Real Talk 16/04/18: Recursive Real Talk

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Just keepin’ it real.

Sometimes I think this blog should be titled “Not Practicing What I Preach” and wonder if I shouldn’t talk about self-improvement until I’ve improved myself above a certain threshold. Other times I think maybe seeing somebody in the middle of the struggle instead of at the end of the journey might be valuable. Then I remember that this is a blog 90% dedicated to Skyrim shenanigans and I’m probably overthinking things.

Last week on real talk I highlighted the value of Ridiculous Slowness, which helps you focus on the journey instead of trying to rush to the end. I’m good at doing that sometimes, but it gets harder for me as I get closer to the end. When the finish line is in sight I get impatient with the distance I still have to cover.

Let’s reflect on how I could do better.

Closing the Book

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This is a book. It’s closed. What are you, the relevance police?

I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was five. Eighteen years later, I’m on the cusp of being a self-published author, which technically fulfills the goal. I’m approaching a final draft of a romance novel I’ve been working on for a while, and am getting people to read it and give feedback. The goal is to publish it next month.

Being this close has gotten me anxious and a little impatient. There’s still work to do, but it’s hard to spend a couple hours going over the dialogue of a single scene when what I really want to do is finalize the book as a whole. Of course, that’s counterproductive, because now more than ever I want to be taking the time to do my best work.

This feeling can be alleviated by taking the long view. Putting my first book out there is a significant moment in my life, but it is still only one moment in my life. Right now I’m hung up on wanting to see if the book well do well or if it will flop, and either result will affect my life in the short-term. In ten or twenty years, though, how this one book does won’t matter as much as the habits I’m building right now. Whether it sells a million copies or not a single one, I still want to keep writing, so I’ll still benefit from being a more disciplined and productive writer. Instead of thinking that I am approaching the end of the journey, I must realize that this is only one leg of a far longer journey. Sprinting the next mile won’t help me walk the thousand after that.

A Change of Place

Casa Hemingway

The other thing coming up in my life is less monumental, but may have a far greater impact on my daily experience. For the year and a half I’ve lived in Mexico City, I have been dwelling in a small room in a shared house. I’m finally secure enough financially that I’m looking for an apartment of my own.

Now that a new place is on the horizon, the little things that annoy me about my current situation have become much harder to deal with. The broken springs in my lopsided mattress seem to dig deeper into my back while I sleep, and the window that doesn’t close seems to let in more noise than ever. I’m impatient to find a new home, but I really should be searching with care and not jumping at the first apartment that comes up.

It’s also a good way for me to practice stoicism and mindfulness. Even once I have a better apartment, there will always be little inconveniences in life. Learning to live with them now will do me a lot of good later on.

Desdenada Is: As Real As It Gets

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Unflinching Realness is a 5 am preworkout so you can hit the gym when it opens at 6.

If the value of Ridiculous Slowness formed the bedrock for Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play posts, the genesis for Real Talk can be found in the value of Unflinching Realness. To put it another way–a way that gets me in trouble whenever I bring it up–this is the value of Anti-Escapism. I prefer to phrase my values in the positive form, rather than the negative, but escapism is rampant today and so worth talking about.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one of my literary heroes, the hatred of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass. Many people turn to fantasy because, rather than a mirror that reflects their own perceived ugliness, they desire a window into some beautiful illusion. They revel in this illusion while their reality continues to degrade. Garok the orc grows stronger and more celebrated with each passing day, while Gary the gamer grows sickly on the other side of the screen.

Yet anyone familiar with Oscar Wilde has probably already caught the error in my logic, because Oscar Wilde also said (paraphrasing once more) that the hatred of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass. I may reject escapism, but obviously I don’t reject fantasy. For me, fantasy has always been a window into what could be. I’m not satisfied by making my avatar strong and accomplished. My play serves as inspiration for me to make myself strong and accomplished.

That’s where the unflinching part comes in. Desdenada is Caliban looking in the glass and seeing two faces: his own, and the face of the person that he could be. While I advocate Unflinching Realness to anyone who wants more out of life, it is not for the faint of heart. Comparing yourself to your fantasy heroes, taking an honest look at where you are and how far you have to go, can be devastating. There have been periods of my life where I struggled with depression because I didn’t live up to my own standards, and envied some of my friends their comfortable, escapist lives.

