Improving your stories…

Writing teachers always say, “show don’t tell.” So, why not do that here in the blog? Initially, I was going to talk about improving our story skills. And then, an older story I need to revise popped up. So, rather than just preaching about developing our skills, I decided to show an example of changes in mine…

This week, I will present the story Life, Death, and Mr. Boggs as written. Next week, I’ll share some issues I see with the story.  I’ve already presented the story and you, dear reader, have had a chance to think about what I did wrong (and right!) and will be able to compare your thoughts to mine. (if you really have issues with the story or my opinion of what to do with it, leave a comment or DM me…). Then, in a couple of weeks, I will present a revised version of the story that addresses some of the original’s faults.

Life, Death, and Mr. Boggs is my work and set in my world of Midwol (I hold the copyright to both…) I welcome any commentary and (constructive) criticism you may have (there are very few harsh things I haven’t said to myself over the years…).

So, here is Life, Death and Mr. Boggs:

LIFE, DEATH, AND MR BOGGS

by Farangian

“I’ll die before I marry him.” Maria’s eyes were already wide. They went wider when her cousin flinched. “I mean, do you know what they’re asking?”

Across the well-worn wooden table, Elana nodded. “I know exactly what they’re asking. I know why they’re asking it too.”

“Elana…” Maria scanned the room around them. Even in the noisy dark of the tavern there was danger. The family had agents everywhere.

Elana shook her head and took a sip of her drink. She held the glass up and looked at its contents by the light of the single candle on their table.

“I wouldn’t worry Maria,” she said, “I’ve taken steps. The family wouldn’t expect either of us to be in such a low establishment.” She shrugged. “Technically, they don’t even know where I am. You wouldn’t know where I am, if I hadn’t spotted you in the market.”

Maria’s head bobbed. “You look different.”

The differences were small, but significant. A scar ran across Elana’s right cheek. A brilliant white widow’s peak stood out in her glossy black hair. Somehow she stood taller and yet seemed more relaxed. The poise she showed was a natural manifestation, not an act played by a daughter of the Pollona family.

“They say beginning a marriage is beginning a new life,” Elana said, “They also say ending a marriage is beginning a new life. In my case, that’s a literal truth.” She set down her drink. “Both are literal truths in my case.”

Maria scanned the room again.

“Don’t worry,” Elana said, “the owners of this place are friends of mine. Partners, you might say, working for my second husband, my real husband.”

“Second husband…” Maria’s words were barely audible.

“True,” Elana said, “The church doesn’t take such things lightly, but there were special circumstances.” She shrugged. “And after Heber’s funeral, there was nothing to be said anyway.”

“But the family…”

“They had little to say either,” Elana said, “As I said, special circumstances. It took them a while to understand, but eventually they realized it was for the best. They leave me to my business. I can still fulfill my duties, better in fact. And I am much happier than I was with Heber.” Elana chuckled. “Much happier.”

Maria maintained her wide eyed look. She also shivered. “Was it that bad?”

“It was,” Elana said, “My ‘husband’ wasn’t even a gifted. But the uncles had aspirations in the area, so having a family presence was necessary.”

“Necessary,” Maria repeated. She scanned the room again.

“There’s no need to worry,” Elana said, “there are no family agent’s here, except for me. They steer clear of this place, and anywhere else we’re operating. It’s part of our arrangement.”

“Arrangement,” Maria repeated. She shivered again. Her ‘arrangement’ was a marriage to a wizard of some minor family.

Some other puny group the uncles want to ensnare… At least Maria’s is a gifted… My task was much worse… Until HE came… Now Ulbrecht and I make our own arrangements…

“The family’s hold isn’t nearly as strong as they like us to think,” Elana said.

“But if they send assassins…”

Assassination was part of the family business, one line in a much larger business plan.

Elana shrugged. “It’s been tried, repeat performances are not recommended.”

“They tried to kill you?” Maria asked.

“The family?” Elana smiled. “Not after what happened. They weren’t ready to press their luck.”

“They weren’t?”

Elana drew in a long deep breath and expelled it slowly. I suppose I really must tell the story…She took another breath before beginning.

