Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.
This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.
I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.
It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).
And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.
Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”
I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.
- Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?
- Fiction begins with real life: The story of a rapping guy
- What maturity means
For years now, November has been an exciting time for me. Because November is National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — and I like to participate. Or at least hang out with the local participants.
In past years, I’ve used NaNoWriMo to quickly hash out a story set in the Aligare world. Ravel was originally a 50 000-word mystery-drama story completed in one month. I didn’t like that draft much. The mystery part was pretty clumsy. I dreaded fleshing it out into a more typical 80 000-word novel — but the core relationship between Aster and Llarez was kind of charming. So I hacked away all the plot points I didn’t like and ended up with the 14 000-word romantic friendship story that Ravel is today. Who knows how long I would have struggled with that story if NaNoWriMo hadn’t pushed me to pour words out now and edit later?
That’s the real strength of NaNoWriMo: it encourages you to finish. Just finish. It’s okay if the novel you’re writing is the biggest steaming pile of awfulness ever composed: we can fix it later. New and/or young writers often find NaNoWriMo encouraging for that reason — plus the community spirit of many people writing messy drafts together. Sometimes those messy drafts have potential, viewed later in the cold light of December. Even if one’s NaNo draft is nowhere near publishable, it can be tons of fun.
Because one of the staples of NaNoWriMo is accepting truly random writing prompts. Your story has gotten stuck? Well, what would happen if the heroes’ car broke down? Or someone found a lost pet monkey? Or a secondary character revealed that he’s actually an alien? Or if the entire plot so far has been a delusion forced on your hero by an evil psychic wizard? Anything can happen, and sometimes you stumble across cool ideas. The Night Circus — a book that spent seven weeks in the New York Times Best Seller list — came about when Erin Morgenstern got bored with her NaNo novel and had her characters randomly go to the circus.
But in more recent years, I haven’t been using NaNoWriMo for my Stories of Aligare: I’ve been turning to NaNoWriMo as a refresher. To run away from the Aligare world on a mad, commitment-free tangent. This year I’m writing a murder mystery with a fairy forensic investigator. Last year, in October 2012, I was sick of struggling with Render (A story of Aligare) and I found it very helpful to write some random other thing for a month. I came back to Render with fresh eyes in December. My previously frustrating story now looked wonderfully structured — although I couldn’t throw in spontaneous ninja battles like during NaNoWriMo. (Well, I could throw spontaneous ninja battles into the Stories of Aligare, strictly speaking. But you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.)
I always sympathize with authors locked into big publishing contracts for five, six, seven books in the same series. Don’t know about anyone else, but I go stir-crazy when I dwell on the same ideas for too long. And that’s why a scheduled month of reckless nonsense is something I wholeheartedly embrace.
◦ Flashback post: why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Trying to write colourfully (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Headcanon means joining in (heidicvlach.com)
I took chef training straight out of high school. Barely two months after bidding good riddance to formal school, I was back in formal school — but this time an interesting one where they taught me to use knives and fire.
One of our first baking classes had us making bread. Pretty basic stuff … one would think. I don’t recall what my classmate did to make her bread come out so lumpy and misshapen, but she did it, and stood there staring at the results.
“Mine looks pretty crappy,” she said sadly.
I peeked over from my work station. “It’s not crappy, it’s rustic!”
That got a smile out of her. And we started joking about the merits of rustic cuisine, ah, yes, beautiful in its simplicity and lumpiness! An homage to the homespun roots of all food! I had just meant to jokingly play devil’s advocate, but y’know, it’s true. There’s something charming about food that looks unpretentious. And more importantly, it was my classmate’s first attempt at chef-grade baked goods: of course it didn’t come out perfect. There was no shame in that.
Everyone got to bring their first loaves of bread home. Some looked great and some looked rustic. Regardless, the city bus leaving the college that day had seven chef training students on it, all of whom held fresh-baked bread. Other passengers stepped onto that bus, paused, and commented aloud that it smelled great in here. No one cared if the nice-smelling bread looked like it belonged on a magazine cover, and the students who ate the bread surely didn’t care, either.
