Wrong Way, Go Back

Photo credit: wallyir from morguefile.com

I’m what they call a “discovery writer.” Or, more colloquially, a “pantser.” As in, I write by the seat of my pants. No outline. No clear end in sight, sometimes. Just a cool idea that popped into my head and a vague notion of “thattaway” when it comes to where the story is going. That’s how a lot of my stories start.

That’s also — uncoincidentally — why so many of my stories either don’t end or don’t end satisfactorily. Because I get to some point in the writing when I realize that either I have no earthly clue where the ending is or that I missed the exit some while back, and I’m going to need to turn around, backtrack, and take a different route.

While driving, that’s easy enough. You get off at exit 250 and go back to exit 248. You lost a couple of miles, a few tablespoons of gasoline, and maybe a few minutes. The air turns a little blue from the curses. Possibly, your GPS announces “Recalculating” in that mechanical ‘I’m judging you even though I have no inflection in my robot voice’ tone that adds, “idiot” or “loser” to the end of every statement. Recalculating, loser.

In writing, though, you lose words. Maybe good words. But they’re just not the right words for this story at this time. A writer and podcaster I follow religiously (Mur Lafferty) has said that she has lost thousands of words — as in twenty or thirty thousand words — because of one of these “wrong exit” mistakes.

They can be costly. But I think maybe the work is the better for it.

Mike Stackpole in his wonderful “21 Days to a Novel” workshop has said that if you reach a point in your writing when you’re blocked and you don’t know what comes next, go back about 300 words (a page or so) and look. There’s probably a decision your character made that’s out of character. Because it needed to happen for the plot. Easy enough to rewrite 300 words. And since the new words will begin with the character actually in character, they’ll be better words, and you can continue writing. And I have had this happen, and it’s usually true.

But what if you realize 50,000 or 60,000 words in that your entire design of the setting or the way magic works or something else fundamental to the work as a whole . . . is just wrong? Is anything salvageable? Is there any reason to continue writing, or should you just jettison everything and either move on to another project or start over from scratch?

I’ve done both of those, as well. And as much as losing 300 or 10,000 words might hurt, realizing that most of a novel is just spew . . . is rather frustrating.1

This is where I’ve been at recently. I’ve explained this before, but briefly: I had an idea for what I thought was a short story, then became a novella, then a novel, and finally a series of urban fantasy novels. I called book one Perdition’s Flames. I wrote roughly 40,000 words of it. In the midst of that, NaNoWriMo came around and since I by then had an idea for book two, I wrote 50,000 words of Death Scene. I had vague notions that book three would be called Eye of the Beholder, but . . . something was off. The story wouldn’t coalesce. The arc wasn’t right. The biggest climax and revelation was in book one, not book three.

Then, it occurred to me that the reason I couldn’t come up with anything for book three was that book one had the end of the arc. So Perdition’s Flames had to be book three. That moved Death Scene to book one, and Eye of the Beholder to book two. That fixed a lot. I mean a lot. I now had a very cool scene for the introduction into my series and a satisfying arc that crossed all three books, with new ideas for books four and five based on the end of book three. Even better, I knew what book two was about, now, because it could revolve around something I set up in book one, and introduce a character that will be important in book three! I was very excited.

For NaNoWriMo 2012, I wrote a 50,000-word+ book called Magic for Normals, a ‘for-dummies’ style book that was basically just a place for me to write down all my ideas about how magic works in my world, and do it in a fun format where I could just expound at length and be as pedantic as I wanted.

And then, on the heels of this, I set out to restart the series, this time beginning with Death Scene. A book I had already written more than 50,000 words of. But now, as the first book, all the characters had to be introduced and their relationships established. Again. And the world had to be introduced. Again. And certain plot points for books two and three had to be set up in advance. And secondary conflicts had to be added. Each character needed a motivation. A background. An arc. My villain character actually had to have a reason he was doing what he was doing, other than just being evil.

And every time I’d write a few thousand words, I’d think of something else I needed to add. “Oh, it’s not Bob that’s the villain. It’s really Fred! And this is why: . . .” Or, “Wait. Nick isn’t Jacob’s younger brother, he’s the older brother, because it makes [plot point 1] and [plot point 2] actually make sense. And gives Bob Fred a motivation!”

