The threshold of a new age

My Tribes Asunder novel is approaching completion. It took me much longer than I initially anticipated but at least I had good reasons. The original 8 chapters turned into 15. What used to be Chapter 1 has now become Chapter 3. In Book 2. Why that happened? Because I’m as much a visitor in this world as the reader will be.

I don’t consider myself as a very prolific writer. I could write much faster and turn out a greater word count per day, I’m aware of that. I could make the usual excuses: my writing style makes it hard for me to write fast, I come up with new things as I write, have to explore the ideas as they come. Those are all true and they are all excuses.

I’ve taken up NaNoWriMo a few times and failed every single time. I think NaNo is a great way of kicking yourself in the behind but it doesn’t seem to work on me. The NaNo catchphrase “Don’t worry about writing the perfect sentence, just write!” is all well and good but its main idea is to stop people languishing on the empty first page. I never had the problem of the ‘First Page Block’. My problem is organizational.

I’ve been exploring and testing the various degrees of pre-planning the story for as long as I can remember. My early stories went without any planning. The first novel that I’ve written, I finished in exactly 365 days. There’d been plenty of planning involved but the main points of the plot were quite unexplored until I got to them. This has been my way ever since.

I do my best work on the fine edge between pre-planning and exploration. Sometimes, I fall over the edge on either side. Too much exploration will kill my timing (as it happened with Tribes Asunder). Too much pre-planning will kill my fascination with the world that had grown around me.

So how do I speed up the writing process and keep the quality of writing? One published novel per year would be ideal. I need to optimize my organizational side as well as the pure increase of word count. Being the control freak that I am, I’ve gotten quite good in pre-planning. I plan my stories in scenes now, not chapters. I plan the main plotline separately from the character arcs now though I need to correlate them regularly as they are naturally linked.

As for my putting the words down, I will define smaller deadlines. The weekly quota would be best, I think. The monthly quota is too long-term to ensure my loyalty and the daily quota can be too vulnerable to bad days. I abhor the word-count targets because they make me put down words I know are rubbish but I put them down just to have the necessary count.

I also need to record ideas as they manifest during the writing sessions but not let them interrupt the session currently at hand. As great as they are (these spontaneous ideas are one of the best parts of writing), they tempt me to stop in my path and waste time smelling the roses. At regular intervals, I need to go through the ideas that pop up and check where they could improve the plot.

Recently I figured I was quite the rookie in the editting department. I didn’t need to edit my first novel or the other stories much. The plotline was simple, the character arcs straighforward. Back then, it was all about putting the letters down. And writing was done in my native language. I write entirely in English now. This gave me a greater and more flexible vocabulary and it has made finding the right words much more a rational process than before. It also made editting a necessary part of the creative process. After six years of switching my writing completely to English, it still baffles me how much the process is different just because I use another language.

I will need to use quotas in editting as well. As the scene is the basic unit of writing, I think it will be a good unit of editting too.

Then there’s the characters cards. Do I need them? I used to think these were beyond me. I know these characters. I know what makes them tick. I know what part they are to play. But do I remember every single detail of their nature in such a way that I would know how they would react to a certain situation? Do I instantly recall the minutiae of the relationship one character has to all the others? I think not. Character cards are coming but not in the way they are done traditionally. I will need to redefine them so they suit my personal style of planning.

The number of interactions among characters grows much quicker then the number of characters. I will need to take care not to overdo the minor characters and just focus on their relationships to the major ones, which is their main role in the story. Personal stories are reserved for major characters.

I have several other ideas on how to improve the planning and outlook part of writing, to maximize work efficiency and decrease useless time. I will most likely need to adopt new software as Word is too generic and lacks flexibility. I’ve already read up on certain software, specifically designed for writers.

I’ve gone through a lot of growth in the past few years, personal and craft-wise. This is no longer the first step I’m standing on. While the staircase to success might be a long and steep one, at least I’m no longer at the very bottom.

