Author Toolbag: Inspiration

what-inspires-you-v2Anyone who has ever tried to write a story or poem knows the most terrifying thing in the world is a blank page.  You can spend hours, days, weeks, months, even years paging through books, reading online, checking facebook… all to avoid that dreaded first page.

For those of you who have written that first page, there are many more obstacles.  There’s the dreaded middle, where you know where you need to end up but there is all this “stuff” in the way that has to be done first.  For me, there’s the hundred page blues, where I hit one hundred pages and I just start wondering, is any of this good?  There are points where you feel like you’re writing the best story ever and then suddenly you are stuck, everything has gone horribly wrong and you don’t know what to do.

The good news is: the answer is simple.  Sit your butt down in front of the computer (or typewriter or pen and paper, etc) and write.  If you’re stuck on your current story, write something else.  Put words to page.

Sounds easy, right?   Well, if you’re like me, finding that time to sit in front of the computer is the hard part.  So how can you best prepare yourself so that you ensure the time isn’t wasted?

Seek inspiration.  I commute to my day job, which eats up around two hours a day (even after having moved closer, traffic in Denver is absurd).  I spend a good portion of that time thinking and I try to spend it thinking about plot, characters, and writing structure for works-in-progress and upcoming stories.  I also listen to music, which helps getting the creative juices flowing.

Getting outside is another source of inspiration for me.  Seeing the sun is always good.  Walking/hiking in a scenic setting is great for wrapping my head around a fantasy setting, especially with the mountains here in Colorado.  Going for a run and doing a morning workout is also good for me, since I generally get so bored running that I have to think about something.  Exercise is also cathartic, it helps you to relieve stress and releases all kinds of good chemicals in your body and brain.  What that means in layman speak is if you do some physical exercise, you might be a little less stressed out when you sit down to write.  If you have a busy life, it can clear your head so that you focus on what you want to do.

On the other hand, sleeping on it is a viable technique.  If I can get a short nap in before I write, I generally find I write better.  (It is a rare occasion with a very active toddler in the house.  Waking up to being hit in the head with a metal tractor is not a good way to start writing your novel).  A nap can act as a sort of reset, letting you get into things after letting your subconscious sort things out and quiet itself a bit.

These are all techniques I use, but everyone is different.  Writing is a personal experience, what inspires you to write is also going to be personal.  I know a writer who can only write in absolutely quiet conditions, distant music, a conversation in another room, these all make it so she can’t put words to page.  I know another writer who cranks up loud music and still another one who prefers to write while listening to the TV.  These are all viable tactics, I suppose, though some are easier than others to achieve.  In short: find what works for you and do it!

Are You Human?

LItany-Against-Fear1I remember reading Frank Herbert’s Dune as a child and being at once excited and awed by some of the concepts.  One of the big ones, one of the ones that stuck with me, was what I remember as the “Human” test.  Basically, you stick your hand in the box and the box gives you excruciating pain… while someone has a poison needle against your neck.  The test was simple: pull your hand out of the box because of fear and pain and you get a needle in the neck and die.

The whole point of this test was to find who could overcome fear and pain, to rise above their animal natures.   It sort of fit with a lot of the metaphysical ideas that went around during the time, the mind over matter mentality.  What bothers me, I suppose, is the underlying assumption that you have to prove yourself to be human.

It is an uncomfortable thought,  when you dig into it.  How does one prove something like that, after all?  Even in Dune,  the test is shown to be subjective as the Bene Gesserit who gives it to Paul Atreides admits to herself that she tested him far more harshly than she planned.

The worst part, I think, is that if you accept this test in concept, you then create people who, strictly speaking, aren’t “people.”  If you have some arbitrary test that separates them, then you dehumanize everyone who doesn’t pass your test.  They become human-shaped animals… and whenever someone does that in history, bad things tend to happen.

When you draw lines in the sand, when you go beyond separation of “us” and “them” and into “human” and “subhuman” you start creating some very dangerous circumstances.  Humanity, as a survival mechanism, tends to think in social groups as “us” and “them.”  It is a mechanic of social trust and community.  To an extent, you can’t break us of our tribalism, we all feel the need to identify with something.  We all feel the need to fit in, to conform (even if you identify with the ‘counter culture’ you’re still conforming, just with a different social group).

This, by nature, causes rivalries.  These rivalries can be as healthy as athletic competition or as unhealthy as genocide.  They are driven as much by a need to conform as they are to succeed.  The darker side of this success and conformity is, as I said, when “they” cease to be considered human by “us.”

