19 February 2017

How I wrote about Dragons

In every boy's life (and girls' lives, too, I suppose) there comes a time for writing about dragons. Whether this comes as the afterglow of some dire encounter or merely reading about such encounters in selected books of the age, he/she will find the need to reconcile the beast with the myth and come to some balance in understanding. This happened to me, although it was not until later in life...in fact, not until last year.

Having been a scientist-wannabe for the longest time,
I simply could not find it within myself to give dragons a pass as mythological creatures. When I was challenged by my author "frenemies" to write an epic fantasy and further challenged to include dragons, I decided right from the start that the dragons would be fully biological. In other words, they would not speak in British accent, they would not horde gold, they would care not a whit for virgins, they would not be cute, cuddly pets. They would look and behave as any animal does, including the more unsavory aspects of being a beast.

So I set out on a quest to find information about what we now know about dragons in their many forms.
First some official definitions:
1a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil, whereas in East Asia it is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens.

2another term for flying dragonAlso: Komodo dragon, a large monitor lizard of Indonesia.
There you have it: a reptilian creature that may project fire and may have the capability of flight. 

We all know what a dragon is, I suspect, for they have been depicted in popular imagination for most of human existence, according to history books. Whether the work of literature calls the creature dragon or some other name, they are major players in many well-known stories, from the deadly serious of the Bible to the playful in children's animation. Here is a handy list of dragons in literature and a list of famous dragons you may have encountered via film and television. 
My purpose here is not so much to offer you a complete dragonology, information which you can easily find from your local scribe perusing the archives, or to enumerate endlessly on dragons, but, rather, to explain my rationale for how I depicted dragons in my forthcoming novel EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS.

From a childhood filled with theories of aliens and alternate histories, I came to understand that the dragons ancient people may have seen were possibly alien spacecraft zipping around the sky - from the Native American thunderbird to the European wyvern to the Asian flying serpents. It seemed more plausible to me that the phenomena was based on technology rather than biology. For my novel, however, it would be all-too-easy and perhaps in the realm of cheating to simply have "my" dragons be flying saucers.

So, as well-described as dragons have been in literature, I knew I must accept them as real, flesh-and-blood beings. Thus, I studied the physiology of dragons. Most importantly are two fundamental features: 
1) the ability to fly, and 
2) their "fire-breathing" aspect.

The ability to fly is a simple matter of aerodynamics. How does a huge Boeing 747 lift into the air? Engine power. And the curve of its stationary wings. What kind of engine power can a reptile of, say, 50 ft. or more bring to lift-off? Only the beating of bat-like wings can provide its lift and thrust mechanisms. Observation of bats show them to drop from a perch down into the air and soar on the buoyancy of their outstretched wings. The wings can support the small bodies they have. I once read an article, perhaps in a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia I was always perusing as a child, that the maximum size of a bird is limited to how big its wingspan could be. The California condor is the largest bird on Earth today, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 ft., almost as long as the family car. Condors do not flap their wings so much as glide on them. The body weight supported by these wings is still only 15 to 30 lbs.

Our next model might be prehistoric flying reptiles, most recently featured to great effect in the Jurassic Park film. According to PlanetDinosaur.com, these creatures were prominent in the Triassic period and died out before the Jurassic. Their wingspan varied from 2.5 to 3.5 ft., hardly monsters. However, there were a couple of them that could qualify as dragon-like: the Pteranodon's wingspan was 23 ft. and the Quetzalcoatlus measured up to 43 ft. Their long wings were, like the condor's, more for gliding than flapping. They still supported rather small bodies. I can accept a fairly large creature with appropriately large wings, large enough to raise it off the ground, certainly. The practical side of me wants to limit their size to what is known to be aerodynamically plausible. However, pesky little dragons, somewhat akin to hummingbirds, do not seem very satisfying in literature.

So let's agree that an aerial beast whose body is approximately the size of a Nile crocodile (the largest currently existing reptile on Earth) but having wings can exist on the world I create. The gravity and atmosphere make it so. Such a creature would be 16 to 20 ft. in length, its weight 500 to 1700 lbs, making it a very decent size for a monster. Now add wings. Because feathery wings are seldom seen in literature involving dragons, we must go with the bat-like membrane wings with which they are typically depicted. How large must the wings be to lift a "Nile crocodile"? 

