2022 Goals

Okay, so it’s time to set some goals for the year ahead.

As far as writing goes, I’m going to try the same one I failed at last year. Dedicate time every day to writing, even if, at first, all I’m doing is staring at a blinking cursor. Since I did fail at it last year (and yesterday, but . . . I claim a holiday exception for that one) I’m dialing it back a bit. Let’s start with fifteen minutes and gradually build up. More is, of course, just fine–but it doesn’t mean I don’t owe the same fifteen minutes the next day.

For diet and health, well, the last couple of weeks excepted (there’s that holiday exception again), what I’ve done so far has worked fairly well. For diet, my plan has been and will continue to be to make small changes that I can turn into habits. Once those habits are established, I can then make a few more small changes. My first targets are:

  • Changing from 2% milk to 1%. This change was suggested by a dietician.
  • Changing my afternoon snack to something healthier. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out what this will be. It may take a little trial and error.
  • Cutting back on hard candies with the goal of eliminating them altogether.

I generally get plenty of exercise walking, but down the road I may want to look into adding something else to the mix. I need to give that some thought.

And, one more. Since annual accountability failed last year. I’m going to report on progress monthly this year. We’ll see.

Last Year’s Goals

Wow, it’s been pretty quiet around here, lately, hasn’t it? Mostly, I haven’t had a lot to say, unfortunately. Nevertheless, that’s no reason to skip accountability. So . . . how did I do with my goals for last year?

My first and main goal was to re-establish some sort of regular writing habit, even just half an hour to start–everyday. No diversions allowed. Half an hour where I have to either write or stare at a blinking cursor. No skipping over to play a game of solitaire. No checking the internet–unless it’s for legit research. Then, gradually increase that time to a whole hour, and so on.

It was a good plan. And an epic fail. I did try to use NaNoWriMo to re-establish the habit, with mixed success. Still, I think I may make this the goal again for next year. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s for next week’s post.

My second goal was to continue improving my diet and general fitness.

I believe I’ve made some progress there, at least.

My third goal was to read more widely. Try new authors and subjects. And to continue learning new things.

Again, at least some success, though perhaps less than I hoped.

And have faith that the world will settle into a new normal, probably not exactly the same as before. But less fraught. More comfortable. And next year’s holiday season will be different.

Well, apart from having faith, this one was really out of my control. And it’s clearly still a work in progress, both for me and the world in general. May next year see a more significant change. We all need it.

Wow! It’s been awhile since I last posted. Well, things do get busy around the start of the school year, but that’s no excuse. It’s one of the habits I’ve allowed myself to slip out of. And that’s the problem.

A couple of years ago, after I published BECOME: TO RIDE THE STORM, I got stuck on what was supposed to be my next project. I called it writer’s block. Maybe it was. I suspect that my gut instinct told me that there was something wrong with the story or the way I was approaching it. And, so I didn’t write for a while.

And so, I lost the good habit of writing just about every day and replaced it with other–much less productive–habits, like mindless computer games.

And that’s why I haven’t been making much progress on my current project. I’ve tried several things to get back on track. But I’ve finally come to the conclusion that nothing is going to work but just doing it. So, while I’ve never done NaNoWriMo (NAtional NOvel WRiting MOnth)–and I’m not officially going to do it, now, either. I’m not going to try for 50,000 words (which is what it takes to “win” NaNoWriMo). But I am going to force myself to write every day. Even if it’s just a paragraph or two. Even if it’s not very good, because I can always edit it later, but not if I don’t write it first.

Start rebuilding that habit. It’s the only path forward that I can see.

I may try a couple of other things, too. But . . . we’ll see. First I have to replace this keyboard, because a couple of keys stopped working a few days ago. One of them is the question mark. And that just is not going to make things any easier.

On the subject of restarting good habits, I will also try to make regular blog posts about my progress.

This may not be applicable if everyone has magic. Then again . . . .