So, I’m blocked for several reasons:

  • Idea paralysis – Since I’ve moved the books around, so many new ideas are occurring to me that I can barely write a couple of hundred words before a new idea sparks. It’s a good thing, I think, but it means never being sure whether what I’m writing is on exit 248 or 250.
  • Already written syndrome – A huge part of my brain is saying, “You already wrote this. You told this story. Stop trying to retell it. Move on.” Silly brain. (This is also why I have a hard time with outlining and writing synopses.)
  • Wrong Way, Turn Back – Another part of my brain insists that all those ideas I’m getting are wrong because I get new ideas that invalidate the old ones . . . Does anyone other than me get the impression that I’m my own worst enemy? :) Either that or I need a week in a very large room with whiteboards on all four walls and no Internet.2

So, that’s where I’m at right now, if anyone’s wondering. I’m working on other writing in order to keep the writing gears lubricated. I have a “short” story (Haha! It’s at 12,000 words and shows no sign of ending soon.) to submit for my writing group by midnight tonight. I’m a blogging fool, lately. And every time my mind isn’t otherwise occupied, I’m planning plot for books one, two, three, or four. Yes, four. <shakes head in disgust> In the shower, driving, eating lunch at work, just as I’m about to drop off into sleep. I have five days of boring training classes at work next week. I have a feeling my notes are going to look . . . a bit schizophrenic. :)


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 113 prompt: Photo Prompt (see associated photo at top of post)

  1. An example of litotes.
  2. No, not padded walls. I see what you did, there. Very funny. Ha ha. No, really.


What If . . .

O by dzucconi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  dzucconi 

I own a book called What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. One of the very first exercises in that book is to write at least one first sentence every day. With no requirement that it go further than just that: a first sentence to a story.

I’m not sure I even finished the book. I started doing that simple exercise, and it led me to several short stories (including the first one I ever finished back in 1992) and to my current novel series in progress. I did it for years, penning as few as one and as many as twenty or thirty first sentences every single day. Some of them were ridiculous; some were sublime. Some were speculative; some were mundane. Some were funny; some tragic. But the thing they all had in common was that they got my mental juices flowing. I’d think of a first sentence, and with it would come a sense of character, place, time, mood, theme, scene . . . pretty much everything but a plot.

It’s also how I discovered that I tend to randomly use the name Victor a lot. Usually in a negative manner. But I digress.

I no longer do this exercise, although I think perhaps I should start doing it again. Just to get my author juices flowing again. You see, I’m kind of blocked, right now. I have a ton of ideas, but when it comes time to put them down on paper/electrons . . . I instantly hate every syllable.

He was a dark and stormy knight.

“Feh! That sucks.”

As London burned, Victor looked down upon it with

“No! That’s even worse!”

Blood, red and sticky and still warm, dripped from my fingers into the still-open mouth of the corpse at my feet.

“No, no, no, no, NO!” <insert anachronistic image of ripping paper from a typewriter, complete with appropriate sound effects, wadding up the page, and throwing it at a trashcan overflowing with other crumpled sheets of paper, all with one sentence typed across the top>

I’m supposed to be working on my goal of writing short stories and sending them off to publishers. And I would be if I could stand a single syllable of anything I’ve written. I reached a point at which I simply could no longer look at my existing stories (editing stories I’ve already written is not my favorite thing about writing). My brain demanded that I work on what it really wanted to work on: my novel.

“Fine,” I told it. “You want it, you got it. Novel it is.”

There was a faint, gurgling squee from inside my skull. I would have been worried except that I’m used to things like that.

I churned out about 3000 words. A bit under two chapters of Death Scene, book 1 of the MCU Case Files, an urban fantasy series set in modern-day Atlanta, but with magic.

And I edited it and got it almost like I wanted it. And I triumphantly submitted it to my writing group. But with reservations. I wanted to change . . . something. But I couldn’t figure out what. Something was just not right. But what? Maybe they could help.

What I heard back definitely told me what it was. I think ‘uninteresting’ would be the polite term to use. I think the exact phrase one person used was ‘sterile and boring.’ Others used words like ‘slow,’ ‘no action,’ ‘stereotypical,’ ‘teaser-y/prologue-y,’ ‘not enough drama,’ and ‘no conflict.’

To be fair, they also said it was not info-dumpy (but was bordering on it), flowed well, drew them in, and was well-written, but as an opening chapter, it wasn’t enough. They wanted more from an introduction to a new world in which magic, the FBI, the police, and a body frozen in time during the act of being burned at the stake are all introduced.

And as each person said nearly the same thing, I nodded, because it confirmed what I’d been afraid of. And hey, it’s a chapter one. I should just move on and write chapter two, armed with the knowledge of the consensus opinion.

But that’s not what I did. What I did was start playing “What if?”