The “rustic” turn of phrase became a running joke through the rest of our chef training course. Someone botched their food’s presentation? “It’s not crappy, it’s rustic!” It usually cheered the person up, that bit of wordplay — but it also emphasized that there are more important things than looking perfect, or looking conventional, or being precisely what is expected. As long as the food tastes good, its appearance is secondary. Important, yes. But secondary.
I try to keep that lesson in mind
- Aligare wildlife: the basilisk (heidicvlach.com)
- Flashback post: Why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.com)
- The structure of Aligare homes (heidicvlach.com)
When I was writing my first terrible manuscript — set in the beginnings of the Aligare world — I showed it to people. Because I was proud of my work and I wanted praise, of course. But also because I had heard critique was a good thing to get.
One scene in particular was set near the Great Barrier, the dome of casting essence that shields the land from the deadly Cold. The characters had seen plenty of casting but never like this, never an amalgamation of all casting elements. This Barrier was clearly a work of the gods. It was a semi-transparent wall that seemed evenly golden from a distance, but up close it shone with flecks of every colour.
It was just one detail of the world I was trying to paint. But it was far from the first time my characters had used or seen magic. They brought it glowing forth from their hands and shining out of gemstones on plenty of occasions. And one of the people reading this Great Barrier scene — an acquaintance who just liked my fanfiction and was curious about my original work — made a comment that struck me. She said this fantasy world sounded like a beautiful place, with all the colourful magic.
That’s definitely part of what I like about fantasy. It’s easier to make colour just spring out of nowhere when you’ve got whimsical powers and environments to work with. But the “beautiful place” comment resounded with me so much because it was about a specific fixture of my invented world. Not some random pretty castle or waterfall, but a vital part of the proto-Aligare world and its mechanics. It sounded beautiful. Like human readers might enjoy visiting this place and imagining the sights.
I’m sure every writer has a mental gallery of feedback made on their work. And it’s easy for negative comments to fill up that gallery. If we hear ninety-nine comments of, “It’s kind of interesting,” and one comment of, “It’s terrible; never write again”, there’s no question which one will stick in the human mind more firmly. I’m just grateful that one of my early gallery comments was so simply positive. Maybe that casual acquaintance was just fishing for something nice to say, or maybe she really thought my world would be a great place to visit; I can’t know that. But I saw a lot of meaning in what she said. Colourful can literally refer to visible spectrums of light, or it can refer to the variety and interest in the world around us. I’ve always tried to be colourful in my writing. I don’t want to blend into everything “normal”.
And while I developed the Aligare world and got lots of discouraging comments, it was nice to have that positive comment to fall back on. Every time someone said, “No adult will ever read this”, I was able to think in response, “Hmm, well, someone already has. And they thought it was colourful.” I guess you could say it’s the compliment I’ve based my goals on.
- Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world (heidicvlach.com)
- The structure of Aligare homes (heidicvlach.com)
- Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? (heidicvlach.com)
With every Render scene I write and/or tweak, I’m working on character development. Making sure the events of the story really resonate with the characters, because that way they’ll strike a chord in the reader, too. (Presumably. I hope.)
And I keep finding my protagonist a striking character. Rue Tennel is an aemet just old enough to be considered an adult, and because of her mature sensibilities and her skill set and her unusual courage, she doesn’t really fit in with her own kind. She can get along with her samekind neighbours. She can collaborate to do chores and politely imply that she agrees with the typical views. But she’d really rather be talking to a feisty korvi, or an adaptable ferrin. Someone she can share a sassy thought with and not upset the whole apple cart.
Felixi stretched his long neck, craning backward to better eye Rue. “And knowing that, you weren’t scared of walking to this field alone?”
A little, if Rue was honest with herself. It had been years since she could pass among the unspeaking trees and see it as just a walk, a simple trip for a handful of greens. Ordinary life had warped under all this trouble and fret.
“I need to come here,” Rue said, “that’s all. And I am in the presence of an able korvi, you might notice.”
Felixi snorted, half laughter and half indignity. “I’m your guard, now? Have both mages check your head.”
