Fear of Failure

I’m genuinely sorry this blog isn’t more active. From its inception, I decided to only post when I have something worth saying. Unlike many of my fellow men, this isn’t quite as often as you’d think. For the most part, it comes down to either adding something of value to a conversation, or sharing something I learned or experienced that might prove useful to others. Today’s post is the latter.

Two-Gun Witch is doing well. The reviews have been overwhelming positive (thank you!) and it’s helped me in making some progress on the sequel (about 30k words so far). Which, as it turns out, is going to be a pantster novel because it’s continuing to evolve as I write. That’s not why I’m writing this post though.

I know, get on with it, O’Connell!

I haven’t made much progress over the last couple weeks and, as the title suggests, it’s a fear of failure that’s holding me back. This isn’t a new feeling for me, and I’ve experienced it with basically everything I’ve ever written. As I’ve said before, TGW wasn’t easy to write, but the fear was (and usually is) more exhilarating. That rush you get when facing a challenge, one that requires you to push yourself. You know you might fail, but in the end it will be worth it. That’s not the case this time. And it isn’t plot, character, or the like that has me wrapped around the axle. I’m genuinely afraid of failing the story, and this time, my failure would have serious consequences.

TGW didn’t have any cameos of famous historical figures, which was intentional, despite some suggestions that I should do so. Names were mentioned, but no one appeared. This time, the story requires it. I know in my bones this is the best path for the story to take, so there’s no going back and rewriting around it. Not without short changing the story, and I won’t do that.

What about creating a character from whole cloth to fill the role? I certainly could. More than that, I seriously doubt most readers would realize that any such evasion had been done. But once again, it would be taking the easy way out, and the story would be less for it. Besides, I’d know, and it would eat at me every time I looked at the book.

So, who is this character than I’m so concerned about doing justice to?

Harriet Tubman.

Yes, THAT Harriet Tubman.

It isn’t just that I’m a white man writing about a historically significant woman of color (understatement of the millennia), though that’s absolutely a part of it. It’s also the fact that much of what’s known about her is as much folklore as genuine, accurate historical fact. How do I go about parsing the folklore from the history? Yes, mine will be a fictional version of her, in a world of magic, elves, and dwarves, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. If I get this one wrong, I’ll disrespecting a figure of MASSIVE cultural and historical significance. Not to mention someone I admire and respect (which is the least important factor here).

So, what do I do? Well clearly, I need to do research. Careful research. Written by people of color, preferably women, so I can avoid as much bias (unconscious or otherwise) as possible.

It goes without saying that nothing will be from her point of view. I mean, I have a healthy ego, but holyshitareyoufuckingkiddingme (it’s a word!) not anywhere near the Galactus size ego such a feat would require.

Yeah, even The Devourer of Worlds is nopeing out of that idea.

Once I’ve learned as much as I can, all I can do is write the scenes, with as much respect as I can, never for a moment forgetting that I’m treading on sacred ground, and comporting myself as such.

And, lastly, as always, if I do fuck it up, then own my fuck up, do my best to make amends, and do better next time. But really, isn’t that just the human condition? In life we’re all going to screw up, and sometimes those screw ups may have massive repercussions. Avoiding situations that could go badly isn’t any way to live, nor is it a way to write.

Good luck to us all.

Two-Gun Witch – The Big Idea

One week ago today, Two-Gun Witch was released, as you know. On that day, John Scalzi was kind enough to give me a Big Idea spot on his blog. The Big Idea was the inspiration for A Story is Born on this blog. It’s essentially a spot for authors to talk about a book’s premise. Why didn’t I post that here at the time, you ask? Well, for two reasons. First, his blog gets roughly 23 trillion times the traffic mine does, so it felt a little unnecessary because it’s not like I’d drive a lot of traffic his way. As I’d hoped, this gave the book a nice boost in sales, but as I thought about it, it occurred to me that some people may not know Scalzi or follow his blog. If that’s you, first I highly recommend both. There’s a reason he’s such a successful writer. Second, I apologize.

Click here if you’d like to know how Two-Gun Witch came to be, please to enjoy!

As ever, please buy the book. If you have already, many thanks, and now please buy a copy for a friend. If you’ve done that, many more thanks, and now please ask your friend to buy a copy for another friend.

Happy Book Birthday Two-Gun Witch!

#SFWAPRO
Today is the day I’ve been waiting for, for a long while. You can now own your very own copy of Two-Gun Witch! You’ll find links to all the usual places to buy the book at the end of this post, but I also wanted to share something special. Music is very important to me and my writing process. As I noted in an earlier blog post, one of the great ironies of life is that the sound of typing keys drives me crazy. Seriously, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. As such, music is vital to maintain my sanity while writing (or working for that matter). Add to that, I tend to visualize my stories and music does an important providing a soundtrack for my mental movie. That’s why one of the first things I do when I start a new book is I create a new playlist for it. The songs provide a nice emotional punch to keep me in the right headspace. With that in mind, I’ve decided to recreate the playlist I made for Two-Gun Witch on Spotify and share it with you. There’s some songs in there you’ve probably heard, and perhaps more than a few you haven’t. Either way, I hope you enjoy it! If you’d prefer, here’s the direct link. If you prefer to find the songs yourself, I’ll paste the names in the text below, with YouTube links.

Two-Gun Witch Playlist

Enjoy the music, enjoy the book, and like with all books, posting a review or spreading word of the book to others would be a huge help! Thanks!

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indie Bound
Google Books

My local indie bookstore (they ship worldwide)
Fountain Bookstore – Paperback
Fountain Bookstore – Hardcover


Playlist

Against the Wind – The Highwaymen
Aint Going to Heaven – Gangstagrass
Ain’t No Grave – Johnny Cash
All for One – Gangstagrass
Annabelle – Gillian Welch
At Your Window – Trampled by Turtles
Ballad of a Lonely Man – Mike Ness
Banks of the Ohio – Gangstagrass
Big Iron – Mike Ness
Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound – Johnny Cash
Come Dance – Steep Canyon Rangers
Dear Sister – Claire Lynch
Don’t Take Your Guns to Town – Johnny Cash
(Ghost) Riders in the Sky – Johnny Cash
God’s Gonna Cut You Down – Johnny Cash
Hey Brother – Avicii
Highwaymen – The Highwaymen
Honey Babe – Gangstagrass
Hurt – Johnny Cash
In Hell I’ll be in Good Company – The Dead South
It Will Follow the Rain – The Tallest Man On Earth
John Henry – Gangstagrass
Long Hard Times To Come – Gangstagrass
I am a Man of Constant Sorrow – Soggy Bottom Boys
The Mercy Seat – Johnny Cash
Murder Ballad in G Minor – The Rosewood Thieves
Murder Song (5,4,3,2,1) – Aurora
O’ Death – Gangstagrass
Orphan Girl – Gillian Welch
The Outskirts – Trampled by Turtles
Peacemaker – The Steeldrivers
Ran Dry – Gangstagrass
The Recap – The Dead South
Remember Me This Way – Steve Martin, Edie Brickell
Renegades – X Ambassadors
Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
River Runs Red – The Steeldrivers
Six More Miles – Mike Ness
Take the Wheel – Steep Canyon Rangers
Walk the Line – The Tallest Man On Earth
The Way it Goes – Gillian Welch
We All Get Lonely – Trampled by Turtles
Whiskey – Trampled by Turtles
Wildwood Flower – Mike Ness
You Can Never Go Home Again – Gangstagrass
Your Rocky Spine – Great Lake Swimmers

Cancel Culture – A Creator’s Point of View

#SFWAPRO

First off, Happy New Year! I hope 2020 brings much happiness and joy.

