An Unfocused Mind

I am at a quandary on what to write about today. The problem is not that I lack interesting subjects, I have many to choose from. Nor is it that I don’t feel like writing a post, because the motivation is certainly there. The problem is deeper and hard to explain in quantitative terms. Basically my thoughts are unfocused and my attention drifts from subject to subject. Each word I write is dragged, kicking and screaming, from me.

There are reasons why I am unable to bring clarity to the concepts in my mind, some of which I will not discuss today. Suffice to say, this time of the year always makes me a little numb and disorganized.

Of the reasons I will talk of, some are physical, like the facts that I haven’t been sleeping well and am quite tired, or that I have a headache at the moment. Certainly these factors will make one a wee bit bleary.

Then there are issues that have more to do my personality. As a rule I dabble in too many subjects at once, flitting from one to the other in a haphazard way. So far, while writing this post alone, I have visited and explored the the following sites: http://thesaurus.reference.com/, http://dictionary.reference.com/, http://www.reference.com/, http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/, http://stackoverflow.com/, http://www.nytimes.com/, http://en.wikipedia.org/, in addition to my custom Google homepage, where I read my morning comics. I have also been reading my e-mails and wandering away from the computer to take care of whatever leaps into my brain at the moment.

Writing when you are as incoherent as I feel at the moment is difficult. Every sentence is a struggle. I keep rereading what I have written over and over, looking for a theme that can tie this mishmash together. That theme appears to be trying to write when you really can’t, which may be another way of describing writer’s block.

I have been here before, when writing upon my story. Staring at a screen, flipping from section to section, chapter to chapter. Reading a little, editing a little, then being distracted by something and forgetting what you were doing. Fighting to concentrate, and being unable to.

It is incredibly frustrating to write in this condition. There were times when I stopped writing for months and even years at a time because I felt this way. Not all the time, mind you, but enough to drain the joy and desire of writing out of me. In the past I simply couldn’t summon the will to stare at the screen knowing that the best I could hope for was random drivel. Now I know that it is worth producing the drivel anyway, just so long as I keep producing something. Writing that is dreck can be improved and corrected, but there is nothing to fix if you write nothing at all.

So despite my being tired, distracted, and befuddled, I have cobbled together something for today’s post that I hope is somewhat on topic and perhaps useful to someone. For me it has mainly been an effort to not yield to the seductive ease of not writing at all.

When Last We Met…

Yesterday we had another rollicking meeting of the Magic City Writers Group. I had submitted my first chapter, The Wizard’s Spells…, again for what I hoped would be a final editing pass. I had mentioned before that I had asked the group if they thought it needed another pass, and I summarized their response then as:

The consensus was that while chapter one was much improved it still required one more editing effort by the group. But just one more. A final review to clean up the flotsam and jetsam still floating around in the text. We didn’t discuss the details of what was wrong, just that it still has issues. I want to avoid infinitely editing this chapter, but I cannot ignore warnings from the group. I shall resubmit chapter one when my turn rolls around again.

I had believed when the meeting began that the session would be short, a couple of hours at most. After all, this was the third time we had gone over this chapter. How much more was left to be said?

Four-and-a-half hours later I staggered away from the table bloody, bruised, and beaten; a broken man, a shell of my former self. I exaggerate, but the point remains that the session was longer and more grueling than I had been prepared for.

I expected people to point out awkward sentences, poor word choices, and other syntactic fluff. By “syntactic fluff” I do not mean these problems are not important to address, merely that they are correctable by a better choice of single words or altering a sentence or two. I.e. The solution is relatively easy to discover and can be quickly implemented.

In addition to points about syntactic fluff, however, there were also protracted debates about some of the underlying structure. Problems that cannot be solved by changing a word or sentence or even a paragraph, but could require another rewrite of whole scenes. Worse yet, embedded in the areas that have structural issues are elements I either really want to retain, or feel must be there for reasons not obvious to the reader at this moment. Elements that setup important plot points.

This leaves me with a quandary. Do I make major changes that make it hard to keep the elements I feel are important? Or do I ignore the group’s warnings about the problem areas? Is there an acceptable alternative that lets me address their concerns while keeping intact what I want/need for later?

I wrote before about avoiding the infinite edit, in which I talked about this particular chapter. As I said then:

It is possible to edit a chapter over and over and never “finish” it. I could reword sentences and rewrite the same scene over and over. Infinitely editing the same chapter, never moving on to the bigger story. At some point you have to draw a hard line and say, “Yes it could be better, but it is good enough as it is right now.”

With regards to this chapter, I feel I am close to that hard line where you just fix the most glaring or easily solvable problems and ignore the rest.

