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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Clouds but no storm

I think I’ve worked out why my storm chasing novel has stalled. It’s bugged me for ages because I’ve got all the characters and an outline of all the things I want to happen to them but when I sit down to write it I become disengaged really quickly and struggle to put anything down on paper.

And now I know what it is: in all my planning I’ve somehow managed to leave out all the character arcs. I’ve got all the outside events plotted out in a way that should rise to a very exciting climax but I don’t have any notes on how these events will affect my characters internally…you know…that really important part of a story that actually engages the reader.

Whoops.

Minor oversight there. Especially since from the start I’ve wanted to make this a character-driven story.

This is probably something that’s generally been missing from all my writing up to now. I tend to get so caught up in creating new and amazing worlds and exciting and terrifying events that I forget that all the emotion is still just inside my head. Not that it’s completely absent or anything. I just need to put a whole lot more work into bringing out my characters’ internal journeys to make my stories resonate better on a human level.

This means that I’m going to have to go back and write histories and life stories for all my storm chasing characters and fill in all the stuff that readers of the story won’t ever see but that I need in order to bring the internal worlds of my characters to life. Only then will my actual story be able to take off. Or, in meteorological terms, the atmosphere has enough moisture and wind shear for a severe storm, but the convectional lift is missing and the clouds just aren’t getting enough punch.

It’s surprising how much writing this story feels like trying to lift a couple of tons of air. The end result will be amazing, though.

Plenty of nice clouds but not enough for a storm.
Plenty of nice clouds but not enough for a storm.

Finding my vision

I’ve been reading a lot about photography lately and something that really hit me was the advice (from many professional photographers) that, in order to become a professional, you have to specialise. At first I resisted because I didn’t want to lock myself into one style or subject. I liked the freedom of creativity and being able to do whatever I wanted. So much about photography fascinates me and I feel that I’ve created great images of lots of different subjects. However, the more I thought about it, the more specialising makes sense. In order to become really good at something, you need to devote a significant amount of time and energy to it. And while photography may seem like a single discipline to be perfected, the techniques required for landscape photography are vastly different to portraiture, which are vastly different to still life and so on. Spreading my time and effort across these varied subjects means that my growth in any one will be that much slower. Also, working without passion means that my work is much less likely to capture the sort of inspired beauty and fascination that I want from it.

That got me thinking because, of course, that immediately eliminates some areas of photography for me. For example, I will never be a wedding photographer because, for me, photography is a little too personal. I want to create and capture my vision, not someone else’s. I’m pretty sure that view wouldn’t sit well with many brides and grooms. Thinking further, I more or less stumbled on what I think I want my photographic focus to be: fine art, with a hint of fantasy. I want to take ‘ordinary’ beautiful scenes, preferably natural ones, and be able to add just a hint of fiction, fantasy and story. That captures everything I love about photography and creativity, from landscapes and weather (you need great settings) to stories and magic and interesting characters.

This will mean that I have to get better at Photoshop and post-processing, so I’ll have to start taking courses this year. I will also have to start developing my costuming and prop-making skills, because sometimes that’s all that would be needed to push a scene towards the fantastic. Luckily, I already really love making those sorts of things.

Steampunk self-portrait
Steampunk self-portrait

This photo is my first conscious pursuit of my vision. I dragged out the costume I made for my steampunk Christmas murder mystery and assembled a few props from around the house. It took quite a long time because I had to keep getting up to run around the table and check the images in the camera–this sort of thing would be much easier with a model. I’m extremely happy with the result, though.

So, a fancy dress party here, a bit of cosplay there, drop it into a beautiful landscape and add a touch of dreamy post-processing and I think I’ve found my vision.

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.

It’s ALIVE!!

It’s always exhilarating when a story idea grabs you by the head and gallops off down a road you didn’t even see. Of course, you have to run as well as you can to keep up. And it’s a little scary not knowing if it will go somewhere or if it’s just going to smack into the wall at the end of a cul-de-sac and waste all your effort. And your neck can get a little sore.

My current writing project started as the story of a young man discovering the ability to influence weather in a world ravaged by climate change. I struggled with that for a long time, trying to get a decent plot happening. Eventually, I realised that the problem was that my ideas were clichéd and the story had been told in other forms too many times before.

Then, inspiration struck and I suddenly had a new main character – a grief-stricken woman, conscripted by a government agency to confront and overcome the weather systems that destroyed her life. I found this story much more fascinating and almost immediately a solid outline formed. Once I had the plan, I began fleshing out the supporting characters.

However, now that I’m getting to know the other characters, they’ve started getting more and more interesting. The story has changed again. I now have an ensemble of increasingly complex characters working with and competing against each other. The plot is now looking very different to both of the previous iterations. It’s a lot more complex and will need a lot more planning but I think it will (eventually) be a much better story. Of course, that wall at the end of the road is looming. I just have to hang on, stay with it and hope we either bust through or jump over.