Adventure Journals

silidormap500I’m joined in the reaction chamber by Tom and Cathy Thrush of Urban Realms. Their current Kickstarter project is running concurrently with my own and I think there’s a lot of shared interest. Urban Realms publishes fantasy maps and related material. The Adventure Journal project is a set of journals specifically designed for recording your adventures and filled with thematic design work. They’re very cool; check them out! The Opposing Forces Kickstarter is still running, providing ready made characters and gaming advice for your Fate Core games.

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The Justice Formula

AUGMENT: HUMAN SERVICESI’m joined in the reaction chamber by author Phil Elmore, action novelist and editor for The League Entertainment Group. Phil is a long time action novelist, and we spend some time discussing his work on The Executioner, the longest running men’s action novel series to date. Phil has a good grasp of the formula that makes a successful action hero, and he shares his insights with us. In addition to his work for Gold Eagle, Phil discusses his cyberpunk work. Currently available is Augment part one: Human Services, and the serial novel working title “4104”. The former can be found on Amazon while the latter is being released only through Phil’s website. Of course, no visit would be complete without a mention of Duke Manfist, the World’s Manliest Action Hero. (It says so on his card…..) Last but not least, my Kickstarter project for Fate Core is currently funding, so get over there and check it out!

Fishers of Men

Fisherman workingWhen Jesus called his apostles to a life of discipleship, he challenged them to leave behind everything they knew. He challenged them to step out of their comfort zone and employ their skills in new ways, for a new purpose. The apostles were leaving behind the life they knew and taking a leap of faith into a future relying not on their own skills but on God’s provision. Fishing can be a tedious chore requiring hours of patience for which no reward is ever seen. The apostles had no reason to think fishing for men would be any different.

Luke 5 (NIV)

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

The fisher of men has left his old life behind and embarked upon a new calling into unfamiliar territory at the express behest of a higher power. Stories suitable for this project will include a character who undergoes a life-altering experience that directly results in his decision to leave behind his old life as a crucial element of plot execution. As part of a turnkey event in the story, the fisher of men should come into contact with something greater than himself that plays a pivotal role in altering his perceptions of life.

All manuscripts will be read! If you have a great idea that you’re not sure exactly matches the theme of the project, send it in anyway! We’d love to read your work and provide some feedback at the very least. Even if your work doesn’t closely match the current project, others publication opportunities will be forthcoming, and we want you to be on board!

Benefit Project submission dates:

The current project is entitled “Fishers of Men”. Submissions will be accepted through September 30, 2013. Don’t wait until the last minute, get yours in early!

Format: Completed and fully edited manuscripts are desired for publication.  If you have a strong story or idea that needs additional direction or help, we will work with you to bring your story to completion.  Submit your story outline and manuscript within the body of an email or as a file attachment to winstonc@criticalpressmedia.com

Now quit reading and start writing!

Sunstones and Shadowguard

10970782Every so often, I come across a book series that really intrigues me with elements of the setting. Because I really enjoyed his “Keys to the Kingdom” series, I put some faith in Garth Nix and picked up “The Seventh Tower” series.

The six books of the series describe a world in perpetual darkness, where a magical Veil surrounds the planet, forever blocking the sun from the earth below. Above the Veil, the world continues as it has always been. Below the Veil, the planet is shrouded in perpetual ice, cut off from the heat and light of the sun. Bridging the two worlds is the ancient Castle, home of the Chosen, and the foundation of the seven Towers.

The Chosen use magical sunstones to provide light and heat to their home, for only the Towers rise through the Veil to the light. The Castle, as the world below, lies in utter darkness. The Chosen are served by spiritshadows, spirits from the world of Aenir who have been bonded to Chosen and brought back to the Dark World, where they take the form of shadows.

Tal is one of the Chosen, but his father has gone missing, and the responsibility to care for his sick mother and younger siblings has fallen to 13-year-old Tal. Unfortunately, he lacks a sunstone strong enough to journey to Aenir and complete the ritual that will allow his family to rise through the social ranks and continue to live within the Castle as Chosen instead of the servant class known as Underfolk.

When Tal fails disastrously in his attempt to gain a sunstone, he falls from the castle to the ice-covered world outside, where he meets Milla. Milla is an Icecarl, one of a nomadic, viking-like people who follow the great herds of animals in their migration across the ice. The leaders of her tribe assign Milla a Quest to help Tal get home and bring back a sunstone to her tribe. The Quest will take Milla and Tal across the ice, through the darkest recesses of the Castle, and into the spirit world of Aenir to battle against a secret traitor seeking to destroy both the Castle and the world of the Icecarls.

