The 4 W’s: What

Look…you know I’m a character-centric guy. You know anything I write starts (and ends) with the characters, and the plot is just the Charlie-Brown-pine on which I hang the lights and ornaments and decorations that make it an actual Christmas tree. You know because, well, I’ve talked about it often enough…

So, for me, the what of my stories isn’t some big plot point, some stand-alone crisis & climax & resolution…it’s the story of the protagonist(s), and how they deal with with those plot points. I know it sounds semantic, but I can assure you that it’s not. It most assuredly is not — it is a very real difference in emphasis, and in execution.

Let me put it like this: as much as I love Star Wars, why did I hate The Force Awakens? Because the characters — with the exception of Finn & BB8 — were forgettable, 2-dimensional cookie cutters that meant not one damned thing to me. There is no bigger Mary Sue in the damned universe than Rey…and don’t even get me started on the uselessness that is/was Kylo Ren. Quite simply, the characters in that movie were there simply to serve the plot; they had no meaning and no life in and of themselves.

Contrast that with Rogue One. I bought into Rogue One…I bought all the way in. The characters in that movie existed, they meant something. They had more depth, and more reality, than the entire cast of TFA put together. Jyn and Cassian were, quite simply, more believable — more important — than Rey and Poe.

And that makes all the difference.

So, when I plan and design the what of a story, it is not a plot into which I insert my characters. Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact: it comes from the characters themselves.

I’ve mentioned before the rather extensive background work I do before I ever start writing a story. Part of that is just to help me fill in holes and answer questions…but just part. No, the majority of that comes because I need to think and live — I need to experience — my characters’ reality before I truly know where things are going. I need, when you get right down to it, to let them talk to me.

A real world example:

The story that evolved and grew into Wrath & Tears and Silence (and the planned third story, tentatively titled The Flicker of Ghosts) started life simply as a planned series of short stories I nicknamed Project Dock Rat. It was anticipated to be nothing more than the serial adventures of a homeless kid, scraping by as a thief with the help of his best friend.

There was nothing in the original conception about society’s sins, nor the exploitation and violence and ruthlessness that are so a part of the real world. There was, equally, nothing about suicide, or suffering, or the despair of the hopeless.

Then I thought and worked through the two main characters (a third got axed/changed…long story, there), the two who became Connor and Oz.

I had no idea when I originally dreamed up the idea that the protagonist would come to be a reflection of my own survivor’s guilt, nor that his best friend would come to represent those I’ve lost to suicide. I had no idea the story would come to mean something very personal to me.

But it did.

It became not the “adventures of a homeless kid,” but rather the story of Connor’s attempt to save his own soul…and Oz’s failure to do the same thing.

THAT is the what of a story, to me: the reality and evolution of characters that matter.

What Are We Drinking Today?

Okay, so…food and booze.

Some day I want to write a story where those two are the main focus…

I am – to put it bluntly – a complete nerd (and whore) for good food and good booze. The good news is that I’m also a pretty good cook. The bad is that I couldn’t ferment, brew or distill if you held a gun to my head.

I have also travelled extensively, and know a decent bit about quite a few cultures/societies. In my world – and I am not alone in this – every society/culture is expressed best through its food and booze. A close second, I will add, is through a culture’s music.

I have had unforgettable meals with foods and peoples I never even imagined as a kid. In fact, I remember and know far more about those cultures where I ate and drank with regular folks than about those cultures I formally “studied” in college.

The good thing is that we have available almost anything you can imagine here in the US. The bad thing is that, unless you are in the right area, most of what we have is a pale imitation of the real thing.

Go buy yakisoba here in the US…if you are not in certain neighborhoods in LA or San Francisco, that dish will bear zero relationship to the yakisoba you get in Japan. God forbid we start talking about bibimbap or pho or even a real street taco.

Shit…this is why I love travel! And, yes, like pretty much everything else in my life, when I travel I turn the knob to eleven. There is no such thing as over-doing it, nor as going “too deep” into a culture…

Food and booze actually figure more heavily into my stories than the words themselves let on. Those two things are important factors in communicating the mood and temperament of my characters and the situations they face.

Beyond that, however, they also communicate a bit about me – communicate, even, what I am craving as I write. Connor once noted the smell of a yakisoba place as he walked through the crowded alleys of his res-hold. Yep, you guessed right – the writer was hungry as shit at that point.

Now, while the food might represent me to a degree, the booze is a bit more symbolic. Is it shitty shochu? Or decent beer? Or high-end scotch? Each of those carries a different connotation and meaning that communicates something about the character (and their circumstances) as they order/drink.

On a side-note: there is a standing inside-joke involving beer. I work into every single story I write the brewery my friends own (and, yes, the place where I do a lot of my writing). Every single story. It ain’t always easy to find, but it is always there.

That being said, my own personal prejudices also come into play. You could not, for instance, pay me to drink rum, so none of my characters do. You will know, in fact, if ever a character of mine does drink rum, that I hate and want to kill that particular person!

With the characters I care about, on the other hand, you see stuff closer to what I personally like. There’s a good reason why Oz is a whiskey drinker…

With all that in mind, I am going to make some changes to this blog over the next couple of weeks. This topic will gain a certain amount of space on the page: in addition to a small section for an “album/song of the week”, I am going to add a section for a “drink of the week”.

