Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Now... What Was I Saying?

Three-and-a-half minutes ago, I felt like writing something. Now, three-and-a-half minutes later, I can't remember what it was that I wanted to write about.

This isn't writer's block, mind you. I don't believe in writer's block. Saying that you can't think of anything to write is like saying that you're completely unable to observe everything that's happening around you and strain it all into a good story. Being able to think of a compelling topics and then completely forget them a few minutes before you even commit a single word to paper, however, is something else entirely.

I used to write this off as an unfortunate fact of life -- a normal event in the life cycle of an idea. I mean, if you somehow manage to forget something, then it's not necessarily your fault. Maybe the idea was simply not interesting enough to stick to your head. And if it's not interesting enough to stick to your head, what more can it possibly do when it gets placed in front of a reading audience?

Now I feel like a man who thinks he's lost his eyeglasses when they're actually perched on his head: Old, absent-minded, and possibly getting more decrepit with each day. Ironically, my usual cure for this condition involves writing... and I can't write if I keep forgetting what things I'm supposed to write about. It's one of those cyclus viciosa-thingamajiggies... whatever you call it.

Again, this is not writer's block. I'm perfectly capable of thinking up a bunch of interesting plots... it's remembering them that's the problem.

It could be that I simply have a whole bunch of stuff on my mind right now. When this happens, it becomes difficult for the new ideas to come in -- all the other thoughts in my head probably get together for a consensus meeting, and then promptly kick the interloper out. Again, it's possible that an idea just needs to be impressive enough in order to mix with the crowd.

It's almost like an exclusive club that way. And it would certainly explain my headaches, too.

Who knows, really? Maybe that one good idea that I'm waiting for is going to come along any second now. Hopefully I won't forget it like all the others that have blown away like leaves on a strong breeze.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Read the Stupid Post

Let's suppose that you write a particularly informative blog post one day. I say "informative", because your intent is to present a personal analysis of a certain object or issue. You try not to advocate one viewpoint over any others, and you don't necessarily advertise yourself as an expert on the subject. You do, however, try to collect your thoughts and carefully organize them in an essay-type format. You want to speak to an audience, after all, and you want the topic to get the treatment it deserves.

Now let's suppose that you get one very angry reaction to your post. It rants and it rails against certain key items found in your essay, even going as far as to accuse you of bias, and claim that you have not given equal attention to all sides of the story. This scenario is, of course, not too unrealistic -- we stand the chance of offending people, no matter how well we make our preparations and how open we are in our style of writing.

Now let's add one last wrinkle to this: Let's suppose that that one very angry reaction turns out to be a complete misunderstanding. Let's say that whoever wrote it appears to have missed the point of what you were trying to say. Moreover, let's say that your rancorous writer accuses you of some offense that doesn't exist in your essay to begin with.

In an era where blog posts are disposable affairs and people are far more likely to skim through your words instead of reading them carefully, this is a very real scenario. What do you do in this case, ladies and gentlemen? What do you do?

I find that the knee-jerk reaction involves apologizing to the person and rephrasing at least part of your passages. This assumes that the blame falls on the author -- that is, if the essay had been phrased better, then perhaps this very angry person wouldn't have misinterpreted the piece and consequently wouldn't have written his very angry comments. In my humble opinion, however, this also assumes that the individual user is infallible: If he sees so much as a speck of dust on that marble statue in the corner, then it must obviously be the sculptor's fault.

Most writers will therefore toe the line here, and will gently point out the person's misunderstanding as well as clarify their position on the subject. This acknowledges that the fault can go either way: Maybe the writer was vague at certain points in the text, and maybe the reader just wasn't clear on the same areas. This is negotiation, plain and simple -- "I'll admit that I could have phrased this better if you'll admit that your understanding may have been flawed." It does the benefit of assuming that we're all reasonable people at heart.

There are times, however, when a writer can do nothing but scratch his head and wonder just how a certain piece could have been misinterpreted. You know how it goes: Sometimes a reader simply muddles "yes" with "no", "good" with "bad", and "left" with "right". Or sometimes a reader just latches on to some preconceived notion floating around his head and somehow refuses to let go in the face of a completely foreign topic. Or sometimes a reader ignores you completely. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.

