I’m Getting Married!

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Aaand one day after taking this picture, my hands were all scarred up again.

So.

We’re taking a break from our usual programming to make an announcement–I’m getting married.

I know, I know. This has nothing to do with writing. But hey.

Definitely Not Dave, my magicianly counterpart, proposed on Valentine’s Day. He went down on one knee in a restaurant and everything. He had the good grace to not include a magic trick in his proposal–for which I’m forever grateful.

So I’ve been sitting on my arse mostly since then, talking to my mother and looking at Pinterest wedding boards. If you’ve never had the need to look at Pinterest wedding boards, I can tell you right now that there are few things more depressing than reading a slew of articles entitled ‘Ways to Plan A Wedding for ONLY $10,000!’, one after the other. Until you lift your eyes, you enter this cream-puff-and-sugar-plum fantasy land where you can spend $10,000 dollars on a wedding.

Then you put the Kindle down. You realize you still have to pay taxes, and you have like eighty bucks in your bank account.

And you say something like oh Jesus what have I done.

And then you say something like how much blood can I sell. Followed, sometimes, by can I donate eggs? How does that work? Do your eggs sit there, like, on consignment? Does my egg-harvest have to sell for a payoff?

And then you realize, that, a week ago, you hadn’t ever really even thought about what your wedding is going to be like. Half your relatives are telling you, sanctimoniously, that ‘what really matters is that you love each other’. Except for Aunt Agnes, who’s sanctimoniously telling you ‘what really matters is that your bridesmaids have matching dresses’.

You witness women in comment threads tearing each other apart over the appropriateness of using (legasp!) a cake server for your wedding cake that has already been used. You debate whether or not ‘virgin’ is a term that can really be used to describe a cake server, and whether it’s more or less ironic when it’s used to describe said item in a wedding context. You’re uncertain, actually, what a cake server is. You would ask the brides-to-be in the comment thread, but actually, they seem really mean, and you suspect they can smell blood from like three miles away.

You wonder, fleetingly, if you’re really a woman at all. You’ve given so little thought to this. Aren’t you supposed to have dreams about this sort of thing? Actually, weren’t you supposed to start that Pinterest wedding board about when you hit fifteen? Was there Pinterest, when you were fifteen? Probably not. Oh, God. You’re an elderly bride. Luckily there’s an entire board of ‘modest wedding dresses’, and it’s followed by like half a million people. ‘Modest plus size vintage lace’…oh Jesus. Two hundred thousand other people are interested enough in ‘modest plus size vintage lace wedding dresses’ to follow the fricking modest plus size vintage lace wedding dress board.

It starts to seep in, after a few hours of horrified Pinterest browsing, that people spend way too much money and time on this. Which you kind of get–I mean, it’s a big day, right? You debate stuffing your fiancee into a hunter green suit with a bow tie. You realize he would unengage you faster than a quasar rotates, should you try to stuff him into a hunter green suit with a bow tie. (And maybe he should. How would you like it if some pushy broad tried to stuff you into said suit?)

You know you should be making a sanctimonious post about the depth of your love for each other, preferably with some Instagram-filtered graphic and a retro handwriting font. ‘Two hearts, one soul’ or some other hackneyed bullshit. You know you’re not supposed to focus on the wedding. This means you’re shallow and detail-oriented. Well, hell, you knew you were shallow and detail-oriented. Obviously, this is something your fiance likes, or he wouldn’t have proposed.

Right?

Right?

Maybe you can just get your wedding photography done at Wal-Mart. There’s a setting with a rainbow in the background, and you’re ninety percent certain they’ll add in an eagle if you pay a little extra. Rainbow-eagle themed wedding! Fuck yeah!

Wait, you’re not allowed to have a sense of humor about this.

Are you?

That’s the thing. You don’t really know. And, judging from all the wedding stuff you just perused, the one thing you definitely aren’t allowed to be on your wedding is you, if you isn’t particularly graceful and lovely.

So I’m starting another blog. A wedding blog. It won’t be updated very frequently–especially not right now, since we’re not having the ceremony for at least a year–but I need something to help me through this, and I need somewhere to vent about all the puffy taffeta-and-lace foolishness I encounter along the way. Because from what I’ve seen online, everybody pays five thousand dollars for a photographer, and everybody is a size four, and everybody has strong opinions about stupid shit like whether or not an antique cake server is acceptable for a wedding, and nobody drinks cocktails which are not served in vintagey Instagrammed splendor.