I will think on this some more, review the notes from the meeting and listen to the audio recording I made. I will reread the problem areas with a harsh, unbiased eye. I hope to find away to address the bigger problems that does not require a major overhaul. Failing that I may settle for simply reducing the problems so they don’t intrude into the story to the same extent they do now. That may be the best solution I can manage.

Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis

This is part of my continuing exploration on the nature of heroism in literature, and of the role of the hero in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. Here are links to parts one and two, and a link to the post that started this overall series about the various roles characters play in literature.

Today I am going into more detail on Tara Rihtwis, daughter of More Rihtwis. Tara’s history is unique in my story in that She is the one major character who did not exist in my mind even as a concept when I first started writing Gods Among Men.

In the beginning I knew I wanted a wizard, who rather quickly became my protagonist Damon Roth; a knight/prince, who became one of my heroes, Morel; an archer/tracker/ranger, who became the antihero, Artemis Arrowsmith; an undead wizard, who became my antagonist, Demiurge; the evil warrior, who became my villain, Maelgar; and so on. I had defined roles that needed to be filled, and developed characters that met that need.

Tara was developed in a series of fits and starts. First I realized I needed someone innocent and inexperienced, someone who needed things explained to them. All of my initial major characters were worldly with many experiences involving dangerous and magical situations. As I wrote their scenes I often had times when something happened that would be obvious to them, but not to the reader. I needed someone the experienced characters had to explain things to so I, the writer, would have a reason to explain what was happening to the reader.

With that thought in mind, I created Morel’s son, Tomas, and began developing his character. This brought my story to a screeching halt. Try as I might, I could not make Tomas into a character that worked as Morel’s son. He was pedantic, two-dimensional, and wholly unbelievable. Worse yet, his interactions with Morel and others was boring to write and worse to read.

As I was struggling with this, and many other issues, I asked my girlfriend at the time to read over what I had written. After doing so, she had various good comments including, “You don’t have any female characters.”

This is an example of the blindness that can afflict a writer. I had thought of the characters before then just as what role they filled in the plot, not as to how their gender might affect their development. I had made all the characters male because I was a man and it made them easier for me to relate to.

Armed now with the knowledge that I was being stupid and sexist, I began looking for which major characters I could change from male to female.

I first changed Artemis Arrowsmith, my archer/tracker/ranger character, into a woman. She immediately became much more interesting and a slew of story lines opened up for her. I will detail those changes in a later post.

Casting about for another character to change, I spied dull, boring Tomas. I tried switching his sex like I had on Artemis. This did not work. The personal qualities I had given him were too deeply flawed for a gender change alone to salvage the situation. Tomas had to go.

Feeling sorry for Tomas, as writers will do for characters they have put a fair amount of time and effort into, I gave him some minor ability with magic and shuttled him off to become one of Damon’s assistants. There, much to my surprise, surrounded by magic and books and all things arcana, he blossomed. The poor kid was never cut out to be a hero, he was a nerd. Who’d have thunk.

I was still stuck with needing an inexperienced character, and having one as a child of Morel still made sense, so I began crafting a daughter for him from scratch. I called her Tara as a shorthand note to myself.

Tara was the name of Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation in Gone With The Wind. Scarlett was a willful, spoiled, debutante. The daughter of a rich, powerful, landowner who will do anything to keep her land and get what she wants. Whenever I read the name Tara I thought of Scarlett, which kept reminding me of some of the characteristics I wanted my new character to have when the reader first meets her.

Tara’s impact on the other characters was felt almost at once. Morel developed a sense of humor and loved to tease her. Artemis became Tara’s surrogate big sister, protector, and trainer. Maelgar, when he discovers who she is, see her as a way to trap or hurt Morel. Damon sees her as the hope of the future and tries to guide her toward the knowledge and experience she will need to succeed.

Tara became a character unlike the others in that she is not prepared for what is about to happen, but thinks she is. She boldly charges into dangerous situations that are far above her abilities to handle. Situations where she should die, but somehow survives through luck and skill and the intervention of those more powerful than herself. She discovers what it means to feel fear, and how to control it. She suffers, but does not falter. She learns the difference between being foolhardy and courageous.

In short, Tara starts out as an innocent and becomes a hero, though of a different mold than her father. Morel is a classical hero, but Tara is a more modern style of hero. As such she represents the changes that are happening in the world around her better than Morel, or anyone else, does.

In a later post I will delve more into the differences between her heroic model and Morel’s. Until then, have fun.

Discipline in writing

I’ve seen blogs and essays by several published authors that denounce the idea of “writer’s block.” It’s a fallacy, they say, because if you can’t write, you sit down and do it anyway. You’ll write crap, but you keep doing it until suddenly you aren’t writing crap anymore. It’s discipline, and not ideas, that make a successful writer. And in my (admittedly unpublished) experience, that’s certainly true. And I know not because I’m so disciplined, but rather because I’m not.