Some writers ignore these people completely. If they didn't read the work properly in the first place, then they're not likely to listen to any follow-ups. Other writers lambast these readers, pointing out why their reactions are wrong (in no uncertain terms this time). Whatever the case, pure ignorance like this always gets a response from an extreme end of the spectrum. Sometimes, I suppose, you can't do anything apart from simply assuming that not everyone in your audience is as perceptive as you thought.

On the other hand, we usually go with the middle-ground option precisely because not everybody may be as perceptive as we think... not even us. We know that we're not always correct, just as we know that the reader is not always correct -- and we therefore allow for both possibilities.

That doesn't mean, though, that we can't derive a certain satisfaction from bawling out a person who doesn't bother reading anything before posting his comments. But of course, we're too reasonable to do things like that.

Er... right?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, Oh My

Mention a "fantasy" genre to anyone and you'll inevitably conjure up a few stereotypical images. Among them: warriors, wizards, knights, clerics, half-naked barbarians, thieves, sorcerers, half-naked women, pointy-eared elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, enchanted swords, shields, armor, magic, queens, kings, gods, temples, undead, runes, staves, wands, and ye olde Englysh-speak.

That list, in retrospect, does not cover just "a few" stereotypical concepts. In fact, that's a full-blown set of immediate assumptions right there. This is probably what comes to most people's minds when they consider the fantasy genre, and I think that it's a very unhealthy development. Fantasy fiction -- at least, in theory -- is supposed to let us explore new universes and alternative worlds. When a genre constantly gets you multiple versions of the same basic concept, however, then you have to admit that there's something wrong.

Personally, I blame Dungeons & Dragons for this development. Don't get me wrong about the game -- I think that it promotes storytelling skills and makes for good creative exercise. But now that the original generation of D&D players has grown up and started putting together their own fantasy universes, everything seems to be a constant rehash of the same old things.

This is probably why most fantasy fiction doesn't seem to impress me nowadays. This is probably also why your D&D character profile doesn't impress me, either.

I like to see some innovation in the fantasy fiction I read -- something beyond the usual staples, mind you; Something that tells me that the author put more than the usual effort into building his or her universe. The fantasy genre doesn't necessarily have to be pigeonholed into worlds full of the same racial populations and physical forces. The genre is supposed to stretch our imagination to begin with, not encourage us to use the same things over and over again.

I'm aware that it's not easy to think outside the box. But the problem is that we've penned ourselves inside the box for quite some time now. Most of us have been writing fantasy like this for so long that it's difficult for us to conceptualize the genre in any other way.

Whatever the case, I want to stop thinking of fantasy as the domain of elves, knights, wizards and whatnot. There's got to be other universes to explore here. There's got to be more to the fantasy genre beyond what everybody and their mother is writing nowadays.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Unlikely Corpse

Having taken a close look at some pieces of detective fiction, the Noir writing style, and various episodes of CSI, I have arrived at three initial conclusions. The first is that Mysteries usually challenge the reader to solve them. The second is that atmosphere seems to have become more important for Mysteries in recent years.

The third, and probably the most remarkable, is that a Mystery seems to become far more interesting when it deals with a very unlikely crime or a very intractable situation.

The latter idea does not come as a surprise. Suppose that you're a witness at two different crime scenes: Victim A lies dead in the middle of a wooden floor with a bullet in his chest, while Victim B lies dead in the bathtub, wearing a skintight black leather suit with pink polka dots and clutching a rubber chicken in his left hand. Which of the two cases would immediately pique your curiosity?

This, I think, is why shows like CSI get some very good ratings. We don't watch these shows because we're interested in Grissom's entomology skills, or Caine's intensity, or Taylor's love life. We watch these shows because some writer decides to present us with a very improbable situation at the start, then goes through the motion of telling us exactly what happened.

What happened? is one of those questions that will concern us the most, regardless of who we are, or what we have to do with the situation in the first place. We are compelled to get an answer and resolve our curiosity. Failing that, we can do nothing but gawk at the crime scene, in the hope that somebody's nice enough to explain things to us.

This, I think, is the primary factor in an interesting Mystery. Good Mystery fiction has to get the reader asking questions about the story: What happened? Who did it? Who's involved? Why did it take place? And for goodness' sakes, what does the rubber chicken have to do with all this?