Yeah, it’s ‘my special day’. There are fifteen dollar glossy magazines that cram that fact down my throat quite well. But it’s got to be possible to have a nice wedding without creating a salt-circle and selling your soul to a wedding planner. I don’t ever want to be one of these people who jabber on endlessly about wedding colors and bridesmaid dresses and blah blah blah. I just want to have a happy event to start our lives together.

And, okay. I want to have it catered.

Here’s the link to my brand new wedding blog, if anyone wants to follow it–it’ll be entertaining, prommy proms:

The Bastard Bride: A Wedding Blog for Girls Without A Favorite Disney Princess.

You’ll notice the first post on there is this post. Because obvious reasons.

And, a last aside:

So I found a quiz online, purportedly to tell me ‘what style of wedding dress fits me’. I clicked on it, thinking it would ask for things like my height and weight and body type. Nope. No. Instead, it asked me questions like ‘which Disney princess would you like to be’, ‘which of these four movies (all romantic comedies) is your favorite’ and ‘what’s your favorite type of wine’. Ugh. Ugh. UGH. This industry clearly needs an enema. It needs to have the Sex in the City flushed out of it in the same way a trumpet periodically needs its spit valve exercised. Ugh. Ugh.

Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

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Photo from wikipedia. Text from the sick depths of my soul.

Occam’s Phaser

Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!

All right, people, I want you to take a moment and appreciate the fact that, after long practice, I may have just typed the nerdiest letters of my career. Occam’s phaser. Sheesh. Shove me in a locker, somebody, cause I ain’t makin’ it to senior prom.

With that out of the way…

(Occam’s phaser! Hurr!)

I want to have a serious talk.

You guys have all heard of William of Occam, right? Born in…well, probably Occam. A mendicant friar and a logician of the 14th century, who posited, among many logical principals, the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. There’s more to it, but that’s how we non-logicians usually express it.

And a bunch of people took offense to that. Wouldn’t you? I mean, you’ve got this fancy theorem that took you like five years to embroider into factfulness, what business does this punk monk have coming around and going naw, simpler is better, dawg, and then you’re all like my name is Immanuel Kantstopdis, and I think nature is diverse as hell. And then, they see you whip, and possibly nay-nay, and by God–

Okay. Overcompensating. I’m going somewhere with this, I swear. Or I’m trying to.

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. Occam’s phaser, which is my idea, is the same general principal applied to your fantasy novel: the simpler you keep it, the more your story is likely to work.
We’ve all read those epic fantasy novels. You know, those ones. Where there’s a thousand pages of scenebuilding before you get to the plot, where you need the Cliff’s notes to keep up with the list of characters, and where everybody, everybody, gets paired off with either a romantic partner or a small country by the end of the novel.

When you write your Amazon review for this novel, it probably features the phrase ‘excellent worldbuilding’, mostly because, well, somebody did spend a lot of time, and that much literary real estate has to be worth something. Trick is, you can sell an acre of swamp and call it ‘real estate’. You can sell a shotgun shack (doors and windows not included) and it’s still fricking real estate.

But that’s not what you want real estate to be, is it? You want your novel to be in Beverly Hills, to have a midcentry modern dream house on it. You want lights to turn on when you clap. You want Jennifer Lawrence next door, and you want her to bring you casseroles when you move in. (Or organic cruelty-free parsnip chips. Or whatever hip people eat now).

My point is, you only need to:

1) Have a character in your story if that character is necessary to the plot,
2) Describe the setting in detail if the setting is plot-crucial or particularly unique,
3) Add in a plot twist when that plot twist is natural, and doesn’t take a lot of work to fit in.

That’s it, baby. That’s Occam’s phaser.

It’s easy to get carried away with your own descriptive powers whilst in the throes of composition. Problem is, it isn’t readable to do so. We don’t need to know the name of Lord Aston’s squire if this is the only scene she’s in. And a few descriptive terms–surly, for instance, or sunny–will probably suffice, if you need them at all. When you spend a paragraph or two describing this squire, you’ve indicated to the reader that she’s going to be important later on in the story. That’s what description does. And when you make that promise too often, and don’t stand by it, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to anymore.

Same goes for settings. As an adult human being, I know what a field of grass looks like. I know what an oven looks like. Now, unless there’s something important about this oven–the main character’s mother has cooked every dinner he’s ever eaten on it, and it represents his sadness over leaving home–or something unique–it’s a magical oven that only cooks children–I don’t need more than a little bit to know what I’m looking at. Woodstove might tell me enough, or gas oven, or big white oveny bastard brooding in the corner.