To kick off the new year, I wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing more and more talk about: cancel culture.

Now this is going to be on the long side, so:

TLDR: Don’t be an asshole. If you do become an asshole, don’t whine about people calling you an asshole, or try to make them out to be the ‘real’ asshole.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the term Cancel Culture, I envy you. While I don’t usually rely on Wikipedia as a source, in this case, the
definition is sufficient. But, like any sort of social reaction, there is nuance that is hard to easily quantify.

Call-out culture (also known as outrage culture) is a form of public shaming that aims to hold individuals and groups accountable for their actions by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic, usually on social
media. A variant of the term, cancel culture, describes a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be either offensive or problematic called
out on social media is “canceled”; they are completely boycotted by many of their followers or supporters, often leading to massive declines in celebrities’ (almost always social media personalities) careers and fanbase.

Some examples of “cancel culture” include, but aren’t limited to: Louis C.K., Shane Gillis, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, more recently J.K. Rowling, and many, many more.


CLARIFICATION VIA MINI-RANT:

What I’m going to go into from here on is about people who say or do offensive things, NOT people who are themselves offensive. Like, for example, people who use their positions of power to get others to do things against their will, and actively work to destroy those who don’t go along with your twisted little fantasies. Those people are predators who need to compensate their victims AND spend a long while behind bars.


As way too many of those on the receiving end of this digital public shaming often shout about censorship and first amendment rights, I’m going to briefly (I hope) digress to hammer that argument into the ground. Apologies to my non-American readers for this. The text of the first amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

The first five words are the key. Congress shall make no law. The first amendment’s purpose and protections extend only as far as the government. It offers no protections from private entities, or businesses, such as social media companies for example. If you work for me and I discover that you like to spend your off time posting about how awesome lynching was, I’m going to fire your ass. Possibly out of a cannon. Into the sun. Some could argue about the fairness of firing someone based on what they do when I’m not paying them, though in my example it would take some serious mental gymnastics. What there can be no argument about, however, is that my firing of the above-mentioned douche-canoe violates their first amendment rights. Congress passed no law preventing them from saying something despicable, I just decided that I don’t want that view point associated with my business. Neither does the first ammendment guarantee you a platform, i.e. social media. When you sign up for any social media account, there is a (often lengthy) terms of service agreement you must agree to. And yet, some insist those companies are somehow obligated to permit any and all speech. To which I can only assume they would have no issue to me sitting in their living room 24/7, shouting obscenities through a bullhorn, and refusing to leave. Free speech, right?

Another unwritten aspect a lot of the first speech enthusiasts seem to believe is that the first amendment also protects them from criticism or consequence. There is so much irony in this idea that I’m amazed they don’t drop dead from heavy metal poisoning. The truth of course is that it ensures the exact opposite. Detractors have the same free speech rights. It should be noted the Supreme Court has ruled that all rights—including free speech—are not absolute. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is the most common example, but it also includes incitement to violence. This is why death threats are illegal, and why you rarely hear direct calls to do violence to others. It’s often coded. Or its weasel worded so the person can say they never actually told anyone to do that, they just said that if it happened it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This is why no social media is prevented from banning racists or bigots, but those same racists and bigots are allowed to organize protests and marches, so long as they don’t incite violence or put the public at risk.

Some like to include the “war on Christmas” in the cancel culture discussion, but that’s a false equivalency. Someone saying something other than “merry Christmas” does not intrude on your freedom of religion. However, insisting they do, does intrude on their freedom of speech. Also, it’s just a quick path to being an asshole.

Okay, so not so brief a digression. Sorry.

But, Bishop, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with being a creator? Well, I’m glad you asked.

I heard a clip from a podcast in which a group of comedians lamented how hard it was for them these days. They can’t perform at the venues they used to because they get booed/heckled, or just aren’t booked. The reason of course is because their material isn’t “politically correct.” I have several problems with this notion, as a person and an artist.

As a person, I’m sick of the PC boogeyman. No one seems able to agree on what exactly it means aside from: if you say something I don’t like (happy holidays) I can call you out for being rude or insensitive. But if you tell me I said something rude or impolite, it’s being PC. Generally, I try to start from a place of respect or politeness. If someone tells me something I said offended them, or the like, I generally apologize and make a mental note. It costs me little, and it helps me avoid being the asshole. Are there some people who go to extremes? Yes. As humans, that tends to be our default: “If one is good, then a thousand is awesome.” As I’ve noted in other posts, I’ll respect just about any viewpoint, up until it deems someone as less than, particularly if it’s something they have no control over (skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.). Even if it something they do have control over, so long as it doesn’t dehumanize, and all parties involved are consenting adults, I say, you do you.

At this point we come to the crux of the post, apologies for taking the long way around, but I couldn’t find any other way here. As an artist, I’m bothered whenever I hear another artist blame the audience for their failure.

“The audience is too uptight/PC to get my humor.”

“My book is too highbrow for most readers to appreciate.”

“People are too indoctrinated into mainstream music to get my style.”

“My work is just too edgy for most sheeple.”

Two words: Bull. Shit.

If you’re a creative, once you put your art out into the world, you no longer get a say. It belongs to the world and they will do with it what they will. If they dislike it (which isn’t the same as not liking it), it isn’t because of some failure on their part. It’s because of a failure on yours.

Wait! Don’t freak out!

This doesn’t mean you’re a failure as an artist, just that you failed to connect in that instance. That’s what art is about, creating a connection. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but you created it. For example, if you’re a comedian and people aren’t laughing at your material, the problem is the material, not the audience.

It’s not unlike when someone puts their foot in the mouth—or their head up their ass—and the defense is that they were taken out of context. In fairness, that can be a legitimate criticism. Using a single sentence from a ten-minute speech could leave out important information and change the tone of that sentence. But typically, “taken out of context” is code for “yes, I said that and meant it, but I refuse to accept the consequences.”

If you say something rude and/or offensive, and that wasn’t your intent, you stupendously failed in your attempt to communicate. And there’s no shame in that, we all roll a 1 sometimes (Dungeons & Dragon reference). Hell, it happens to me fairly regularly (thankfully, more often just saying something stupid rather than outright offensive) and it’s happened in every book I’ve written. Thank the merciful Gods my editors have been great in catching them and helping me do it less, but it still happens. When it does, there are three ways to proceed. Yes, there are more than three, but most are just some variation of these three.

