Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Hunting

Tyr and Fenrir, John Bauer

There are wolves at the door.

Digging around in the Goss archives, I found some characterization lessons from Agatha Christie (whom I have yet to read):
  1. Everybody lies.
  2. Everybody is motivated by self-interest.
  3. Everybody acts within character.
More Goss: Vampires (article) and Singing of Mount Abora ([excellent] short story).

Cris Urdiales has a lovely sketchbook depicting adventures in India.

From R. L. LaFevers's blog, a post on encouraging children in storytelling. Not sure how many points are applicable to how writers should treat themselves, but I submit it for anyone who might be in a mentor relationship to a young child.

Hilari Bell's latest writing tip, about the story structure points of becoming a hero.

Siege of Vicksburg,  by Alfred E. Mathews

For a Civil War essay, I researched army logistics:

Also read some primary sources:

A poem: Revelation Must be Terrible, by David Whyte. Spoiler alert: I interpret the poem to mean that you cannot retreat when you discover your own power.

From Domythic Bliss: mystery, with some spectacular cabinets of curiosities.

More mysteriousness: music composed for Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus.

Caitlyn Kurilich's tumblrs: Opus Nine (her inspiration) and her own art (my inspiration).

Terri Windling makes me want to get up early and write in blood. I'm going to spoil the ending of the latter, because every creator, every reaper and rejoicer, must read it:
Dorothy Allison advises, "Write from your fear" ... and she of all people would know. But also write from your joy, your anger, your compassion, your love and humour and exasperation. Write from the heart but also from the belly, the liver, the spleen, from your hands and your feet. Tell the stories that are yours and only yours to tell. And don't stop. Don't ever stop.
(Emphasis mine. Shall we go on a journey?)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sunken Ships

When one dives down into the dark waters of the mind, shipwrecks arise, spilling their corpses and outdated coins into the current. Such a discovery need must be uncomfortable - but even worse is not being able to get down there at all. When buoyancy forces you to keep to the surface waters, where you can still see the sun, and the filthy submerged things reach you from a distance, giving you no chance to confront them - this is worse.

This week: too much of the latter, not enough of the former. Let's talk violence.


I've been rereading old Goss posts, and came across one in particular that resonated with me this week: The Black River. I'm going to quote rather extensively:

I think at some level, I can understand why someone might be driven to acts of destruction. We call those acts senseless, but I’m not sure they are, and I suspect that part of my duty, as a writer, is to make sense of them...To understand [violence], I have to understand what creates violent or destructive impulses in myself.
A lot of writers have said similar things: to be a writer is to examine even the ugliest parts of being human. At sixteen I can't claim to have had many very unpleasant experiences, but, being sixteen and therefore an angry teenager, I can understand what drives some people to violence.

Thinking about this, I immediately remembered Freud’s idea of the death drive, the desire for something that is not life, for a return to the inorganic...I can understand the desire for violence as a rupture of the ordinary, of daily continuity. I can understand how in certain circumstances, someone might want something, anything, to happen. A war, a bomb, a shooting.
All true, but my understanding of the violent drive would also include the desire to assert power by (over)compensating for weakness. Personal example: Once, late at night, I heard strange noises in the backyard. Before getting my parents, who were five seconds upstairs, I turned on all the lights I could and got the biggest knife I could find from the kitchen. If it had been a robber, I was fully prepared to cause injury. (It was not a robber. It was a raccoon and my dad chased it away with a broom.)

Another possible incentive to violence: nostalgia for times when physical contest was a legitimate way to settle a dispute. I'm not just talking about duels or pre-civilization club-fights, I'm also talking about elementary school. Somehow, in the right mood, it seems cleaner to hit someone who annoys you instead of talking it out. More noble, somehow.

Before anyone gets worried about my mental health: I know it isn't. There is nothing noble in hurting another person - but perhaps there is something liberating. Now I'm on the same territory as Goss: violence as someone's backlash/rebellion to the stifling daily routine. Like an oscillator: compress a spring (make people "be good", where good is defined as a straightjacket) and when something happens to release it, it will expand past equilibrium with all the force of the spring constant times the distance. *

I believe it’s important to understand [violence], because only by understanding something can we present an alternative.

I believe that the opposite of violence is not peace, but art.

Art is a way to commit the extraordinary, to rupture ordinary life. To move us to a different plane of significance. It is the way to express most completely all that we are, including our will to life, our desire for death. A great work of art is an apocalypse, a bomb in the mind. It is at once an act of creation and destruction.
All my recent talk about expunging the poison from your soul/the filth from your blood relates directly to the above quote. Violence is not a morally acceptable outlet for anger; creation is.


Song for this week: "Broken" by Sonata Arctica, a band my friend recommended to me last fall but which I've only looked up now.

I´d give my everything to you, follow you through the garden of oblivion
If only I could tell you everything, the little things you'll never dare to ask me...


