Category Archives: Jason Michelsen

Cathartic Writing

This isn’t the blog post I set out to write.  We aspire to be a blog for writers dealing with the business and/or process of writing.  Sometimes though, writing is about more than the characters and the plot.  Sometimes, it can be about real life, even when everyone in the story is wearing armor and carrying swords.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few days watching documentaries about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  To the majority of Americans – indeed even a great number of world citizens – it is the single most historically significant event to take place within the span of our lives.

We can all remember where we were when we first heard the news.  We’ve all seen the haunting images of the senseless violence.  It was impossible to not be affected in some way emotionally by the events of that day.

Is it no wonder those emotions would find their way into my writing?

In the days and weeks directly after the attacks, I was surprised to see just how affected my writing became.  I was in grad school for screenwriting at the time.  Like many people I knew, I was angry, and the scripts I wrote during that period reflected that.  Loss and vengeance appeared frequently.

But, what became apparent while revisiting the footage these past few days, is how certain images and themes found their way into my fantasy years later.  The story I’m currently working on takes place partly in a desert city.  The desert itself is comprised of fine, gray dust and littered with teetering towers of obsidian.  When I was worldbuilding, I didn’t consciously draw upon images from 9/11, and yet this is just one of many that has manifested in my writing.

It seems only natural.

To write is to express emotion.  Just because we write speculative fiction doesn’t mean that, in some way, we’re not using it to look at relevant issues of our own time.  To dissect them.  To find out what motivates some people to do unspeakable things.  Perhaps, on some level, to find reasons to sympathize with those people, to understand them.  Or perhaps to live vicariously through the hero, thwarting the enemy’s plan in the eleventh hour and saving the day.

Sometimes, however, we write simply to cope.

‘Tis But A Scratch!

Cartoon Credit: Joe Sutliff, after Monty Python and the Holy Grail

As speculative fiction writers, we often find ourselves doing a lot of research. Much of that research goes into worldbuilding, pulling from this or that culture, borrowing this or that religious ritual. Every nation in my own world has roots in more than one ancient culture from our past, just enough familiarity to give the reader a solid frame of reference. And while everyone pretty much knows where to go to do that particular kind of research, I’ve come across a couple books recently that have helped me tremendously with the authenticity of other areas of my writing.

I write Epic/Heroic Fantasy of an adult nature.  It’s violent.  It’s bloody.  People get hurt, injured, maimed, disfigured, etc. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – I don’t get to observe people who have been injured on a daily basis. Aside from TV and pictures, I’ve only seen one dead body outside of a funeral home in my entire life, but I want my books to feel real. I want the injuries that occur to feel real, the consequences to feel real.

Recently, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by David W. Page, M.D. While the book does spend a good amount of time dealing with injuries caused by modern weapons, much of the information can be applied to ancient warfare. The chapter on abdominal trauma alone is worth the price of the book. I mean seriously, how many people will I run through with swords in my writing career? Probably one or two. There’s a chapter dealing with injuries to just about every body part with special chapters dealing with impalement, amputation, bug bites, frostbite and much much more. It’s a must have for any writer planning on hurting one of his characters.

Another book I’ve turned to on a number of occasions is Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. I originally bought it as a research book for a huge siege set piece I have planned for a future book, but I’ve used it two other times to come up with devious methods of attack. It has information on everything from ancient flamethrowers to poison gases to incendiary bombs. Nothing pleasant, but all pleasantly helpful to anyone writing violent fiction.

And on a less “violent” note, I thought I’d bring up a book that some might never think to read if they’re interested in writing speculative fiction.  Robert McKee is a name widely known in Hollywood, but maybe not so much in the SFF community. He’s a screenwriter of some renown, and his book Story is one that anyone interested in telling stories should read. While it claims to be a book on screenwriting – and was indeed the required text for one of my classes in film school – it is so much more. McKee breaks storytelling down into the most basic elements, providing examples and showing how and why some elements work and others do not. I try to read Story at least once every 2-3 years. Not only is it educational, it is inspirational.

I hope these book recommendations prove helpful to someone out there. If anyone has any other books of this nature that they use regularly, feel free to post them in the comments section. I for one am always looking to expand my research library.


Stand Alone or Grow a Forest?

If books were trees, I’d have a forest in my head. It’s 842,622 words long, filled with sweeping character arcs, murky intentions, sacrificial heroism, the syncopated percussion of snapping bones, the crackling discharge of magic, the heady musk of blood. It’s a trilogy that has marinated in my conscious for near twenty years. It dwells in the vaults of my mind, the limbs of its beautiful prose framed by spaces, commas and periods, yearning to live the life of ink, dripped and stamped into meaning. My epic magnum opus.

Of course, I pulled that word count out of the ether, but I tend to read and desire to write doorstoppers . . . as long as they’re well-written. Twice before I tried to write the first book of my planned trilogy, and twice before I wrote myself into more corners than any house has a right to claim. The trees of my series blinded me, cramped the single tree I was trying to cultivate. It wasn’t until I heard other authors I respect and read talk about postponing larger projects that consumed their younger years while they honed their craft that I realized I was biting off more than my writing chops could chew. Carrying a story through a single book is far easier than trying to drape one over the frame of a series.

This is why most authors I’ve spoken with advise not trying to write a series fresh out of the gates. Usually, the untried author won’t be up to the challenge. Does this mean you’ll never be able to write a series? No.  Michael Jordan didn’t dunk the first time he jumped, Brett Favre didn’t throw a touchdown the first time he picked up a football. And besides, most publishers won’t buy a series from an unknown author, though there are the occasional exceptions: Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, R. Scott Bakker and others. Some publisher submission guidelines even go so far as to say if you’re submitting something that’s part of a larger work not to provide any info on the later books. If they’re interested, they’ll ask.

So, the advice which was given to me and which I now pass on to any other aspiring speculative fiction writers out there is to write a self-contained, stand alone novel-or six-before tackling a series. Prove to yourself you can carry a story from its beginning, through the muddy middle to its brilliant climax. The best series-in my opinion-contain books that stand on their own with beginnings, middles and endings, so focus on that when you’re just starting out. But-and this is important-don’t hold back! Don’t cling to your best ideas so you can use them in an eventual series, use them in what you’re writing now! You want anything you write to stand out and wow the reader . . . like a majestic tree standing apart from the forest.

Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters.  I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!