World building… oh wait, who am I kidding?

August 24, 2008 at 6:53 pm (fiction, motivations, nonfiction, writing) (, , , , , , )

So this past week has not exactly been filled with creativity on my part. I’m headed to PAX this week, and as usual I am nervous about traveling. Figuring out bus routes in a city I’ve never visited just stresses me out, as does trying to get every liquid I might need into some 3oz. container in a Ziploc bag, and remembering to pack enough socks, and what if it’s hotter than I thought it would be, etc.

This means that a majority of my brain cycles are being chewed up by practical details, and it’s really hard for me to get off that train and onto creative thoughts. It’s a great state for doing nonfiction and thinking of article ideas to pitch — every worry is a potential topic. But if I try to work on Asgildir, my brain simply refuses to focus and I’m jolted back to biting my nails and trying to remember where I put my travel toothbrush case. This is seriously annoying but I’ve decided to just let it slide, and take advantage of the seemingly endless fountain of article topics. After the trip, when I can relax again, I can revisit and flesh out the world I’ve been creating. But right now, even my dreams are practical — I always seem to be at the airport, or meeting someone for dinner at an agreed-upon time, or something else equally mundane.

Do any of you ever have this problem, where real-life anxiety prevents you from exploring your imagination?

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World building month: Video Games as Writing Tools

August 21, 2008 at 6:40 pm (assorted miscellany, fiction, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I spend a lot of time playing video games, and have since I was fairly young; we used to play a lot of Super Breakout on the Atari 2600, and I loved the Hitchhiker’s Infocom game. Nowadays I spend most of my time with World of Warcraft, with occasional breaks for Oblivion and whichever DS puzzle game strikes my fancy. (Professor Layton and the Curious Village is, by the way, far too much fun. Go buy it.)

For me at least, WoW isn’t much of a creative inspiration. The lore is spread too thin, and most of the time I get no real sense that it’s actually relevant to what I’m doing. There are certainly a lot of places to go and find out what the story is, but it isn’t really necessary to progress in the game itself. Natania at the Aldersgate Cycle wrote up a post about how WoW almost ate her novel, and I noted in the comments that I have more or less the opposite reaction. WoW has just an enormous world with huge potential for storytelling, but it really disappoints in that particular area. I play to spend time with friends, and to raid, so for me it’s more of a social time sink and a way to do some teamwork as well as get those competitive urges out. If anything, spending time trying to find lore in WoW makes me want to log out and write something, because the game itself seems very much like a cardboard stage set. Nothing you do ever actually effects a change in the world (except for a few one-time events Blizzard throws in).

So. If WoW doesn’t tempt me away from writing, what does? Well, Oblivion, sometimes. If they put the social aspects of WoW into Oblivion, I would never stand up from my computer chair probably ever again, for the rest of my life. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. I hope. Oblivion is essentially entirely open-ended; the player can go wherever, whenever, and the world is interesting enough that spending a few hours exploring is actually fun. You can interact with any object, explore any ruin, go for a swim, steal a horse, pick herbs, whatever strikes your fancy. And the NPCs actually move, and go to the taverns, and they talk to each other! And what they say changes based on things the player has done! OK, so most of the time it’s not very original dialogue, but at least you don’t get the impression that these people are glued to the floor and can’t speak the same language as the guy ten feet away. And the graphics are, at least for me, just stunning. It’s a well-fleshed-out world, and I find it very easy to lose track of time. It’s easy to become that character on the screen.

Dangerous? Maybe. But there are some really cool redeeming features for a writer, at least a writer who enjoys the same sorts of fantasy worlds I like. First, the character creation screen is incredibly detailed; you can adjust parts of the facial anatomy you never knew had a name. It’s reasonably easy (with addons, on which more anon) to shape a character who fits an image in your head — say, that of your hero or heroine, or your villain, or what have you. I am not the world’s most visual person, so it can be hard for me to nail down an appearance without trying to draw it, and the character creation alone has helped me a lot. A whole lot, because I can’t draw well at all.