In these circumstances, any method of success is considered justifiable.  Normal people don’t consider a mouse as “owning” land or property, nor, when they have allowed themselves to consider “them” as human-shaped animals, do they bother to value “them” as having a claim on life, liberty, or property.

So why the lengthy explanation and what does this mean?  I look out on the interwebz, and I see a lot of fear.  I see a lot of anger.  I see people in their social groups rationalizing why their opponents aren’t logical, because they disagree.  This is, I’m afraid, human nature.  We’ll continue to argue and disagree as long as we exist.

What I also see, however, is the denigration of “them.”  It comes from that anger and fear, the uncertainty over the times.  When people begin to tell themselves that they know better, that they know what is right, their next step is to believe they are right because they are superior… because those who disagree with them are less than human.  The ugliest part of this is that it robs us of our humanity on both sides of these kinds of divides.  To treat our opponents as human-shaped animals is to open a door to unspeakable horror.

What’s the solution?  I can’t say.  I’m almost afraid that we are past the point of a solution.  Anger, fear, and divisiveness are the tools of those who already think themselves “superior.”  They’ll cheerfully put us at one another’s throats, because in their minds, they already know that we’re all just human-shaped animals who can be pitted against each other for their own benefit.

Take some time, talk, listen.  Put down the cell phone and get out from behind your computer.  Talk to people.  That’s the big thing, people don’t talk, they’re afraid to be grouped as “them” and cast out of their social group.  Tear down the walls, discuss the things that you’ve been afraid to talk about and don’t be afraid to argue your point.  Above all, treat everyone with dignity and respect, even if they don’t agree with you.

Most of all: don’t be afraid.  Fear is the mindkiller.

Author’s Toolbag: Gaming Part Three

Some games are more realistic than others...
Some games are more realistic than others…

In Part One I talked about a general overview of what gaming provides a writer, while in Part Two I went into a bit more detail about how roleplaying games can help a writer develop his plots, characters, and worlds.

Here in Part Three, I’ll talk a bit about how wargaming can help you craft and design more realistic scenes for your books.  Obviously this advice holds a bit more true to those of you writing military or combat themes in science fiction or fantasy, although if you have even a small fight scene in what you write, it may behoove you to pay attention.

So, what does wargaming offer?  Well, it gives you some basic understanding of tactics and planning.  This, in and of itself, can show in your writing as your characters refer to flanking an enemy or massing fires.  Knowing even just the basics of how a fight would play out can really help when you go to write up that fight scene.

It can also help you to visualize where characters are and what kinds of odds they face.  Knowing that Throk the barbarian has to face a hundred orcs is one thing, putting a hundred markers out to show just how insane that would look is something else entirely.  Where this plays out is that it allows you to keep your fight scenes somewhat grounded.  It makes no sense for one person to hold out against hundreds without some huge advantages… unless you’re writing manga or some kung-fu movie type scenes.

Also, wargaming gives you a sense of the scale of a fight.  If your characters are taking part in a huge battlefront where tens of thousands of warriors are clashing, seeing that scale can help you to write scenes that feel more epic and with high stakes to increase the tension.  Whereas if you have a small skirmish deep underground or with a handful of people in a forest, that close, intimate description can set the tone and the immediate consequences for characters can set the tone.

Where do you get started then?  Well, there are a variety of games and a variety of methods, but the easiest is to probably go to your local gaming store on a Friday night and just ask around.  Most gamers are pretty welcoming and would love to talk about what they play.  If you tell them you’re an author and you’re researching for a novel, you’ll probably have several eager gamers willing to talk about the basics.

In general, games like Warmachine and Hordes are small skirmish games with a handful of fighters per side (squad and platoon size), games like Warhammer 40k and Warhammer Fantasy are larger, small armies (company size or larger), while games like Flames of War are for larger scale battles (company and battalion).  There are a variety of ship-combat games, ranging from fighter level to capital ships (X Wing, Star Wars Armada, Battlefleet Gothic, and more).  Game rules range from very complex to absurdly simple and most give you at least a decent approximation of how a fight might play out.