Why Game of Thrones is failing

I’ve been an avid reader of this series long before they decided to turn it into a TV show.

This was the first time a fantasy book grabbed me so hard I could actually call myself a fan in that fanatical sense. This was what fantasy ought to be. Forget the battle between good and evil, the endless talks of the chosen ones and destinies, forget all that and focus on the complexity of the human character. That alone is enough to produce a wonder.

This story gave me the ambition to write. It still does.

When I heard they were making a TV series, I was carefully hopeful. I knew some of the actors, I knew and loved some of HBO’s past shows (Rome!) but there are so many things that can go wrong transplanting a book story into a TV screen story.

Glad to say, my doubts were needless. While there were many simplifications of the original story, most of it made sense. The show even expanded the character interactions by some new and exciting scenes. It gave us engrossing exchanges of character conflict.

But now, with great sorrow, I see the show has begun to lose its momentum and is being watered down into a typical mainsteam blockbuster.

The primary reason for this, I believe, is the lack of guidance by the books. Until now, the screenwriters and producers could rely on the solid foundation of the grandmaster himself, George R. R. Martin. George even wrote the script for one episode per season, so he was definitely around to be asked for details.

With season 6, I think George had probably distanced himself from the show so it couldn’t influence his writing of the remaining books. I know he’d stated before he doesn’t read the fan theories so he has plausible deniability if anyone accuses him of stealing ideas (which has happened to some authors).

Here are some examples of why this show is losing its grasp on my very demanding attention.

The main premise of Daenerys’ story arc in season 5 was the underground movement in the conquered city of Meereen. For the first time, Dany faced an enemy that she couldn’t fight off or run away from. The sons of the Harpy were so determined to get rid of her that they didn’t run from Drogon even after he’d burned several of them.

In season 6, the sons of the Harpy are simply butchered by the Dothraki. Where is the might of the old houses of Meereen? Why did an underground movement put all its strength OUTSIDE the walls to butcher some random people? The whole Sons of the Harpy plot was solved in less than a minute of screentime.

Dany promised to keep Slaver’s Bay free of slavery and yet she took all her ships and soldiers west. How did she ensure security? By executing two of the slave masters, one from each city. It was said countless times that these cities are not kingdoms but oligarchies, rules by councils of aristocracy and merchant princes. Would killing one man per city truly ensure slavery does not return?

The whole situation in Slaver’s Bay was so poorely brushed under the rug it’s beyond ridiculous.

One of the greatest disappointments in the last season was Tyrion. The premise in Season 5 was “Here is a man who knows how to rule a city, who knows how to stamp out corruption.” I expected a marvelous cat and mouse battle of Tyrion and the Harpy of Meereen, with Tyrion using his entire skillset to come out ahead of his enemy. What happened? Tyrion recruited some red priestesses which apparently placated the people and sons of the Harpy but when the slavers brought ships to besiege the city (again, something Tyrion actually has experience with), it was matter-of-factly solved by Daenerys who now has full control of her dragons. Very convenient.

As they grew, the dragons turned more and more feral and at some point, Dany had lost control of them completely. This was a riveting conflict with herself and brillianty shows the burden or rule. Why does Dany now have full control of the dragons? How did she acquire this control? Some fans online say it was her burning of the khaals that had caused this. Brilliant. If the show actually told us this. But it didn’t which is why this is just another of the fan theories out there. It is a sad day when you have to look up what the apologists’ theories are to make sense of what you’re watching.

There are other disappointments. Arya, for example, is released from her service to the Faceless Men without any penalty whatsoever. Jaqen trained her for months, gave her forbidden knowledge and abilities. For what? So she can not use them as her plaything, killing anyone she wishes? All this after the show worked so hard to build up the Faceless Men’s obsession with righteous murder, worship of death and the careful dealing with the Many-faced god. Where is this devotion when Jaqen gives Arya leave to go away and kill however she wishes?

