09 October 2016

How would your Protagonist Vote?

If I had avoided social media and television, I would not know what has happened with regard to the presidential campaign during the past week. But I'm naturally curious. I feel the anguish each side has and understand their derision for the other side. I even feel a little pity for the third sides of this two-dimensional juggernaut overrunning us. 

I've even suggested that friends write in my name on election day. After all, I have paid taxes since my first job at Taco Bell and I have never deleted any emails. I've always spoken well of other people and seldom even go into locker rooms. At this point I'm not sure what my platform would be but I know it will be made of wood - good ol' American timber, of course. Mostly I just want everyone to get along, treat each other kindly, and work together for the common good. (More on my non-candidacy next time.)

About a year ago I posted the following because at the time such issues as same-sex marriage and gun laws were in hot debate. It caused me to wonder how much authors consider political and social viewpoints for the characters they write. Does the character need to have a certain view to act a certain way? Or does the character act according to the author's political and social views?

See what you think....

From 4 October 2015

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story a self-contained entity with its own political views? 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 throw to the wind for the sake of the story? 

(Apologies for using a white, male, middle-class image.)
Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book. In this case, the writer is a "he" and the story involves a "she" as the main character. What could go wrong? one might ask. Many male authors have written female protagonists, and certainly many female authors have written male protagonists. Still, perceptions exist. "Write what you know" is an old axiom, and yet if that were to be followed religiously, a writer would only be allowed to write his (or "his or her") autobiography.

Conversely, 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. So, if we allow for rule number 3, then anything goes. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that is a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular category of reader, the writer may shape the story to appeal to that reader, for example, in genre-driven stories. Part of that may be, say, for the author to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name 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, say, 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? Or keep the baby? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act? And if they do, is that realistic for the character?

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 some of us 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 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 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, espouse views the author would espouse, 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 even though the reader and the 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? 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. 

Fiction writers, as a clan, do not generally deal with pontification; we do not write a work of fiction solely to push our view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we?

Sure, the literary canon is full of writers who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who left 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. Or were they simply good stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? 

And yet, in this present-day world of saying the right things, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility... or compulsion?

UPDATE: My latest work, an epic fantasy, started off innocently enough but then gradually began to delve into the relationships in society between men and women. I bent over backwards to not take sides or seem to give weight to one view over another. In the story, different cities our hero visits have different customs, not all of them agreeable to our hero or to me, the author, were I to visit. So, even though it was supposed to be just a fun fantasy to pass the time, it turned out to have quite a bit of politics and social issues covered in it. Apologies in advance; my only goal was - as it always is in everything I write - to tell an interesting story.

(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.

24 September 2016

How to Write an Epic Fantasy with Dragons

This season I shall be offering my newest novel, an epic fantasy. However, the story of how I came to write this book and how it changed chapter by chapter is a story in itself. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, my fellow writers said to me: 
"Why don't you write an epic fantasy? You've never written one of those." 
So I replied, "Sure, I could write one of those fat books, no problem." 
"Wait! There's more," they said: "You have to have dragons in it, too." 
"Dragons? No problem," I responded, adding a typed LOL.

[You can read in detail here how my writer friends goaded me into writing an epic fantasy. You can read here (part 1) and here (part 2) about dragons and the choices I made about portraying them in my epic fantasy novel.]

At first I was thinking it would be more of a spoof. I would use the tropes and memes and cliches and stock characters of epic fantasy but I would put my own warped sense of humor upon the proceedings. I started with a scene of a dragonslayer, my protagonist--let's call him Corlan. It seemed a good idea to construct a story about dragons around a dragonslayer, after all. I cast a hunky hunk in the role, then sent him back to the city where he had the worst weekend ever. I've never liked hunky hunks so it was fun making him suffer. So he is banished by the snooty prince and we have our quest, which will take up the bulk of the book.

As seems to happen on epic fantasy quests, there are episodes, miniature story arcs, new characters introduced and old characters dispatched. I also had to have a dragon attack about every other chapter. So I crafted a map of the journey area and plotted where this and that would happen, all the way to the geographical end of the journey. I had a rough idea what would happen at the end of the journey but I did not worry about it since I was still at the beginning. 

Meanwhile, I had an old screenplay for a novel I had long intended to write just sitting on my computer waiting for me to turn it into a novel. I had tried a few times but the "epic" story seemed too big to be written until I had endless hours during my retirement. The dragonslayer's story seemed a good way to incorporate this other medieval-esque story of five princes and the trouble they cause in the realm. So I decided to make the five princes another story line. I would interweave them.

