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So, you and your protagonist walk into a bar…

February 8, 2011

What happens?

Is the answer is something like: A look of bewildered rage crosses their face as they swing a chair at my head, shouting, “That’s for the last three chapters, you (expletive deleted) spawn of a pox-ridden (expletive deleted)!”

Maybe? Well, that’s okay. As it turns out, that’s probably a better response than one might think.

One thing that makes me peeved while reading are those cases in which the author clearly doesn’t want anything too bad to happen to a particular character, usually the protagonist. The hero is obstensibly in danger, but there’s nothing really at stake. Their love interest is solid, family doing fine, health is good… it starts to read like one of those boastful Christmas letters updating us all on how Bobby got straight As again while Suzy cured cancer while building a rocket ship in the garden.

That stuff is great. Unfortunately, great stuff isn’t always interesting.

Character gets developed and revealed through the hard times. What I do under duress will probably tell you a lot more about me than the way I act when everything is humming along just fine. So it’s so diappointing when a protagonist is about to make a sacrifice that will finally show us what s/he is made of… and then the Deus ex Machina appears and everything still gets to hum along just fine. Only now with gold. And love.

I’ve heard people say that you have to essentially run your protagonist up a tree, and then throw rocks at them. I like that. I would especially like it if this actually happened in someone’s story. The only caveat I have is that this particular image lends itself to melodrama. When disasters accumulate to extremes, it can read as ridiculous: “I got fired from my job, and as I was coming home I saw my wife and another man speeding away from the charred remains of our house, and my deathly-ill child was severely wounded in the rubble, but just then aliens appeared and destroyed the city, and finally my cat emerged from the wreckage, her glowing eyes clearly those of Satan in disguise, and she threw up on my shoe.”

...if they haven't already met their untimely ends.

That was fun to write. If it’s meant earnestly rather than satirically, it would not be as much fun to read.

The main point here is that the protagonist is on his/her own, and should expect no help from you. Maybe you’re not going to explode the world, but you’re also not going to keep them safe from the consequences of their mistakes. That’s what confuses me in a lot of chick-lit. These characters lie, manipulate, and do genuinely stupid things, and in the end, someone else’s paycheque rescues them and everyone laughs it off as, “Tee-hee, they’re so silly!”

No. If that happened in real life, they’d be debt-ridden, their career prospects obliterated, with most of their family and friends estranged.

Make things hard for your protagonist. Conflict is the backbone of any story. Use your judgement, not your mercy. If characters screw up, let them take the fall.

Just remember to duck when they whip bottles at your head.

-Arvik

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Eulaliaaaa! In memory of Brian Jacques

February 7, 2011

I was much saddened this afternoon to hear of the passing of Brian Jacques, the celebrated author of the Redwall and Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series.

Brian Jacques is one of the reasons I’m writing today. His stories, his characters, wordplay, and epic, beautiful world inspired me to try and create my own. But even before that, he coloured my imagination with vivid strokes of sight, sound, and scent. Redwall has captivated me from the time I was nine years old. That’s most of my life engrossed in the adventures of stalwart woodland creatures and treacherous vermin.

For those of you who have not read the Redwall books, they follow Redwall Abbey, a quasi-mediaeval abbey set in Mossflower Wood and populated by mice, otters, moles, hedgehogs, and the like. They defend their peaceful home against vermin- ferrets, foxes, rats, stoats, and weasels. While some characters appeared in multiple books, the series spanned what was in all likelihood centuries of Redwall history… and that added to the appeal. On the one hand, yes, there was the sadness of losing a favourite character to the ages, but there was also the joy of getting to see, first-hand, the adventures of a mythologized hero.

Formulaic plots? Yes. Overly simple good vs. evil theme? Indeed.

Did that really matter? No.

Redwall transcended these issues. I mean, yes, I always knew there would be a puzzle the “good” characters had to solve, and I yearned to see a heroic stoat or fox just once, but they had the same enduring appeal as the mediaeval quest legends. The books may have all resembled each other, but they were undiminished by it.