Season 7 has managed to kill much of the drama and conflict the previous seasons worked so hard to establish. I will remain an avid watcher of the show but now I will be looking for what to AVOID in my own fiction, not trying to emulate it.

To become a slave to the story

Sometimes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My intentions are to write, to write well, to produce a story other people would find at least entertaining, inspiring at best.

Writing a story is hard work. It is more than simply sitting down and typing random letters and words. What storybuilding is is an impossible mesh of rigid planning and most chaotic improvization.

Hard work is all you need to make your ambitions into reality. Who hasn’t heard this one before? What they forgot to tell you is that it takes something else as well, something I’ve learned the hard way.

December 31st, 2015. The deadline I set for my current WIP novel, Tribes Asunder. It looked to be an easy goal in the middle of the year. It looked doable even in November. And by December 30th, it felt like I did it. Then all it would take was a month or two of proof-reading and that would be it.

The lies we tell ourselves and believe.

True, the writing part was done. That didn’t mean the process was finished or even close to completion. The story was finished but the manuscript was a mess. I understood what was written on it but others would not. Getting the story on paper was just the first part.

Not that I’ve never been here before. I’ve finished stories before. I’ve editted them before. But it feels as if for each project I learn the same rules anew. In a way, this is a good thing. It means I’m not wading into too familiar waters which would make it familiar and boring. and the process is always fresh. Each story is its own endeavour. Sometimes, having a gold-fish memory is a blessing. With each story, I felt like I’m writing my first and only piece.

So January 2016 came and I happily went into editting mode, ticking the editted scenes away.

Around April, the going became slow. I thought I was just getting lazy so I pushed myself harder. But this time, the cheerful abandon wasn’t working. My social life began to suffer as well. I found it harder to stand being in people’s company while at the same time yearning more for it.

I’ve been in this place before but I failed to recognize it. That bloody gold-fish memory again.

Short winter days, crapy weather, laborious day job and spending the last reserve of mental energy on editting, a wholly ungrateful process where progress can’t be measured in word count… All this led to full-fledged depression.

It took a friend to point out how tired I seemed and how uninterested I was in just about everything. He suggested a trip and the moment I heard him say the words, I knew it was something I had to do. So I went to Vienna and spent four days doing nothing but walking through a new city, speaking a language I barely knew. By the time I’d returned home, I realized how exhausted I truly was. It took another music concert and a dancing festival to begin to appreciate human company again.

I’ve overestimated myself. I believed hard work would be enough. But I’m not a machine, no matter how much I want it. Even the most dilligent people need time to recuperate.

When I look back, it seems perfectly clear. But it wasn’t clear at the time. It was as if the story had put me in a trance. It stopped being an inspirational project. Instead, it turned into an energy parasite and it had slowly drained the creative juice from every other part of my life.

The story should have been my project. Instead, I became its project.

I’d become a slave to the story.

Realizing this, my first reaction was anger. I felt like I’ve wasted precious time, wasted a portion of my life.

Well, not entirely wasted. Against the Tribe, a novella that serves as a companion to the already finished Tribes Asunder, is finished. There will be corrections, of course, adding bits, taking some away, the usual mop-up, but it’s there.

So no, it wasn’t a waste of time after all. Through it all, I’ve learned much about myself. I realized there are limits, that I’m not as perfect as I would like to be. This year, I’ve worked on developing a healthier social life. I lowered my expectations of people. I was too harsh with everyone, including myself. Finishing a story takes time, I shouldn’t be taking that personally.

What is the lesson in all of this? Don’t fall into the trap of believing your story is more important than your life. Always take time for family, friends and pursuits other than writing. As with everything, you must set up your boundaries and refuse to relent when temptation comes knocking. How can you hope to benefit from your story if you cracked your psychie like a glass of water in the process?