What if I increase the amount of magic the magical characters use? I mean, it’s frickin’ Urban Fantasy, right? Let’s get some magic in there from the get-go.

What if I start the chapter later? Closer to the action of examining the crime scene? Or, possibly better yet, what if I drop back a bit and start with the hapless individual who discovers the body looking for a place to get high and frisky with his girlfriend?

What if there’s conflict between the FBI and the Atlanta PD? Not stereotypical “turf wars,” but something different.

What if . . . ?

What if . . . ?

So, um . . . how do I turn it off? I’d like to write chapter 2, now, but instead I’m redesigning how vampires work and planning how I can introduce the bad guy from book 3. Yes, book 3. And ideas for the plot of book 2 are cropping up, as well.

So I guess ‘What If?’ can be a writer’s best friend or his worst enemy. At the same time. Which is a bit disconcerting.

Ooh! What if dragons . . .

Disclaimer: I am the exact opposite of upset with my writers group who gave me these critiques. I am, in fact, delighted. They were, as always, honest, thorough, and got right at the core of what was wrong with the chapter. To get angry at that would be hypocritical, since that’s the entire point of a critique group. I quoted some of their comments not because I was upset at them or was dwelling on them, but because they were particularly apt. I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.

I just wanted to say that because some of them will probably see this post, and I wanted to nip any angst on their parts in the bud. :)

This post was inspired by the GBE2 Blog On Week 108 prompt, “What If?”


Impostor Syndrome

Imposter by umisef, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  umisef 

Do y’all know what Impostor Syndrome is? In a nutshell, it’s the feeling that, at any minute, something will happen to take something away from you that you thought was too good to be true. The feeling, deep down, that you don’t truly deserve it, and it must be some sort of cruel error.

I keep expecting to get email or a phone call from Viable Paradise saying, “We made a really huge error and contacted you instead of the person with the actual talent, so never mind.”

Yes, it’s silly. But it’s no less true. It’s the same feeling a lot of people get as graduation day approaches. They expect someone to rush on stage during their graduation ceremony and shout, “Wait! S/He didn’t earn that diploma! S/He neglected to take Underwater Tiddlywinks and his/her entire four years of college is now wasted!”

Yes, I fully expected it all through my graduation from the University of Alabama. I was, frankly, stunned when they handed me my diploma and didn’t immediately snatch it back.

In other news, I loathe my brain. This week can’t be done soon enough for me. Once I’m at VP, maybe Imposter Syndrome will go away.

Suggested soundtrack: Carly Simon’s “Anticipation.” The Who’s “Who Are You?”


NaNoWriMo: Week 3 Report

Tonight marks the close of the 7th day of NaNoWriMo 2011.

So, I have just completed week 3 of this craziness. I had every intention of doing a week 2 report, as well, but I just didn’t have time. You’ll see why in a moment. After day 7, I had 44,717 words, less than 6,000 words shy of “winning” NaNoWriMo. Here are my individual story word-counts as of midnight, November 22nd.

“A Is for Anchor” – 10,574 words – incomplete – Magic Realism
“B Is for Bard” – 10,092 words – incomplete – Fantasy
“C Is for Clowns that Creep Through the Yard” – 5719 words – complete – Horror

“D Is for Dragon” – 6,369 words – complete – Fairy Tale + Humor
“E Is for Egg” – 4,975 words – complete – Science Fiction
“F Is for Fangs that Are Sunk in Your Leg” – 9,039 words – incomplete – Science Fiction

“G Is for Gravesite” – 2,204 words – complete – Fantasy
“H Is for Haunted” – 5,309 words – incomplete – Horror
“I Is for Investigation: Unwanted” – 6,627 words – incomplete – Urban Fantasy

“J Is for Jackpot” – 3,069 words – complete – Dystopian Science Fiction
“K Is for Kiss” – 3,191 words – complete – Fairy Tale
“L Is for Lucky for a Hit or a Miss” – 3,219 words – complete – Dark Fantasy

“M Is for Moons” – 3,378 words – incomplete – Science Fiction + Fantasy
“N Is for Nocturnal” – 4,151 words – complete – Erotic Fantasy
“O Is for Oath of Service Eternal” – incomplete – Fantasy + Humor

“P Is for Prey” – 3,630 words – complete – Science Fiction
“Q Is for Quest” – 1,557 words – incomplete – Fairy Tale + Humor
“R Is for Ritual Performed as a Test” – 4,598 words – complete – Dark Fiction

“S Is for SkullCosm” – 3,872 words – incomplete – Science Fiction
“T Is for Talents” – 3,622 words – complete – Dystopian Science Fiction
“U Is for Unicorn Imbalance” – 1,826 words – complete – Dark Fantasy

If you add in the 617 words of “Fangs” that I wrote and then crossed out because I had chosen the wrong part of the story to start at and the 1527 words of “Nocturnal” that were an interesting science fiction idea that I could not make work before I changed it to Erotic Fantasy, that comes out to a grand total of 101,066 words as of today.

