I would argue that the reason the one death is a tragedy and the million are emotionally neutral is not because the numbers involved make it impossible to grasp but because one person we can know, one person can be real to us while a million will always occupy that void space as hypothetical people. People we meet are more real than one we only her about second hand and crowds are less real as people than individuals. So how does this apply to fiction?

You may have a character or characters that you would like the reader or audience to have sympathy for, even if they have done utterly reprehensible things. If they have murdered or abused people you can preserve that ability for the reader to still have sympathy and empathy but keeping their victims in a hypothetical state.

Consider Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Many readers find Gollum’s condition tragic and the character himself quite pitiable even after watching him murder his own cousin for the One Ring, they still can find a great well of sympathy for the twisted, tortured character. However when Gandalf is recounting Gollum’s story to Frodo one detail he mentions slides past many a person, refusing to stick in their memory. Gollum stole infants from cribs and ate them. All is his meals exist as hypothetical babies. We never see him raid the cribs, we never see him bash out their brains as he does with his fish, and we never actually see him feeding. I think if we had there would be very few who could muster sympathy for the evil beast.

Consider also the fugitive replicants in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner. Their plight is one that is engineered to create sympathy. They are genetically created slaves, labor, combat, and sexual slavery being their only reason for existence and to make that life ever more tragic it is short, just four years and then death. Of course we want to feel for them when they make a break for freedom and confront the man who forced this terrible life up on in hopes of winning at least a few more years, but again we are comforted by the fact that their escape takes place off-screen and their victims are also safely hypothetical. In the briefing Deckard receives from Bryant we are told that the six ‘jumped a shuttled and killed twenty-three people.’ No more details than that but think about that, six people killed twenty-three. They will not pull that off if the 23 are armed and combatant, but they can if they are civilians on a shuttle flight. Imagine watching the scene as the six replicating slaughter the civilians, perhaps shoving some out the airlock to die of exposure to vacuum. After watching such an emotionally traumatizing scene how much harder would it have been to have sympathy for the replicants?

Let me close this out with a counter example.

For many people it was impossible to get past Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy trilogy about Thomas Covenant. In the series Covenant is a man suffering leprosy who is magically transported to a fantasy setting know as The Land, and while there is disease is gone, as if he never contracted it. Overpowered by the return of his sexual ability he rapes a woman who had befriended him. (Let’s set aside the whole notion of violent rape as an act driven by sexual desire, that’s another kettle of fish.) Many readers, quite understandably, stopped reading and never returned. Why? The woman was a real character, she was someone we had met, had known, had seen her inherit goodness, and then we rode along in the head of her rapist as she was attacked. In fictional terms she was not hypothetical at all. Had the same events occurred off-screen -not possible with the single POV Donaldson employed – then I think fewer readers would have been turned away. (There are always some who will see past the ‘telling and not showing’ and be repulsed by the recounted events. I have never finished the first book in that series and never viewed Gollum as sympathetic.)

Real versus hypothetical people I think is a very important thing to consider when crafting your narrative.

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The More Frightening Cosmology

Last month at the terrific Horrible Imaginings Film Festival at least one film dealt with the familiar subject of a the bad person suffering in limbo or hell but unaware that this was indeed their fate. This is a well known plot done in prose, poem and on the both the big and small screen. For me this presentation prompted a thought about how utterly this is a comforting concept.

If there is a hell or some analog for those who do wanton harm to their fellow humans then there is a moral order to the universe. The existence of such a place means that there is no escape for those who would do evils upon the rest of us. Justice is not a lie we tell ourselves to make life bearable.

However the concept brings with it terrifying prospects. For there to be justice there must also be judgment and that implies not only a judge but also a code to be judged against. Many religions assert that they have unlocked the mystery of the code and the judge but by their very natures the answer must be taken on faith. There can be no proof of their claims, and it is possible no matter how pious your life that your actions violate the code and then hell is not just for those who are clearly evil but those for are mere violators of an unknown code.

So given that which is the more frightening cosmology; one with an alien judge and unknown moral code that may punish people for ceremonial infractions or one in which none of that exists leaving us in a universe without morality or meaning?

I am seriously thinking of tackling these questions in a serious of fantasy/horror stories.

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An Additional Theory on Horror

There are plenty of theories as to why someone may enjoy the horror genre, be that in book, movies, or some other media.

There’s the safe-danger theory, which to me sounds like it really comes down to adrenaline thrill. This is much like why you might enjoy roller coasters. It feels dangerous but you are aware that you are safe for the entire experience. To me there is an element of truth to this idea.

There is the related but slightly different cathartic theory. This one posits that people enjoy horror as a way of facing fears in a safe environment and vanquishing them. You might then of it as an immunization theory, we face what scares us in safety the way we face weakened or killed diseases when we get out immunizations. Again, this is not without merit.