But if I could go back ten years and tell my 13-year-old self one thing, it would be this:

It was worth it.

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Stone by Enchanted Stone: Here Be Dragons

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Building fantasy, one stone at a time.

I love fantasy as a concept, but I dislike most fantasy in practice. Many fantasy books, movies, and games rely on stale renditions of the same ideas and stories. Despite that, it’s still my favorite genre on the whole, and the main genre that I write. Out of fear that my own books will turn out equally stale, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the true essence of fantasy.

Yes, I recognize “the true essence of fantasy” is among the most pretentious phrases I’ve written in my life, but bear with me. If you’re a fantasy nerd like me, chances are you get excited by the idea of a kingdom of elves besieged by dragon-riding necromancers. But do elves, dragons, and necromancers add anything fundamental to a story, or are they merely set dressing? If you wrote the same story about a human nation invaded by paratrooping demolitions experts, would that really impact the essence of the story?

I don’t think so, at least not given the way many creators approach fantasy. Orcs and druids appear in fantasy because they have appeared before, but most of the time nobody asks why or what they contribute. These are the sort of questions I’ll tackle every Sunday, as I deconstruct fantasy’s most important tropes and then put them back together, one dwarven runestone at a time.

Western Dragons: Monstrous Glory

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Safe to say the dragons of Game of Thrones are Western.

To kick off the series, we’ll look at a creature that’s been a fantasy hallmark for thousands of years: the dragon. Dragons are easily one of my favorite mythological creatures, which is kind of like saying pepperoni is one of my favorite pizza toppings. Everyone loves them to the point it feels banal for me to admit my love for them, but like pepperoni on pizza, there’s a reason they’re the go-to.

The dragon myth is believed to have arisen in the earliest agricultural human civilizations. Specifically, ancient Mesopotamia and its neighbors. All the dragon myths that followed can be broadly divided into myths that arose to the west of Mesopotamia and those to the east. Most of us living in the Western world are more familiar with the Western myths, and that’s where we’ll start.

Reptilian, fire-breathing, four legs, two wings, animal intelligence. All but for that last one, this is probably what you picture when you hear the word dragon. In modern fantasy, dragons are often Western in appearance but with human sentience, a distinctly Eastern trait. Let’s put that aside for now and assume dragons are just giant, fiery lizards.

Tales of heroes or gods vanquishing monstrous serpents appear in almost every Indo-European mythology. Sometimes these serpents breathe fire, but they are universally associated with water. Even our word for dragon comes from a Latin word for serpent which comes from a Greek word for sea snake. The association between dragons and treasure came a little later, and is thought to have been inspired by a common practice of putting snakes in the village granary to catch mice.

Dragons even appear, in a sense, in the one European mythology that is still widespread today: Christianity. Though translations change over the years, the serpent in Eden was often considered to have been a dragon in Medieval times. Satan himself was also frequently referred to as a dragon. Christ slaying the devil in Revelation is thought to be an expression of the much older dragonslayer tales that were the cornerstone of European myth.

Taking all of this together, a few common threads jump out. Dragons are more than human in terms of size, ferocity, and deadliness, but are also subhuman in intelligence and behavior. They represent death and danger and the ultimate expression of nature’s wrath, and they are all, without fail, conquered by humanity. This resonates with how dragons often appear in modern fantasy: a force to be conquered. They appear as final antagonists because they are recognized as ultimate forces, and conquering them secures a hero’s status as unquestionably heroic. What force they represent, however, has changed.

Sometimes dragons are an ultimate force of evil, which is consistent with Christian mythology. Sometimes they represent greed, due to their habit of hoarding shiny things. Now that the average Western dragon has been bestowed with Eastern intelligence, their actions are generally down to calculated malevolence rather than animal instinct. But if we recall that the first dragons had no intelligence, and their treasure-guarding tendencies developed later, what did they really represent?

A small detail added to maps by some early cartographers present a telling answer. The phrase “here be dragons” or drawings of dragons on sea serpents sometimes appear on old maps, in places that were unexplored or considered dangerous.

To put it simply, dragons represent nature. They represent all that is not human, that which has not been explored, conquered, or understood. Modern people might find this idea uneasy, as nature has become almost synonymous with good lately, but respect and preservation of nature is a modern luxury. In the old world, the world beyond the hearth was filled with predators which could match any human weapon, unidentified poisons and diseases that could not be cured, and the daily enemies of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and weather.