Then I had another idea. A little princess, Adora, absolutely cute yet with unspeakable powers, would make a good counterbalance to the daring-do of my hunky hunk dragonslayer. I knew then that they would have to meet at the end. I was not sure what would happen when they met, of course. I was still in the planning stage. I also thought of two other story lines which would interweave with the others. I did not care about length because I was working on something "epic"!

I started writing the story line of the hunky dragonslayer. Good enough. I wrote the opening scene of the scribe's story line, preparing to tell the tale of the five princes. Good enough. I started the little princess's story line. I dabbled a few paragraphs of the other two story lines just to get them started. I had about 3000 words total written when I decided to cobble together a temporary book cover, mostly for fun but maybe also to help me focus. Being an "epic" I knew it would take forever and so I was in no hurry.

On the back cover I wrote the following blurb. At that point in time I did not know how any of the story lines would go or how they would end. I did what I've heard Dostoevsky liked to do: invent interesting characters then see how they react to each other.
Corlan the dragonslayer is in trouble. Again.
He has not met the Prince’s quota. He has defiled 
a Lady of the Court, too. His grandfather offers 
him a secret treasure that just might save him. 
Of course it requires a long and dangerous journey.

The Scriber Iz-Mal is determined to set straight 
the history of the realm even at threat of death. 
A thousand years after the War of the Five Princes
the truth of what happened to turn their kingdoms 
into a vast wasteland remains untold.

Princess Adora dares go against the Queen’s 
harsh command to hand over the newborn baby boy. 
He is destined to serve as just another soldier 
in the matriarchy’s army, but Adora 
spirits him away to safety in the wilderness.

Then I decided to write out the dragonslayer's story first, since that was where my mind was at that time. I left the other story lines. My hunky hunk dragonslayer had his day in court, the palace court, that is, and was banished to the Valley of Death. So far, so good (as a writer, I mean). Now to add some complications.... 

To skip ahead a bit... 
I wrote on EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS from November through June, all on the dragonslayer's story line. I wrote at night. I wrote on weekends. I wrote between the classes I teach, sometimes only a few paragraphs during a half-hour's gap. I liked what was happening to my dragonslayer. I liked him, too. Thankfully, he resisted becoming me; he always acted true to his character. I gradually knew what would happen to him, how the whole book would end. 
By the end of June I knew how long this single story line was going to be--long enough to be a novel in its own right. But I had to keep the little princess story line in because it would dovetail with the dragonslayer's story. So I dropped those other two story lines and found ways to tell the story of the five princes from the scribe's story line within the dragonslayer's story line. After all, when people camp out on a long journey they have to talk about something between dinner and sleep, true? 
In July I went back to Beijing, China to teach a 4-week university course. In my time off, I continued writing. I finished the dragonslayer's story line. Then returned to the little princess's story line and wrote it straight out in 10 chapters (I had one written previously). Then came the difficulty of merging chapters devoted to different story lines. I played with a regular pattern and by pure happenstance I found the arrangement that worked best: every four dragonslayer chapters I would insert a princess chapter (called "interlude" instead of chapter). That arrangement worked so well dramatically--cliffhangers, cross-references, etc.--that I knew it was meant to be. The two story lines come together at the end and as I wrote it tears dribbled down my cheeks. Not kidding! It was perfect. I was blessed to take dictation from my muses. 
Returning back to the USA I had the whole rough draft completed and could begin revisions, first on story elements, then on the smaller technical issues. I faced a 240,000 word manuscript. But it's supposed to be epic! Never fear, I told myself. I can whittle it down during revision. Even so, a novella of 38,000 words with a 198,000 novel wrapped around it is something special. Let us remember that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels still far exceed mine. The Hobbit is 95,000 words; The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000; The Two Towers is 156,000; and The Return of the King is 137,000. When I was jousting with my fellow writers about writing in the genre many of them write in, I boasted of aiming for 250,000 words, but I did not seriously have that goal in mind. I thought 120,000 would be enough. But the story rolled and my hero and heroine would not stop having adventures. So here it is: 238,000 in its so-called final form.
Once upon a time, I firmly believed that if you have something that is good why wouldn't you want more of it? If a book is good you want to keep reading. So I can only hope that readers will find the pages worth turning. And, as reality often requires, if the pages do not engage, readers are free to set down the book and do something else. I will not take umbrage at the slings and arrows of a fickle readership. Seriously, I think you will enjoy this journey into [S P O I L E R S] and be sorry to see it end.

