Saturday, December 20, 2014

Weekly Update: 12-20-14 The Dreamy End

As the year ends, I find it harder and harder to focus on tasks. My mind dreams ahead to all the possibilities of 2015. One of the things I started to look into was learning German. Even I know how difficult it is to learn a langage on your own, and I half expect to fail at it miserably. But it's also a new challenge, one I haven't had in a while. I want to go to Germany in the next few years, but for me, it's not enough to simply enjoy the pretty buildings. I have to understand the culture of the country, and that means having even a poor understanding of the language.

In the meantime, I'm planning local day trips to satiate my travel bug, while I save money for a European vacation. I'd like to do a library crawl, catch some festivals, go to museums. Often I try to sneak in some research for a story. Last year, I went to Big Bear to soak in some setting for Company. This year, I'd like to do some research on Indonesia for Counterfeit Diamond.  Not the easiest culture to find.

I've also been cleaning the house, baking cookies, watching movies, subbing for Japanese, making cards, and hanging out with family and friends. In short, everything but writing. That's fine. Writing season is closed for the year and probably won't re-open until 2015. By which time The Changelings will be pubished. And I'll be another decade older. Hooray?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dissecting Fantasy: Heaven and Hell

"The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." --John Milton

This isn't an article about the afterlife.

This is an article about writers, especially fantasy writers, creating their own representation of Heaven and Hell in their work. You can build a setting so wonderful your readers will wish they can buy a ticket there for their next vacation, or so terrible they will shiver with fear.


"On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it." --Jules Denard

Although I use Heaven in this article, for the sake of contrast, another way of putting it is Home. It's a place where your characters feel loved and accepted, usually a place of peace and truth and beauty. The beauty does not have to be extravagant or perfect. A cracked vase with a single wildflower can be more beautiful than a silver urn overflowing with roses. It's the heart put into the place that makes it special.

The importance of Heaven is twofold. First, it gives the audience some place to care about and to feel safe in. When that place is threatened, the audience feels that tension. Another use of Heaven is to manifest ideals and themes. It can be a utopia, a place to aspire to.

Some famous representations of Heaven include Hobbiton, Rivendale, and Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings, Hogswarts in the Harry Potter series, Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. But my favorite versions of Heaven probably come from the writings of Laura Ingall Wilder, who drew such a vivid portrait of the landscape of the American pioneer, it inspired a thousand games of make-believe.


"We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." --Oscar Wilde

Hell, by contrast, is any setting comprised primarily of pain and misery and dread. It is a place where natural human relationships are strained, perverted, or broken. It may be superficially beautiful, but it is rotten to the core. Whereas Heaven inspires the audience's love, hell provokes fear.

Hell is the ultimate obstacle. It will test your protagonist on every level. It serves as an object of dread; if Heaven is what your protagonist seeks to gain, Hell is what they want most to avoid. That said, as an author, you'd do well to toss them into Hell at least sometimes. If the hero's don't confront Hell, they don't deserve Heaven.

Hell is probably easier to write, since we have many more real world examples and since, while people might disagree on what Heaven looks like, we all have a pretty good idea of Hell. Popular examples include Mordor in Lord of the Rings, the arena in The Hunger Games (where the games are played), and, well, Hell in Dante's Inferno. My most frightening vision of Hell was in George Orwell's 1984. I had nightmares for a week.

How to Build Your Own Heaven or a Hell

1. Draw on your own loves and fears

"To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Heaven is usually built on love, hell on fear.

When you start to draw these places up, you should begin with yourself, what you love, what you fear. If you simply steal the trappings of other people's visions of heaven and hell, without bringing in your own emotions, you'll be left with a dull facade.

For example, if you love animals, incorporate that into your version of heaven. I, personally, like art, culture, and history, so into the pot it goes. In The Changelings, I drew upon my experiences in Japan to create a festival that, for me, represented the heavenly aspect of that particular group of people.