Here’s what the intervening two weeks of writing fast and furious to get to this many words has taught me.

  • Write through writer’s block. For the first seven stories (the first week), I had definite ideas (minus Anchor). When I sat down to write most of them, I knew the characters, plot, and world, and all I had to do was sit down and let the words out. It was actually fairly easy. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed writing so much as I did that first week. But then for Haunted, Investigation, Kiss, Moon, Prey, Quest, Ritual, and SkullCosm, I had only the vaguest notion of what the story was. At most I had a notion of character and a glimmer of a world. But I sat down at the keyboard and I just started typing, going with the first thing that popped into my head, inventing as I went along. As I went, I was forced to make decisions, and those decisions forced me to make others . . . and then before you know it, I had character, plot, and world. Do I love these stories? Not all of them. :) I think all of them are good ideas, and with a little work after NaNoWriMo, I may be able to pull a better story out of them, and you’ll notice that a lot of those are incomplete. But the important part is that I didn’t let not having a perfectly formed story stop me. I went with my original ideas and made them work, and I look forward to finishing the stories.
  • Butt in chair. For Jackpot, Lucky, Nocturnal, Oath, Talents, and Unicorn, I had less than no idea when I sat down to write at the beginning of the day. Not even the words for all but two of those. But I let my subconscious work on it, and each time, a story sparked. It’s interesting that of these most recent 14 stories, my favorite six are Jackpot, Lucky, Nocturnal, Oath, Talents, and Unicorn.
  • Trust your instincts. For Nocturnal, my first glimmer of an idea was involving Nyx, the Greek personification of the Night. I did a lot of research on her, but the story kept turning into erotic fiction, and I couldn’t figure out the POV. So I abandoned it and forced another interpretation, which I then tried to write. I got 1527 words in and said, “No. This isn’t working. This isn’t what I want to write.” So I scrapped it and started over using my original idea of Nyx, but told from the POV of a man she picks up from a bar. I’m not comfortable writing erotic fantasy, but apparently that’s what I needed to write, because that’s what came out. And other than the very last paragraph or two, I really like it.
  • Two—or sometimes 17—heads are better than one. I needed help on some of my ideas and I enlisted friends to help me out. I used names suggested by my Facebook friends in Dragon. The entire idea for Fangs came from a friend on LiveJournal. Kiss got its twist from yet another friend who made a typo to me in IM while trying to help me out. For Ritual, I used many suggestions from my friends on Facebook, although never in quite the way they probably intended. :) Not only did my friends make direct contributions by coming up with angles I wasn’t seeing (I need to work on that, clearly), but merely opening up for that to happen seems to have gotten my own creative juices flowing more.

I’d like to stress one thing in relation to the first point above. “Writers Block” doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas. It means you don’t have ideas that you can work with right now. Or at least for me, that’s what it means. I had plenty of ideas for, say, the letter J, but nothing that worked for me until a tiny voice in my head said “Jackpot” and showed me the entire story from beginning to end.

That’s pretty much it for weeks 2 through 3. I typed this mostly because I need to keep all these points in mind for the upcoming week. I have nothing at all for V, only a faint glimmer of a world and situation for W(itness), zero for X(enogamy) and Y, and then the beginnings of a notion for Z(ombie).

I can’t wait to see what I come up with. :)


NaNoWriMo: Week 1 Report

Tonight marks the close of the 7th day of NaNoWriMo 2011.

When I first started making posts about it back in . . . probably August? Maybe even July? . . . I had come to the decision that I did not want yet another incomplete novel sitting on my hard drive, especially with four current ones in development. It just seemed silly. Irresponsible. Overwhelming. And probably a few other choice adjectives as well.

So I decided to do a collection of 26 short stories. I’ll spare you from me repeating the idea again. The idea was that they were supposed to be short stories. You know, 2000 to 2500 words on average. I’d do one per day, maybe not even in order, and at the end I’d have around 52,000 words. Ample to win NaNoWriMo and it would give me 26 new short stories to play with.