The Western dragon is nature incarnate, the unthinking hunger of the wolf bundled up inside the destructive terror of a thunderstorm. The dragonslayer, then, represents everything that allows humans to thrive in a world which should rightly crush them: the courage that allows us to venture into the unknown, the ingenuity that allows us to breed wolves into dogs, and the camaraderie that allows us to shelter one another from the storm. Slaying the monster confers glory to the hero, just as triumphing over nature brings glory to the human race.

Eastern Dragons: Sacred Humility

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Probably more fun to hang out with.

I had more to say than I thought about Western dragons and will not pretend to be an expert on their Eastern cousins, so I’ll keep this section brief and return to it at a later date. It is interesting to note, however, that what dragons represented in ancient Asian cultures is a complete 180 from what they represented in Europe. This is an important lesson for any fantasy creator: the same concept can mean very different things to different people.

Eastern dragons are typically more serpentine than lizardlike, with four wings and no wings. They are generally more intelligent and far wiser than humans, possessing magical powers and the ability to speak. In some stories dragons even taught people to speak, or at least to write, which explains why their writing systems are so much more sophisticated than ours. We were probably taught by monkeys.

Dragons are benevolent in Eastern myth more often than not, and typically represent primal forces of nature and the universe as well as wisdom and longevity. They’re also tied to the healing and life-giving properties of water. Again, I am by no means an expert on Eastern culture, so in the interest of not accidentally saying something alarmingly racist I won’t dive too far into this one. I will say it’s fascinating that both Western and Eastern dragons are expressions of nature, but Europeans saw nature as something to be conquered and Asians as something to humble oneself before and be taught by. I would not be surprised if these mythological archetypes are indicative of greater cultural values.

The Dragon As Artist

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What do dragons mean to you?

When I said Eastern dragons were a 180 from their Western brethren, I may have misspoken. Dragons everywhere actually represent similar things, but those things they represent have different meaning to different people. For example, in Europe and Asia dragons are tied to nature and water. Nature is full of danger, but also secrets and wisdom. The ocean is a deadly place that is also responsible for all life on Earth. Your worldview determines which side of the story you focus on.

Nothing in this world is black and white, though, excepting penguins and artistic Johnny Depp films. Let’s return to that fascinating detail about how dragons came to guard treasure in Western legends. Humility is rarely given a high place in European mythology the way it is in Eastern cultures, but some European somewhere once looked at a granary snake eating a mouse and said, “You know what? I think I’m the mouse in this story.” The dragonslayer narrative is a celebration of human merit triumphing over the brutality of nature, but whether the storytellers consciously recognized it or not, this structure only works when the assumption is that humans are small, insignificant, and weak. The story of the mouse who slays the snake is glorious only because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it goes the other way.

The same is true of Eastern myth. Dragons represent knowledge and life-giving water, and seem like pretty chill dudes. But these stories are about humility, and you wouldn’t have to humble yourself before a dragon to get water and wisdom if those things were easy to get. The process is quite different, but just like in the Western stories, the premise here is that human survival is inherently difficult. Only with the help of dragons can humans persevere.

This isn’t to say that, as a creator, you should force your dragons to conform with one of these two archetypes. The East/West divide is an oversimplification; some people even consider the Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl figure here in Mexico to be a kind of dragon, and he’s a whole other thing. The only goal is that you ask yourself why dragons are (or are not) in your story to begin with. Are they just a scary monster that guards the treasure? Or could they represent more?

 

Meet the Malos

Just released Episode One of our Warcraft series, Exploring Azeroth! Despite some technical difficulties, it was a really fun time and a great introduction for anyone new to the universe.

In this episode, Venezia masters the controls, completes her first quests, and learns to slay her enemies with ice and fire. Meanwhile, Evaric suggests a backstory for the Malos, based on a true story. There’s also an awkward allusion to a Hemingway novel, because it just wouldn’t be us if there wasn’t.

We’re excited to have you along on the adventure!

New to Warcraft and need some background? Veteran player wanting to relive your first experience? Check out Episode Zero: Character Creation.

Camp NaNoWriMo and the Mexican Influence

This is the third post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month. Last time we talked about writing really really fast (or not).

Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico.
It’s no secret where I get my inspiration from.

