Labyrinth of Souls Fiction Project

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I am very excited to announce that ShadowSpinners Press will be releasing a series of short stand-alone novels inspired by Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls! A number of outstanding writers have already committed to the project and are at various stages in writing their Labyrinth of Souls books. Authors so far include Elizabeth Engstrom, Eric Witchey, Christina Lay, John Reed, Stephen T. Vessels, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, Pamela Jean Herber, and me.

That’s an incredible list to be a part of, and I am super excited to be working on a project that includes this many amazing writers. And I am overjoyed that they have all showed such an interest in fictionalizing underworld adventures inspired by the Labyrinth of Souls.

The Labyrinth of Souls is more than an ancient ruin filled with monsters, trapped treasure, and the lost tombs of bygone kings. It is a manifestation of a mythic underworld, existing at a crossroads between people and cultures, between time and space, between the physical world and the deepest reaches of the psyche. It is a dark mirror held up to human experience, in which you may find your dreams… or your doom. Entrances to this realm can appear in any time period, in any location. There are innumerable reasons why a person may enter, but it is a place antagonistic to those who do, a place where monsters dwell, with obstacles and illusions to waylay adventurers, and whose very walls can be a force of corruption. It is a haunted place, ever at the edge of sanity.

Each Labyrinth of Souls novel will feature a journey into a unique manifestation of the underworld. Get ready to delve into the Labyrinth in a totally new way, and stay tuned for more author announcements and release dates for the first Labyrinth of Souls novels.

Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

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My last post dealt with the importance of understanding the tone of a fight scene, but there is something even more important. Real fighting, be it on a small or large scale is not inherently entertaining. Nevertheless, we are drawn to the story of a good fight because of the dramatic engagement of the characters. Without drama, the action can be a tedious, boring, or otherwise off putting.

Whether you’re writing something like the battle for Helm’s Deep or the duel between Hamlet and Leartes, the buildup to the fight is arguably more important than the fight itself. It is during the buildup that we come to understand why the fight matters. Ask yourself what’s at stake for your characters and in the larger context of your story. “The readiness is all,” Hamlet says at last, and because the entire story has built up to this moment, we are prepared for a fight of truly dramatic proportions.

Think of your fight scene as a kind of story within the story. It should be a necessary part of the overall narrative. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a setting, a plot, and characters. It goes without saying it should have external conflict, but it should also have internal conflict. These elements should be established in the buildup, so when the action starts they all come crashing together. The fight should be a climactic focal point for dramatic elements in the narrative.

In terms of plotting the action, things should never go as planned. There should always be surprises, turns in the action driven by the elements in play. Perhaps reinforcements arrive, treachery unfolds, or fear strikes. A good fight will have at least one or two good turns, when the advantage shifts from one side to the other before the final victory or defeat.

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

Writing Fight Scenes: Graphing Fictional Violence

Physical violence and fighting can be a wonderful source of conflict in fiction … when it’s done well. A fight should tell a story that’s integral to the overall narrative, and the tone of the action should not feel out of place.

Most violence and martial arts portrayed in fiction is filled with various levels of fantasy, even in otherwise realistic stories. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but frequently I think writers are attempting one thing and doing another.

When writing a fight scene it’s important to understand the kind of fight you want to write. You can imagine your fight existing somewhere on a graph with realism vs. fantasy on the x-axis and serving the story vs. the inconvenient truth on the y-axis. Great scenes can be written anywhere on the graph, but it helps to know where you are and what you’re up against.

graphing-fictional-violence

In this context, realism is an adherence to the laws of physics and the demonstrated behavior and abilities of real people.Fantasy may break these rules, but should have a set of internal rules the characters and actions adhere to.

Serving the story is the necessity of certain actions or outcomes for the sake of the overall narrative. The inconvenient truth is everywhere the rules of realism or the internal rules of fantasy are in conflict with those actions and outcomes. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but go too far and readers will be put off.

Martial arts and fighting are rich fields touching upon physics, culture, technology, anatomy, phychology, history, and human ability. It pays to do some research! As with most things, the more knowledge and experience you have, and the clearer your objectives, the more confident and convincing your fiction will be.

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The author receiving some experience in Russian martial arts

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

On Finishing …

the end

For twelve years I have been working on a trilogy of fantasy books. In that time I have lived in two different countries, three states, and six different homes. I’ve had eight jobs, gotten a Master’s degree, and gone through one marriage, one divorce, and two deaths in my family. Through it all I have been writing, among other things, this single epic tale. During the process, moments of boundless enthusiasm and despair mixed with long periods of just moving forward, doing the work, writing the next scene, the next chapter, the next book.

Last week I wrote THE END. I finished the last chapter of the last book and sat back, stunned by the moment and the magnitude of what I’d done. I had before me a single complete story spanning 300,000 words, roughly 1200 pages, and the occasion has gotten me thinking about finishing things, and endings in general.

