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Conflict is King

by Jonathan 0 Comments

If you’ve read or listened to writers talk about what makes stories hum, you’ll almost always wind up at the same place: Conflict.

Conflict is the heart of great stories. A character wants something and is denied. We spend the next three hundred pages (Or seven books. Whatever.) reading to see if the character can overcome the obstacles and get what they want.

If the story is compelling. If you understand the stakes.

There’s the rub. Conflict is a great place to start, but if it happens in a vacuum — just because the writer says it exists — readers tend to lose interest. For conflict to really resonate, for the stakes to be high enough to keep a reader’s interest, there needs to be context.

Imagine Harry Potter being hunted by Voldemort, but never getting the backstory woven through J.K. Rowling’s series and the implications of what happens if Harry and his friends don’t prevail.

Imagine witnessing the unfolding of A Song of Ice and Fire without the history of Westeros sprinkled in to give you an idea of why these people are at each other’s throats.

Look to History

As I’ve gotten, ahem, more mature, I find I want to know more about why the world is the way it is. The deeper I dig the more I find connections threading things together through space and time.

In history, the causes of the events we learn about, especially wars, are provided in bullet points or attributed to a single event that touches things off —  the Boston Tea Party, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the invasion of Poland. The reality is the causes of such events such as these are much more complex and years in the making.

The saying “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” is, like most memorable sayings, overly simplistic. Its point is clear, but it assumes that there aren’t seeds already in place — have always been in place — that cause humanity to experience variations on the same themes over and over. These seeds are sown over the course of decades, centuries and watered with the human weaknesses of greed, power and fear.

The future plays out due to power structures that have existed in some form since someone decided they wanted more — more power, more wealth, more prestige — than someone else, since someone decided they wanted to bend the will of others to their aims.

A few of the best history books I’ve read that provide great context are The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot, Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, Out of Sight by Erik Loomis and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges.

Look to Fiction

Conflict in context is the stuff of great, compelling stories. The way the information is layered in can be as different as the stories we tell — from passing mentions, to features in the setting, to conversations, and on and on. What came before can exist on a micro scale made up of personal relationships, individual choices and personal histories or it can be on a macro scale involving generations, far-flung intrigue and the history of nations.

Think of your favorite stories and I bet you’ll find that context. This is the thing that allows us to fall into books and lose ourselves and be in the moment of the story.

Some examples of novels that do this very well (in addition to the aforementioned Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire) include R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and Aspect-Emporer quartet, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series, Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man series, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and The Water Knife, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

If you’ve got any recommendations of books that do this well, fire them up in the comments.

Viable Paradise on the Horizon

by Jonathan 0 Comments

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It’s been almost three weeks since I learned I was accepted into Viable Paradise, a week-long, intensive writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. To say that I was stunned and elated is an understatement.

Since then, there’s been a lot to take in since then and a lot to figure out.

Having started this journey of isolation and rejection a little over eight years ago, the validation of my work from outside, professional sources has been sparse. I started out writing my first novel with the occasional short story sprinkled in between the seven or so drafts. I’ve had beta readers, queried, submitted short stories to pro markets.

There have been moments — personal rejections, kind words and encouragement — and of course the writing, always the writing, but like many along their own path, there has been doubt as well.

The thing is that I always felt like I was somehow missing the boat, that I should be doing X instead of Y, or that Y was taking too long. Although I knew somewhere in my mind that this was part of the path — that this was the path — I felt I was missing something critical.

In 2013, I donated to the Star Ship Sofa podcast in exchange for a critique of the first fifty pages of my novel by Paul di Filippo. He was kind with his critique, even went so far as to tell me I had “chops”. During our call, he recommended attending SFF cons as a way of tapping into the writing community.

So I did. I attended Capclave in D.C. for a couple of years, then World Fantasy Con for the last two years. I met great people, attended tons of fun and informative panels, yet I noticed something: So many of the people I met had these built in networks of people with whom they could share their experiences, go to dinner, talk about writing, etc.

I enjoy my solitude as much as the next introvert, but when I’m at a con, I want to immerse myself in the experience and soak up as much as I can. Without prior connections, it’s been a challenge to create meaningful, lasting relationships with the people I’ve met. As a result, I felt like I was only scratching the surface at these events.

Sometimes it was a case of being at a different place on the road to publication than the writers I spoke with. On another level, it seemed to come back to not having some sort of legitimacy, some way to indicate to other writers, published or otherwise, that I was worth talking to or was even a writer.

I realize that previous statement sounds a little desperate, but there’s truth there.

Upon tweeting my acceptance an amazing thing happened. I started to receive congratulations from previous VP attendees. People started following me. It was an incredibly uplifting experience.

And so, as much as I’m excited to improve as a writer in the crucible of Viable Paradise, I’m just as excited to meet people and to have that shared experience that creates lasting bonds.

Reading to retreat, recharge, and resist

by Jonathan 0 Comments

The last three months have been a rollercoaster, to say the least. In order to maintain some semblance of sanity I’ve turned to reading even more than usual.

I’ve been trying to hone my short story skills more. Normally I listen to podcasts, but as of late I’ve turned to some collections on my shelves. The two listed below have a nice array of stories and that may be part of the problem. I get pulled into the stories and forget to evaluate them critically. That’s good for the authors, not so good for my learning. Still, I’ll read on and enjoy if nothing else.

Loosed

And this:

XIII

I’ve got to keep one foot in “reality” and am doing so by reading this. I can’t recommend The Devil’s Chessboard enough. I’m about two thirds through and, so far, it’s providing and pretty good background into the shaping of the CIA in the wake of World War II. If you’re paying attention, decisions from 60+ years ago are reverberating strongly today.

DevilsChessboard

Last, but definitely not least, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of We Are Not Good People by Jeff Somers. I’m not all that enamored with Urban Fantasy, but the tone of the story, the character development and the magic have be sucked right in. I’ve read some Richard Kadrey, Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, and probably some others and I would put this up there with American Gods and Neverwhere, broadly speaking. Anyway, we’ll see how it ends but I’m all in.

NotGood

In addition to reading, I’ve been working on a couple of short stories. Not surprisingly, they reflect some of the issues we are dealing with on a daily basis. With some elbow grease, these will find a home in the short fiction marketplace.

 

Lastly, a shout out to This is Horror and The Outer Dark podcasts (currently enjoying The Outer Dark’s State of the Weird episode. Sooo good.) These shows get me through all the local miles I travel taking my daughter to school, running to the store, etc. Fully entertaining and smart.

That is all. Be well and take care of yourselves.