Now we come to "simple math" - the subject which doomed me to be a writer rather than a scientist. If a condor weighing 30 lbs is lifted by wings measuring 10 ft., then a body weighing 300 lbs should have wings measuring 100 ft., and so on: 600 lbs = 200 ft., 900 lbs = 300 ft. Seriously? Wingspan the length of a football field? I would call this beast a "mountain-master"! (Scientists: check my math!)
All right, it's just a story. I can do anything I want. However, I like to keep it real, as real as possible for a fantasy tale - until I write myself into a corner, that is. If we look at dragon artwork we see that the wings depicted are not nearly as large as we would think they should be to lift such a heavy creature. Let's play with that. I liked the appearance of the dragons in the film Avatar: biologically plausible and of a size such that a human or even the 10-ft. tall Na'vi could ride them. To my eyes, that makes the dragons' wingspan 20 to 30 ft, bodies weighing 500 to 700 lbs - a good-sized Bengal tiger but stretched out longer and thinner. 

I sense, dear reader, that you may be saying to yourself about now: "He is really thinking too much!" To that, I must agree. This is because I must get things right, meaning biologically accurate, or at the very least plausible. Maybe there are environmental factors which aid the beast in flying. Who knows? One theory I've read is that the gaseous nature of their bellies helps keep them afloat in the air. Ah hah! Then the gas would also serve as the source of fire, ignited by some fluid from glands in the throat! 
When you've been a bad city and the gods send a dragon to punish you....
Dragons have been depicted in literature mostly as solitary creatures. We encounter them in caves, mountain tops, or attacking sinful humans. Just the one - as though one is enough for each realm on a map. In Avatar they live in family clans, it seems. That follows the model of bats and other flying animals. Some birds live in small nests in widespread communities yet other kinds of birds fly in large flocks that blacken the sky. Imagine a flock similarly darkening the sky yet they were dragons - that is, reptiles of 500 lbs each, their wings stretching 100 ft, across! That would be a truly frightening scene to humans! Hence the need for "gamekeepers" to cull the herds...in my fantasy story.

Temperament? Well, they do have that nasty fire-breathing capability. Better to be friends with them. In European dragon lore, they are harbingers of doom and gloom, something to be feared. In Chinese culture, they are revered as symbols of good fortune, fertility, and a happy new year. I chose to walk a fine line between these two extremes. One society in the novel dreads and fears dragons while another society accepts them as welcome pets at best or pesky nuisances at worst. If we consider dragons as the animals they are, separate from all moral associations, we might treat them as we would any animal we encounter regularly. Take birds, for example. They alight on the fence around your backyard, spot your automobile, cry out in the early morning hours, are prey for cats, and sometimes color the whole sky with their flock's density. Imagine dragons doing all that. 

So I chose to treat dragons as ordinary creatures inhabiting a world more-or-less ruled by humans. The dragons live out their daily lives keeping to themselves but necessarily search for food every so often, food which may perhaps include humans, especially small humans under, say, age five. Just dragons being dragons. So children need to be warned and protected from dragons circling the neighborhood. One might even decide to employ a specialist in dragon control, a "gamekeeper", making the skies safer. And then there is the most disagreeable aspect of having dragons flying around the neighborhood all the time: the droppings! That alone should be enough to compel you to pay someone to take care of the problem.

And so I have! The opening scene of EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS depicts our protagonist in his element: set in the Valley of Death, shooting down dragons from the back of his mount....

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

12 February 2017

The Valentine Dude Strikes Again!

Most people cannot handle a truly epic "epic fantasy" all at once so I'll interrupt the run-up to the launch of EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS with this holiday smirk....

As we approach the day of reckoning, the most dreaded day of the year for many of us, perhaps it's of some comfort to realize that it's all based on someone being executed. Yes, long ago Mr. Valentine was killed for daring to marry couples in secret against the wishes of the government. Romans, you know. So strict. Strange how what goes around comes around. At any rate, he paid for his crimes. And there is nothing more romantic than that, right? Dying for love, for the cause of love. So, well, there's that. Otherwise, it sucks.