As far as fears, I tend to draw on failure, rejection, brainwashing, loss of control, and things of that nature. I find that cult environments play heavily in my version of hell.

Don't overdo it. Don't try to throw in everything at once. Also be careful to make sure your love and fears can appeal to a wider audience. I have a phobia abut butterflies, but I doubt I could evoke fear with a horde of raging Monarchs.

2. Location, location, location

"Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company." --Mark Twain

This is a bit obvious, but Heaven and Hell are settings.

Not necessarily physical ones, though. If you're literally doing Heaven and Hell, you're dealing with the afterlife. Or you could do a dream world or a virtual reality. In cases where you're not dealing with physical limitations, you may still want to set some specific ground rules, so that your writing isn't all over the place.

If you are creating a physical landscape, what sort of environment? Land, sea, sky, underground? Hot, cold, temperate, humid? Wild or civilization? City or country? Woods, mountains, grass, swamps, river, lakes, volcano, islands?

Rather than picking and choosing places at random, you may want to look at the characters, ideas, and scenarios you already have in your head. For example, if your character is a mermaid, Hell might be a desert or any stretch of land far from the ocean. If you know your character values freedom, Hell might be a prison.

For some reason, the strongest representations of Heaven and Hell that I've read about have some element of isolation. In Heaven, this isolation protects it from evil or corrupting influences. In Hell, this isolation helps keep the evil from running rampart; but once you're there, you can't get out.

One thing you may want to consider, then, is a barrier. It can be a physical barrier, like mountains, desert, sea, or a physical wall. It can also be something more abstract, like magic, existence on a different plane of reality, secrecy, or obscurity: no one knows about this place.

3. Origins and History

"The safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without sign posts." --CS Lewis

I, personally, like to know the origins of everything, whether or not I share it with the readers.

If you're only dealing with a wild, natural landscape, no further explanation might be necessary. But if there's any human (or non-human) involvement, you may want to think about who built the place and why and how.

Heaven, I like to think, is built on the foundation of love, so think about what the great passion of the builders may be. What sort of ideals did they hope to embody? What obstacles did they have to overcome and sacrifices did they have to make to create the place? Are they still working to better themselves even now?

With hell, it's a bit more complicated. Unless you have beings that are pure evil, most people don't set out to build a place of pain and suffering. So what happened? What went wrong?

You could begin with a fear. People were desperate to protect themselves, and in that desperation, they did something stupid, like hand over power to a dangerous man or shut themselves into a system they can't get out of.

It might begin as a kind of bitterness or hatred to a certain group of people that grew and grew, until it became ever more demented. It might begin as a beautiful ideal that got perverted somewhere down the line. Maybe the place was a normal city, but complacency and indifference allowed criminals to take over. Maybe greed got the better of the people.

There's all sorts of scenarios you could come up with.

4. How Did I Get Here?

"To be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly Cause" --from Man of La Mancha

So now that you've got your Heaven and Hell, it's time to think about how your character gets to these places. One of the simplest ways is to have your character start off in either your version of Heaven or Hell. That way, one location is given right off the bat.

A person starting off in Heaven might experience a fall from grace and be ejected or they might voluntarily leave to seek out greener pastures (before discovering there's no place like home) or they might be forced away from their Heaven in order to protect it, rather like a soldier might.

They might be violently ripped away: captured, kidnapped, enslaved, orphaned. Or it might be that Heaven gets destroyed from the beginning and they might have to seek a new paradise or build one from scratch.

On the other hand, they might start off in Hell. An orphan or slave might, through brains, cunning, skill, spirit, daring, or sheer luck, find himself propelled out of his horrible situation. Or, perhaps he, like his Heaven counterpoint, is forced out, due to war or other external forces. Maybe he's rescued from his situation.

Another option is for a character to stay in the same basic place, but have either that place, or their perception of that place, change. Even Heaven can become Hell, if taken over by bad management, as Hogwarts was under Voldemort. Or perhaps the character starts off thinking they're in Heaven or in Hell, but as they see more of the world, they get a new perspective.