Now that EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS is finished, I rewrote the blurb to go on the back cover of the book:
When Corlan the dragonslayer is banished by the Prince, it is not the worst fate. Corlan has a plan to rid the realm of dragons once and for all. To complete his mission, he must journey to the far end of the Valley of Death. Only then will he be allowed to return.
Along the way, Corlan teaches a wayward boy how to be a man while questioning everything he thought he knew about his own life. They encounter a surly magus in his fourth life, harpies and hippos, rogues and river wyrms, a clever hunchback and a feisty ambassador, an evil queen, witches and warriors, and strange cities with bizarre customs. And there are always dragons to fight! No matter the cost, no matter what he learns about himself, Corlan must continue to his destiny.
Meanwhile, Princess Adora flees her home with her baby brother to save him from certain death. Chased into the mountains of Yozma, Adora and her companions find the secret to dragons—a secret Corlan only wishes he knew, one that will change everything.

That phrase "will change everything" seems to be required in epic fantasy book blurbs. In this case, it's completely true.

(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.

11 September 2016


In 2001, I was teaching at Wichita State University in Kansas. That Fall semester I had a Tuesday-Thursday class that started at 9:30. No big deal. Business as usual.

Wichita State University and Wichita skyline
On September 11, a Tuesday, I sat in my office preparing for that first class of the day. With my office door open, I happened to hear two of my colleagues talking out in the hallway. One said, with no apparent emotion, that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I did not give it much thought at that moment other than a "Wow" that something like that could happen. I did not consider it might have been a large commercial airliner, thinking more likely it was a small airplane, possible taking tourists on a sightseeing flight.

A little while later, I got up and headed to my class, choosing to swing by the Student Center and pick up some file folders at the bookstore on the way to the classroom. For some reason, my English Composition class had been put in a spare classroom in a science building on the opposite end of the campus from my office in the English department's building. As I entered the Student Center and walked toward the bookstore at one end of the building, I noticed the TVs on the walls in the common area were showing the so-called Twin Towers and a small group of students and staff were gathered below the TV to watch the live broadcast.

Black smoke was trailing away from the building that had been hit by the crashing aircraft. By that time, the TV broadcaster was announcing it was a commercial airliner. It was shocking to imagine the lives aboard such an aircraft. And then, as my eyes were glued to the image on the TV screen, a second aircraft flew into the picture, striking the second tower. Just like that--on live TV. It almost seemed like some insect had flown in front of the camera lens. But there was the crash, the flames, the billowing black clouds, right there on TV. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. 

I remember the big fellow standing in front of me who cried out "Oooo, cool!" at the sight of the second plane striking the tower, as though he thought he was watching a movie or a video game full of violence. But none of us really understood what we were seeing at that moment. One plane could be an accident; two planes had to be deliberate. Who was doing that? And why? Later we learned of another plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and still another where the passengers fought back but which resulted in a crash in Pennsylvania before the plane could be used as a bomb.

I got the folders in the bookstore, but my mind was racing, my nerves rattled. I went to the classroom and a few students were there. They asked if we were having class. They said classes were being cancelled as the news spread. Not knowing what was happening, it seemed the best decision to not meet from some lesson on writing essays. We needed to focus on the events of the day. I returned to my office. I didn't have a computer in my office so I got no more news. 

Later, I picked up my daughter from preschool and met my wife at home. We watched further news, mindful of protecting our child from terrible images and being ready for anything. 

As it turned out, when the FAA put out the order for all planes to land, Wichita was in a unique position. Being centrally located, a lot of transcontinental flights landed here. Not only is there a commercial airport and an Air Force base but also the General Aviation industry has miles and miles of runway space. I heard about all the passengers from those many planes being put up in hotels and treated to restaurant meals. There were tours of the local attractions to help them pass the time. Eventually they got on their airplanes and flew on to their destinations.

Now it's fifteen years since that day. It is difficult to say if anything has really changed. Is the world better now? Or worse? Or the same but in different ways? 

I got my first cell phone after that day, so I would always be able to call the people I needed to contact. That was one change I made. In the weeks and months and years that have followed that day, I expected the problems which caused those attacks would be solved. I expected we would return to the relative peace we believed in before that day. I hoped we would be able to remain innocent to the kind of evil that some people can do against other people. And yet every day takes us further from that peace and innocence, it seems, and we adapt to a new normal, which is not anything anyone really wants.

(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.

04 September 2016

On the Madness of Holiday Weekends

You know how when you have a three-day weekend you spend the first day of it worrying whether or not you will be productive or waste all the time? That's me. 

And it will be worse on Sunday, as I stew and pine about what I should be doing, and I'll probably do some of what I should be doing, but not nearly everything I planned to do. Then Monday comes, the great holiday, and I'll spend the day moping around, complaining about not having enough time. I'll also start fearing the Tuesday morning as though it were a typical Monday morning. I'll ponder ways to extend the weekend, maybe let myself get sick....