  1. You can acknowledge that you messed up, apologize (sincerely, and no ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ bullshit), and make the effort to do better next time. The last part requires listening to others about where you went wrong
  2. You can do nothing. Just ignore all the looks and comments and go about your day.
  3. You can stand firm, or even double down.

The last two—spoiler alert—are great short cuts to becoming a complete asshat in short order. If the idea of apologizing and “giving in” or “capitulating” makes you uneasy, well, tough. Your job as a creative, or anyone who communicates with others, is to get your message across and understood. It’s not easy, and you’ll fail a lot. Like a LOT. But you won’t improve (as either a creative or a person) if you never recognize your own failures, and certainly not if you blame the audience.

This is how I view my job as a creative anyway, and what I do when I fall short. Maybe something works better for you. Or maybe you don’t care and think that if people are offended, they should just get over it. If you’re the latter, and your goal was to be an asshole, congratulations on your stupendous success.

A Story is Born – Terry Newman

#SFWAPRO

For this installment of A Story is Born, Terry Newman is here to talk about his comedic fantasy noir series (yes, you read that right). It hits on all genres and Terry shows why he has been so successful in comedy writing in all sort of media.


I have always made up stories, even before I could write them (or anything else) down. I played them through in my head. These short ‘imagination films’ featuring many of my favourite TV, film and comic book characters, as well as my own made-up characters.

I guess it’s what children do.

With this sort of start I consequently did pretty well at ‘English’ at school (despite a cavalier approach to spelling). I also did well at ‘German’, but living in the UK I stuck with English for writing.

I hated metalwork, which is why I never became Tony Stark.

I was good at everything else mind (no false modesty here!), but unfortunately – even though I went to ‘The Nobel Grammar School’ – I never won a Nobel prize. Only because our school was too modern to do that sort of thing. Otherwise it would have been a pretty good boast, having a Nobel prize.

Ah, perhaps I have gone back too far then? I’ll speed up.

Eventually careers talk time came around and the school’s Careers Master pointed me towards drama college or film school, where I could indulge these passions for making things up and possibly become a dissolute waster along the way. I was getting good at that too.

‘No’, I boldly said, (sic) to my Careers Master: ‘I’m going to be an ecologist and save the world from the upcoming environmental disaster.’ Sadly, back then in the later part of the C20th far to few people believed anything as bad as climate change was just round the corner.

Ha! That’ll teach them!

So I headed to the laboratory as best as I could and fell in love with electron microscopy. And, I mean, I could always write great stories in my spare time, couldn’t I? I’d have so much spare time, wouldn’t I?

I began writing my first full story, a comedy, detective, noir fantasy: ‘A DEAD ELF’ featuring dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak, while a proper electron microscope-wielding cell biologist, as some light relief from the chore of PhD writing. This was a long time ago (very last century) when the idea of mixing noir crime, fantasy and comedy in the one book seemed really outlandish! Well, it got me funny looks at parties, but this is what interested me: in particular Raymond Chandler, Tolkien and Douglas Adams. Let’s stick ‘em together I thought.

It was seeing a sign for an ‘Elf Service Station’ on the Derby Road that got my imagination firing on all cylinders. (The wind had blown a branch over the ‘S’). I just thought: ‘I bet they would have, bloody elves.’

I had never sided with the dwarves before – I was actually always one of the tallest in my class until everybody out-grew me. Fortunately, well after I had finished playing rugby.

Dwarves would make the best detectives after all – able to mix with the ‘White and Wise’ and the downtrodden and dirty in those mean cobbled streets. It is an interesting idea I had here after all, that all these medieval-type fantasy worlds would have to develop as time went by and deal with race relations and prejudice, political corruption and crime, and all the other delights of the modern era. It just had to happen!  Tick, tick, tick, went the brain!

Then, like The Beatles, I went to Hamburg. OK – it was just for a conference, a rather rushed affair, which is why I ended up there without any money and no return ticket. Boy, did I write a lot of ‘Dead Elf’ that week after the lectures had finished – after all I couldn’t afford to go anywhere – or eat. (Fortunately breakfast was provided).

That first incarnation of A DEAD ELF was a radio series. The BBC producer who read the script was very nice about it, but pointed out that the BBC had something similar in the mix and why didn’t I turn it into a novel? Unfortunately I had that PhD to finish and then papers to write and a chap called Terry Pratchett came along and basically did pretty much exactly what I wanted to do with fantasy. So, I put ‘A DEAD ELF’ away in the computer’s bottom drawer, but Nicely wouldn’t go away – in fact a second story gradually also emerged, but this time there was lot more detective and less satirical fantasy.

When, still a full time electron microscopist, I began writing topical comedy for a friend’s stage show I had a vague idea that this might be way to find an agent who could help me find a publisher for ‘A DEAD ELF’. This was now beginning to look much more like a proper novel now mostly thanks to a proper Word Processing package. However, a few months later I was surprised to find myself sneaking out of the lab lunch time to work at Broadcasting House writing for two of the BBC’s top topical comedy radio shows: ‘Week Ending’ and ‘The News Huddlines’.

You could do that then.

I ended up with some dozen commissions in total and jokes and sketches on TV’s prestigious ‘Rory Bremner’ show as well. What had begun as a way of finding a publisher was now the main preoccupation. Good job too, as to my surprise the worlds of comedy writing and book publishing have very little in common. This means that ‘A DEAD ELF’ had still to see the light of day.

Next, I tried my hand at playwriting, got my first commissions there and had three shows on at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the same year.

Oh, and some awards! Very minor awards, but more than you get doing electron microscopy. One play went on to be performed in New York and got a rather good review in the New York Times. I am still very pleased about that.

No agent still mind, as the worlds of playwriting, comedy writing and book publishing have even less in common.

One thing I was sure about, this was now all a lot more fun than science, and science funding was getting harder every day. Electron microscopy was not fashionable any more. So, I hung up my microscope – well, I would have done if they weren’t the size of baby elephants. I started writing film scripts as well and began helping other people with their work and even started teaching scriptwriting. I went properly freelance and closed the lab door for good.

And then strangely I became university lecturer again – this time in ‘writing’, not cell biology! Wow! Two university lectureships – how cool will that look on the C.V.? Not at all, is the answer.

Still, none of it had helped me find a home for ‘A DEAD ELF’! So when, working now full time as a writer and script doctor, I saw a post about Harper Voyager UK’s Digital First Initiative I emailed them ‘A DEAD ELF’ and basically forgot I had done so.

After all, I was writing my first musical now! Hell, why not?

Some time later I decided to self-publish ‘A DEAD ELF’. Two weeks after I had accomplished this, Harper Collins contacted me to say that they wanted to publish my book.

