The Capriciousness of Creativity

Thursdays are my days for blog drafting … according to my new schedule … which fluctuates with the seasons, events, and moods in my life quite often. Yesterday, I was suffering a migraine and nausea and various other spring allergy garbage so I found myself drifting across the internet without purpose, rather than drafting this week’s blog article. It happens.

Today I am trying to rescue my very unproductive yesterday. First, I read an article on long novels in hopes that would inspire me to draft something inspiring, educational, or at the very least witty. Instead, I am writing about … not writing.

But in sifting through the drafts of my previous articles, I found one concept file that I started and didn’t finish (ironically) after watching this TED talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your Elusive Creative Genius”.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, she basically distinguishes the difference between “being” a genius (which puts a lot of pressure and stress on outstanding productivity in creative professions), and “having” a genius (which is not only the historical/etymological origin of the term, but also humanizes the creator). The word “genius” comes from Latin and originally referred to a guardian spirit or deity that watched over a person from birth … a sort of spirit guide that helps you out in moral dilemmas or situations that require intuitive wisdom, wit, or other creative problem solving methods. It is comparable to saying the creative person has a muse that inspires his or her work. The genius was not considered good or evil by nature, but was just present to inspire.

On a side note, the word “genie” has nothing to do with “genius” because “genie” is Arabic in origin. But it does come from the word “jinn” … which is also a spirit. Jinn are considered “trickster” spirits, so they are viewed as evil more often than not. But their base nature was originally considered neutral. And more interesting, the word “demon” comes from Greek “daimon” and Latin “daemon”, but also used to refer only to a guiding spirit or lesser god. In other words, “demon” did not carry any negative connotations until the Christian church started using it thus, because of their own belief that any spirit other than their own deity was evil. But I digress. 🙂

The concept here is that if creative inspiration comes to you from a factor outside of yourself, like a spirit, that creates an interesting understanding of the capriciousness of creative inspiration. Ask any writer, and you will be told the best ideas do not come to you while you are sitting at your keyboard plotting. Your best ideas will come to you when you are in the shower. Or when you are driving. Or when you are getting in bed, have the lights off, and really do not want to walk across the house in the dark to grab your notepad and pen. Your best ideas will come to you when you are as inconvenienced as possible for catching them and pinning them down into notes you can work with.

The same is true of other arts. I often see faces or creatures in rug patterns, tree shapes, rocks, and other items that make me think, “That would make an awesome sketch!” But as soon as I walk away, it’s gone. Thousands of sketch ideas have been lost from one wood pattern in my door on a daily basis. Why? Because who has a sketchpad and a pencil when they’re getting dressed or putting away laundry?

This is so common to most creatives, in fact, that it would almost be a comfort to know that there is some kind of spirit imp hanging over my shoulder, snickering at how clever he is with casting ideas out there at inappropriate times, and then jerking them back as soon as I blink. And in some cases, perhaps thinking like that can help creatives lessen their burden. If the creative ideas are external, rather than internal, what is the logical solution to jump-starting your creativity?

First of all, it gives the creative person a choice. I can choose to snatch that idea and do something with it, or I can choose to let it go and it may or may not come back to me, but I go into that choice knowing that it is my choice — knowing how capricious ideas come and go because that is their nature, so I accept that I can’t count on that idea being there for very long or coming back. I will put more effort into keeping a notepad by the bed or shower or in the car, so that I have a better chance of snatching that idea out of the air and capturing it for later use.

Second, it gives the creative person freedom. Knowing I don’t have to sit at the keyboard to brainstorm ideas means I can take a walk, go on an adventure, live my life as I normally would, but keep a writing notebook handy to jot down ideas as I go along. In fact, I’m more likely to have more ideas while doing other things, than while trying to be creative at my work space. My work space is primarily for organizing, developing, and producing those ideas … not giving birth to them.

Third, it eases the expectations we creatives have of ourselves by giving us space between what we do and who we are. If you are a creative person, you know how difficult this is because your mental health probably depends on being able to create. You might not know what to do with yourself if you can’t create. In this sense, perhaps creativity is a lot like being possessed of a little spirit, so that you and your desire to create are one. But if we cannot unplug from those expectations now and then, we burn out. And if other people expect us to be switched on all the time, they will be disappointed when one creative project succeeds, but the next fails. It’s as if we failed, but really it’s just that human beings can’t be switched on all the time. No profession or individual can do this and maintain good health. I often say I AM a writer because it’s such a part of me that I can’t NOT design new story ideas or characters in my head. But even I have moments when I have to put the writing aside to get other stuff done. In those moments, I need to be able to cage the spirit and cover it, or I won’t be able to function in day-to-day life. If you are a creative person, you are probably nodding along because you have lived this, too. You get it.

So, the next time your creative genius flies off and leaves you high and dry for ideas, maybe try to reconsider it as a blessing. It’s a chance to rest. It’s an opportunity to leave your desk jockeying position and do something else that will invite your muse to return under better circumstances. And it’s a chance to prepare your living space to work in-sync with his capricious nature.

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My muse doodles a lot. 🙂

Look at that! A blog article born from the lack of inspiration for writing today’s blog … 🙂 I think I will thank the genius sitting on my shoulder for rescuing me today and give him the weekend off from writing, so that I can come back on Monday with fresh energy and ideas.

Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Book Review: 1984

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Book: 1984
Series:
Author: George Orwell
Genres: literary, dystopian

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.”

Notes of Interest:

This is actually the fourth time I’ve read this book. My first reading was in high school while attending a private religious school. My second reading was in college, also a private religious school, but with an open-minded English professor. My third reading was with my own children when they were studying high school English. And recently I picked it up again, like many other people, because of some uncanny parallels between this piece of fiction and our current events in reality. It never ceases to amaze me that every time I pick up this book, I find something new I didn’t notice before. It is timeless. It is universal. It is a true classic. It is not an easy read, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion.

I haven’t written a review on it in decades. And while I don’t have previous reviews on hand for comparison, this last reading was done from a liberal, secular perspective. Each reading was influenced by political or religious background, so it’s interesting to see the scope from right to left shift as to how this book’s “prophetic” themes can be interpreted. There is so much to say about this book that I feel very limited on this blog. Since it has been reviewed and studied copiously enough on a technical analytical level, I’ll try to stick to the theme of divisive interpretation.