Is it something they’re born with? If so, is it strictly hereditary or is something else at play? For example, in J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series, magical families seem to pretty reliably produce offspring with magic. But muggle-born witches and wizards, like Hermione or Harry’s mother, Lily, aren’t uncommon either.

Or, is magic something invested by some ritual or acquired or awakened in some other way? If so, is there a cost to gaining magical abilities? In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic users must “Snap” to awaken their latent magic. This requires an emotional or physical trauma, often a near-death experience. While, some of the nobles in Mistborn are ruthless enough to submit their children to a severe beating to try to make them “Snap”, even then, not everyone will. And, of course, the nobility have no monopoly on trauma; the farmer trampled by his own oxen or the convict beaten by the prison guards may “Snap” when a noble youth does not.

However, if the process needed to awaken the magic can be controlled—well, then you have the possibility of one group, the elites, monopolizing the process and excluding everyone else. And the question of what those others might do to create their own ritual so they could get magic of their own and use it against their overlords.

In my Arthurian story, there won’t be many humans who can do actual magic. Those few will have a natural gift, but . . . I don’t think I’m going to be able to—or want to—ignore those two springs at the base of Glastonbury Tor: the Red Spring (now called the Chalice Well) and the White Spring. And that tantalizing (possibly) maze-like path up to the tor. Yeah, there’s going to have to be some sort of initiation to improve access to natural magic.

Some examples might be helpful here.

  • In Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, everyone has one magical talent. In fact, if you don’t demonstrate a magical talent by a certain age, you’re exiled to Mundania.
  • Likewise, in Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, everyone learns at least basic magic in school.
  • But, in the Harry Potter series, only a fraction of the population is able to become a witch or a wizard.
  • In Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon’s Blood and Heritage of Power series, the only ones who can perform magic are descended from dragons.

If everyone can do magic, then there’s not likely to be much in the way of a torches-and-pitchforks, burn-them-at-the-stake response to magic users. Though, there still may be some distrust of the powerful magicians.

But, if it’s limited to a few . . . well, that raises some other questions. Is it essential for those who use magic to hide it from their non-magical neighbors, as in Harry Potter? What happens if the muggles find out about them?

Or are magicians accepted as useful members of society as in Patricia Wrede’s and Elizabeth Stevermer’s Cecilia and Kate novels? If so, are the magic users automatically part of the elite? Or are ordinary folk magic users, too?

Or do the magic users use their abilities to make themselves the rulers of the non-magical population? And, if so, what’s the reaction to that? And how much (if at all) do the non-magic users resent that?

Do the religious institutions employ/conscript magic users? How do they use them? And how do they feel about magic users who aren’t under their control?

Or, as with the Lakewalkers in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series, do the magic users feel a responsibility to spend their lives fighting the things that regular people can’t fight?

Or, of course, any combination of the above.

In the Arthurian story I’m working on, there may still be a fair number of people keeping alive the knowledge of herb lore and methods of divination, but those with actual magic will be few. Between the antipathy of the Romans and the Christian church, they will be isolated and at least somewhat secret. I have yet to work out exactly how they’ll defend their space, but I suspect part of it will depend on rumors and tales of the danger of breaching its boundaries. Fortunately, some such stories did actually circulate about the high ground around Glastonbury Tor, which may have been considered a boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead—ant therefore dangerous—at one time.

I’ve reached a point in my Arthurian story where I’m going to have to start writing something about the (very limited) human magic systems. Merlin’s magic is based on draconic abilities and I can do anything I please with that. But any purely human magic systems in fifth-century Britain would be based—at least somewhat—on the original Druidic practices. Somewhat, because the Romans appear, uncharacteristically, to have done their best to squelch the Druids. (The Romans were usually fairly lenient toward local religious customs.) And, of course, because Christianity would have come to Britain sometime in the fourth century and that would have had some effect on how—and by who—the ancient practices were carried on.