I unself-published ‘A DEAD ELF’.

My ebook was epublished by HV, with minimal publicity, as ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’. (A title I hated). With no review copies sent out, the book didn’t exactly shake the foundations of the publishing world! I knew it could be popular – I had total faith in Nicely. It just needed to get in front of the right readers.

Some months later (after the paperback was published as a Print On Demand) somebody at Harper Collins in the USA saw something in my story (or maybe they liked the cover – good cover!) and it was mentioned in a large promotional ‘Bookperk’ email to Harper Collins readers.

Within two weeks ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’ was selling like hot cakes and it became a Kindle #1 Bestseller in the ‘Epic Fantasy’ genre – it was outselling both Tolkien and Martin! Eek! I got a banner from Amazon to this effect to put on my website. Over a hundred reviews ticking up too!

However, with no follow-up publicity from the UK part of the Harper Voyager business, my sales couldn’t keep going at that rate. I was now inspired to finish Nicely’s next adventure, confident that this would sell even better as we could get surely some review copies out there too, given ‘A DEAD ELF’s’ success. My editor said she was looking forward to reading the book, so I dropped everything else and speedily finished the manuscript and sent it off to her. It was called ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’. A jolly clever mash-up of two great books – one fantasy and one detective; but you knew that!

I waited, and I waited. I sent off emails. I started book 3 still waiting. Eventually I heard that my editor was off sick. I carried on waiting. I contacted senior people and was told that it would be read. About a year after submission, pretty much out of the blue, I received an email from a p.a. to say that ‘because of lack of capacity’ Harper Voyager would not be able to do book 2 justice and so were not going to publish it.

And that’s after a relatively successful first book! Publishing eh?

Fortunately the experience had given me some contacts and so ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ was published by Monkey Business, an imprint of ‘Grey House in the Woods’ – bless ‘em – and I’m very pleased with it.

So that’s how my first book came about and how I stumbled through academia and didn’t win a Nobel Prize, either at school or as a scientist. I did help sort out cardiac atrial natriuretic peptide secretion though and discovered a corkscrew-headed sperm and the uniqueness of the plant endodermis membrane. I have also given quite a few people a jolly good laugh along the way – not always in my writing. More laughs still to come!

Detective Nicely Strongoak Book Three is now finished too – hurrah! It’s called ‘Dwarf Girls don’t Dance’ and completes the ‘Dwarf Noir’ trilogy. It will be published by Monkey Business later this year.

Check out Terry at his website here, his Wikipedia page (lucky bastard) here, or on Twitter here. Even Nicely has his own website here.
You can find all of Terry’s books, which are not only inexpensive ebooks but also well worth the read, on his Amazon page.

The Myth of Natural Born Talent

#SFWAPRO

I saw a conversation on Twitter recently about a writer “starting from nothing” and it got me thinking. There’s a fairly prevalent myth regarding not just writers, but nearly everyone in the creative arts. Hell, if we’re being honest about it, it extends into most aspects of life. This myth (and it is a myth) is that some people are just born artists, or singers, or mechanics, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

“She’s always had a gift for math.”

“He was drawing the most amazing things by five.”

“She was always helping with car repairs.”

“They were always making people laugh.”

It’s true some people have a natural aptitude: i.e. their brains are wired in such a way that they grasp some concepts quickly. However, this doesn’t mean someone is born with a best-selling novel in their tiny hands (thankfully for mothers everywhere), or a paint brush, or singing Ave Maria. Well maybe the last one, but it just comes across as crying. I don’t know any writer, musician, artist, or the like who never had to work at their art. Make no mistake, while some people might have a natural advantage, damn near anything you can imagine is a skill developed over time. Let’s take a common go to when the topic of geniuses come up.

A common misconception about Mozart is that he was born a gifted musician for whom music came as natural as breathing. The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Amadeus’s father was a music teacher and composer; more successful at the former than the latter. Amadeus sat in on his older sister’s lessons at age three and developed an interest in music. His father began teaching Amadeus, and by four, the child was playing the piano. The story goes that he was composing original music by five, but there is some debate about how true this is. His father stopped composing at the same time his son started, and most of the handwriting of the music was his father’s. Additionally, his father made money from his children, touting them as prodigies and having them play in front of the well to do of Europe.

This is not to say Amadeus wasn’t brilliant, but he also spent literal years learning his craft. It’s been shown that young children learn much quicker than adults, by necessity. Consider for a moment just how much kids learn in just the first few years of life: motor skills, language (sometimes more than one), social interaction, spatial awareness, and a whole long list of other things. We’ve all heard how young Olympians are when they start training. A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost. If your friend in high school who was an amazing sketch artist started drawing when they were six, is it any wonder that ten years later they’re pretty freaking good? Could it be that if you start something early enough (while the brain is still developing) that a natural aptitude is created? Regardless of how, some people are just better at somethings, but how is that different than all the other advantages people have over each other (better schools, food security, support and encouragement, a stable home life)?

When I was very young, five or six I think, my brother (nine years older) had an open house at his high school. This would’ve been the early eighties and Apple computers were just beginning to show up. While my mother talked with my brother’s teachers, I found a computer, booted it up, loaded a game, and set to playing. For anyone unfamiliar with the Apple II, let me assure you this wasn’t a herculean feat. Maybe I had some natural aptitude with computers, but more likely I got lucky. However, this event got the attention of my mother and the teacher. As such, I got branded a computer genius at an early age. When most kids were getting Atari 2600s, Colecovisions, or the like, I got a commodore Vic-20 (yes, I’m old, I’ve come to terms with it). When I complained that I couldn’t play many games on it (it had a cartridge slot and cassette tape input, but few options) I was told I could make my own games. So I did. I’ve used the Vic-20, the Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, Wang (the computer, I was a kid you perve!), several Tandy models, and eventually windows and Apple computers (including the early Macintosh). I remember hearing about Cray supercomputers and losing my mind.

After working with computers for almost forty years (we’ve established that I’m old) I can be functional in a program or system in a few days, and be showing others better ways to use them in a couple weeks. This isn’t to brag. I’m not a genius, I’ve just spent a lot of years developing this skill.

I’ve also been writing, at varying levels of seriousness, for just about as long. That skill however wasn’t born from the encouragement and support of my above example. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s wasn’t the brutal hellscape some grow up in, but it left its mark. I lived in near constant fear and amid near constant conflict. Like many families in that situation, we projected the appearance of normalcy. Most of my friends knew things weren’t great for me, but only a few knew the whole truth. I grew up believing that maintaining this illusion was of the utmost importance. This meant lying, a lot. My instinct to “keep the peace” at any cost took a long time to overcome. I have a feeling more than a few of you reading this know what I’m talking about.