And I won't sleep well, worried about using all this free time advantageously. Of course, some say simply doing nothing is not wasted time. It's called relaxation. Or rest. And that is a goal in itself. And beneficial. Anything to kill some time - because, as we all know, time is trying to kill us, as well. In fact, I sorta kinda blogged about that a really long time ago yet, sadly, it still remains here, if you wish to kill even more time by reading it. (Remember: you'll never get those minutes back again.)

Yet some folks swear by the "active" vacation whereby they arrive back at the start of the work week fully drained and unable to do their assigned tasks. Then they regale the rest of us with their tales of moral turpitude and/or risky behavior, swearing they have to do something even more wild next weekend,as though there is some kind of competition in life. It's as though the week was actually their period of rest and the job site their place of repose. (Mattress tester, perhaps?)

Not me. I like to be ready for my assigned tasks. So I spend the weekend worrying about being ready to perform my assigned tasks and thus gain little pleasure from my time away from those assigned tasks. Then, naturally, I complain about the assigned tasks throughout the week and dream of just making it to the next weekend. Ah! The next weekend...the undiscovered country! The paradise we dream of only to waste once we arrive.

Then the cycle begins again. It's truly maddening! Wash, rinse, repeat. Forever. Only boisterous children, fortuitous lottery winnings, precise meteorite strikes, and localized earthquakes can disrupt the pattern. So keep some candy in your pockets, a pen in your hand, a hard hat on your head, and a widely straddling skateboard close at hand. Then, perhaps, you may find yourself reading a blog or two, and dismissing them as pure fluff because it is, after all, just another holiday weekend. And you've got time to waste. 

PS, Update: I have managed to waste 2 hours by scrolling down my Twitter feed and then my Facebook wall and checking my email accounts twice. And making a fresh pot of coffee.

(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.

28 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 4

Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day! 

There is probably nothing which ruins a summer vacation more than rain. For some reason, we humans just don't like to be wet, especially wet while wearing clothing. So we do whatever we can to avoid being struck by those tiny drops of water. When I went to Beijing to teach a university course this summer, I was on my own, just me and a collapsible travel umbrella.

On Monday, there was a little rain as I was leaving the building where I have my class. I did not have my umbrella with me so I dashed across the parking lot to the student dining hall and had lunch with some students. "What? Chinese food again?" I quipped. By the time I'd finished eating, the rain had stopped so I took the opportunity to go over to the convenience store on the campus and buy my usual allotment of drinks and snacks, then went home to my off-campus hotel room as usual.
The "Avenue of the Great Water" - on a sunny morning! The building on the left housed my classroom.
I awoke Tuesday morning to the sound of rain. It was steady but light. I stayed in my hotel room and wrote on my book* because I already had ideas in my head when I awoke. Then I wanted to read it again and tweak it. Soon it was noon. It was still raining so I did not go out until later. I got dinner at the restaurant on the corner. The rain had let up by then but I still carried my collapsible umbrella just in case.

Wednesday morning I awoke at 2:30 am because the rain on the windows was so loud. I could not get back to a deep sleep until just before my alarm went off. The rain was coming down strong but I knew I had to go to the class. I made it to the classroom with little problem, my clothes dry. It was just a 10 minute walk. When the class was done, however, the rain was very heavy. And I only had my collapsible travel umbrella.
Chinese students carry colorful umbrellas, and neatly arrange them in the hallway to dry during class.
Knowing I was going back to my hotel, I accepted that I would get wet. But I also needed food, especially if I were going to be rained in all day. On that day, however, I had planned to take my student assistant to lunch on campus, just to thank her for her help, kind of a custom here, but she asked for a delay because of the weather and I agreed. It turned out to be a good idea. 

After class, I paused on the front stoop of the building, under the cover, deciding what to do. When we canceled lunch, I decided to go to the Subway restaurant across the street from the campus. I had tried it before and it was more American than the Subways in the US. A footlong could be made to serve as two meals. 