While I was watching horror films all weekend long at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival I thought about the nature of horror cinema and how often those of us who enjoy started it quite young. This prompted an idea that perhaps one of the key elements of horror and why we enjoy it is control.

Children have no control over their lives and even as we progress through adolescence and on into adulthood we never experience full authority over the events to determine our fate. The lack of control is perhaps an essential element of horror. When you are trapped in a haunted house, the bridge is washed out, or there is nothing but the terrible vacuum of space outside you are trapped and isolated but you are also denied the control over your actions that might allow you to flee, Hunted, haunted, or stalked all have strong elements where the control, the power, and the authority over events passes from the character to the antagonists. If the story ends happily the protagonist gains control over their life, if the story has a darker ended then as the audience/reader we are comforted that in our own lives we retain more control that those poor bastards.

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Time Scales

As a writer of science-fiction I often have to think about the time scale of future history, which wraps around and has me thinking about the time scale of actual history.

For example take a hypothetical person born around the time I was 1960. (I was not actually 1960 but it good enough for an example.) If that person lives until they are 80 they die in 2040, that an interesting stretch of history. Now say that person has a grandchild or great-grandchild born when in 2030. The kid and the oldest hang out for ten years because the oldster has cool stories before personal computer, home video, cell phones and so on. The kid born in a better time has a better run and dies when they are 90, or 2120. That kid, when they die, has spoken with and interacted with a person who was alive before man flew in space, but is passing away in the 22nd century.

With the rapidly expanding abilities of our medical technology there’s no doubt those number are on the conservative side. To me this gets more staggering when you play these numbers against history.

Move it all back and we have someone passing away in 2020 who had direct contact with someone born in 1860. That old person in 2020 could very well have known someone who had born on a plantation as a slave. That’s how tight and close our history truly is. Things and events we think of as the distant past are really just barely one step removed from living memory.

It is staggering.

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My Fictions and Fading Empires

The military SF novel that my agent is currently shopping around has two core concepts baked into its world building; that the nationalism does not die away and that the United States becomes a faded empire.

(Let’s set aside the entire debate over the word empire and the evilness of the United States. I am using the term ’empire’ in a generic sense for a vast and dominate political entity.)

All empires fade. This is a fact history has repeated over and over so the fading of the American Empire is hardly going out on a predictive limb. In my world building I decided that the United States took a wrong path in the early 21st century, never recovered it senses, and began a downward spiral that among the interstellar nations reduced it to a second rate power. My principal character in the setting is an American who serves as an officer in the European star forces.

Should the publisher that is currently considering the novel decided to buy it and in 9 to 12 months you end up holding a paperback copy that I think is likely to produce an interesting and false conclusion; that the novel is a critique of American politics as they stand now and in particular Donald Trump.

My agent read the manuscript and we became partners in the literary endeavor two years ago, long before anyone dreamt that a TV reality star might take the presidency. The idea is even older than that. I first began working on the concept, early short stories and th basic world building back in the mists of early time, 1988.

(I can pinpoint it even though I usually have a terrible sense of when an event in my past happened because its creation was at the same time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started its first season.)

A lot changed in the world building for my Nationalized Space setting. The world changed, I adjusted ideas but the two core concepts remained the same. So when you read a book, any book, you may find parallels to the world around you but that doesn’t mean that was the specific intention of the author or that work. Sometimes it really is just coincidence.

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Going on Vacation

Soon, Saturday, I will be heading out on vacation to see my family. I do not know how often I will update this blog. I will try to stay on top of it but there are no promises.

Given that flying coast to coast will be a five hour affair and that I am traveling solo for this trip I should at least be able to get some writing completed. (There are few vacations from writing.)

One project I hope I might get started and finished during the trip is a new horror short story. I shared the central premise with some of the writers of my writers group and it was well received, giving me encouragement that the conceit is new enough to be worth pursuing.

If I do get that story completed I’ll do a public reading of at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival next month. I will be attended as part of the literature horror panel along with a number of horror authors.

I am also working a big blog post, something else I may compose on the flight, going into detail as to why I find Star Trek: Insurrection the most offensive of all the Star Trek films.

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The Artist’s Most Important Trait

In a post some time ago I argue that the most important skill a writer could master was finishing. An uncompleted project moves no readers and sells no copies. Today I’m going to talk about the trait all artist’s should prize above others. That trait is not inspiration, creativity, or being a keen judge of human nature.

Above all else an artist needs to be honest.

Now, I do not mean that you tell cruel truths to people at parties. I do not mean that you argue and try to dominate all who disagree with you. There are light-years between honest and asshole.

What I mean is you must not self-censure. You must not silence the voice in your art. That is you voice and it is literally the only thing that separates you from everyone else in the art. Your viewpoint, your take on the world is the point of your art, it is your art. When you self-censor you decapitate your art turning it into nothing more that talented copying. It becomes a self forgery.

Always listen to your inner voice. Always know what it is you what to say and always, always say it.

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