And plot twists? Oh, Jesus, plot twists. There is nothing, nothing more annoying than an unneeded plot twist. Ask yourself, always: is there some question here that hasn’t been answered by the course of the story so far? If there is, twist the night away. If there isn’t, hold off. It’s just going to throw your reader off balance, and leave him expecting a major shift in the plot…which, since your plot twist doesn’t go anywhere, you’re not going to give him.

So. Only have Bertie the Bertblandished carried off by the dragon if it’s going to change your plot. Does it make him see the importance of fire-proof wizard’s robes? Does he become friends with the dragon, take him back to the castle to help them win the war? Does he realize, uncomfortably, that the dragon is actually his mother, and maybe that’s why everyone he has a burping contest with seems to spontaneously combust.

If it does one of those things, that’s great. But even then, it better do one of those things because that question has been raised in the natural course of your plot. Maybe this annoying wizard-chickie has been harping on him about fire proof robes for the entire story, and now he gets the reasoning, and starts to talk to her more–and it turns out she’s just awesome, an incredible person, and she has a lot of really good ideas for defending the castle, and he winds up marrying her or something. You get the idea: a plot twist has to answer a question and move the plot forward. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time going retrograde. Remember Ptolemy? Time waster. Yeah, you heard me.

(If you got that joke, please join me on this schooner full of people who aren’t getting dates for prom. It’s warm here, and we have twelve-sided dice.)

So, when you write, consider the beauty of simplicity and pare accordingly. But remember: even William of Occam didn’t mean something had to be bare bones to be correct. Embellishment can be beautiful and effective, too–as long as you keep it in moderation.

Why Money Matters in Fantasy

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One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

Why It’s Wrong to Motivate Your Villain

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Female Villains and The Impossibilty of Motive

(A note: there are mild Star Wars spoilers contained in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but still care enough about Star Wars to be upset with me: don’t read. Also, quit breathing. Are we supposed to not talk about the damned movie for an entire month while you get your shit together?)

So it was around June or so that I started hearing rumors about the new Star Wars movie–interesting rumors. I was trying to go rumor-free until I saw it, but that proved pretty difficult: if you touched the Internet, the Internet told you something about Star Wars. I’m telling you this to explain how I heard this rumor and then didn’t unhear it shortly after. That’s important, you see, for the story.

Anyway, the rumor I heard, and then cherished, and then never unheard until I set foot in the theatre:

Kylo Ren is going to be a girl.

I felt a warm flush of pride deep in my bloated old-woman craw. What a victory, really, for those of us who grew up wanting the red lightsaber.

That rumor stuck with me for a while. Mostly because, at first, I couldn’t see why I found it so fascinating.

Of course, when I finally saw Star Wars, I was horribly disappointed. We traded the possibility of that for Anakin Lite?

I liked the idea of Kylo Ren a lot better when that masked and looming figure was female. Just because you don’t see it much–a woman villain, power-hungry, under a mask. Not wearing a low-cut lady outfit, not flirting. The sort of villain even boys want to be, because they could be that villain.

The hard truth of it is, it’s tough to find a good female villain. And when you do find one, she usually has one of these motivations:

1) A tragic love affair (in love with the man villain, hero did her wrong, etc.)
2) Revenge (someone wronged her–often sexually–and she goes too far to the other side taking revenge.)
3) A Devastating Trauma (family killed, kids killed, husband killed, etc.)
4) Life Is Just Too Hard As a Woman (so she has to go to the Dark Side to gain ‘freedom’.)

Nothing wrong with these motivations. They’re perfectly decent motivations. It’s just–they all depend on the actions or lives of somebody else. It weakens the perception of a villain, to start with this sort of backstory. And it doesn’t half explain away the evil.

The had truth of it is, as much as you see the advice ‘give your villain motivation’ spattered about online, you can over-motivate a villain. We tend to do this with women especially, since you don’t usually see a girl when you picture a power-mad despot taking over a small South American country. What could lead to that? What made her go from painting her nails with those cute Bonne Bell tiny nail polishes and dreaming about prom to military dictatorship?

It’s tough for us to grasp that a woman could be doing both (or not be into painting her nails in the first place, even weirder). So we overcompensate–we make out Evil Empress a great haughty beauty, we put her in a slinky dress, we make her a good person deep down, no really. (Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this too. It’s a hard taboo to break).