“A Is for Anchor” currently sits at 10,574 words, and it’s not even close to done.
“B Is for Bard” currently has 7,547 words, and is also not complete. I know where I’m going with it, at least.
“C Is for Clowns (that Creep Through Your Yard)” is at 5,700 words even, and is complete.

“D Is for Dragon” boasts 6,369 words, complete.
“E Is for Egg” weighs in at 4,975 words, complete.
“F Is for Fang (that Gets Sunk in Your Leg)” halted at 6,731 and is not complete.1

“G Is for Gravesite” came in at just 2,204 words, complete.

At least one of the stories came in around 2000 words.

This puts me at 44,717 words in just 7 days. If I keep writing at the same rate I’ve been writing so far this month, I will surpass the monthly goal of 50,000 words tomorrow at some point.

To say that this is unexpected would be tantamount to calling the Pacific Ocean “a bit damp.” I had no idea I could write this much in just 7 days. Hell, I had no idea I could write > 7,000 words in one day (a personal best).

In just one week of NaNoWriMo, here is what I have learned:

  • At no point in my life can I ever again utter the phrase, “I just can’t find the time to write.” That, to put it bluntly, is bullshit. I’m working the same job for the same amount of hours this week as I was two weeks ago. I still have the same social obligations. I haven’t missed anything important that I normally do. The difference is that I didn’t find time to write; I made time to write. I get up a couple of hours early in the morning and I write. Instead of futzing around on Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, YouTube, Google+, and GoodReads during my “free time,” I write. During lunch when I would normally read a book after finishing my meal, I write. When I come home from work, instead of relaxing with a DVD or reading or listening to podcasts, I write. Do you see a pattern? I certainly do. The thing that is important to me—writing—is what I’m spending time on. Anything less important goes bye-bye. I reiterate that during this week, I did not miss one single social event. I attended both writers group meetings, went to a party, socialized with my housemate, socialized with people at work, spent time with my cats, listened to some podcasts (but only in the car or while working when I cannot otherwise write), kept up in a limited way on Facebook… I intend to attend three writers group meetings this week as well as working an extra hour at work for monthly maintenance on some servers I’m responsible for. But right under all of that on my priorities is writing.
  • Never again will I be able to utter the phrase “I just don’t have any ideas.” That is also bullshit. The trick isn’t having ideas, it’s turning them off. The truth is, I get ideas for stories all the time. Usually I dismiss them because they aren’t something I want to write right now or don’t go with anything I’m working on. Sometimes I write them down for ‘later,’ but we all know ‘later’ is never coming. Well, I needed 26 fresh ideas for NaNoWriMo and with the exception of a few tough letters of the alphabet, the problem hasn’t been finding an idea, it’s been finding a good one among all the crappy ones. For ‘S’ as an example, I had to sift through Sulfur, Saturn, Sinister, Silo, Silver, Sylph, Sand, Scraps, Solid…for each word that occurred to me, the tiny sliver of an idea would come with it. Was Silver a story about werewolves? Did Solid involve an alien able to exist in any state of matter? Did Silo have to do with an abandoned missile silo in a post-apocalyptic world? Maybe. Some of the others were probably just as good. But when Skullcosm finally came to me, I knew that was my S-word. And even inside that world, the story itself could take any of a number of shapes, one of which I’ll pick. Perhaps at the moment of coming up with a character name on the morning of the 19th. So, yeah. I have ideas. I just discard most of them. This week has taught me that some of those stories should probably get written sooner and not later, and certainly not never.

I also know that I cannot sustain 6000+ words per day. It is too wrist-intensive for one thing, but it also promotes quantity over quality, which is just fine and dandy for NaNoWriMo; not at any other time, however. Sure, there’s something to be said for getting a story down that’s way too long and then whittling away all the parts that aren’t the story I want to tell and leaving the only the bits that are behind. And that will most certainly be done with each of these when November is in the rearview and Christmas is hurtling ever closer.

December is always about the loss of momentum for me. NaNoWriMo is over! Whew! Time to parTAAAAAY! And by ‘parTAAAAAY’ I mean goof off. But I am going to try to make an effort to at least keep the momentum going.

Sometime in December, I’ll be recording myself reading one of my stories for a podcast. I haven’t decided which one, yet, but I’m heavily leaning on “D Is for Dragon” or “G Is for Gravesite” right now. It’s a pretty low-key podcast called The Quillian Chronicles, and is produced by members of my Second Life writers group as a way to foster participation by producing our stories in audio format for free distribution to the listening public.