My father and the uncles developed an interest in expanding into a little town close to the mountains, somewhere they could use as a base to further draw the local miners into the family’s coils.

Maria nodded.

You understand that part, don’t you…? It’s more or less how your own ordeal started…

Elana clicked her tongue and leaned over the table. She kept her voice low. This wasn’t a story for others, even here where the proprietors knew the whole tale.

Unfortunately for me, there weren’t any eligible gifted folk in the area and sending a wizard overtly would have drawn unwanted attention. Vimbarge hadn’t quite fallen into chaos yet and they, or one of the other city states, might have taken notice. And that would have involved others in our business.

There was no gifted in town to whom I could be wedded, just the ‘celibate’ priests in the town’s overbuilt church. But there was a tavern master in search of a wife.

Heber was a petty and boorish man, and drunk more often than I deserved.

Elana sighed and pushed her glass farther from her. “But, even he didn’t truly deserve what happened. It was fortunate for both of us it happened the way it did.”

Maria nodded, and bent in so she could hear more clearly.

For two years I played wife to him. Suffered his advances and kept up appearances. For two years I dutifully reported to the family. Finally, they decided the village of Haystack was worthy of occupation.

Unfortunately, they also found themselves wrapped up in the ongoing drama of Valle Dios.

Elana made a sour face.

The city of the pass was far more important than Haystack. So, the uncles ordered that we advance our holdings, but they gave me no assets to work with.

Maria blinked.

“No assets at all,” Elana said, “Just me and whatever I could come up with.”

I was left to seek resources on my own. That meant making alliances with certain forces. And that led to attention, from Ulbrecht and certain elements in Vimbarge.

Both factions reacted in their own way.

Ulbrect was at loose ends already. His first wife was in the Raven folk’s secret home, or so he thought. He and his associates were working to improve Ulbrecht’s family seat and finding it slow going. Loose ends indeed.

They agreed with the town elder to face off against my allies directly, in exchange for information and needed supplies and labor.

They won too. Ulbrecht and company can be annoyingly successful, sometimes despite themselves.

While they were putting down my ‘allies’ the people from Vimbarge got involved. They didn’t act directly.

They sent Mr. Boggs.

“Who?” Maria asked.

Elana Shrugged. “Mr. Boggs. There’s no particular reason for you to know the name. He was just a second-rate necromancer from Vimbarge, before he died that is. Death seemed to increase his abilities until Ulbrecht got hold of him. My memory of precisely what happened is a bit gappy, I’m afraid. Complications of my part in the story.”

Maria nodded as if she understood.

Mr. Boggs’s greatest achievement, his most favored skill, was raising the corpses of his enemies to serve him. And death only made that power stronger. He had well over a dozen zombies with him when he arrived, including the two brutes he brought with him into the tavern.

“Into the tavern…” Maria’s eyes widened again.

That was when I first noticed him. When he came into my tavern.

He was surrounded by a pall of stench and darkness, a side effect of his life’s, and death’s, work. The smell of his two rotting ‘companions’ didn’t help matters any.

Boggs was no mere zombie, no mere corpse raised for a mission. He was intelligent. Somehow, he kept the gift of magic. And he spotted me immediately.

He sent his companions to deal with the others.

I realized what they were; taller than a man and more muscular, muted rotting features on heads as much like a pug dog’s as a human’s. Honestly, I think they might have chewed on themselves at some point.

The stench of death was overpowering. It overrode their natural stench, which is impressive since ogres aren’t exactly known for bathing. But, I suppose, when the flesh falls off the bone…

I knew what they were. The rest of them, the customers and barmaids genuinely had no idea. Not that it would have mattered. They were as good as dead when Mr. Boggs unleashed the brutes.

Meanwhile, Boggs came right toward me. With every step his desiccated flesh, black with age and corruption, became clearer. The shreds of his once fine robes hung in bits and rags, bearing testimony of his time in the grave, and the fate of those who’d tried to stop his progress.

He headed straight for me. At first no one tried to stop him. Not that the village folk had much fight in them, Boggs and his creatures had already killed the sheriff and his men outside.

Actually, more than killed them. Ulbrect killed the sheriff for a second time when he arrived.