Chocolate, flowers, tokens of affection, greeting cards, love notes.... Most of this slush funding comes as crass commercial putsch, of course. Marketing 101. It's all just a crummy money mill. Invent a season and sell stuff for the season - or else you will be labeled a rube, called insensitive, shown the door as the truly despicable person you are! It's foolproof inasmuch as only fools fall for it. And there are so many fools among us. Especially this week. I fall for it every year. But not this year! Oh, noooooo.

So this love thing.... What is it? Science tells us it's nothing more than a firing of neurons. It's a biochemical reaction to a certain stimulus. See a pretty face, feel happy. A pretty face is determined based on genetic programming and environmental quirks. Also cultural sensitivity training, perhaps. We know what we like; we have been taught what we like. For men, it's easy: there are ass men, boob men, and so on. For women...well, I've read they like broad shoulders and a non-physical attribute called confidence. Perhaps also some cash in the bank. I've heard that. Magazines can be wrong, I've also heard. Or it's all fake news. 

Even so, it's a walking stimulus.  Advertising is based on walking stimuli; Valentine advertising is based on sex-related stimuli. The problem is that such stimuli exists year-round, so what's the big deal with the focus being on one particular day of the year? Because, dear lovers of love, if you do not demonstrate said love to said lover on or near this special day of love, then you are identified as a dolt at best and an ex-lover at worse. There is no middle ground, only a pit of ruin, an abyss of regret. And that pit is not filled with chocolates - not even half-bitten chocolates.

Yet never fear! We have the means to solve your problem. Just like the commercials now on radio and television and with increasing annoyance the Internet (every ^&@#$%^&* web page!) there is a message that you (me? yes, you!) have a problem. You did not know you had it but you do. And it will zap everything that makes you the you that you think you are right out of you! You do not want that problem, do you? Obviously not. Well, as luck has it, we can cure you of the problem you did not know you had.
So for a certain amount of money we can give you something which will solve that problem. Drug companies seem to do this, too, and clearly have mastered the art. You go along with your simple, unadorned life thinking it's just a matter of getting older, not having a quality sleep, suffering a poor diet, not having enough friends, or at least not enough cool, hip, advertising-worthy friends (but who can ever have enough of those?), and then...BAM!!! It hits you. No, it's not your fault, so don't worry. Besides, we have a solution. 

Buy this! Plenty to choose from. Eat this! Drink that! Take this! Wear this! Drive that! Look this way! Pay me! Pay us! Pay all of us! Or else you are not the person you want to be. Or else you can never be the kind of person you think you are! Give us money and we will roll back time, give you a make-over, prep you for your big re-debut, help you sweep the lover of your dreams off his/her feet! We will make you a god/goddess! 

Give us your money. It's that easy. Oh, for shame. Got no money? Well, then you don't count. Never counted, in fact. And who would want you in his/her life anyway? That is, without all the money to buy all the solutions you need to fix all the problems you obviously have in order to fit into this perfect, virtual society we have constructed and dutifully maintain for the glory of all who worship the almighty Valentine and his many minions of Münchausen mania! Only then will you become worthy of membership in the Valentine Club. 

Just click off the obstinate media and return to your humble, quiet existence. Perhaps cuddle up with a wonderful, understanding book boyfriend/girlfriend. Many do. It's not that weird. Three-hundred pages or so will definitely last longer than an awkward round of that sexercise thing you used to do - well, that was before that Valentine thorn stuck in your side and started to hurt. Here's to that box of chocolates you eat all by yourself!

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

05 February 2017

How I was coaxed into writing an "epic fantasy" with dragons

It seems the year is twice as long as usual. Perhaps because I have spent so much of it engaged in one lofty goal: to write an epic fantasy which happens to involve dragons.

Like many of us, I was pushed and prodded into choosing a set of goals for the upcoming year, the ones we call often call "resolutions" - the ones we drop like hot yams by the second month. And here it is: the second month. In 2016, I was well underway with this new project. In 2017, I am approaching the launch date, so I shall recap how this amazing drama came to be.