*To continue the physics analogy a little:
U = .5*k*x**2
is the equation for the potential energy of a spring.

k is the spring constant - corresponding, in the analogy, to a person's natural predilection toward violence
x is the distance from equilibrium - corresponding to how much a person is forced [by what? many things] to repress their natural urges

I know that it's foolhardy to draw direct comparisons between human behavior and mathematical models. However, notice that the x term is squared while k is not. If we were to take this equation literally in describing potential for violence, it would seem to indicate that anyone, pushed far enough, can become violent. "Always the quiet ones"?

Friday, March 15, 2013


Warning: media-heavy post.

I haven't been talking much about writing lately, but rest assured that I have had creative output this year. My current WIP bears the working title Orsolya, because she's the most active of (currently) two viewpoint characters. Without revealing too many plot points, today I'd like to address the research I've been doing on the side while writing, and possibly generalize for other writers and projects.

Actually, what I really want to do is post pictures of canyons and cliffs, and possibly resume the habit of writing in a general sense about my WIPs. So:

Premise: Orsolya Markov, a Peacekeeper, rescues the kidnapped Prince Nikodim of Ferren from a fortress in the deserts and the two set off on a journey home while trying to understand Nik's mysterious amnesia/brainwashing.

Metadata: Orsolya belongs to my GW-UO (Unwise Ones) sequence of stories, meaning that the time is roughly modern. The relative timeline has the story starting in summer 2011. In general, the Unwise Ones setting is meant to feel almost contemporary, but not quite because of magic and geography. I'm planning to worldbuild really big for GW, which involves turning it into a kind of fantasy kitchen sink because homogeneous societies are boring.

Setting: ...which means that though a lot of characters are vaguely European, when I want to know what my landscape looks like, I google the Badlands of the American Southwest.

There is a fortress carved into those mountains. Escape!

Bryce Canyon, Utah

White River Badlands

Gorgeous, no? Later on they run into towns that look a little like this:

Maybe hitch a ride with some wagons:

Les Mauvaises Terres, Nebraska

Of course, one byproduct of such research (if research it can be called) is that I end up running into all sorts of interesting concepts to use in the story...or that threaten to pull me away into other stories I have planned. For example: American Indian intertribal relations, economics, religion, everything. Sandpainting. (Doesn't help that one of my other story ideas, Matt of the Lekron, actually requires research on American Indians [of California mostly, but the others will get in there].)

Another danger is that the story starts to sound a little like a travel journal (and I haven't even gotten that far into the story yet...), when it's primarily supposed to be an action/adventure epic. So while visual inspiration is all well and good, I find that nothing conveys a mood better than appropriate music:

(Have I bad taste in music? So be it.)

Attempt at generalization:

While serious research will of course help make a story better/stronger, casual research (especially google images searches) can help you visualize the stuff about which you write.

To triangulate the feeling of a story, bring in multiple senses. I realize that I only have two here, sight and sound, but those can subdivide more. For example: inspiration boards. I don't use them, but they may be useful and in the future I'll probably give them a try.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


You go along with one weekly routine for several months and then when it gets disrupted you realize just what a large part of your sense of security and well-being (not precise synonyms) are tied to feeling that solid repetitive rope pulling you on through days where you do stupid things and forget because you'll get another chance tomorrow.

I have written on an index card paperclipped to a string pushpinned to my wall: Fear complacency. Yet it's easy, all too easy to get used to one way of doing things and to think that you have an infinite number of chances to make things up.

A minor epiphany, or justification for my complaining general posts: I am developing coping mechanisms now, when my problems are small, that can carry over when I am older and have to worry about real things like rent and employment, so that I can deal with whatever is going on externally and attain the mental space needed to create art.

-> But I digress. I want to keep exploring what I was writing about last week - the idea of expunging the poison from your soul. Last week I was talking about how a creator must create, how any road to peace lies through catharsis. This week, I want to go at the problem from a different angle, only I'm not sure exactly what. I have twelve minutes to midnight at the moment. Let's see how far I get.


On Wednesday I was very angry.

Without getting too psychoanalytical (after all, these are das Interwebz, not a therapist's couch)...all right, I'm going to extrapolate from myself to others. If you would be so kind, please refer to the post on impostor syndrome that I did two weeks ago, because it's related and all my thoughts have been going in a circle lately.

So. Based on my own experience and the little deep psychological talking I've done (not nearly enough) with people I'm close to, most people have an inferiority complex in some way. There's an ideal that we carry around, a graven image or idol sitting atop our shoulder, which we can never quite reach. Some people's parents provide this idol; others create it entirely on their own. Most people, I'd guess, acquire the idol through a conglomeration of social/cultural/personal expectations.

(Were I Justine Musk I would provide three books that relate secantally [if tangent can be made into an adverb, so can secant] to the topic. However, I am not half so well-read on contemporary psychology and must throw out only my observations and intuition.)

Much of the time we bear the idol silently; it is a burden with tenure, and we've gotten used to it. But sometimes, a careless comment or a trial where we fall just short reminds us of its presence and it shifts, as if a live thing, threatening to crush us with its weight.

Thus, Wednesday happened. What I did then:

Take out a piece of scratch paper.

Write across the top: EXPUNGE THE POISON IN YOUR SOUL.

Then: Ways I don't measure up.

And a list of the aforementioned. Total there were about fifteen items.