“Not to worry, good Velgarro.” Rue could barely stifle her grin; she felt wreathed with a small victory.
-Render, a story of Aligare, draft version
Not fitting in is a phenomenon we often find pathetic — the ugly duckling, the awkward turtle, the outsider. But it’s not always a situation to be pitied. In fact, to be a strong person, it’s important to recognise that you won’t fit in with every single group — and that’s okay. Social relations are machines made of many moving parts. Sometimes you and a group aren’t compatible and you both just need the freedom to disagree.
Render is a story of Rue finding her place. It’s the journey she makes from childhood, from wondering where she’ll fit in, to adulthood, where she knows and accepts who she is and uses that uniqueness to its full advantage. Living in the Aligare world, she has some positive messages to help her. However much it’s thought that aemet people are X and behave like Y, there’s also the idea that everyone fits in somewhere. This idea that people can be different from each other and still get along. So Rue is a bit saddened when she realizes she’s the odd aemet out, but it’s a wistful sadness. Almost a nostalgia for something she used to believe in. She realizes that she doesn’t entirely fit here, she needs to search out that psychological space where she does slot neatly into place.
It’s not really something I’ve struggled with, myself. I’ve had abundant self-confidence ever since I can remember, and I’ve always liked the idea of standing out. Better to seem weird than to blend impotently into the wallpaper, I say. But as I write Render, I’m still proud of Rue for having the maturity to be true to herself, and I hope her story will be meaningful for others. No one fits in 100% of the time and that’s not something to be ashamed of. There’s a message our society could stand to hear more often.
- Korvi festival ties (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aemets’ airsense (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The history of lichen: how I build ideas (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
So, we had that Mayan apocalypse scare on December 21st. You know what it reminded me of? New Year’s Eve.
No, what I mean is that everyone was joking about how they’d spend their “last day”, or what they’d do on December 22nd if the world continued to turn. A few folks actually planned how they would survive The End Of The World. Basically, we were all prompted to think about our finite lives and our day-to-day choices. It’s the same acute sense of time passage and goals that prompts people to make New Year’s resolutions. Start that diet, quit that bad habit, volunteer for that charity.
Why do we do this? Why do so many people wait for a big landmark or an averted crisis before they even consider changing their ways? Every moment of every day, we are free-willed beings who can make decisions and take action. I guess it’s just easy to get bogged down in the mundane details of all those moments and days. And it’s easy to be creatures of habit who don’t change our comfortable routines — unless an unavoidable calendar date ruins the routine for us. And sometimes our goals are overwhelming, because they’re expensive or difficult or beyond our immediate grasp. These are seemingly good reasons to wait until New Year’s (or the apocalypse). Seemingly good reasons.
But we’re always mortal beings working on a timer. We’re always sentient, and able to question the world around us. And sometimes, even if the odds are against you, you just need to try anyway. Nothing will get done without a first step.
For years now, I’ve quipped that I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; I just resolve to be awesome every day of the year. And I mean what I say. If I genuinely want something, I don’t vaguely suppose that I’ll New Year’s resolve to do it. I’ve just never seen the point of putting off thought like that.
The day I decided to self-publish Remedy was August 23rd, 2010. That was the biggest day of resolution in my life so far. I was on a bus headed away from New York City, after a lunch meeting with an Actual Publishing Person. And despite my giddiness at being acknowledged in such a way, I had still been dismissively told to make my Stories of Aligare “more like Redwall” as well as “more like A Song of Ice And Fire”. I’m assuming those pieces of advice were meant to be taken separately, because if you think the stories of Aligare are too weird to sell in Barnes & Noble, then, well, you sure won’t like the sales prospects of mouse incest.
At any rate, an accredited expert had just informed me that my chances of a traditional publishing contract were infinitesimally low, because my work was not normal enough to be worth reading. But that’s okay — I had been pursuing traditional publishing just as a first attempt. Now, it was late 2010 and the Kindle was still new. Ebooks and print-on-demand were still a tiny niche. The vast majority of sources still said that only losers and failures stoop to self-publishing.