For me, nothing can be so straightforward or simple: I resolved to meet the challenge put to me by my fellow authors: to write an "epic fantasy" (often called "high fantasy" or "heroic fantasy" or pejoratively "sword and sorcery")! And to further challenge me, they insist it must include dragons. Why this challenge? Why this stipulation? Pure cussedness, I suspect. (I have written a vampire novel which explained the desperate condition in medical terms, after all, thus metaphorically cutting the wind behind their blood-sucking sails. So it must be pay-back time.)

You see, it was recently discussed among those in my circle of authors that "they" have as their "signature genre" the Epic Fantasy. Yes, I have always kinda accepted that fact as an on-going source of irritation.

Honestly, I have nothing against the epic fantasy genre. In fact, I grew up reading the Amber Chronicles of Roger Zelazny (the first two volumes were life-changing for me as a teenager) and the novels of Michael Moorcock, beginning with The Eternal Champion (another life-altering read) and continuing through the Corum books. I began but did not finish the Elric series. I read several other sci-fi and fantasy authors, as well, but skipped Tolkien. That omission was purely because my mother said to me when I was about 12 that a story I had written was "like" The Hobbit. From then on, I staunchly refused to read Tolkien just so I'd be able to say I did not get my idea from his book! (I still have not read, nor seen the film version, of it.) I even dared to read the William Morris tome The Well at the World's End, dense enough for two paperback volumes! Because of these stories, I dabbled at writing my own fantastic tales and planned others, but I always eventually ran into serious roadblocks: What happens next?

Everyone has favorites: favorite authors, favorite genre, favorite story locations, favorite "book boyfriends" or "book girlfriends", favorite styles, favorite book lengths, favorite cover artists. I do, too. However, what I tend to read has little to do with what I tend to write. Beginning back in the mists of time, I wrote the stories I wanted to read. This situation likely developed because I could not find the kind of story I wanted to read, not consistently (besides, sometimes the plot turned in ways I didn't like). Thus I endeavored to create my own stories. Along that line, I often found myself reading a science-fiction or fantasy book and think to myself: Hey! I could write something like this! And maybe it would be better - "better" meant, of course, closer to the story as I would tell it.

And so I accepted their challenge: to compose a so-called "Epic Fantasy" and have dragons in it. Given the task, I was led to consider what an epic fantasy truly is. Furthermore, I knew I must also consider the nature of dragons. 

To the first order, we understand "epic" to come from the Greeks, the best examples being the Iliad and the Odyssey by the blind poet Homer. It was simply a poetic form: a dramatic tale told in 12 portions (or 24 chapters) which matched the hours of the day. To call it dramatic is a bit of a misnomer, for whence comes drama but in the actions and reactions of mortals? And in the constant interference by the gods! Nothing more, although that would seem to be enough. Whenever the gods get involved.... Today, however, "epic" means something grand in scale, vast in scope, mind-blowing in computer graphics, heroic action, featuring only the best of the best in all facets of production. Even a teenager's Friday night party could be described as "epic" while having none of those traits. 

In the genre called "epic fantasy" we have certain traits (see previous blog post): grand in scale, vast in scope, and so on, as expected. Furthermore, in modern iterations such as those of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, not to mention George R.R. Martin, the worlds which hold the setting are out of this world; that is, they exist separate from the world we know as Earth. As such, those new worlds abound in strange beings, eternal conflicts between good and evil, and histories we can only guess at. The chief feature, to my understanding, is the invention of a whole new world upon which to lay our story.

That is nothing new, of course. Science-fiction does that, as well. And I have written a science-fiction trilogy set on a highly-detailed world of my invention (At least, I say I invented it; it could be a case of imparted wisdom from an ancient alien civilization, who knows?). That invention began in childhood and expanded through my youth, then was set aside for more adult amusements. Finally, I crafted the books containing those stories that were set on that "invented" world. The difference between science-fiction and fantasy then is that I went full science nerd and made sure that I completely understood all of the astronomical, geological, and anthropological properties of that world; that is, of the planet I was inventing. If I had been writing fantasy, I need not have dealt with the mass of the planet or where it sits within its solar system, or how the geography affects the weather patterns, and so on. I would have laid out the story on a landscape as it suited the story, regardless of any scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I've also been told that "fantasy" must necessarily include the use of magic. To this aspect, I must confess I'm a bit of a *realist. Magic? I subscribe to the notion that magic is simply science which no one has yet explained. Even the Star Wars "Force" was described in scientific terms in Episode I - which I believe to be an altogether likely cause of the particular abilities the Jedi use. It appears as magic to ordinary folks. I saw no reason not to follow that model. So let there be magic! And let the folks in my story call it magic, but let us understand what it really is: certain kinds of science - unless...unless I find I've written myself into a corner. Then, and only then, shall I resort to "magic" in its most esoteric incarnation. 