What could have made it better for me:

The short and sweet of it is this book is perfect the way it is. My only complaint is that it’s dated, coming from the post WWII era, but that’s not really a complaint so much as an acknowledgment that a certain level of awareness of history is necessary with period literature. It’s a bit of a hassle to ponder lessons for today from studying the past … but that’s the whole point of history, right?

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What I liked about it:

The most important thing I picked up from the book this time around was a better understanding of fascism. While reading this book, I simultaneously did on-line searches for definitions, examples, and warning flags regarding fascism. I looked at articles from the right and the left to be fair and to try to answer a question that deeply puzzled me. How is that both the right and the left can accuse each other of being fascist?

Was fascism a creation of the right or left? Is it secular or religious? The simple answer is … both. But of course to understand it, you have to dig deeper than that.

Most of the articles I read put fascism in the conservative political camp because of the authoritarian approach to policy. Authoritarianism is a predominant characteristic of conservative culture and politics. But several conservative articles found that idea ludicrous because fascism requires loyalty to a collective, and collectives are predominantly from liberal culture and politics, i.e. the government. Since conservatives generally hate the government, how could they possibly buy into a collective ideology?

Well, there is more than one kind of collective. For example, nationalism. Nationalism should never be mistaken for patriotism. Patriotism is support for one’s country. But nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism that usually exhorts the superiority of one nation above all others. Did you catch that very important word that defines the differences? Extreme. It’s okay to be proud of your origins and support your country. But there is a tipping point when love of country becomes nationalism, where globalism no longer matters and one nation’s interests come at the expense of others. When that happens, the nation becomes the collective … the party … the authority. Even without a big government, collectivism can exist in the form of a republic, a religious organization, a social organization, or a business organization. Collectivism simply means “group priority”. So, contrary to some of the arguments I’ve seen otherwise, it IS possible for a conservative culture that disavows “big government” to buy into a different kind of collective dogma. Combine that with authoritarian tendencies, push them into the extreme camp, and you have the perfect storm for fascism. Whether you agree or disagree, this why most sociologists consider fascism to be conservative, even though the world’s first taste of fascism did come from secular, socialist governments.

This might be a difficult concept to grasp because it does straddle the fence in terms of collectives. But it’s important to understand the role that authoritarianism plays in making fascism what it is.

Both conservative and liberal cultures name the same warning signs when it comes to fascism (suppression of freedom of speech, suppression of freedom of the press, dehumanization of a chosen subgroup of people, etc.)Each side has similar arguments that accuse the other of being fascist, but for different reasons. For example, conservatives may point to abortion rights as dehumanization because a fetus is not valued as equally as the mother. Liberals might point to defunding of public welfare projects or anti-immigration policies as dehumanizing because of how the lives of the poor or of a particular religious sect are not as valued as the rich or religious majority. Regardless of whether those definitions of dehumanization are valid or not, both camps are in agreement that dehumanization is bad. In both cases, the “evil” collective that enforces the laws is the government. But whether the government is big or small, religious or secular, it is the absolutism of authority that leads to dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Therefore, it’s important to understand this is a book that the right will attempt to use against the left. And the left will attempt to use it against the right. Because Orwell’s examples of authoritarianism are sometimes similar to, but sometimes vastly different from, what we’re experiencing in today’s world.

This is a book that rebukes the removal of religion from human culture while at the same time condemning the indoctrination of children.

In Orwell’s day, there was a fear of shortages on consumer goods because of communist and socialist government-controlled production. Today we fear unregulated capitalism that not only floods the world with consumer goods, but takes a toll on our environment, permits discrimination, displaces workers, and takes advantage of people for profit.

Orwell clearly disliked having to trade his Imperial measurements and familiar, old-fashioned words for metrics and politically correct rephrasing. But that mindset ignores the fact that Imperial measurements and words are called “imperial” for a reason — one universal standard is easier for business, math, and dictionaries. Yet new words enter living languages every day with new technology and trade. It’s just how living languages work. The only unchanging language is a dead one. The only unchanging civilization is a dead one. Mark Twain once said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” I think this is true, except I would change it to say the radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow … because if we’re comfortable with the world we’ve built for ourselves, we don’t want to see someone else change it. Change is scary, even if progress is a good thing. (And in terms of human history overall, most of us would say humanity has changed for the better when we compare our lives today with what they had 100 years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and so on.)

So, a sense of what was happening at the time that Orwell wrote this book is essential to understanding why it’s not the left or right arguments that matter. Try not to get stuck in the details of labeling which “side” of modern arguments he’s on. It also helps to acknowledge that Orwell himself had his preferred world view and things he didn’t want to see change in the name of progress. But the main target of Orwell’s criticism and anger, the thing which he brilliantly attacked in this masterpiece, was and always will be totalitarianism.

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Totalitarianism can exist on the right or the left, conservative or liberal. Totalitarianism is what Orwell reminds us to pay attention to regardless of what individual arguments are about. And he does that best through language because when you remove words and suppress language and freedom of communication, you perpetuate ignorance. When you confuse someone’s language, you confuse their ability to think in abstract terms and distance them from their cultural heritage.

Here he gives us the government of Oceania. Big Brother is the father figure that Winston and his peers are to look to for guidance and justice. Big Brother’s not a real person … or maybe he is. Or maybe he changes. The details don’t matter. Big Brother is ageless, eternal, powerful. Big Brother perpetuates war with varying enemies to keep the population of Oceania productive, fatigued, and compliant. They celebrate hate on a daily basis; it’s required to know who their enemies are (since that often changes) and maintain loyalty to the party.

Winston, the story’s protagonist, works at the Ministry of Truth. The sole purpose of the Ministry of Truth is to fabricate propaganda for the party in the daily news and every other printed text in existence. They knowingly rewrite history so that they always come out victorious. But they no longer have a sense of the past because the only thing that matters is blind obedience in the present … and a sort of blind faith toward empty promises about future victories. Winston spends more time erasing the truth than printing it. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It is their final, most essential command.”