So, I have tried to do some research on the Druids. Unfortunately, the only really reliable answer I’ve been able to arrive at is: Nobody knows. The bare handful of ancient writings by Greeks or Romans contemporary with the Druids barely say anything about their practices. And most of those are phrased by comparison, always unfavorably, to Greek or Roman practices, which actually says more about the attitudes of the writers than about the Druids themselves. Later writers appear to have made up a lot of what they say they know.

About the only thing that seems reasonably certain is that the Druids did have some methods of divination and might have also had some knowledge of healing and herbs.

So, it looks like I’m going to have to make up whatever magic system I use for the few humans who will have the ability. And, in this case, try to make it fit into a fifth-century context. Fortunately, I intend for any real magic (as opposed to herb lore, for example) to be fairly rare and somewhat limited.

Nevertheless, I thought now might be a good time to go into some of the questions I might ask myself in developing a magic system for one of my stories. These questions don’t always need to be answered in the story, but I may need to know the answers, even if my characters don’t. Also, some of the answers can be fodder for more conflict or obstacles for my story.

  1. Who can do magic?
  2. How do they acquire magic?
  3. Where does the magic come from?
  4. What is needed to perform magic?
  5. What can magic do?
  6. Are magic users organized in some way? How?

Sometimes, it takes a while for ideas to percolate and then for me to voice them—to myself, first.

Another point Gail Carriger made in her book, THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY, is that readers or audiences of the two journeys are after different things. Those who favor the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey are looking for excitement. Hairs-Breadth Escapes! Battles! Starships exploding! (Even in space, where there’s no oxygen, but . . . never mind.) Those who favor the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey are not averse to excitement, but they’re looking for something else. She calls it comfort, which is as good a way to describe it as I can come up with. The satisfaction that things come out all right, happily, in the end—which the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey doesn’t deliver.

However, when I think of LORD OF THE RINGS, I can’t help noticing something. Frodo is definitely on a Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey, but most of his solitary battle is internal, fighting against the growing influence of the Ring. After the breaking of the fellowship, almost all of the “exciting” bits—the battles—take place in Aragorn’s part of the story. Helm’s Deep, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and the Assault on the Black Gate. And, as I argued here, Aragorn is on a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey.

Which leaves me thinking. If a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey supplies enough excitement along the way . . . well, I suppose some of the adrenalin junkies might think the ending is sappy, but they got the excitement they were after, so they’re not disappointed. And those looking for the satisfying ending of the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey still got that.

Is it possible to please both with the same story? It seems so, but I need to think some more on just how to make that work.

Or, at Least One Modified Pantser

A meme has recently started going around in writer’s groups on social media:

There are three kinds of writers:

  1. Those who plot their stories.
  2. Those who discover their plot along the way.
  3. Those who know what will happen but their book is a bit feral still, needs a bath, has bitten and will bite again.

That wording for the third group is perhaps a little bit strong. I call myself a modified pantser and I think most of us in the middle have probably developed a few tactics for taming that feral story.

All of us have to find the process that works best for us, individually. Usually by trial and error. I’ve certainly been no exception to that.

The first novel I wrote (not counting that thing I wrote in college), I outlined. It’s been a while so I can’t remember exactly why. Probably I thought you were supposed to. Part way through, I noticed that I was spending a significant part of my writing time revising the outline as the story grew and changed in my imagination.

This is also the first story in which I had to deal with a full rebellion by one of my characters. I reached a scene, called for in the outline, and I just could not write it. After a couple of days of thinking about it, I realized that the problem was that the character just would not do what the outline called for. It was out of character for him. But, with or without the outline, I needed him to in order to get where I wanted the story to go. The solution, eventually, was to change the situation enough that the character would see doing what I needed him to do as for the greater good—and, bonus points for torturing my characters, still be very unhappy about it.

I also outlined the next novel. When that story diverged from the outline fairly early on, I closed the outline and just kept writing.