Elana shrugged. “Could have been worse. It almost happened to me.” She shook her head. “Ulbrect has a strange sense of tactics. He truly does. But I’m glad of it.”

The ogres’ dead hands made short work of the others, the guests and the bar maids. Meanwhile, Mr. Boggs came straight toward me. Don’t ask me why I didn’t run. I’m not sure either.

Somehow…

Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And that wasn’t the only surprise.

Heber played the hero.

The boorish simpleton stepped between me and Mr. Boggs.

I know it was because he viewed me as his. He’d always viewed me as a prized possession. And he was afraid of what would happen if the family found me dead and him alive. But in that moment, I was grateful. He stalled Boggs just long enough. Any less and Ulbrect wouldn’t have made it in time.

Maria blinked again.

I watched.

I saw.

I saw every detail of Boggs’s hand, every shred of desiccated flesh and every bit of unwashed bone, as he wrapped his hand around Heber’s throat and drained him.

I saw my husband’s eyes glaze.

I watched the last spark of life drain from him.

And then Boggs sent him to deal with the last of our barmaids.

And then Boggs came for me.

I still couldn’t bring myself to move. I’m usually quite level-headed. You have to be to survive in our family.

But in that moment, I couldn’t move at all.

All I could do was watch Boggs come closer.

I heard him come closer too.

At first, I thought it was creaking leather and the click of hobnailed boots against the floor. I realized it was the creak of long dead flesh, and the clack of his foot bones against the floor.

I couldn’t move. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

Boggs put his hand out.

The same hand he killed Heber with.

He kept coming.

I couldn’t pull away.

Boggs wrapped his hand around my throat. And his touch was cold.

Maria gasped.

I felt my life draining out of me and into Boggs.

And that was when it happened.

The flash.

The shock.

That was the moment I died.

Maria’s eyes went even wider. Then she shook her head and laughed. “Elana, you’re teasing me.”

Elana shook her head. “No Maria, I’m not. In that moment I was dead.”

“You couldn’t have been,” Maria said.

“I was.” Elana shrugged. “I didn’t learn the rest till after.”

The next thing I knew I was upstairs in my former bedroom, in my former bed. He was looking down at me.

“He?” Maria asked.

Elana nodded. “Ulbrecht.”

He was standing there over me and wearing an expression as confused as mine.

“I’m sorry I had to do that,” Ulbrecht said, “But if Boggs had killed you, you’d have risen as one of his minions, at least that’s the hypothesis. The rest of it, well, that’s harder to explain.”

“Elana, you said he killed you.” Maria shook her head. “You’re teasing me.”

“No,” Elaina said. She took a long breath. “I’m not. Ulbrecht killed me and then raised me from the dead.”

“That can’t be.”

“It is.” Elana picked up her glass and held it up to the light. “It’s not really as simple as it sounds of course. The specifics of how, the complications after, those are stories for another day.”

“Complications?” Maria asked. She backed away from the table.

Elana set her glass down and laughed. “Nothing like that dear. I’m not going to bite you. I’m not some member of the undead. But Ulbrecht’s wife, his first wife, had just been through an ordeal of her own. She was in an odd spot and had some odd ideas.”

“Odd ideas?”

“She was the one who decided Ulbrecht and I should marry,” Elana said.

“She decided?” Maria’s eyes went wider than when she’d heard about Mr. Boggs.

Elana nodded. “Her ordeal made bearing children… Complicated. At the same time, she was rather fixated on growing her little family. And, she felt I owed her husband, you know for preventing my unwilling induction to the ranks of the undead, that sort of thing.”

“Oh,” Maria said, “But…”

Elana shrugged. “We both know polygamy isn’t unheard of among the gifted. At least one of the major churches actively supports it. And it just so happened that the arrangement solved problems for all three of us.”

Elana smiled. “Four if you count yourself.”

“Me?” Maria gasped. “I can’t… I couldn’t.”

Elana’s eyes narrowed. “No, you couldn’t.” She shook her head and smiled. “That’s not what I’m asking. Neither Ulbrecht nor I would consider it. Esperanza, the first wife, wouldn’t consider it. In fact, I wouldn’t even think it around her if I were you.”

“Then…?”

