Friday, May 26, 2017

World Blip – The Dark Side

One of the writer’s favorite things is the villain.
I’m not even sure why, but almost every writer I know loves developing villains, creating them, and watching them do evil things in order to thwart the hero.

While avoiding getting into the psychological ramifications, it does leave a wide opening for discussions and blog posts. I’ve posted before about villains, about minor villains, about conflict and stakes and all sorts of things down the vein of villains. Today I’m going to peer back into that vein and see what else I can pull out.

The title says world blip.
Guess I better find something in there that is worldbuilding related.

Twenty Minutes Later…

I found something.
There are a lot of “dark sides” in movies and books. From the literal Dark Side of Star Wars to the symbolic “shadow” in The Lion King where the lion does not rule, there are dark places. Places villains live. Evil lairs, mountain fortresses, piles of skulls, random candlesticks, and corporate skyscrapers that look evil just by existing.

Here’s the deal: each and every one of those things screams evil.
Most “villains” don’t think they’re evil, so why do their lairs look like that in movies and books?
Like take the classic example of a villain actual history:

You know what that is?
That’s Hitler’s house.
Well, one of them.

It doesn’t look evil and full of vileness. Not really. More like… old fashioned, and that’s because it was a while back.
It doesn’t look like the home of one of the most reviled men in all of history.
What about this one:

That’s Stalin’s house, Kharkov.
It looks rather refined to me, not super dark and evil-looking. Stalin killed a lot of people. A lot of people.

There are a lot of clichés in the development of evil places, so let’s explore those, and explore why those clichés are so often chosen and used.

Describing the Land of Evil

This is one of the most common clichés known among men. The Land of Evil. I’m not sure who started this, maybe Tolkien did. Maybe Mordor inspired a slew of books that use lands of desolation and darkness to notify that “villain lives here”.

What makes this cliché so common, and so useful?
It shows without telling. When you describe a dark, evil setting by showing, you also show that the villain is evil. It’s a backdoor sort of showing. It’s implicit. If they place they live is evil, so must they be. This, however, is also a copout. It’s lazy. How easy is it to describe black rocks, skulls, and angry clouds? Very. I could easily describe any of those things, complete with looming towers with jagged tops and red lights winking through slitted windows, the stark white bones of defeated enemies littering the jaded plain before them, without having to think very hard. I mean, I just came up with that one without having to think at all. My phone actually lit up while I was typing that sentence and I glanced over at it while writing the middle portion.
That’s how easy it is to write a setting that sounds evil.
Everyone knows what evil settings look like, nowadays.

But what if???
What if we had villains who didn’t look anything like that? Villains who are evil but don’t think they are? Now, there’s nothing wrong with villains who live in evil places. They are fine. They work. But they aren’t always true to life.
Some villains live in lavish mansions. They live in palaces and or in normal-looking houses.
How, then, do we build these things in such a way that the world still shows their villainy?

Undeserved Fortune

If undeserved misfortune is the way to a sympathetic hero, then Undeserved Fortune is the way to a hate villain. When a villain’s hideout is dark and dreary, we’re not jealous of them. We just think they’re evil.
The villain who lives in a mansion while the people who slave for him live in squalor?

We detest him.

The villainess who dines, sleeps, and lounges in luxury while ordering the destruction of people’s homes for her own gain?

She is despicable.

There is something about undeserved fortune that makes readers writhe. We hate it when the hero has it (Deus ex Machina), and we hate it when the villain has it (we also happen to love it, in this weird sort of paradox where we love the villains we hate).
When you build the land your villain rules over, give them fortune they do not deserve, and give those around them misfortune they do not deserve. This juxtaposition creates in your readers a mindset of “they’re the cruel person, the rest are just mistreated and need to be liberated”, without having to tell them “this person is evil”.

Let’s take a moment and recognize that I’m not saying wealth is evil here. This isn’t a rant against the 1% or whatever. Some of those people are actually nice. In fact, your villain doesn’t have to be (and often times should not be) incredibly, incredibly wealthy.
Wealth is by comparison.
If everyone in the world had five billion dollars right now, it would be the same as if we all had ten dollars. Equality of wealth doesn’t create riches: it creates a new equilibrium.
Therefore, your misfortunate characters can have ten dollars in their pocked and the villain has a hundred, and it will seem unfair, evil, and unjust.
People are weird that way.