I did think about doing a “brewery of the week” as well (yes, I love beer!), but that would cut just a bit too close to a different sort of writing I do. So, while I will talk about individual beers, I nixed the idea of doing so for breweries themselves as I don’t want to cross the streams on this particular (pseudo-anonymous) blog.

What Does Mordor Smell Like?

Trying to get a blog post jotted down early. There is zero chance of me actually sitting down to write one on Friday morning, so if I don’t do it now it ain’t getting done. Plus, I have to do my Palahniuk-hour-of-writing today…I have no real intention of actually writing or working*, so the blog post will have to do for now.

*Saying that, of course, means I will probably spend four or five hours writing furiously…

I know I said I was doing all the character shit in order to get ready to actually, you know, write but I got sidetracked yesterday by working on the setting. That’s no bad thing, by the way. Your setting has to be real to you: you have to be able to see it, to smell it, to feel it. If you can’t do that inside your own mind, what do you think is going to happen with your readers?

If your story takes place somewhere in the real world, that means you have to go there. You have to walk the streets/paths, smell the air, feel the pulse… One of those ghosts I have fluttering around is a story set in Prague. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in Prague – I know that city very well. But if and when I start writing that story, I will have to return to Czech so I can re-immerse myself in the setting.

That is how you feel what you write, how you see and smell what your character is experiencing. If your setting isn’t real to you, it will be immediately apparent in your words: I once read a book set in medieval Samarkhand and it was very apparent the author had never been anywhere near the place. Hell, it read like his experience of the setting came from reading books and looking at pictures. That ruined the story for me.

On the flip side, I highly recommend you go read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. The city is very, very real in her books, and it is obvious just how much time she spent in Rome getting the feeling right.

Now, in my own stuff, I am not using “real” locations, I’m making shit up*. Hell, eight of the ten(ish) stories floating in the back of my mind involve making shit up. img_0019That doesn’t mean the setting can be cheap and pro forma. I refuse to write a story with a Star Trek setting of cardboard walls and styrofoam rocks. If it’s not real to me, it won’t be to anyone else either…

*One of the best comments ever on writing sci-fi came from John Scalzi: “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

One trick I use is to base my characters’ surroundings on real world locales. Admittedly, that was kinda hard for dockside – how many places do you know where 60,000 people live crammed into cargo holds? – but that setting was very much influenced by the back alleys and tight spaces of certain real cities and countries.

For Silence I need a setting that emphasizes the tone and feeling I intend to carry through the story. Finding that right feeling is harder than you’d think*, but I finally have it nailed down. Cold, stark, desolate…an altogether uncomfortable world that exists only to make a small group of people very rich.

*In practical terms, by the time the prep work is done, I will have written something on the order of 10,000-12,000 words just on the physical details of the setting, and the same amount again on the cultural and linguistic side of things.

I love where this is leading me…mostly because Connor is gonna hate it. Hey, remember, it is his own fault: he made me write this damn story!

Different Languages, Different Visions

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Talking a bit (on Monday) about how I tried to keep the characters honest and likable, in spite of the dark themes, got me to thinking about setting and atmosphere. Especially the aspects of culture and language that are vital to how you illustrate your characters.

In Wrath I very intentionally chose a mix of languages and cultures for dockside that would create a sense of “other” and “alien” without resorting to, well, actual aliens. Using Japanese and Thai was a deliberate effort to distance the setting and characters from modern day America. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I actually speak Japanese (although I’m rusty as hell).

In Silence* things are more complicated. Considerably more complicated. This story is set on a planet, after all, not in the close confines of a dilapidated, aging station clinging to the very edge of a star system. And that planet, with its many, many times larger population (about 30 million), has three distinct cultural/linguistic groups with which I get to play. Did I forget to mention that I also have a passion and knack for languages and linguistics? Well, there, I just did. Oh yeah, and the slang glossary for this story is gonna be fucking huge.

*Screw it, I was gonna wait to reveal the new title until I was…you know…actually done, but I’ve mentioned it (in part) a few times now, so I might as well get it over with. The sequel is tentatively titled “The Silence That Never Comes”. The whats and whys of that title will have to wait, however, as I am just not in the mood to dive into all the symbolism and meaning behind it.

Now for the important question: why the hell am I making things so complicated? Wasn’t it hard enough to figure out what people were saying in Wrath, with just one (and a half, really) language for slang? Shou ga nai. That’s just the way it is, so deal with it.

I am a big believer that language and culture (and outlook) are inextricably linked. Language is fundamental to the human brain, and it helps to define everything. Oh yeah, and as a writer it is one hell of a tool to separate cultures/peoples in order to illustrate many of the things I want to emphasize and play up. Hey, at least I didn’t go full-Tolkien and make up my own damned languages. Never go full-Tolkien!img_0018

Silence is going to be very concerned with the differing “levels” of society, and the contrasts and similarities that define them. The language and culture that created each of those will play an important part in communicating their thought processes and cultural norms. As a small illustration: if you really want to understand the different dynamics of, say, France and Germany, you have to learn both French and German.  Trust me on that one; what each of those languages shows about how the cultures think and feel will open your eyes.

A final practical note: I speak a number of languages, but not nearly as many as I need to do what I want. Two of my new cultures I’ve got covered, but the third? Crap…now I have the added challenge of using (and “evolving”) the slang and cultural outlook of a language I don’t actually speak. And, no, Google Translate is not a legitimate option…