So let’s say you have this heroine, who matches with your vision for her appearance, and that’s great. If you want her to be, say, a hunter who never goes into a town and lives on wild plants and maybe stealing from some farmer’s field, you can do that in the existing world pretty easily. But if you start to accept and finish quests, you’re definitely putting your character into a world created by Bethesda, and it can be easy to just roll with that and forget why you started playing this time. So. This is where the construction set comes in. You can do almost anything with it, even raze every building that’s in the game and replace all the NPCs with cows, if that’s what you want. I have no idea how long that would take; probably a very long time. However, it’s pretty easy, once you learn how to use the tools, to find a corner of the world without much going on and to build whatever you’d like. Ruins, a town, a cave, a lake, some picnic table in the middle of nowhere, a wooded glade, etc. You can draw your own textures and items and import them into the builder, but I’m not that proficient with Photoshop and anyway, the story I’m working on now has a similar visual aesthetic. I just use the existing bits and pieces and slap ’em together like Legos until it looks right. You can add NPCs, give them scripts to use and paths to walk and schedules to follow. You can add monsters who will attack your character. To my mind, this is an absolutely unmatched world editor for fantasy writing. Because once you’ve created your landscape, you can take your playable character and go see what it feels like to be her. You walk the roads, you arrange the furniture in your house, you do whatever you want. It’s cool.

There are also ready-made addons that can make character faces look more realistic, or slow the passing of game time, add buildings, change NPC dialogue, and more. A lot of these are worth looking into if you’re playing just to play, and some of them are even useful for world building, especially the ones that add hairstyles, eye colors, and other things so you can make your character better match your idea.

For me, Oblivion is a great way to have some fun with my story, and to try out ideas for my worlds and see if they feel viable. You might think so, too. If you try it just be careful not to get addicted — and video game addiction? That’s a whole other topic for another time. I know folks also use games like the Sims to build things, but I find the style too cartoonish for my tastes, and you’re far more limited in what you can do and which styles you can use. It might work for you, though. Have a go!

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Mondays, Case of the

August 18, 2008 at 3:09 pm (assorted miscellany, motivations, nonfiction) (, , , , , , )

My husband works Monday through Saturday, so traditional weekends aren’t really a thing around here. I do try to keep to a somewhat normal weekday work schedule for myself; there are more freelance job postings on the boards Monday through Friday, and it helps me to set limits. I still write on Saturday and Sunday, but unless there’s a pressing deadline, I just allow myself to work exclusively on fiction.

So that leaves me to come up with a weekday routine. I don’t know about you, but I feel much better about myself if I know I’ve accomplished something each day. I’ve been using Remember the Milk to keep track of tasks, and I recommend it if you’re looking for to-do list software. It uses tags, something that’s familiar to a lot of folks now, and you can create dynamic lists based on a search. For example, I’ve got a Work list, which is great, but I’ve also got a list for high-priority work. This means if I’m having a bad day, I can at least see what absolutely must be done, and focus on that rather than trying to decide where to start.

I read job listings every day, and if I see any that seem like a good fit, I send off an application. I also try to think about articles I could submit to various publications: newspapers, magazines, websites, and the like. Each day I develop one of these ideas more fully, finding an interesting angle for the topic, figuring out who I might interview, and how long the article should be. Sometimes I run with the same topic for a few days in a row, and look at it from different perspectives, which is a lot of fun in and of itself. I love learning new stuff, and researching these ideas is productive play for me.

I also make sure I send at least four queries out per week, and occasionally more. Writers get a lot of rejections; some of them are based on writing skill, but some are just an editor letting you know that your specific idea wasn’t a good fit for their specific readers (or advertisers). If you take each rejection personally, freelance writing might start to feel like a sure path to depression and self-loathing.  Better to be confident of your own voice as a writer, and believe in your work; then you can take the suggestions you find helpful and let the rejection roll off your back.

I actually look forward to Mondays now (believe me, this was not always true). I’ve got a firm routine in place, and I’m proud of the work I get done, even on a bad day. Structure is important to me; it may be important to you, too. It’s a little tricky to figure out where to place priority when you’re just starting out (as I am), but talking to other freelancers and learning about their methods can be a huge help in organizing your schedule.

