Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Guest Blog Post - David Douglas

I'm on holidays, the cricket1 is on, and I have a fridge full of VB2. Alas, in the face of such noble and manly pursuits, this blog has taken a bit of a back seat (temporarily, of course).

But fear not! David Douglas, fellow OWW critter and blog follower, has kindly stepped in to fill the breach with the first ever Cackling Scribe guest post.

Many thanks, David! I shall now leave you in his capable hands while I go and get another VB....

1 A game played in short bursts between long ad-breaks.

2 A type of beer. Brewed in Victoria, but actually quite nice.


First of all, thanks to Peter for the opportunity to post here. My name is David Douglas. I write a travel & photo blog, and have just self-published my first fantasy novel, Demon’s Bane. PDF sample available here or check out where to buy here.

Every fantasy writer must be James Cameron. We have a lower budget, we lack CGI unless you count WYSIWYG on the word processor screen, and we don’t even have colors (much less 3D) to capture our reader’s imagination. But we start from the same place as Cameron did with Avatar: building a world in our minds, which must captivate the reader and bring him or her to a faraway land.

How to create a new environment? We can either start with what we know and modify it, or research something we know little about. For my first book, I just started thinking and let the world flow out (and later, the words). So quite a lot of it is based on my own North American culture, with a bit of European flair thrown in (as I’ve lived in Germany for five years now). When I moved into new areas I didn’t understand, I researched with Google and Wikipedia to keep my facts straight.

Take the setting, for example. The tale starts off in a deciduous, temperate forest, much like where I grew up in the eastern US. There are chapters where the characters are sailing, and a lot of terms were familiar (I learned to sail on the River Charles as a teenager). I had to do a bit of research there, however. In the following sections, the characters travel through prairies where I never lived (more research). In cities, my European experience came into play: almost every big city here has an “old town” area that dates from medieval times. A few still even have the city wall surrounding them, and there are many (sometimes crumbling) castles the likes of which most Americans have only seen in movies. My weekend tourism here has greatly improved the descriptions of the cities my characters encounter.

What about the characters themselves? North Americans hardly think about it, but players in the books we read generally follow the same social conventions we do. We shake hands, clap each other on the shoulders, or give a bear hug to an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Many Europeans give the two-kisses-on-the-cheek as hello, which we might also recognize. But Asian cultures are more likely to bow in greeting... when was the last time you saw that in a novel that wasn’t set in the Far East?

Treatment of women is another sticky subject. I’m all for fairness, and that shows in my novel (where women can be clan leaders, and are treated equally). But throughout history, the fairer sex was not often in a position of power. Even today, many cultures treat women in a way I find offensive (including most of the Middle East). It’s fascinating to see how writers address this in their novels; Westerners often have to use their imagination (or do research) to come up with a subordinate-female culture. Slavery and indentured servitude are also themes that fantasy writers can consider when writing about a less-civilized, ancient society. Even though they are (thankfully) far from our realities, they add a lot of depth and realism to a fantasy world.

One interesting cultural (and linguistic) aspect in my book is a character who likes idioms and expressions, but always gets them mixed up. I’m suspecting that Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis would also get the references (a bird in the hand... rocks in your head... the bigger they are, the harder they fall...). However, non-native speakers would understand these just about as well as I get the German idioms. Courtesy of a friend’s quotes-post: “The middle of nowhere” becomes “There, where the foxes say good night to each other.” And “Don’t get carried away!” becomes “Leave the church in the village.” I can only imagine what Asian sayings might be like, after I bought a magnet in Hong Kong that says “You are my love, my angle [angel?], don’t treat me like potato!”

In my next book, I plan to add an Asian flair, as the characters will be on a new continent with strange customs. It won’t be based on any one Asian culture, but on what I’ve learned from various trips to the Far East (China, Malaysia, Taiwan...). I have a feeling I’ll have to do a lot more research than I did for Demon’s Bane... but there will still be some western style mixed in. That’s what fantasy is all about: whatever we dream up can become real on the page! Just make it interesting and consistent, and each new world can be as compelling as Cameron’s Pandora.