“Auras” vs. “Reality”

If the villain’s realm is volcanically active and dark all the time, we’ll see that reality as evil.
What about more inventive settings? What makes the luxury suite of a hotel evil compared to the janitor’s closet?
Or what makes the janitor’s closet evil?

I like to call it an aura, and I’m not trying to offend psychics out there: this is a word I’m stealing from you and you can’t have it back.
What is this aura? You create the aura of a place by the words you use. Words have power, and describing the places you develop goes a long way in creating the presence characters and readers feel. If you use the right words, you can make a janitor’s closet seem like the second circle of hell.
What words are these?
Well, it depends on the place. Generally speaking, terse sentences, staccato description, and slightly-off words can create a sense of wrongness in the reader. Words that don’t quite seem right, but no one can pinpoint why, sentences that end seemingly too soon. A touch of reluctance.

I’m getting all prose blip on you now, but this is important: word choice for showcasing your world is vitally important.

Implication, Not Proof

One thing that a lot of people seem to miss when it comes to describing their villain’s lair is this: the description of the lair does NOT automatically make us think the villain is bad. It makes us know they’re evil, but we don’t feel it until you prove it.
Actions speak louder than words, and actions speak louder setting.

Giving the villain’s setting power and vivid description creates strong implication that can then be followed up with obvious proof to send an impactful message.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Importance of Persevering

I write this on the last day of finals.
Yesterday, I had two exams, today I have one. It will bring my total up to six for this semester. Of those six, I’ve only really worried about three of them.

Two of those were yesterday. Needless to say, I had a stress headache the night before. I needed to do well on my physics exam, and I basically needed to ace my calculus three final to get the grade I wanted. I was stressed. I poured over my textbooks and problem sets and past exams and projects to learn the material.

I knew I did well on my western civ exam, my other core exam, and my chem exam. The final exam was an improv performance, and I knew I’d do well on that one, too.
I was confident in these subjects. Still am.

But physics and calculus three?
I studied. I spent hours and hours making sure I understood the material and could do problems presented to me by the textbooks and the online homework and the in-class notes and assignments.
I’ve never put so much work into two things that took less than an hour and a half each.

That was yesterday.
I feel good about physics. I’m confident I got the grade I wanted on that exam and in the class as a whole. Perfectly confident.
The calculus?

I know I didn’t get a perfect score (the score I wanted). I know I didn’t end up with the grade I was hoping for.
It will be the first math class I’ll get a grade lower than an A- in. It is also my last math class. Beyond the math in my engineering classes, I’m done. The math department won’t be seeing me again.

But this calculus class?
Part of me is disappointed. My last class, my last one. I could have kept the streak, could’ve kept that perfect record. If differential equations hadn’t stopped me last semester, why would this class do it? Most of me, however, is content. Here's why:

Green’s Theorem

There’s this thing in calculus called Green’s Theorem. From it are derived most of the other theorems involved in vector calculus. Without Green’s Theorem, line integrals are way too burdensome to deal with, and without it we wouldn’t have Stokes’ Theorem or the Divergence Theorem.

Now, to the layman all those names mean nothing. What’s vector calculus? What’s a line integral? What’s an integral to begin with? Who were Green and Stokes, and what’s Divergence?

Let’s be perfectly honest: it doesn’t matter. I will say this: it’s the hardest part of calculus. This is where all the calculus students struggle.
Well, most of them.
My professor stopped us one day, mid-class and handed out a piece of paper. It was a short article titled “Everyone has a Personal Green’s Theorem”. We all thought he was introducing the theorem, since it was what came next in the book.

As it turns out, we weren’t doing calculus that class period.
We were doing philosophy and work ethics.
The writer of the essay was a math professor talking about his education. When this professor took calculus three, he was good at it. The math came easy (this is similar to me in many ways). Then they reached Green’s Theorem and this man, this professor-to-be struggled. He struggled with math in a way he’d never struggled before.

