How Do You Choose?

Random writing, today.

I’m working on the fantasy series I want to write.  Unfortunately, the series I have in my mind is…well…it’s at least two different series.  Two different ones, but both do I want to write.  Both have characters I like, and stories I believe in.

How do you choose?

The worst torture the Romans could ever dish out was simple: line up the entire the family, then ask the father which child lived and which died.  The father always gave the Romans whatever they wanted.

So, for me, which story lives, and which dies?  Into which story do I plunge the dagger?

Okay, so no story every really dies…but putting one off for a couple of years (at the minimum) feels a whole lot like killing it…

Like that father, how do you choose?

No, really, how do you choose?

The story not of the young kid who wields a magic sword to become king, but rather the story of the sword so dedicated that he seeks out the last survivor of “his” family…

Or the story of the bitter immortal — the “angel” exiled for his part in the lost war in heaven — who wants nothing more than the grey numbness of oblivion…

I love Connor and Oz.  Err…well…Connor is a great character, and a great narrator, but it is Oz who I actually love.  It is Oz who is my favorite character.  But their time is coming to a close.  Once their third story is written, that’s it.

Hell, if I’m honest, there never should have been more than one.  Somewhere Peaceful to Die was written to have no sequel…but I couldn’t let those characters go.  The Silence That Never Comes and The Flicker of Ghosts came (are coming) because I couldn’t let go of those two characters.  But the time has come to finally let go…

So what fills the blank?  The stories of devotion and innocence that drove my youth?  My take on the Belgariad and the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of the Rings?  Or…

Or…

Or, a more deeply personal tale?  A tale built on experience and reality?  A tale of a weary life lived among those far younger?  A tale of bitterness and loss amidst the joys and innocence of youth…?

It would help, of course, if one had a character that stood out more for me than the other…but both call to me:

Finntan’s hope, the innocence of his life, and the dedication of the magic items that dedicate themselves to him…

Versus the world weary insouciance of Runae…versus the concept of the once-great wanting nothing more than the forgetfulness of death…

How do you pick which child lives and which dies?

How do you choose between the hope and love that you wish the world was, and the bitter pain that you know the world actually is?

I tried conflating them, I really did.

Yeah, it was worse than you think it was.

Those two cannot be combined.  Not in any way.  I tell either Finntan’s story, or I tell Runae’s.  I can’t combine the two…not any more than I can plan out to a third series!

*sigh*

This is why, of course, writers get paid the…ahem…small bucks.

If I had wanted to get rich, I would’ve been a plumber.

Musical Note — the song below is one I love. It is a song that has not specifically been a part of anything I’ve conceived or written, but rather has elements that touch on everything I’ve written (not to mention having the best song line ever: “If you’ve never stared off into the distance / Then your life Is a shame”)…

Art Class

Art is supposed to make you feel.

That’s it.  There you go, you just got your BA in Art for free.  You’re welcome.

What?  More to the story than just that?

*sigh*

Fine.

Art also needs to make you think.  It needs to make you want to look beneath the surface and find the piece’s message.  It needs to make you want, even, to take those emotions and that message and examine their meaning in your own life and world.

This holds true, by the way, for everything from the greatest works of music and painting and literature to the very least ones.  If it makes you feel, if it is in some way evocative of emotion and experience, it did its job.

For my fellow writers out there, that means your story has to mean something.

That is, by the way, why I despise the books that tend to dominate bestseller lists and bookstore racks — they are generally the shallowest and most meaningless of fluff.  Action-adventure tales, mysteries, romances, thrillers…it is just far too common for these “beach reads” to ignore the imperative to inspire and evoke, and instead focus on simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I want to use a bit of an experiment here.  I want to play Art Professor for a moment and set an exercise for the class.  I’m posting a picture of a sculpture below.  Before you read the explanation below that picture, I want you to just to study the piece and see how it makes you feel.  I want you to find what the sculptor was trying to say, and what it means in your own life:

I love sculpture, by the way.  I can sit and stare for a long time at a painting…but I can sit and stare all freaking day at a truly meaningful sculpture.  And, yes, I did exactly that the first time I saw this piece in the Vatican Museum.  I stared and thought.  Thought not just about the story/myth the creator was trying to depict, but also about what he was trying to say.

That serpent, killing the father and his children…it was more than a freaking serpent, I knew.  There is too much emotion in this piece — too much honesty — to be a simple depiction of a myth.  I know what I felt as I stared at it that first time — and the various feelings and memories it has evoked every time I have seen it since — and that is a hell of a lot more than just curiosity at the fate of a Trojan priest at the hands of some god-sent sea serpents.

The piece itself is tucked away at the end of a short hall in the Vatican, given no real explanation or context.  The first time I saw it, I knew nothing of its import or effect.  I knew nothing of the inspiration it was for Michelangelo’s later works; I knew nothing of the shattering effect it had on Renaissance artists when it was dug up and put on display in Rome in 1506; I knew nothing, even, about the fact that it was the statue Pliny the Elder had so powerfully described in a work written two thousand years before (a work I had translated years earlier as part of my study of Roman history).

I just knew it hit me like a ton of bricks.

It is still one of the most powerful pieces of art I have had the privilege to experience.

Now, fellow writers, did you do your class work?  Did you follow the exercise?  Did you study the piece and explore what it meant?

And, for the most important question of all, did you go beyond the exercise and think about how you evoke emotion and feeling in your own work?  Did you think about what those boys were thinking as they died?  What the sea serpents really meant?  What it all really said?

You don’t have to hit the mark, you know.  You don’t have to create a masterpiece. But you do have to try.  You have to try to create an emotional response, or you are just hacking out words.  With a lot of my own work, I am trying to make people think about the forgotten and overlooked parts of life.  Sometimes — okay, oftentimes — I am trying to bring a tear or two.  Occasionally, I even want to make folks laugh.