Most of our characters are sociopaths: Addendum

I thought a continuation of my last post was in order because of a recent film I’d watched. The film in question is Suicide Squad with a whole plethora of sociopaths as their main set of characters. The first question the screenwriters no doubt asked themselves, was: how do we make normal, healthy-minded people relate to unrelatable monsters?

The answer: try to show their human side.

*Minor spoilers ahead*

The basis of the film’s premise is: a bunch of extreme criminals are forced to work together for a greater cause. Two of these characters are given extra attention, their backstory revealed in greater detail: Deadshot (played by Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie).

Deadshot is a cold, merciless assassin, willing to kill with ease for the right amount of money. His human side is revelaed in him being a loving father of a daughter.
Harley Quinn is a complete lunatic, able to kill, maim and destroy with a smile and a jest. Her humanity is shown by her deep love for her reknowned lover, the Joker (played by Jared Leto).

Both characters are funny, witty and charismatic but that would not be enough to make the emphatic connection certain. Both of them needed their human sides to truly make the viewer bond with them.

The problem is, sociopaths do not form lasting relationships with people unless they are parasitic and/or abusive in nature. For these two characters to possess a human side is paradoxical. There is even a dialogue scene where this paradox is addressed by these very characters.

Harley: “You ever been in love?”
Deadshot: “Never.”
Harley: “Bullshit.”
Deadshot: “You don’t kill as many people as I’ve killed and still sleep like a kitten if you feel shit like love.”
Harley: “Another textbook sociopath.”

Exactly my point. These characters are textbook sociopaths but we need them to be human to sympathize with them. Quite the paradox. If these characters weren’t villains, the whole premise of the film is ruined. If these characters weren’t human, they would be worthless as characters.

Sometimes this can work. Countless stories include the ‘lovable rogue’, aka Robin Hood, a rebel against the authority of immoral people. But in this case it’s the rebelliousness that makes this character symphathetic. He/She is still a champion of the people, an altruist.

Characters of Suicide Squad are not champions of the people. They cause damage and kill people for their own amusement or gain. The only reason the audience wants to connect with them is because they are charismatic and funny. If the screenwriters didn’t employ the cheat (giving them a human side), this film probably wouldn’t have worked.

Most of our characters are sociopaths

I’ve recently watched a movie review by Stefan Molyneux. While Stefan is a philosopher who uses internet to spread his ideas and insights about out culture, gender roles and numerous other topics, he took the time to review the movie World War Z.

The movie is based on the book World War Z by Max Brooks. I read it multiple times. It represents a fascinating look into human nature and what happens when humanity is faced with a situation that is too strange and horrifying to accept. While the book is excellent, the movie has its weak points but as Stefan points out, still worth to watch.
While his review concentrates on the zombie horde being a metaphor for modern anti-intellectualism, I found his analysis of the main character, played by Brad Pitt, to be far more interesting.

Brad Pitt’s character starts as a warm and kind family man with but a hint of his previous occupation (UN agent of some sort). Fast forward five minutes and he find himself in the middle of a zombie infestation, dragging his family through fire and death, yet meticulously noticing details such as how long it takes for the infection to turn a human into a zombie or noticing that feeble people don’t get bitten. He shoots people, hacks off their hands, meets a family¬† which he leaves behind to be eaten alive, fights hordes of zombies… and in the end of the film he’s still the same warm family man as he was in the beginning.

In his video, Stefan explains (would like to say ‘reminds’ but sadly I cannot) that for a man to see and perform such horror and then to have no emotional trauma to speak of is completely sociopathic behavior. But as consumers of modern entertainment we’ve grown so used of this that we (myself included) do not even notice how unrealistic this all actually is.

Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, it’s fantasy. We’re talking about a movie with walking corpses after all. But the point of it all is to provide an experience for the reader/viewer that he/she can relate to. And the protagonist’s main role (apart from driving the story) is to be the access point to the story. The main character is our eyes and ears and nose into the strange and wonderful world of fiction. If anyone needs to be believable, it’s the main character.