They talk in doublespeak saying things like, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” To understand these concepts, you have to think in terms of dichotomy because one concept is used to rationalize its opposing principle. I could write an essay on these three statements alone, but if you’ve ever experienced someone punishing you out of “love” that’s the gist of how this works. It’s otherwise known as “gas-lighting” and is a psychologically abusive tactic often used by narcissists to control their partners. In fact the place where political prisoners are tortured is called the Ministry of Love because they equate coercion toward the one and only correct path with an act of compassion.

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They invade privacy, spying on every aspect of your life … judging acts (and thoughts, so don’t talk in your sleep!) as moral or immoral according to their party ideology. Society is based on class divisions according to party loyalty (a.k.a. cronyism). And relationships are reduced to arrangements for procreation, rearing of the next generation to be indoctrinated in party politics, and shallow love affairs held in secret (which are punishable by torture and death because meetings, public or private, are automatically suspect for conspiratorial opportunities). The elements of human existence that most people would cherish are deliberately removed by the party, and they don’t care who knows this because the fear that knowledge produces gives them leverage.

They are absolute, invincible, and forever … just like their patron. They are so sure of their ability to control the masses with fear and hate that when they spot potential dissidents, they bait them with rumors and books from an organization that may or may not be a real group of freedom fighters. Caught in the trap, the dissidents are broken and corrected back into party alignment through means of isolation and torture. Then they’re sent back to their assigned work, until the party has no further use for them. Those no longer useful, disappear … from the present and the past. They never existed. Only Big Brother and the party are timeless. That is the way it has always been.

Recommendation:

I copied dozens of page references and quotes to include in this review, but there simply isn’t time or space to expand on them. So, I will end with this final thought.

You cannot read this book without doubting your own sanity a few times. You can’t read it without thinking of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or any of the other experiments in totalitarian nationalism that crept across the world following the Great Depression … that still exist in some parts of the world today. Nor can you read this book without seeing parallels in current events as totalitarianism and nationalism rear their ugly heads again looking for scapegoats to blame for the world’s problems … looking for excuses to start more wars in order to feel more in control.

Totalitarianism is a regression, no matter what party backs it. It hearkens back to the days of monarchy rule without representation of the people. Representation of a diverse and democratic people is crucial to preventing totalitarian power grabs. And we must be ever-watchful of the language we use to discuss propaganda and fake news, history and ideology, loyalty and patriotism, us and them. If we don’t call out lies when we see them, if we don’t speak up while we are free to do so, if we don’t listen when someone’s human rights are oppressed … when we reject compassion and empathy for the sake of profit, privilege, or power … when we let fear, hatred, and isolation reign … democracy and freedom go down the “memory hole” toward incineration. This is Orwell’s wake-up call to never allow totalitarianism to take over the world again.

Book Snobbery

"Book Reviews" by Merodinoongaku
Diversity in book reviews is normal.

What it is.

Book snobbery is what happens when a reader values one book above another as if such a thing could be objective. That means judging a book without emotion or opinion. Grant it technical aspects of writing can sometimes be judged objectively. But when speaking of the book as a whole? Never.

This happens a lot when comparing literary genres. For example, people love to feel that literary genre is superior to fantasy, horror, romance, young adult, or comics. Book lovers also tend to feel books in general are superior to screenplays for films or TV or stage performances.

Or book lovers tend to strongly dislike particular authors or series due to personal biases, especially in the age of the Internet, where it’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this book.” The anti-fan might mock the author and fans, destroy the author’s career, or possibly even threaten his or her life.

Most book snobs don’t view themselves as snobs at all, though. They’re more likely to think younger generations are simply not smart enough to appreciate old-fashioned literature because of modern attitudes or digital addictions. Or they’re more likely to think the author they dislike lacks talent. Or they think fans are sheep for flocking to whatever current trend is popular. But while those certainly could be true scenarios, there are no absolutes when it comes to why people like or dislike what they do or don’t. Humanity has always been and will always be diverse when it comes to the arts.

I have read studies that reinforce notions that books are better than visual storytelling because they encourage imagination, that literary genre is better than pulp fiction because of realism. I know that some authors had no training or knowledge of the craft of writing and publishing because their work started as fan fiction that was gobbled up because of topic popularity regardless of professionalism. It is easy to fall into the trap of book snobbery if you love to read or write. But why does this happen, and why is it bad?

Why it happens.

1. It is precisely because human beings are subjective when it comes to the arts that we judge our favourite to be superior over whatever we dislike. I try to keep this in mind when I review anything. If I am aware of my own personal biases before going into a reading, I will try to be fair and give back one star when reviewing if I didn’t like it. I feel very strongly about the differences between a poorly written book and a book that was well-written, but just not my cup of tea. And since the purpose of my review is both to inform the author how I felt about the book and hold the book up to fellow readers to make their own judgments about whether or not they think they would like it, I shouldn’t let my personal bias taint the review with more criticism than the work itself deserves. If I don’t like football, I’m going to assume books about football are boring. But that’s not fair to the author or other readers who might be football fans. My reviews need to reflect this. So, personal bias, I think, is the most common contribution to book snobbery.

2. Type of medium is probably the second biggest contributor to literary prejudices. Books are often viewed as superior to other forms of story-telling because books have a more educational and academic reputation than TV, film, stage productions, games, etc. But there are many ways to tell a story — each with its own limitations and blessings. And, again, how well a story is received is really up to individual taste of the reader.

Some people have a more visual intelligence than others. That means they take in information about the world around them through their eyes. Others are aural-intelligent, so their biggest input comes from being able to hear. Others are kinetic, or touch-intelligent. They need to move and handle things. So, if an aural or kinetic child falls asleep or can’t sit still reading a book, it doesn’t mean they’re being disrespectful of the book. It means they need access to stories in different means. Not lesser means — different means. Audio books, stage performances, films, and games will appeal more to people who are not primarily visual learners. But a well-rounded individual should be able to enjoy story-telling in any format without shame.