So I left the safety of the building and walked quickly across the parking lot, slanting the umbrella to meet the rain. I got to the gate of the campus and people were stopped there. The side of the avenue passing in front of the gate (the main street) was running with streams of water. The avenue sloped on both sides, for drainage (hah hah), so it was deeper there. People did not want to cross the street. I had to go, so I stepped into what I thought was only a couple inches of water. Instead, the water went over the tops of my shoes - like stepping into a deep puddle. Once I had committed that faux pas, I had to continue. I stepped gingerly across the avenue - trying to mind the traffic lights and the errant traffic dodging frantic umbrella-blind pedestrians! Walking all the way across the avenue the water was over my shoes! My steps made the water splash, too!
Qianmen shopping district - the Friday at the end of a rainy week!
I got to the other side of the avenue, my feet soaked, shoes and socks squishy as I walked down the lane of shops and entered the Subway. They had put down sheets of cardboard to let people wipe their feet. This being my third visit this month, the girl recognized me - not that she was happy to see me! One advantage there was that I could point to what I wanted. I ordered my usual and she almost seemed to remembered what I liked on it. I grabbed a bag of chips and 3 cookies to further extend my rainy day provisions. 

As I entered my hotel room, I carefully stayed by the door and pried off my shoes and pulled off my dripping socks, then my pants which were soaked below the knees. I didn't want the dirty water of the streets to pollute my room. I cleaned myself up and sat to enjoy my lunch. I saved the second half of the sandwich for later. After a while, I took the hair dryer the hotel provided and spent an hour using it on my shoes.
Want some background music? I recommend this: 

And that is my rainy day story. It got boring in my hotel room as the rain really came down hard the rest of the day. I read a book, I edited my book*, I took a nap, I watched TV (only in Chinese), and I ate the second half of the sandwich. I rationed the bottle of water (cannot drink water from the faucet here). 
At the original Beijing duck restaurant in Qianmen district, I take my Beijing duck seriously.
Then the power went out. After the heavy rain on Wednesday and Thursday, the hotel lost power. So no A/C, no fridge, no Wi-Fi, no lights. Not much one can do for fun in those circumstances. Power would go off for a few minutes then come back on but several times in a row. I could run my laptop off the battery but then it needed to recharge. Then it was off for an hour. It was mostly at night. 

I went out on Friday for a Beijing duck dinner and souvenirs. It was a lovely day of blue skies - not the yellow haze Beijing is notorious for. I got the duck but not any souvenirs. When I finished walking around and decided to go home, I still had to ride the subway, which meant going up and down stairs and walking through long passages. At least this time I did not go out the wrong exit and walk the wrong direction! 

However, as I was on my very last allotment of footsteps, hot and sweaty and just trying to make it back to my hotel room and cool off, I knew I had no food or drinks in my room so I planned to push myself past the hotel and on to the 7-11 store around the corner. 
Discussing the weather with some learned gentlemen - after consuming massive amounts of duck.
As I arrived on the block of my hotel, I saw the restaurants were closed and, yes, the 7-11 store was closed, too. The lights were off and I knew they had no power. It was early evening, still daylight. I hoped my hotel had power but resigned myself that it might not. At the least I needed water bottles, so I pushed myself further, encouraging myself to walk on up the street and cross the avenue over to the campus. I headed to the convenience store on campus - hoping it would be open.

It was! So I stocked up as much as I could, then carried the bag and the two big water bottles (3 liter) back to the hotel. When I got close, I saw the lights were on inside the hotel. The automatic sliding door opened for me. It was cool inside! I went up to my room on the elevator, thankful that my hotel was not affected by the power outage. When I had left that morning, I saw men working on some power grid at the corner of the block (the power had been going off and on before then). With only an additional mile of walking, I could relax in my comfy room! But the power kept going off for 10 or 20 minutes at a time all through the evening.

Saturday morning the power went off at 4:30 am. I awoke because the noise of the bathroom fan I usually kept on no longer blocked other sounds. I heard my hotel neighbors talking (complaining?) and I got up to look outside. It was hard to tell whether the whole neighborhood was off or not at that hour, but the dawn was beginning. I was still sleepy and there was nothing else to do, so I went back to sleep. I awoke when the power came back on at 6:30 am, then returned to sleep - until the housekeeper knocked on my door at 9 am.

It was a terrible week! The last week of my summer vacation went perfectly, however, and all my students passed. I caught my flight home with less trouble than the previous year. 

And here endeth my tale of woe; and I alone am returned to thee, to tell it.

*I call it EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS . . . because that's what it is!

(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.

20 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 3

As a writer, I often set up my hero as a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps that's because I know so well what that feels like. Whenever I travel, I usually skip the conventional tours and get right out there walking the streets. I like to pretend I live wherever I am visiting. I wonder how it would be, how I would get along there.

So when I had the opportunity to teach a class at a university in Beijing last July, the little Chinese-style hotel across from the campus became my home sweet home. Having seen all the major sites on previous visits I spent much time in my room writing. However, when I did go out, I usually got myself into some kind of trouble. By my second week, I was ready to go on a longer venture away from my neighborhood.