The article went on to talk about how every single subject, no matter what it is, will always get hard someday. Whether it’s math or science or art or music or writing, it will become difficult for every single person at some point.
Doesn’t matter who they are, or how good they are at it.
Things become too complex or difficult for them to come easy.
The level at which this is true is different for each person in each subject. Many people find math becomes difficult as soon as algebra one, some people don’t find it difficult until they do real analysis and have to prove calculus.

The point of the article? Everyone has their own personal Green’s Theorem. Everyone eventually reaches a point in every subject where they actually have to try.
For me, my Green’s Theorem in math actually was Green’s Theorem.

The article didn’t end there. It wasn’t just prepping us for when math would become hard.

This article talked about how most people give up when they reach this point. As it turns out, however, this is the point where the real work is done. The moment you reach your personal Green’s Theorem in anything, you have to try. When you try, you have to put forth all effort to learn master and overcome and persevere.

The Importance of Perseverance

If all of us gave up as soon as things got tough, we wouldn’t be here. We’d have given up on everything a long time ago.

We aren’t meant to give up when the going get rough. When we push on, when we persevere, we find art. We find the art of math, the art of science, of music, of painting, of writing, of living.
The moment we give up is the moment we stop making art.

When it gets hard: when writing gets hard, when math gets hard, when life gets hard, don’t give in. Giving up on it means giving up on art.
Don’t give up.
Push on. Persevere.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Updates and Introductions

It’s been a while since I’ve shared about my own writing, so I thought today I’d take the time to share what I’ve been writing lately, and what I plan to write in the near future.

Recently, life has been letting up on my average load. As I write this, I’m prepping for finals, which means stress is rather high but homework and busywork are at an all-time low for the semester. I’ve been writing more (which has helped immensely with stress) and concerning myself less with repetitive math and more with creative writing.

While I’ve pulled back a bit from this place, I’ve also invest myself more into caring about it. Posting less means I’m spending more time investing in each post. I’m thoroughly enjoying each one, which I feel is much healthier for both myself and you guys.
It also means that my writing time has focused more on my projects and less on blog posts, which means my overall word count has a higher percentage focused into novels, short stories, and so forth.

An Update: The Winner

Early last month, I entered a short story into the Purple Martin Writing Contest at my college. This story, Broken Snapshots was written for an online contest sometime last year, and I posted it on this blog a few months ago. I ended up winning the online contest, which was more for bragging rights than anything else.
This story, for those who haven’t read it, is told from the view of a camera, and details its days photographing a variety of people

I entered the story at the encouragement of my girlfriend, not really expecting to win anything. After all, many more-talented people than I enter this contest and it’s judged by the English department faculty. My little story wasn’t going to win.

Or I guess it was.
I ended up placing first in the fiction category, which I’m both surprised and pleased by. I was actually doing physics homework in the library when they announced it at this poetry reading thing that was also taking place in the library so there was this awkward quiet followed by me shuffling over from my table full of physics numbers to acknowledge that I did a thing.
That was fun.
At some point, I’ll make a page like I did for Eyes, and post the story there.

An Update: The Schedule

I’ve got a lot of things planned when it comes to writing, and my plan usually changes before I can complete anything on my list. Timing, creative blocks, and desires to write other things all distract and redirect my attention.
However, here’s the basic layout of what I hope to accomplish with my writing before the next school year starts:
First, I’m planning on editing Agram Awakens and entering it into a contest (this will happy from June til August on and off).
Secondly, I’d like to start developing the worlds, characters, and plots for The Biography of a Very Bad Man, The Confessions of a Grelgin Priest, and a few other minor stories as well as continuing to map out the sequels to Agram Awakens.
Speaking of which, the third thing I’d like to continue to work on this summer is the sequel to Agram Awakens, which I’ve been slowly working on for about two months now. This project has been wrapped in a shroud of mystery and only like seven people know it’s actually happening right now.

Today, however, I’m actually going to let it out into the fresh air for a few breaths before I pull it back under its shroud.