(*I have written "magical realism" also, which is a genre of realistic and decidedly unmagic stories which nevertheless rely on one key magical element upon which the entire story must rely.) 

So there you have it!  Not so challenging, eh?  After all, most stories are the same: one of the dozen or so universal plots unfold and characters who bear uncanny resemblances to the author and/or his/her various relations seek to solve a problem, big or small, and ultimately win the day. Or not. Isn't it the same in every genre? Only the landscape and the problems change for the particular genre. I still gravitated toward the big, eternal questions of humanity and tried to encapsulate them into small everyday disruptions of the menial tasks of ordinary people. Let them be caught up in things they know nothing about. Let them find within themselves the strength, the courage, the wisdom to proceed in combating the trials facing them, even at the risk of sacrificing themselves, even for the sordid cause of a reader's entertainment.

But with dragons. 

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

29 January 2017

A Question of Quests

A little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero's quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it--which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

By "quest" I mean a journey of some kind--a hero's journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin's use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So...what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules....

Rule #1. The setting of the epic fantasy must be a world of non-existence to the world of both author and reader; hence, a totally fabricated landscape. If we dare suggest it is here on Earth, we lose. 

The "present" of my epic fantasy is about A.D. 8000.
I beg a waiver. Initially, I invented a world, true, but as I laid out the plot, the series of happenings our hero would experience, I marked them out on a map of a known location here on Earth. By then I had decided this epic would be a behemoth comprising five separate interweaving story lines and one of them would be from a novel I had started long ago in my youth. That early novel idea was set in a futuristic America. As I started writing my epic fantasy, that futuristic America was slated to be the mythological history underlying the present story. As the manuscript grew tremendously, I scaled back that "backstory" to only the mentions my cast of characters would speak once in a while. However, I kept the setting of a future America.

My waiver is because the setting is so different from the world we know today that it might as well be some other place purely of my imagination.

Rule #2. An epic fantasy must have a large cast of characters which includes certain ones in stereotype roles. 

I deliberately tried to achieve that large cast but, going on a quest, our hero and his sidekick are not likely to come upon very many people. In fact, after a couple chapters of just traveling down the valley, I thought I better introduce some new quirky character to liven up the story. Hence, the magus appears. More people to talk. And the magus, being old, can impart some of the backstory. Also, a trek down a valley can only entertain for so long. At some point they would come upon a city, and what would they find there? More people.

My eyes fell upon an infographic, not long after I started writing my epic fantasy, which stated that an epic fantasy needed I needed 20 characters. Besides my hero and sidekick, there would be others playing important roles: the evil prince, the jealous rivals, ordinary townsfolk with devious agendas, warrior tribes in the wilderness, corrupt judges, executioners, crowds of biased citizens, trinket dealers, stable boys, and so on. There would be a love interest for our hero, of course, and maybe temptations down the road. The one character I did not have was a clear antagonist. 

In English teacher lingo, the protagonist is the character that moves the story forward, no matter if that person is good or evil. Usually, moving the story is what causes us to set the story on that character's shoulders, as narrator or our main focus. The antagonist is not necessarily the villain, though he/she may be. Rather, the antagonist is that character (or force of nature) which seeks to thwart the advance of the protagonist, preventing the achievement of his/her goals. In the case of my epic fantasy, the antagonist is chiefly all the dragons of the world and assorted rogues along the way.

So, in the end, I have 20 characters that play some significant role in the plot--not just walk-on roles for color but say or do something that pushes the plot forward, regardless how much "screen" time they get. I'm particularly fond of the hunchback and the river pilots.

Rule #3. The average "bestselling" novel (at least in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) have 15 obstacles to achieving the goals of the quest. 