But there I was in the sunlit seat of a Greyhound bus, deciding to publish myself. The tools weren’t highly regarded but I did have those tools at my disposal. In that moment, I guess it would have been easy to fear the changing future. It would have been easy to say, “I’ll just wait a few years and see.” In my position, I’m sure a lot of people would have chosen to wait. They would have put their manuscript in the metaphorical drawer and thought maybe. Maybe this ebook thing will be just a passing fad. Maybe it’s too risky.
But again, that’s not how I do things. I was frustrated with how my efforts had been going, and there was no indication that gathering more Dear Writer rejection letters would help me. Heck, this particular Greyhound bus even had Wifi, something I had never encountered before. Why not get started that very moment? So I did. I updated my blog, bookmarked a few advice blogs on self-publishing, and began rewriting Remedy’s first chapter. I had officially begun. Sometimes just the fact that you’ve taken one step is enough encouragement to take another.
I published Remedy on February 14th, 2011. That first effort certainly wasn’t perfect. There are a lot of small things I’d change if I could go back in time. But in general, I regret nothing. And I don’t think waiting 4 months to make it a New Year’s resolution would have helped me in any particular way. It would have been 4 months I could have told Peregrine’s story in, and didn’t.
So in general, I think everyone should do some of that carpe diem we’re always quoting. You know, if there’s no good reason not to. If the only real obstacle is intimidation. There’s always room to do some research, lay some groundwork or just make a trial run. It’s not like the world will end if you do.
- What maturity means (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Conflict in reality and fiction: Must we fight? (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Light and dark magic: how I used the concept in the Aligare world (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
When I think of a fictional character who inspires me — someone who sets an example for life — you know who I think of? King Bowser Koopa. Yes, this monster turtle thing:
He’s been a staple character since Super Mario Brothers came out in 1985. That game more or less saved the entire video game industry, so it’s kind of a big deal. Back then, video game stories were usually a simple “rescue the the hero’s girlfriend from an evil kidnapper” affair. Yes indeed, Bowser had kidnapped a princess and he was the menacing Dark Overlord to be vaniquished. As a kid, I delighted in guiding Mario through levels and knocking Bowser into lava pools. It was fun, if not intellectual.
That formula held true for several more games, until Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars came out. I was 11 when I played that one. I didn’t know that RPG stood for Role-Playing Game, so I wasn’t expecting the heavier emphasis on storytelling, but I ended up liking it a lot. In this game, Bowser was kicked out of his castle by a stronger foe. While Mario tries to save the world from new bad guy armies, Bowser is seen trying to take his own castle back by siege. With progressively smaller armies …
Until eventually, the player stumbles across Bowser. He’s standing in a clearing all alone, wondering aloud what to do, musing to himself that he misses the old days of kidnapping the Princess. He turns around with big, dripping cartoon tears in his eyes — and sees Mario standing there.
That moment stands out in my memory. Video gaming’s biggest, baddest villain was suddenly a person and a real, rounded character. I’m sure it changed the way I looked at fictional characters. For the rest of the game, Bowser fights a greater evil by Mario’s side (although he claims Mario is really just helping him take back the castle), and the food for thought only continued.
As more Mario games came out — in more and varied genres — Bowser’s characterization got more interpretations. Sometimes he’s his classic Bad Guy self, kidnapping the Princess and menacing entire realms. Sometimes he’s an anti-hero with a snarky sense of humour. Sometimes he’s a comedic buffoon, the clumsy oaf who gets tricked by everyone else. Bowser has teamed up with Mario a few more times since Super Mario RPG, with varying degrees of willingness.
All of these interpretations add up to an interesting whole. Overall, Bowser may be a megalomaniac known for kidnapping a woman — but he doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. He usually kidnaps Princess Peach because he likes her and has a messed up of showing it. She’s treated well and Bowser has expressed “I hope she likes me”-type sentiments. You never hear of Peach’s guards being killed in these kidnappings — maybe transformed into a brick or locked in a room, but never permanently harmed. And Bowser is usually fixated on defeating Mario, not killing him — why else would he snatch the high-profile Princess and gloat about it, instead of just attacking Mario directly?