One thing to remember as you go about converting what you learn with what you’re writing: don’t get too caught up in the technical details.  Writing is about characters, so spending a long time discussing the technology, tactics, and advantages of one side or the other is a good way to put your reader to sleep.  Slip that kind of thing in here or there, but focus on the characters, the stakes, and anything else to drive up tension.  A fight scene (whether between hundreds of capital ships in a distant galaxy or just two characters locked in a grapple with knives), is there to show conflict, increase tension, and to make the reader excited.  Dry, technical dialogue is a good way to ruin an otherwise perfectly good scene.  Don’t take pages to get to the point, do it quickly, establish the stakes, show the danger, and complete the scene in a manner to accomplish your plot goals.

Another point: the main character doesn’t always need to win.  In fact, oftentimes it is far better for the story if they don’t.  They might be defeated ingloriously and either left for dead or taken prisoner.  They might be forced to withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds.  There are lots of options for you, as a writer, to use conflict to batter your character, to force them to grow and into introduce themes and plots that you couldn’t explore otherwise.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!

Movie Review: Deadpool

Deadpool: A Valentine's Day movie in the style of Roman Lupercalia
Deadpool: A Valentine’s Day movie in the style of Roman Lupercalia

In ancient times, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility celebration with some vague ties to Valentines Day.  Lupercalia involved blood sacrifice, lots of nudity, and a little bit of violence.   In that fashion, Deadpool is the perfect movie to celebrate that holiday.

I thought that writing a review about the new Deadpool movie would be easy, but it’s more difficult than I thought.  My first comment would have to be: Do not take your kids to this movie.  I don’t care how progressive a parent you are… just don’t.  At my showing, there were over a dozen families in the audience… and at least a few of them headed for the doors not long into the movie.  Your kids don’t need to be exposed to this stuff, and unless you’re ready to explain some rather esoteric humor, you’ll probably be glad you left them at home.

That disclaimer aside, it’s a complicated movie.

On the one hand, it is outrageously vulgar and violent…. while being accurate in too many ways to fully describe.  The violence is at once cartoonish and yet the wounds, the manner of death, is particularly accurate.  The profanity and vulgarity are both over the top and yet utterly fitting.

On the other hand, the movie is absolutely hilarious.  I haven’t laughed so much in any movie I can recently remember.  The humor is dark, sarcastic, and often inappropriate… but it works wonderfully.

It’s a complex movie, filled with slapstick and it takes time to point at itself and laugh.  From the opening credits to the final end-scene, there isn’t any waste.  Everything in the movie is designed to be funny and entertaining.  It is fantastically done.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart.  There’s enough realistically depicted violence, sexual content, and horrible things to offend just about anyone.  That said, if you go into it with the right mindset, you’ll probably walk out with a smile on your face.  It points and laughs at itself, it points and laughs at the audience for watching, but the movie has the balls to pull it off, great marketing, and you can tell they really enjoyed making the movie.

Stick around after the credits (assuming you’re not one of the families I saw in the theater, who generally fled as soon as the credits rolled).  Pay attention throughout the movie, there’s plenty of humor to be found.  I’m excited they’re making a sequel, I’m looking forward to seeing that, hopefully with a bit bigger a budget.

As a side note, literally not one of the movies they showed trailers for looked remotely appealing.  Yes, that includes the upcoming Batman vs Superman  movie.  Don’t even get me started about The Purge…

Next movie I see will probably be Captain America: Civil War.

Valor’s Child on Kindle Scout!

Valor's Child by Kal Spriggs
Valor’s Child by Kal Spriggs

Hello everyone!  Valor’s Child is now on Kindle Scout.  The excerpt there contains the first five thousand words.  Those of you who nominate it (if it gets selected for publishing), will then receive the entire novel for free.

The planet Century lies at the very verge of human space.  It is a frontier world, where hard work is not only essential to survival, it is a way of life.  Jiden knows all about hard work, and she’s ready to buckle down and fulfill her dreams, to rise above her parent’s modest background and to stake her claim and be successful on her own merit. 

Yet there’s one hurdle she has to face, her grandmother insists she attend the Century Military Academy’s Prep School.  She plans to keep her head down, to get past this last obstacle, and then to pursue her dreams.  Yet nothing goes to plan: she becomes the center of controversy, she finds herself drawn into infighting among the other candidates, and worst of all… she finds a resonance within her heart at the ideals of duty and service. 

Remember: your support is what will get this book published.  Please take the time to go to Kindle Scout and nominate it.  Here is the direct link: Valor’s Child on Kindle Scout

Valor’s Child Coming Soon to Kindle Scout

Hello everyone!  I’m happy to announce that Valor’s Child, my military science fiction/space opera young adult novel is coming to Kindle Scout.  I’m really excited about this book, I’ve had some great feedback on it and I hope it will appeal to a broad audience.  The general theme of this series is going to be a cross of Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers.