Mysteries are an exercise in the intractable situation and the logical conclusion. They allow us to follow the clues and attempt to unravel everything ourselves; We may or may not be able to do this depending on how well the story is written, but we do end up greatly empathizing with the dapper sleuth, the dilettante scholar, or the hard-boiled detective who is tasked to tie up all the loose ends.

I find this to be a great hook, mind you. It's hard enough to grab a reader's attention with an ordinary story, but present him with an unexpected murder in a seemingly impossible situation and he'll inevitably wonder just how the whole thing took place. And when he finally relishes the last words and closes the book on the Mystery, he's going to feel very satisfied at having sated his own personal curiosity. This, despite the fact that he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime or its proponents beyond turning the pages.

It's funny, somehow. Reading a Mystery is therefore something like staring at the scene of an accident, or rushing outside to watch the fire engines go by. We can't help ourselves -- we just have to know what happened. Yes, we know perfectly well what the sirens mean; But we still have to know what the sirens mean.

I'll try to adopt this approach the next time I head in this direction. At best, I could write a rip-roaring exposition of some twisted conspiratorial scenario. At worst, I suppose that I would have written a very odd crime scene for the books.

Whatever the case, I figure that the compulsion is there. People are just curious, I think. We just really want to know what happened, how events came to such a conclusion, and who was unlucky enough to go down for the count. It's human nature, yes. And it's a mystery.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Down in the Depths

I'm depressed right now.

It's not business-related or work-related at all. It's more personal than anything else, and it's not the sort of thing that you place on your blog. I'll just leave it at that.

You won't be seeing much in the way of personal posts here for a while. Normally I would have something up here about an event that happened on my way home, or something about my constant problems with modern technology, or something about games that few people on earth could possibly understand. As it is, I'm not in the mood to talk about anything funny, or anything technical, or anything fun. I'm just depressed, that's all.

I still write whenever I'm depressed. It helps somehow, especially when you're writing fiction. That way, you get to release all those little doubts floating around your head and lay everything down on a single metaphorical scrap of paper. It doesn't fully banish those demons -- I mean, nothing can and nothing will -- but at least it makes the memory a little easier to bear.

So you'll probably see a lot more literary stuff here in the near future. I'll still try to make my self-imposed deadlines, and I'll still answer peoples' comments as much as I can... but my mind will be a lot less scattered over the next few weeks at least. It's not that I don't feel like writing; It's more of the fact that this is one of the few ways I have to bounce back.

I'm depressed right now. You don't ask why, and I don't tell.

I apologize.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Talecrafting: Hurricane Force (Part 2 of 3)

The first installment of this experiment in literary construction is here.

So I've gone through the cards. I've gone through my initial thoughts. I've missed the original deadline. What next?

Based on my first few tries at Talecraft, I figure that the best way to start brainstorming is to take the cards in singles or combinations, and then try to build a possible plot from there. Once I have something put together on the backs of three or four cards, then I can usually work the others into the picture. For every plotline that manages to meld all of the given elements together, I can set it aside for possible future work.

In this instance, I know that I need to work with the Science Fiction genre, so I'll be approaching each of the keywords below from a background of machines, technology and morbid philosophical questions. I suppose that it's also possible for me to conceptualize the base story first and add the sci-fi later, but I'd like to make sure that I start integrating the genre requirement from the very beginning.

Tomb // Escape - This was the most obvious "plot-driver" that I could see: Protagonist seeks to escape from a tomb of some sort, antagonist attempts to stop him, wacky hijinks ensue, roll credits. Adding to the feasibility of this idea was the fact that tombs are natural places to escape from; They can be portrayed as dark and foreboding places of doom, or as prisons that conceal or restrict the characters from the outside world. The fact that something's got to be buried in the place gives the story some good motivation -- it wouldn't be a tomb unless it was deliberately withholding something from the light of day.

From a sci-fi perspective, we wouldn't even be limited to using some sort of mausoleum or burial chamber. We could use, say, a scrapyard of some sort (where old machines go to die), a smelting plant (same thing), a vacuum-sealed chamber (for the preservation of relics), even a funeral craft floating through the depths of space (like some future Viking-type ritual).

This raises more than a few ideas. What is the protagonist running away from, for instance -- the ghosts of the tomb's dwellers? A bunch of ancient machines who have become sentient? Perhaps the protagonist is the tomb's inhabitant himself, seeking to escape a clerical error that literally "buried" him alive.

