Monday, March 20, 2017

Seeing the World

I’m home on spring break.
I’ve got nothing to do but laze around, work on one calculus three project, and then do writing. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to finish the second draft of Agram Awakens, and start the rough draft of its sequel, Slaves to Prophecy. And I’m going to write some blog posts, do a bit of work on that calculus project, and probably sleep in a bit.

Where does that leave me?

For all of that but the sleeping, that leaves me sitting in my room (or the living room) with my laptop and papers spread out in front of me. It involves me staring at two square feet of my life for hours on end.

I’m not here to give a spiel about the evils of technology, or the laziness of this generation, but rather to say: hey, there’s a world out there, and it’s pretty neat. It’s full of art.

The Struggle of World-seeing

Here’s the deal: it’s hard to go out and see the world. If we’re talking outside our normal venue, then it costs money. And I don’t know about you, but I’m poor. That doesn’t lend itself to going out and seeing the world.
I’ve got this drive to go out and see the whole thing. Visit other countries, interact with new cultures, find new adventures in weird places, go to places few people have ever gone before. Climb the mountains, descend into the valleys, run across the plains and just see things.
I haven’t got the money.
I haven’t got the time.
I haven’t got the will.
So I just stay inside and create my own worlds that I can explore.
That’s the struggle of wanting to see the world. It takes things we often do not have in and of ourselves. Instead of actually doing those things, we push them to the side. We save them for later. Maybe someday, in twenty or thirty years, we’ll make it to one of those places: go on a family vacation to see some national park.

The Reality of World-seeing

Is the place you live boring?
I know for me it is. I live in a very flat area, where most everything is fields of corn, soybeans, or pastures for cows. It smells of dust, distant pigsties, and the occasional smokehouse. It’s not terribly interesting.
I’ve been out in this part of my world a hundred times, a thousand. I’ve seen the cornfields, the cows, the little rolls in the earth that we call “hills” around here.

It’s kind of boring, now.
I’ve been desensitized to it. Sure, people who’ve never lived in this type of place might call it “quaint” or “pretty” in its own way, I find it… boring.

Maybe not so much anymore.
You see, if there’s one thing my college chemistry course has taught me (perhaps the only thing, considering it’s an intro-level course and I took two years of chemistry in highschool), it’s that there’s beauty in small things.
Very small things.
From atoms and molecules to the electron-scan image of an ant’s face, there are beautiful things out there.

None of them require me leaving my backyard.
The place you live isn’t boring: you are. You’ve become complacent and “bored” with the “boring” surroundings you live in. So in reality, it’s not the place that’s boring, it’s the person.

The Solution to World-seeing

The first thing I want to tell you is this: never give up on wanting to see the big places. Those places are awe-inspiring and they’re worth your time. The adventures and memories are worth it every. Single. Time.
However, there’s also a simple solution to your wanderlust: take a moment, slow down, and ponder the small beauties all around you in your world.
Go outside (or inside) and lay down. Examine the tiniest details, and open your mind to the possibility that beauty and art aren’t just “out there”.
They’re here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How To Battle – To Duel or Not To Duel

This post is going to be rather short, as well as rather straightforward.
I’m returning to the idea of battles in writing once more, but this time I’m zooming in quite close. Beyond the overall feel of the battle, beyond the overall scope to the small things: two people.

Today, I’m going to talk about the close part of the battle. It’s going to be about the part that maybe we care about the most: writing battle from the point of view of one character.

Definition: A Duel

First, let me define what I mean by when I say “duel”. I do not mean a long, drawn-out showdown between two people. That can be a thing, and it’s what duels are in the strictest sense, but I’m repurposing the word here.

A duel is a fight between your main character and the opposing side. That side can be one person, or two, or two thousand. It’s less about how many and more about how close the point of view is.

Lesson One: Sensory Details

Here’s the deal: I’ve never been in a war. I don’t actually know what it’s like to personally be there. I haven’t experienced it first person. Instead, I’m drawing on the experiences of others: my great-grandfathers who fought in world war two (both in the pacific), autobiographies of men who survived Vietnam or the world wars and several others. In addition, I’m drawing from books and movies (AKA All Quiet on the Wester Front, and Saving Private Ryan) which presented battle as so immensely real that even those who have been in war have said “yeah, that was a taste of what it was like to be there”.
And I’m also drawing on my own experience with writing battles scenes and what went over well and what did go over well with my beta readers.

The first thing, the most important thing to portraying a battle well is this: you cannot rely on visuals alone. You cannot.
You cannot simply rely on telling the reader who is moving where and when, and what the other characters do in response.
I know it’s tempting to do that, because it’s the easier way to write the scene. It’s the easier way to show what’s happening and what actually goes down. However, it’s going to take more than that to write a good battle scene. Instead, you have to maintain a close sense of reality. You have to pummel your reader with sensory information: sight is only one of these senses. I need to be able to hear and smell and feel and taste as well as see.
This is the hardest part of writing a battle well. It’s hard to maintain constant vigilance with your sensory information. It’s easy to forget what’s happening in the sensory world and focus on the actions and reactions of individuals.
Don’t be caught up by the action as the writer. It’s your job to make the description of the action AND its surroundings as clear and vivid as possible so that your READER will be caught up in it.