So what is Kindle Scout?  I’m glad you asked!  Kindle Scout is a publishing service within the umbrella of Kindle.  Basically, Kindle has stepped up things and created their own in-house publisher.  The way it works is actually quite novel: Authors upload their manuscripts to Kindle Scout, where anyone with an Amazon account can view their work.  Those who like it can vote for it (you get up to three votes at a time).  The best part for readers is that if the book they voted for gets selected for publishing, then they’ll receive a free copy when it is published.  That’s right, just for participating you get a free copy.  Pretty cool, huh?

In this way, Kindle Scout is crowd-sourcing books.  What they provide for me as a writer is that they have all the assets of a publisher: they pay for copy-editing and they help to promote the book.

This is something of an experiment to me, so we’ll see how it works.  Hopefully a lot of my readers will check it out.  I’ll post the link on Friday when it goes live. (Edit: It will go live on Saturday 13 Feb)

Edit #2: here’s the link   https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/1O90BJY4NZ797

Author’s Toolbag: Gaming Part Two

Sometimes your characters are gamers too...
Sometimes your characters are gamers too…

In Part One, I talked about some general ways in which gaming can help a writer.  Here in Part Two, I’ll go into more specifics of how running (or playing) a roleplaying game can help you, the author, in developing your world, improving your characters, and building your plot.

Roleplaying Games (RPGs) are a variety of games, ranging from complex (Rifts/Palladium) to very simple (Hero).  What they all have in common is that they give you a framework for acting out the story of a character as he experiences adventure.

This is, at its root, the basis of storytelling.  A game master or dungeon master puts together a story and the players, through their characters, experience that story.  It is much like the pattern a writer takes to tell a story to his or her readers.

That’s not to say that I recommend writing a story based upon your RPG sessions.   Most RPG sessions, however hilarious and exciting to the players, will come off as a boring blow-by-blow to readers.  This is an incidence of a difference in audience, for one thing.  A RPG session is focused on individuals who already have a stake in their characters (they’re playing them, after all).  Readers won’t have that buy-in, so they won’t care as much about the incidentals.  They also don’t have the perspective of being there and knowing the other players, after all, reading isn’t a group event.

So how does playing or running an RPG help you as a writer?  Well, there’s different areas that it helps.  For a developing writer, I highly recommend playing as a character.  Spending a few hours developing a backstory, building in quirks, perks, and flaws into a character gives you some perspective on character design that is very valuable (even if you don’t use that character ever again, you learn a lot in the experience).  Even more valuable than that is the ability to role-play that character in a group.  A common flaw among new writers is that all of their characters sound, act, and feel the same.  Playing a variety of player characters over a variety of games gives someone a chance to develop those character voices, to make them separate and distinct.

For a more experienced writer, I’d recommend taking this to the next level and running an RPG.  Doing so in a world you write in not only challenges you to flesh out your world, but also to expand your cast of characters and to flesh out your plotting.  There’s nothing quite as hard to control as a group of gamers as they rampage through your world.  As long as you are doing your job as a game master, they’ll always be wanting to see what is beyond the next corner or over the next hill.  You’ll quickly find yourself having to develop organizations, secret societies, and fleshing out details like what places look like and where all the ships sail after they leave the port.  These things by themselves won’t make you a better writer, but the consideration that your characters live in a greater world does come through your writing.

Plus, trying out some prospective plots or themes within a gaming session is a fantastic way to experiment.  If you think you’ve come up with a really clever idea, there’s nothing like having a bunch of players trample over or around it, either seeing right through it or being completely oblivious.  That kind of thing can really help you to develop your abilities as far as foreshadowing, plotting, and generally developing your ability to tell a complex plot.

Now remember, all this doesn’t require a boxes of odd-shaped dice and reams of character sheets.  Roleplaying  to test some ideas could be as simple as you getting a couple friends together talking through a scene from your book, gauging responses and impressions, and then getting back to writing.

Now, a pitfall I’ve seen as far as using your gaming experience as a writer is becoming too oriented on the mechanics.  Readers don’t want to see how you built your characters or how your character blocked an attack.  They probably don’t want to read a blow-by-blow of a fight.  You can put such things in, but they should never take over the story.  Readers want to see the characters progress along their story arcs.

That’s all for now, next week I’ll talk about war-gaming and what it adds to your abilities as a writer.