Introducing: Slaves to Prophecy

I mean I feel like I would normally draw this out in some dramatic way, but the heading kind of spoils it and I’m feeling rather lazy today, so I’ll just say it: I’m writing book two of my series following Agram Awakens (which really needs a freaking title already so I can stop calling it that goodness) and it’s under the working title Slaves to Prophecy. It’s currently sitting in chapter seven at a cozy 17,300 words, out of a projected ninety-three chapters and 230,000 words. For reference, Agram Awakens is sixty-one chapters and just over 202,000 words. They’ll be approximately the same length, but this one has shorter chapters.

What is this about, exactly?
I’ve talked quite a bit about Agram Awakens, but I haven’t spent a ton of time actually describing it. This is due to the fact that I’m real bad and synopsis and no synopsis I write actually does a good job of summarizing the book in a way that doesn’t sound lame.
The logline for the whole series is this: “six people set off the end of the world and have to try to fix it”. Which sounds awfully cliché so I’m working to refine it. Not to mention the fact that this isn’t really about the end of the world so much as the people who have to deal with the fact that it is, in fact, ending. Therefore, I have two synopses: one for the plot, and one for what actually happens. I’ll provide them both:

“It’s been decades since the Eglive overran Agram, plunging the world into chaos. Centuries. Even now, after they’ve been pushed back, they plague any traveler attempting to traverse Agram. The Raids into Agram are futile, despite their continuation.
The ancient religions spoke of a time when Agram would go dormant.
They spoke of the Eglive.
They spoke of the loss of power.
They spoke of a time of peace.
They spoke of the Truil Goic coming back.
For the sake of the world, let all men pray they do not.
For the sake of the world, let the Holders never come forth.
Agram Awakens.”

I mean that’s pretty exciting I guess. Now for the part that makes me excited about these books:
Agram Awakens is about six people struggling with their own personal stories when their lives collide with something much bigger than all of them, something which requires them to sacrifice their own personal gain for the sake of those around them. 

Agram Awakens is about a man fighting a religious war, a woman kidnapped for political power, a fisherman stranded on a island, a boy fleeing from his gang-boss to and seeing the world, a merchant trying to provide for his family, and a slave who flees from those she has killed. 

Agram Awakens is personal gain, greed, and self-righteousness bowing out to compassion, justice, and the frail promise of a collectively better world through unconditional sacrifice.”

That is, in short, what the whole series is about as well. The first book is the springboard, and the rest are a following up on these stories as they play out in the greater narrative.

Slaves to Prophecy is the second book (out of ten, possibly more, possibly less) and, if I actually had a synopsis, could be described as something like this:

“Taynan [the boy] and Bea [the kidnapped woman] watch as their world crumbles. She is meant to end the world, he’s nothing more than a boy with control over nothing. Not even himself. They find their way together, hoping for a cure to her fate.
Gaream [the soldier] leads his men against a foe they cannot defeat: a foe he woke. All of Agram is awake, now, and he is the one to blame.
Deyu [the slave girl] soars through the heavens to a place she doesn’t expect, meets a man she finds she trusts, and discovers peace.
Deng-el [the merchant] struggles to survive the Vanc as nightmares and myths turn his life to ruins.
All around them, the world seems to crumble, crumble, crumble.
The Truil Goic have arrived.”

I… actually think I like that. Interesting. I came up with that on the spot, but I think I’ll keep it for now.


Both Slaves to Prophecy and Agram Awakens I've written in Scrivener (see images for my basic layout), Aeon Timeline, Scapple, Word, OneNote, and a few other programs as well (keeping all of this stuff straight takes too much work, but I guess it's worth it in the end).

I use Scrivener for all my rough drafts. This is the first chapter of StP

I use Aeon Timeline to keep track of where people are, and when.

I've just started using Scapple for brainstorming, and it's amazing.

That’s what I’m up to. I’m writing Slaves to Prophecy until near the end of May, when I’ll start editing Agram Awakens for that contest. And, of course, I’m going to keep blogging.

What about you? What’s your writing look like, of late? And if not writing, what about your Art?