The two teenagers will not emerge from this ordeal unscathed, nor will their beliefs go unchallenged. Both young people must endure, not only physical hardship, but tests of spirit and mind that will change them on a fundamental level.

I think that’s all I can say about the plot in good conscience. But at the same time, this series is written for teens, and plot is fairly straightforward, although dramatic revelations do come at a steady pace that keeps the tension on an upward swing.

I found several things intriguing about this series, starting with the shadowspirits. These come in three kinds: shadowguard, shadowspirits, and free spirits. Shadowguard are spirits that are bonded to children as a mark of their status as Chosen. The particulars are not made clear, but it is implied that this is done by the parents during a journey to Aenir. All shadow creatures come from Aenir. Bonding a shadow to a Chosen replaces the person’s shadow with the spirit, who remains Aeniran while in Aenir, but becomes a shadow in the Dark World. Most Aeniran spirits pressed into service this way are animals of some kind, but a few are … something else. We’ll get to that in a minute. Shadowguard are loyal in the same way as a favored pet, if considerably more versatile and intelligent.

Bound shadowspirits are mostly larger animals, and have many of the same abilities as shadowguard, but are stronger and retain more of their native qualities. One important difference – shadowguard can change shape easily, while most shadowspirits cannot.

Free spirits are Aenirans that have crossed into the Dark World without being bound to a human shadow. These are individual beings, seldom simply animals, with individual wills and agendas.

This leads to the nature of Aenirans. While creatures in the Dark World are just animals, fantastic to be sure, but not possessed of magical abilities, most everything in Aenir is alive. The forests walk around, whirwinds guard sacred treasures, plants act as sentries. A mountain gets up and stretches once a millenium – just to get the kinks out. At one point, Tal holds a conversation with a lake.

The idea of animals and locations having essential and vital spirits is not new. Plato called it the “ideal self”. New Age philosophy imbues everything with its own individuality. And don’t get me started on the philosophical ramifications of the whole Herbie franchise…. But as cool as that is, its not what intrigued me the most. At this point in my jaded readership, that kind of thing just seems like standard fantasy fare. No, I liked the idea of binding spirits to serve as companions and guards, and the possibilities presented by Nix’s use of vague descriptive terms such as “shadow flesh”.

While most of the shadowspirit relationships are presented as owner/pet, or at best master/servant, I can see how this type of relationship would appeal to a teen audience. During a time of life when everything is growing uncontrollably and in strange directions, having one other person upon whom you can depend and with whom you can safely quarrel without fear of rejection or unforgiveness – I gotta say, that’s inviting. There is something essential within all of us that desires that kind of relationship. As adults, we often seek that in marriage and the promise of a family. As Christians, we are promised that kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit. In Nix’s world, the shadows fill this void for the characters, and serve as an essential catalyst for their growth.

The rest of the action really serves as the backdrop for the dynamic relationships between the characters. The magic and setting is cool – I’ll get to that – but it’s the give and take between Milla, Tal, and their shadows that really kept me reading.

Okay, light magic. The Chosen run their entire society around Light Magic, useful in a world where the sun has been cut off entirely. This is basic “Green Lantern” type stuff. They can form force field objects, blast rays of destruction, use limited healing magic, and more basic heating and light provision. It’s cool; Garth Nix makes good use of it, and it makes me want a sunstone of my own, but not especially unsusual for the genre.

The Icecarl society is pseudo-viking-slash-amazon in nature. They live on the ice in a nomadic structure that emphasizes physicality and places little value on intellectualism. I should point out here that the Chosen society is exactly opposite, valueing intellectual development over physical prowess – and Nix doesn’t neglect the literary value of contrasting societies as metaphorical tools, complete with the reactionary, revolutionary, and stagnant contingents.

The main warrior force of the ice-carls is the Shield Maidens, with men performing duties as hunters and legendary heroes. It felt very familiar, like the characters are rebelling against type solely in an attempt to be different or to strengthen the character. This literary device is absent in Nix’s later works, and shows his growth as a writer. In “The Seventh Tower”, it is merely distracting without being destructive.

All in all, I stayed up way too late for way too many nights in order to finish reading this series, but I can’t say I regret the time spent that way. The books read quickly, and are meant for teens while remaining interesting and approachable to adults. I really enjoyed “The Keys to the Kingdom”, and “The Seventh Tower”, although written earlier in his career, was every bit as involving and the world just as fully realized.

