Jumping the Gun

 

Every year I do this. The moment I step outside on a decent spring day, I begin to work in the yard.

“This year it’ll be different.” I say. “I can get a jump on the planting season and be harvesting tomatoes by the Fourth of July.”

That’s when I start cleaning up the old beds and get the seedlings started inside. Sure, it still snows every once in a while, and the car windows are coated in frost every morning. But I got a plan!

And every year my first set of seedlings grow leggy and die. Anything planted early outside also bites the dust. Eventually, I wait until Memorial Day to go to the Farmers Market and buy a few dozen plants. It doesn’t matter that by buying those plants I’m still jumping the gun because by the end of the season the plants I grow from seed are as big and productive as the ones I bought.

I could wait the whole month of April and most of May to get started. I’d probably have more energy to get through the season if I didn’t burn out by starting two months sooner. But I know myself too well. Cabin Fever drives me to act against my better judgment.

I will jump the gun.

I will plant and kill again.

I can’t help it.

I’m a gardener.

Just like I can’t help but to send my stories to publications I know will reject me. I see an ‘Open for Submissions’ link and I can’t help myself. I have to send my Steampunk Horror story to a mag that publishes nothing but Lesbian Romance. Oh, and that Literary zine that focuses on 18th Century Naval battles wouldn’t mind reading my Dystopian YA Epic. They are just asking for it, you know.

Yeah, I could look over their website, read the stories they publish, but who has the time? Submissions close at the end of the month, I can’t spare an hour to get to know what they like. And don’t get me started on what kind of format they want submissions to come in. The crybabies.

But then, when the right story goes to the right publisher my chances of success goes way up. I even get published in a print publication. If only I could remember this the next time I finish a story and try to plant it in the first open spot I see. Writing Fever drives me to act against my better judgment.

I will jump the gun.

I will submit and get rejected again.

I can’t help it.

I’m a writer.

 

Worldbuilding 6: The Trouble with Prophecy

 

I love a good fantasy or space opera that has convoluted plots filled with twists and reversals that all lead up to a satisfying ending.  Invariably such epic tales almost always involve a prophetic book or story about ‘The Chosen One’ or something like that (Dune, Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, Buffy etc…).

The problem with prophecy is this:

  1. If you have foreordained writings, in order for them to be actually prophetic, they have to come true.
  2. If they don’t come to pass, or the Chosen One somehow prevents Armageddon from happening, then the prophecy is false and that negates the Chosen One.

This all goes back to a long standing debate as to whether the universe is predetermined or if it allows for free will. Now, my world is predetermined, it has prophecy.  The characters know about the prophecy, they act according to what the prophecy says.  Some don’t believe in it, but don’t actively work against it.  Every bit of the prophecy has to come about the way it says it will.  No one can change it.

That can sound very restrictive, but it isn’t.  Some have different interpretations of the prophecy, some believe that it came about already or is many centuries ahead.  No one is absolutely sure and that’s the way prophecy should be seen in fiction, the same way it is seen in reality.

All too often I read or see prophetic stories that use it as decoration.  Everyone in that world believes in the prophecy completely.  The beginning of the prophecy comes about exactly the way it says.  And invariably, the hero gets to change the part of the prophecy that predicts the end of the world.  That doesn’t work for me.  It’s simple and contradictory and frankly unforgivable for a writer.

Quite frankly, prophecy in fiction is cheating.  It gives away the story, it tells the story now show it.

But there are exceptions where this works to the writer’s favor.

Take the recent re-launches of characters shows like Hannibal or Bates Motel.  Everyone knows where Dr. Lecter and Norman Bates end up.  We know they become psychopathic killers.  The fun part is seeing how they got there.

My novel deals with the War in Heaven, the prophecy speaks about one who will try to wrest the throne from God.  No surprises there.  The fun part is how I get a third of the angelic host to turn on a benevolent God and make it seem like a good idea.  My characters have to struggle with accepting or rejecting the prophecies and deal with disappointment when they don’t come to pass the way they think they should.

The real challenge when writing about prophecy has nothing to do with the Chosen One preventing the Thousand Years of Darkness from creeping over the face of the earth but how the Chosen One reacts when he realizes that he is responsible for that darkness and there’s nothing he can do about it.