The Mexican Influence

Since moving to Mexico City just over three months ago, every story I write has taken a turn for the Mexican. At the time I was writing a thriller set in an unspecified American city, but it took less than a week for me to realize it would be far more exciting if it were set here. Now for Camp NaNoWriMo I’m writing a fantasy adventure, set in what is essentially a medieval fantasy version of Mexico.

That’s not much of a stretch since Mexico is almost a fantasy setting already. Ancient pyramids rise from the desert, and in their shadow prowl creatures which could fell a man with a single bite or sting. Mexican history is a collection of desperate uprisings, unlikely alliances, and prophecies that came true.

Today we’re going to talk about how we, and all writers, can take advantage of where we come from and where we travel to create richer, fuller stories.

Ancient Inspirations

Statue of the rain god Tlaloc in Teotihuacan.
I don’t write fantasy. I live fantasy.

I’ve always been a sucker for pyramids. The first place my mind went when concocting the setting for A Memory in Indigo was pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the amazing societies that ruled it. My gringo compatriots probably think, as I used to, that the Aztecs and Mayans were the only real players before the Spanish came. Some of the most impressive pyramids in Mexico – like the one above – were built nearly 1500 years before the Aztecs existed. Here’s a fact that sends shivers down my spine: the time between the disappearance of the Teotihuacan (who built the aforementioned pyramid) and the rise of the Aztecs is over three centuries greater than the time between the fall of the Aztecs and the present day.

When something inspires you, it’s helpful to dig deeper and find out why. I know that pyramids make me happy, but if I just throw a pyramid in my story for no reason it will fall flat. After some reflection, I realized the appeal for me comes from the inherent, beautiful irony. Thousands of years before we were born, people created something we still find impressive today, but in the end it didn’t do them any good. Their society became dust, and all that remains of them are these structures that have long outlived their usefulness. Now that’s something I can tell a story about.

Mexico City at Night

View of Mexico City from a plane at night
I might have teared up a little when I saw it. Sue me.

I was a little disappointed when I first moved that I wasn’t able to pull off an insane Vancouver to Mexico City road trip and had to fly. Venezia told me the view of Mexico City at night would make up for it. She wasn’t kidding. Since that beautiful first impression, Ciudad de Mexico has continued to take my breath away at every turn.

When I started writing this month I didn’t think anything to do with CDMX would make it into the story. After all, it’s a medieval fantasy set in a fairly small town on a backwater archipelago, not a sprawling urban metropolis. Then, as I had with the pyramids, I thought deeper.

My first glimpse of the city was inspiring because each of the hundred million points of light (probably not even an exaggeration) represented some new experience or opportunity for me. The main setting of my story, the City of Fuscia, may be tiny by modern standards, but my main character wouldn’t see it that way. He comes from a fishing village with a population south of 20. To him, the modest harbors and ramshackle taverns of Fuscia are a whole new world.

Just this morning, as I was walking to the cafe where I’m writing this, I had another thought. An interesting quirk of this city is that each self-contained neighborhood is well-planned out, organized, and aesthetically coherent, but the way these neighborhoods are laid out in relation to each other is sheer nonsense. The result is a diverse and beautifully chaotic patchwork of a city.

My fictional city of Fuscia is constructed across a scattering of small islands linked together by bridges. With borders clearly defined by water, the city is unable to expand outward and new neighborhoods are literally stacked on top of old ones: second stories are added to houses and shops, linked together by catwalks. It seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but until now I’d never thought about how the design would affect the feel of different neighborhoods. Now my mind is reeling with possibilities: you cross a bridge from a harbor neighborhood, packed with bustling sailors and fish markets, and after walking all of ten feet come to a somber island full of ancient government buildings, a neighborhood that has stood for thousands of years. Climbing a ladder up the side of one of these structures, you find yourself again in an entirely different neighborhood, a recently constructed residential neighborhood of wooden shacks strung with colorful banners where the air is full of laughter and music.

You can find inspiration anywhere. The old adage “write what you know” is both true and not true. You can certainly write about places you’ve never been, jobs you’ve never done, and experiences you’ve never had, but drawing from your own experience lends truth and depth to your story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval city ruled by pirates and smugglers, but I do know what it’s like to move to a new place and feel your life has suddenly begun.

Venezia has been very busy applying to and interviewing for universities so was not around to share her thoughts this time, but fear not! There is plenty more to come.