Perhaps a great catastrophe comes to the place. War, for example, can make even the most peaceful place into a Hell. Or it could be a natural disaster or (in the case of virtual reality) maybe some bug in the system.

If, however, a character actually has to seek out Heaven or Hell, consider why. Hell usually pops up as an obstacle the character must go through in order to get to Heaven, but if the character intentionally seeks it out, there must be a reason.

In classical myth, heroes make trips to the underworld (Hell) in order to retrieve a loved one's soul or to seek the advice of one long dead. There can be valuable treasures in Hell, as well, enough to make the trip seem tempting. Or perhaps they want to destroy Hell and can only do it from the source.

The last thing to consider is that the character may never actually enter Heaven or Hell. The places may exist as an aspiration or as a threat, and maybe the mere mention of them is enough.

5. What Can Threaten Heaven?

"If you're going through hell, keep going." --Winston Churchill

Heaven, at least the kind found on earth, usually has a sense of fragility to it. Whatever is good and peaceful and loving and beautiful can always be destroyed. One of my favorite passages from Lost Horizon sums up this fragility nicely:

"It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality; that the whole world's future, weighed in the balance against youth and love, would be light as air. And he knew, too, that his mind dwelt in a world of its own, Shangri-La in microcosm, and that this world was also in peril. For even as he nerved himself, he saw the corridors of his imagination twist and strain under impact; the pavilions were toppling; all was about to be in ruins."

In this case, it takes only a shift in the hero's perception, that causes the whole thing to collapse. One generation might build their ideal, only for the next generation to reject it. Passions cool, causes are abandoned, community ties become too much work. People leave.

Of course, it might, more directly, be attacked.

Hell, like any good enemy fortress, likes to appear unassailable, but, unless you're writing a depressing Dystopia in the vein of 1984, it usually has some weakness built into it. If Hell is built on deceit and people discover the truth, that power is broken. If it is built on fear and people find courage, that power is broken. If it is built on hatred and people forgive, that power is broken.

Change can happen anywhere and in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weekly Update: 12-13-14 More Rain

Rain smattering on my window woke me up at 4:30 yesterday morning. I can't remember the last time rain woke me. I want to say sometime when I was living in Japan, but I doubt that was it was that far back. The sight of rivulettes puldsing through the gutters alarmed me enough to throw off the covers and check on the dogs, but they were tucked deep in thir houses, where the rain couldn't hurt them

This is the second week its rained, which means, for California, we are in the middle of the wet season. This is how little used to rain we are: when I came to school on Friday, with a jacket and umbrella, the secretary and her assistant spent five minutes debating the best route I should take to get my classroom without getting wet. Later in class, a student broke the unspoken rule to roll up the blinds and stare in fascination as the droplets that fell. At little after noon, when the drain stopped, the students were still amazed by the sight of sunlight breaking through clouds and shining over puddles.

* * *

Last time I wrote, rather tongue-in-cheek, about procrastination. Then I decided to take my own advice, so to speak. My whiteboard is stacked with a gloomily long To-Do List, but I seem to want to do every task that isn't urgent or important. Things like: writing my daydreams in my 
idea journal, starting my Christmas shopping, studying Japanese, and planning a trip to Europe I want to take in 3 years. Meanwhile, I've put off the thing I need most to do (Formatting) off to the weekend.

Despite this, I did finish reading/ critiquing the whole 200 page mauscript of Company, and the beginning of the Originals, start re-writing the first two chapters of Three Floating Coffins, and held down three substitute jobs. I did do a little bit of formatting stuff done, too, such as reading the Kindle Direct Publishing contract and making sure the cover loaded properly. So it ended up not being that hopeless of a week. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mastering the Procrastination Shuffle

Feeling overwhelmed?

Do you have 10 projects, 5 crisis, and 0 time to deal with any of them? Do you feel the overwhelming urge to flick on the TV, go to You Tube, surf the web or even read a book--in short, anything to put off the task in front of you?