Have I mentioned that I loathe the sound of my recorded voice? <sigh>

  1. I had a false start with this one and got 617 words in before realizing I had started at the wrong spot and with the wrong POV, so I started over. I count the 617 words in my total word-count (this is NaNoWriMo and every word counts), but not in the story total given here.


Linear Thinking

"Linear" © 2006 by Martin P. Szymczak


Golly! Two posts in one day? Will wonders never cease?

My posts here are automatically cross-posted to my LiveJournal account. Over there, one of my long-time friends very casually gave me “F Is for Fangs. I got bit in the leg” to give my subconscious a little help on the stanza currently troubling me.

Now, I had already thought of “Fangs” and rejected it. “There are way too many stories about vampires,” I thought to myself, then told my subconscious to just ignore “vampires and fangs” and go on.

I said as much to my commenter. She then said, “Oh, I never thought of vampires. I was just thinking Dragon → Egg → (baby dragon) Fangs . . .”

Well, duh. Even though that’s not something I can use because the Egg story that I want to write has nothing to do with the Dragon story that comes before it, I never saw the progression. It was staring me right in the face, too. Either me or my subconscious should have seen this.

Then, just as I was getting over that, she added one more comment. “You know what else has fangs? Snakes. :)”

Again, duh. You know, I’ve been a snake online for so long that you would think that would have been the first thing that occurred to me. But no, “fangs” to me implied only vampires.

This comes back to something Holly Lisle recently said in one of her excellent writing newsletters. She was talking about a technique for generating story ideas that she calls “Calling Down Lightning.” It’s when your conscious (left brain) says, “I need to write a story about <topic> of about <word count> words, and I need it by <deadline>.” The subconscious (right brain) hears this, cogitates on it, and starts tossing out concepts.

The conscious then either says, “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe . . .”, and the subconscious goes back to refine the idea or provide new ones.

It’s a pretty good personification of the process creative types go through when trying to generate ideas.

In that newsletter where she introduces the process to her readers, she tells a story of how it broke down for her. She needed a “paranormal romance” idea, but told her subconscious to avoid a certain topic because she already had a couple of other stories about that. Her subconscious went into a four-day sulk, refusing to give her anything at all to work with.

Because her conscious tried to limit her subconscious. Exactly what I did when I said, “F, but not ‘fangs’ because I don’t want to write a vampire story.” So my subconscious mind may have gone off in a huff and worked on something else just to spite me.

Or I’m overanalyzing and my shipment of ideas from Poughkeepsie simply hasn’t arrived this week.

I don’t know how I got so locked into “fangs = vampires,” but it clearly has caused me to miss a couple of good ideas. Which my commenter helped me see.

Thanks, Molly. :)


Does Not Compute?

"Evidence or GTFO"

Evidence or GTFO

This will come as no great shock to anyone that has known me for any length of time, but: I’m a card-carrying skeptic. There. I’ve said it.

Now, by “skeptic,” I don’t mean “that guy who always says ‘nuh-uh!’ every time anyone makes a claim. Nor do I mean the habitual debunker, who feels compelled to—often gleefully—reply all to every credulous chain email with 5 links disproving whatever silly story is contained therein.1

I also don’t mean the kind of “skeptic” that simply doesn’t believe in something because it goes against my particular world-view or dogma or agenda.2

I’m the kind of skeptic that is epitomized by the image of James Randi above: give me evidence or don’t be shocked when I fail to believe your claim.

I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, bigfoot, psychic powers, angels, demons, gods, devils, alien abduction, mermaids, the Loch Ness monster, qi/chi, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, ear candling, or a very, very long list of other things too numerous to mention for which there is simply no well-tested scientific evidence that shows an effect that could not be accounted for by other things such as abnormal psychology, pareidolia, coincidence, or the placebo effect.

When people know or learn this about me and then see the kind of thing I write (science fiction, fantasy (epic, urban, and dark), and horror), I sometimes get the response where they tilt their head to one side and you can practically hear their neurons undergoing cognitive dissonance.

“But…if you don’t believe in any of that stuff, why is that all you write about?”

It’s a very good, valid question. And one for which I didn’t have a good answer. But something occurred to me during lunch, today, and I think I have a glimmer of understanding.

One of the most basic tools in the Skeptic’s Toolbox is this simple question: If X is true, how would that affect the world?

For instance, here’s an example. If homeopathy3 were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, first of all, every time you drank water, you’d get what amounts to a massive dose of medicine that should cure every known disease or ailment. And the irony of homeopathy is that the less of it you drink, the higher the dose.

