Author Archives: Kevin Cioffi

As the Years Go By

I recently had the pleasure of finishing my reading of Brandon Sanderson’s latest Mistborn novel: The Alloy of Law.  It was fantastic, full of his snappiest dialogue to date, hilarious self referential jokes and a plot that moved forward with the stunning pace of a bullet train.  Taking place some hundreds of years after the conclusion of the original Mistborn trilogy, the world and setting had completely changed, and yet it was at once instantly familiar.

In fact, while the main and supporting characters were thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly hilarious with all of their requisite Sanderson corniness and wit, I found myself mostly intrigued with the setting itself.  I was stunned to realize: the setting of this book was just as much a character to me as Wax and Wayne and the rest of the cast.  What made that so?

I think, for me, it was the progress, the change and development to the setting since last time I had visited Scadrial in the original Mistborn trilogy.  Without throwing out too many spoilers, within the three hundred or so years between books technology had begun to modernize.  Trains now race through the city and branch out through the unsettled “Roughs”, criminal and lawman alike have dropped their blades and taken up potent firearms, main characters from the original story have faded into myth, legend and theology.  As I said, I found a new sense of conflict and development in the actual world building behind the story.  It had become a living, breathing character.

I tried to pin down how, exactly, Mr. Sanderson was able to achieve this, and I think it boils down to the most obvious aspect: the passage of time.  In a lot of fantasy stories and series, it is sometimes surprising how little time actually passes.  For example, in The Wheel of Time, after twelve exhaustive books, I’m pretty sure only 2-3 years have passed.   Sure, the setting might be growing and changing based on the actions of the characters, but profound change in technology, government and lifestyle usually takes decades, even centuries.

That is why after three hundred years or so “off screen” I was fascinated by my second trip to Mistborn‘s Scadrial, and I’m really interested in finding more stories or series in which time and generations can pass, and the setting is able to develop as a prominent character.  Another one I can think of off the top of my head is Kevin J. Anderson’s Terra Incognita series.  The stories move at a blistering pace and sometimes years pass a decade at a time.  The landscape and inhabiting cultures are scoured by war and the vast scope of the story really gives room for the world itself to develop.

Filtering Out the White Noise

All artists borrow -or, let us be honest: steal – from other creative types.  A pleasant word for it is inspiration.  It simply cannot be helped.  As creative types ourselves watching, reading, listening; it can be like flipping on a switch.  Other artists become our mentors.  We may like the prose or world building of a specific author, the cinematography of an esteemed director, or the mood of a certain song.  For us, this becomes creative fodder.  We may seek to emulate the prose of the author or the complexity of her imaginary world, frame a written scene like a director’s shot, or set the same mood as the songwriter.  Oftentimes, these stimuli even act as the beginning spark of a fabulous idea and kindle passion within us.

But, to me at least, there comes a time when enough is enough; I’ve taken all of the “inspiration” I can for a certain project and I need to filter out the external stimulus.  At this point, anything further just becomes an extreme distraction – buzzing static or white noise.

For example, a few months ago I had the opportunity to play through some of Dark Souls on the PS3.  The game was so uniquely somber and spooky that I couldn’t help but find inspiration.  By the time I put down the controller, I had already begun fleshing out a new world and a short story to take place within it.  This wasn’t a piece of fan fiction or anything related to the game itself, more a siphoning of the game’s mood into something wholly my own.

But as sometimes happens with new ideas, I didn’t get to it right away.  A week or so went by and with it, work and responsibilities.  If the game wasn’t necessarily fresh in my mind it was still there and the siphoned mood along with it, but it was fading day by day.  What is worse, new experiences and new stimuli were gradually creeping in around the edges, tainting the original experience, spoiling the mood.  I had started watching Doctor Who and the light hearted zaniness of that program was a stark contrast to the silent spookiness of Dark Souls.

My point is, I don’t think new experiences or new stimuli will altogether kill a previous idea that I liked, but if I am not carefully it can gradually erode the integrity.  I think it is the same exact reason that I cannot write while listening to music with lyrics or with the television on.  The distraction is too much and my train of thought is completely altered.

I suppose the trick is to be careful.  It is great to be open to artistic stimuli, but at some point it might be best to shut it all off, at least until you can get a significant amount on paper.

An Idea is Never Truly ‘Finished’

I am guessing this has happened to many of you:

I began work on a novel about two years ago.  The process began with the spark of an idea, nurturing it through plenty of world-building into the semblance of a flame.  After a couple months of kicking this idea around in my head, November was coming around, and with it NaNoWriMo.  I decided to go to town on this new idea, working with some pretty robust world building and a very loose outline, and managed to hit the 50,000 words, but was only about halfway through the story as I envisioned it in my head.

After November, work on the novel inevitably slowed, and that passionate month of writing began to resemble the opening act of a romantic relationship; I was enamored with the idea in November, it was lovely and infallible.  Afterwards, glaring imperfections began to surface and the idea wasn’t so flawless anymore.  It needed work.  I put it on the back burner to simmer.  There were aspects I needed to reconsider.

I worked on it off and on the following year, considering new ideas and beginning new projects all the while, but I always seemed to come back to the original; indeed, I never stopped developing the world, or my ideas on how the outline should play out.