The problem with this scenario is that the other keywords make for such an odd fit. I find it difficult to work a Dandy archetype into the mix, much less a Haunted Hero (whose story seems to go in a completely different direction than this one). I am particularly stymied by the inclusion of a Grandfather Clock among the keywords -- how would this go into an "escape from tomb" situation? For that matter, how could it possibly go into a story of the Science Fiction genre?

Finally, a tomb-escape combination just strikes me as a little obvious. If I had only five minutes to put the story together, then I'd definitely approach it from this angle... but I've got a lot more time on my hands than that. It makes for a good default plotline, but let me first see what else I can think of...

Grandfather Clock // Science Fiction - These are probably the two cards that have the worst synergy with each other. A grandfather clock usually belongs in a far more traditional setting; It implies a sort of rustic wealth, or a Victorian-style grace, or a gothic background. As a result, this granddad of formal timepieces would look completely out of place in a setting of polished metal and tangled wires.

What that means, however, is that you could hypothetically build an entire story around the two of them. I mean, what would a grandfather clock be doing in a Science Fiction setting? Perhaps it's an antique that somehow got stored in a hermetically-sealed mausoleum. Perhaps it's been modified to run on atomic time -- an analog face with a modified cesium isotope underneath. Perhaps it's a relic of the past, built to house a terrible secret for the people of tomorrow.

So now the question is... how do you tie this into a tomb? The first thing that comes to mind is that the grandfather clock has a specific purpose for being placed there (no matter how out-of-place it might be). What purpose is that?

Now I consider that maybe it's a guardian of some sort... something to guard a sealed tomb against fortune-seekers and treasure-hunters. Maybe it's not a grandfather clock at all... perhaps it's really a mechanical shapeshifter that merely prefers the form of its master's favorite antique...

You don't want to know what it does to intruders, I suppose; An encounter between this shapeshifter and a couple of unwelcome visitors would tie into the "escape" theme nicely. And your two characters would have to be a Dandy (i.e. a reckless person with rich tastes), and a Haunted Hero (who's perpetually suspicious at moldering old tombs).

That leaves three keywords: A Diamond (which implies why people would raid the tomb in the first place), Blindness (which could be expressed as darkness, or even a simple "I can't see!" exclamation), and Blood (which would come in significant quantities for such a plotline).

The result: A possible Science Fiction Thriller involving two explorers/tomb raiders who run afoul of a technologically advanced shapeshifter. If this sounds as though it's little more than a bad slasher story, then you're right -- it is. It needs a lot more work -- maybe a few twists in the telling, maybe a constant underlying theme, maybe an utter miracle -- before it becomes palatable.

The Dandy // The Haunted Hero - The last possible plot reference that I can try out here involves an interplay between the two character types. So far, I've assumed that the Dandy and the Haunted Hero would be working together for the duration of the story. I haven't yet considered a scenario where they would be protagonist and antagonist.

So... let's assume that there's some form of animosity between the two characters. This could mean anything, I think -- a competition, a rivalry, a sense of murderous hostility. I think that it would be best to introduce a third keyword at this point, just to get a better idea of what their conflict would be about.

I'll use "Blood" as a figurative possibility here: The characters are professional hitmen whose rivalry goes beyond that of friendly competition. In fact, let's assume that they absolutely can't stand each other, and that each of them is just waiting for the opportunity to blow the other one away. This doesn't just introduce the physical element of blood into the story; It can also be taken as a metaphorical representation, i.e. "bad blood".

Heck, let's take it a step further -- the two characters are brothers who have been molded by circumstance. One gorges himself on the fineries of life and delights in tormenting his sibling; The other lives in constant depression, regretting the day he sold his morals for the promise of money.

And because I like turning things on their ear, I'll adjust the premise a little bit: The two characters aren't brothers; They're sisters in the final moments of their mutual hatred. By the end of the story, only one of them will survive.

The catch with this setup is that all the other keywords will inevitably have to come in as background dressing; It's the rivalry and the action that draws the attention of the readers, after all. If we could make the base story crunchy enough, though, then I suppose that this superficial use of the other keywords might be justified.