When I write on a daily basis, it’s easier to do. The thoughts come out faster, the sentences will pop into my mind fully formed, and I won’t have to spend thirty minutes browsing through the Word thesaurus function to find the word I’m looking for. But when I don’t write on a daily basis, I open the document and stare at the screen. Then I re-read what I’ve already written, and stare some more. I’ll try to write during this process, but I’ll usually get about halfway through a sentence before I realize that it isn’t what I want and erase it. Then, finally, usually after about 3 hours, the words finally start coming … but they’re rarely worth the wait.

Most of you know that Brant’s been helping me on my discipline problem by accepting and editing a small selection of new writing every day. So far, it’s working very well. Yes, there are days when I still get frustrated, and days when just opening the Word document for my first chapter depresses me. But there are also days now when I can’t wait to get home and write, when the words seem to fly from my fingertips, and when I re-read my recently written words and think, “Wow, that’s good.” (That feeling rarely lasts past a second re-read, but it does keep me going through some of the harder days.)

So, if any aspiring writers happen to read this post, let my personal experience be a guide. I’ve tried both the disciplined and the undisciplined approach, and the disciplined approach is far more helpful. Daily writing keeps those mental muscles in good condition, and everything just comes easier. Find a system that works for you – I can’t acheive the 1000 words/day limit that many professional writers set for themselves, but I can write 250 words/day. And I can write that most days even when I’m tired after work, after the gym, after having experiment after experiment fail …. Well, you get the point. Consistently writing 250 words/day is better for me than trying and failing to write 1000 words/day.

And on a random note – I do think the thesaurus is God’s gift to writers. If you can’t think of the right word, you find one that’s close, and then browse around in Word thesaurus until it either jogs your memory or inspires a new phrasing that doesn’t need the original word you were searching for. Thank you, Bill Gates.

Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2

This is both a continuation of my last post, and of a series of posts about the roles of the protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain in a story, as well as my exploration on the nature of the hero. I have previously talked about the protagonist in Gods Among Men, Damon Roth, and the antagonist, Demiurge, and why both fail to be either a hero or villain. Today I will focus again upon Morel Rihtwis, an archetypal hero patterned upon classical mythological heroes.

When I started writing Gods Among Men I was heavily influenced by medieval imagery. This grew out of my love of the game Dungeons & Dragons, which itself was influences by medieval stories such as Le Morte d’Arthur, Beowulf, tales of Robin Hood, faerie tales, and even more modern works with a medieval flavor such as The Lord of The Rings.

Given this bias, I decided early that my hero would be a knight. I was young at the time, in college, and sought for a literary or historical figure I could pattern my knight upon. I considered Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and other knights of the Round Table, but those thoughts led nowhere interesting. They worked against the emerging plot, and made the character hackneyed.

Then I thought of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, King of the Franks. He helped bring about the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture. Through foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define both Western Europe and the Middle Ages. He is counted as of the Nine Worthies; nine historical, scriptural, mythological or semi-legendary figures who came to personify the ideals of chivalry.

In Charlemagne I had a foundation for a character with a history as broad and deep as any of the Arthurian knights, and was as symbolically important as Arthur himself. In fact, Charlemagne formed a group of paladins who were analogous to the knights of the Round Table and form the basis for the French chansons de geste, “songs of heroic deeds”. Charlemagne as a historical or literary character is directly associated with spiritual and cultural rebirth and renewal.

Charlemagne gave me a touchstone for the character that would eventually become Morel Rihtwis. Whenever I felt the need to give Morel more depth or expand his character, I could search though information about Charlemagne and find something useful.

Charlemagne had a brother, Carloman, who died, so I gave Morel a brother name Carloman who died.

Charlemagne had a group of loyal paladins, so Morel now had a group of loyal paladins. One of Charlemagne’s paladins was Roland, who the Song of Roland is based upon. This inspired a subplot centered around Morel’s battle with a dragon.

One of Charlemagne ‘s chief opponents was the Saxon leader Widukind, who Charlemagne converted to Christianity. This inspired a character of my own creation called Widukind, with whom Morel will argue morality and religion in order to convince Widukind to break his allegiance to the villain, Maelgar.

Morel is not Charlemagne. I made Morel into his own character with a unique history and story to tell. But Charlemagne is the point from which I began creating Morel; it is Charlemagne that I return to for inspiration on how I should further develop Morel’s character. The history and legends surrounding Charlemagne helped me build Morel into a character that will be associated with spiritual and cultural rebirth and renewal.