I think Redwall‘s power comes from Jacques’s ability to create a world that is simultaneously challenging and comforting to his young (and not-so-young) readers. These are not easy books. The language and plot lines, while repetitive, are nevertheless fairly complex. Furthermore, death and violence make frequent, open appearances. Beloved characters are murdered before the reader’s eyes (very few off-stage deaths here). There is blood, cruelty, and oftentimes abuse of the “woodlanders” by the vermin. This is a land of “long ago and far away,” but Jacques does not condescend to his audience by sugar-coating the often brutal reality of that time.

Lest you’re getting the wrong impression, the violence isn’t gratuitous, or there for its own sake. It simply isn’t hidden or downplayed to protect innocent minds. And seeing the death, seeing the awful acts some creatures can inflict on others did two things for me.

By making me aware of them, it helped me cope better with them as I matured, and started to become more aware of exactly what happens in the newspaper between the weather and the comics.

And it made the numerous heroic acts that much more poignant.

But Redwall isn’t all blood and gore. The depictions of feasting and merriment, the gentleness of the Abbey-dwellers, the loving description of the woodlands of Mossflower country, all of that spoke to the “Golden Side” of the Mediaeval Myth. For a sheltered city kid, it meant the world. And it became my world, giving me a newfound love for, and awe of, nature. Offering an escape from the hyper-stimulating, steel-and-concrete world in which I dwelled.

In my mind, I have walked through Redwall’s Great Hall and gazed at the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. I have run along the red-stone ramparts with the otters’ Skipper (all the Skippers). I have smelled the wholesome, hearty food from the kitchens, and joined young heroes on their quests beyond the Abbey gates. The path outside Redwall is as familiar to me as the street outside my house, the badgers’ fortress of Salamandastron as clear in my mind as any castle on Earth.

And the characters… as I have said, the series likely spanned centuries of history (timelines can be difficult to pin down with certainty, particularly between books), but no character can be forgotten. Martin, Matthias, and Mattimeo. Basil Stag Hare and his adopted son, “Cheek Stag Otter.” Gnoff the Mouse-Thief. Tagg. Mariel. Dann, Song, Dippler, and Burble. The list stretches on….

As wonderful a story-teller as he was, Brian Jacques did more than tell yarns. He created a world in which my imagination, and the imagination of countless other children, could grow. He made heroes to inspire, and villains to revolt against. He showed the strength of love and compassion, and the necessity of guarding against cruelty and evil. He shaded my childhood fantasies with shades of those sunlit woods and majestic stone abbey.

Though he may be gone to the Dark Forest, he will not be forgotten. And I have no doubt that he will be met there by the heroes he brought into this world.

Thank you, Mr. Jacques.

-Arvik

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Zzzzzzzz….

February 5, 2011

If this post seems unusually disjointed or rambling, I apologize.

You see, I just woke up.

I think that I have napped more in the last two years than I did in all the rest of my life combined. Part of that is likely due to increasingly odd sleep patterns. Some of it’s probably due to the fact that I’m working much, much harder now. But some of it may well be for the simple reason that I’ve re-discovered how wonderful naps can be.

For one thing, they’re a comfort in the cold, dark hours of the morning. I tend to wake up a few times from about 3-5 am, just long enough to howl, “Why am I AWAKE???” But when it’s actually time to get up, but my body seems desperate to stay in bed as long as possible. Knowing there’s a nap on the horizon provides enough of a motivation to haul myself from my warm cocoon.

In my napping, I’ve noticed a few different kinds of naps. There is the…

Dracula Nap

This nap begins with a vicious, almost narcoleptic urge to sleep. You can barely stumble to your bed before you’re out. Like the Count’s sleep, this is a deep, regenerative sleep… during the daytime. No dreams. No real thought after your head hits the pillow. Just ravenous hunger on awakening.

Einstein Nap

Unlike the Dracula Nap, this nap allows for plenty of time for thinking before you fall asleep. In some cases, you may truly believe you’re “resting your eyes,” letting the body chill out while your mind floats disconnected, yet very much present; like an ice floe on the ocean. Yeah. Don’t believe it. Pretty soon, that ocean washes right over you, and you’re dreaming. The only thing is, amazing ideas can strike right before you drop off or right after you wake up. Definitely worth keeping a notepad by the bed.