The thing is. Any villain, male or female, has one motivation for being a villain: being a shitty human being.

You might start down the path to the Dark Side because you’re frightened, or lonely, or angry. And there should be a starting point, and you should know what it is. But that’s not what takes you all the way. The one thing that makes you truly evil is being truly evil. Whether you’re a woman or a man, girl or boy, you don’t reach the point where you’re killing every elf in the city because your ex was an elf. You reach that point because you’re a despicable, genocidal person. You do other things that aren’t nice, too: obviously, you’re racist, but you probably also don’t tip. You probably have an inflated sense of your own importance (after all, you’re human, so you’ve got to be pretty decent, right?) and you’ve probably never held the door for one of those awful elves in your life. Actually, you probably make a stink when they walk down the same side of the street as you do. You won’t eat something if elf hands have touched it. When your sister moved into a house near the Elf Quarter, you probably said, horrified: but elves might have lived there. You probably made her move, because you’re also a domineering and forceful person. Or: you burned her house down and made it look like an accident. It’s okay, it’s better for her in the end anyway.

It’s hard, I think, for us to see women in this light. I don’t know why we like to see women as better people in stories (or, at worst, as ineffectual bitches), but we do. Maybe it’s the residual effects of Coventry Patmore and all the rest of those Victorian moralizers, but it’s not a good thing. Women can be shitty people too. We know that from our personal lives–we just have trouble carrying it over into fiction without stereotyping.

And a good villain is a shitty person. That’s what makes him or her a villain in the first place. There might be a tragic story (loss of a loved one, etc) that acts as impetus for the villain’s transformation, but this is not motive. A villain’s motives are hard for a good person to understand, and you want them to be.

Because this is your villain. This isn’t Barney the Purple Dinosaur, it isn’t that chick from your book club, and it isn’t your sister. This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Pol Pot. This is an awful goddamned human being. This is someone you want your audience to loathe.

And we don’t understand the people we loathe. When we do–and maybe this in and of itself is a part of your story–when we do, they cease to become villains.

Hitler had to take a dump every once in a while. He was vegetarian. He had a girlfriend, whom he probably loved. He probably had bad hair days, trouble tying his tie right, socks with holes in them, all the things that make us human. Maybe he loved skiing, dogs, relaxing evenings at home reading a book.

We all have these things.

But Hitler was also a genocidal maniac. We can understand why he did the things he did, inasmuch as we can see the logical train from reason to result. But we can’t understand why why. We’re decent people, so there is no great burning truth to us for Hitler’s motivations. It simply doesn’t exist, and the fact that it doesn’t should be immensely reassuring.

Long story short: let women be shitty, too. Shitty, occasionally, without sex and beauty (because sex and beauty don’t make someone shitty, nor do they cover up an innately shitty soul). Remember that your villain is a villain, and make them, regardless of sex, act like villains. A power-mad despot doesn’t have a lot of time for longing after old loves. It’s hard to take over the world when part of your brain is always focused on your dead children. Just let her be shitty. For women everywhere: let her.

A Note: For an excellent example of a villain who is ‘humanized’ without ever once becoming less of a villain, check out John Fowles’s The Collector. This book is one of the great exercises in point-of-view, rotating as it does between the collector and his collected. Read it all the way through, and then read Part I again. Trust me.

Writing Through the Lens of My Hair

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Writing Style

I have never had a bad hair cut.

You’re looking at the screen right now. You just reread that first sentence. You’re wondering what on Earth my lack of bad hair cuts could have to do with writing, or character building, or really anything you read this blog for.

Bear with me, Salisbury. For now.

I’ve had my hair, oh, lots of different ways over the years. First time I cut it short I was nine or ten, and it was short, short as a boy’s. I’ve varied it between long and short ever since. I’ve had bobs. I’ve had bangs. I’ve had boy cuts and stubble. I’ve had weird asymmetrical things. I’ve had mohawks. I’ve had pigtails.

I’ve been called a dyke for my hair. When it’s been long, I’ve been called boring and traditional (‘don’t you ever do anything interesting with it?’ whined a friend who, obviously, hadn’t known me for very long). I have, in spite of being an adult woman with large breasts, gotten sirred by waiters. I once, in my spiky bright pink days, had a psychiatrist ask me, almost as soon as I walked into his office: ‘so. Do you always wear your hair like that?’.

You’re probably making a face right now. And, yes, you’re thinking: well, obviously, there has been a bad hair cut or two in there, Emily.