I will tell you a bit about it so I can make a point later.  I will try to be pretty general rather than get locked down in specific details.  The setting was a jungle type environment, something I had never seen before as the prime location in a fantasy story, and one that I was really excited to work with.  Within the jungle lived a single tribe with a terrifying history.  Some time ago, perhaps hundreds of years, the world was locked in eternal war, human blood spilled constantly and endlessly.  The earth was forced to drink this blood, and with enough of it, a terrible evil quickened beneath the crust, giving rise to a malicious jungle.  Most of the population was wiped out as the vegetation sprung up overnight, choking with vines, stabbing with roots, cutting with razor sharp leaves, what have you; quickened through decades of violence, this villainous jungle craved human blood to fuel its growth.

Humans fled as the jungle took root, and the few survivors were able to convene and establish a horribly burned and scarred track of land where nothing whatsoever would grow.  And so they were safe from the onslaught of the jungle, and in time, were able to form a community and begin to slowly grow the human population.

Those are about all the details necessary.  The point is, I worked with this idea for some time, beginning work on the actual novel with interruptions here and there for more world building about what the society was like, how their struggle for survival would play out.

But I began to feel limited.  I was working with a relatively small population, in a relatively cramped and concentrated pocket of the world.  The society itself was nowhere near as complex or established enough for me to tie it allegorically to problems in modern society, which I very badly wanted to do.  What was once a spark, then a fire, eventually dulled and burned out; development ceased and I was unable to overcome these glaring problems with the established world-building.

Recently, a few weeks ago, that unmistakable spark hit me again, and I began to solve my problems.  I had new, vaster ideas; ideas that took all the work I had done into its fold and established something larger.  Suddenly, the old idea was but a facet of the new.  The world, and the story, grew in scope and complexity and have become much more relatable, much easier to work with.

I have heard it say that many works of art – poems, paintings, songs, and novels – are never truly finished.  The artist eventually has to pick a point and sort of walk away, presenting it to the world in its current state.  This makes more sense to me now than it ever has before.  How many of you have experienced the same: an idea that never stops growing, that always becomes richer and more refined.  An idea that will grow over several days, then months, and eventually years.

It is clear to me that an idea for a world and a story is never “finished’ and ready to write.  It is true, at some point we will be forced to take what we have and run with it or else it will never see life, but I am sure many of us could sit and incubate a single idea for the entirety of our lives – I can only wonder how imaginative and complex these could grow.

As for me, I am more excited than ever for November to roll around, to give my newly reborn idea another shot at NaNoWriMo and see if it is finally ready to take its first steps into life.

To Better Ourselves?

I have been watching a fair amount of Star Trek lately – okay, a lot.  The Next Generation specifically, but each of the different series revolves around a basic premise: Mankind has advanced technologically to the point where concerns about materials and resources are mostly extinct.  Replicators exist that can construct matter in a manner that can basically spit out anything the user could desire.  Crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise use them mostly for food and drink, but their functionality doesn’t stop there.  Presumably they can be used to construct anything physical, be they toys, games, pictures or literature (though antiquated at this future point in time).

This technology is not limited to the space-faring crew of the Enterprise, either.  The devices are supposedly in use on Earth and on pretty much every colony or space station the Federation lays claim to.  According to the Captain of the Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, without concern for limited resources, humanity now works “to better” themselves.

My question is this: forget about the specific setting of the various Star Trek series for now, and consider your own present time and position.  If you were left without want for material or resources, would your current artistic goals, activities and aspirations remain the same?  Would they differ at all?

Most writers are certainly not in it for the money, and if they are, they may be a little misguided.  It is my experience that for the most part, the effort put in usually greatly outweighs the physical or material gain.  I don’t think this is an alien concept to any writer.  I’ve been looking for a full-time application for my love of writing and editing, but, in the meantime I write Freelance.  The money is often measly.  I recently signed up for work on a site that started paying about $1.50 for 200-300 word articles, or, about half of this post.  For 200-300 words, if I am writing for a client and not just myself, I would estimate about a half hour to an hour’s work, assuming some sort of research or preparation was going to be involved.  Let’s say it takes one half hour from accepting the assignment to completely finishing and submitting an edited piece.  That is still about $3.00 an hour.  Not exactly rock star money.

On the other end of the spectrum, writers can stand to make quite a bit of money.  One need only look no further than the likes of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.  There is no point trying to break down exactly how much those two make, it would only make the rest of us feel bad.

My point is, whether we are making $3.00 an hour, or substantially more, many of us probably began pursuing publication with the dream of making a career of it.  Take it back to my original question: without material concern, would we still continue to write?  Would we write simply for the art of it, as a means to better ourselves and society?

Personally, I cannot see myself writing as much as I currently do.  I am sure I would probably still be drawn to it, but would I really be motivated to hone my craft to a razor’s edge, “just because”?  I think that without the challenge to see exactly how far I can take it, or the starry-eyed visions of a day when I’ve hurtled every obstacle to cross some oft dreamed of finish line, writing would lose some of its meaning to me.

Are any of you like me?  In a Trek-like future, would you be the terry-cloth robed hedonist devouring barbeque rib after barbeque rib, or would your ideals win out?  Would you be able to overlook the lack of a materialistic challenge and continue producing your art for its own sake, and with as much vigor?