Monday, January 27, 2014

Why I dont want another anti-hero

Imagine this story:


A gifted young athlete finds out he has cancer.  Painful treatments and discouraging prognoses knock him down and his chance of surviving slims to less than 40%.   The pain and emotional fatigue gets to the point where he has to decide if he is going to continue the fight or just roll over and let the illness win.


Our main character decides that not only will he beat it, he will make it such a fight as to inspire and give hope to others.   He begins a rehabilitation period where he pushes his body with demanding physical routines.   Through pushing himself, he finds a passion for competing in a sport that a man of his medical history has no business even trying.  He succeeds and wins the biggest competition in the sport.  Determined to prove his success more than a fluke he repeats his victory 6 more times in dramatic fashion. 


His experience brought hope and pride to an entire nation.  Through his success, millions of people are inspired to improve their health, fight their own demons, and donate time and money to finding a cure for the disease.  


Well, it really happened.  The protagonist’s name?  Lance Armstrong.


If this book is written prior to 2011, Lance Armstrong is a hero.   But a lot of ugly truths have surfaced in the past three years about Lance:  He is a cheater, he was the ringleader of a drug ring in the sport that used strong arm tactics to keep the truth hidden, he ruined people’s lives who opposed him.  And worst of all, he doesn’t feel bad about any of it and would do it all again. 


So, if this book comes out today what is Lance Armstrong?  A Villain?  Maybe.  He still inspired millions and raised money and awareness for cancer.  Is that what a villain does?  I would classify Lance Armstrong in  the conflict of man against cancer as an anti-hero.   He beat cancer and won the conflict, but that still didn’t make him a good person.


Anti-Heroes have their place and in some genres they work perfectly.  But in Fantasy literature, where the conflict generally revolves around the fate of the world, I want my heroes to be better than that.  I am not saying that I want them to be perfect, that would be boring.   They can be selfish (see Royce Meldrum), they can be mean (see Arlen Bales), they can be prejudiced (see Kelsier), they can have all sorts of flaws and I will still root for them. 


But ultimately, I want the hero to have the desire to be good.  I want he or she to do something good for a good reason.  When they mess up, I want them to feel some remorse and have a desire to improve.  I want to be able to respect them for who they are along with respect what they accomplished. 


The world has enough Lance Armstrongs.


Monday, January 6, 2014

How I found my Holy Grail

I have little to no training in the writing field.   My educational background is in the realm of biosciences, not the creative arts.   My only writing credentials are an imagination, a keyboard, and a desire to write.  While that is truly all that is needed, I knew I could be more effective by adopting some best practices.

Over the past couple years I have spent hours, days, weeks even, scouring internet publications, forums, blogs, and the like with the intent of learning more about writing.  I have learned quite a bit that has helped me develop as a writer but I still felt like I was blindly mucking through things (sometimes I still do).  I mainly looked for an answer on how to effectively discipline myself as a writer.  Many people offered their $.02 but ultimately everyone mentioned doing 'whatever works for you.'  That was the universally accepted system-- "whatever works for you."  The Holy Grail.   

But how to find it?  

Here is my story:

Since I have made the decision to truly try my hand at this writing endeavor, I have been coming up with more ideas than I can ever manage.  Not wanting to waste any moment of inspiration, I would write them in notebooks, on post-it's, napkins, my hands, other people's hands etc.   I have a slew of emails I have sent to myself with ideas, character names, cool lines, etc. that are just waiting to turn into a project.  Wanting to give them ALL attention I tried starting multiple things at once, and that just led to failure.  So I tried a new approach where I gave all my attention to one work in process ignoring any other idea, hoping that a focused approach would help me get at least one thing finished.  This approach worked for about a week until I ran into a difficult part in my novel, so instead of battling through it, I stopped writing altogether.  Not surprisingly, I discovered that not writing at all isn't exactly an effective way to become a writer.

Then around September I started writing again, I tried to not overthink it-- just write.  I started a new project and it took off.  I didn't want to commit exclusively and risk the previous failure, so I kept doing little bits of other projects at the same time.  Never more than two at a time.  Miraculously it has worked.  I have finished some really small projects and managed to complete 50 percent of the novel I started in September.  Most importantly I have been a consistent, and somewhat disciplined writer.  I think I have found that Holy Grail of "whatever works for you" that so many other writers mentioned.  

The gist of the system:
-  Let the ideas come, don't censor them because I have too much on my plate 
-  Keep one project going will full momentum, commit as much as I can
-  When ideas come for other things, I spend chunks of time on them to get them to a sustainable level
-  Keep addressing these little ideas, but don't lose momentum on the main project

As I mentioned before my background is in bioscience, so I call my writing method the... Wait for it... The DNA Replication approach.  Yes I am a nerd, but it makes sense to me.  I untwist all my creative thoughts (helicase), work on one major project (leading strand), take the secondary projects (Okazaki fragments) one at a time and give them time (lagging strand) while not losing momentum on the main project.    

