Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Faces of a fictional city

29 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

Earlier today, a friend (hi, Maxia!) sent me this quote:

Gotham City: Perpetually twilit urban hellscape that looks like the Art Deco movement had a one-night stand with Soviet Brutalism in a wrought-iron-and-gargoyle factory.

(It's apparently from David J. Prokopetz, though a search of his Tumblr was fruitless; but what can I expect when going from a screenshot posted on Imgur.)

Anyway, if that's supposed to make fun of the worldbuilding in Batman stories, it misses the mark big time. Because, you see, that's very much the description of a living city with an actual history, stretching all the way from Colonial times, through the gaslamp era and the Roaring Twenties, with a dip into the three heady decades between 1950 and 1980, when industrial civilization reached its peak. Well, gargoyles are more European Renaissance than American Colonial, but that's where artistic license comes in.

Chessboard cities built all at once a century ago on a flat plain, now those aren't right. Even if they're very much real.

My own creations are a mixed bag in this regard. The fictional Vryheid from the eponymous novel (no connection to the real-world locality of the same name) exhibits all the architectural exuberance described above and then more. So does the city of the dead from Afterlife By Night. Less so the unnamed burg from Kingdom of the Fire River, though there's enough variety between districts, illustrating how the place is changing. Perhaps the most uniform is Costamata from Little Magic, apart from the wealth disparities between neighborhoods. Goes to show I'm not familiar with the era it belongs to.

I'm still pretty sure Gotham can very well be a city of Art Deco skyscrapers and one of Brutalist factories or apartment buildings, and neither is less concrete (har har) or worthy than the other. It's just how life happens.

Tags: writing, links

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Writing with WordGrinder

07 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

For the longest time, I've been typing my prose into plain text files. That has a lot of advantages: they can be opened with pretty much anything, they're as compact as files get without compression, and can easily be turned into web pages or e-books through Markdown. Next time however I might just try to use WordGrinder instead.

Wait, what? WordGrinder (available from cowlark.com and various Linux distributions) is a word processor in the old sense of the term, from before humongous office suites became the norm: a program designed to let writers write, with as little fuss as possible. You get a word count (and paragraph count), formatting roughly on par with the aforementioned Markdown, a decent range of import and export options, and a spellchecker. That's it!

More importantly, you get all that from a program not one megabyte in size with all dependencies, that can run in terminal emulators (and X11). Talk about software you can install on toasters! For someone like me, who uses computers so ancient that even AbiWord has noticeable overhead, it's amazing.

Even better, WordGrinder has some unique and valuable traits. Also some quirks, but for once they're part of the charm here.

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Tags: writing, software, review

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Why writing is hard

24 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 20 February 2020.)

While looking through my old browser bookmarks, I recently came across this old piece titled Hulk's Screenwriting 101: The Myth of the 3-Act Structure, by one of the best movie critics today. A timely find, as it soon came up in conversation with a friend. It's a mind-blowing read, recommended to any aspiring writer (not just for movies), but it's also long, and being in all caps will make it hard on some readers. And because there's so much to unpack, trying to hit just the main points in a chat window or some such wouldn't do it justice.

I still remember what it's like to be a young writer struggling to understand why it's so damn hard to string together any story at all, never mind a good one. There's a dearth of good advice out there. Emphasis on good. In fact a lot of it is counterproductive. So it's no wonder that at one point we all got stuck at the stage where we have a story in mind, we know how we want it to start and how we want it to end, but the middle is a big nebulous unknown.

(In fact many aspiring writers also seem to have trouble coming up with story beginnings. I never had that problem, but if you do, uh, ever thought about how Star Wars did it? The technique is so ancient, it has a Latin name: in media res. Which is to say, starting in the middle of things.)

That middle is what all the bad teachers call "act 2", because well, all stories must have a beginning, middle and end. After all, that's how playwrights in Ancient Greece did it, so it must be the One True Way. At least I suppose that's the reasoning; don't get me started about glorifying the past.

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Tags: writing, philosophy

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Write and build worlds, but how?

21 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 26 January 2020.)

While going through my old browser bookmarks, I found a write-up on worldbuilding from many years ago. It's a very detailed checklist, reason enough to keep it around for all this time; but as it turns out, the advice contained within has aged badly.

At first I wanted to write a critique of the original text, but there's too much negativity in this world already, and after so much time, what's the point? So instead let me use it as the jumping point for some fresh, up to date thoughts.

(By the way, while the original is about tabletop games, most of the same techniques apply just as well to static fiction.)

First of all, conflict is an unfortunate reality, that occurs when individuals and factions with opposing goals meet. In real life, we do our best to avoid it, because it only ever brings waste and suffering. It doesn't "spice things up", it makes everything bitter. Treat conflict the same way in fiction, out of respect for all the people who are hurting somewhere right now.

For that matter, dare to imagine a world where people are tolerant of their respective differences. We need that kind of vision. And forget realism. The genre is called fantasy. If you can more easily imagine flying mountains than tolerant people, have a mirror.

Second, too many adjectives cheapen the text. Luckily, you need fewer than you might think. Consider:

The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon shrouded in haze.