 

¿Y Tú Tambien?

What about you? How have the places you’ve lived or traveled shaped your creative works?

Feeling inspired? Check out our video series Exploring Mexico to see more of this beautiful country.

On Writing (Really Really Fast)

This is the second post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month.

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Typical Monday morning.

By the end of yesterday, the second day of Camp NaNoWriMo, I had written nearly 10,000 words (9,666 to be exact). This is more than I’ve written in the entire month on previous attempts. This is not a boast, but an example of the results of making tiny changes to your mindset and creative process. The difference between my output this year vs. previous years has nothing to do with me becoming a better writer or receiving a sudden burst of divine inspiration (hardly). It has everything to do with definitions.

Redefinition (or: the Secret to Doing It is Trying to Do It)

A graph of word count stats for Camp NaNoWriMo
Just over 7,000 words – not a bad first day.

To win NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words. That’s it. Quality and coherence are not factors. This is not a loophole; according to the movement’s founder, Chris Baty, it was a deliberate decision to help writers get past hang-ups about quality and inspiration and just get words on the page. I, like thousands of other writers each year, approached NaNoWriMo falsely believing that I had committed to this quantity over quality mindset yet still finding myself unable to meet word count goals.

There’s no reason writing 50,000 words in a month should be challenging once you accept the rules of the game. You could literally type “dog” 50,000 times and you would win. The problem was I had not accepted this definition of success. Secretly, I still hoped to meet the 50,000 word goal and come out of it with a decent manuscript. I was setting myself up to fail.

But then what’s the point? Will typing “dog” 50,000 times help you improve as a writer? Okay, probably not, but that was an extreme example. As long as you’re trying to write a real story, whatever you come up with will be worth something even if it is barely readable. To prove this point, here’s an exercise you can try at home next time you have writer’s block: go to the point where you’re stuck and type “Then the dead dog got up and did a jig.”

I’m willing to bet money that sentence doesn’t work. Most likely there is no dead dog in your scene, and even if there is, chances are it does not make sense in the context of your story for dead animals to stand up and start dancing. What did you learn from this exercise? First of all, that you don’t have writer’s block.

Writer’s block is having no idea what happens next in your own story. If that was true, you’d have no objection to dropping that sentence into your scene. You have no idea what’s going to happen, so how do you know a dead dog doesn’t do a jig? The truth is, you have some guesses about what’s going to happen next, and you know for sure capering canine corpses are not involved. You just don’t want to write it down because you’re afraid it won’t come out perfect on the first try. And that’s just nonsense.

A Truly Shameful Excerpt

In case you find it hard to believe I can write 3,000 words of prose in an hour, or worse, you are impressed by the fact, I’m going to share a sample of my output (though it pains me to do so).

He found Armand asleep against the trunk of a jacaranda tree, with purple petals scattered across his face and chest. Nando stpked th\e fire back into some semblance of life and let him sellep.

WHne he awaoke they explored the island a little more. This time, rather than climbing the central hill, which was, in fact, a pyramid, they circled around the degs. Nando traced the pyramid form with his yes and an idea began to occur to him.

“We’re still on it, aren’t we?”

“What’s that, boy?”

He was gflad to hear some of the gruffness had returned to the old hunter’s voice; he must have been okay.

“The pyramid. I think, well whatg if the pyramid isnt on the island. WHat if the pyramid is the island?”

The old bhunter looked down at the gleaming white sand beneath his feet. “DOnt know about all that, he muttered.”


Even ignoring the spelling and grammatical errors, it’s not exactly Hemingway. This scene is so boring it probably won’t even appear in the final draft, but it took all of a minute to write and I came up with some ideas I liked in the course of writing it: rather than an island having a pyramid on it, the entire island is an ancient partially-submerged pyramid; and the health of the old hunter character can be gauged by the gruffness of his voice. I don’t know if I would have come up with either of those ideas through slow, deliberate writing or outlining.

We learn by doing. If you spend more time thinking about writing or planning what you are going to write than actually physically writing, you are not learning nearly as much about how to write as you could be.

At least that’s my take on it. Venezia has a different perspective.

On Writing Really Really Slow

Girl laying face down on a couch
My approach to writing.

Writing really fast would have helped when I started five years ago but I’m at a different stage of my book. I know where the story is going and most of it is written. It’s a matter of putting on the finishing touches and finding a way to say what I want to say.