“Ulbrecht is building his fortress in the mountains,” Elana said.

“You mentioned that.”

“He also has an estate here in the city,” Elana said, “having no one to look after the place bothered my husband, and our marriage gave him a solution. It also gave me a private domain much more to my liking than some inn out in the sticks.”

Maria nodded.

“Ulbrect has someone to watch the house. Esperanza has someone to see to raising children, and raise them safely away from the ongoing complications of the fortress,” Elana said, “And I have my private domain. Ulbrect and Esperanza are willing to let me run my operation so long as I keep marital and fiduciary fidelity. And the situation keeps the uncles, or anyone else, from trying to marry me into some less satisfactory situation.”

Maria nodded. You could still see the questions in her eyes.

“As it is,” Elana said, “I’m free to hire servants, and others, as I see fit. But our happy little city is decidedly lacking on one key aspect.”

“It is?”

“It is,” Elana said, “I need a second, officially a maid servant or lady-in-waiting, who understands me, my thoughts and desires, and the way Ulbrecht and I run things. It also helps that you understand how the family does business.”

“Me?” Maria asked.

“You.” Elana reached across the table and took Maria’s hand. “You’ve run off already. You abandoned your arranged engagement. No one knows you’re here, and we can keep things that way.”

Elana drew Maria’s hand across the table. “You’re the perfect choice,” she said, “Unless you’d rather I drag you back to your arranged marriage.”

Maria smiled and interlaced her fingers with her cousin’s.

You need both…

I’m currently reading Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. I’m also paying attention to what’s going on outside my cozy little office. And in the wacky world of life imitating art imitating life, there are some things we definitely need to understand.

Because this blog is about writing and publishing, we will stick to talking about writing and publishing. But… I bet people could apply some of this to real life if they try (I’ve just got that feeling).

Whether you’re a “plot person”, a “character person” or some other variation, when you’re writing fiction there are two things that need to be presented in a story, emotions and facts.

One reason we read (and write) fiction is to experiment with emotions in a safe place. This is a theory that I came to years ago, studied as an undergrad and graduate student (Psychology with an English minor…), and I still find valid today.

Because a purpose of fiction is exploring emotion, we need emotion in our fiction, but we can’t have emotions without facts. Our minds need something concrete that we can lock onto. And we all feel emotions differently.

As a graduate student, one of my professors challenged my class to define the word table. It took a whole room full of very intelligent people more than half an hour to come up with a reasonable definition of the word table, even though a table is something we’d all experienced. Even though a table is a physical object that we can see and touch. Even though we were sitting around one as we discussed its definition.

If it’s that hard to define a physical item or class of items that’s right in front of you, how do we define something like anger, or pleasure, or depression, that can (sort of) be observed in behavior but not examined directly?

We need facts in our stories so our minds have something tangible to anchor too. But, it’s really hard to write a story that’s just facts and not emotions. We are social creatures. We have feelings and emotions and most of us are wired to seek the feelings, emotions, and emotional states of others. If stories without emotions were a thing, then the instruction booklet that came with my new USB camera would be on the best sellers list…

We need facts in our stories. They give us something solid to hold on to while we’re exploring the events, ideas, and emotions that we’re interested in; while we explore the things that catch our attention and draw us into the story. We also need emotions in our stories (like I said they draw us into, and keep us reading, a story). We need to find a balance between the two. We need to learn how to work with both.

Now, how we deal with facts and emotions depends on several factors. Different genres have different rules. Different time periods have different facts (and ‘facts’) and different cultures deal with them in different ways.

Characters and cultures deal with emotions in different ways. In some cultures, it’s appropriate to describe depression with physical complaints, while in others it’s acceptable to just come out and say “I’m depressed.”

Our fiction becomes interesting when we communicate how the facts and emotions of our stories interact. That means we have to learn about and understand our own facts and emotions; learn about the facts, cultures, and characters in our stories; and then figure out how to communicate all of it to a reader who has her/his own facts and emotions to deal with.

It’s a process. It’s something we have to learn.