Look, ma, no adjectives! Yet it could be an epic opening line for a story.

That said, don't avoid adjectives either, like other writers wrongly recommend. Just one, well-placed, can change your text dramatically. Contrast:

The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon lined with dark clouds.

This is why I love the craft of writing. Long fancy words matter much less.

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Tags: writing, philosophy

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Myths about writing

18 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 18 December 2019.)

While going through my old browser bookmarks, I found a series of links to equally old articles that aim to bust some myths about writing and/or publishing, and figured they're best shared.

First and foremost is Dean Wesley Smith's series titled Killing the sacred cows of publishing. My personal favorites are the one about rewriting and another about novel length. Indeed, as I wrote in 2017, every writer has personal ways to write, that they need to discover. If you feel the need to rewrite, then by all means do so. If you're happy with the way a story is coming along in first draft, and so are your beta readers? Great then, leave good enough alone! There's plenty of work to do as it is, from proofreading to ensuring consistency. As for length, are you surprised to find out that overly long novels that just drag on and on can be blamed squarely on the greed of publishers? My own Vryheid is exactly 35K words long, right up there with The Call of the Wild and The Time Machine. Clearly length is not needed to make a classic.

Lord of the Rings was way outside the norm, folks. About ten times over, in fact, by some measurements.

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Tags: writing, philosophy

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Where do writers get ideas?

15 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originall posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 4 July 2019.)

This is the question one of my favorite webcomic artists, Adam Casalino, recently set out to answer in a three-part article on his website:

It's a question writers hear a lot. I've touched upon the subject myself in the past. My own answer tends to be shorter: from life, dammit. Go forth and live. Find things to love and hate. Learn. Grow. Love and lose. And yes, take the time to think about it all. One hour spent in a park now and then, away from noise, agitation and worries, is a basic necessity of life. Decide what's important to you, and write about that, in your own way. If it speaks to yourself when you read it again, it will speak to others just as loudly.

But no, don't waste time reading stuff you don't like. We live in an age of plenty. Rest assured that you can find all the variety you need and more without having to torture yourself in the name of "being cultured". Oh, and if you forget an idea before writing it down? It probably wasn't so great in the first place. Good ideas tend to come back like cats. Just leave the door open.

I spent years exploring the concept of freedom in various stories, under two different pen names. It all culminated in a novel, that failed to sell, and for the next 18 months I barely wrote any fiction at all. Disappointment was a factor. Life, too. But mostly, having asked every question I could think of and found my answers, it took time to decide what was the next big thing that mattered to me as much.

These days, it's probably belonging, a concept tightly bound to freedom as it turns out. My recently completed novella opened the floodgates again, in addition to being my best work yet. All it takes now is to find a break among all my other creative projects.

Ideas are the one thing I have in excess. And my life has been terribly boring in recent years. What's your excuse?

Tags: writing, philosophy

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Creative versus original

10 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 1 September 2018.)

You know how people say, "nothing is original anymore" as if it was a tragedy?

Here's the dirty secret of creativity: nothing was original in the past either. Go all the way back to cave paintings, they depicted antelope hunts. Art was always about life. Allegory was a tool to enable free discussion of difficult subjects. The fantastic was how people tried to explain reality.

Wait, you're going to say. What about abstract art? What about escapism?

Abstraction also starts from reality, by definition. You have to have something to abstract in the first place. And escapism is a reaction to reality. If the latter wasn't too hard to endure sometimes, there would be nothing to escape from. Nothing to react to. Therefore, no escapism either.

Of course, once created, art too becomes part of reality: one more thing to make sense of. Deconstructions, retellings, fan fiction, all have their place. The problem begins when people want to create, but their life experience is largely vicarious. They know art, but not the things it was about in the first place. And that's how you end up with pastiches of reimaginings of adaptations of...

Now you know why so much art in the modern world rings hollow. Even if it wasn't ultra-commercialized in the first place, polished to death and made palatable to as large an audience as possible. Which is to say, nobody at all.

Hence that uncomfortable feeling you get when reading yet another sci-fi story that gets basic facts wrong, and I mean about society, not science. Or yet another story about high school students pulled into a hidden world of magical battles. Hey, kid. What have you been doing on vacation? Just homework? How come your characters can't seem to find adventure on a trip into the mountains for a change? Or for that matter a magical world based on the myths of your own country?

Ya'know, as opposed to a mythical Japan that was never real and you don't know much about either. Not enough to portray it respectfully.

Not that I blame the kids, mind you. I blame their parents. People my age, or a little older, who grew up playing Dungeons&Dragons in basements, and saw their little counterculture grow into the world's biggest industry. So they got jobs writing for D&D, and never had to leave those basements anymore.

Well, lately they see how empty their bubble is, and instead of trying to break free (which can be hard, mind you), or at least to push their kids out, they fall back onto cynicism as a substitute for wit: a mistake learned in turn from their parents who, like mine, were taught to believe academic prowess was the highest virtue... only to be smacked down hard for trying to follow that very ideal. Which is a whole other story.

Whenever you feel uninspired in your own creative work, well, yeah. Muses were always a metaphor. Inspiration is out there.