There’s no Writers Block in Gardening

So, I’ve been stuck on one scene for the last three weeks.  I should have blasted past it and finished a couple more chapters but I can’t move past it.  I could ‘hang a lantern on it’ or type out a paragraph of blank lines to be filled in later, but I’m not that kind of writer.  I go to sleep at night with the scene in my head trying to make my unconsciousness figure it out.  I have tried those wonky methods to break out of the block, but I have worldbuilded my way into a corner.

In gardening, there are no blocks.  Nature does not allow it.  You have to plant in the spring.  You have to water.  You have to weed.  Your personal life doesn’t matter to the plants, they need care.  Sure, you could throw in the trowel and go play Xbox but then you wouldn’t be a gardener.  Not writing when you have a block is an excuse not to write.

I’ve written two short stories since the blockage and I like them.  I thought they would get me over the hump but it didn’t pan out.  Getting something done while the scene remains dead gives me a sense of accomplishment but it’s just a panacea.  I still feel stuck in my novel.

Normally, this time of year I’d be getting the seedlings going inside, but with this cold, I could probably put that off for a few more weeks.  Timing is everything in gardening.  Starting plants too soon leads to leggy, weak plants.  Starting too late leads to buying tomato plants at Home Depot.

Writing a weak scene leads to rewriting more scenes later on, more editing, more plot holes and basically starting the chapter all over again.  I used to joke to my writing group, when someone was faced with a block, to throw a few zombies at it.  So, it’s a good thing that my world has plenty of undead in it.  I’m hoping those slouching eating machines can tear through my block and get me back on track.

Extreme Heterozygotes

If you were to take an ordinary apple, remove the dozen or so seeds and plant them, you’d get twelve completely different apple trees, not a single one would resemble the apple it come from.  Growing an apple tree from seed is like playing the lottery or writing a bestseller, it’s a longshot that you’d get anything edible.

Ideas are like apple seeds, especially ideas for stories.  They can come from any source, a song, a familiar smell, a random thought.  But what happens from there is where the idea turns into its own.  And like the wild apple trees, most wild ideas are not fit for human consumption.

Sometimes I think my idea for a story is dull or contrived, that it’s just a bad idea.   I’ll put that idea in a dead end file, usually a few lines, sometimes just a title to a story that sounds great but I have nothing to put beneath it.  Occasionally, I’ll need a good character to throw in a piece so I’ll sift through that dead end file. And often times I can graft that character onto the story with wonderful results.  The same way they take a branch from a Golden Delicious tree and graft it onto the root of a wild tree.

The wild apple trees were cultivated in the early United States for making apple cider more than for eating.  The tart juice was often fermented into hard cider or freeze distilled into applejack.  What would normally be useless became indispensable.  Wild ideas can sometimes yield the best stories.

The thing about wild ideas is that we have a tendency to try and rein them in, make them conform to expectations.  I had an idea for my novel that involved an aqueduct.  I worked on that concept for weeks, studying ancient and modern aqueducts, getting the details of my waterway down perfectly.  As grand and complex as it was it still seemed no more than a municipal construct.  Then a wild idea came and that open-aired pipeline became The Great Aqueduct, a thousand mile long waterway that fed a hundred cities and countless farms.

I abandoned the storyline in my novel, but I’ll never forget the moment I realized my concept was too small, too normal.  Our worlds should be filled with great wonders and extreme heterozygotes.  And maybe one day, in another novel, I can write about that captain who guides an ice-barge down the Great Aqueduct and his wild adventures.

Worldbuilding 5: Economics

You can’t get something for nothing.  Not in the real world or in a magical one.  A sure sign of a novice fantasy writer is the way they treat their economics in their world.  Everything is traded in gold coin just like in the video games.  That’s because they have borrowed their economy from the same video games.

I had a tough time working out an economy in a utopian society (Heaven before the Fall).  I asked myself how would someone buy an apple in my world?  How would they buy a house?

We use stuff (metal coins and paper) to represent money.  In fantasy worlds it is preferable to use things that have real value to represent currency.  Historically people have used other things in lieu of coin.  Roman soldiers were paid in salt, that’s where we get the word salary.  Spices like pepper, cloves, and cinnamon were more valuable than gold.