Let the list sit for a minute while your rage builds. Then, take a red pen and draw a line through the standards that don't really matter - the kind of stuff that a friend of yours would say is a ridiculous thing for you to worry about.

What is left: your legitimate shortcomings. Take a blue pen and next to each one write something you can do to...not to meet the standards of your idol, but to become a better person in that area. At the bottom of the page summarize these actions (for me: talk to my school's career center counselor, read more books of science and math, practice fencing).

Then, to the side: SEI STOLZ (Deutsch for be proud) and a short list of your concrete achievements.

I realize a big shortcoming of this system is that you are still comparing yourself to your idol. But ideally, as you cross off the frivolous standards you'll worry exclusively about actual areas of deficiency and so shift the character of your idol from something you can't or wouldn't really want to attain to a worthy goal, a Platonic form.

Two thoughts that have been running around in my head, which may be a downer ending:

1. I will never be completely satisfied and content with myself.
2. There is something fundamentally wrong with me and I will never function in the real world.

...until you realize that 1 means only that the quest for self-improvement is constant, while 2 is the impostor syndrome all over. I don't know if I ever will fully accept that there's nothing rotten at my center, but this quote helps:

"People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates."
-Thomas Szas, via Terri Windling

You're a work in progress, and if you haven't found balance that's only because you're still moving.


Housekeeping note: yes, the blog redesign happened early. Che ne pensate?

Friday, March 1, 2013

An Old Road

As I am wont to do, I shall start with a tangentially related quote:

"Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
-Gustave Flaubert

Relation to today's post: take a step left, turn 78 degrees. You will see: Live vicariously through your work when you have no options to do so in your life.

This week I did a radical thing. The current long work on which I am embarking, Orsolya (Unwise Ones), was undergoing some mutations last month. I had it all planned out on half-index cards: book one covering the beginning to Big Event 1, book two covering the tail end of Big Event 1 to Big Event 2, book three covering Big Event 2 to the end.

On Sunday I realized that the writing of the past three weeks was draining the life from me. My main character is a Doppelganger of mine (I still need to write that post) and she cannot stand idleness, and she cannot stand being around large quantities of people for extended periods of time. Just as I am banging my head against the cage bars (school), so was she. If my character and I are both deathly bored, will not the reader follow our path?

So I jumped straight to Big Event 1 and cut down the structure of the story so that the boring backstory/setup is all gone. I can get the story down to one book, probably. That's what I'm shooting for, because I want this book to move quickly. I want it to be one of those books that you read and you feel drained and bittersweet and somehow nobler at the end than you were at the beginning, a book that makes you want to go and do something brave afterward. Like the last Harry Potter book.

(Dream big. It's what all the arrogant introverts do.)


One of the most comforting things I can do is to lock my door. You can't stop the noise coming from outside but no one can get in, even if they knock, and if you've got your earphones in and your music turned up you can pretend not to hear anything. Working steadily through something, with a full bottle of water/cup of tea and the window open ever so slightly to let in a breeze - and alone. What is more beautiful than solitude?


I drift constantly from who I am, at the core of it all: a writer. A creator. A Reaper and Rejoicer. Lately, the middle third of second semester junior year has eaten me alive and I've been writing less, moving more slowly through books (including this one), practicing only perfunctorily. I don't remember the last time I drew anything. The last poem I wrote (2/22/13, untitled as yet and not ready for sharing) plays around with my usual motifs before throwing them all down one by one into a heap, as if they were a pack of playing cards. The result is not even as deep as that.

Poison begins to build up in your system when you don't create. You must expunge it constantly, or else (I should say "I", at sixteen I feel unqualified to advise anyone) "I" will become irritable and frustrated, lashing out and being rude and condescending and overdramatic and fantasizing about hurting people.

It's about time to explain the title of the post.

"An Old Road."

When you wander, sometimes you must come back. Not to the same things you've done before - I believe too strongly in progress to say any such thing - but to yourself. So maybe this title is a misnomer. Not an old road, but an old traveler on new roads.

Which is a really roundabout way of saying the following:

You're doing too much stuff. Listen to yourself and let that guide you in cutting down to what you really need.

Which is a longer version of what I really want to say:

Travel light.

(Which is a shade of meaning different from what I started out this section intending to convey, but I'll take it. Even I must write things that are generally applicable once in a while.

In my specific case, the concise explanation of the title would be: I am coming back to myself by writing action-adventure stories. A dark-haired angry girl rescues her brainwashed love interest from a fortress in the desert and she uses magic and a halberd and gets angry and tells herself lies about duty and gets even angrier and it is wonderful.)

Subtraction is therapeutic. Streamlining things, simplifying, ridding your corner of the universe of noise and waste. Entropy will win in the end but oh, how sweet these little victories.


Bonus example of "coming back to myself":

I was crazy about Linkin Park from ages 9.5-11.5. Lost track of them for a while and realized that I like a lot of the songs on "Living Things".


Housekeeping note:

Frequent readers may have noticed that the header image is suddenly dark. Something about the colors on the original version was bothering me, and so the unsaturated version is a stopgap until I can do a proper redesign (probably in early April). Think of it as representative of my usual mood this time of year.