Tags: writing, philosophy

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Form versus substance

06 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 14 August 2018.)

Why is it so much easier to think about form than substance when planning a work of fiction?

I was never an especially prolific writer, so my already low output declining year after recent year has been worrying. (I blame life. Doesn't matter.) After something like 10K words in 2016, and lots of nonfiction on top of that, it was down to maybe 3500 words in 2017. This year? At most 1K, if you count the various bits of microfiction needed to bring my recent games to life. Been doing other things too, of course. Art is art. It's just my ability to tell stories that seems to have taken a hit. And stories are important.

There's something curious going on, however. Every time I think about a new thing to write, it's always about the form. Been pondering a light novel for instance: 100 pages, at 250 words each, would make 25K words. Well within my abilities, easy to organize, and not too daunting a proposition for readers. It would be an awkward length by today's publishing standards, but who gives a damn about publishers anymore.

What I can't figure out for the life of me is what to make it about.

It's not the first time that happens, either. Three times I tried and failed to write a fairy tale of sorts in computerized gamebook form. Even had a perfectly good protagonist, and a vague outline. Which is more than I can say about my usual fare. Still didn't help.

The same thing seems to happen with other creators as well. Often enough, I see someone going, "I'd like to make a (web)comic". To which they usually add, "but I can't draw". So? Either start practicing, team up with an artist... or consider a medium you can master more easily.

Except they specifically want to make a comic book. And they might consider an alternative... if they had any idea of what the subject matter should be. And just like me with my potential light novel, they don't.

Why in the world not?

I recently completed a short technical manual started last year. It went exactly according to plan, which doesn't happen to me often. Also just came up with a structure idea for another similar work I've been meaning to write for a long time now. All while continuing to write on my second book about game development, that I hope to have ready in a couple more years. Clearly my ability to string words together is as good as ever. Likewise my ability to spin a narrative, because nonfiction still needs narratives, and I can deliver just fine.

Then again, computers and the internet are just about the only life I have left. Even dreams have been hard to come by lately, never mind stories. So that side of it isn't much of a mystery.

Form on the other hand remains all too easy to think about. In prose. In games. It tempts me. What to do?

Tags: writing, philosophy

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The many ways to write

03 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 13 August 2017.)

Go out looking for advice on how to write, and you'll quickly collect a lot of very strict rules. Write this many words a day, without fail. No, that many. Write as fast as you can, and only edit after. Make an outline first.

Going back, you'll find stereotypes like the idea that writers only write at night, fueled by copious amounts of coffee, and Hemingway (I think) famously quipped: "write drunk, edit sober". Which is at least funny.

To the rest I say, bollocks. Sure, you need a little discipline, but when it's not going, it's not going. Always put your own well-being before your art! And in my experience, writing as fast as you can only results in prose with a frightening proportion of typos, that no amount of proofreading will clean up well enough. I'm a lot more careful than that, and still find typos in my stories after many years. As for outlines, suffice to say you should never put events in your stories just because you think they're supposed to be there. That only results in what I term "checklist-based writing", where nothing follows logically from one step to the next.

How do I write, then? Usually, from beginning to end, like the King of Hearts advises the Mad Hatter at the trial. At the start, I know roughly which direction to go, but not what path to follow, or where exactly it will lead. All of that becomes clearer along the way, and by the halfway point it's usually obvious how the story should end. Which, by extension, is how I know that's the halfway point.

Other stories coalesce around one key scene that I write first, then add layers around it like an onion, showing what led to it and what it led to in turn, and so on until there's enough story. Or I can start in the middle of a dramatic opening scene, then go back and write the very beginning before the next one. And once, after a brief first paragraph, I found it necessary to continue with a sizable flashback before resuming from where it had left off. And yes, one of my non-fiction books had its list of chapters written first... only to change considerably before it was half done.

So write in whatever way works best for you and your current project. Try out different things, because no two days are alike, and no two stories either. And let your story tell you when it wants to end, because if it doesn't come to life enough to do that by itself, it's not going to work out at all.

Speaking of which: do know your characters well. See the world through their eyes. Learn why it's worth saving, so you can tell your readers; the "how" is a detail.

Most of all, have fun writing, or at least get a weight off your chest. Otherwise, why bother making art in the first place?

Tags: writing, philosophy

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The path to inspiration

01 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 8 August 2017.)

Likely the most common question asked of creators is, "where do you get your ideas?" And the usual answer is, "everywhere!" In all we read, watch and live through, countless little experiences we blend into a unique whole.

Sometimes, however, inspiration can be much more direct than that. The Wolf With the Red Cap was prompted by a mature, gender-bent illustration of the story. Collectivity is what TVTropes calls a Fix Fic, loosely based on a certain space opera franchise. Dead of Night and The Watch are based directly on dreams I had. Dragon's Wish comes from somebody else's dream that they told me. And so on.

If such a source of inspiration presents itself, take it! Don't waste the opportunity. So what if the result may seem derivative to some? All art is, pretty much by definition. Even cave paintings were based on the day-to-day life of those who made them. You won't know if you're bringing something new to the conversation until you try. So dare create.

Tags: writing, philosophy

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