The entrance to the neighborhood. The traffic barriers are new.
The rain was light when I left the hotel and walked the mile to the nearest subway station so I used an umbrella. Humid and hot, but not as bad as other days. I got some relief inside the station where cool air blew and on the subway train itself. Being a big boy now, I could follow the map and get myself to the right stop. We come to underestimate the need for basic skills when we are thrown into the stranger-in-a-strange-place scenario. I do not read Chinese but I did learn some of the characters while living in Japan in the 90s, so I could guess at the instructions on the ticket machine. (You always want to press the green buttons. Green is good.)

The street from the subway station to the park.
I rode the subway to the Tuanjiehu stop, named for the park near the hotel I stayed at when I first visited Beijing in 2007. The neighborhood looked very different this time, the trees grown out more, changing the lighting of the streets and sidewalks from what I recalled. But I recognized some of the same restaurants and other buildings from before. I took pictures of the park, despite the overcast, then had lunch at a Cantonese restaurant nearby. I had some dim sum and some char siu barbecue pork, which was very delicious. 

Then I walked about three miles over to Wangfujing street, the big tourist shopping area and browsed the book and music sections of the store I always go to there. (Last summer, I was accosted in the mall there by an "art hooker" who lured me into an art store to sell me art, which you can read about here.) Sadly, I found little to buy. I was getting tired of standing and/or walking, too. 

Entrance gate to Tuanjiehu Park on a rainy day.
Taking the subway back to the station near my hotel went according to plan. But somehow I exited the subway station walking the wrong direction. Somehow I always seemed to exit the wrong way, that is, exiting out a different one than I entered. Think of the four directions of the street intersection above the subway station. No problem, I thought. Just one mile more and I would be back at my hotel room.

The neighborhood looked different but that did not alarm me. I thought it was simply that the trees had grown out. I walked on, thinking I was going the right direction. Then I realized I was going in the wrong direction but I thought I would meet up with a cross street that would lead me back to the hotel's street. 

Tuanjiehu Park
But no! I was going the wrong direction. By the strange yellow-brown light in the cloudy/hazy sky I had no sense of north or south, east or west. Suddenly I did not know where I was or which way to go. I got angry rather than frustrated. It took so long to walk on to the next big intersection just to see what the street sign said. When I got to the next intersection, I pulled out my map and determined where I was at that point. I saw on the map that if I kept going this way, the way I was already going, then turned that way, I would be able to return to my hotel from the north instead of the south.

So I kept walking, my feet getting more sore and my hip joint starting to ache - because, as everyone knows, you tend to get older when you keep walking farther and farther away from your destination. By then, I was moving myself solely from sheer willpower, as the evening started to darken. 
Tuanjiehu Park

I got to the next big intersection - another one - and saw the signs of the avenues in each direction and found them on the map. I realized then that I was even farther away from my hotel. It was maddening! It seemed that none of the directions would be the right direction. I looked at the people strolling past me. I stared at my map. I wondered how I might ask for directions, not knowing any of the right words. I considered if I held up my map they would get the idea I was lost. But none of the people passing me looked like the right person to stop and ask.
Tuanjiehu Park

I sat on a bench there along the sidewalk for a few minutes. I was just about out of walking for the day. Although I did not count my steps, like some fitness fanatics might do, I knew when I had reached my limit. I had to save 15 of them to actually walk through the lobby of the hotel and get on the elevator up to my precious room 424. 

So I flagged down a taxi and showed the driver the card from the hotel which had a map on it. Thank goodness I kept that card inside my passport! The driver got the directions from that little map and took me to the hotel. I saw later that I had been getting close to the Beijing Olympic Park!

Tuanjiehu Park
When he stopped for me, he was heading the wrong direction to simply continue on to the hotel so it required a long turn around, getting on the highway a bit, then charging up narrow parked-car-choked streets and popping out somewhere behind my hotel. Took about 7 minutes of harrowing stunt-driving in the heavy traffic of Beijing. Cost me 20 yuan! But worth every jiao (penny) of the price, just to get me back to my home sweet home away from home again.

I stepped out of the taxi a block from the hotel, where there was a place to pull over. Thankfully, that put me right by the 7-Eleven store where I usually bought my drinks and snacks. So I got some drinks and snacks. I also got myself an ice cream bar, because I deserved to be pampered after all the stress I'd endured in the 90 minutes between exiting that subway station and stepping out of that taxi. 

I was sure glad to be home! Kinda embarrassing getting lost in the big city - more so when you actually have a map in your hand!

Sorry, I didn't feel like taking pictures while I was desperately lost so all I have are the pictures from earlier in the day (Tuanjiehu Park). The ice cream bar was good.

