Shakespeare, Failing, Trolls, and Other Writing Encounters

This blog entry originally began as a response to Bittersweet Turns‘ blog series on “Rhythm Writing”, which you can find here: first entry, second entry, and third entry. As I worked on this and read the three articles, my response really outgrew what I felt would be appropriate for a blog comment. So, instead, my response will be my own blog entry. I hope Priya will forgive my response here, and I highly encourage anyone reading this entry to run over and read her fantastic series.

Writers face “writer’s block” and other forms of writing interference for a number of reasons. Some of us face mental health setbacks, others face the blank-for-too-long page, and others get caught up in writing the next big thing.

Even professionals sometimes fall into that last grouping. I’ve seen some of my favorite top-level writers produce second- to third-tier level texts because they tried to jump on the current selling bandwagon.

One of the best pieces of writing advice given to me came from a college professor, in an English 101 class, many years ago. He lifted it from Shakespeare, who had written it in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”

Being true to yourself in writing takes a number of different forms. And, it took me years to fully understand what message he was really conveying.

We’ve all heard, “write what you know”, and to a point that is true. But there’s a limit that comes with that. To the best of my knowledge, no one other than Rowling has found Hogwarts, no one other than Tolkien has found Middle-earth, no one other than Pratchett has found Discworld, or no one other than Adams, well, except for The Doctor, has met Arthur Dent and the rest of the crew of the Heart of Gold. Thus, the rest of us have to improvise what we “know”.

To “write what you know”, I add “write what you like”. By this I mean, write your story or text as the story you would want to read. If you like reading about giant mechs beating each other up on a battle field, write that. If you like reading about castles, dragons, and elves, write about those. If you like reading about the end of the world, end the world!

I know some of you are now thinking, “okay, that’s great for you fiction writers, but what about us students and academics stuck in non-fiction writing?” I’ve got an answer for you folks, too.

In addition to “write what you like”, I will add “find something to like about what you’re going to write about”. Whether you’ve been in a writing class, a writing workshop, or been suckered into reading reading a friends latest fan fiction, you, like most of us, have read a text that is, at best, boring, or, at worst, just bad. That’s usually the result of getting a writing topic like “what did you do on your summer vacation” or “why I love baseball”. Sometimes, it’s hard to find something positive to say about those topics, but that’s where you, as a creative, need to dip into your skillset and create something interesting out of something boring.

With this idea, I mean, change the topic just enough to be interesting. If you get the college entrance essay topic of “where do you see yourself in ten years”, write a first-person narrative of a day or week in your life, as you believe it will be, ten years from now. Maybe you find the cure for cancer. Maybe you teach English to and study the biology of aliens from Proxima Centauri. Maybe you figure out how to convince your government to actually go through with a mission to colonize Mars. It’s your future, no one knows what it’ll look like, so be creative. Keep in mind, we went from cars to airplanes to spaceships on the moon to space stations in orbit of the Earth in one-hundred years. We went from computers the size of small houses to computers that fit in your pocket in approximately twenty years. It’s anyone’s guess what ten years from now will really look like.

To the rules “write what you like” and “find something to like about what you’re writing about”, I also add “failure is okay”. I know, I know. I felt the great disturbance in the force when I wrote those words, so I know what you’re feeling reading them. Those of us with anxiety and OCD are especially scared of failure. On the depression side of the house, sometimes we have the advantage of already feeling like a failure at things, so we got this. We, the big ‘we’ as society, put too much emphasis on success and dismiss failure. But failure is okay, that’s how we learn.

When I say “failure is okay”, by no means, am I saying, “half-ass work is okay”. What I am saying is that sometimes you will try something, especially something you haven’t tried before, and sometimes it won’t turn out how you want it too. Again, that’s okay, it’s okay to fail, that’s how we learn. In fact, when it comes to writing, my graduate rhetoric and writing classes encouraged us to look at written papers as drafts and treat “failures” as opportunities to learn.

Sometimes the draft will still be draft level, but on its way to something great at the deadline. Turn it in anyway, take the corrections and comments, and create a better draft. I know, not all academic classes, allow for this, but sometimes, the professor will allow a revised draft to replace the final product, if you demonstrate that you have an honest interest in learning to write better.

And,with that, we’ll return to Priya’s “Rhythm Writing” blog posts. She discovered that playing music while she writes and writing the thoughts that come to mind in the moment is a good way to hold off writer’s block. She points out this is especially effective when the music is instrumental. I could not agree with her more on this. However, I think the tone, or the feel, of the music is often more important than whether or not it has lyrics.

And that brings us to trolls. By trolls, I don’t mean the idiots who come along and write stupid or offensive comments on the internet. There’s no cure for them. The best advice for dealing with them is ignore, don’t engage, and hope they lose interest.

No, the trolls I refer to are the big monstrous types that come over hills or from the skis as attacking invasion forces in fantasy and scifi. Music is an effective tool for creating a mental image or an atmosphere to write certain scenes.