No problem, I thought. I had a map and I knew how to use it. Something would happen about every half-inch on the trail I had drawn on the map. I pretty much kept to that plan. Later in the story, as new ideas developed from the current writing, I switched out some of the events happening. However, making sure our hero had to deal with 15 (or more) episodes, each a danger, distraction, or detour to overcome, was the reason this epic fantasy reached 235,000 words.

Rule #4. The epic fantasy requires lavish description, flowery language, quirks of speech (including made-up words for things), to better envelope the reader in a strange world far from our own here on Earth. 

Well, I did write a science fiction trilogy involving interdimensional travel to another world, so I did invent other languages for that world. However, in our present day and time, when my college students have such aversion to reading even the shortest, simplest texts, I find myself skipping over large paragraphs of description. All right, it's a room in a castle, and there are pieces of furniture. I don't see how the colors or textures matter unless it somehow influences the plot. Becoming jaded, I suppose; I have read some of the longest novels ever written (e.g., War and Peace, Shogun, The Well at the World's End) and did not skip any portions of them--but that was then.

Therefore, I swore to keep it lean, to concentrate on action, dialog, and offer enough description to paint the scene. I swore to keep scenes manageable in length and chapters at the size to read in an hour or less. I promised myself to get to the core of the action or present information or backstory in colorful ways (usually through dialog) that were fun to read in themselves. I was aiming for an epic fantasy length story, of course, so the leanness of the initial writing was not a concern. I knew I could flesh in a scene where needed after I'd finished the draft. And I did. 

Rule #5. Things happen in fantasy places, both impossibly wonderful and just as likely amazingly cruel. Unconstrained by modern law or sensibilities, an epic fantasy can be quite open with regard to the particular incidents that occur.

I also had in mind to keep this book clean; that is, morally sound, suitable for at least the New Adult category. I accepted that I could not keep it at a Young Adult level because there would be dragon slaying about every chapter. There got to be more violence, and some sexual episodes downstream but I had the camera turn to the window so we could watch the sunset. I feel good about keeping it less graphic than my other novels. As it turned out, I would even let my mother read it. My father, however, is a different case.

I think I can save my book by calling it an epic science fiction fantasy adventure and leave it at that. Hard to put all that on a title page, of course, but then I have maps this time--maps of a place not quite our own landscape. After all, our hero was born only 4800 years from now, give or take a few days. A lot happens between now and then.

NEXT: I shall further explicate the amazing episodes that comprise the greatest epic fantasy (or similar genre) that I have ever written on a computer! 

*"political season": I started to believe from my "inhabiting" wise characters that I could be a fair alternative to the presidential candidate options and so I began the Bunny Party. Unfortunately, we only achieved 12 votes, half of them from my relatives.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

22 January 2017

The Protagonist as Social Justice Warrior

This month may be a dangerous time to blog, but I feel I must rev up the blog once more for a new year or it will never get started. However, given the stormy season we have passed through, this blast from the past may be sufficiently mind-boggling as to be entertaining, or worse thought-provoking. In this political season, who are our protagonists?

The following was originally posted on 4 October 2015, edited to update the context.

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story supposed to be a self-contained entity with its own political views and separate from the author's? Must (or should) the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is thrown to the wind for the sake of the story? 

The writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know"--shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that in a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular category of reader, the writer may shape the story in certain ways to appeal to those readers. Part of that may be, say, to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name completely to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.
I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act?
I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues--or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure, because we like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree with us speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent--or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent something when necessary to maintain personal mental health.

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, hold views the author holds, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it and read it even though that reader and the book's author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Do we act so as to not alienate half the potential readership, or do we go forth boldly proclaiming where we stand on this or that issue, and hope or expect that we will be praised for our stance(s)? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. Compare the statistics of recent voting and decide which half of the book-buying population you will market to.

I don't believe fiction writers, as a clan, deal much with pontification; that is, we do not write a work of fiction solely to push a view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we? When I've written sci-fi and fantasy, I've invented political systems which run the spectrum from left to right, not as a reflection of my own view of "how things should me" but only for the sake of plausibility in the story and influence on the plot. (One might consider the Sekuatean Empire, for which this blog was originally named, as an example.)

