What happens when you run out of things to say?

Today has been a little rough on me. Not in the country song verbiage, where the trucks leave and the dogs cheat and the wives break down on the side of the road. No, I’ve just run up against a general lack of interest in my funding campaign for Deus Hex Machina, and that resulted in a rather deep depression that didn’t leave me until a few hours ago.

This being the start of a new year, I have been endeavoring to write every day. For the most part, I’ve been working on the draft of DHM, and it’s gone along swimmingly. (If you’re interested in that book, you should read the first chapter here.) Tonight though, I was down in the dumps, and I’m still weighed down with that feeling of uselessness, so I don’t think I’d do Isidore any sort of justice if I forced myself to blather on.

Instead I thought I might take this opportunity to write a blog post. The trouble with writing a blog post without a topic is that it tends to ramble, especially when you run out of things to say. This same can be true for fiction. Sometimes you run out of words, run out of plot, and are stuck holding the proverbial bag wondering what to write next.

I guess you could call this writer’s block, although I’m quickly realizing there is no such thing. When I can’t write, it usually means I need to think about a problem, or there is something in my life that is keeping me from writing, as is the case tonight.  In both situations my solution is the same: Consume media from outside your genre.  Sometimes we just need to be inspired. We need to get excited about something. As writers we spend so much time in our worlds and in our niches that we forget that complexity can be found anywhere. We forget that we can learn from history, or movies, or TV shows or books written about completely foreign subjects. All of these things can provide the needed inspiration that will help you over your story writing obstacles.  Or in my case, it will help you remember what you’re working towards.

I watched a movie tonight where all the characters were real, all the characters were authentic, all the characters were strange, and they all made sense. I want to create characters like this. I want people who act true to their natures, true to their flaws, even when those flaws will cost them dearly. This is what I learned watching a pulp action movie instead of forcing myself to write science fiction, and I think my science fiction will be better for it.

Now to figure out the problem of nobody wanting to read said science fiction. I’m definitely going to have to go outside my genre for the answer to this obstacle.

Why do we read Fantasy?

It’s the question that’s at the heart of what we do as fantasy writers. After all, they say that you have to know your audience in order to create a compelling product for them.  So what is it exactly that gets people interested in a fantasy story?  What is it about a story with mythical creatures set in faraway lands that captures our imagination?  Is it really all just escapism — and if it is, is that escapism necessarily a negative thing?

Before I really dive into the subject, I think it’s a good idea to define what I think fantasy actually is.  There’s a lot of subgenres thrown around these days, as if it’s not enough to just write a fantasy book anymore.

My own book Shadow of the Owl was labeled as “Sword and Sorcery” fantasy when I uploaded it to the Amazon Kindle store, despite there being zero sorcery in it.  I think this tendency toward over classification is a response to the general consensus that fantasy stories aren’t strong enough as they are.  You must have something else to drive the reader to your book — it must be “epic” or “urban” or “dark”. As a writer who writes in none of these categories, I am a big believer in the alternative — that there can be a fantasy novel/story/movie that stands without a subgenre.  That we can take fantasy at face value, and find value in the magical worlds, in the human triumphs over evil, in all the new races and cultures and creatures.  That fantasy is enough all by itself.

So fantasy as a genre can contain any creative work where the rules of the world are bent in such a way that it is no longer reality.  This can mean that the fantasy is based in history, or based in science, or based in folktales — where we get most of our Disney fairy tales. Notice I said “science”.  Terry Pratchett said something surprising in his 1994 article “When Children Read Fantasy.” “As far as I am concerned,” he said, “escapist literature let me escape to the real world.” It’s fascinating to note that Pratchett viewed Science Fiction as a subset of Fantasy literature, one merely looking forward rather than backward in time.  I heartily agree with Mr. Pratchett here.  From my definition of fantasy, we see that science fiction is a derivation on the standard world, merely building upon what we know by advancing our current understanding of science.

Once you bend the rules of reality, you allow the reader to take a journey with you through what might be, or in the case of historical fantasy, what might have been.  I think of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle whenever someone brings up alternate histories.  How fascinating was it to take a stroll through a modified San Francisco (although one could argue the modifications were highly colored by Dick’s own political and racial biases) in a world where America had lost the Second World War?  I can tell you that putting that book down and looking at the world around me with its perfectly aligned historical accuracy made me truly appreciate how sometimes the course of events is just as it ought to have been. No one would enjoy living in a world where Hitler lived.

Okay then, if historical fantasy can allow us to better appreciate the world we live in, what about other types of fantasy? Melissa McPhail writes in her 2012 article “Why everyone should read Fantasy,” “Fantasy invites us to explore the best qualities of mankind, and in so doing, we cannot help but begin to look at ourselves and each other in a more healthful light.”  Fantasy stories often use the character of alternate peoples, alien races, or monsters to comment on how our society interacts with one another.