Using the Science Fiction genre gives us license to use things like high-powered firearms, cybernetic enhancements, and powers beyond mortal ken; I can imagine arm cannons, reinforced body armor, enhanced senses, and movement inhibitors. Heck, I can even imagine full-suit mecha, if it weren't for the fact that I don't want this to go as far as modern animé.

A diamond and a grandfather clock would probably come in as part of the little details: Maybe an opening scene where the sisters begin their last fateful night... an auction over a centuries-old antique? A confrontation in a rustic manor? A chance meeting in a warehouse full of random knicknacks?

Maybe our "Dandy"-type sister wears a diamond ring for show. It would fit the personality, I suppose. Maybe our "Haunted" sister seeks nothing more than to lie low and live a normal life; That might fill out the requirements for "Escape". Or better yet... maybe the former sister has been assigned to seek out and eliminate her hidden sibling, and the latter has no choice but to flee.

Then there's the Tomb (a final confrontation that takes place in the local cemetery), and Blindness (a critical plot point where the assailant's sensors are violently disabled, just to even the odds). Blood could be used as an everpresent theme at this point: Aside from the original premise of "bad blood", you have the premise of sister against sister (which implies "blood against blood", or "one's own blood").

This story sounds like it needs a lot of exposition, though... which implies that a short story isn't the best venue for it. If I do end up using it for a short story, it'll have to cover the end of their tragic relationship -- the last night of their existence, a time when only one of them walks away.

In the last installment of this post, I'll try writing out at least one of these potential plotlines. Because my only intent here is to go over my literary thinking process, I may or may not end up writing an entire story. I'll most likely bring up an outline, however, and perhaps try out a few sample passages.

Want to read on? The last installment will be up soon...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Magic

I'll continue my Talecrafting experiment in later posts, I suppose. I don't have that much time to write tonight, and I might as well get this out of my head first.

I started playing Magic: the Gathering back in 1996, stopped in 2000, rediscovered the game in 2003, and have been engaged in it both on and off ever since. I don't maintain any expensive decks for tournament play, and I don't meet up with a regular playgroup like the normal gaming crowd. I do, however, join new-release tournaments for the game's expansion sets. I'm even proud to say that I've amassed some respectable win-loss records in this way.

This morning I found myself playing in another of these new-release tournaments, the Tenth Edition game day. This is a new iteration of the game's basic set that gets released about every two years, and this reorganizes those cards that make up the backbone of serious tournament play. The cards in this set, moreover, are familiar to virtually any Magic player, no matter how long they've been engaged in the hobby.

The big news isn't that I posted a three-win, one-loss record for the day; It's that, somewhere in the middle of eleven tense games, I realized that I still remembered playing in the release tournament for the Fifth Edition set.

Fifth Edition.

Considering the two-year gaps between these sets, that means that I've developed my play style over ten years.

Ten years ago, I was one of those young college kids who barely knew what he was doing when it came to making random decks and playing strange opponents. Now I consistently do well in those few tournaments that I play in, and have developed an odd Zen-like attitude when playing people who have far more experience with modern Magic than I do.

There are more than a few people who will belittle the game for being an abject curiosity, a virtual money pit, and a complete waste of time. I know that I can hardly be called one of those people. Rather than learning absolutely nothing during my tenure in Magic, I ended up learning quite a few things. I ended up gaining more than a few insights that weren't merely limited to the game, but which I felt applied to life as a whole.

I share some of those realizations here right now. Some of these insights may be permanent and some may just be fleeting, but no matter which ones are which, I know that I still carry them around. It could be that I'll have a completely new set of realizations ten more years into the future (if the game lasts that long), but at least I'll have noted these ones right here.

Be courteous. When you enter a game with another person, you see each other as an opponent. One of you will have to win, and the other will have to lose. You will have to fight, you will have to argue, and you will have to contend with each other.

That, however, doesn't mean that you can't be civil.

The fact that you sit at the same table having made the same preparations for the same tournament implies that you are at around the same skill level. You are both craftsmen, you are both strategists, and you are both players. You each have strengths and weaknesses, and you both know that you don't play this game because you like winning all the time. You don't. You can't.

So you don't see it as a cutthroat competition where one person triumphs and the other person goes down. You see it as a game between two people who merely wish to test their skills. You talk, you laugh, and you compare notes. You're not monsters trying to destroy each other; You're just people playing a game.

