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.

20 November 2016

I am Thankful for a Good Dressing Recipe

'Tis time to tickle the titillating turkey! 

Many of us this week will believe we have little to be thankful for. Things have not gone our way in more than a few ways. That's life, and I'm thankful for life. Others will possibly worry about the truth of the story of the first Thanksgiving. Go with the overall idea, I say, and do not focus on the details. Some of us will simply sit down and lustily dine until their belts burst. Whichever category you fall into, be sure to pick yourself up and find something, anything, for which you are thankful this week. Be thankful I've written this blog, for example. That's the real message of the holiday. (Tip: invite a political opponent to dinner, then only discuss bunnies.)

For those who may be curious or forgetful, I recommend this source of information about Thanksgiving because practically all of it is wrong, or considered wrong to someone somewhere. Or the official source, Plymouth Plantation, if you care to surround yourself with facts and speculations. They may yet be debated, if you have time after dinner and between the games. (Tip: discuss bunnies instead.)

I choose to boil it all down from whatever origins are true and run with the general idea of being thankful for what I have and being humble about what good things I may be thankful for in the coming year. You are welcome to do likewise. 

Nevertheless, holiday traditions die hard (though the turkeys are fairly easy). From time immemorial, I and all my relations would gather at the grandparents' house bearing much food and together have a grand feast. I recall dinners with a giant turkey at one end of the long table and a giant ham at the other end, and a hundred side dishes and a thousand desserts stacked everywhere. I was a little boy with big eyes; later, I was a starving teenager with a bottomless stomach. I do not recall having much leftovers.

Now, however, I can barely finish a turkey sandwich with a side of dressing. Then my cousins grew up (and I suppose I did, too) and we all had our own families. By then, the grandparents had passed on and Thanksgiving dinners became separate and self-contained. At some point in my own household, it became pointless to go to the trouble of it, even at the risk of having no leftovers. Deli turkey was good enough for a few sandwiches. 

No matter what happens this year, indulge in excessive moderation and may your moderation be indulgent. See you on the other side!

Stephen's Stuffing (or "dressing" to some folks)

Ingredients: a loaf of really cheap bread, a stick of real butter, one medium-length summer sausage, a bag of dried apricots, a bunch of celery, a little jar of sage, a bottle of orange juice, salt & pepper to your taste. (You could substitute cooked/dried cranberries for the apricots, if you wish; in that case, skip the OJ and use cranberry juice.)

Spread the butter over most of the slices of bread. (Tip: kids love to help with this part!) After buttering, tear up the bread into little pieces and put the pieces into a large bowl.

Cut up the sausage; slice then dice. (For a variation, we also used oysters instead of the sausage; works better with cranberries than apricots.) Put the diced sausage in the large bowl that has all the bread pieces. Cut the apricots and celery into little pieces, too, and put those pieces into the large bowl, as well. Shake in a good amount of sage, salt, and pepper. Mix up everything in the large bowl until your arms are tired.

Take the mixture from the bowl and put it into a small pan, something like 8x8 inches will do--or 9x9, 10x10, 12x12, whatever fits the size of your appetite. (I do not recommend stuffing the turkey itself because it is rather gross when you think about it and you don't know for sure what is still inside the turkey.) Then sprinkle some sage on top. Pour some orange juice into the pan; not a lot, but get everything wet. The OJ will make it slightly tart; you can skip the OJ if you want to and it will still be good.

Put the pan with the stuffing/dressing in it into the oven and bake until it starts to smell good, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes at 350*F. I'm going on memory now, so be careful. Putting foil over the top may help it along. It seems to me that we always put it in along with the foil-wrapped potatoes or yams for the same time and temperature, so try that.

Or, you could layer each ingredient in the pan: bread pieces first, then the pieces of sausage, celery, apricot, sage, and repeat. Kids who insist on helping can be put to good use in this procedure. Then, pour the orange juice over the top, let it soak down into the mixture, then bake. 

NOTE: I am not, nor have I ever been, a cook, chef, or baker. However, this recipe is a hybrid of recipes I assisted with in my youth, standing alongside one or the other grandmother, so it checks out. You will not get sick from eating it. Enjoy!

And thanks to all of you for your indulgence, your patience, and your constant attention to whatever the heck I post here, lo these many months!

(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.

13 November 2016

How I Lost the Election

About two months ago I declared my candidacy for President of the United States of America and the mainstream media did not notice.


Well, apparently most people were. I thought I could be the solution. If I offered myself as a write-in candidate, then voters on both sides of the voting booth could have a choice to select which they did not loath. After all, I'm a pretty nice guy most of the time. As proof of that, I regularly post bunnies on Facebook. Those who knew me through social media would attest to my good-naturedness, my clever repartee, and my wholesome disposition. I even had some kind of a platform, which I outlined in a previous blog post. I also had an animal logo that would stand alongside the donkey and the elephant. 

Then the harsh reality set in. First, I learned that not even my own state allowed write-in votes. Other states had similar rules. Right then I knew I could not win but I still hoped to gain some support so I could make a valid run next time. I thought my platform was good, too. Nobody complained. I got several comments of support and none asking questions about details. I knew I would work out the details later, anyway, when I hired top people to think through all the problems and how to solve them. That's how it works; I learned that from the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati.