Oh, the piece itself…it is generally called Laocoon, or more rarely Laocoon and His Sons.  It depicts a story we first hear about in Virgil’s Aeneid* —although there are hints of much earlier versions — and was very likely created not long after that epic poem was written…which puts its creation somewhere in the area of 20 BC – 10 AD.

*Another book I had to read in the original Latin!  Ahem.

Let’s close out with a song, shall we?  Let’s go for meaningful and evocative…the “soundtrack” to the scene where I kill my favorite character. The song that has even more meaning to me from my own life:

The Perfect Evening

Well…I didn’t sink the boat.

I didn’t sink the boat and I got to spend a week on the water.   A week that was about three years too short…

As good — and as needed! — as it was, that wasn’t what I sat down to write about.

Nope.

I sat down to write a post about the death and destruction of our shared spaces.  About the lack of “commonality” that is one of the big things tearing at our society.

I sat down to write about that, but it is topic that is going to take a lot more thought and planning than I had done before I can really do a decent post on it.

But I still have the urge to write…still have the urge to put out something.

I’ve lived all over the US.  I’ve travelled all over the world.  I have — not to be an arrogant asshole — been places, and done things, that most people only dream about.  Aside from the images captured in my photography and my writing, I have the memories and experiences that are as real to me now as the hour I experienced them.*

*Yeah, yeah, it’s that “perfect” eidetic memory thing.  Welcome to my world.

I remember climbing a hill on an island off Croatia’s shore, only to stumble into a meadow with the most vibrant purple flowers I have ever seen…

I remember the oppressive weight of walking through a block of old-school Stalinist apartment blocks in Poland…

I remember standing in a gas chamber in Auschwitz…

I remember walking into Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time and thinking, “Good God!”…

I remember the smells and sights of the souk in Marrakech, and of the spice market in Nice…

I remember the adrenaline — the chaotic mingling of fear and excitement — of my first face-to-face encounter with a 750 pound grizzly…

But do you know what sticks with me?  I mean what really stays in my mind…and in my soul?

65DA41BA-92C5-4FA8-84C8-81BA51576E3DI remember sitting on a hill not too far outside of Kyoto, an hour or two after sunset, and watching the fireflies.  The barking of a family of foxes in the distance…the stars coming out overhead, clear and bright…the humidity holding the heat for far too long…the fatigue in legs and mind from a day spent exploring a place in which — in spite of speaking the language and knowing the culture — I still felt more alien than I ever had before…and the, well, freaking magic of fireflies…

Look, I had seen plenty of the damned things in my life.  I went to (my second) college in Maine, for heaven’s sake, and we had no lack of the damned things up there…

I had seen them, but never before had I come close to the experience of that evening.  Never before had I experienced that kind of power, that kind of magic.  Never before had anything touched my soul like that evening.

It was perhaps the most perfect moment I have ever experienced.

For every shitty, miserable moment I have experienced, and have written — and there’ve certainly been enough of both — there are just as many of those special moments of power and memory to offset them.

Even more, there is the magic of the fireflies…

Bit Off More Than I Can Chew

Talk about exercises in futility…

I decided to get all ambitious with a blog post the other night.  “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “to put together something about song lyrics?  To do a piece where I list the ‘best’ lyrics to build a story around?”

Of course, that meant I just had to go back and start listening to songs and artists to check my memory.  I just had to re-immerse myself in the feelings and moods that made the music memorable in the first place.

I have, I should add, well over 60 gigabytes of music on my iPhone…

I could listen for a week, and not get through it all!  I am also “that guy” when it comes to music.  You know who I’m talking about, the guy who starts with one song/artist and wanders down countless rabbit trails of music and memory.

Even when I nailed down a few songs to use, well…you can’t just type the lyrics.  No, to get the point across, you have to have the feelings and memories of the music, too (*Note – I’ve put an example of this at the end of the post*).

So much for my ambitious blog post.

*sigh*

Look, there’s a line from a song called “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel — a single vision, that became a few words in a larger scene I wrote — that inspired the entire freaking fantasy trilogy I’m planning and working up right now (when I want to take a break from my sci-fi stuff).  The line?  Oh, hell, why not:

My heart going boom-boom-boom

Son, he said, grab your things

I’ve come to take you home

And about that sci-fi stuff…

Well, Connor & Oz’s stories owe their existence to — of course — a song.  A song that inspired the final scene of the first book, which in turn inspired the characters, then the world and society, then the plot…and on and on.

What, you want that line, too?  Crikey…this one really is the whole song rather than just a line or two, but here goes:

You saw my pain

Washed out in the rain

And broken glass

Saw the blood run from my veins

You see why my original post idea was way too ambitious?  I could do this a hundred times, with a hundred different songs and stories and characters.  I could talk about Genesis’ “A Trick of the Tail”, The Alarm’s “One Step Closer to Home”, The Avett Brothers’ “The Carpenter”, Clapton’s “Motherless Children”, Steve Winwood, Erasure, The Gaslight Anthem, Chuck Ragan, Dave Hause, Sting, X Ambassadors, Derek And The Dominoes, Trampled By Turtles…

Crap, maybe I should just list my entire music library!

Ahem.

*Okay, so the example I want to use is a song I’ve mentioned before as one that is incredibly evocative.  It is a song of memory and emotion.  A song of — dare I say it — nostalgia and the past.  A few lines I will type here.  Read them and see if you can find those qualities.  Only then, only after trying the hard way, should you listen to the linked video and listen for those same qualities:

While the city bums

Are taken hard

For one more drop of blood

We work our fingers down to dust

And we wait for kingdom come

With the radio on

See what I mean?