We can gain some insight and guidance by reading the works of others and studying our genres. But our emotions are our own. Our situations are our own. And, since we’re creating and writing about our characters (remember we’re talking fiction here) their emotions and facts belong to us too. We have to figure out how our characters deal with them, while understanding that the emotions and facts of our readers and other real people belong to our readers and other real people (meaning we don’t get to control those (it can be a pain in the !@#@!#!!@#!!! to even predict those sometimes…).

It ain’t easy, but it’s what we have to do to succeed. So, be brave dear reader, and develop your understanding and communication skills for facts and emotions. I’ll see you next post.

Into the breach… Or, hoisted by my own petard!

I just had to talk to a new couple I ran into. The husband had traveled in some of the same areas I have, and we shared a few interests. The wife also shared a significant interest of mine. She’s also a writer. And that’s where the trouble started.

She asked a question, “are there any good writing groups around here?” We agreed we hadn’t found and that it would be nice if someone started one that better fit what we want to do.

After saying our goodbyes, my wife got into the act. She pointed out that running a writing group sounded like something we (meaning me…) should be doing.

I countered with the usual: “I don’t have time”, “I’m not really the group leader type” (I’m not…), etc.

She countered that it sounded like something I would do under my FMP aegis. She even pointed out it fit our mission statement (I knew I shouldn’t have worked on the mission plan while she’s around…).

I couldn’t argue against that. It was my mission statement. I wrote it.

So, I (he who doesn’t play well with others) found myself planning and organizing a writer’s group.

There are pluses and minuses to belonging to a writer’s group:

It’s a social outlet. (not sure if that’s a plus or a minus)

It means there’s even more to read and critique. (a plus and minus)

It means I get more input on my work. (ditto)

It means increased accountability. (as a writer putting pieces out, it’s a plus. As the guy who has to run the thing, it’s a minus (I also have a YouTube team I’m trying to run, and a gaming group, and…))

The truth is. I firmly believe that writing groups and the writing group experience is what the members of the group make it. That’s part of why building the right writing group is important. The decisions and energy you bring to the group impact what you get out of the group.

The people you associate with affect your experience.

There’s no single way to run a writing group. Different people have different needs and objectives. Our best bet is understanding what we’re looking for and finding (or building) a group that fits.

I’m looking forward to my first foray into running a writing group and recounting our adventures (along with other topics) here on the blog.

That’s it for today, dear reader (those group rules ain’t gonna type themselves up…). Good luck in your own writing. And I’ll see you next post.

A (previously) undiscovered barrier

This month it’s time to work on my business plan for the coming year. In the process I discovered something interesting, a barrier to entry into the writing business that I hadn’t considered: the need for a good work flow.

Work flow development isn’t one of the more commonly discussed barriers to entry. But an efficient workflow is something you need as a writer or publisher. Without a solid work flow and some real commitment to the process. You could end up the way a lot of would-be writers do, piddling around on the same project and never really getting anywhere. (I’ve nearly succumbed to that fate and I’ve been working on my work flow since I was 12…)

If you’re going to write and publish or sell your work, you need to do some thinking about you workflow before you start. And you can’t assume that the workflow will be the same from project to project.

For a given kind of project the workflow will probably be similar. But often there are differences between similar projects. If you’re current novel is meant for the YA market and your next one is for an adult market, you may ask different people to read your work. You may work with a different publisher, or editor, or marketing people. All those people have their own ways of doing things and that can affect your work flow.

Problems and changes happen over the course of a long project. Understanding your work flow and how you succeed is a big part of success.

Even bigger differences in work flow occur between different kinds of projects. A video or nonfiction book probably has a different team than your novel does. Your 750 word blog post probably has a different (and much smaller) team than your 50,000 word anything.

For the novel, nonfiction book, or movie, you just about have to have a team (success on your own is unlikely) for a blog post, you can probably do that one on your own in an hour or two. And that’s a different work flow.

And then we get to the big campaign. You know, the one where you’re doing blog posts, videos, press releasees, articles, and excerpts to support the book you’re publishing. Each of those things has its own work flow and you have to coordinate them all into one big, efficient machine if you want your book to hit big!

