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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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
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.
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
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
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 (???)
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.
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?”
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
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?
We are very excited to announce the launch of Desdenada’s first gaming series, Exploring Azeroth! I have discussed before how World of Warcraft has impacted my personal life philosophy, and now I hope to share that with Venezia – and, of course, with you.
In this preview episode, I give Venezia a rundown of the character options and the basic story of the world. Then she makes her first ever Warcraft character. If you are familiar with the game already you can probably skip this one, although you may be surprised how seeing a new player experience it for the first time can make the whole game feel fresh again.
When people talk about gamification, they’re usually thinking about video games, but the movement undoubtedly has its roots in pen-and-paper roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. I might just be biased because I grew up on pen-and-paper roleplaying games, namely Dungeons and Dragons, but the whole “quantified self” movement is a natural progression from the concept of the character sheet.
Dungeons and Dragons and Self-Confidence
For those of you who were popular in high school, every game of D&D begins with the players creating their characters, filling in details and descriptions on their character sheet, which in the old days was nothing more than a sheet of ruled paper. The people who live in a D&D campaign are truly quantified, with attributes such as strength or intelligence represented by concrete numbers on their character sheets.
To oversimplify what is probably the most complicated board game ever, you do things in D&D by rolling dice. Whether I want to hit a goblin with a flail or perform a sweet lute solo for a crown in the local tavern, I roll the dice. If the number is high enough, I succeed. If I have good scores in the relevant stats – such as a high strength score in the case of hitting the goblin – I won’t have to roll as high of a number to succeed. In other words, whether a veteran knight or a scrawny farm boy is swinging the flail, luck will be a factor, but the odds are a lot better for the knight.
I credit D&D, and this mechanic specifically, with teaching me two important things about life. First, the Universe is a cold, random, uncaring place where most things happen for no reason. That’s not really relevant here, but has certainly informed my life philosophy. More importantly, it taught me that the outcome of a given scenario has nothing to do with who you are as a person. A legendary knight might fail to strike a puny goblin, but that doesn’t mean his strength has suddenly diminished. If I was roleplaying as the knight, I would not suddenly lose confidence in my character’s strength and retreat. Seeing my exceptional strength score on the character sheet in front of me, I would write the event off as a fluke and attack again.
Confidence vs. Competence
In the real world, we do not have the privilege of character sheets. We are not always clear on our own attributes. In fact, the only way we have of measuring them is by testing them. Let’s say my D&Dcharacter has 10 points in the Perform (lute) skill. I get up in front of a tavern crowd, start to play, and roll a 2 on my skill check. I suck and get booed off stage. Not exactly a triumph, but nothing to worry about in the long run. My sheet still says I have 10 points in Perform (lute). I am objectively an exceptional lute player. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or the tavern had poor acoustics, or I just drank too much and struck a bad chord. If I perform for another crowd tomorrow night, chances are they’ll love me.
If that happened to me in real life, though, I would come to a different conclusion. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or maybe I don’t have as many points in the Perform (lute) skill as I thought. After all, tests like this are my only way of measuring my skill, and the results of this test were very negative.
There’s an ongoing joke among D&D players about the attribute known as Charisma. Pretty much since the creation of the game up until the present day, it has been considered an exceedingly useless stat and the one you assign your lowest score to by default (when I play I always make Charisma my highest stat, but the reasoning behind that is a discussion for another day). The reason is that Charisma measures something that is exceedingly difficult to translate into game mechanics.
Contrary to popular belief, Charisma is not a measure of attractiveness or even social skill. It is essentially your strength of character, your belief in yourself, your very will to live. People with high Charisma usually are attractive, but only because confidence and self-assurance tend to be attractive features. One minor quirk I’ve always loved about d&d is that demons in the game, often outwardly hideous, possess superhumanly high Charisma scores. How could they not? They are cosmic forces of nature, almost physically incapable of believing anything they do is wrong.
The problem with Charisma is that the attributes it is supposed to define are left up to how a player roleplays a character. A character with a Charisma of 3 probably wouldn’t be able to work up the confidence or motivation to even go adventuring in the first place – but if the Dungeon Master told the player “You can’t go on this adventure because your character doesn’t believe in herself” it wouldn’t be a very fun game, would it?
In real life, Charisma is strictly enforced. My objective competence with the lute (skill points in game terms) might be very high, but my confidence with the lute (Charisma) might be low enough after one humiliating failure that I give up and never touch the lute again.
What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?
In Dungeons and Dragons, a bard character with 10 points in Perform (lute) is a very impressive lute player – if she’s a level one character. If she’s level 20, then hopefully she specializes in a different instrument and the lute is just a hobby, because that’s just embarrassing.
Another downside of not having character sheets in real life is that we have no idea what level we are and thus it is tricky to know how far in life we are supposed to be. People come up with all sorts of fixes to this problem, most of which have to do with comparing ourselves to other people. As an aspiring author, I think it’s perfectly acceptable that I have not published a bestselling novel by the age of 22. None of my friends have either, after all. Conversely, someone who shall remain nameless but also happens to be my girlfriend and Desdenada co-founder Venezia, also 22, considers herself a failure because Mary Shelley published her first novel, Frankenstein (you may have heard of it) at the age of 21. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, though, because Mary Shelley had the luxury of being a noblewoman who did not have a job or any responsibilities at all really. Also, she had the help of her husband, the already-successful Percy Shelley.
Then again, it’s hard to find any valid comparisons to measure your progress with. Most people compare themselves with a peer group by default, such as their graduating class. If everyone you went to school with has a better job than you now, you must be a failure, right? Unless they came from stronger financial backgrounds, or you suffer from a mental illness, or you simply have different priorities than they do. If they’re all playing backgammon and you’re playing Chinese checkers, how are you supposed to figure out who’s winning?
I’ve talked before about my guiding life philosophy, influenced heavily by Nietzsche and a little-known philosophy professor by the name of Luke Cuddy, that life is a game in which you have to make your own rules and win conditions. By the same token, you’re in charge of measuring your own progress.
I won’t lie, that’s tricky. If you make the game too hard, your confidence and self-esteem suffer and you feel miserable. If it’s too easy, every victory feels hollow and you are dissatisfied knowing you are capable of more. I’ve spent most of my life grappling with this problem and coming up empty. It’s certainly a topic I want to discuss a lot more in the future, and something I would love to hear your thoughts on, as well. No, seriously, somebody help me out here, because I don’t have the answers.
Anyway. The major takeaway is that it’s impossible to know your true competence in any skill and thus it would ridiculous to base your confidence or self-worth on your perceived competence in any skill. Maybe I’m the best writer. Maybe I’m the worst writer. It’s impossible to know for sure. What I am absolutely confident of, though, is the fact that I can write, and the fact that I want to write. I’m going to keep doing the thing that makes me happiest, and try to stop worrying about whether I’m good at it, because that’s a question that can never be answered.