Wait for the right moment. It's extremely tempting to burn through whatever advantage you have in terms of game position and resources. This, in gaming parlance, is known as "going for the quick win".

The problem is that "going for the quick win" isn't necessarily effective. You can pull it off, I suppose, but what does that mean in the long run? A win is still a win, no matter how long the game takes. You can rain blows upon your opponent for the first three minutes of the match, but it'll tire you out in the process... perhaps long enough for your opponent to seize the advantage, figure out that one weak spot, or hit you right where it hurts.

I find that patience is a virtue in most games. It is often far better to scout the field first and see what your opponent is up to, than to charge into the field at first light and get smashed in the face for all your troubles.

Focus. You don't come into a game and play a bunch of random cards from your hand. You look over your available resources and enter it with a specific plan in mind. It's much like any endeavor out there.

Once you're fully engaged in your plan, you keep your eye on the prize. Players who think at least a couple of moves ahead will inevitably be better and more consistent than players who are susceptible to knee-jerk reactions. Reactivity is overrated where proactivity tends to be more worthwhile.

Adjust. There is, however, something to be said for flexibility. You may approach things with a specific strategy in mind, but you must remember: No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.

The best plans, then, are those that allow for contingency. You may be prepared to do something when Event A happens, but you also have to consider what you should do if Event B happens instead. Or Event C. Or maybe some unholy combination of Events D, E, F, K, and X.

Everyone has their own vague plans, I suppose. The key lies in being able to work around them if necessary.

Hang on. So what do you do when you're on the verge of defeat? What happens when you find yourself in a situation when it's difficult for you to win? When you're likely to lose next turn? When that plan you've been working on has been shredded into absolute tatters and you're tempted to just throw in the towel?

Most players will just pack up their cards and start a new game. Some players, however, just stare at the board and throw in those few chips that they have left.

Why give up? I mean, if you're going to lose everything, then you might as well put everything into the pot. Would we prefer to just lose more slowly, I mean?

If you haven't lost yet, then you haven't lost yet. Let the chips fall where they lie; If you know that you're still in the game, then you must act that way.

Look for an opening. And sometimes you'll find these openings in the strangest of places. There are few situations that are completely airtight, or completely foolproof.

There's always a hole somewhere. It doesn't matter how bad your situation is; There's always a gap that you can find and exploit. If you're getting beaten down and all hope is dwindling fast, then one of these last openings may just be enough.

It's not merely sufficient to find one of these openings. You have to prepare yourself for them; You have to know that they exist, and you have to see them as they appear. And once you find that all-important opening that may just save your hide and salvage what looks like an untenable situation or an unwinnable game, you have to make it large enough to slip through.

Games are not just won by those who can execute the perfect plan. Games are also won by those who see the rare opportunity, and who seize it at the moment it comes around.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Talecrafting: A Gathering of Winds (Part 1 of 3)

Talecraft is a new product being sold in local hobby stores and conventions around here. It's purported to be a storytelling game of some sort, although the package contains little in the way of "game" and a lot more in the way of "literary exercise". It's built around a simple premise, really: You shuffle the Talecraft deck, draw a predetermined number of cards, and make up a story that contains each of the elements in your draw.

While I did pick up a copy of the game after my return from Warsaw, I have yet to consider this a favorite. It could be that I'm far too used to coming up with plausible stories on my own; As it stands, I consider Talecraft to be more a toy than any serious writing aid.

With that said, the contests are at least relatively interesting. Play the deck by yourself, and you'll get bored easily. Play the deck with about thirty other people who are doing the same thing with the same cards, and you'll be surprised at how the competition suddenly makes things worthwhile.

The current Talecraft contest (whose deadline is this weekend), for example, has the following elements that you must incorporate into a story:

Genre: Science Fiction
Character Archetypes: The Dandy, The Haunted Hero
Additional Keywords: Diamond, Grandfather Clock, Blindness, Blood, Tomb, Escape

If you think that getting all the details right for a single story is hard, just try collecting two random archetypes and six random keywords into a single random genre. You can see why this makes for an interesting literary exercise.

I'll admit that my schedule is full at the moment, so I'm certain that I can't spend much time preparing a submission for this contest. In addition, I have other, more immediate literary obligations to fulfill -- there's the textbook I'm writing, for one, and then there's Philippine Genre Stories' call for Christmas-themed stories as well as Dean Alfar's September deadline.