The good news is things can happen concurrently. If you have the time and the team, you might shoot the videos and take the pictures for that how-to book while you’re writing the text. Your editing team and the cover art team may be able to work at the same time. But if you want your teams working concurrently, you’d best put some thought into the whole flow and process before people start work. Otherwise you may have to stop work in one area because you’re missing elements in another.

The solution is education and planning. Learn what goes into the stuff you want to write, then figure out how those things fit together with the way you work and the resources you have.

Things will still happen. Challenges will arise. But when you think about these things up front, you can reduce the number of problems (and hopefully kill any ‘show stoppers’ before they show up in the first place).

That’s it for this one dear reader. Think and learn about what goes into what you write. Figure out your best plan/estimate of how the work flow will go. And then test it out and keep track of the similarities and differences between your plan and reality.

Over time, with continued learning and planning, you will develop a work flow that works for you and your team.

Good luck with your work flow. If you’ve got any helpful tips and tricks for work flow, I’d love to hear about them!

See you next post.

Wow… Has it been that long???

Ok, I knew I wasn’t on the blog last week. Apparently, I wasn’t here the week before either. But have no fear, the whole crew is alive and well (a few dents and bruises but still qualifying as alive and well). At this point I’m still sharing my office with my wife (which increases traffic flow) and pushing hard on projects; some are near completion (with new ones jockeying to take their place) and others are definitely “coming to a middle”.

With all of this going on it’s been hard to come up with a post for this week, so I’ll ask a question (two actually):

1: What can I do to improve your reader experience here on the blog?

2: Are there topics you would like me to cover?

As usual for this time of year, I’m seeking to improve what we do here and I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear what you have to say. So please comment or email, and I’ll see you next post.

Creating and distilling

This week I’m working on multiple projects including a novel, a nonfiction book, at least two how two projects, and helping one of my team edit a story he’s writing for school. Amid all this, I find myself thinking about two of the most important steps in any writing project.

This week, in the novel, I wrote what will hopefully be the last two new chapters (until book two at least…). On the other side of the house (in nonfiction land) I have yet to write more than a paragraph or two; and yet, I’m making good progress on the project.

Next week I hope to create a full chapter in the nonfiction book and do relatively little new writing on the novel. The two projects will have flipped between phases. This week I’m creating on the novel and distilling information on the nonfiction book. Next week the nonfiction will finally be at the writing (creating) phase and I will distill information on the novel.

Creating and distilling are both very necessary phases in writing. You need to do both.

Creating may look different depending on what you’re working on. And distilling may be an early step and a late step depending on your project. But they both need to happen.

In writing, creating includes writing text and outlines of what you want to say. It may also include world building and other tasks where you’re creating elements of story. It’s vital, but just doing the creating doesn’t get you a readable book. The distilling makes your creation readable, understandable, and compelling.

Distilling comes in two flavors, editing (can’t succeed without it) and shaking out your pile of information and deciding what goes into the writing you create. But distilling won’t get you anywhere if you don’t create something to edit.

If you’re writing fiction, you might go directly to the creating part. I have a stack of story ideas and a world I’ve already , so it’s just a case of “grabbing parts and getting to the building”.

If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll probably want to start with some distilling before you put words on paper. For the chapter I’ll write next week I started this week with 160 pages of information to work from, and I’m hoping for a 15-25-page chapter. So… I have seven to ten or twelve times the amount of material that I really want. And that’s before I add my own words! I have to shake that data pile down a bit. By spending this week reading and making notes, I’ve been able to isolate what I really need from my source material and figure out where my own words come in.

Next week I will write that nonfiction chapter and the following week I’ll be editing it, the same process I’m doing with the novel.

Editing isn’t just about finding typos. Good editing also includes working on your writing to make best use of your words. Your writing needs to be clear. You need the finished product to create a chosen effect and accomplish particular goals. Distilling your writing is part of that.

The editing/distillation process is where we cut out the extraneous material. We refine the work so it is readable and creates the picture we want it to. We may occasionally find a part that needs more words, but if you’re still adding words, you’re not done editing (99% of the time…).

Writing isn’t just putting words on paper. Yeah, we have to write words (creating), but we also need to make sure the words we’ve written are the ones that need to be there (distilling). It is only by applying both processes that our words really gain power and the ability to do what we want them to.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. There’s editing to be done and I still have to get down to the basement to do the other kind of “makin’ stuff” (the projects never stop). Good luck with your writing dear reader. And I’ll see you next post.