I’ve talked with a lot of new and young writers who say they enjoy writing, but have trouble finishing anything. The reasons vary. Sometimes writers get stuck on a problem they never solve, or lose interest in what seems like an idea that didn’t pan out. Sometimes their story isn’t really a story, but rather a series of events with no central conflict demanding an ending. Sometimes writers just lose faith, or have a moment of doubt that brings their work to a halt and they never go back to it.

If the problem is technical, there is probably a solution if you work to find it, but sometimes the problem is psychological, a reluctance, for whatever reason, to finish. Either way, if you’re passionate about writing, you must persevere to an ending. At the very least so you get practice writing them. We all know a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why writing short stories is such good practice for the craft as a whole. They provide an opportunity to practice endings nearly as much as beginnings and middles.

Elizabeth Engstrom says to “find your ending in your beginning.” I always think about this when I’m coming to the end of a story. It’s important to end the story you started writing, and not some other story you picked up along the way. A strong central conflict really helps make this clear. The end must match the beginning in a way, and I found this to be just as true in a 300,000 word story as in a 1500 word story. The end must deal with the same protagonist, issues, and conflicts introduced in the beginning. So if you’re searching for an ending, that’s a good place to start.

When you get there at last, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a work of fiction. There’s a bit of magic in fiction, a sense of creating something tangible from the nebulous dreamscape of your mind. And when the last sentence is written, especially if it’s a good one, there’s a sense of triumph and relief like no other. If your project happened to take twelve years like mine did, there’s also a bittersweet sense of loss. All the unwritten scenes and plot puzzles and character arcs I carried around with me day after day … they’re all resolved now. The story is finished.

The work is far from over, of course. I already have a number of other projects I’m working on, and in a week or two I’ll dive back in for more editing and rewrites. Eventually, I’ll start thinking about the next big project, and what I want to accomplish in the next twelve years!

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*Simultaneously published on ShadowSpinners.

A Picture is Worth (x) Words

Everyone’s heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but does it hold up when you’re actually counting the words?

Among writers, the subject of outlining seems to be a fundamental ongoing process question: to outline or not to outline, and also when, and in how much detail, in what form, and how closely to follow it. For the record, I’m a firm believer in outlining, and tend to make progressively more detailed outlines as a project unfolds. I also tend to sketch various ideas for the scenes I’m working on, and collect photographic references.

Visual references may not be talked about as much as outlining, but I think it’s a great tool, and at the recent Wordcrafters writers conference in Eugene, I noted both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George talking about the use of visual references in their work. Mine tend to take the form of little maps or sketches of characters, visual details, or dramatic moments. I also look for ideas and take photographs at various locations, and use image searches on the internet.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few sketches from recent chapter outlines and do the math to figure out how many words a picture is really worth. In most cases there were multiple little sketches per chapter, so I took the number of words in the completed chapter and divided by the number of sketches. Here are a few pictures with their associated word counts.

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481.8 words

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298.4 words

2014-04-09 09.56.57

509 words

2014-04-09 09.57.45

410 words

2014-04-09 09.57.58

679 words

When I averaged everything up it turned out a picture is actually worth about 445.33 words. It was a lot less than a thousand, suggesting that pictures, while incredibly useful, may be slightly overrated. However, this was a very limited study of only a few sketches made by a single writer for a small sample of chapters. More research is needed.

Surely this doodle is worth a thousands words, but I haven’t written the chapter yet.

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*First published on ShadowSpinners.

A Strange Habit

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There’s a story that Robert E. Howard used to envision the ghost of King Conan behind him, ready to lop off his head with an axe if he didn’t keep writing. Never mind that this is probably an apocryphal story. It’s still a great image, and whatever Howard was doing to get his stories written, it worked!

Work habits are a subject of endless conversation when it comes to the creative process of writers. Numerous books and excellent teachers suggest various methods of accomplishing the noble goal of putting words on a page, and offer plenty of encouragement along the way. The most consistent truth, however, is simply that writing is hard work and the methods for getting that work done vary from writer to writer.

I have a lot of tricks to keep me writing: new locations, graph paper, computer setup, a cup of tea, timed sessions, word counts, and so on. We develop habits, of course, particular to our individual sensibilities. Sometimes these habits become rituals, even obsessions. There’s plenty of room for eccentricities.

Hemingway wrote standing up. Nabokov wrote everything on notecards. Ibsen wrote in the presence of a giant oil painting of his greatest rival. Hugo wrote naked, and had his valet hide his clothes to ensure he wouldn’t go out. The ancient Greek writer Demosthenes accomplished the same thing by shaving one side of his head before beginning to write. The list goes on, from Balzac’s coffee and lucky monk’s robe, to Dickens’ ritualized desk arrangements, from Dumas’ fresh apples to Schiller’s rotten apples.

As it turns out, there’s even some neuroscience to explain why these weird rituals work. Like a Pavlov’s bell, rituals associated with writing may cue creativity and productivity. (See “Why Weird Writing Rituals Work” by Rosanne Bane)

Most of the habits of writers we will never know, because they are done in solitude. But the purpose of some seemingly strange behaviors is almost always the same, and that is to help one engage in the most important habit of all: actually writing.

