An unexpected end to writer’s block

I’ll be honest: I haven’t done any writing lately. I’ve been out photographerising a bit. I even entered my city’s Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards (my shot is here). I find out on Monday if I did any good with the official judges and then the People’s Choice judging opens next month. But as far as writing goes, there’s been nothing.

I’ve barely been able to muster any enthusiasm for writing and on those odd occasions when I managed some interest, sitting down at the keyboard instantly extinguished it. I reached the point the other day where I was seriously considering whether or not I should be a writer at all.

Everyone has down times and creative dry spells and, according to other writers I know, they can sometimes last a really long time. But for some reason this one made me question whether I had the drive and determination to actually be a writer at all.

Also, a writer friend of mine (who should have known better) introduced me to Guild Wars 2 and that’s been taking up an awful lot of time. I’m not a huge or regular computer gamer but when I find a game I like I tend to get obsessed for a really long time. And this one’s a pretty good game. It’s got awesome graphics and storylines and mythology and puzzles and challenges. You get to customise your character’s appearance, skills, weapons and clothes/armour. And you get to team up with people from all over the world to fight giant monster jungle wurms, shadow demons and dragons. I know, right?!

I’ve got a bunch of different characters because I wanted to try as many of the options as I could, which involves hours and hours of game play time. So, yeah, I’ve spent a lot of ‘writing time’ playing this game. And then the other day I realised that, even though these characters are just avatars for me to interact with the game world, I was making in-game choices based on the personality of whatever character I happened to be playing at the time. My computer game avatars had developed their own personalities and back stories well outside of the parameters of the game. They had come to life in my head and had teamed up as a semi-classic fantasy adventuring party.

And that made me realise that my creative, story-telling well had not dried up. It just needed a break from the gloomy post-apocalyptic world of my storm chasing story. Instead it seems to be vacationing in the violent and deadly digital world of Tyria. Go figure.

Has anyone else experienced their game avatars taking on personalities and lives of their own? Or is this something I should see a professional about?

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When a wizard dies…

Like many people, I read a lot. However, there are three authors who have had a huge impact on my life.

My childhood was defined by Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. I collected almost the complete set and spent hours marvelling at the maturity and audacity of those kids and the amazing grown-up adventures they had.

When I was eleven I discovered Tolkien–first the Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. I was blown away. A whole new and detailed world was opened to me, so totally unlike anything I had ever experienced. Tolkien gave me my absolute love of fantasy, magic, the natural environment, language and linguistics. And possibly also my enduring fear of what lurks in the dark–those Black Riders scared the bejeezus out of me.

The thing about Tolkien and Blyton, though, is that they both died well before I was born. I never felt a truly personal connection to them. Unlike them, the third author–the one who had the greatest impact on my life and self–lived during my lifetime and so was a part of my world. As you probably should have guessed by now, that author was Terry Pratchett.

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I discovered Pratchett’s Discworld when I was 13 or 14, just when I was beginning to strike out on my own, develop my own personality and question the world around me. Pratchett taught me how to think for myself, to question generally accepted knowledge and, most importantly, to laugh at the beautiful madness that is humanity and the world. I read his books over and over again every year from the moment I found them. I even met him once at a book launch. He read part of his new novel, Carpe Jugulum, and afterwards he signed a book of mine and spoke briefly to me.

When I found out yesterday that he had died, I cried for a while. At first I was surprised that I was so affected by the death of a man I’d only met once for a few minutes. But then I realised that I had spent so much time over the years with him through his books that he was like someone I was close to–even if that wasn’t who he was in real life. Not to mention the impact his writing had on me as a person.

As sad as it is to lose such a skilled writer, it has also made me more determined to become a published author myself. Not because I believe I am in the same league as Terry Pratchett, but because (to paraphrase the man himself) what makes us human is that we are Pan narrans, the ape that tells stories.

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Je suis un arbre

I’m learning French from a groovy little phone app by Babbel as something to do on the train to and from work. What has really struck me during this study are the differences between French and English. Some of them are only small, but I find them all the more jarring because of how similar these two languages are. It’s fascinating how two closely related cultures can develop such different ways of expressing the same thing.

Take numbers for instance. In English we have “two”, “twelve” and “twenty”. Just a glance shows how they relate to each other. The French, on the other hand, have “deux”, “douze” and “vingt”. Not sure what happened with the “twenty” but it’s a very cool word. And when you get to “eight”, “eighteen” and “eighty” it gets even weirder: “huit”, “dix-huit” and “quatre-vingt”. Translated literally they come out as “eight”, “ten-eight” and “four-twenty”. How fascinating and strange is that? Did someone sit down and say to themselves, ‘We’ve got “six”, “sixteen” and “sixty” but, just to shake things up, let’s go for “eight”, “eighteen” and “four-twenty”‘?

Of course, there are entire books written about the inconsistent madness that is the English language.