Sure, the literary canon is full of authors who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who gave us strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. And others wrote to warn us of possible future scenarios we may not wish to experience. The world of literary imagination is both a safe space and a war zone. Reader beware. Or are they simply stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? And if the warning may be too strong, too upsetting, too triggering, then such a book might be moved into the banned book pile. Fearing the ban, authors may self-censor, keep it clean, water it down, set it all in a land of make-believe where nothing is actually meant to be real or serious, certainly not as a commentary on the present political climate, oh no!

And yet, in this present day world of saying the right thing, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility...or compulsion? Must a novel follow a political agenda? May a work of fiction illustrate differing views on particular social issues? Should our protagonists be social justice warriors? 

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

11 December 2016

The Year End Review

Dear Blog Readers,

As another year comes to a close, I like to sit back and let loose several well-deserved sighs and reflect on what the past twelve months have wrought. It is often an uncomfortable process, a cruel exercise in profundity, yet I vow to press on knight-errant-like and achieve my goal of faithful absolution.

One year ago I could sit back and feel blessed, having survived a year fraught with obstacles, hassles, and expected stressors. There were worries about family issues, career moves, health concerns, and as always the stories to write. Yet nothing bad happened. With a full line-up of events seemingly designed to disrupt my peace, I got through them with relative ease. I counted myself lucky. After all, I had a new book out, A Girl Called Wolf, and felt proud of how well I had managed to translate a real person's life into a fictionalized account. And through that, I made a new friend.

This year, with far fewer dramatic turns expected, I expected an easier time, as well. That turned out to be true, thankfully. You see, what troubles there were were mere mole hills against the mountain of life. Though I immersed myself in writing, alighting upon the keyboard for hours at a time, consuming only drinks of lemon and lime, I have not managed to get the big book published within this calendar year. Oh, dear! I put down 198,000 words on my hero's quest, let him meet many an interesting guest, then crafted a novella of 37,000 words about a little princess. Then I merged them together for the win--yes! Whether or not that works well, I'll leave for the reader to tell. That does not mean the year was a total loss, only that as my own boss I have been exceedingly busy yet not particularly dizzy despite all I've had to do. That's still good, true?

In my life, the years ending with 1 or 6 have tended to be jinx years, so I've held my breath as best I could for most of the weeks in 2016. I stayed focused and kept my nose clean. I expected the worst yet I was cursed with bad rhymes at times. In other ways the days were full of dragon slays, which was the focus of my novel, indeed, a challenge to sense and sensibility, wherein I placed my hero in harm's way. That is to say, I accepted said challenge and struck forth with verve. Indeed! What nerve! I kept straight to the plot and did not swerve--not much, anyway, or so I say. And now it sits on the 'forthcoming' shelf leaving me a waiter, and sooner rather than later, it shall be available to dragonslayer admirers everywhere.

This coming year is certain to be the best yet, as each step brings us closer and closer to death. It may not be a wholesome thought, but as they say here and there, until you do arrive you have arrived not. So make haste with your dire plans! And speak well of those that flitter through your life. Bickering, whickering--shall we end such strife? For they that tarry and hound you may spend eternity seated next to you, and you just might be given the middle seat on Afterlife Airlines. Funny how there are no security lines! I can end this year full of merriment and mirth because I am now further on from my birth than I ever was before--and that's nothing to ignore! The older you become, the more you feel glum.

So smile if you can, if that is your plan, each and every day. And by the way, read books despite their looks, for what is a cover worth? If that's not your turf, then peruse inside, let the words abide, then read on until the hero has died. For I can tell you with near certainty, that all protagonists die in the end, whether the end comes by the last page or somewhere beyond. Or, if you're not fond of an end past the last page, some advice that's sage, is to never reach the final line. Not until it's your time. Save the end for another day and crack open a new book and have a new look. That's the sure way! 

And now I take leave to sleep and perchance to dream of the coming year and all I fear. I shall hope for more of the open door, stepping through to pleasures unbound. You see, I've found that the more one expects good, and one certainly should, the more we might enjoy a new, sacred toy, and every day see whatever can be, what we might call 'possibility'! May you and yours have many delights, minimal fights, and safe flights, and I shall strive for the same. I know it's lame, but it seems I can dabble in babble at the drop of a hat. How about that? I'd better end this now, take a bow, and say goodnight. After all, it will too soon be midnight.