And then there’s the economics of writing itself.   Yes, everyone wants to get rich by selling their story.  Only a handful of people actually get rich writing books.  You have a better chance of being a professional athlete than being a professional writer.  So why do it?  I’ll tell you why.

Writing is the hobby of a cheapskate.  It costs nothing to sit for hours pecking away at a keyboard.  Who knows, maybe one day, one of us blind monkeys will tap out the next billion dollar franchise.  No other past time gives so much joy, causes so little physical pain and has better odds at making money than the Lottery.

Even gardening cost more money to grow your own veggies than it does to buy them at the local BigBoxMart.  I confess, I have spent thousands in my garden over the years.  And the seed companies know this.  Here is a single week’s worth of catalogs I’ve received.seed catalogs

Growing fresh fruits and veggies is its own reward.  Writing is just as rewarding, but even if it doesn’t cast much, it ain’t free either.  Your time has an intrinsic value.  The time you take to write could be used to sell crap on Ebay or sell pencils on the street corner.  And even if the chances of making it big are less than it is getting struck by lightning, it’s still worth something to me.      

Worldbuilding 4: Physics and Magic

I screwed up.

The greatest problem I have with my current world is that it defies the laws of physics.  Much of the story takes place inside a giant hollow sphere (aka the Hollow Earth theory or Pellucidar to us Edgar Rice Burroughs fans).  The inside of a hollow sphere has no gravity, or I should say the gravity inside a sphere pulls towards the center.  That means my characters would spend the whole time floating in space and I can’t have that.

Now, I could ignore the laws of physics.  Most people wouldn’t catch onto the gravity bit so long as the story is good (and it is).  The thing is, it disturbed me.  I couldn’t get past it.  So, I made it a part of the story.  And it is a very cool part – at least it is in my head right now.  There is a very specific reason why the laws of physics have been broken and at one point reality reasserts itself and the laws kick in.

Magic systems need rules too.  I tend to see two types of magic in books, free magic and good magic. Free magic is abundant and simple to use.  It requires very little.  A spell, a potion, a magical object, is all that’s needed to perform the act.  Harry Potter is such a magic system, but HP isn’t about magic so much as it is about Harry.

Good magic always has a cost.  The first time I saw this was in the movie ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’.  In it, the sorcerer Koura (played by Dr. Who’s Tom Baker) ages every time he casts a spell. koura By the end of the movie he’s an old man, each spell seems to take ten years off his life.  Koura old

Now that’s a high cost.  And magic should have a cost otherwise everyone would be using it for everything.

In Physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  If your magic follows this rule, you will have a balanced system.  Say you want to heal a mortal wound?  What if that meant transferring the wound to another living being?  Or if you want a mage to throw a fireball, the thrower should suffer from hypothermia.

Whatever world you build, magical or otherwise, keep in mind that you can’t get something from nothing.  Everything costs something and the most important cost should come from the actions of your characters.  If your character oversleeps, there is a cost.  If she gives a bum a dollar, there needs to be reaction to it.  If not, then there’s no reason to write about it.

Little Known Essay Contests are Easy Wins

Most gardeners don’t enter contests, unlike writers who are bombarded with competitions left and right.  So this post will be mostly writing, less growing.

I have one strict rule when it comes to writing contests, never pay a fee.  I don’t care how prestigious a contest is (like Writers of the Future Contest), I will never pay a dime to have someone judge my work while there are other contests that do not charge a reading fee.  When it comes down to it, if a story is good enough to win a contest, its good enough to be bought by a normal magazine.

One area where people fail to look in for contests is at work.  Large corporations tend to have essay contests open to their employees and family members.  I have won two of such contests in the past few months and the prizes are pretty decent if not generous.

The best thing about entering corporate contests is that the competition is low.  The essays I wrote did not take mush time.  Three drafts and I didn’t even show it to my reading group.  But that’s the difference.  Regular Joes and Janes don’t write three drafts, they don’t check for typos and they defiantly don’t pay attention to things like spacing, bios, or fonts.  So, for a writer with the most basic of skills and experience, willing a company contest is a breeze.

The problem with such contests is that they are not promoted outside the corporate atmosphere or even inside it very much.  You have to search these contests out.

As for me, I’m going to let my friends and family members know that if their job is having a contest, I’d be willing to ghost write it of a cut of the prize.  For now, I’ll post my winning essays on a new page here for those who are interested in such things.