Sunday Afternoon Nap

It’s sunny. There’s nothing to do, in the best sense. Monday is still far enough away to be denied. You’re not physically drained, quite the contrary, but you’re so calm, and warm, and happy, and your bed is so soft… Sleep comes in waves; you may wake up a little, smile, and snooze a little more. When you get back up, you’re not groggy, but refreshed and content with the world. I like Sunday Afternoon Naps.

Stolen Nap

Surely we’ve all done it. Exhaustion kicks in, or you’re faced with a Dracula-style “I must get out of this light and sleep NOW” urge while far from bed. This is when the Stolen Nap happens. I’ll admit, it’s not my favourite style of nap. Bags and jackets don’t make the best pillows, and even if you can find a comfy chair to curl up in, I’m leery of sleeping in public. Sure, most people’s response is to avoid the sleeper, but still. What if I snore? Besides which, these naps tend to be ultimately unsatisfying.

Nightmare Nap

Ah. Now this is really my least favourite nap. Thought all naps were awesome, or at least neutral, eh? Sorry to disappoint, but if you dream while napping, you automatically open yourself up to bad dreams. And since any nap-sleep tends to be shallower and more influenced by outside noises/sensations, these bad dreams can get very, very weird. After the initial electric jolt on escaping the nightmare, grogginess hits. Hard. Stumbling, half-asleep limbs and residual adrenaline do not make a good combination.

And so, I think it appropriate to end this by saying… Sweet Dreams!

-Arvik

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It lives!

February 2, 2011

Excellent news. Remember how a short while ago, I gave a published author the first three chapters of my manuscript to read?

She got back to me yesterday.

When I first opened the email, I cringed to see a long, dense wall of text. I will admit, my first thought was, “Oh no! Was it really that awful?” (Yeah, about that low self-esteem…)

But it wasn’t. In fact, it was a wall of nice things. Very nice things. Things that made me squeal and leap around my room, boxing the air like a kangaroo.

Oh, sure, there were suggestions. However, they were, in her own words, “nit-picky” and “minor.” I’ve just made the largest single edit she recommended, and it took maybe a quarter-hour. 

So, in sum? Arvik gets the green light! Whoot! It may in fact be time to start an agent hunt… although I have one final card left to play. If it goes well, I’ll let you all know. If not, I have a list of agents whom I’d like to try, and a query letter ready to go.

Excitement! Happy! Yay!

-Arvik

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It’s always the little things….

February 1, 2011

Yesterday started normally.

I had had my coffee, so I was content. Sunbeams filtered through my window and onto on my busily typing fingers. 

Then it happened.

My dancing fingers made a “faux pas” in every sense. Some ill-fated combination of mistakenly pressed keys resulted in a pained BEEP from my computer.

And that’s when things stopped making sense.

I tried to carry on typing, but suddenly, the letters appearing on my screen failed to match the keys I pressed. I pressed “W” and got “/2w.” As in, “I am an Intergalactic /2writer.” The letter H inexplicably swapped position with the letter beside it: “htis, hte, aHrry ahtes ahmburgers.” Some letters transformed into numbers, peppering my words with bits of “txt-spk.”

For someone who depends on the ability to craft (mostly) coherent sentences, this was most distressing.

Even more upsetting was the fact that hitting the “Enter” button resulted in the following characters: =]

My mind raced. Virus? Malfunction? Aliens? I called up a friend, a guy who could well be termed the “Computer Whisperer.” While he prodded the keyboard, I paced behind him, wringing my hands.

“Well,” he said at last, “This is odd.”

Luckily, after a few more minutes, he deduced that it was likely not a virus. Nor was it likely to be aliens. Or demonic possession. Rather, I had somehow managed to engage the Scroll Lock. To fix it, all we had to do was turn Scroll Lock off.