(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.

14 August 2016

My Ruined Summer Vacation, Part 2

Sometimes when you are a stranger in a strange land, you seek out any vestige of home as a way to recapture some sense of normalcy. For me, however, that theory does not often work out the way I expect. Especially during my month in Beijing to teach a course at a university. Like last summer, I had my weekly rituals.

Leaving the Yinghua Hotel for my stroll to lunch.
After my Wednesday class I could start the long weekend. I had plans to go to my favorite shopping street, Wangfujing Avenue, where the two bookstores are, but I didn't make it there. I awoke Thursday and Friday mornings and did some writing. By the time I ran out of steam it was noon so then it was too hot and humid to go out. On Friday I had a bit of Mao's revenge (like Montezuma's revenge but for China) so I stayed "home" in my hotel. It is possible to have too much Chinese food. I still went out for dinner but only after 5 pm. It was 95* with high humidity. On Saturday I made it to the KFC about a mile away but the menu was stupid and nothing like in USA, except for having chicken. 

Just a hole in the wall. Only the chicken was familiar.
On Sunday, I went further, down to the McDonald's, which required me to cross a busy superhighway without getting killed. Once on the other side, I entered with great relief. I decided to order the special, thinking it would be easy to point to the sign and the counter person would understand what I wanted. Besides, it had a Hello Kitty theme so I knew I couldn't go wrong with that.

A girl at the McDonald's was loudly calling attention to the automatic ordering machines. I jokingly asked, in sarcastic tone, if it had English and she surprisingly replied in English that it did. So she talked me through it, step by step. I felt special. She pushed the on-screen buttons for me as I selected what I wanted. Basic cheeseburger and fries combo was good enough. Several steps to confirm my order, then . . . to pay for it through the machine. 
Outside McD's. The little window on the right is for walk-up orders. It requires speaking Chinese.
This marvel of technology only allowed payment using a phone app such as iPay or WeChat. I didn't have any of them. I thought I should have been able to slide a bill in and get change like at a grocery store, but NOOOOO! 

Inside McD's. The ordering machines are on the right. Bring your phone app to pay!
So I got back in the regular line to order, now two people longer. When I got up to the counter, the young man gave me a special menu for tourists; it did not have any more English on it than the menus overhead did but at least I could point more accurately than up at the menu above. I can really zero in with my index finger! Anyway, I went back to choosing the Hello Kitty special.

And I finally got my food, the special of the day: some kind of teriyaki sandwich (burger? not sure) with the usual fries, and a "bubble tea" - milk tea with tapioca balls in it. I thought it was iced coffee. I grabbed an ordinary straw for the drink but the "bubbles" clogged up the straw. The girl who tried to help me with the ordering machine rushed over with a big straw, saying emphatically "No, no, no!"  She switched the straws for me, stabbing a fat straw into my cup's lid before I could say "xie xie" ('thank you'). 
Before the straw switch, I had to walk around the crowded restaurant with my tray of food to find a place to sit. So many young people just sitting and chatting or using their electronic devices, already finished eating or not eating at all, or maybe with only a drink to buy them table time. It was a Sunday afternoon, of course. Finally I found a booth right up at the front by the ordering machines. It had leftover trays/food on it. I shoved them to the side and sat down, started to eat my meal. Two older women (i.e., my age) came over and asked in Chinese if they could share the booth. I waved them in and one of them got a McDonald's employee to clean off the table for us. We did not talk to each other but we did share a moment of humor when I gestured and made a face that the sandwich wasn't so good.

Then I got up to leave. But as I was stepping through the crowded restaurant, heading to the exit, I saw the McCafe section. So I got a large iced latte (large in China = small back home) and sat on a high stool at a tall table. As I sipped my kinda cold drink, I took in the ambiance of young ladies chatting with each other and playing with their phones. So, I played with my phone, as well, while I drank my coffee. In my Chinese-style hotel room, paid for by my employer, the wifi had various sites blocked: Facebook, Google and Gmail, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But I could still access Twitter and Gmail on my phone, via my phone service, so I checked what's going on. Unfortunately, there was not enough exciting action reported on those venues to entertainment for the length of my drinking and I left the McDonald's feeling sad.

Along the way to & from the McDonald's.
On the walk back to my hotel, I stopped by the 7-Eleven, as usual, and got some drinks to take to my room. I think there must be a law in Beijing that a 7-Eleven must appear once every two blocks. But for us foreigners, that is truly a godsend. I was a great customer during my month in Beijing: bottled coffee, breakfast pastries, lunch and dinner point-&-order Chinese dishes plus a box of rice, or pre-packed sushi, and fresh fruit, and all the packages of snacks and candy you could wish for. Plus cheap bottled water since you can't drink water from the tap. It provided a weird taste of home.