Here’s the thing, though.

Not to me.

I’ve enjoyed every hair cut I ever had. Even the shitty ones. (Except that one time I tried to bleach my hair after dying it black and fried it. This is simply because I couldn’t get a brush through it. Also, I looked like a purple-haired troll doll.) I like being different. I even like, to some extent, other human beings wondering what the fuck I was thinking. Pshaw! That’s for me to know, buddy. That’s for me to know.

I suppose I wanted (except in the psychiatrist’s case, because, well, no one wants to get tranquilized for a hairstyle choice) to never let other people’s opinions and social constructions rule me. I rather enjoyed being a nonconformist, and the brutal honesty in that is that, yes, of course I cared what other people were thinking. I just wanted something from them other than approval.

I spent over twenty years dressing myself in ways I thought were cool. They were not, needless to say, ways other people thought were cool, heavens no. A floor length silk skirt and a tshirt is, apparently, something people have trouble getting behind as a fashion statement. No one likes leopard print with zebra print except me. That picture in the grocery store of me wearing a crown of flowers and holding aloft a hamsteak probably wasn’t avant garde to everyone else in the supermarket.

I looked in my wardrobe recently: black tees, black sweaters, grey sweaters, black tees. Jeans. Sneakers. Slip-ons. I looked in the mirror at my unremarkable hair.

What changed?

Did I change?

Or did I finally, after a decade, cotton on to the fact that the world is watching me?

Writing is an odd thing. It’s something, professionally, that you do for public consumption: your piece will get criticized, misinterpreted, misquoted, maligned. People–the vast majority of them–won’t ‘get you’. Even the few who really liked it won’t ‘get you’.

But at the same time, to write effectively, you’ve got to do it as though it would never see the light of day. You’ve got to write like Emily Dickinson–as though your poems would be found years after your death in a musty box somewhere, mouldering patiently. Honesty is a thing that can never be manufactured, and it’s necessary for art of any kind. I won’t waste my time telling you why: you either understand that or you’ll never write well.

My point here is: writing is a tough tight rope to walk. You’ve got to like it–I mean, really. You’ve got to. If you don’t, no one else will. But how much? Can you bear seeing your masterwork pulped and pooped out by people who just don’t understand you, whine whine whine?

So. What do you do? Do you bare your soul’s cheetah and lime green interior to the world? Or do you opt out, for the inscrutable black sweaters of concealment?

Or perhaps there’s some in-between here. Because, after all, it’s still you wrapped up in that black sweater–and you can’t have changed too much. Maybe you’re repping that literary black hoodie now because it’s comfortable and it’s finally stretched to fit over your boobs. Maybe there’s a part of you that’s not being dishonest so much as it’s being adult: perhaps it’s recognized, finally, that there are things far deeper and more subtle than clashing patterns to make people uneasy over, and that those things are, by far, the more important ones to pay attention to.

Long story short: write what’s on the inside, yes. But if what’s on the inside is crazy as hell, be ready for people not to like you. You’re not a maligned genius. You’re not a Beat poet with a bottle of wine and a handwritten diary of eastern wisdom. You’re not Oscar Wilde, breathing your last disconsolate de profundis in stifling luxury. You’re just an untried, possibly unpublished, writer with the same dream as millions of scribblers the world over: to write a book that everyone has read. You might have it in you, you might not. All you can do is write it, possibly promote it, and let the public decide. A lot of people want to be writers. I mean, a lot.

It isn’t you, you see, who decides whether or not you’re a genius. It never has been. That’s up to other people, and, curious though you might be, it’s better for your writing if you don’t concern yourself too much with it. Just wear what you feel like wearing, at the end of the day. Write what you feel like writing.

People have advice for you all day: write something the public will like. Write what you think a publishing house will pick up. Write what’s in your heart. Try to find a balance. Fuck everybody, write the damndest thing you can think of.
 
My advice is, simply: fuck all of them. Do exactly what makes you most comfortable. Individuality, shameless conformity: it doesn’t matter. Write in a way that makes you feel comfortable, and let society sort out whether or not you’re conforming.

In short: stop being a writer and write.

Love,
E

Ten Imagination-Building Exercises

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Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

More Poetry For Poncy Millennials

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Well, guys. Sorry I’ve been so little in evidence this week. I’ve had a lot of rush to deal with at work, and some editing stuff to do as well–this blog totally took second, possibly even third, place.

I know. I suck.