Racist Orcs?

This week I ran into something weird. People proclaiming that orcs (creatures in fantasy stories and games) are racist. My initial response was “Of course orcs are racist! They’re orcs!” Being racist is a known feature of orc culture in every fantasy game and world I’ve ever encountered.

But… It turns out the writers in question aren’t saying that the orcs are racists… They’re saying that the idea of orcs is racist. Somehow, they’re saying that “orcs” are really representations of blacks, Latinos, and native peoples.

Ok… We found the problematic and possibly racist concept here…

If you see a description of a big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monster and say, “yep, that’s a black person,” that’s racist. If you are a member of any group and see that description and say, “They’re describing me,” you have some definite problems. Whatever the writer’s intention, if you are seeing the descriptions of orcs I’ve seen and saying “that’s me”, 99 out of 100 times you have problems regardless of what the writer intended!

Tolkien, who lived through WW1 and WW2 and is one creator of the modern orc, said that orcs were emblematic of rage and mindless destruction. He said that there were orcs on both sides of the world wars. Keep in mind he’s talking about Europe. So, he’s talking about Englishmen and Germans, not blacks and Latinos.

Could someone describe a black person as an orc? Yes. I’ve also heard someone describe a woman as a “pigmy hippo”. In neither case does someone saying it make it true (especially when that someone is a third party trying to thrust his/her opinion onto your understanding of a writer’s work).

It also doesn’t mean that orcs are black people or that pigmy hippos are women. There have to be male pigmy hippos out there and there are at least as many “orcs” taking part in KKK rallies as there are anywhere else.

There is the writer’s intent, and there is what the reader sees in the writing. They are not necessarily the same thing. You can see what you want to in a piece of writing, but you can’t choose what the writer meant to say (unless you’re the writer).

So, when you read my stuff (I’m telling you right now so we don’t need any misunderstandings….), are my orcs racists?  Yes, they are! They are racist bastards (their parents aren’t married either); however, my depiction of orcs is not racist. I am depicting a race of big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monsters. They are not human. They are not a depiction of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans (that would be the Raven Clan…), Whites, Jews, Gypsies, Pakistanis, podiatrists or politicians; they are a race of non-human big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monsters. (in fact, the politicians made up excuses, and the podiatrists noped out, but the rest of those folks are fighting against the orcs somewhere…).

It’s a question of interpretation. If you see orcs and think (insert group here), that’s on you. It takes more than that to prove racism is the writer’s intention.

That’s it for this one dear reader. I have a Raven Clan kid and a red-headed girl with human problems to deal with. See you next post.

Self-isolating before it was cool…

Over on Words Mean Stuff today I’m talking a bit about how to keep the days from blurring together while we’re under ‘lock downs’, ‘stay at home orders’, and other schedule killing effects of the Covid -19 crisis. As writers, we have a leg up on this. If we writers want to be successful, we need to have a hand in controlling our schedules no matter what’s going on. We need to be putting the work in on our writing. And, this crisis lends itself somewhat to the more isolated parts of the writing process (unless you have spouses, kids, and pets (actually, if you have a spouse, kids and pets I’d love to hear how you deal with the more isolated parts of the writing process!)).

The crisis can be helpful by encouraging us to write, and work on writing related tasks. But we still need to mark and differentiate the days. One simple (and sometimes overlooked) way of doing this is putting in some planning and scheduling for our writing. A second (and related) method is tracking our progress.

One reason these techniques get overlooked is a desire to “just dive into the work”. Well, don’t do that! Spend at least a little time looking at what you want to do with a project. Set some parameters and goals. Define what you will do and how (and when) you intend to do it. And then keep track of the progress you have made.

By having a plan and keeping track of where you are in relation to that plan, you can replace some external schedule and time markers we’re all missing during the Covid crisis. It’s also a skill set that will help you find writing success when there isn’t a crisis keeping us in our homes. It’s a skill set that helps us to master ourselves and our lives no matter what our conditions are.