What I can do, however, is a bit of a walkthrough based on these Talecraft elements. I want to see what I can make of this random assortment, and possibly get a bit of introspection on just how I go about writing the stuff that I write.

If there's any place to start, then it'll definitely be in the cards:

Science Fiction - This genre and I have a love-hate relationship: I love it for its sheer possibilities, but I hate myself for exploring little in the way of its potential. I suspect that I just don't want to sell it short. It's bad enough that anyone can integrate machines, technical mumbo-jumbo and post-apocalyptic scenarios into a story and call it "sci-fi"; I'd rather try to avoid that same trap.

So what does "Science Fiction" mean for me? Strangely enough, humanoid robots are the first thing that come to mind. I'm also a huge fan of subtle technological advances -- minidiscs, Segways, cybernetic implants -- anything that might compromise a little of our humanity without being immediately obvious. Then there's the question of how technology interacts (and interferes) with our daily lives -- like talking houses, or self-aware machinery, or DNA alteration. In a sense, sci-fi can just as easily involve playing with peoples' comfort levels as it does involve showcasing unexpected technologies.

The Dandy - I abhor this character archetype, if only because it forces me to make the character "deeper" in some way. The Dandy is supposed to be driven by vanity and fashion-consciousness; I keep thinking that these characteristics alone don't provide enough motivation for a character to do the things he/she does. What I ultimately imagine is a male personality who merely dresses well, seeks to dress well, and is an absolute blank slate besides.

The Haunted Hero - This is better, at least. I find it easier to build up a character's personality based on his or her (imagined) past experiences. I like haunted characters in particular, because you can portray them as absolutely normal people for most of a story, spring some unexpected twist on the readers towards the end, and then perfectly explain the character's motivations through some obscure episode in their past. When done well, it leaves an impression that all the jagged little pieces somehow fit together in a way that the author fully intended from the start.

I'll point out, moreover, that just because the card mentions a haunted "hero" doesn't necessarily mean that the character should be the protagonist of the story...

Tomb - I feel that this is an overwhelmingly influential keyword. It's the only item in the set that describes a location; Knowing that, how can you not set the story inside a tomb?

To make matters worse, it's not as though you can easily use a tomb as a secondary location in a story. A tomb, I think, is more a dominant location -- you can write entire stories with this in the background, without having to ask for a change in scenery.

I think that I can twist this to suit my purposes, though. It doesn't necessarily have to be an Indiana-Jones-style tomb, after all. It could just as easily be a mausoleum. Or it could be a burial plot of some sort; Wouldn't that mean that you can leave a dead body practically anywhere and have it register as a "tomb" of some sort? I wonder.

Escape - This is another dominant element, by virtue of its being the only plot direction among the six keywords. I find it difficult to separate this from "tomb", to be honest: Put the two dominant keywords together, and you get a convenient "escape from tomb" plotline. I feel that it's obvious, I feel that it's easy, and I feel that it's also pretty overused.

No, I think that it might be best to separate this from "tomb" as much as possible. Maybe an escape into a tomb, for a good change of pace? Or maybe an escaping tomb (the image of a stone mausoleum getting up and walking away suddenly comes to mind).

For that matter, who's doing the escaping? Is it the Dandy who escapes from the Haunted Hero, or the Haunted Hero who escapes from the Dandy? Or maybe they're both escaping from something else, or something else is escaping from them.

Blindness - I can make this metaphorical, I suppose. It doesn't have to be literal blindness; it can simply describe somebody who fails to notice some obvious detail. The problem with this, however, is that it might not necessarily register as "blindness" to anyone who reads the story.

This, I suppose, is at least more flexible. I can take this in medias res (that is to say, I can make this a condition that exists even before the beginning of the story), or I can put this up as a plot development. I can't imagine a Dandy being blind, so the obvious choice for the condition would be the Haunted Hero. That's not to say that I can't suddenly strike the Dandy blind halfway through the course of the tale, though.

Blood - I use a lot of blood in my stories. It creates a consistent effect that can nevertheless be adjusted according to your own needs: It can leave an impression of fear, for example. Or cruelty. Or desperation. Heck, you can even throw all the symbolism out the window and just use it to give readers the impression that a character is gravely injured.