But a useful aspect of this skill is that it translates well into storytelling, both writing and acting. I wrote my first stories in either kindergarten or first grade, I’m not sure which. I don’t imagine they were terribly inventive, but my teacher would read them to the class at story time. I don’t remember those instances in detail, but I remember how amazing they felt. I wrote poetry through junior high and high school. Yes, most of it was terrible and will never see the light of day, but some of it was good enough to win contests. When I got into college, I started taking writing more seriously. It took me ten years to finish my first novel, but only three months to finish the second. That second, The Stolen, would be my first published novel.

I’m a bit of a rarity among the published authors I know in that I don’t have a sizeable stack of novels (finished or not) in the proverbial drawer. Before The Stolen was published, I’d only worked on two novels, and only finished one (the other won’t ever be finished because, well, it’s crap). I don’t think this is because I’m some literary genius or naturally gifted writer. Rather than writing more novels, I took one (guess which) and started working with freelance editors to improve it. That’s when I learned that coming up with a story, and telling it well, were two different skill sets. I’d gotten pretty good at the first, but had no idea how to do the second. I learned a LOT from those early editors, and even more from my editor at Harper. In the years since, I’ve learned even more and continue to improve my craft. I hope I’ll continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.

I know this has been a long post, and thanks to those of you who made it all the way through, but it has all been prelude to a simple idea. Anyone can learn the skills to become a writer (or nearly anything else) at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since you were five, or you didn’t start until you were in your sixties.I don’t know for sure why we assign an almost magical air to people who are exceptionally successful or talented in a given field. Maybe it’s because it makes it easier to dismiss our dreams (or worse, the dreams of others).

“You’ll never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma.”

It’s worth noting here that he started on the cello at four-and-a-half.

It’s true you might not be the next Amadeus Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Johnny Cash, or Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean that if you put in the time effort, that you can’t ever be amazing at something. It might take you longer that some, or less than others. It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will just plain suck, but you can do it.

And don’t try to be the next anything, or berate yourself because you won’t be. We already have one. Work to be the first you. That’s something we don’t have, and no one else can do it.

The Author’s Voice

#SFWAPRO

Recently, a writer friend posted about a conversation he had with his agent regarding his voice. The writer is a self-confessed style chameleon, meaning he can mimic the styles of other writers, a laudable skill. However, the agent was curious what his voice would be when he wasn’t copying someone else. I tried to express what I thought the agent meant, but I’m not sure I expressed my thoughts well, so I’ve decided to tackle it here in a longer form.

If you’re a writer, or in the writing world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘writer’s voice’ before, but what is it? Unfortunately, a lot of people see it a bit like pornography in that “you know it when you see it.” It’s also one of the hardest, and most important, things a writer will do. As I’m a fan of philosophy, particularly Socrates, let’s start by trying to define the ineffable voice.

First, to be clear, I don’t mean a character’s voice. Each character (hopefully) has their own distinct voice expressed through word choice, emotional responses, and the like. A writer’s voice is a style, or feel to their writing. It doesn’t matter what genre the story is, their voice is the foundation upon which the story is told. Here’s an analogy that might help. There are some musicians who have such a well-defined style, or voice, that you can recognize one of their songs that you’ve never heard before. I think Santana is an excellent example of this because of his guitar. Mumford and Sons, the Pogues, Gaelic Storm, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Social Distortion are a few more examples just off the top of my head. Just about any die-hard fan can recognize the style of their favorite bands though.

So how does this translate into writing? Well, like music, style is built from different factors. Not many people make it a point to sit down and dissect a piece of writing to try and find the author’s voice, but it can prove to be a useful exercise in your own work. Here are just a few examples of what makes up a writer’s style or voice:

Word choice and sentence structure is often a key element in an author’s voice. Are their sentences long, or do they tend to use shorter, more clipped sentences? Do they use a lot of descriptive terms, or are they more direct? Anne Rice is a good example of the former and Hemingway of the latter. Do they use a lot of ‘ten dollar words’? Does the use of them come across as authentic? What about profanity/curse words? How much? Is it creative? i.e. does someone get called an asshole or a bloviated shit weasel.

The pacing of a book can be another aspect of the writer’s voice. It goes without saying that most stories, and (hopefully) all novels have a pace that varies: faster in action scenes, slower during deliberations, etc. But the story will also have an overall pace. Most people have read books where a hundred pages feels like ten, and other books that are the reverse. That level of pacing is determined by things like exposition, plot complexity, and even the characters.

Dialogue use versus narration could be considered part of pacing. The more dialogue used, the more ‘white space’ there will be (usually), and the more pages a book will have. The denser the text, the slower a book tends to feel. Despite the impact they can have on pace, I think dialogue versus narration deserves its own consideration. Narration doesn’t always have to feel slow and dialogue doesn’t have to feel fast. A long stretch of dialogue can be as dry as narration, and I’ve read narration that is more thrilling and energetic than the dialogue. Genre can have some impact in which way things lean, epic fantasy tends to have more narration for example, but there are exceptions. I tend to favor dialogue over narration, sometimes too much, even in my high fantasy stories.

The tone, or feel, of a story is a bit harder to define, but just as key. I’ll use my books as an example. They tend to the darker side, but not dark as in horror. If my books were people, they’d carry the scars—physical and emotional—of a hard lived life. They’d know how it feels to be hungry, and not know when you’ll eat again. They’ve been preyed upon by someone more powerful, and regularly come out on the losing end. But they still cling to hope, and in fact derive their strength from it. I’d classify my books in the neighborhood as Richard Kadrey and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files particularly). This obviously begs the question: doesn’t the individual story drive the tone? Of course it will have an impact, but with my work at least, I find the story adds depth to the tone rather than wholly defining it.

Lastly, there’s plot. I don’t just mean complex versus simple, but how the plots tend to be constructed. Does the story have seemingly disparate pieces that don’t come together till the end, or is each branch obviously part of the whole? Does the author use misdirection, throwing twists that turn out to have nothing to do with the main thread? Do they rely more on subtext, or are the hints more overt? Does the plot twist and turn, or does it just emerge from the fog? Again, the plot structure can shift from book to book, but it can also be a common thread that adds to the writer’s voice.

I could list other elements that can define a writer’s voice, but I think these are the easiest to see and breakdown. But style isn’t a recipe. Some writer’s might find their voice from all the examples I listed, some from only a couple, and others from elements I didn’t list at all. As writers we tend to start by mimicking the style of writers we like, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more you write though, the more you’ll probably see your own voice shining through. There’s no secret to finding your voice, and no timeline. I started to find mine by the second book I wrote, and really felt like I’d found my groove by the fourth. Some people may need more time and some lucky bastards might find their voice right out of the gate. It’s okay to hate those people, we all hate them.

However long it takes to find your voice is how long it takes. It isn’t a race and taking more or less time to find it doesn’t make you a better or worse writer. Regardless, I hope this post helps you along the way. It’s rarely an easy journey (unless you’re one of those previously mentioned lucky bastards) but it’s an important one, perhaps the most important. At least that’s my opinion.

Seriously though, if you found your voice the first time you sat down to write, screw you.