In the meantime, posting a few more happy little poems about The Millennial Condition–namely, being a Millennial parent. (What’s so special about this? I don’t know. But plenty of people seem to think it is.)

We’ll be back next week with heartfelt articles and all that shit you expect. For now, CLEVER RHYMES. (Dear hipster moms of the world–I deeply look forward to you being indignant at me saying Thieves relieves stress. Long story short: I don’t KNOW what it’s supposed to do. I don’t care.)

LITTLE JIMMY

Poor little Jimmy’s come down with a cold!
Hope these antibiotics aren’t too old.

Coconut oil. His hair’s a mess.
A dab of Thieves to relieve stress.
Ginseng for focus, he likes shiny lights,
And don’t forget the multi-vites.
Fish oil in his morning tea:
We think he’s low on Omega-3.
For energy and steady will,
A timely dose of clorophyll
And carotene, for better sight–
He only takes one? That can’t be right.
Vitamin D for healthy skin,
A fistful of A to let life in.

What else could be wrong? He still looks slightly ill.
Just give him a fistful of nutritive pills.

Oh no! He’s convulsing! Somebody, please save him.
It must be something the doctor gave him.

REASONS YOU’RE A SHIT PARENT

My child says your child
Gets cookies every lunch.
My child says your child
Still drinks Hawaiian Punch.

My child says your child
Got vaxed for the flu;
My child agrees that your child
Simply won’t do.

He’s never known the luxury
Of kale chips salted light,
Or cupcakes made with free-trade flour.
How do you sleep at night?

A gender-neutral nursery
And carseats ’til they’re twelve:
Right-themed novels into which
A little mind can delve.

These are the things that make a child
As good as he can be:
A moralistic member
Of our great society.

You say love’s more important? What?
Sit down, shit mom, and can it.
Child-rearing ain’t about the child:
It’s all about saving the planet.

Existential Retail Christmas Post

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'Santa' and 'Satan'--just one typo away.

An Existential Retail Christmas

Here’s a great way to tell, if you’re slightly sadistic, whether or not your significant other has spent a good portion of his or her life working retail.

Wait until your bundle of joy is asleep. Creep closer, ever closer, to that cherubic slumbering visage, snuggled up by its pillow. Inhale, softly, and whisper into one shell-like ear:

“Wake up! It’s Christmas!”

Does your beautiful angel awake with a scream or a groan? Does he or she begin weeping, throw the pillow, attempt to hide under the bed? Does he or she mutter, with no provocation, the phrase: “no returns without a receipt?”

Your significant other has spent at least two Christmases in retail.

If your significant other is still working a retail Christmas, engage in this experiment at your own discretion. Ugly things might be said. Ugly things might be done. You might end up spending Christmas single.

You see, Christmas is a merry season in which people shop compulsively, usually at the last minute, for items that may or may not be appreciated by another person (they’re called gifts). These gift things don’t just grow on trees. They’re produced, often somewhere very far away, and are shipped in finite amounts to the retail location at which you’re currently shouting at someone because there are no more blue blenders in stock. That tired looking person who is patiently explaining to you, for what’s probably the fifteenth time today, that the next shipment will be in Monday, and if you really need one there are a few red ones in the back, has little to no control over whether that blender is there or not. The nametag on his or her chest brands him as one of the lowest-paid cogs in a vast grinding machine. Or, if you prefer, that person is an expendable human sacrifice, thrust out in front of you as a distraction tactic from the inexplicable rage you feel as another human pawn piece being slung across the board in a game of the consumerist gods.

Simply put: it isn’t that person’s fault your blue blender isn’t in stock. And, when you send off that email to corporate in a fit of pique, this person will get not only shit from you, but shit from management, where the blame for your absent blender could be more justifiably placed.

So. This Christmas, in the spirit of peace, love, and brotherhood that everyone is supposed to espouse, try not screaming at a sales representative for something that representative can’t control.

If your significant other is the nametagged cog placed in front of angry shoppers on a daily basis in the month of December, here are some tactics you can use to help make his or her Christmas nominally merrier, which in retail terms means ‘make it suck not quite as much’:

1. Don’t complain when the light is on early in the morning.
Your spouse is getting up before dawn to get paid a very small amount of money for making sure rich people have all the rich people things they need. The bathroom light is on because he or she has an existential horror of getting dressed for this day of torment in the dark. Don’t complain if the light wakes you, or the sound of the coffee maker, or the smell of the curling iron heating up. You can go back to sleep. Your life, for the next month, isn’t a raw vortex of mindless purchases. No one wants to be able to answer the question ‘did you get dressed in the dark this morning?’ with a guileless ‘yes’.

