Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Break with Guitar Hero II

For Christmas, I received a game from my sister and brother-in-law. They gave me Guitar Hero II for Playstation 2. This is the sequel to a very unique video game in which the player uses a makeshift guitar controller instead of the standard game controller.

I have no skills in playing guitar. My musical background is in percussion only, but understanding rhythm helps immensely with a game such as this. With each song completed, though, I feel as though I could pick up a real guitar and start jamming. It’s an illusion, of course, but when the game is set at medium or higher, it certainly feels much more realistic.

One of the funniest things about the game was watching my dad get hooked. He’s humored me over the years by playing some games with me occasionally, but there were very few he could even tolerate. This, by contrast, was a game that he couldn’t put down. We were up until past 2 AM Christmas Eve playing this game. Actually, he kept playing it, trying to finish one of the more difficult songs (and he eventually got through it).

Guitar Hero II is probably one of the most addictive console games available. No one can stop after just one song, and even five songs feels like a warm-up. We haven’t had a chance to purchase a second guitar yet, but I’m interested in finding out how well the two player match-ups can be. Supposedly, it offers not only head-to-head competition mode but also allows one person to play lead while the other person plays bass.

If you follow my blog for writing advice, then I advise every writer to take breaks here and there, especially around holidays like Christmas and New Year’s. If you’re looking for something fun to do (especially if you want something that isn’t related to writing in the least), pick up Guitar Hero II. It’s simple to learn and has four levels of difficulty to keep most people challenged. If you don’t already own a Playstation 2, head to a local game store that sells used equipment to find one at a good price.

Rock on!

Friday, December 22, 2006

World Building Part 1

Aside from whether or not a fantasy world is being created for the purposes of one story or many, it still goes through a building phase. For quick, high-level world building, draw in the aspects of the world as needed and ignore the rest. If, however, you would like the world to have more depth, consider this series of articles (which I endeavor to complete in the future).

In this first article, I want to focus on the world’s origin. How did it come into being? This certainly does not need to relate to real life (or whatever view you hold on our own planet), but if a world’s origins are too strange to understand, your story may find a limited audience.

Perhaps your world has no known origin. It simply exists, and that’s all there is to it. Keep in mind that unless something is eternal, it must have a beginning point, and it must have a cause. Even if you, as the author, have not determined how it came into existence, it isn’t plausible to say that it simply does exist without attaching the eternal property to it.

If you determine that your world is not eternal, consider what forces shaped its existence. Was it a random mix of elements? Did scientists or aliens create it? (I’m giving a nod to Larry Niven’s Ringworld even though it’s science fiction.) Was a god or gods behind the creation? Intelligent versus non-intelligent design can have a huge impact upon what your world is like.

Now, suppose that you decide on a responsible party for the world beyond chaos. Why does the world exist? What was it intended for? If it was intelligently designed, what is the character of those who did the creating? A world created by an evil god would be vastly different from one created by a benevolent god, and a world created by lazy, apathetic gods would be even more unique.

A world’s origin is the first block in building. It may not be necessary to explore everything to the subatomic level, but your story may depend upon that world’s dawn of time to some degree. Your characters may not know this origin (or maybe only certain ones do), but it will affect them. Consider this step before jumping on to the physical aspects of your world.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Quest

The quest appears within a number of fantasy stories. Just the word itself can send shivers up my spine, but a poorly written one sends those shivers into my stomach. There must be an art to writing a quest story well, so I humbly submit a few ideas on the topic.

A good quest ought to be difficult to achieve. Slaying a dragon alone might not be that difficult (unoriginality aside) unless the character intending to do the slaying has no arms. There ought to be a lot of effort involved in accomplishing the deed, or why else would it be told? I don't tell stories of going to the post office and mailing a package because anyone can do that, and it's relatively painless (except in late March). I would, however, tell a story of hand delivering a package to the international space station using a rocket I constructed in my backyard. (No, I'm not becoming a science-fiction writer; if this ever happens it will be science fact!)

Besides the difficulty level, the protagonist (assuming the protagonist is trying to fulfill the quest) should not know what it takes to complete the mission. He or she may have quite a bit of self-confidence and think the answer is in his or her mind, but those thoughts should prove only partially correct at best. The answer should come as part of the journey. Perhaps there is an item or special knowledge required, but whatever the case, this should be absent when the journey begins.

Regardless of whether the quest ends successfully or in pitiful failure, it ought to impact the protagonist in a profound way. If the main character of the story remains unchanged, this quest was worthless, even if it resulted in saving billions of lives. The prize itself isn't significant if it doesn't alter the winner or loser in some aspect. It doesn't really matter if this resulting change is for the better or worse, but a great quest will leave its mark upon those who undertake it.