I chose hours instead of a word goal so I can focus on getting the words right. 90% of the work I have left to do is reading and rereading my book as if someone else wrote it, making small changes until it feels right.

English is not my first language, so sometimes I feel self-conscious about the way my writing sounds. I write slowly because writing for me is a process of trial and error, writing and rewriting until I find the words that sound right. Knowing I can go back any make changes at any time helps me feel better and more confident about what I write.

Even if you choose an hourly goal, it is not an excuse to not get anything done. If you only have two hours a day to write you want to get the most out of them. For example, I write a lot better at night. Two hours at night counts for more than two hours during the day. Choose a writing time that works and stick to it.

 

Off to Camp: Write a Novel A Month

If you’re a creative you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. In short, it’s a friendly worldwide challenge in which aspiring authors try to write a 50,000+ word novel, from start to finish, during the month of November.

In recent years, they’ve been doing Camp NaNoWriMo each April. Same idea, except each user sets their own goal which can be any number of words or pages written or even hours spent writing. Being aspiring writers, both Venezia and I are going to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo this year.

Camp NaNoWriMo: In So Many Words

Car loaded with camping gear
I may have taken the camp metaphor a bit too literally.

The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to attempt something that should be impossible, yet most participants find it surprisingly doable once they get in the right mindset. In fact, it gets easier and easier every year, and I’ve personally come to believe that it is possible to write a complete novel every month without spending more than an hour or two a day doing so. More on that later this week.

Throughout April, we’ll post updates of how we’re doing as well as talking about what’s going on in our stories, what tools and tricks we’re using to get through the month, where our inspiration’s coming from, and so on.

Even if you are not a writer yourself, we think you’ll find the experience interesting. The creative process transcends any one art form, and whether you’re a painter, game designer, or bodybuilder, pushing yourself to accomplish the impossible is a valuable skill.

Without further ado, let’s meet the campers.

Evaric: A Memory in Indigo

The branches of a blooming jacaranda tree
A lot of Mexican influences will probably make it into the book. Exhibit A: jacaranda trees.

Goal: 50,000 words

I’m writing a high fantasy adventure, with a twist. The genre is usually about battles and cosmic evil and saving the world, but it doesn’t have to be. My novel, A Memory In Indigo, follows a budding mixologist on a quest to discover the recipe for a particularly well-crafted spirit he tasted in his youth. There’s pirates and sea monsters and a hint of magic, sure, but the story is first and foremost about an artist’s struggle to master their craft. At least that’s the plan. I haven’t started writing it yet, so who knows how it will pan out.

I opted for the traditional NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words just for consistency. As I mentioned before, I have a theory about making a lifelong habit of writing a book a month. Starting tomorrow, I’ll put my theory to the test.

Venezia: Untitled (???)

Ocean surf beating against the rocks of the shore
My book has a lot to do with the ocean – and the isolation that comes with it.

Goal: 60 hours

I’m writing a mystery, although it’s not a very mysterious mystery. It’s a lot more about the characters than about finding out the answer to the mystery itself, so I’m not really sure how to classify it.

I am writing the end of a novel I have been working on for a very long time and I don’t know how many words I left. I am a slow and inconsistent writer so I don’t want to stress about word count. I’m just going to sit down and write for 2 hours every day.

Grab a Seat by the Fire

If you’re participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this year, or have participated in any NaNo event in the past, we would love to hear from you. If not, and if you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, consider giving it a try! You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish, and it’s a great way to meet people with similar interests. As a matter of fact, Venezia and I met at a local NaNoWriMo meetup – but that’s a story for another day.

Potential Criticism: Reviews for Creatives

Instead of reviewing or discussing a specific piece of entertainment this week, I’m going to talk about an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. As a lifelong aspiring writer, I’ve always taken a different approach to critiquing books, movies, and anything else with a story than most people I know. I’m sure any creative can relate: even if all you want to do is sit down and enjoy a fun movie, you can’t help but listen to that voice in the back of your mind asking “If I wrote this story, what would I have done differently?” or “What can I learn from the triumphs and failures of this work that I can apply to my own creations?”

Rough sketch of flowers
At least I have potential, right? Right?