Happy Holidays! 
And books make great gifts!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

03 December 2016

The End of #NaNoWriMo as I know It

Another NaNoWriMo has passed and many of us are somewhere along the spectrum from elation to dejection. For those bloggers who don't know what that means, I'm referring to the National Novel Writing Month competition (hereafter called "NaNo"). However, competition may not exactly be the right word for it. The "experience" is really a competition against yourself and all the excuses writers may have to keep from writing that novel that's been stuck in their heads for a while. It is a just-get-her-done kind of motivating vehicle. I know many writers who finally got a novel written because of NaNo. Not me, of course; I'd write it anyway, NaNo or no NaNo, no?

I had been aware of NaNo for several years but it always was in November, a busy time of the year for me in my day job, so I declined to participate. Then I did, just for the heck of it. I sucked it up and dove in. I had the start of an idea for a sci-fi novel (The Masters' Riddle) and thought NaNo would be a "low-risk" way to push myself to write it. So I did. 

I "won" NaNo by achieving the 50,000-word threshold for calling it a "novel". I reached that milestone before the Thanksgiving week holidays that year, the time when I had expected to make my big final push. By the time the month ended, I had reached 55,000 words but not the end of the story. Then December arrived, end of the semester tasks piled up, and then the end-of-year holidays distracted me from finishing that sci-fi novel.

Last year (2015) I did not participate because I was busy with the novel I had just finished, A Girl Called Wolf. This year (2016), I decided to dive in again. Initially, I expected to start the sci-fi novel where I'd left off and go forward. But I had completed my newest novel, Epic Fantasy *With Dragons, during the summer and still glowing from the thrill I thought to continue in a sequel. That became my NaNo novel: Epic Fantasy 2 *Without Dragons.

I posted my word count every day for the first week or so. Seeing it steadily rising was motivation. Then came the inevitable distractions from the day job. There were days I could not write at all for lack of time or energy, much less post a word count update. I grabbed a few minutes between teaching my classes, some more time in the evenings. I talked up my participation in NaNo in my classes to motivate my students to write more--just for fun! Yes, writing is (can be) fun! But a half-hour here, an hour there was enough to keep me going. Never go 24 hours without writing something, even if only one sentence! As I told a colleague, I am always writing in my head; I just need enough time to download it through my fingers and keyboard. 

Then I had some good weekends with a bunch of keyboard slapping. We're talking 4 hours at a stretch, thinking and writing, not stopping to revise or edit. I was tossing out such crap as I never would have believed--as I never had let myself write and still move on. It was heartbreaking at times. But every word counted! I did not even write and validate after I won. I got lazy.

That's the idea: get a draft done, no matter how bad. Anything can be fixed in revision--after the competition ends. The goal is to complete a manuscript, but like in 2014, I reached the 50,000-word threshold without finishing the story. When I validated at 52,077 words, I got all of my cool winner graphics to paste all over social media to announce my achievement. But I knew when I began that I would win it. I would make myself win. I am known as a verbose writer, after all. When I mention "50,000 words" to my students who balk at writing 1000-word paper, or I tell them my new fantasy novel is 235,000 words (not atypical for the genre), and they seem in such shock, almost as though I had just eaten a live snake in front of them, I have to grin. It is difficult to put the grin away.

Despite the distractions of election vitriol and the day job's hecticness ("hecticity"?) and the holiday obligations, I still managed to win NaNo once more. Now let the revision begin! (See you again next November--if I get another story idea.)

P.S.- Just for fun, here are the opening sentences from Epic Fantasy *With Dragons and Epic Fantasy 2 *Without Dragons. Yes, I intend them to be nearly identical.

Corlan scratched his whiskers and grinned. A dragon clan was approaching. Brushing his wind-swept hair out of his face, he kept his eyes on the clan as he reached for the dragonslinger and prepared the weapon. Eleven of them in a tight formation. It would be a good day for hunting.

Corlan scratched his whiskers and tried to grin. He brushed his long auburn hair out of his face and focused on the quartet of minstrels approaching the dais. With his rusty dragonslinger resting heavily against the wooden throne, he fought a yawn and prepared to hear yet another petty complaint.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.