There is no shame in preferring to watch Moby-Dick over reading it. The point is to enjoy the story, however you can best receive it. Personally, I thought Moby-Dick was the most god-awful book I ever tried to read … second only to The Life and Diary of David Brainard (both school assignments, by the way). For most of my life I hated Moby-Dick because I could not get into the author’s writing style. But decades later, I watched the film version of it and loved it. Now I believe it’s a fantastic story, and I see why it’s such a classic. But Herman Melville’s writing style put me to sleep! Later, I was astounded in college to be able to take a film-literature class, and to realize that visual story-telling is not lower-class literature. It’s just a different medium. The story-telling can and should still be top-notch. (People must keep this in mind when speaking of derivative works like film adaptations of books.)

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Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick. The ultimate lesson in letting go of an unhealthy obsession …

3. Level of quality is probably the third offender. Is George Orwell’s 1984 better than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? If you think the answer to this is yes, you are ignoring the fact that books are written for different genres, about different topics, and for different audiences for a reason. I cannot stress this enough: literature is not a competition between best and worst. Literature is one of the few things in life in which there is something for everyone. Literature is inclusive. You can like 1984 AND Harry Potter. You can like comics AND classics. Some of the best stories around come from children’s literature, while some of the most snore-worthy things ever written have perfect, textbook, college-level prose. Level of quality boils down to level of appreciation. And there are no limits on that.

4. Finally, I mentioned that there are technical, objective areas that matter in arts. And in my opinion this is the only area where it is okay to have a certain amount of expectations. But even there, people can differ in how important or unimportant they think technical aspects are. You would think grammar is essential to being uniform in the literary world … and yet if you study grammar deeply enough, you will see that English grammar rules are a mess. So, there’s a lot of grammar that is up to the author or publisher or reader to decide whether it’s appropriate, and each of them may differ. Ellipses are the perfect example: is there no space before and after the three dots, one space after the three dots, or one space before and after the three dots? The answer will depend on which rule book you consult, what the publisher demands, what kind of composition you’re trying to write, and author’s preference! So the real rule for ellipses is, “Pick one format and be consistent.”

But because we are also talking about literary art forms, we have to acknowledge that many writers intentionally break the rules. Consider E.E. Cummings, who did away with capital letters altogether in his poetry, so that even capitalizing his name feels somehow wrong. You may also notice my own rebellion when it comes to placement of punctuation in regards to quotation marks. The reason American English always place commas within quotations is because of the way typeset printers were built. Same goes for why we spaced twice after periods. Some punctuation keys were smaller and more fragile than others. So, they simplified a grammar rule for the sake of antique technology. Nowadays, the double-space-after-the-period rule is no longer enforced anywhere. And if you look at British English, logic is still applied to how punctuation relates to quotation marks. Rather than simplifying the rules for the sake of machines we no longer use, I prefer to apply logic. If the punctuation in quotations ends a sentence, it goes inside. If not, outside.

In such cases, we have to ask whether works that break rules are “poorly written” or “intentional”. (See what I did there? I’m such a rebel.) 😉 Poorly written work deserves to be called out as poorly written with thoughtful analysis as to how it could be improved. But artistic differences or controversial options (such as Oxford commas), are what they are. And unless they destroy the reader’s ability to comprehend the story, they should be left alone as part of the author’s intentions, for whatever reason.

Why book snobbery is bad.

Book snobbery is something all lovers of stories should try to avoid because in all cases, fostering the love of reading is better than discouraging it. Most human brains are flexible enough to appreciate the nuances of differences for what they are, as long as they are free to enjoy literature as one of life’s little sweetnesses. If someone is badgered into reading materials they don’t like or can’t easily absorb, or if they are shamed into giving up what does interest them because someone else called it inferior, their love of reading may be damaged ever after. And the one thing every scientific and sociological study has in common regarding reading or literature is the fact that stories are good for human development. Literature improves empathy, imagination, communication skills, and critical thinking skills, however we choose to digest it.

If you need some snappier answers on the subject, check out Matt Haig’s blog article, “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob” (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/558/). My favourite is number 17: “Freedom is the process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is the process of building them.” … Very relative to my books … and current events, in many ways.

Plotting: Connect the Dots

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Screenshot of Aija in my Skyrim game.

When I receive letters or messages about my writing, it’s usually from other writers who are just getting started and who are looking for solutions to their own writing craft problems. And usually those problems have to do with plotting. So, I’d like to share a few thoughts about that today.

Pantsing Versus Outlining

There are basically two kinds of plotting styles: outlining versus pantsing. Outlining is what your English teacher taught you in grade school which you became dependent on for the rest of your educational life. They provide structure so that your scrambled thoughts can actually make sense in an organized flow toward the points you’re trying to make, regardless of whether it’s a science report on butterflies or a short story following a hero’s journey. Pantsing (as in “by the seat of your pants”, meaning spontaneity) was probably never advocated by your teachers, but it is the common term for unplanned creative composition. It’s where you go with the flow of whatever inspires you, even if you have no idea where it leads.

Outliners meticulously map out their plots and subplots so they know exactly what’s happening each step of the way. But the problem with outlines is that they can get boring and predictable and uninspiring. Writer’s block can set in because the writer loses interest. And if the writer loses interest, so will the reader.

Pantsers sometimes need the right circumstances or mood to work. Or perhaps they start with a vague idea and attempt to define it as they go along. Creative expression and exploration drives their work. But the problem with pantsing is … it’s fickle. Writers start with this burst of energy, but when it runs out of steam, they poop-out and hit a blank canvas without being able to budge further. Many stories get started, but not many get finished. Or there is an idea for a scene, but the writer has no idea what to do with it because it’s not an actual plot. It doesn’t go anywhere.

It’s the difference between using a map to plan your road trip directly to a specific destination, and getting in the car without a map to see where the road takes you. In outlining, the destination is important. In pantsing, the journey is important. But … there is more than one way to journey to a destination. And road trips are more exciting when unexpected things happen, or if you plan for a little sight-seeing along the way. Writing doesn’t have to be one or the other. Writers should feel free to mix and match techniques as it suits them. I like to call this third option connecting the dots.