Then I fired up the laptop and went back to work on my epic fantasy novel. I had just finished the main story line involving the dragonslayer. Early on, I had started the second story line with a chapter then put it aside to concentrate on the first story line. Now I had to go back and finish the second story line, even though the dragonslayer's story was so long already. The two story lines would come together at the end. The second story line is all about the little princess - perfect for typing in a hotel room in Beijing when you've seen all the sights already.

(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.

07 August 2016

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2016 Edition)

As many of my readers may be aware, I was on vacation last month. That is the story I wanted everyone to believe, and it really seemed to work. So I'm sticking to it.

Actually, I was working - in a sense (or two) - so let's call it a working vacation. I traveled to Beijing, China for four weeks, mostly to teach a university course called "Business Writing in American Context" (Chinese translation). I went last year, as well. In fact, this year was almost exactly the same - exactly. I could even use the same photos as I used last year and nobody would notice the difference. 

Except for this building, the Boxue Building at the University of International Business and Economics where my class was held this summer - different than the building last year. Same size classroom, same great a/c unit though. Students were down from 58 last year to 38 this summer, both classes mostly girls.

Other than being occupied in a classroom for two mornings each week from 8 to 11:30, I had plenty of time for sightseeing. Because I've seen all the main attractions on the previous three trips I've made to Beijing, what I really had was plenty of time for writing.

You can read all about the writing I did last summer, which was my arctic coming of age adventure set in Greenland, here. I thought that was quite a feat, writing about the ice and snow of Greenland while in an air cooled hotel room avoiding the heat and humidity outside. However, this 2016 summer's writing far exceeds what any sane writer would do. I wrote about 70,000 words. Take that, NaNoWriMo!

But you want to hear about the trip . . . . Due to the incredible hassles of a San Francisco transit last year (read the amazing report here), I elected to go through Chicago this year and everything went quite smoothly. I even got a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza while I waited to board the international flight.

But you can't choose your neighbors on a plane. I had several babies and loud children near me and an old man across the aisle from me who hacked and coughed all through the flight. Plus, I got an A+ line-up of movies: Zootopia, The Lego Movie, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding II. Fortunately, I'd brought a book to read: the novel I wrote last year: A GIRL CALLED WOLF.

I arrived in Beijing without much ceremony. I still walked through the world's largest terminal, about a 15 km walk in total. Even the lines through immigration and customs were short for me and no uncomfortable questions were asked. And, unlike last summer, we did not arrive an hour early, so no mix up meeting my student assistant from the university. Made that connection easily and "Victoria" got a taxi for us to go to the hotel, about a 45-minute ride. (I'm still waiting for her to send me the picture she took of both of us at the end of the course, so until then use your imagination.)

My tall course assistant got me checked in properly, helping with interpretation, and even helped carry a bag up to my room. I really wanted to just get a shower and take a long nap but she was happy to talk, in English, of course, and I didn't want to be rude so we talked about an hour more on all kinds of topics before I sent her on her way and I began to relax.

In the Chinese style hotel across from the campus, I was put in room 624. The first night there, I noticed the air conditioning was not blowing very cool. The next morning I complained about that. No way could I survive without a/c because I am a weak American. I mentioned how wonderful the a/c had been in my room last summer - cold enough to put me in a Greenlandic mood. At that moment, it just so happened that a man was checking out from the room I had last summer. I asked if I could change to that room. Sure, no problem, just give them some time for housekeeping to get it ready. So I went out for lunch.

The view of the campus across the street from the Yinghua Hotel from room 624 on my first morning in Beijing, awaking early because I do that when I'm jet-lagged. Note the sun desperately fighting to shine through the haze.

When I returned from lunch, my favorite writing room 424 was ready to move into! I had to explain to them about feng shui, the arrangement of the things in the room, the certain joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi that a place had to have in order for writing to be done. The staff did not understand my French, naturally.

The view of room 624 - not much feng shui there! Like I told the staff. And (below) the view of my good ol' room 424 with a Euro Cup soccer match on the TV. Notice also the picture on the wall is different. The one in 424 is much more aesthetically pleasing, don't you think?

So there we are: the start of the blog post arc concerning how I spend - or ruined - my summer vacation. More of this amazing endeavor next time - including how I wrote my epic fantasy novel EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS while holed up in a Chinese hotel room even more than last summer.

Note: EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS is now complete at 232,700 words following major revision. Tweaking still remains.

(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.