There were no scandals in my campaign, either. Having no staff and no press corps, I could have done anything, yet I continued my happy-go-lucky, carefree campaign almost exclusively through social media. Wikileaks does not even know my name, it seems. I accepted no donations from big donors; in fact, I had zero donations so I was forced to self-fund. I took out almost seventy-nine dollars from the bank and spent it on coffee and ice cream and hamburgers to keep the campaign going. I gave no speeches and had no rallies. I made no banners or yard signs. I was asked for no interviews and gave no statements to any election board. I did not even make a major magazine cover.

All right, I know I was naive, too innocent for politics, and I started too late in the cycle. Then I kept to myself and just hoped everything would come together and then I would be coronated by the masses. I would awaken on November 9 and be as surprised as everyone else that a simple lad born and raised in Missouri who had so many qualifications [sic] would be invited to direct the activities of a mighty nation. I could do it, too; I would willingly put aside my fiction writing business for a few years. And yet, it didn't happen. Instead, it seems everyone still voted for one of the two they didn't hate--when they could have voted for me. 

Now all there is is gridlock. Half the voters are pleased and half protest. Some cry out that it was all unfair, they didn't get their way. Some shout how they suffered during the past eight years so now others can suffer. Many think the world is about to end while others see the world being saved--both of them, of course, electing only a president, the leader of one of around 182 nations on this planet. Granted, it's a big-talking nation with wide reach and a bottomless belly, but hey...I could've done it. I would be a unifier. I would have brought people together, all the cat folks and all the dog folks. After all, that is what I did on Facebook. And, as we all know, what happens on Facebook...well, let's leave it at that. No reason to express an opinion that would only incite a response from...well, someone...anyone...please?

I hope for better luck next time. Can I count on your vote?

(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.

23 October 2016

Vote for Me!

Last week, I had planned a blog inviting everyone to write in my name for the presidential election, considering how many people disliked the choices available. However, the day before I was going to post such a blog, I learned that in my own state (Oklahoma) write-in votes are not allowed. Doing so will invalidate your ballot. So, naturally, I fell into a depression, unable to begin packing for a move to the capital. I felt thwarted at every turn--or at least the first turn.

So now I begin my campaign for the next election! I shall be the Bunny Party's candidate for something sometime somewhere! Our slogan is "Treats and Naps for Everyone!"

I'm not sure what my platform will be but it will definitely be made of wood--good ol' American timber, in fact. I can elucidate on a few qualifications I have.

First of all, I was born in the U.S. of A. and both of my parents were, too. I'm also, sadly, over the age of 35.

I've always paid taxes--going back to my first job at Taco Bell. I've never deleted any emails, either, not since the internet began. I've always spoken well of other people (or, if necessary, said nothing at all to be polite) and seldom even go into locker rooms. 

Babies are not scared of me. I like animals but am not so good at caring for them. Animals seem to like me, especially bunnies. I have friends in other countries. I have visited many countries and lived overseas, thus enhancing my empathy and understanding of cultures different from the one I grew up in. 

As for economic matters, I like for everyone to have money. As much as they want. But only spend it on stuff you really need, with the occasional frivolous item to help maintain a happy disposition. 

Socially, I like to believe in the naive notion that everyone will get along by being generally kind to each other and not forcing their beliefs onto others. There is pleasure in having access to a diversity of everything, but like my primary belief, I like for things to just happen on their own without laws being made to force things to happen.

Practicing for a Presidential Portrait
For example, as a student of literature, I learned how to analyze a story or novel or poem from several different views (call them lenses), and that would seem to train me to be diplomatic. Arguing about what a poem actually means, even if my interpretation should differ from the meaning stated by the poet, is very good preparation for government work.

Speaking of government work, I did spend a few years as a lowly seasonal clerk at an IRS service center--and I kept their secrets, like how much certain well-known people were paying. I was in the National Guard, too, for a few years in my youth, so there's my military service. I also kept their secrets. 

As a writer of fiction, especially science fiction, I understand and would promote the sciences. I would like to see certain sci-fi films come to be true. Besides, we need a Mars colony for the riffraff of Washington, D.C., don't we? Also, through reading and writing science fiction, I have leaned to envision goals and plan how to achieve them--like any good writer does, of course. The difference is that for science fiction, a writer must imagine what does not yet exist and operate in a sphere of abstractions. Again, good training for politics.

My only serious shortcoming is I tend to get nervous speaking to large crowds, but I can write a decent speech and read it off a teleprompter. I had a television production class in college. I like to sleep late, too, but I will wake up for the 3 a.m. phone call and not just hang up cursing. If it's not an emergency, I'll call or text you back later.

Mostly I just want everyone to get along, treat each other kindly, work together for a common good, and remember that words, although they may hurt, are just words. Actions are, unfortunately, still actions. I would wish everything to run smoothly so I would not be bothered by problems. However, I would stand ready to hire top people to deal with those problems!

Ultimately, any wholesale change of administration is of greater concern and impact to an entire society than are the personal vagaries of any individual who seeks that position. For most of us, I suspect not much is likely to change in our daily lives, no matter who takes the reins of this horse. So it's still up to each of us, the smallfolk, to get along and make our own communities the way we want them to be, and leave the kings and kingslayers to play their chess games as far away from Main Street as possible. Thank you very much.

Don't forget to give your bunny a treat!

(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.

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.