2. Buy liquor.
“Merry Christmas! Here’s a fifth of vodka on December 5th, so you can drink to forget.”

3. Do not, DO NOT, play Christmas music at home.
Thanks to the years I spent in big box retail, I now know every single word to ‘Santa Baby’, ‘Feliz Navidad’, and that Mariah Carey pile of bullshit. It’s been five years. I still froth at the mouth whenever a store’s muzak releases one of these little gems of excrement in my vicinity.

4. Let ’em bitch.
Retail Christmas is a horrible, soul-sucking thing. Your partner is working retail, and therefore can’t afford therapy. They do, however, have you. Nod and look sad when the stories begin. It might not mean a lot to you that some old dude patronizingly patted your S.O. on the bottom, but it sure does to them. If the stories become too much to bear–and there will be a lot of stories, so they might–learn to tune out. Sympathetic noises are all you need.

5. Make dinner.
You know what the worst part about coming home after fourteen hours of retail hell and transportation is? It’s making dinner. Why, by nine in the evening, is this not done already? Trust me, she isn’t spending her shift planning a four course meal for the late evening. She’s spending it contemplating the endless void of greed and self-righteousness into which humanity, for one month a year, sinks.

If you can’t cook, invest in some ramen and mac n’ cheese. After all, during Christmas, the body is a mere walking vehicle for information about coupons and return policies. Give it something to sustain it, sit back, and pray the end is in sight so you can have your spouse back.

Long story short: Christmas has become a vaguely symbolic pan-all holiday during which we ostensibly celebrate the birth of a penniless child in a manger by throwing as much money at retail giants as we can. If you want to celebrate in the ancient spirit of the holiday, try honoring the poor, like Jesus did: don’t scream at sales associates. After all, they spend your ‘holiday season’ working like dogs. Because of your need for a ten speed bicycle, many of them won’t get to spend Christmas with their families, or get more than one day off of work. Yes, we’re all sorry you won’t have that toaster oven in time to bring it down to the beach house when your vacation begins on the nineteenth. But somehow, somehow, it’s difficult to feel very sorry for you.

It’s been a while since I’ve done the big box thing, and Christmas still bums me out.

Happy Holidays. I hope you spend them somewhere far away from humanity, admiring the beauty of nature with the people you love most and neither giving nor receiving presents.

How to Critique Correctly

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How to Critique Correctly

At this point, as an indie writer, I’ve done some critique swaps and critique groups, and I’m going to be honest: nobody likes doing them. Constructive criticism is a necessary evil, and nobody likes receiving it or giving it. Doing it well takes time and effort, and you pretty much know you’re ruffling somebody’s feathers a little if you have a lot to say. And, of course, then there’s the end where YOUR feathers get ruffled: I feel like the emotions involved there pretty much need no introduction.

Here’s the thing, though: there are right ways and wrong ways to critique, and knowing how to do it right will serve you well. The members of your critique group are, after all, your allies–they’re not trying to hurt you, and you aren’t trying to hurt them. Handling your critiques carefully can save time AND animosity, and is a necessary skill in group editing situations.

1) The Compliment Sandwich

I learned this–and you’re going to laugh–at creative writing camp as a kid. Yes, they have creative writing camps. But, kid or not, it’s a very useful and painless strategy, and simple to employ:

Sandwich your criticism in between two breadslices of positive feedback, the first complimentary and the second constructive.

It’s that easy. For instance:

This was a great story, and I enjoyed your dialogue especially: it flows well, and you pass important information along with no stiffness or hesitation. However, you might want to back away from using so many emdashes: after a while, all the emdashes made it difficult to tell who was speaking. If you want characters to seem like they’re interrupting each other, emdashes are a good way of making it happen, but you might want to consider adding more speech tags to denote who’s who.

See how that worked?

You begin with an undisguised, unabashed compliment. Even if you’re NOT feeling it, do it. It’s just polite. You’d want others to do the same for you. (‘Why do I need to possibly lie to make some thin-skinned writer’s ego happy?’ some of you might ask. My answer: ‘is typing ‘that was a great story’ really so goddamned difficult? Are you betraying your core values that much? You don’t belong in a group critique.’)

Now, find a SPECIFIC thing you liked about this story. Compliment it honestly. Come on, there’s something.