Morality and Motivation

#SFWAPRO

Please note, in the following discussion I use the term hero and villain. I’m using it in a non-gendered sense, much like actor is now used. Nothing I’ll be discussing need vary based on gender.

It’s common writing advice to make sure your characters, all of your characters, have a motivation; they need to want something. In some cases this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water because they’re thirsty. This might serve in the short term, or for very minor characters. For the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) of your story—assuming they’re people—your story will be better served if they have a deeper motivation driving them, beyond just the scene, but for the overall story. I’ve found establishing the morality of the characters makes this much simpler. It’s also helpful because you have something against which you can judge their actions; does is fit the character, or is it just a means to fit the story?

If you suspect my choice of topic for this post was influenced by current events, you’d be correct. This post isn’t about the principles we proclaim or project to the world, it’s about the true core of who we are, and what we believe is right.

I make no secret of the fact I majored in philosophy in college. As such, I enjoy a good and spirited debate. So long as it’s based on reason and fact. Sure, opinion can be a valid point if what you’re arguing has no objective answer. Chocolate being a superior ice cream flavor over chocolate doesn’t have an objective answer, but you’ll still need a reasoned argument if the debate will have any value. Because I like it, is not a reasoned argument. With that in mind, let’s start this discussion in a manner that would make Socrates proud, let’s define our topic.

A great many people confuse morality and ethics, and use the terms interchangeably. In point of fact, not only are they different, they are in some ways complete opposites. Morality is an internal set of principles you use to determine if something is wrong or right. Ethics are guidelines exerted by an external entity to moderate behavior. You workplace code of conduct for example, or the rules the doctors (and most medical professionals) and lawyers have to abide by. Obviously the two can overlap but they can also be opposed. In those cases a person with either remove themselves from the circumstance those ethics are applied, compromise their morality to fit, fight to have those ethical guidelines changed, or attempt to justify why such guidelines can’t or shouldn’t be applied to them. A prime example of this are the laws of commerce in the U.S. that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or gender (or gender identity). The now famous, or perhaps infamous, case of the wedding cake maker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple was argued on the basis that customized cakes were an artistic expression over a commercial endeavor and as such should be excluded from the commerce guidelines.

Another common misconception is that a person’s morality is an immoveable, unchanging thing. A normal part of life is reexamining our morals and deciding if they still fit what we currently believe. In some cases it is an honest reassessment based on our changing selves and understanding of the world. In others something of greater value causes of us compromise, or abandon all together, some principles. I don’t have to tell you that in the latter example, a great deal of self-delusion and/or justification often follows when questioned on it.

Now that we’ve established a definition of morality, let’s look at some basic schools of moral thought. A discussion on the vast and complicated points of a person’s guiding principles would take far too long for a simple blog post. There are in fact countless books on this. So let’s focus instead on core morality. The roots of the morality tree if you will. In philosophy there are two basic schools of thought in terms of morality; the more complex and nuanced areas of study or almost always based on one of these two schools.

The first is absolutism. This is the idea that there are a set of moral standards to which all people, everywhere, and regardless of cultural or societal acceptance can be held to. The other, as you’d imagine, is the opposite. Relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral principles and instead, every society (or even individual) must be permitted to determine their own moral guidelines. As such, in relativism anyway, it is inherently immoral to foist your principles/beliefs on anyone else. You can try and persuade them of course, but you can’t hold them to your moral standard.

A lot of people (at least people from western based cultures) would go with absolutism, at first anyway. We tend to believe there is a bedrock morality that can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, ever be compromised. Some will dismiss relativism, until you mention the part about the immorality of pushing your beliefs on another. That often gives people pause, especially Americans, which in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of. A heavy cultural importance on the idea of individual freedom runs very deep. And make no mistake, it is cultural.

Odds are if you’re from a western (or westernized) country, the choice between these two schools isn’t an obvious one. Yes, of course a person should be allowed to determine and live by their own beliefs, but there are also some things that are just wrong. Abuse of a child is never right, be it sexual, physical, or emotional. Right? Well, if you’ve watched the news lately, you know a great many people feel it can be justified. Understand we’re talking about absolutism here. There is no justification, there is no “yes it’s wrong, but” explaining away. If there are things that are absolutely wrong, then it must be absolute. I could also use murder, but even our laws allow for self-defense. Rape? Well, for me that it is an absolute wrong, but if you spend any time on the internet and social media, you’ll find a sizeable population who feel otherwise. Often, as retaliation for a woman (or other marginalized person who isn’t male) having the audacity to speak their mind, or refuse to accept a predominantly male opinion.

Does that mean then that there are no moral absolutes? By default then the choice would be relativism. Do societies only go on because of some agreed upon tenets of behavior? That’s a good question. In order to answer it, I’ll need to reveal my own moral point of view. You’re of course welcome to challenge it and debate me on it. Understand however, if it isn’t well reasoned and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll dismiss it as lacking any value to the overall discussion. I expect no less from others in regards to my arguments. I’m sure some people are already prepared to argue against my inclusion of gender identity mentioned above. To briefly digress, I included it not because I’m a gender studies expert, that but because I am not. As such, I defer to the experts in that area of study, the majority of who, through scientific study, have concluded that gender and biological sex aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, gender is much more of a spectrum than a binary classification. Yes, there are dissenters, but those I’ve looked over either started from a conclusion and sought to “prove” it correct, which is not scientific study. Or, they define gender as a social construct and as a member of that society we should adhere to it. By this argument, the very fact our society is starting to accept gender classification makes it self-negating.  Or, it’s simply a philosophical argument, which is fine, except this is something with an objective truth and as such, science wins out. Argue if you like, but gut feelings, just knowing what’s right, or other such arguments will be ignored. If you have scientific studies, feel free to link to them and I’ll look them over. If they turn out to be as I noted above, I’ll dismiss them. If not, I’ll recognize there are valid dissenting conclusions and look forward to further study on the topic.

Now, as you might’ve deduced, I’m a liberal minded person. As such, it might be a surprise to learn that I’m an absolutist. Yes, I can already hear some people grumbling about the “tolerant” only being so in regards to points of view they agree with. It might also be surprise that I will agree with that, and I have no moral confusion on the point; being liberal minded and an absolutist is not mutually exclusive. How? Well, I’m an absolutist because I believe there is one single principle that is absolute, and that all people should be answerable to. Yes, even having a single absolute belief means I’m an absolutist. What is that one thing? It’s simple. I believe every person has the right to live their life how so ever they chose, up until it prevents someone else from living their life however they chose. Thomas Jefferson had a similar mind in terms of ethics.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Which has also been paraphrased as, “the reach of my arm should stop at my neighbor’s nose.” Of course I have can and do have varying opinions on individual actions (by individuals or governments), but I weigh all them against that single principle. It’s important to note here that something being moral (fitting within your moral principles) doesn’t mean it also kind. Likewise, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it is evil. Not to say you can’t try, as I do, to always be kind, it just means that there is a higher standard which can overrule that desire.