Whether you are a creative or not, the books or movies that frustrate you the most are usually the ones with the most potential. Nobody gets upset about how bad The Room or Saw 12 is. The movies that really get under your skin are either the ones that you went into with high expectations and came out of disappointed, or the ones that could have been extraordinary with a few minor tweaks.

Just reading about the subject, you’re probably already reliving your anger with the last book or show that let you down. The fact that we can get so upset over bad entertainment is a telling sign of how truly pampered we are in our first-world bubble – as Tyler Durden would say, we have no Great War, no Great Depression, only Greatly Disappointing X-Men movies. But that’s not the point.

The point is I don’t think watching a movie that fails to live up to its potential has to be a negative experience, at least not for us lucky enough to be cursed with a creative spirit. I have friends who walked out of Logan saying “That could have been a lot better” but I walked out saying “How could that have been better?” I have no doubt that the next story I write will be a tiny bit better than it would have been if I had not seen Logan and reflected on its strengths and weaknesses. In keeping with the positive, improvement-oriented mission statement of Desdenada, I would like to introduce Potential Criticism.

Reviewing Better, Creating Better

Garrosh Hellscream wielding Gorehowl, from World of Warcraft
He means well. Ish. Art credit: TamplierPainter on DeviantArt (http://tamplierpainter.deviantart.com/art/Garrosh-Hellscream-201494004)

I have long been in love with World of Warcraft and its expansive lore, but I’m not about to argue that any of the storylines in the game or its companion novels constitute great literature. Not that Blizzard ever set out to write Shakespearean tragedies. Instead, they created a truly enormous world, populated with archetypes and familiar tropes. Many of the characters and plots of the Warcraft universe feel familiar, and that’s okay, because the game’s best stories have always been the ones you and your friends create.

But every now and then I’ll stumble across a spark of real promise. My favorite example would have to be Garrosh Hellscream. I’ll never forget my first encounter with this troubled young orc: he was the son of a legendary hero and his people expected great things of him, but you find him brooding and dejected, staring into a bonfire with tears in his eyes. There’s a whole quest line where you reveal to him that his father, who Garrosh sees as a monster, redeemed himself and died a hero in the end.

With his faith restored, Garrosh takes a more active role in the leadership of his people – with mixed results. His heart is in the right place, but he was raised with a different ideology than the other leaders and he is haunted by his father’s name and his own insecurities. It’s a tumultuous journey: at one point a disagreement with the current Warchief of his faction, the Horde, gets so heated it actually erupts into physical violence; later, that same Warchief steps down and names Garrosh as his successor.

At this point in the game, not only were in-game characters split about his leadership, but so were the players themselves. The majority of players hated him, but I and a few other holdouts still empathized with the character.

Then, as Warcraft characters often do, he kind of went off the deep end for no reason. Garrosh was always aggressive and warlike, but he believed strongly in honor and at one point executed an underling who went too far and started attacking civilians. Later on, he changed his mind without explanation and bombed a whole city full of civilians. Like many characters who start off with interestingly gray moralities, he was ultimately corrupted by cosmic forces of evil and became a cartoon villain with no other motivation besides doing bad stuff for the sake of doing bad stuff.

I was frustrated, to say the least, by the ultimate handling of what was possibly my favorite character. In retrospect, I can see that this anger was pointless and misplaced. The conclusion of his story is a letdown, but it does not erase the story beats I found appealing in the first place. As a writer, I have a unique opportunity to recreate my own version of his story arc. An abandoned son who is unsure if his father was a hero or a monster, and in trying to live up to the family name must himself walk the line between hero and monster – now that’s a concept I can use. The best part is, I’m free to write whatever ending I want, using the poor conclusion of Garrosh’s story to avoid making the same mistakes myself.

Going forward, I’m going to do my best not to get angry or upset about entertainment that lets me down. There’s an ugly tendency these days to see creators as the enemy, as if they are maliciously sabotaging their own art just to make us suffer.

I prefer to think that we are all in this together. Creators do their best to make something we can enjoy. Sometimes they fail. As fellow creators, we can learn from their mistakes to better ourselves. As consumers, we can give them honest but fair feedback, so that they can learn and serve us better going forward.

There is so much potential beauty in this world, so why put effort into creating ugliness? With a little optimism and a little empathy, we can all contribute to the creative process in our own way.

That’s my thinking, at least. What’s your strategy for criticizing entertainment?