I’m not so sure I’d care to share my shadow with any of the real or fantastical creatures I met in this series, but I think I’d like a sunstone, and just a smidgen of Light Magic for coolness.

A Defense of Superman

I understand that some people think Superman is creepy and he makes them a little uncomfortable – he does wear his underwear on the outside of his pants after all. But I want to address this idea of Superman as the Nietzchean ubermensch, when in fact, the character hasn’t ever really represented that ideal.

The identification of Superman with Nietzsche’s ubermensch started in the 50s with the famous book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. Wertham in fact disregarded the notion of ubermensch as “Superman” specifically because the character was not the epitome of the ideal. There are a few important differences in both origin and application of the Superman character.

1) Superman comes from Jewish and Greek roots. Siegel and Schuster were both Jews with a classical education. Their rendition of Superman in the 30s and 40s was meant to evoke Hercules and Samson. The costume came from circus strongman acts popular at the time. It is important to note that both Hercules and Samson derived their strength from a divine source outside of themselves, and so Superman was given an extraworldly origin. Which leads to:

2) Superman is not human. He comes from another planet, and it is due to this non-human status that he has great power, not due to his own efforts or his own virtue.

Though more than 70 years old, and handled by hundreds of creators in that time, these two qualities have been consistent.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche specifically created the concept of the ubermensch as a way to constrast with an supersede metaphysics in general and Christianity in specific. The ubermensch is a self-created being, using his own strength of will or body to transcend the limits of society and religion. The concept of Will to Power was never fleshed out by Nietzsche, and his modern students can come to no consensus on what he meant by the term, although personally, I agree with you that he meant it as the act of imposing one’s will on another. Unfortunately, without a unifying treatment of the character over the years, I don’t see the “will to power” concept as applying to Superman (or any other superhero) as a defining factor, although it has certainly been used as such in individual stories.

There is a literary device called transposition, where one character seems to uphold a certain value while projecting its opposite on another. In his post-millenial series “Luthor”, Brian Azzarello makes exactly your argument against Superman – that we are dependent solely upon his good will for our safety. This argument is placed in the mouths of self-made men Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (Batman), and serves to highlight the virtue of Superman as an external savior whose presence reveals the failings of the best of men (Luthor and Wayne).

Surely, we are far better off looking to Superman as a point of identification when drawing men’s attention to the need for an external savior? Superman is the best of all things, he is everything to which we aspire, and he comes literally from the heavens. This is a fundamental literary device designed to draw one’s attention to the need for an external savior, and I think that serves as an excellent introduction to the one, true savior of humanity.

By the way, if it helps at all, in DC Comic’s “New 52” reboot, Superman will no longer be wearing the red shorts over his pants.

The Sniff Test

An Electronic Nose Estimates Odor PleasantnessWriters love their work, or they wouldn’t be writers. The problem is that writers also tend to love their characters and plot devices, even when those things don’t stand up to close (sometimes even casual) scrutiny. Reviewing a manuscript provides with the invaluable opportunity to put every aspect of your work to the sniff test, using common sense to check the believability of a plot device or a character’s behavior.

Believability is really the key to this test. A common horror movie trope has the victims exploring the boarded up house in the middle of the night, even though they are fully aware there is a killer loose and their flashlight has just run out of batteries. This seems so unlikely as to be ludicrous in any story that attempts to take itself seriously. While it’s true that panicked people can and consistently do make exceptionally foolish choices, this one just isn’t within the range of possibilities. It’s not believable. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Does that mean that every character needs to make the best possible choice in every scenario? No; that also fails the sniff test. The reader isn’t actually looking for every choice and every situation to fit the best-plan scenario. The reader actually wants things to follow naturally, or at least to seem like they’re going to follow naturally. The reader wants to believe that this story could unfold in this way, and that these characters will behave in this manner. This benefits the writer in that the reader will tend to be forgiving of small missteps, but it also means the reader is critically judging the story probably far more closely than the writer.

When reviewing a manuscript, the writer must develop the ability to set aside his knowledge of future developments and test each portion of the story as it unfolds. If a portion of the story fails to pass muster, the writer has the opportunity to slap some red ink on the page and fix the problem. The critical test in this case is that any given action must follow logically from the immediate context of the problem, without reference to additional information from other stories or later portions of the manuscript.

One of the key factors at play is the tendency of any given story to be any given reader’s first exposure to this set of characters or situations. This is especially important in series fiction, where characters and settings carry continuity from one story to another; while this can create a larger setting and deeper characterization, it can also leave the reader requiring excessive amounts of additional information in order to enjoy the immediate story. There is a temptation to “data dump” information on the reader so that he is correctly informed, a solution that does not constitute good form in storytelling. In this instance, a better solution would be either trickle the information to the reader in the paragraphs leading to the incident, or rework the context of the situation so that less specific knowledge is required.