You’re probably starting to see why there are countless books written on this topic. Like much of philosophy, and life, there are rarely easy answers and those we find might well be wrong.

Now, you’ve stayed with me for two and half pages of philosophical waxing, let’s talk about how all this helps in character development.

If you’re going to write compelling characters, they’ll need some motivation for their actions. For that motivation to be believable, it has to be consistent. The exception to this is if something happens that makes them reanalyze their own beliefs and motivations. While you’re free to delve deep and establish a complicated moral grounding for your characters, you rarely need to go that far. I find a get a deeper understanding of my characters and what they believe as the story develops. However, you still need a starting point. I’m sure the idea of developing motivation seems obvious, but I’m also sure we’ve all read stories where this wasn’t done, or not done well. Like much of your character development, these foundational principles don’t need to be obvious, or even stated in your story; your characters don’t all need to make a grand speech as to their values and beliefs. That being said, as the write, YOU damn sure should know what those motivations, values, and beliefs are. You needn’t have an in-depth understanding right away, or even for the entire first draft, but by the time you start revisions you should. It goes without saying that the sooner, and the deeper, you really understand your character, the better. It’s this understanding that will ensure a characters actions (with very, very, few exceptions, and those for good reason) is consistent and within their own morality.

Why is this important? Well you obviously want your readers to find your characters interesting. They don’t have to like them, though I believe there should always be at least one they can relate to and like. They do have to be compelling though. Readers are more likely to forgive a weaker story, or one with issues, if they like or are interested in the character. I’ve rarely heard of a story written so well the reader will keep going even if they find the characters blah. Heroes can’t just be the good person, and the villain can’t just be the bad one. Their motivations/beliefs don’t need to be a twisted web of complexity, but they must not ever be simple “because”. Why did the hero shoot that person? Because they’re a hero and the person they shot was the villain! What else would a hero do? While that’s a perfectly valid answer, it’s not a compelling one. Why did they shoot? Why didn’t they try to stop or subdue the villain without killing them? Why didn’t the hero try to reason with the villain? Or any number of other options? As the writer, you should be able to answer those questions. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to articulate it, though it’s not a bad thing if they can. They should however have a strong enough sense of who the character is that when presented with moral dilemmas, or complicated situation, they hero’s choice will feel correct at the end.

This sort of shallow simplicity does happen for heroes in a story, but it is much more commonly applied to the villains. Why did the villain blow up that building? Because they’re the villain, they’re evil! It’s what villains do. To be fair, being evil can be a legitimate motivation; some people just want to watch the world burn and all that. But apart from being a pretty lazy motivation, it’s only the surface. What is the deeper drive? What is the morality that drives them to be evil? With the exception of sever sociopaths and psychopaths, nearly all villains see themselves as the ones doing the right thing. Remember, something being moral doesn’t means it’s “good” or that it fits with societal normals and ethical standards. Likewise, morality, particularly of the villain, doesn’t need to make sense to you, or even the reader. It must however be consistent, apart from the examples I noted above.

This can be confusing, so let’s take a few villains from popular culture and dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the Joker, and since the comics have had different artists and writers, which lend itself to inconsistency, we’ll stick with the one from the movies. In the Dark Night movie, the Joker wanted to make people (or possibly just Batman) see that the order and structure of polite society was all a lie. Further, that once people (and by consequence society) were shown that lie, they would devolve into monsters with no care for others. This is actually a very common theme, particularly in dystopian stories. When society and its norms begin to vanish, people will naturally become focused on themselves to the exclusion of others. If it helps them survive, anything is justifiable. The problem, which doesn’t have to matter to the villain in question, is that reality counters this fairly decisively. Whenever there is destruction and/or tragedy, some selfish people emerge, but many more reach out to offer help and aid. In many cases it brings people together much more than it drives them apart. We see this after natural disasters, and even manmade destruction. Some might argue this is only because the overall structure of society remains intact, and provides some comfort even amid the destruction. But for those amid that destruction, have any thought to society beyond what their own experiences. To them, everything is burning, or destroyed. I wonder how many of those amid the destruction, see others suffering or hurt (including total strangers), actually ignore them and trust for someone of something else (society) to help. Some certainly, and some might be unable to help either because of injury or circumstance, but it always seems many more become that someone else. They become the helpers Mister Rogers said to look for. Again, my argument doesn’t discount the validity of the Joker’s motivation and morality (at least to him), it’s simply to show that morality, especially a villain’s, doesn’t need to be grounded in reality.

Darth Vader, especially in A New Hope was pretty much just evil. He did what he did because he was a bad guy, and his boss the emperor was also a bad guy. Yes, he had a redemption in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), but let’s focus on the motivation behind his dark deeds. Though it pains me to admit, the prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, added some depth to his character. Basically, he was angry. He was just so angry! He couldn’t save Padme, and besides she was cheating on him with Obi-Wan. He just loved Padme SO much! He did those dark deeds in the prequels, including murdering a bunch of children, just to get the power to keep her from dying. Yeah, it’s valid, also creepy, really childish, only slightly better than “because evil”, but still valid. Let’s ignore the prequels for now though (I can hear some cheering). In the original trilogy, it appears that Vader is just following the commands of the emperor. He does bad things because he’s told to. Why though? Without a doubt some people are content to follow orders and surrender any responsibility to someone else, even in the face of horrific acts. Those people don’t tend to be second in command of an freaking empire though. Vader has to lead, and good leaders aren’t just mindless followers. And he was a good leader, even considering what we’ll call an issue with blaster marksmanship on the part of the Stormtroopers. Despite years of trying, the rebellion never managed to bring down the empire. He also makes his own choices. The emperor gives him broad commands, but it’s up to Vader to figure out how to achieve them. I think, and I’m likely giving Lucas too much credit here, that Vader wasn’t driven by anger or love, but fear. Still ignoring the prequels, Vader took some serious damage. So much that, to quote Obi-Wan, he’s more machine than man. That kind of trauma leaves scars, and not just physical. I think Vader was driven by a fear of chaos, and the destruction it can bring. His morality was that order must be maintained at any cost. And real order only comes under the heel of a boot. People (or sentient beings) are willful and unpredictable. They do stupid things, and they must be kept in line. Everything he and the emperor do is for the greater good; a phrase responsible for countless pain and suffering. No amount of death, or suffering, is too much to pay. It’s nothing compared to the death and suffering that would come about if order is not maintained. In short, the suffering and/or death of an individual doesn’t matter when put against the preservation of society. Some modern laws in what we would consider progressive/democratic nations are based on this. Granted, it’s rarely carried to such an extreme.