All this strikes me as a blustering demand for attention, a kid-at-heart wish to look cool and strong in front of everyone. It certainly explains why Bowser appears in spin-off games where he races go-karts or plays tennis with the good guys. Because who would invite an actual, dangerous enemy to do that?
So the result is a layered meaning that suits E-for-Everyone video games. On his simplest level, Bowser is a scary-looking villain to be beaten. But look more closely at his patterns and he’s really just a rival/antagonist, a blocking figure who is intimidating without being truly dangerous. He’ll laugh about stomping you into the dirt but it’s a metaphorical threat, really.
Yes, yes, this is all an interesting character study, and tough guys with secret soft spots are always adorable. But why is Bowser an inspiration for me? His bad deeds aren’t exactly a guide to life. I’ll tell you why I’m inspired: because Bowser doesn’t give up. He sulks over his losses, he gets his feelings hurt — but he never, ever gives up.
Just think of it: Bowser is a big, strong armoured creature with fire breath, the unquestioned king of his people, who keeps challenging one little chubby human — a human who doesn’t even bring a weapon on a typical day. Bowser loses every time. All the elaborate plans and armies in the world never seem to stop Mario from defeating Bowser in arena combat. How humiliating must that be? But Bowser always thinks about next time. Next time, he’ll try a different plan and show everyone how great he is. Next time, he’ll win. Bowser’s been getting his butt kicked since I was a small child and he shows no sign of quitting.
I think that’s a trait to aspire to.
- Can Gaming Help Your Writing? Yes, Yes It Can! (authorandrewkincaid.com)
- Light and dark magic: how I used the concept in the Aligare world (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- What maturity means (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
I write this blog post on the final day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This November, over 300 000 people attempted to hammer out a 50 000-word piece of writing — which is long enough to be a novel in the strictest technical sense.
Now, NaNoWriMo gets some flack for encouraging people to write poorly. It’s about producing a quantity of work, not agonizing over the poignance of every word. Most of those bad first drafts go straight into drawers, although there are always few poor fools who email their 50 000 raw words to literary agents on December 1st, causing the resounding slap of palms against foreheads.
But, you know, there are worse things than a terrible first draft. For example, a blank page. A bad draft can be edited and fixed, unlike a blank page. Even if someone’s NaNo novel is the most awful prose ever given form, it’s better than nothing by the sheer fact that it is something. Think of it like pottery: you can start with some gross mud and, through experimentation, make it into an actual, useful piece of dishware.
That’s actually how I wrote Ravel, the novelette-length story of Aligare. I wrote the first rough draft as my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. At the time, the story was named Rhythm instead. Aster was a cranky teenager instead of a soul-searching young mother. Llarez the bard had a village mystery to solve for some reason (and the plot twist was visible from space, it was so obvious). My 50 000 words involved a lot of crummy paragraphs that I didn’t enjoy writing. But it became clear to me that the core of this story was Aster and Llarez’s bond, and the way they help each other explore the world. I ended up cutting away everything that didn’t work, and developing what was left into a 14 000-word story. I needed to fiddle with the idea and write in wrong directions before I figured out what to do.
A terrible first effort is a step along a path. It’s easy to be embarrassed at your poor first showing, but really, now. When you first got on a bicycle as a child, were you Tour de France material? When you first put crayons to paper, did a museum-worthy piece spring forth? Of course not. And even as adults, mistakes must be made as part of the learning process. It’s easy to succumb to self-consciousness and fear, and not recognize that failure leads to later success.
This is the ultimate principle of NaNoWriMo. Don’t worry if what you write isn’t objectively good. Just go for it. You can fix it later. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in making your inner editor shut up, so that you can start something you might not otherwise start — or finish something you might not otherwise finish.
And the principle works even if you’re not a writer. Go ahead and knit that uneven scarf, or compose a simple song, or build that shoddy first attempt at a birdhouse. No one has a right to tell you that your flawed first efforts are worthless.
- Aligare weather and its lack of cold (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Tea and tisanes: what’s in a name? (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aemets’ airsense (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)