It is through reading The Hobbit that was can really understand the depth and complexity of what true courage is, because we interact with a main character from a race of notorious cowards.  But it is Bilbo Baggins, a self-proclaimed non-joiner, who faces the monster, learning about his true bravery in the process.  And from him, we learn a little more about what we might be capable of.

George R R Martin said in his essay “On Fantasy” “We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang.”  Life is filled with so much darkness these days that it’s hard to see the light until someone outside our reality shows us what is truly beautiful. Fantasy stories are perfect for this, because within them we can interact with magical creatures we never would be able to meet in real life.

I’ve talked to many people over the years specifically about what they read.  When asked if people read fantasy, some are incredibly quick to let you know that they would never read that.  As if fantasy books are somehow less than other genres because we deal in the impossible. I do believe there is a bias against fantasy books and media in our culture, and it might have to do with the negative stereotype connected with the idea of “escapism”.  Interestingly enough though, Jo Walton said “Escaping doesn’t mean avoiding reality, escaping means finding an escape route to a better place.” Looking at it in this light, escapism stops looking like a divergence from mainstream society, and more becomes a strategy with which we can navigate through the complex byways of everyday life.

Ultimately though, fantasy is the adventure of the possible.  It’s the genre that delves most eagerly into the imagination.   A.E. Marling says that “Reading fantasy gives us license to imagine things that never were and never could have been, and we revel in their impossibility.”  I think that as readers we need to explore our imaginations.  We need to connect with that childhood version of ourselves who made up languages to talk to thunderstorms and who could drive off an enemy invasion with plastic dinosaurs.

We read fantasy to escape who we are, to learn from where we’ve been, and to become who we want to be.


When you begin to realize just what is going to happen to your protagonist

Today I sat down and hashed out my plot holes (read Swiss cheese), with my favorite brainstorming partner, and was able to at long last come up with a direction for Shadow of the Panther.  Keep in mind this is a book that already has two drafts in my digital trunk, and as I started the third I knew that my stakes were missing.  When asking the question “what would happen if my protagonist just left?” I wasn’t able to answer the question properly because the answer was “nothing.”  Now after today’s chat, I am able to say with confidence “everything would go to Hades in a hand basket”, and as weird as that sounds, that’s a good thing. I now know that it matters that Mylena is in this strange wonderland, it matters to her personally and to the people of the land at large.

But, as I planned out this new plot, something triggered in me and I began to weep.  This poor girl has been through so much already.  She’s lost every single thing that mattered to her.  And what do I do?  Dangle the only desire she truly has — that of a safe home — in front of her like an emotional carrot, and then rip it from her.

I’m so sorry Mylena.  I know exactly how this feels, and what you will go through, but I promise that by the end of this you will be a stronger person with a clear future ahead of her.  But right now, I feel like a really bad person.

Do you Nano?

Tonight thousands of writers around the world will bend over their notebooks and keyboards and begin the insane task of writing a novel in a month.  I have been participating in Nanowrimo off and on since 2007.  This year will be the third attempt I make at writing what has now become Shadow of the Panther, but this time I am prepared.

I am armed with my trusty snowflake, bolstered by the positive reviews I’ve received from SotO (Shadow of the Owl for the laymen), and motivated by the knowledge that this is my job now.  Right now it’s not paying anything, but blogging barely paid anything, and was both a money and a time sink in the last years of GameGeex when I no longer cared about what I was writing. Now I care a great deal, and hopefully I will be able to get others to care just as much as I do.

I had a slow start this morning, and I’m not sitting down to my planning until noon, but I have a little under twelve hours to get as much preparation done as I can.  I am also trying something new this year:  I am going to finish my planning while I start writing the first scenes.  The last time I attempted to do my complete planning in the first two weeks of November, and write the book in the last two weeks, and it just wasn’t enough time.  I was happy with the planning I did (it ended up being the push I needed to get Shadow of the Owl finished), but I need to maximize the hours I have in the day.

The other new thing I’m trying is sticking to a writing schedule.  I will be writing in the morning each day, and only writing the amount I need to reach the word count goal or finish a scene, whichever comes first.  I have a tendency to burn out on these sorts of things, so I am looking to try moderation in this current venture.  I have given myself three months to write this book, so I have plenty of time.  I want to write words that inspire me, and I can’t do that just plowing through to fill space.  The more time I take planning, and then subsequently crafting my scenes, the less editing I will have to do at the end of this.

So that’s me: a cray loon trying to write her second novel for the third time.  If you’re a Nano’er like I am, feel free to friend me and we can plow through this craziness together.