I can build a story around this element about as easily as I can with the other keywords, I think. But I feel that I'm far more comfortable using this than anything else in the selection. As such, I won't give this keyword much thought. I'll definitely find a way to work it into the story, regardless of what I end up writing.

Grandfather Clock - Ugh... how does this fit into the science-fiction genre? I don't want to end up using Victorian-era steampunk just to fit both pieces together into the same jigsaw puzzle. What that means, however, is that I'll have to find some way to stuff a 19th-century timepiece into a far more technical setting.

Maybe it's an antique that sits in the corner. Maybe it's a modified device that houses far more advanced workings inside. Maybe there's a future counterpart to this thing: a grandfather-clock android, perhaps?

Then there's also the matter of fitting this and the "tomb" into the same story. What's a grandfather clock doing inside a moldering old tomb, anyway? That might deserve a long, winding explanation all by itself...

Diamond - This isn't the most obvious of plot elements, but it's also rather flexible. Where there's diamonds, there's wealth -- and that's something that the Dandy would easily acknowledge, something that the Haunted Hero can brood about, and something that you can more plausibly find inside a tomb.

There's more to using diamonds, however. A wedding or an engagement angle might work here, for example; It wouldn't take much of a stretch to work a tomb into the equation, and it might provide the needed human element in a science-fiction story. The use of diamonds may imply some element of hardness or extreme pressure as well, or it could simply imply the profession of at least one of the characters. One odd thing that comes to mind is the possibility of using diamonds as fuel of some sort -- I'll have to thank Batman's rogues gallery for that idea.

In the next installment of this post, I'll tackle what's likely to be the next step in my thinking process -- the collation of all these elements into a single tentative plotline. Or maybe this might even involve a lot of tentative plotlines; In that case, you get to see me put all but one of them on the chopping block in my quest for a plausible story.

Want to read on? The next post can be found here.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Presumably So

The way I'm looking at it right now, plenty of human psychology is rooted in assumption.

No matter how often we repeat the possibility of putting ourselves in one another's shoes, we can't literally do such a thing. We can't automatically assume a person's entire repertoire of experiences, mannerisms and habits in a limited amount of time. For that matter, we simply can't do that, period. The most we can do is try to see where the other person is coming from, and try to formulate a sense of empathy with that person based on what we know.

In short, we have to make assumptions about people. We're practically forced to do that, if only because that happens to be one of the easiest ways we can get along.

When we make the right assumptions about a person, then we make the right assumptions about a person. They smile at us and mention how well we've seen the situation through; they warm up to us and place a little more trust in our personality.

But when we make the wrong assumptions about a person, then we do something incredibly horrible. We get accused of misinterpreting things, of not seeing the bigger picture, of running our mouths off and taking things to an illogical conclusion.

It's easy to presume things. It is not easy, however, to maintain consistency in one's presumptions. It's the difference between traversing a short footpath, and then deciding to walk that same path up the side of a mountain: The latter is infinitely -- and at times, fatally -- more difficult.

Ultimately, the problem with these premeditated notions is that we can't help but make them. This is, in a sense, how we associate with other human beings. This is how we live, work, love, and relate. This is how we can maintain good relations with people yet still get into arguments, how we can do so well at work yet still screw up every now and then.

In the end, it is not these assumptions that bring out our personal natures. Instead, we must assume that everyone makes these ill-timed assumptions; We must understand that we're perfectly capable of making the same mistakes ourselves. And when it all comes right down to it, we must forgive.

There is no way by which we can possibly know someone inside and out, right down to the tiniest of cells in their skin. The best that we can do is form a few uneducated conclusions, and hope that they don't offend or insult anyone. What brings us beyond the spectre of mere humanity is our ability to understand how people do this; What makes us more than vessels of illegitimate assumption is our ability to listen to people, and forgive them their sins of impression.

By this time, your eyes have probably glazed over, and you've probably even gone past the point where you regard me as some itinerant writer with a messed-up mind. That's fair enough, I say. I assume many things about the human condition, only some of which manage to make it to the stuff I write.

But I ask you this, then: What assumptions do you form from my words? Do I offend your delicate sensibilities, or do I raise your imaginary hackles? Do you judge this based on what you know of what I write, on who I am, or on what exposure you've had of me?


Why not?

Why, again?

We can assume all that we want, I suppose. But in the end, we must try to understand.