Crafting this type of story well often proves itself to be a quest for the author. If you've recently written one, ask yourself if it meets the criteria I've listed, but don't stop on those three points. These are just some of the main ingredients. Perhaps I'll list a few more in a future post.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Writing High Fantasy

I have several subscriptions to magazines publishing fantasy, and I'm noticing that high fantasy stories are in the minority. As a writer of high fantasy, I want to encourage speculative writers not to abandon this sub-genre in hopes that the grass is greener elsewhere. Join our happy throng, if only occasionally.

High fantasy, sometimes termed epic fantasy, encompasses a variety of stories. Certainly anything labeled as epic should include a plot that affects many nations, if not the entirety of the world. High fantasy by itself, however, may not necessarily reach to epic proportions (though it often does), but it will take place in another world or another time, where legendary beasts are commonplace and civilization has not yet reached the industrial age. I think of it as storybook fantasy. Usually there are heroes and villains, and in this sub-genre, there is a higher probability that characters on either side are very clearly heroes or villains. This is simply a high-level (no pun intended) definition for those who may not be as familiar with the term, but feel free to post any additional thoughts on how you would define high fantasy if you think it is worth noting.

There seems to be a negative connotation with writing high fantasy presently. Certainly there are the traps of becoming clich├ęd, especially if a story at all resembles the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Another strike against high fantasy is that many inexperienced writers who try writing fantasy find themselves beginning with high fantasy, often because it was the first sub-genre they were exposed to. Since there is a plethora of high fantasy material written at an elementary level, there is the tendency to stereotype all high fantasy stories as unprofessional (or worse).

What high fantasy needs is a steady flow of excellent writing. There are a number of great writers who are experimenting with speculative stories that so closely resemble literary (real-life) fiction that only a hint of the fantastic exists. If we all move in such a direction, however, we are giving up on something great simply because a few voices say that high fantasy has already been done and cannot be done well again. Perhaps we've allowed others to shame us from writing how we should.

Consider the following analogy: all fantasy writers, regardless of sub-genre, are part of a massive army. We occupy the city of High Fantasy and have defended it well for generations. Now we've gathered so much strength that our soldiers pour forth and converge on new cities, including Magic Realism on the border of Literary Land. So many have departed to new challenges that unless some stout soldiers return, High Fantasy will collapse under any invading force. It is a war we should not lose, but the invaders are coming, and few choose to stand in the gaps left by the great heroes of yonder year. I am unwilling to surrender our city. Who will stand with me?

Monday, December 04, 2006

My Thirtieth Birthday

I turn thirty on December 17th. My wife had asked me about a month ago if I wanted a party with some friends and family, and I had said that it sounded like a great idea. Nothing more was mentioned after that discussion, and with December rolling in so quickly, I thought we probably wouldn't do anything. Little did I know that my wife, my parents and her parents had been planning a party so beyond the scale of a simple friends and family get together that it will stand in my mind as the greatest party I have ever attended.

For Halloween, my wife and I decided to get some medieval outfits. Not the cheesy plastic outfits sold at local stores but the kind that are custom made from the Ukraine. These were not inexpensive costumes, but we reasoned that not only could we use them for Halloween, but we could also attend some of the nearby Renaissance Fairs.

My wife approached me with an opportunity to don the costumes on Saturday, December 2nd. She told me that someone was writing a story for a local free paper in which they wanted to discuss the appeal of fantasy and medieval times. The article would feature pictures of people dressed accordingly.

We drove to the German American Klub a little past 6 PM because this was allegedly the location for the pictures, and it made sense because the restaurant is located inside a park. As we walked to the entrance, we found two people dressed similar to us, and my wife said that we were there for the pictures. They ushered us inside and pointed to a set of doors on the main floor.

I stepped inside the banquet hall and was startled by a shout of “Huzzah!” from about 80 people. Musicians, character actors, friends and family filled the room, and my mind became confused in trying to understand how all the pieces went together. I glanced at my wife and asked, “What is this?” She said, “Happy Birthday.”

The evening of food, frolic and fun swept past so quickly that I can hardly recount everything that occurred. My father-in-law, the king, knighted me. I read from a scroll that contained an excerpt from my latest fantasy short story. One of the character actors from Phoenix Swords taught me some basic sparring moves with a rapier and dagger. A number of us (including the character actors) learned dances that matched some of the songs performed by The Dragon Scale Consort. My cake was shaped like a castle, and the meal was served without utensils (aside from a spoon for the soup and a knife for the butter).

It was such a magical night that I wish I could turn thirty every year (assuming that doing so would result in the same party). I am extremely grateful to my wife, my parents and my parents-in-law for their efforts. I also wish to thank all those who attended, especially those who came in costume or helped in additional ways, many of whose efforts I may not have even noticed. The greatest blessing was seeing so many friends and family gathered together, wishing me the best birthday ever.