One problem: my computer doesn’t have a Scroll Lock button on its keyboard.

Dredging the online community for help, he tested a few combinations of “Function” buttons, “Windows” buttons, and strange buttons with names that began with “F.” Nothing worked.

Apparently, the manufacturers had made the Scroll Lock function so difficult to access that only a totally random combination of keys could unlock it. This was a particularly irksome version of Twelve Monkeys with Twelve Typewriters. After they’ve finished writing Hamlet, I’m sure that, given enough time, they could figure out how to turn Scroll Lock off.

Unfortunately, having neither twelve monkeys, twelve computers, or an eternity, my friend simply eliminated Scroll Lock altogether (at least, I think that’s what he did).

And so, the magic of thinking words, moving fingers, and then seeing those same words is restored. No viruses or conspiracies, just a really unlucky mis-type and an incredibly poorly designed program.

We spend so much time preparing for major disasters, when it’s usually the little things that trip us up.

Now… more coffee!!! 😀

-Arvik

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On Pizza. And Quality.

January 29, 2011

When I say, “PIZZA!” do you think of something like this?

Or something like this?

They’re both pizza, right? What’s the difference?

Well, one was made really quickly and cheaply with low-quality ingredients. It will be consumed, enjoyed for the moment, and then forgotten. The other took time and effort to make. It uses fresh, high-quality ingredients, will be eaten slowly, and enjoyed fully.

There is pizza. And then there’s pizza.

Similarly with fiction. There is the science fiction that looks like this:

And the science fiction that looks like this:

Flying through the star-gate in 2001: A Space Odyssey

And what about romance?

Quality doesn’t necessarily depend on category. Pizza can be a greasy, late-night snack, or an elegant meal that forces you to linger over the impeccable blend of cheese, tomato, and dough. Likewise, genre fiction can be pulp, or it can be something marvellous.

And look at the “ingredients.” This is cheese:

This is also cheese:

Here’s a dragon:

Smaug from "The Hobbit"

Here’s another:

Skill matters. Heart matters. Quality matters. They matter so much, it’s not really fair to dismiss an entire genre (or type of food) off-hand because it’s not always stellar.

And the funny thing is that even pulp has its place. Sometimes, you really just want the delivery pizza. You know it’s not that great for you and that it’s not the best food you’ll ever eat, but dammit, sometimes you need something that’s not good for you. Something predictable, something you know will satisfy for the moment, because you’re only looking for a moment’s worth of satisfaction right now.

Is the teenage employee tossing sad-looking slices into an industrial oven the same as a chef assembling ingredients right then and there, before s/he places it in a wood-fired oven?

Of course not.

Will their pizzas be the same?

Nope.

Does each have its place when you’re thinking about pizza?

Yes.

And now I’m famished. I guess an extended metaphor about food will do that to you.

-Arvik

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Public Service Announcement: Muse Attacks

January 29, 2011

They can happen to  anyone, at any time.

Muse Attacks are prevalent throughout the global community; there is no country in which cases have not been reported. You are at heightened risk of a Muse Attack if you:

  • Enjoy language.
  • Have at least one REM sleep-cycle per night.
  • Have visited an imaginary country within the last year.
  • Frequently read, write, and/or daydream.
  • Frequently ask, “What if?”

Symptoms of a Muse Attack include:

  • Hearing voices
  • Racing heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Twitching fingers
  • Vacant stare
  • Spontaneous laughter or tears
  • Sense of euphoria
  • Compulsive craving for pens or keyboards

Muse Attacks typically follow three stages:

  1. Acute: Short in duration, low frequency. May not return.
  2. Recurrent: Frequency and duration increase noticeably. Attack triggers may be identified at this stage.
  3. Chronic: Intensity, length, and frequency  increase significantly. People in this stage are advised to carry writing implements at all times.

 

Portrait of a Muse Attack

If you believe that you or someone else is experiencing a Muse Attack, seek writing utensils immediately. If symptoms persist, contact a writing group.

This Public Service Announcement was made in partnership with Intergalactic Writers Inc.  

-Arvik