Lesson Two: State of Mind

A while back I talked about State of Mind, and how it’s vital to the emotional power of your story. That holds true to battles, but even more so. If your reader doesn’t know exactly what your character’s reaction to the battle is, they won’t know what to feel either.
This doesn’t mean that you have to have super emotional characters in battles, nor do you have to fill up the prose with a constant stream of thoughts. In fact, I argue AGAINST excessive thoughts during battle scenes. They drag the pacing. Instead, use word choice and carefully placed thoughts to convey the exact emotion of your character. This is a time for strong verbs and emphatic phrasing to shine. You can create punches to the gut of your reader with your words, if you’re careful.
It’s hard to describe exactly how to do this, so I suggest this: read Fallen Angels (by Walter Myers, disclaimer for language and intensely real violence) and All Quiet on the Wester Front (by Erich Remarque). These two war books do an excellent job of using prose to convey SoM without burdening the narrative with thoughts or telling phrases. This is best learned by observation of those who have mastered the skill, and then practice and careful editing.

Always keep SoM at the forefront, but especially in battle scenes. It causes the reader to be pulled into the front lines, where they can experience every emotion your scene has to offer from the closest they can be.

Lesson Three: Cut the Dialogue

Here’s the deal: unless your characters are far from the actual battle, they can’t talk.
They just can’t.

Got it?

Okay fine, that’s not quite true. But their conversations are not dialogue. These aren’t conversations, these are life-and-death messages which must be conveyed in curt and urgent tones. Your characters can’t stop mid-battle (especially in fantasy or pre-Victorian-era wars) to talk about anything other than “you cut around the hill left, I’ll cut around right” or “fall back” or “forward”.
In other words, all those dialogues mid-battle between hero and ally, where the ally gives the hero hope?
Cut them.
All those conversations between the hero and the villain, where the hero swears to kill the villain or persuades him to surrender or the villain taunts the hero?
Cut them.

There’s no time for any words in battles, aside from commanders giving orders or wounded men screaming for their mothers and medics calling for help as they drag mutilated bodies from the battlefield in a desperate attempt to save the pitiful life still clinging to existence.

Writing Close Battles

It’s easy to give sweeping overviews of battles. It’s easy to escape into the omniscient narrator and try to convey all the happenings of the battle to the reader in a factual way. It’s easy to ignore all sensory information outside of visual.
However, we’re not meant to take the easy route.
No, we’re meant to take the route which yanks our readers into the story and plunges them into the thick of a sensory-driven, illustrious story that compels them.
That’s what a battle can do, written correctly.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Working With Your Calling

What is your talent?
To use a different word, what is your gift?
And to use yet another word, what is your calling?

A Faceted Trio

Those three things I just asked you about?
They’re all different.
Sure, they all overlap (or at least they should), but they’re each distinctive and equally important to thriving. If life is an art, then we should want to do it well, to the utmost of our abilities. If life is an art, we should be striving to make our canvas vibrant.

So what makes these three things stand apart? Moreover, why do we care?
(First let’s take a moment to admire the fact that I just used the word “moreover” in a sentence without sounding pretentious)

Talents are physical or mental abilities. They’re not necessarily spectacular, or odd, or paranormal, they’re simply things you’re good at.
For instance, I have talents in math (I mean, I’m surviving calculus three and actually really enjoying it?) and science and whistling and balancing things on my big toe.
I do not have talents in singing, dancing (to an extent, I guess I do, but not really), guessing what you’re thinking, and being unattractive.
[Yes, that was your cue to laugh at my self-deprecating joke about how I can’t be unattractive. I’m so funny.]

Gifts, on the other hand, are extraordinary. These are things not everyone can just do. Talents are things that anyone could do, with practice, time, and the right sort of learning. Anyone could pass calculus three, given the right amount of time and the right tutor to help them learn.
Not everyone, however, can write a novel (or write it well). Not everyone can pull off a compelling character on a theatre stage. Not everyone can draw or paint wonderfully realistic pieces of art. Not everyone can write sheet music to their own songs.
These things are gifts.
When it comes to my gifts… well, I just gave two I have and two I do not have as examples so I guess I don’t even need to go into mine.

Calling is where talents and gifts merge with passion to create a purposeful direction for your life. It’s where you examine what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about to find where you’re “called”.
For instance, I’ve found that I’ve got talents in math and science, and a gift for level-headed problem solving. These three things meet up in what I’m majoring in: chemical engineering.
I’ve also found that I’ve got gifts in theatre and writing, which are where my hobbies are directed. In a way, hobbies are like mini-callings. Side quests, if you will.
Others may find their talents and gifts merging with passion in other areas, or in different combinations. It’s where they’re so many occupations out there.

The Truth About “Occupations”

I know I just acted like occupations were linked to calling, but here’s the deal: your calling is more than your occupation. It’s more than your “job”. Your calling is an expression of you. It’s all the little pieces of yourself bundled together into one expression of you that manifests as your passions, gifts and talents. It’s where everything about you is pointing toward.

Therefore, occupations are not callings. They’re tiny pieces of callings.

Living Out a Calling

If a calling is more than an occupation, how to we find it? How do we live it?

Well, you start by discovering what’s involved in your calling. If you don’t know where your gifts and talents coincide with passion, you won’t be able to find your calling.
So start there. Find the intersection.
From here, you have to embrace that calling. It’s not enough to write it on a plaque and hang it in your house so you can say “yeah, this right here, it’s my calling”.
You have to live it.
Your calling has to express itself in everything you do, every aspect of your life.
In a way, your calling is your art.

Your calling is what makes your life an art.

That sounds pretty important to me.
So let’s do it.

Let’s find our callings.
Let’s live them out.
Let life be an art.