Perhaps most often, the sniff test fails when a writer has decided to frame a particular scene, and requires events to unfold in a certain way. Because these scenes are beloved, they may be difficult for the writer to identify during a review; there are a few simple questions that can help identify them. Is this the only possible outcome? Is there a simpler outcome? Is there an outcome that will better suit the characters? Is there an outcome that will better suit the story? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then the writer needs to rethink and rework the scene in question.

More often, the sniff test fails in the instigation of a scene rather than its execution. In this case, the writer needs to examine the initial incident and ask: Is it possible? Is it probable? Is it plausible? Is it likely? If the answer to any of these is “no”, the scene has a serious problem.

The reader is going to be far more critical of a story than the writer, almost inevitably. The writer’s job is to prevent that critical eye from tossing away the story in frustration at the lack of believability by providing the reader with characters and scenes they can understand and that logically follow each other. Reading already requires suspension of disbelief, the reader who smells something funny in the plot will not have a good experience.

Red Herrings

Red herring

Welcome to the first weekly installment of The Writer’s Block blog. Every weekly entry will feature tips, encouragement, advice, best practices, and red flags for new, aspiring, and established writers. Wait … why target established writers? Don’t they already know what they’re doing? Well sure, but every one of those guys will tell you that every well of creativity needs a little rainfall to top it off, in this case, I assume they’re looking for affirmation and encouragement. And maybe, if I’m lucky, someone more experienced than I will take the time to agree or disagree with what I have to say. Enough marketing talk, on to the good stuff!

Nanowrimo is behind us again, and the writer now has a novel in need of editing. This is the time for him to look critically at all aspects of his manuscripts, decide what works, and excise what doesn’t. One important part of the editing process is tracking down and removing those portions of the manuscript that don’t pay off for the reader, we’ll call them “red herrings”. This process helps improve form, and is an important component of circular storytelling.

In chasing red herrings, we’re really only concerned about three types. The first type of red herring is the conventional misleading clue that causes a detective to come to an incorrect conclusion. We are applying the same principle to the reader in the following way: the first red herring is a portion of the manuscript that causes the reader to expect a certain payoff, but substitutes a different payoff. This is the “bait and switch” approach common in mystery and horror stories, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. The writer must only make certain that the reader, in receiving a payoff other than then one he expected, still feels validated for having spent time chasing the hook. A reader who feels cheated, who feels the writer isn’t playing fair, is a reader lost.

The second red herring involves a hook intentionally or inadvertantly set by the writer that fails to pay off for the reader. In it’s simplest form it involves the principle behind Chekhov’s gun – a gun present in the first act must be fired by the third. When tieing up Loose Threads, the writer seeks to find all of his red herrings and land them safely in the net. Now that the novel is “finished”, any red herrings the writer finds still on his hook need to be cast back into the ocean. By removing those plot and character hooks that fail to pay off for the reader entirely, the writer tightens up his story construction, and reduces the opportunity to disappoint the reader.

Excising these extraneous portions of the manuscript is easier and less painful than it sounds. Chances are, if a hook fails to produce a payoff, it wasn’t very important to the story to begin with. These types of red herrings are often found in concert with other hooks that do lead to a payoff, allowing the writer to eliminate redundancy in the manuscript while tightening the plot. Most often, hooks are left dangling simply because the writer has forgotten about them; removing the initial mention of the hook from the story will often neither impact the plot at all nor change the characterization.

Identifying a flopping red herring may be a little more complicated. The easiest solution is to give the manuscript a quick read and periodically ask, “Whatever happened to…” If no answer to the question is apparent, throw that herring back! Looking a little deeper, whenever two plot or character hooks are dropped at once there is a good chance that one of them may be a duplicate. If the payoff for any given hook happens at the same time in the same way, and is in fact the same as, the payoff for another hook, the writer has an opportunity to tighten the manuscript by removing the duplicate reference. With each hook that surfaces, the writer has a new opportunity to decide if it pays off, pays off successfully, or simply gets in the way. Each herring must be kept, cured, or thrown back as needed.

Which leads us to the final red herring – a time-honored salty snack that every writer needs to keep handy by his workplace. No, don’t try to eat them (unless you’re from Maine or just really, really British), just keep them there as a reminder that this is the kind of food you’ll have to eat if you cannot master your writing. It’s good motivation!