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

A Legacy Dark and Strange

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Fantasy, with all its weirdness and wonders, is the deep root of all fiction. Long before people began to write books, for 50,000 years they huddled around the light of fires, under starry skies, in deep forests, and in the shelter of caves to tell their stories. The impulse of fiction was already there, in the myths and legends that were born among them.

Imagine the kinds of stories they were telling. People knew little or nothing of what lay beyond the horizon. And at night, in the darkness, that circle of knowledge shrank to the dim glow of a campfire, if they were lucky enough to have one. The stars were a mystery, animals were otherworldly, and death was a great enigma. A man or a woman who ventured beyond the horizon, or out in the night, might never return. Those tales must have been dark and strange, filled with adventure, monsters, and magic.

There is an element of fantasy in all fiction, an attempt to imagine and understand something beyond ourselves: another person, another life, another world. Modern stories are born from that same original impulse, to weave tales, to entertain, to educate, to warn, and to find meaning in the world and in the often extraordinary experiences of our lives. I like to think my stories can be traced back to the mythic structures and weird tales that started it all, stories woven from the threads of an ancient dream.

Although our horizon has grown wider in a way, there is always an edge, without and within, beyond which dwell things unknown. The unknown is far greater than the known, and that is where horror lives. It lurks in the darkness beyond our meager campfires.

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

My First Post to ShadowSpinners

ssbadgelarge200x154I’m honored to have been invited to join a handful of wonderful writers at ShadowSpinners, a blog from good people who write about bad things. I’ve been in the trenches with many of these writers, cranking out short stories at Elizabeth Engstrom’s ghost-story and fantasy/science fiction weekends, and the initial salvo of posts were a great read.

My first post is up today. I hope you’ll check out the site, link, post, and share. This promises to be an interesting blog for anybody who likes in horror, mystery, and dark fantasy fiction, writing in general, and all things related.

There’s a new post every week!

http://shadowspinners.wordpress.com/

Plain Text for Writers, Part I: An Argument for the Use of Plain Text

Writers have a vested interest in the tools they work with and the preservation of their work. Today, almost all writers use a computer at some stage of their work, but in the age of ubiquitous word processors, few have considered the benefits of plain text. When you use a word processor or save a file in .docx, .doc, or even .rtf format, your file is unreadable without the software to decode it. It might look something like this if opened in a text editor:

MÄn‡i‰–ØP¢@ÒI}Úã€Ãºa‡Øm‡a[Ø¥û4Ù:lЯ°GR’ÅX^’6ØŠ­>$ùãûÿ©«×îÇ!)OÚ^ýrÍC$ñy@“°íÝö/­yH*œ˜ñ„´½)‘Þµ÷ß»Š×`}

or this:

7509af678b985ab0b6b4ae6f7ed9ba6c4170b06c788a705430adf71bad2b5b057d03606a1ed7ebf5babd7a41cf00b0

Good luck reading your brilliant work. In contrast, a .txt file (plain text) can be opened in a readable format by any text editor or word processor on any platform. It can even be accessed from a command line.

Without getting too political (software companies control the decoding of your information), or philosophical (WYSIWYG is not what you think), or ideological (plain text is free text), the following will argue for the use of plain text for writers on the basis of its simplicity and content oriented focus, cross-platform compatibility, and benefits for long term archiving.

Writing is the logical and artful arrangement of words to express thoughts. It is not choosing fonts, indentations, headers, footers, gutters, and margins. Formatting is best done when preparing a document for a specific purpose or publication. Writing in plain text offers a simple environment focused on the task at hand. Your manuscripts will stay clean and free of unnecessary code. Plain text can be easily pasted into other applications, and can always be formatted later using a word processor.

Everybody knows there are compatibility issues with word processors. Even software that claims to be compatible with .doc or .rtf, for example, sometimes have issues. Writers need to know that they can access their files from any computer or device, use the text in other applications, and share them without worrying about compatibility issues. No other file format is as cross compatible as plain text.

Now more than ever, master documents are likely to be stored in electronic format. Not only are plain text files more compatible than any other file format, they take up less disk space and avoid a lot of the data storage problems encountered with other file formats. Say you need to access a short story you wrote on a computer in 1985? If you saved it in plain text, it’s no problem. Want your files to be readable in the year 2185? Again, save them in plain text.

Alas, there are some obstacles to using plain text as a writer. The first is finding a good text editor. Most word processors can save documents in plain text, so you could really use anything, but a text editor is designed to work with plain text. Most text editor are made with programmers in mind though, and many lack features that are important to writers, like spell check and word count. There are some good free ones though, and some even better commercial ones. I recommend NoteTab Pro for a feature rich environment and Q10 for simplicity.

Acceptability is also an issue. Standard manuscript formats are based on typewritten manuscripts and can only be formatted using a word processor. Unless plain text formats are adopted, editors are still going to want manuscripts as an .rtf in standard manuscript format. This means it’s necessary to format the text file before sending it out. An extra step, but it’s easy to do, and worth it for the benefits of working with plain text.

Plain Text for Writers, Part II: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text

Additional Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_text

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_file

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_editor