Connecting the Dots

Remember those connect-the-dots colouring books you had as a kid? The page offers nothing but scattered, disconnected dots and maybe a few hints of minor details … like an eye. You know it’s going to be a face if it has an eye, but nothing else is clear yet. You have to draw lines between the dots to connect them before the picture can take shape. Then you can add colour and other details to finish the picture. This is how I write. The eye is the idea for the story. The dots are the creative surges that I know I want to write about. The lines between the dots are the outline that gives it structure as something recognizable. And the colour and additional details are the many revisions I put my “finished” stories through to make them better with each pass. You can do this however you like, but this is how I do it.

I start with the eye — the idea that intrigues me. I “pants” a scene to see where it leads me. Usually, that scene turns into a chapter. And usually that chapter can extend to about three more chapters before I stop and try to see the overall picture beyond my random dots. I am always switched on when it comes to creative writing and ideas, so I can always create characters, explore settings, and imagine dilemmas that need fixing. But eventually I bump up against the fact that plots always need to be progressing toward a destination.

I’m going to side-track a bit here to add a note that, contrary to pop-culture preferences, plot isn’t always necessary. There is such a thing as a plot-less story. It’s more common in Eastern cultures than Western, but one very good example of this in Western culture is the original Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook by A.A. Milne. There is no objective in that book to take the reader from problem to solution. It’s just a collection of sweet scenarios in the life of a little boy’s stuffed toys. It doesn’t have any murders to solve, or mysteries to explore, or quests to accomplish. Pooh is not any better or worse off for having been through the story’s events. He just is. And we enjoy sharing those moments with him. You shouldn’t be afraid to explore a plot-less path if it intrigues you. Just know that plot-oriented stories are more popular, especially among publishers, because they usually sell better.

Okay, back to plot-designed stories.

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The original “Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook” by A.A. Milne is a fine example of a plot-less classic. It’s more of a window into the lives of the characters than a quest or objective for them to accomplish.

Timelines

Once I have several dots, I start contemplating the overall design. That’s when I stop writing random scenarios to draft a timeline. I use a timeline, rather than an outline, because the timeline doesn’t have to have sub-points, yet it’s linear enough for structure. I plot the events I have so far, then I carry them toward a goal at the end.

This is important because if you don’t have an end goal for your plot, you might never finish the story. It doesn’t have to be a predictable or good ending, but the story has to end somewhere. And this is hard to do sometimes because stories are actually the “middle” segments of a continuum for those characters in their world. Something always happens before your story begins. And things will continue to happen long after your story ends. As an author, you are cutting out only one segment of time to show what happened. So, your story must have a beginning and end, even if your imagined world and characters live on.

When I have my beginning and end defined, I am free to add as many dots/plot points as necessary to get from A to Z. Or, I am free to go back to pantsing, using the timeline as a generic guide for directing the story toward its end. I give myself permission to go back and forth between outline and creative flow at that point because I feel both are necessary to keep the plot progressing toward the objective without restricting inspiration when it strikes. In other words, plans should be flexible and allow for change. Just because my timeline originally kills off a character, doesn’t mean I can’t find a reason to save him when I get to that scene. And just because I had no intention of killing off a character in the beginning doesn’t mean I won’t do it later if I think it will create a more interesting challenge for the protagonists.

Writer’s Block

Usually, the only time I hit writer’s block, which is rare, is when I know of a dot I need to connect, but get stuck on how to incorporate it based on where I stand at the moment. It feels a bit like coming to a “Bridge Out” sign and wondering how I can leap to the other side. Logically, I know I’m going to need stepping stones based on what’s already been written. But how many options I have to explore before I find what works can be a challenge. Should the characters chop down a tree to cross that gulf? No, they have no axe. Should they swim? No, I already said one of them was deathly afraid of drowning. Are they part dragon so they can fly? You get the idea.

This stage of composition might mean altering small bits that I’ve already plotted, or finding ways to accommodate inconsistencies I don’t want to change. Maybe I back up and add a dot where a character spots an axe in the car trunk. Or maybe the fact that the one deathly afraid of drowning must overcome her fear becomes a subplot challenge she has to resolve. But major changes, like suddenly deciding I want my characters to be part dragon just so I can give them wings, are not to be taken lightly. I’ve written stories that required major overhauls, and they are exhaustive to rework because every single mention of every plot thread affected must be sought out and dealt with accordingly. That’s actually part of the reason for the delay in the publication of The Dragonling. I made some major changes that affected the entire script. It’s very time consuming and laborious to make major changes in revisions like that. But if it makes the story better, sometimes it’s necessary; you just grit your teeth and do it.

Overall, this is how I write until the story reaches the end objective. I draw a few dots, add a few lines, and where the lines don’t curve the way they need to, I add more dots and draw more lines, erasing anything that’s no longer relevant, and so on. If I get stuck for inspiration on a fight scene, I skip a few lines, type “FIGHT SCENE” in red font, maybe jot down ideas I have for it (example: “Recall dagger lesson Aija learned from Trizryn in earlier chapter.”), but then I move on to the next scene. I don’t make myself compose in a linear fashion. I don’t waste time on scenes where there is no inspiration. If I get stuck, I work on the timeline and other aspects of organization, like character development or world building. Eventually, the big picture takes shape into something I can consider as a finished draft. Then each revision cleans it up a little more, whether the changes are big or small. I consider the story “shareable” when it’s clean enough that I’m not making very many changes. And then I consider it “publishable” when several other “fresher” eyes have read it without flagging flaws.

Conclusion

Good stories are constructed with a balance between structure and creative inspiration. There is no exact measure for this balance. Each writer (and reader) will decide what feels right for them and for each individual story. Don’t approach writing feeling like you have to do it the “right” way. Staring at a blank page while waiting for inspiration or hoping for perfection because you feel the first draft has to be “done right” usually ends up in writer’s block. There is no “right way” to write. Give yourself permission to be non-linear in the creation stage, but acknowledge that structure is helpful in guiding you around the big picture to the end. How you mix and match structure with creative whim is entirely up to you. The journey of a story has to reach its destination eventually, but connecting the dots off-road — with unplanned flat tires, ice cream stops, ratty hotels, flying tumbleweeds, and all — can make your plot-trip more interesting, memorable, and fun. 🙂

Character Interview: Trizryn, the Thief

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Image Source: My Skyrim game. 🙂 Trizryn and Zhenta are on their way to hunt down a missing person who stole from the Thief Guild. In my novel, Trizryn is a character with illusion magic, so he crafts his appearances according to his environment. He spent most of his life living as a light elf in the fae court, but then went underground into Nisala’s thief guild to intentionally undermine his step-father’s regime.