So it works... For me.  If you want to try it, go for it.  Perhaps it will work for you.  But, to find your Holy Grail, all you need to do is just keep writing-- it will happen eventually.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Two Lessons about writing I learned from falling off a cliff

You ever have a story to tell that you just can’t get into words?  I do, and its very frustrating.  Mine is the story of these two pictures:

The most frustrating part is that the story is about something that happened to me.  That should be easy right?  Well it hasn’t been easy at all.  Here is the outline of my (never ending) work in progress:

  1. Thanksgiving morning 2011.  Family gathered in Southern Utah. 
  2. Let’s go rock climbing!  Fall 35-40 feet.  Hit the ground.  Why is everything spinning?
  3. Call an ambulance?  We’re in the middle of nowhere. Hike back to car.  
  4. It’s just a cut on my head right? Do we need to go get checked out?
  5. Went to nearest rural hospital.  Walked in to the Emergency Department.  Told them what happened.  Doctor thought I was lying. Sat in wheelchair while they admit me. 
  6. They do X-Rays.  Doctor no longer thinks I’m lying.  Small hospital staff freaked out, no more quiet holiday.  
  7. Did CT scan.  Is that bleeding in your brain?  Uh oh.  We can’t help you.  Air ambulance called.  You’re flying to Salt Lake City.  Leave your family here.
  8. Air Med comes.  Have some morphine.  Wow, guess what? You’re allergic to morphine!  Inside on fire as body rejects morphine.  Can’t breathe.  Choke on vomit during flight.  Try to signal flight nurse to have her help clear airway.  Am I going to die?  
  9. Trauma patient at the U of U.  I worked here for 9 years, that’s fun!  I can hear you talking you know?  Did you really have to cut my clothes off?  
  10. 3 days in ICU.  6 broken ribs, 2 shattered shoulder blades, 3 broken vertebrae, 2 skull fractures, punctured lung,  12 (or was it 13?) staples in head.  Helmet saved your life.
  11. Not a single invasive procedure? No surgery? No cast or anything?   Go home, hard to lie down.  Sleep in chair.  T Rex arms.
  12. Back to work in a week.  6 weeks later all clear.  7 weeks later and I’m back skiing again. 

I have tried to write this short autobiographical piece with no success.  I have started and restarted my account on many occasions over the past couple years, but it has never panned out.  Is that because I am an inadequate writer?  Maybe.  But this happened to me, why is it so hard?

I sat down and thought about why I couldn’t get my story on paper.  I read through the failed attempts and recognized that each attempt was dramatically different, yet each a poor fit.  In reviewing the failed attempts, I saw two common threads in each of them.

First,  I wasn't writing to my audience.  In fact, I realized I had never addressed who the audience was.  Was I writing a journal account to be read only by posterity?  Was I writing a piece for a climbing magazine?  Was I writing a more comprehensive autobiographical account and tying it into other events in my life?   Was I writing a Public Service Announcement for helmet use?  Was I trying to write an inspirational story about a miraculous event?   I never decided. I still don’t know who my audience will be, I am working on that, but I know now that I need to have the answer before I start writing again.        

Second, I was drowning in detail.  Take a look at this failed attempt:

My first mistake was leaving the bolted routes and trying to find my own line.  I should have known better than to try and lead a route in Navajo sandstone that had not undergone extensive cleaning.   I could see at least three solid placements from the ground, so I assumed there would be sufficient protection throughout the first pitch.  The first few moves went well and were well protected, in less than a minute I had climbed twenty feet and securely placed two C4’s.  At this point the route changed from vertical face to progressive slab and the opportunities for protection were few.   Not wanting to run out the climb too far, I placed a C3 in a shallow horizontal crack.  I knew the placement was shaky at best, but it felt better than nothing.  I didn’t give it a second thought as I continued friction climbing the slab. After another ten feet, I still couldn’t find any placements, but I reached a three inch ledge and began edging a traverse to some natural anchors.  After a few steps and with my back foot weighted, I went to unclip a runner from my harness when the edge broke beneath my foot.  The awkward position I was in when the edge crumbled caused me to fall feet up and back first.  I felt a tug on my harness as my topmost placement, the C3, broke its crack and popped out.

Reading through my failed attempts I saw a lot of paragraphs like this one above.  The detail was too thick, and even if my audience were climbers the jargon was too heavy.  Knowing when to elaborate and when to be brief can be tricky.  Here's my take: If it sounds too much like a technical manual or a recipe and its not intended to be either of those then there is too much detail.  This has helped me in my current endeavor of writing a fantasy novel.  If I am describing a magic system and I find myself going into textbook mode, I need to rein it in.

I am learning a lot about writing, and I have lots of room to improve.  I know I need more lessons.  I just hope I can learn the rest of them without another trip to the ER.