I did not outline my third novel. I was literally writing the last few pages when I looked up and said to myself, “But it doesn’t come out to a story.” I knew instinctively that something was missing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what because I wasn’t grounded enough in the craft yet. The problem was that the story wasn’t really centered around a story problem. The problem was there, but it wasn’t . . . featured, I guess is the best way to put. It didn’t create turning points (plot points) in the story. Once I realized that, it was easy enough to fix.

So, by this point, I’d demonstrated that outlines don’t really work for me. I’m not a plotter. But, neither does just plunging in and winging it—the stereotype of the pantser. And so my process evolved. I need to have signposts along the way—the major plot points like the inciting incident, the key event, the mid-point, and the climax. This helps to keep me from veering off too far (something that did happen in the third novel) and also helps to keep the story problem central to what my characters are doing. But it leaves me free to just let what happens in between flow naturally for my characters.

I also, now, tend to have at least chapter headings and a few notes set up for maybe three to five chapters ahead of where I’m currently working. Things like which character will have the viewpoint and a couple of sentences about what will happen in that chapter. Maybe a snatch of dialogue that came to me while I was washing dishes or walking the dog. In my current WIP, maybe a couple of research notes copied in for easy reference. This isn’t an outline. More like the headlights illuminating just enough of the road ahead. This usually works for me, but occasionally a story will require more—or less—structure to work. As my dog agility instructor used to tell us, “You have to be rigid about being flexible.”

I’ve been thinking about the writing process—especially my writing process lately. We usually divide writers into Plotters and Pantsers, but the real world is rarely that black and white.

Plotters outline their stories, sometimes extensively, before they ever put Chapter One at the top of a page. Their characters may be built to fit the plot and, some would say, they tend to create plot-driven stories.

Pantsers, on the other hand, are said to write by the seat of their pants, discovering the plot as they go along. A pantser’s characters are more likely to lead them off script—or, at least, be more likely to be allowed to go off script. The result is often a character-driven story.

G. R. R. Martin likened it to the difference between architects and gardeners. An architect plans the rooms and where the windows and doors will be before starting to build. A gardener plants a seed and watches what grows.

But the real world is rarely that simple and there is a whole continuum of writing processes between the two extremes. I’d venture to say most writers are somewhere between.

This issue isn’t really about reader expectations, much. It’s just something of a reality about the two sub-genres. And something I’ve been thinking about.

Sword and Sorcery stories are almost always short—no longer than novel-length at most and often shorter. Where the main character(s) of a Sword and Sorcery spawn a series, it’s almost always episodic—each story is a separate adventure. Like detective fiction, the only common denominator in the series is the protagonist(s). (And I only say ‘almost’ because there may actually be an exception out there, but, if so, I can’t think of it.)

  • Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories were mostly novelettes or novellas . A novelette is basically a very long short story, from 30 pages to 60 pages long. A novella is from 60 pages to 200 pages. A more or less average novel (if there is such a thing) would be about 400 pages, though anything over 200 pages counts and, of course, some are much longer.
  • Same with Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
  • Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone started out the same, but did grow into several novel-length works as well.

Whereas, although I can think of a few single-book examples, for Epic Fantasy more often than not a series is the default. A reader expectation, in fact.

  • Lord of the Rings is one very long story published in 3 volumes, adding up to (in my copy) almost 1100 pages (excluding the appendices).
  • David and Leigh Eddings’s Belgariad and Malorean are each 5 volumes.
  • Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, finished by Brandon Sanderson, is . . . 14 volumes and over 10,000 pages!

My theory about that is that the smaller stakes of Sword and Sorcery cannot support a longer story. The goal simply isn’t worth it when that many obstacles and risks begin to pile up. There are, after all, other possible adventures and, probably, other treasures and a character smart enough to be interesting ought to recognize that at some point. But the obstacles and risks are much more worth it if the character is saving the world.

I also think that failure to realize the difference between Sword and Sorcery and Epic Fantasy—especially when it comes to length—can cause a story to fail. We, as readers or audience, lose interest if the stakes are too low to support the weight of the story.