If that were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, there’d be practically no sickness, because all anyone would have to do to cure themselves would be to drink a glass of water. Doctors and hospitals would only be needed for treating trauma. Drug companies would go out of business. Insurance companies would deal only in accidental death and dismemberment policies. (Alas, no amount of medicine cures stupid.)

There would be no more depression, no more malaria, no more common cold, no more cancer, no more epilepsy, no more ebola, AIDS, herpes…the world would be entirely different.

And if by diluting a substance that causes an effect, you can cause the opposite effect in the body, think of the amazing new illicit drugs! Dilute something that causes pain and taking a miniscule dose of it would cause euphoria. Meth and cocaine and LSD wouldn’t hold a candle to some of the designer drugs you could whip up in your own kitchen sink.

Of course, you’d have to have a way of removing the ‘remembered vibrations’ from water, so there’d be a market for that kind of thing. If for no other reason than to make sure that the human race didn’t go extinct or have a population boom. Think of all the substances out there that cause either fertility or infertility. Dilute those enough, and you have a potent birth control (by diluting the fertility-inducers) or fertility drugs (by super-dilution of fertility-reducing substances).

On the other hand, maybe “regular” tap water is nearly perfectly balanced, so all the things that would cause X and all the things that would cause -X cancel each other out. Maybe diseases are caused by water supplies being slightly tilted in one direction or another. People who could analyze the content of municipal water supplies (or wells) could make a mint by offering to re-balance the water supply.

Imagine a world where you might be hyper-allergic to water, because it contains a massively dilute form of anti-histamine compounds. How would you survive? You’d have to have a way of “detoxifying” the water so you could drink it (i.e., removing the ‘vibrations’; erasing the ‘memory.’)

Ooh, or how about all the estrogen or testosterone that winds up in the water supply? Even if there had never been a drug industry churning out metric tons of artificial examples of both hormones, people gotta pee, and that pee’s gotta go somewhere. If your municipal water supply became gender-imbalanced…if there were too much estrogen and it were diluted enough, it would have the same effect as a massive dose of anabolic steroids. <shudder>.

Do you see what I’ve done, here? This is exactly what a writer does when doing world development. It’s just world-building!

If elves existed, how would that affect the world?

If ships could travel faster than light, how would that affect civilization?

If lycanthropism existed, how would it work? How would it affect the world?4

What if the ancient Mayans were right, and all their gods do exist, and the world really is going to end in 2012?

So I think the answer to the question, “How do you write this stuff if you don’t believe in any of it?” is that by being a skeptic and really looking at the world through a skeptical lens, you’re improving your ability to ask really interesting world-building questions.

Note: I realize that I have said some things here that will not sit well with some people. I will not allow the comments here to turn into a debate. If I have said something here to offend you, I apologize, but there will be absolutely no name-calling, no diatribes, etc. I mention the definition of a skeptic and the negative examples in the footnote below for informational purposes to show readers what I mean—along with the majority of the skeptical community—when I use the word ‘skeptic.’ If you have a differing opinion, you are certainly entitled to it. But we are not going to debate it, here. All comments are moderated. Capisce? Buona.

  1. Well, okay, I actually do this, but it’s beside my point.
  2. In other words, climate-change skeptics, who claim there is insufficient evidence that either our climate is changing or that mankind’s activities have contributed to it significantly; 9/11 skeptics (“Truthers”), who claim to be skeptical that 9/11 was perpetrated by terrorists; “Moon Hoaxers,” who claim that the United States never landed on the moon and that the entirety of the Apollo program was faked on a soundstage; “Birthers,” who claim to be skeptical that President Obama is a US citizen; or Holocaust skeptics, who claim that either no one was killed by the Nazis or far fewer than is generally accepted. In each of those cases, the scientific consensus goes with the overwhelming evidence, but the ‘skeptics’ go against that evidence. The kind of skeptic I’m talking about is the kind that goes where the evidence leads, even if that is to a place his/her sentiments oppose.
  3. This link at Wikipedia does a much more thorough job of explaining homeopathy than I can.
  4. At least one author in the Urban Fantasy genre (Kat Richardson) had one of her characters—a skeptic, amusingly enough—point out that the energy required to literally reshape the tissues in a living being into another form would generate enough heat that any such creature would explode. She uses this to explain why there are no were-beasts in her novels. Vampires, yes. :)


Too Many Irons in the Fire

Iron Smelting by hans s, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  hans s 

I’ve found it difficult to write, lately. I don’t know exactly why, except that maybe I have too many projects in progress at once. See if you agree.