To those who are writers, good luck! Do you have any interesting cultural tips you’d like to share from your own writing experiences?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Driving Without Headlights - Revisited

I recently mentioned that I was starting my next novel - The Weight of Souls - without using any kind of outline and without stopping to review or edit as I went. This approach is completely new for me, and I was deeply cynical as to whether it would work. Nonetheless, I thought I'd give it a go.

In the end, I reached about 31,000 words before giving up. In my mind, the story had descended into a twisting morass of plot-ends, shallow characters and repetitive action. I was all set to write a blog post confirming that, for me, the non-outline approach doesn't work, and I now needed to start over from scratch. Presuming, that is, I ever had the heart to return to The Weight of Souls.

Then, a funny thing happened. A bit over a week ago, I sat down late one evening and decided to read through the 31K words I had written. I was fully expecting to cringe at every turn, and perhaps find myself unable to reach the end before giving up in disgust. Instead, to my utter amazement, I thought what I had written was quite good - very much worthy of first draft status. Yes, the characters are shallow and need a lot of fleshing out, as does the description, environment, and the overall back-story. But the plot works well, and most importantly, the voice and feel that I had hoped would come across appears to do so.

The next day, I got stuck back into it. As I write this, I'm sitting at 41,000 words, and aiming to finish the draft by New Years. That means I'm writing something close to 2,500 words a day, but I now feel encouraged that this approach can indeed work, and I'm not totally wasting my time.

I can now see the advantages of using this method, and I think I'll stick with it for the time being - provided the final result for this novel is what I would have hoped.

I'm enjoying it enormously. Even better, it's helping take my mind off my continuing wait for news of Ping-Ling. The manuscript has now been sitting in a publisher's office (at least, I hope that's where it is and it didn't get lost in the mail) for approaching 12 weeks, and I no longer have any fingernails left. Any distraction is very welcome.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Move Over, Byron!

A little while ago, I subjected you all to a dose of my poetry, namely my entry in the Mentors, Muses and Monsters contest.

A rival I doth spy, with my little eye

It turns out I was one of the finalists, so please check out all the winning entries as they're posted over the next week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

'Twas One of Those Evenings....

The weekend started off well. The weather was great, and I managed to get stuck into painting our new room in preparation for child number 3 due early next year. Then, at 6ish, I got a phone call from a friend asking why we hadn't arrived at their house for dinner yet. I insisted, in a definite tone, that she was mistaken, and it was scheduled for next Saturday. Alas, the evidence was there in the pixels of an email (which I obviously hadn't read very clearly), and I had no choice but to admit that I am, in fact, a bit of a dunce.

Then, just before bed, I checked my email in case there were any other social events I had forgotten. No social events, just one from ASIM, telling me my short story sub (which I wrote about last post) failed at the first stage. Apparently the reader didn't like the ending. Bugger.

Nobody should receive a rejection email on a Saturday night. It should be banned by law. There should be a narrow window of time established, say between 8.13 and 8.15 Monday morning, when rejection emails are allowed to be sent. Outside of that, you send one, you get a hefty fine. Maybe even thumb-screws.

So, there you go. No wonderful catch up with friends, no story in ASIM. Thankfully, I'm happy to report I got the room painted. At least the ceiling. Walls are due next week.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Vision Most Clear

Today, I submitted my first ever short story for publication. I sent it to a rather cool looking online magazine called Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. They have a delightfully transparent submissions process, where the author is kept up to date as to where their story is in the slush pile. They identify three stages: Stage 1 means submission received, stage 2 means it's at the second reader, and stage 3 means it's been judged as good enough for the magazine, but needs and editor to pick it up. When you send your sub, you get a tracking number, and the number and stage are kept up to date on a website. How good is that!

The story is called A Vision Most Clear. It's slightly different, perhaps a bit quirky, but I like it. Will they like it too? I'll keep you posted!

And, as the great poet said, if you never give it a go, you'll never ever know.