What I’m trying to say is perhaps as creators of stories, we need to take a long hard look at what we’re used to and what is reality. Modern entertainment is so full of violence that we have become jaded to it. The point of good fiction is not to dull our senses. It’s to provide an experience that would otherwise be out of our reach of possibilities.

This also got me thinking about old/ancient cultures. While they might not have developed the same level of psychology and self-awareness as we have today (or did they?), they were definitely familiar with the mental and emotional strain trauma can cause.

I’ve read recently that medieval texts describe symptoms in European knights that could be interpreted as post-traumatic stress disorder (though I prefer the World War I period phrase: shell-shock). I’ve also heard that medieval Christian knights went through years of training which also included study of piety and humility. In other words, an education about what makes humans humane.

A great example of this in fiction is The Last Samurai. In the film, the leader of the Samurai would charge into battle mindless of his self-preservation, deal death and mutilation, and yet he will spend hours each day meditating, writing poetry, discussing the warrior code bushido which dictates compassion, selflessness and human dignity.
Why did all these warrior cultures take such efforts to teach their warriors about how to control their demons? Because when they were not warriors, they still had to be functional members of society. Each knight/samurai/warrior still had to be a husband, a father and possibly (though in extreme warrior societies not necessarily) a craftsman producing his goods.

These ancient cultures understood the emotional strain of trauma and prepared as well as possible to ameliorate the after-effects.

Human beings are not killing machines as modern film industry has made us believe. If we are to write realistic fiction and let our readers immerse themselves into flesh and blood characters, this must be taken into account. Unless our characters are in fact sociopaths (and some of them are), we need to treat them as emotional beings we need them to be.

Why the word ‘talent’ should be led out back and shot in the head

The single most enraging thing about the word ‘talent’ (and its bastard brother ‘gift’) is that people believe it simply happens. Some of us are just born with it. We perform effortlessly. We create flawlessly. We were gifted by the Almighty himself or by Momma Nature herself. It makes us arrogant, doesn’t it? To have this talent, to be gifted without any effort whatsoever.

Well, allow me to tell you that such people are morons. All offense intended.

To me, “talent” is a word equivalent to “magic” and “vodoo”. And there’s another word for all three of these.

“Superstition”.

What these people cannot comprehend is that what they see us do wasn’t instantaneous for us.

I think you’ll remember us if you think back at your youth. We used to be those weird kids that no one wanted to play with. We were called mean names, often ignored or downright walked over. So we learned to keep to ourselves. We had time to spare, used it to for weird things like writing, drawing, rubbing some strange piece of wood or fingering a metal tube of some kind. And we got good at it. 20 years later, those same people that called us names and walked over us look at our achievements and sigh: “I wish I were as talented as you.”

Excellent. Here’s a fool-proof way of becoming exactly like me:

1. Lock yourself in a room.

2. See you in 20 years.

Here’s a message to those loud sighers: talent is not something one finds while taking a stroll. Nor does it fall from the sky and hit you in the head. You are not born with it.

You build it.

It’s not magic.

It’s practice.

It’s experience.

It’s skill.

Why doesn’t anyone say that line to a successful and well-off professional? A lawyer? An accountant? Did an engineer take a dog for a walk one rainy day and got struck by a flash of talent?

Well, no. These people went to school, worked their asses off to get a degree, a Masters, a PhD, then worked low-paid junior positions until they clawed their way up to their current set of skills and experiences. Leaving a trail of sweat, tears and blood in their wake.

You think a writer’s life is any easier?

How about a painter’s? Sculptor’s perhaps?

Maybe a musician’s life is somehow easier, who knows. Those string and keys don’t look that complicated to me.

You think we don’t know hardship?

You think we don’t know struggle?

The word ‘talent’ devalues our work, our skill. Our soul.

That single word throws a handful of dung at our sacrifice.

Talent is only used by people who are not willing to admit they were wrong for walking over us in school.

Talent is used by people who are terrified of the thought of living for a purpose higher than their basic selfish needs.