So why the post on comparative linguistics? Well, it occurred to me that this sort of knowledge is extremely valuable for sci-fi/fantasy writers, like me. We’re constantly looking for ways to make our non-human characters different and otherworldly. As far as language goes, there are three main approaches:

  1. The standard approach seems to be to drop articles and subject-verb agreement, and mix up tenses and maybe some syntax. As long as the author is consistent and doesn’t go too far, it works well. However, it can become annoying for the audience if they’re dealing with it for an entire novel or movie. At you looking am I, Yoda.
  2. Secondly, and sometimes combined with the first approach, authors sprinkle in some made-up words with just enough phonetic similarity to suggest a complete language. There are lots of examples of this but David Eddings’ Tsurani people in his Magician series were the first to come to my mind.
  3. Or they go completely verca*, like Tolkien, and invent entire incredible, beautiful languages–complete with dialects and scripts–from scratch. But let’s just calm down a little because who realistically has the time for that?

The thing is, writers generally end up with characters sounding like English-speaking foreigners.  If you look at Earth’s languages, there are radical differences that exist even between ones as closely related as French and English. Scale that up to non-human cultures and we should be looking at something a lot less recognisable than Yoda’s speech patterns.

Take trees, for example. At some point, everyone has suspected that trees can talk. Especially that time you were by yourself in the woods and night was falling and the feeling that someone was watching you was too strong to ignore. In one of my current stories, trees are going to be minor characters that somehow have to contribute to the story and interact with the protagonist.

But … should these trees really just talk like slow, old men with deep voices who roll their “r’s” excessively? For starters, they don’t really have the necessary vocal equipment. Sure, I could give my talking trees mouths and faces, larynxes and lungs. But then I’ve just got Tolkien’s Ents–some of the fantasy is gone and the audience is not going to be amazed a second time.

So I let my imagination go verca and came up with a couple of way less human methods of communication:

  • The wind–do trees have to wait for the wind to blow in the right direction to speak to their neighbours? If the prevailing wind is from one direction, a tree might ask its neighbour a question and never get a reply.
  • The shape of their branches and the position of their leaves–their conversations span lifetimes and everything they’ve ever said is written into their very shapes and selves.

Now, instead of a clichéd copyright infringement, I have a couple of fascinating ideas that, when done right, could certainly create a powerful sense of other. Of course, it also creates the problem of how to allow my readers to experience a language so far from human understanding. But getting readers to experience something new is what being a writer is all about.

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“Come closer, little human…”

 

 

*Elvish for “wild”–yes, I am a geek.

Why the F

“Hey! How long has that been there?” he asked.
Puzzled, I joined him at the window. “What? The trees?” I asked. “I planted them ages ago.”
“It looks like a whole freaking forest! It’s beautiful.”
I looked again. There were quite a few more trees than I remembered. And the way the morning sun glanced off the shiny leaves and softened the rough, stringy bark did have a little something. “I guess,” I shrugged.
“Seriously? It’s amazing. How have I not seen this before?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really go out there much.”
“Why not?! Who else do you know lucky enough to have a forest like that right there?”
“I didn’t really think it was all that great. And I don’t have the time, anyway.”


I have always loved to create, whether through writing, painting or sculpture. However, I have never taken art seriously and, aside from a few paintings, I’ve never really finished anything. It hasn’t been until the last few years that I’ve even let anyone see any of my work, due to the fear that whatever I did was amateurish crap. I loved the feeling of creating art but unconsciously categorised it as a guilty pleasure; it was something enjoyable to fill in a few spare hours on a weekend but not something you’d want to do in front of everyone. Wink, wink.

In 2013 I bought a Nikon DSLR camera, partly because a lot of my friends had one and partly because I quite liked the results I got with a point-and-shoot. I figured a fancy camera would help me take fancier pictures. I had also planned to go on a storm chasing tour in the USA in May and I knew enough about photography to know that I probably needed a better camera than the one I had.

This trip changed my life. Except, because this is me, I waited a whole year and went on the same trip again in 2014, just to make sure. Now, though, I am finally ready to do something about it.

On the 2013 trip I met Jim Reed and Jenna Blum. I had never before hung out with such talented and crazy people – people who had made a career out of their art. And for two weeks I was there, trying not to make a fool of myself, and taking amazing photos right alongside them. And when I got back, complete strangers were complimenting me on my photographs and telling me I should sell them. And it was unexpected and weird and uncomfortable and confronting.

So I went again in 2014 and it was even better because this time Patti Schulze and Laurie Excell were there, too. I was overwhelmed by talented artists who, amazingly, said I had talent, too.

And so, when I got back, I decided to consider to start believing that maybe I possibly did actually have the beginnings of some kind of talent.

The problem is that my day job has begun to consume my every waking moment during the week, leaving me washed out and exhausted on the weekends, without any time or energy to engage in other pursuits. For some reason, I’m finding that mildly vexing. But, coincidentally, at the very moment I realised that my day job holds no satisfaction, my eyes have been directed to another infinitely more satisfying option.