Last week I shared a character interview and demonstrated how to use such things to find the voice of a character. This week, I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast the voice aspect of character creation. (In other words, no, I have not finished my book of the month for a review, or finished my beta draft, so let me distract you with shop talk.) 🙂

Shei, the bard and best friend of one of my book’s protagonists did last week’s interview. He is a “foil” character. That means he was designed to be the opposite of the main character in order to highlight his personality. Don’t confuse foil characters with antagonists. Antagonists antagonize protagonists by going against them in some way. They don’t have to be bad guys, but they present a challenge the main character must overcome to complete the plot. Foil characters, however, are usually friends with the main character, and they are there for support. They’re just intentionally different because by contrasting the main character’s personality, they help the reader refine the main character’s voice … and their own. (Secondary characters should be treated as primary characters for the sake of character development if not for plot.) So, as an entertainer, Shei’s dialog and actions come with a bit of comic relief and charm. It’s not fake or manipulative, unless he makes it clear that is his intent, so his personality also has to come across as sincere and loyal. But more often than not, his mood is light because he is the kind of person who attempts to support others when they are down or stressed.

This week, I’m going to offer the same interview to Trizryn, one of two main protagonists. With four published books on these characters, I should feel comfortable discussing Trizryn’s nature in articles that mention him, but I guess I still feel protective of spoilers. I will try to find a balance here. Trizryn is enigmatic by design. His “truths” unfold little by little over the entire course of the series. He was designed to be dynamic, which means he starts off rather rough, but then changes as a result of what happens to him over the course of the plots. Trizryn is also an anti-hero with more burdens on his plate than his foil, Shei. He used to have a playful sense of humour, according to his sister, K’tía. But that was stripped away from him when he was reconditioned in the Derra Eirlyn dungeon. Over the course of the story, he “awakens” to reclaim his freedom, his ability to trust, his appreciation of life, and more. Shei is a very important person in his life because he is the one friend he could trust. They are brothers-in-arms and the butt of each others’ jokes. So these characters must have distinctly different voices, yet those voices must support each other in spite of contrast. So, here is Trizryn’s interview to compare to Shei’s. It’s all about finding the character’s voice. 🙂

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Freedom to be yourself. Friends who accept you. Spicy noodles.
2.What is your greatest fear?
Not knowing who to trust because everyone has an agenda. … Necromancers creep me out, too. Especially now that I’m dead.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Where to begin? I tend to make bad decisions. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. But I’m trying to put things right now where I can. … Let’s see, I’m dead. That tends to not go over well in conversations. And my current death was tainted by my previous death, which complicates things. Oh, and I’m not even real to begin with. At least not this time around. That’s even more fun to try to explain.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Betrayal. You never really get over it, especially if it’s abusive in nature.
5. Which living person do you most admire?
Aija. She’s stuck in a world she knows nothing about, in dangerous situations that test her courage and strength like nothing else before, and she may have lost … everything … when I pulled her through that gate. But somehow she’s been able to forgive, accept what’s happened, and keep going without becoming tainted. She’s a quick learner, able to adapt. Once she sets her mind on something she’s tenacious about it. She has a strong sense of fairness. And some days her insight makes her seem more like an old soul than I am.

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Trizryn is an expert swordsman who can see in the dark. And, if necessary, he can use his internal sorcery to conjure his own weapons. Because in truth, he is a dark elf. And he’s tired of pretending to be something he’s not just to appease everyone else. So, for Trizryn, the Elf Gate series is about rebellion and awakening to his true self. His voice, therefore, is often introspective. As a thief and agent, his main plot lines involve a lot of political intrigue, a lot of information bartering and some under-the-table type activities where he has to be able to act without a squeaky-clean conscience. His morality is gray, but he does lean toward good. In D&D terms he would be chaotic neutral or chaotic good.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?
I don’t think of myself as an extravagant person. I grew up with wealth; but it was empty, so I never attached to it the way some people do. Which is good because now I’m dirt poor.
7. What is your current state of mind?
Honestly? Nervous. Plans to get Aija home screwed up, as usual. But if this next attempt works, I might end up having to meet her parents.
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Justice. It too easily turns into revenge. When we’re eager to punish people for doing something wrong, that doesn’t usually solve the problem. It’s just an outlet to justify our anger. Justice and problem solving are two different things. I’ve had to learn that the hard way … and I still struggle with it. But in my opinion if you want revenge, just call it revenge. Don’t hide behind justice.
9. On what occasion do you lie?
When I have to protect secrets that could endanger myself or others, or make matters worse than they already are. Most of my life has been one lie after another, so I’m tired of illusions and lies now. Tired of secrets.
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Well, the fact that I resemble a gargoyle more than an elf now has damaged the pride a bit. But as long as Aija doesn’t seem to mind, I’d rather be faded with fangs than dressed in illusions.