Well, if you ask me, ‘talent’ can go fuck itself. I’m not ‘gifted’.

I’m skilled.

And tomorrow I’ll get skilled some more.

Plot predictions: Vikings

I’ve been a fan of the Vikings series from the get go. I love the historical period that is so often overlooked. I love the character development the series offers. I love the rather bizzare intertwining of myth and fact that would never’ve worked in other shows. I even love how the creators used their limited budget as a way to show how small in scale these dark-age realms were. It’s safe to say Vikings is one of the top three favourite shows of mine.

As a writer, I suffer from a terrible condition: if a story becomes a part of my reality, even if it’s not originally created by me, I will expand and develop it on my own. One of the results is I will start to predict what could be the possible outcome of the current situation. It would be strange if I didn’t anticipate the upcoming episodes of Vikings.

Preview of 4th season until now: the raid on Paris had kept the inter-character aggression in a latent stage. But now, with winter almost done, old feuds are re-emerging.

The players: Kalf is ambitious but seems to be content at the moment because he’s won over Lagertha. Erlendur is driven by blood vengeance against Ragnar and all his family but is too weak by himself to pose any serious threat. While Kalf and Erlendur grow supressed intentions to attack Ragnar, they have been laying low for the time.

Meanwhile, Ragnar seems to be making enemies in his own camp.

Floki is an agent of the old Norse ways. The recent punishment by Ragnar for killing Athelstan suggests Ragnar is willing to forsake the old ways, though he cannot do it openly as he would undoubtedly lose the support of his people (I honestly find it strange that Floki has no supporters as he is supposed to be atune to the will of the old gods).

Ragnar is also at a discord with his wife and queen, Aslaug. She is another potent character who despies Christianity and is willing to spill blood to stop its spread. The connection between Floki in Aslaug has been amplified by her giving her youngest son to Floki for schooling.

And now enters a new foe: Harald. A charismatic and ambitious follower of the old ways, he seems to be Aslaug’s spurned suitor of old. Here is a man equal to Ragnar in cunning, ambition and ferocity.

With Harald’s arrival, it now makes sense for Ragnar and Aslaug to feud (from the story’s perspective). If Harald were to arrive with Aslaug happily in love with Ragnar, she would’ve dismissed him with a smile and a pat on the head. But now, with Ragnar and Aslaug in discord, Harald’s arrival means a very serious threat to Ragnar. If Harald is willing to spare Ragnar’s sons, he would get no objections from Aslaug if he were to overthrow her husband.

If Harald is willing to abide to the old ways (judging from his appearence, he is), he would also be able to acquire Floki’s support. And if Harald is a resourceful man (which no doubt he is), he would seek further support from other foes of Ragnar. This means Erlendur and Kalf.

Harald. Aslaug. Floki. Erlendur. Kalf. This is starting to become quite the conspiracy.
Who are Ragnar’s allies? His sons by Aslaug are children and cannot be expected to turn against their own mother. Only Bjorn and Lagertha remain. But Lagertha is dangerously exposed. She is sooner to become a hostage than an ally. I hate to say it but Lagertha might become this season’s casualty of war.
That leaves only Bjorn.

Bjorn might not be a friend to the Christians, but he would never turn against his father. As his oldest son, Bjorn’s own authority derives from Ragnar. He is no one to be trifled with, yet he is all that Ragnar now has. There’s already been an assassination attempt on him in the previous episode. Not one of the five players would hesitate to harm Bjorn: Kalf would kill him simply to make Lagertha more vulnerable; Erlendur hates Bjorn for taking Torvi from him; Aslaug feels no sympathy towards him; Bjorn publicly accused and condemned Floki in Ragnar’s name.

Since the Vikings series is roughly based on the Norse sagas, I believe Ragnar will meet his mythological end which does not include being foiled by a conspiracy. However, I’m certain the 4th season will be nerve-wrecking for many of us.