You're in luck. Procrastination can be your friend as well as your enemy. But only if you master the art of the procrastination shuffle.

What is the Procrastination Shuffle?

Basically, it's putting off the things you really hate to do by getting done other, less urgent stuff. Used properly, it can be a great tool for motivating yourself. Used improperly... well, at least you get something done.

Step 1. Make a List

Write down all the things you need or want to get done in the day, the week, or the month. Make sure you include little things, like doing the dishes or walking the dog. Does the list look too light? Add more stuff.

Step 2. Stare in Horror at the Impossible

Feel that anxiety squirt in your belly as you realize there is absolutely no way to get everything done. Not feeling it yet. Really envision what kind of effort it will take to get everything done. Let that dread sink into your soul.

Step 3. Chop Stuff Off the List

Mentally decide which things are least likely to get done, don't need to get done, can wait until a different date. For big tasks, chop them into smaller pieces. Make up a new list if needed.

Step 4. Assess the Feasibility of Your List

Do you think you could get everything done on the list and still do the daily stuff to keep you alive and hygienic. Things like eating, sleeping, showering, brushing teeth, taking bathroom breaks. Can you do everything, but only if you run around like crazy and utilize every second of the day with maximum efficiency?

Good. You now have a reasonable list.

Step 5. Judge the Tasks

What tasks are most pleasant, which are boring, which tasks frighten you deep down where you can't admit it, which tasks do you hate with an undying passion? Which tasks are long, which tasks are short?

Step 6. Gauge Your Mental Energy

Are you feeling brave? Happy? Cranky? Lazy? Scared?

Step 7. Find the Most Amicable Item on Your List

If, for some reason, you are feeling you can tackle the world (in which place, you don't need the procrastination shuffle), go ahead and choose the hardest item on the list. For the other 90% of the time, choose something fun or short or easy or just the least horrible.

Step 8. Do Said Item

Step 9. Congratulations!

Celebrate the completion of this Herculean task by slashing the item on the list, disemboweling it like a mountain, obliterating it from existence. Or for the less violent, draw a smiley face to signify your enemy is now your friend.

Step 10. Evaluate Your Effort

How long did it take to do the task? Shorter than you thought? Longer? Was there any kind of crisis that popped up you had to deal with or additional steps you didn't anticipate. Add those to your list and cross them off too.

Step 11. Use the Quick Burst of Happy Energy You Get from Accomplishing One Task to Propel You Into the Next One

If you don't feel happy, you probably need to go back to Step 9. Celebrate. Really feel proud of yourself.

Step 12. Repeat Until Bedtime

Step 13. How Did You Do?

Take a look at your list and count the tasks completed. How great of a percentage did you get done?

100%-75% Wow, you are awesome! That's not even procrastination. That's efficiency.

75%-50% Pretty good. Pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a glass of chocolate milk (or beverage of your choice).

50%-25% Hey, it's something. Maybe you had a crisis or overestimated yourself. Maybe you ran out of energy or took a very long break. It happens. Live and learn.

25%-1% Could be better. At least you got something done.

0% Okay, so you got distracted and all your good intentions went out the window. The good news is that you should be nice and relaxed with a large store of mental energy. Tomorrow's another day.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Weekly Update: 12-6-14 Rain

On Tuesday morning, a rare phenomenom drizzled over the air of Southern California. Rain. It spattered and drenched the asphalt in sparkling black puddles. I got to use my umbrella for about the fourth time since I brought it from Japan. It didn't stop my backpack from getting sopping wet. My post-it notes are still wrinkled together.

I had four days of substitute work. During that time, I re-read my Three Floating Coffins story and tried to figure out future corrections. Good lord, I have to re-write the whole first half of my novel. The second half is better, but I still need to tear it up and re-write key scenes. Formatting for The Changelings is proving more troublesome than I thought. And I haven't even begun to get a Christmas shopping list together.

All in all, I'm feeling pretty stressed out this week.