In my experience (and the experience of those I’ve talked to) one major cause of the days blurring together is the difficulty of measuring the passing of time and feeling like we’re not getting anywhere. When you create a plan for your writing and measure your progress, you create a way to measure time and build your sense of accomplishment. You might just learn something.

(For some of us the best thing we can learn from this is how to handle multiple projects (something I should really come back to in this blog…))

The writing life demands both community and self-control. And the current world situation really emphasizes the self-control end (while leaving us wishing for more of the community). We have an advantage as writers, the self-contained part of what we what we do fits well with this temporary ‘new normal’. Using and developing our planning and working skills will help us get through.

Good luck in your writing dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Respect…

With all the shutdowns and kerfuffle around the Covid-19 situation, I’ve been watching the publishing and media news with interest. Some of what we’re seeing has been on the way for a while. Some things were a bit of surprise (I didn’t expect Disney execs to cut their own pay until there were no other options…). One huge through line in it all is a lack of respect.

Media companies…  writers… directors, they don’t seem to respect much except their own ideas and agendas. They don’t respect their audiences. They don’t respect their characters or the cannon of their worlds. They don’t even seem to respect other writers, directors, and companies.

Respect for audience.

No, you don’t have to cater to every whim of the audience. Sometimes they’re not sure what they want. Often, they want you to tell the story instead of asking what they want. But…  it’s a lousy idea to deliberately piss them off. Lately this has been happening a lot.

“Hey! People don’t seem to like our female Doctor in the Doctor Who series. Guess what, we just retconned the series so the original Doctor was female!”

“You know what? Batman’s Chinese now. Yeah, and instead of a butler, he’s got a gay uncle.”

“I’m naming my new characters Snowflake and Safe Space. You know, to empower people and junk!!!!”

By all the Gods, I wish I was kidding…

That last one (Snowflake and Safe Space) is my favorite. By the responses I’ve seen, the author pissed off the usual audience and offend the people he’s trying to ‘empower’.

The writing represented by these examples does no good for your audience or your relations with them. Spend more time figuring out who your audience are and how to grow that audience without alienating them.

Respect for characters and lore.

Sadly, I wasn’t kidding… Hartnel is supposedly no longer the first Doctor and Batman’s Chinese now (he’s also apparently back in high school). This problem has been going on for a while…

Your readers and viewers love the backstory and mythology that come along with characters. That stuff takes thought, effort, and commitment. You and your reader/viewer will have to put in some time before characters and story mythology are really known and developed. That’s part of why the piolet episode of a series seems so awkward when you go back and watch it after season six or seven.

When you go changing things up for a character, there needs to be real consideration for the character, the character’s world, and what would ‘really’ happen.

Just deciding “Ok, Thor’s a chick now!” or “I’m bringing back Palpatine and I don’t have to justify it,” Is jarring to the audience (please don’t throw them out of the story with ‘what the @#$%#$#!!! was that?’ moments).

Please don’t throw your reader/viewer out of the story by being stupid about how you use your characters. I’m not saying they can’t do something out of character (sometimes that’s good!) but there should be a reason for it that makes sense within the world and your character’s story.

Also, please don’t pirate a character’s name and storyline just because you’re too lazy to do the work for your new character.

I could get behind a rich Chinese kid in high school as a character; just don’t call him Batman and trash a lifetime’s worth of known history and lore.

Want to pass the baton to a new generation of Jedi? I’m good with that. I’m also good with a female Jedi main character.  But do you really have to trash Luke in the process? I don’t think so.

These kinds of changes aren’t improving the character, they’re just the mark of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to pay his/her dues in creating a new character. In story terms they’re about the same as the guy who plays Call of Duty once then goes around telling everyone he won the Congressional Medal of Honor when he was fighting the Tsarist Nazis in Vietnam back in ’96.

Summing up.

When you lose respect for your audience and characters, you make your stories unreadable/watchable. The golden rule applies to characters and audiences: do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Yes, this can mean more work. Yes, it means you have to earn the audiences respect and build the story and popularity of your characters. But it’s a lot better than making useless garbage and pissing off the people you want to resonate with.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Think about your audience and work with your characters. I’ll be doing the same. I’ll see you next post!