For example, if I am working on a military fighting force in a story, I’ll usually have something heavy metal-ish or aggressive alternative-ish playing in the background. If I’m setting up a scene for a fantasy world or scifi planet, I usually have the instrumental versions of Nighwish albums playing to inspire the scene. If I’m writing about trolls or any other invasion force, the troll metal music of bands like Finntroll is an important soundtrack to what I’m creating.

Unless I’m looking for specific lyrics to add to a scene, my default is usually European metal with non-English lyrics or instrumental music of any type. However, at times, I’ve used other music depending on what was needed to create the atmosphere I needed for a scene.

Again, I implore you to check out Priya‘s blog series on “Rhythm Writing” at Bittersweet Turns, which you can find here: first entry, second entry, and third entry.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Writing and World Building: An Annotated Bibliography

World building can be one of the most difficult parts of scifi storytelling. Often, two questions arise in any world building project: 1. How do you start the process? and 2. What are some useful resources that can help the process?

In my case, I found a good starting point when I read an interview with the two authors behind the James S.A. Corey series, The Expanse, where they described using a role playing game as a system for world creation. As a gamer who has built campaigns within the Dungeons and Dragons Dragonlance, the Palladium Games Rifts, FASA BattleTech, and Steve Jackson Games GURPS rules settings, on one hand it made sense that gaming campaigns could serve as a good starting point, on the other hand I’d never considered such work as a baseline for a writing project.

As I put together my library of world building resources, I kept running into the problem of many lists only had one or two resources that would world for my world building project. To aid anyone else who might be looking for a library of world building resources and, in some cases, just general writing references, I offer:

An Annotated Bibliography

Aylott, Chris. GURPS Space: Planetary Record and Worksheet. 4th. Austin: Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, 2006.
— This is the record sheet designed to work with the GURPS Space rule set. It has the benefit of consolidating the world building instructions and requirements into a single workbook to keep up with solar system structures, planetary maps, and cities that might exist on the planet being constructed.

Baker, Richard. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: World Builder’s Guidebook. Lake Geneva: TSR, Inc., 1996.
— The rule book published by TSR to support dungeon master world building under the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition rule sets.

Clegg, Brian. Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2015.
— I recently encountered this book resulting from a library search for the science behind science fiction. I was only a few pages into the book when I realized that this book is a must own for anyone interested in scifi storytelling. Not only does Clegg present what might work and what cannot work, he digs into the science as it stands today, how science has changed some possibilities, and ultimately offers that sometimes a storyteller does have to cheat to tell the story.

D’Amato, James. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character. New York: Adams Media, 2018.
— Everyone has a story. This little book helps with questions and examples of things that would be important to understanding who the character is at the beginning of your story. It’s easier to get your character to the end of your story and understand the impacts of the adventure, if you know where the character started.

Fugate, Sr, Joe D, J Andrew Keith and Gary L Thomas. MegaTraveller World Builder’s Handbook. Boise: Digest Group Publications, 1989.
— This work was created to offer a supplementary set of rules for building worlds and equipment for exploring those worlds with the Traveller game setting. This book works around instructions for a variety of world and environmental structures.

Gygax, Gary and Dan Cross. Gary Gygax’s World Builder. Little Rock: Troll Lord Games, L.L.C., 2004.
— One of the co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons, Gygax, offered this set of world building instructions to demonstrate what types of things should be considered for a setting.

Jackson, Steve and William A Barton. GURPS Space. 2nd. Austin: Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, 1993.
— While the 4th edition of GURPS Space has improved rules for planetary and solar system construction, the 2nd edition includes spaceship building resources from the largest interstellar travellers down to planetary shuttle craft.

Jackson, Steve, Sean Punch and David Pulver. GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns. 4th. Austin: Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, 2008.
Jackson, Steve, Sean Punch and David Pulver. GURPS Basic Set: Characters. 4th. Austin: Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, 2008.
— These two books make up the GURPS Basic Set. The character volume provides a broad offering of character personality traits that might be considered in the construction of story characters. The campaign volume provides suggestions for building the world and setting in which those characters to live and explore within.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2010.
— King begins his book on writing advice with “most books about writing are filled with bullshit”. From there, he goes on to explain that reading and writing are the two most important things a writer can do. Along the way, he offers suggestions of tools and advice on how to approach the writing process.

Lamson, Laurie. Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2014.
— This volume of the Now Write! series offers a set of writing exercises created by many big name authors in scifi, fantasy, and horror writing. Everyone experiences writer’s block at some point and these exercises offer an excellent guided way to keep writing while working through a block.

Peoples, Mark. Cosmos-2: Alternity Universe Building Guidebook, Version 2. 2006.
— This is a supplementary rule set that the author created to support solar system and world construction for another one of TSR’s scifi gaming attempts.

Schmidt, Victoria Lyn. 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001.
— This book works from the Joseph Campbell monomyth and Carl Jung archetype theories to create a set of character types that exist in stories, gives examples of characters from existing stories, and explains how such a character might be placed into a writer’s story.

Silverstein, Janna. The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kirkland: Open Design, LLC, 2012.
— This is a collection of articles that Kobold magazine ran covering different aspects of world building. Some of the biggest names in game design and fantasy writing are represented here.