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Without illusions, Trizryn’s natural skin used to be raven-black. Now, afflicted with vampirism, it is charcoal gray. As a Gray One, he is even less welcome among surface fae because it is assumed he is diseased and feral. Trizryn, however, is a cursed original. And the deeper he goes down that path to find out why he is this way, the more complicated his story becomes. Much of his plot is heavy, but self-discovery is a theme most readers can relate to. His voice must reflect his frustration at each obstacle.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
In the past, I would have automatically said Erys, my step-father. He’s an abusive tyrant. But now it’s a toss-up between Erys and Ilisram. Because they’re both two-faced, cold-hearted sons-of-bitches that deserve to be tied to posts and flayed for the crows to feast on for everything they’ve done.
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Respectability. Or rather, recognizing that respect is earned by deeds, not titles or possessions. A man who wears a crown has a responsibility to be a good leader and look out for the people of his kingdom, or he does not deserve that crown. A tyrant deserves to have his crown taken from him, by force if necessary, in order to spare the people who would otherwise be mistreated by him.
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Nice legs and short skirts. (Punches Shei and pushes him away from the keyboard. The bard quips something about payback being a bitch. Glares at Shei and turns his back to guard the keyboard.) Trustworthiness.
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My sister used to complain I cursed too much. Aija agrees. Even my translator amulet has started boycotting me, so I guess they have valid arguments. But I’m trying to be less … colourful … these days.
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Aija. (smiles) Shei once said Aija and me could argue about the colour of an orange until pigs flew, but she’s my compass when I lose myself. She makes me want to be a better me … for my own sake, as well as hers. She’s my anchor … my hope.
16. When and where were you happiest?
Just being able to “be” with Aija … remembering what it was like to have fun with Shei and other friends … without someone trying to kill us, preferably.
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
I’m not a talent seeker. I did used to have free time for learning music, though. I’d like to have more of that.
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Not being dead or needing regular blood intake would be nice. But not if going through a third birth means giving up what I have now.
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Getting Reznetha’ir’s refugees out of Serensa to Absin’navad before the Derra Eirlyn raided their camp. I just wish I had been there to evacuate them from Absin’navad, as well.
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
You mean like — I don’t know — a vampire? (snort)

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I chose to make Trizryn a vampire because I have always been intrigued by vampiric characters. They are the eternal outsiders. They represent the struggle between impulse and impulse control. They represent the monsters we all have within ourselves. And they are rather godlike in the supernatural powers they are given, so exploring what makes them weak is a challenge.

21. Where would you most like to live?
Some place peaceful. Wherever I can be with Aija. Doesn’t matter where. No politics, no dragons, no more living on the run.
22. What is your most treasured possession?
Again, I’m not really one to attach to material things. They’re too much of a burden. Although, I do have a favourite sword that’s been enchanted with fortification spells. It can take off anything’s head in one swing … even for someone as lightweight as Aija.
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
My time in the dungeon for reconditioning was a low point. I was isolated, tested, tortured. My body and my thoughts were invaded on a regular basis. They tried to recondition my behavior with mind control and pain. And even after I was free, they kept me under constant surveillance … until I became a drug addict just trying to put some space between me and my summoner. But then I found out she wasn’t who I thought she was, and that was almost as miserable as the dungeon. Being everyone else’s damned puppet is no different from being their slave.
24. What is your favorite occupation?
There’s occupations beyond the Derra Eirlyn? I never thought about it. I’d probably end up teaching martial arts or becoming a locksmith. I can always break the locks or break down the doors if I can’t pick them. … What? Oh, right. Shei says that might be overkill.
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
My appearance. People have always judged me based on how I look. And considering how I look, that’s probably never going to change.
26. What do you most value in your friends?
Having lived around the fae court and a den of thieves (which aren’t much different), most of the time I can tell when someone hangs around because they want something from me versus wanting to be with me. I prefer people who value relationships without asking what’s in it for them.
27. Who are your favorite writers?
Don’t really have any. I don’t have time for reading these days. Shei’s poetry is good for a laugh, though.
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
I don’t know about fiction, but Reznetha’ir is probably my real life hero. He’s always willing to help someone in need, without judgment. He’ll put his life on the line to stand by his word. He’s honest and a good problem solver. He’s made of good stuff. He’s the kind of person I sometimes wish I could be.
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
This is a trick question right? Technically, I am a historical figure.
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
Already said Reznetha’ir. His mother, Knight Abehendal … I can admire her sacrifice for standing up for what she believed in. Róbynn because he was more of a mentor or father to me than Erys ever was. I guess I’d add Shei, too. He puts up with a lot from me, but has never let me down. … Well, maybe once. … Okay, twice. … Okay, he gets in trouble a lot, but so do I. Never mind. Let’s just say we’ve got each other’s backs when shit goes down.

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I prefer vampire characters who are more than their identities as vampires, and Trizryn has multiple identities. There is a person beneath those titles and roles. So, the challenge in writing for him is to consider how all of his experiences would affect one another … from dark elf prince to thief to vampire and beyond. But for this type of character, for all the fun I have unraveling him, there should always continue to be a little bit of mystery. 🙂

31. What are your favorite names?
I chose the name Trizryn for my minkuiliké because it’s a traditional name that comes from two archaic High Thályn words meaning tried trust or proven trust. I thought it would make me, as a dark elf, more acceptable at the light elf court, but who was I kidding. Now, it’s the identity that reminds I am not Kethrei.
32. What is it that you most dislike?
This is going to sound odd coming from someone like me, but I hate killing people. There’s far too much blood on my hands, and I’m not even an assassin. If I could retire my sword tomorrow, I would.
33. What is your greatest regret?
Leaving Absin’navad, K’tía, Róbynn, and everyone else in Ilisram’s hands without knowing what kind of monster he was. I should have seen through his lies sooner. My other big regret is Ilansa. I might not have been able to stop Ilisram, but I should have been able to stop myself.
34. How would you like to die?
In my sleep, but I doubt I’ll be so lucky. I’m more likely to die while staked or wrapped in bloodletting chains, followed by decapitation or fire, now that driving an ordinary blade through my heart isn’t enough to execute me. Then again … a blade with anti-magic runes could also make for an interesting end.
35. What is your motto?
No more secrets. No more hiding. I am what I am, and one way or another, I’m taking back my life.

Character Interview: Shei, The Bard

So, here it is February and The Dragonling still has not been placed in the hands of beta readers yet. My apologies to those waiting on it. There were many “life” distractions in December and January that slowed me down, including a bout of bronchitis that morphed into THE VIRUS FROM HELL. I was sick for 8 weeks with a deep chest congestion that simply would not go away! All the while, we had visitors, tons of snow that had to be shoveled (which takes time away from writing when it’s 1-2 hours at a time and multiple times a day), holiday stuff, and then January hit the ground running in some sort of surreal alternate universe that I can’t even begin to understand or explain. Oh, and the brakes gave out on the car. So, that was a week in the shop with its own interruptions and delays.