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Go Go Speedwriter

August 12, 2008 at 1:14 pm (editing, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , )

Some path in my wanderings around the web led me to an article on writing a novel in 30 days. I could have written the first part of this article; so many of my papers in high school and college were night-before extravaganzas. I guess I’ve always been lucky that what comes out of my head is generally coherent and interesting without much editing, because like Catherynne, I always got As on these. I never met a deadline I didn’t like, and in fact I trained myself to need a deadline; it got to the point where I couldn’t even start writing a paper until twelve hours before it was due. Eventually I learned to create artificial deadlines for myself and to actually believe they were real, which was key. Now I actually have time to revise and reflect, and my writing is better for it. I remember the first professor who actually told me she knew I didn’t revise. I wondered how she figured it out, but now that I know how to go back in and tighten up my writing, I realize it was pretty obvious. Craige Roberts, if you read this, thank you; your comment was the kick in the pants I needed.

I still tend to write the first draft in one huge, linear brain dump, because that’s just how I work. For nonfiction, the order it comes out in is generally pretty good. When I’m writing fiction, though, these plot bunnies just start running on to the scene. Rather than follow them, I usually make a note about them in a separate document and work them in when they fit.

One great thing about actually revising my work is that I don’t edit as much as I go, now. I have a lot more freedom to run with ideas that my inner critic says are silly; if they don’t work, well, I’ll take them out later. But sometimes they do work. I still have to fight with my mind sometimes, though. It still has days of believing the first draft has to be perfect. These are the days when I feel the dread of writers’ block the most. If I get really stuck, though, I visit a forum or a generator to grab a quick story idea — something I don’t register as Real Work — and just let the ideas come out. These are throwaway scribblings, and usually they do just end up in the trash, but they remind me that the first try isn’t the only try, and I can allow myself to stutter and stumble knowing that eventually my voice will again be sure and strong and steady.

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Writing days are here again

August 12, 2008 at 11:23 am (fiction, Inspiration, motivations, nonfiction, writing)

I’ve always loved writing. There’s just something amazing about playing with language, shaping it into the form you want. The first thing I remember writing was a Christmas poem in first or second grade; I showed it to my teacher, and off it went to the ditto machine to be included with the holiday curriculum for our elementary school. When the first thing you show someone else gets published, it provides a lot of encouragement to continue writing. If the only copy I have weren’t at my parents’ house, I’d include it here so you could laugh a little.

In second grade, one project for art class was to write and illustrate a book. I decided to make a Haunted Mansion (oh no!) and created cutouts of the characters so they could be moved through the illustrated scenes in the story. At the time, I had no doubt that this was the most fascinating story ever told. The teacher loved it. More approval, more motivation to invent stories. I dictated a lot of them to a Sears tape recorder, and usually made my mom listen to them — repeatedly. I was especially proud of a story about hares and hairs, as I recall, though the details now elude me. I was full of ideas, and confident that these ideas would be just as fascinating to everyone else as they were to me.

Of course, then I got older. By the time I hit high school I was writing horribly pretentious stuff, most of it bad, because I started trying to impress other people. There was a lot of bad poetry in there; if the term had been around at the time, I probably would’ve called myself emo. None of my stories had a happy ending, and all of the prose was, well, affected. I was never really happy with any of the fiction I wrote during this phase of indulgence in Oh I’m So Writerly and Depressed. I began to enjoy writing critical essays and research papers, and so my writing focus changed for a while. I cranked out plenty of papers, both for school assignments and for personal enjoyment. And so the world of nonfiction revealed itself to me.

For years, I mostly stuck to writing about things that were real. Then one day I woke up with a story in my head, and a need to get it out on paper. Unfortunately it turned out not to be a very interesting story, and after 60 pages I abandoned it. Still, it made me think again about creating my own worlds, and setting characters in the worlds to see what they might do. Several things happened in my personal life around this time, and much of what I wrote was intensely personal and never meant to see the light of day. I took another break from writing fiction, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the thoughts that came with probing my brain for ideas. I still wrote a lot of nonfiction; the drive to set things down never left me.

Then, last year, my mom passed away suddenly. It sounds horribly cliched, but this really made me consider the brevity of the time we’re given here. I realized I’d been stomping all over my creativity, trying to box it up so I didn’t have to think uncomfortable things. I decided the time had come to unpack those boxes, and I started writing stories again. I need to write these stories; it’s no longer so much an issue of wanting to or not.

I still love writing articles and essays, but I’m thrilled that I can now write from my imagination again. In many ways, I’m more patient than I ever have been, and that allows me to flesh out stories instead of charging ahead with tissue-thin plots and uninteresting characters. These are my stories, and I’m stickin’ to ’em.

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