I have a novel-in-progress that was my 2008 NaNoWriMo novel. It’s a high fantasy with lots of magic, five main characters, a quest, really evil bad guys, prophecy…and had been knocking around inside my skull for more than two decades when I finally decided it was time to do something about it. I wrote about 1/4 of what I envision taking place in the novel, and was still at 51,115 words. Now it’s hanging out there, mocking me, waiting for editing. It’s called The Third Prophesy.

And I have a novel-in-progress that is an urban fantasy similar to Jim Butcher‘s The Dresden Files books. So similar, in fact, that I worry that someone may think I stole the idea, but honestly, I started writing it before I’d read any of his books. It’s about some GBI agents that belong to a paranormal investigation group within the bureau and a tough-as-nails Atlanta PD detective who work to solve a string of bizarre murders in Atlanta. Committed with magic, of course. I’m about 38,000 words into this one, and have kind of reached a snag because I need to add a new character, but he needs to have been there since Chapter 2, and I’m in Chapter 9. Whoops. It’s called Perdition’s Flames.

And I have a novel-in-progress that is the second in the series I mention above. I did this one for NaNoWriMo 2009, because I had a fantastic idea and had to write it down. So I’m 53,122 words into that one, and am almost done. I’ll have to go back, of course, and flesh it out a bit. In this one, the investigators from the first book solve another, even weirder string of murders committed using magic. This one is called Death Scene.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I have ideas for the next two books in that series, but nothing concrete enough to start writing. Just a bunch of hand-written ideas in a notebook I keep with me constantly. One of them is tentatively called Lethal Allure, but I think that will change.

Let’s see, what else?

Ah, yes. I have three novelette- or novella-length stories on back burners, waiting for inspiration. Two are finished, and I’ve workshopped both of them…but my critiquers found them…lacking. The third is in a limbo state of being half written and half in my head. All three are hard science fiction.

I’m working on a hard science fiction story set on Mars. I’m revising an urban fantasy/dark fiction short story involving a vampire.

All in all, I think I have twelve short stories in various stages of completion. They range from pure horror to high fantasy, dark fiction, humorous sci-fi, urban fantasy, and a couple that don’t really fit any conventional genre. And they range in length from a 1200-word snippet to something along the lines of 7500 words.

And yet I can’t write. I sit down and the words…just don’t come. I can write this stuff all day, of course. :)

I think I need a kick in the pants. Maybe literal, but I’m hoping for figurative. :)


Why I Write: A Ramble

"Old Books" (c) Anthea Brown (Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives 2.0 Generic License)

(c) Anthea Brown (Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives 2.0 Generic License)

A lot of people who write—whether or not they ever get published, or even try—do so because we have “no choice.” I said in a recent post that I write to get rid of the voices in my head. And while I meant that humorously and facetiously on at least one level, to a certain extent, it’s also true: stories and characters do have a tendency to knock on the inside of my skull from time to time.

But that’s not the whole story (<rimshot>). For me, at least.

See…I may be 44 years old—soon to be 45—but I still want very badly to open a wardrobe door and find myself in Narnia. No, literally. Those books…changed reading for me. I read dozens of books before The Chronicles of Narnia, but I never wanted to crawl into any of those, curl up, close the door, and stay forever.

To make an analogy with drugs that almost pains me to type: Narnia was like my first line of cocaine. I got an amazing high, and I never wanted to come down. But come down I did, and then it took more and more and more to give me that same feeling. Now I’m strung out on multi-book series like Xanth, Discworld, The Dresden Files, The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Sword of Truth, and The Wheel of Time. All in some hope of recapturing that initial awestruck craving to go there that I had with Narnia.

I would give almost anything if I could wake up tomorrow in a world where it’s possible to go to Narnia.

Alas, this is reality. Damn it. And because it is unfortunately reality, the only way I’m ever going to get to visit Narnia afresh—or Oz, The Land, Phaze/Proton, Middle Earth, Prydain, Hed, Majipoor, Earthsea, Discworld, Ringworld, Green-sky, Landover, Pern…or yes, even Xanth—is to create something like them in my own head and then write down the stories in the hopes that it affects other people in the same way that Narnia or Green-sky affected me.

Hmm. To continue my drug analogy from above…that would make me a pusher. Maybe that’s not such a great analogy after all. Okay, ignore that part.

The point is that part of the reason I am driven to write—and to (I hope) improve my skills as I go—is to give back some of what other writers were able to do for me.

And even if no one ever reads them, they brought me joy in the making. And for a while, I got to visit Mr. Tumnus. As it were.

[Crossposted from my Blogger blog.]

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