Meanwhile, I was also trying to read through all four previous books looking for inconsistencies that needed correcting or plot threads that might have been accidentally dropped, and I didn’t finish the last one until just a couple of weeks ago. All I can say is … life happens. Focus is lost. Productivity goes down. In my opinion, even when production lags, quality should come first. So, rather than rushing to finish, I am still checking notes from the other books against this one to be sure they have as much credible consistency as I can muster. I am now looking at March for beta reads, April for final edits, and May for publication.

To make up for the delay, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with posting something character related. Social media question games have always been around, but lately they’ve been used as a diversion from all of the bad news. In looking up character interviews, I found an interesting list here (http://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/) from Marcel Proust. I was surprised to see these little parlor games have been around since the 1800’s!

So, one of my most “entertaining” characters is Shei, a light elf bard. I know he’s in the middle of a dreadful dilemma right now in The Dragonling, what with being possessed by K’tía’s ghost, receiving terrible news about his father, and being a wanted fugitive that a bunch of dragons want to roast because of his friendship with Trizryn, but let’s show him one of these human inventions called a computer and see how he might answer one of these questionnaires. And if you’re a writer having trouble developing a character with depth, try interviewing them like you would a real person. Test out their voice to see how they might answer.

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Image Source: Melody Daggerhart — my Skyrim game screenshot. I put Shei in my Skyrim game to do the Bard’s College quests. Here he’s decked out to find a flute in a necromancer’s cave. What fun for him, eh? 🙂 … (Not!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being chased by dead things. Or dragons. Or necromancers who conjure dead things and release trapped dragons.
What is your greatest fear?
Did I mention dead things? Well, except for Triz. But he’s only half-dead and doesn’t try to kill me. Mostly.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Distractability. Is that a word? Why is it showing up red in your spellcheck? Ooh, Spellcheck is showing up red, too. What? Oh. Questions. Right.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Disloyalty. There’s nothing worse than a traitor.
Which living person do you most admire?
Trizryn. Wait, does he qualify as living? Anyway, he’s been through a lot, so it’s hard for him to trust people. But I admire his courage for continuing to try.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Clothes. Did I just admit that? Clothes. I look great in them, don’t I? 😉
What is your current state of mind?
Excited to explore a new world. Sorry. Can’t say more than that. Spoilers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Abstinence. Of anything.
On what occasion do you lie?
To protect my friends, I’ll do anything.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
You’re joking, right?

10winterwilds
Another Skyrim capture of Shei and his housecarl camping in the snowy woods. Shei is a Thályn elf, or light elf, or forest elf. The forest elves in my novels are white as snow with blue undertones. They are named so because of their affinity to light environments and visible, elemental magic.

Which living person do you most despise?
Ilisram. ‘Nuff said.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Non-pretentiousness. Ironic, coming from someone like me, yes? Well, there’s a difference between entertaining people or having to pull off disguises and trying to be tough all the time to impress other people.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Sincerity. I suppose that’s the same as non-pretentiousness, isn’t it? (And you thought I was going to say barrels.) 😉
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
All of them. I’m a story-teller and lore master, so I’m sure I’ve used every word more than once.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Dare I admit this? … K’tía. But that will never happen, now will it.
When and where were you happiest?
Oh, definitely pre-dead things and dragons.
Which talent would you most like to have?
There’s a talent I lack? Clearly you’ve never seen me perform an illusory painting with my lute.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I guess I tend to make light of things at the wrong time sometimes. That might be good to curb before someone slaps me.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Writing songs that made K’tía smile and sing and dance.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Someone that doesn’t die? … No! Nevermind. That’s a wish that’s bound to end up cursed. Hairbrush. Hairbrushes are good.

10newsong
Shei is a bard, and I am in love with this Skyrim mod home for him. It’s very similar to what I imagine his flat in Thálynessa having looked like, except it’s not made of wood or in a tree. Still, it’s very small and packed with things he would love. It’s called “The Rookery” by Elianora, if you happen to be a Skyrim fan with a bard who needs a good home.

Where would you most like to live?
I’d like to go home. To my ratty little flat in Thálynessa near the Twin Stags Tavern, mind you — not Brinnan. Though there’s nothing left of either of them now probably.
What is your most treasured possession?
My hair.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having no friends or family to lean on when you’ve lost yourself.
What is your favorite occupation?
Making music. Telling stories. Reading. Painting. … Anything that can make people smile and forget their worries, however briefly.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Vanity. Charm! (shoves Trizryn away for reaching over the keyboard when he should be minding his own business)
What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. Sincerity. Same as before. I know who will never let me down. And I know I’d be crushed if they ever did.
Who are your favorite writers?
You mean among humans? Shakespeare. He wrote about magic and faeries. And he visited the fae court once. Aija doesn’t believe me, but he did. How else do you think he got those ideas for Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Who is your hero of fiction?
I have many heroes, not just one.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I am unique. Trust me.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My friends. They are courageous beyond measure, especially when they’re weak.
What are your favorite names?
I like mine just fine. It means “hill spirit” in Thályntól.
What is it that you most dislike?
Spider goo flooding your face is unpleasant. So are dead things.
What is your greatest regret?
Not being underground in Absin’navad when I was needed most. Not being able to help K’tía.
How would you like to die?
What kind of question is that? What is this obsession with death? How many times do I have to tell you I don’t like dead things!
What is your motto?
Well, I would say “Grab not, get not,” but that’s not really how I operate. It just sounds good and pithy. My motto would be … “Seize the Day … but only if it doesn’t involve dead things.”

02fourshieldsinn_songsoftheblackmarsh2
Bards are challenging characters to work with, I think. If they are supposed to be charming, you have to write for them in a manner that actually makes them charming. Their skills are subtle, so the plot needs to make use of them as entertainers, sweet talkers, spies, assassins, and more. And they are handy for providing information to other characters if any kind of lore is involved among their talents … as well as maybe playing to the tavern crowd to earn a free room when your crew is short on change.