After that, narrow down to your critique. ‘I really enjoyed your dialogue, BUT.’ Remember, as you critique, that you’re trying to be helpful here. State your problem specifically, and, if you can, offer a constructive solution. If you don’t have a solution for the problem, it’s best to mention it anyway: you can’t have all the answers, after all, but if you think it’s a problem then it probably is. (‘I don’t know how to tell you to fix this, but I really feel like Castor and Pollux sound out of character in the fifth chapter.’)

2) Consider the Writer.

An established writer, or, really, anyone who’s been doing this for a while, has a certain style. Consider, as you critique, whether or not your critique is style related. A writer who’s been writing short, terse sentences since 1978 probably isn’t going to expand into flowery page and a half long sentencegasms just because you advise it, and, furthermore, is probably going to get a little bit pissy over you suggesting they try.

Even if you think it’s an issue, basic style concerns aren’t going to change. Only comment on these if it directly affects the clarity or effectiveness of the story: for instance, if your page-and-a-half sentencer is writing a noir novel, it might be time to mention something.

3) Do YOU understand what’s going on?

Also: before you critique, please Jesus, make sure YOU understand what the author is saying. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques in my time from people who plainly only read the story once, and then not too carefully, and lemme tell you, I mostly just throw these out. The critique writer hasn’t made the effort to read my story, why should I read their critique?

A few years ago, someone criticized a story of mine pretty strongly because a girl was running, jumping, and climbing trees in a petticoated dress. This would have been absolutely fair criticism, if I hadn’t devoted the better part of a page to the girl changing her clothing early on in the story. Guess the critiquer just skipped around a little, eh?

A note: if you read the story carefully and still don’t get it, then yeah, the problem isn’t with you, and you need to mention it. You might not be the sort of person the story was written for, but, hell, any sort of person can read a story, and the author would probably like to know what makes sense to whom.

4) Watch your language.

Don’t curse at your writer friend, obviously. But, more specifically: choose the words in which you give your critique carefully. Avoid accusatory statements, such as ‘you didn’t —” or “you shouldn’t have —“. Actually, I’m tempted to tell you to avoid second person as a form of address altogether, except I don’t think that’s quite right, either: referring always to the writing and not to the writer can leave your critique sounding cold and impersonal, and besides, you know how it is. You insult a writer’s baby, you insult the writer anyway.

My final thought: try and employ second person more in the compliment parts of your critique than the negative parts. Just…try. It also helps to emply first person often: ‘I felt that —‘, ‘when reading the second chapter, I noticed–‘. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it just adds in a personal element, but it makes the medicine go down a little easier for me.

Long story short, avoid accusative statements, and loaded generalized words such as crazy, bad, mistake, stupid, lazy, etc. Comments that include these words aren’t constructive, and you can put in better feedback without using them. (For instance, instead of saying ‘first person was a poor choice for this story’, try saying ‘I think this character’s motives would be a lot clearer if the story was written in third person’. Not only is your point more concise and reasoned, but it comes across as a lot less negative).

5) Remember your goal.

Your goal in criticizing a story is NOT to tear someone down, or prove how great at giving advice you are, or just get through it so you can get your own critiques. Your goal is to HELP. It is to provide useful, directed advice that will, in your mind, make this story better. And, to that end, you want to be as clear as possible, without offending. After all, statements like ‘this story needs a lot of work’ don’t help anyone, do they? If it needs a lot of work, list the things that need to be done. As you’ve agreed to provide critique, this is quite literally your job.

Angry critiquers, who feel like this is ‘pussyfooting’, I would like you to note the things I have NOT asked you to do here:

1) Hide your opinion.
2) Lie, except in the most innocent general way.
3) Cover up your problems with the story (in fact, my method allows you to state them more completely).

The fact is, a proper critique should NEVER leave a writer with even an eighth inch of skin thinking their story is bad. (Yes, there are some super-sensitives out there. They don’t belong in group critiques, either).

How, you might ask, is this possible, if I have ten pages of negative critique to bestow?

My answer is, no critique should be downright negative. Constructive, yes. But not negative. It costs you very little to let the words ‘good story’ escape your lips, and it might make your ten pages of critique slide down a little easier. It might, even, be good for the story to compliment–a writer who doesn’t feel mortally offended is more likely to take your advice.

Next post, we’re going to do the version of this on accepting criticism with grace.

Yours,
E

Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To

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Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.

Who?

A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).

What?

Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.

When?

I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,

Where?

Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?

How?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.

Why?

Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.