Thorne, Kip. The Science of Interstellar. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.
— This book is another example of the science behind science fiction. In this case, the scientist who served as the science advisor to the movie Interstellar, Thorne gets to explain the actual science behind wormholes and black holes. For anyone toying with wormholes and other forms of faster than light travel for a story, this book is a must own.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Revised and Expanded. New York: Abrams Image, 2018.
— Vandermeer is an author and editor well-known within scifi, fantasy, and horror circles. In this book, a guy who knows the genres offers suggestions and exercises to aid in the creation of worlds and setting for the stories of other writers.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.
— If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell’s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this book presents Campbell’s heroic journey monomyth concept as a structure for writing and telling stories.

Ward, James M and Gary Jaquet. Gamma World 1st. Lake Geneva: TSR Hobbies, Inc, 1978.
Gamma World was one of TSR’s earlier explorations into scifi gaming. While the rulebook was written to support a post-nuclear war post-apocalyptic setting, two sets of subrules really standout for world creation. First, the rules for mutations offers interesting prospects for what types of mutations might result from radiation exposure. The second set of useful rules take the form of a series of flowcharts that walk through the process of trying to figure out any unknown, lost, or alien “artifact” item that might be found over the course of a story. The flowchart process results include such possibilities as damage to the artifact, death or injury to the charactrers trying to figure out what the aftifact does, or even the characters actually successfully figuring out for themselves what this “new” toy does.

Zeigler, Jon F and James L Cambias. GURPS Space. 4th. Austin: Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, 2006.
— The 4th edition of GURPS Space offers an excellent and much improved system for creating planetary worlds and the science-influenced rules behind solar system placement of habitable planets.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Writing Tools

As anyone with a creative skill knows, practice is a requirement to maintain and improve that skill.  I’ve got a couple of tools I’ve picked up over the years that I use for practice and to combat writer’s block.

The first tool I picked up is Rory’s Story Cubes.  I found the Rory cubes in Walgreen of all places while waiting for the filling of one of my wife’s prescriptions.  Walgreen had the base set at the time, which I’ve found to be quite useful by itself.

Basically, the idea of the game is to roll the 9 story cubes like dice and then create a story using the 9 images that come up.  The options are endless and the cubes can be used multiple times to come up with a variety of story ideas.

Over the years I’ve also picked up the Actions set and the Voyages set, which at times I’ve used by themselves and together with the base set.  I’ve used the Rory Story Cubes alone and in workshop and classroom settings.  I would definitely recommend picking up a set and trying them out.

The other tool I’ve picked up is Yeti Eats Alien.  This one I discovered recently while browsing through the shelves of the Puzzle Warehouse‘s local retail shop.  From what I can tell, this one is a relatively new game, but I don’t know for sure.

While the idea of this game is funny headlines, using the headline game rules gives a good basis of five words from which to build a headline.  As a story writer, that headline provides a starting point to build from.  From a humorist perspective, there is plenty to work with in this set and I could see future expansions adding even more comedic fun.

I’m always on the lookout for pocket sized games and games that can serve as story writing tools.  These two provide for both purposes.

Real Monsters by Toby Allen

One of my intentions in rebooting this blog was to never allow more than 3 to 5 days between posts.  In the past, I too often allowed bad days to get in the way of writing.  As often happens, one bad day without work leads to another and another and next thing I know several months have passed with no new updates.  So, this time around, I plan to rectify that with the 3 to 5 day rule.  Even if it’s a low period, I will update with something.

A while ago, I found an article or something that showed off the Real Monsters artwork by Toby Allen.  His project is intended to draw attention to mental illness.  He also makes the images available for purchase as prints, tshirts, etc.  The artwork is great and shows off a variety of mental illnesses.  The piece above is just one example.

Toby Allen’s Depression artwork stolen from ZestyDoesThings.

The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius by Nancy C. Andreasen

Ran across a couple of articles this week discussing the book, The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius by Nancy C. Andreasen.  Dr Andreasen is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who started out with a PhD in English Literature.

The first article, A Little Weird? Prone to Depression? Blame Your Creative Brain, is actually from about seven years ago, and discusses several points about creatives and depression:

  • “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature
  • Creative people have characteristics that make them more vulnerable
  • A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others
  • Creative brains have difficulty “gating” sensory input
  • Creative people are more likely to be productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people”.

The article’s author summarizes Dr Andreasen’s findings as “creatives experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population”.

The second article, Neuroscientist Explains Five Secrets of the Creative Brain, is from about a week ago, and also discusses the connection between creatives and depression with this quote from Dr Andreasen, “Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them ‘creative geniuses.’ Some people see things other cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people (are) both”.

The article’s author reveals the five secrets to be:

  • “Many Creatives Are Polymaths
  • Creatives Are Mostly Self-Taught
  • Creatives Are a Persistent Bunch
  • Creatives Get Their Best Ideas at Rest
  • Creatives Have a Ton of Ideas”.

As is always the case with depression or any other mental illness, your experience may differ from what is described in this book.  Needless to say, this book now occupies a spot on my must read list.