If Vader’s motivation sounds like some political arguments you’ve heard over the years, and even recently, that’s not a coincidence. Fear is a powerful motivator. Now, even if we do consider the prequels (sorry) I’d argue my position is strengthened. Anakin lost his mother, the only family he knew and the only person (before Padme) who showed him kindness. When Palpatine lies about a vision of Padme dying, Anakin gets scared. Unfortunately, that fear drives him to really extreme lengths. When he loses Padme, he’s given up any hope that anything but complete control will serve. I could say that’s why episode IV is called “A New Hope” but that’s a reach even at my most optimistic.

Lastly, let’s look at Voldemort. Some of you might remember I used him in a post about villains and learning their motivations called “Interview with a villain”. This post digs a little deeper and is meant to give a better understanding. Now, no question, Voldemort is a massive dick. However, he does have a valid (if horrific) motivation. It’s one that comes up again and again in history: some people are simply inherently superior to others. Or to paraphrase another abhorrent group’s dogma, the preservation of the superior must be defended at all costs. To Voldemort, muggles and non-pureblood wizards are inferior to purebloods. As are other races such as house elves, centaurs, and the like. More than that though, they are a corrosive, infectious element. If left to their own devices, these “others” will destroy those worthy of power and the society they deserve. This means that the other must be destroyed, or at a minimum, subjugated entirely under their betters. Yep, he’s a bigot with a wand. And like all bigots and hatemongers, fear is the ultimate driver. Not quite the same fear as Vader, but certainly a different shade on the same color wheel. Most bigots will even admit this is their motivation. They’ll claim it’s a fear of losing their values, or culture, or even their very identity. They’ll wrap it in the robes of nobility and justify preemptive horrors in the name of self-defense. Of course it’s just a clever lie. So clever in fact that some actually believe it. The truth is they fear is being oppressed by those they themselves have been oppressing (either overtly or indirectly). They fear the very marginalization and injustice they put upon others, which they also discount. They see those others as empirically less than them. Theirs is a motivation of selfishness. Their morality is often of perversion of my own. Rather than everyone, it’s “I (and those like me) should be free to live however I chose, up until it stops me (or those like me) from living as I choose.” With no need to morally consider anyone not them, or like them, they are free to take any action they see fit. Not only are the complaints and fears of the bigot (in their minds) wholly justified, the complaints of the other (less than) is just petty whining and a refusal to see how good they have it. Voldemort is indeed evil, and being morally and rationally justified (again, to him) makes this brand of evil especially nightmarish, and one we’ve seen throughout history, and even the present.

With all the above in mind, you can see the separation between a hero and a villain usually comes down to few differences, or a combination of all three.

The first difference is a question of who is included in their moral principles. Heroes include and fight for everyone, or rather not just themselves and those like them. Even if they appear to only fight for themselves, ultimately it proves to be a lie. Villains on the other hand fight only for themselves and those like them (racially, culturally, of a similar mind, or any other standard). Villains might ally temporarily with those outside their group, but only if it benefits them and costs them little or nothing. When that changes, the villain will betray that alliance.

The second difference is the means they’ll use to achieve their goals. Heroes have lines they won’t cross. If they do, they either become a villain, or work to redeem themselves and make amends for the moral failing. This is often the basis for entire stories on its own. Villains do sometimes have a sense of honor, but it and their moral principles rarely extend beyond themselves, or those they see as their own.

The third difference is a question of offense or defense. Villains go on the offense; they work to impose their morality on others. No one is immune, no one is innocent. You’re either on board, or you’re on the tracks. Heroes tend to be defensive in their morality. While it could be argued they are also imposing their morality on others, it’s always to stop the villain from pushing their morality on an unwilling party, and when that imposition stops, so does the heroes. A hero won’t seek out and stop/kill a bigot just for being a bigot. They might confront the bigot openly, even make them face the societal consequences of bigotry, but they won’t try to stop them. However, when that bigot acts on their bigotry (through violence, subjugation, exclusion, or other means) the hero will get involved.

You might be wondering at this part how anti-heroes fit in all this. Well, anti-heroes are still heroes; they just lack some typical heroic features. They could be cowardly, lack idealism, or use questionable methods. Some would argue they might lack morality, but I’d disagree. Anti-heroes will still have a bedrock set of principles they won’t cross, often times with more vehemence than a typical hero. They might hunt down villains, but it must always be a villain who has done something, or is literally about to do something villainous. An anti-hero will rely on the third difference heavily.

One final important note is that villains don’t have to be, and rarely are, a villain through and through. To have depth, a villain needs to have a human side, possibly even characteristics more in line with a hero. Perhaps they’re kind to animals, or children. Maybe they volunteer at retirement homes, keeping lonely old people company. The key is that this human side must also be consistent with their morality. Don’t worry about it making them less of a villain; Hitler was an animal lover, and that love made him a vegetarian. The most disturbing, and frightening villains aren’t the creatures of nightmares. They aren’t made of evil and dripping darkness. The best villains (in terms of story and character) are those who look like everyone else, who go to the store, who repair a broken toy for a child. Monsters are easy to hate. But when they’re not always monstrous? Likewise, a good hero shouldn’t be perfect. No glint off their teeth when they smile, no gleaming armor. A good hero, a believable hero, a hero people will root for, should have issues they are dealing with. Maybe they’re poor, and even though they’re always on the verge of starving, the do what needs to be done. Or maybe they’re jaded, armor dented and dirty from a life of facing villainy. Maybe they don’t like kittens and puppies? Okay, that last one might be too far.

Another short story

#SFWAPRO

Continuing my plan for the end of last year (if a little late) here is another short story. Let’s call it farcical fantasy. It’s dark, and loosely based on a similar encounter in I had in college, though in that case, the lich’s eyes burned purple, not blue.
You can read it in it’s entirety here (also linked below the sample), and view my other short story here. Enjoy.


Erstwhile Thaumatecnic University

By Bishop O’Connell

“What is that smell?” someone in line behind Walter asked.

He didn’t look up or acknowledge it. It might not be him. Sure, he was a shit farmer from a long line of shit farmers, but it could be someone wearing Battle Axe body spray.

“Yeah, something smells like shit,” someone else added.

It could still be Battle Axe.

“Next,” the kobold working the desk said.

Walter hurried forward and held out his class course selection parchment.

“Name,” the kobold said without looking up. A nametag on his tunic read “Marvin.”

“Walter,” he said and lowered his voice. “Dungharvester.”

“Dungha—” Marvin looked up, his yellow eyes going wide. He sniffed the air a couple times and leaned back.

Walter didn’t move, just held the parchment out. He’d prepared himself for this, though apparently washing all his robes and undergarments eight times, taking three showers, and loading up on deodorant didn’t do any good. He made a mental note to pick up some Celtic Spring body wash.

Marvin reached out, took the parchment between two claws as if it might explode and coat the room in a layer of crap. After a careful examination, Marvin reluctantly set the parchment on his table, well away from anything else.

“Student ID,” he said.

“What?” Walter asked.

“Student identification card,” Marvin said, as if to an idiot child. “It’s a little card with your name and picture on it.”

Walter reached into his bag and began fishing through it. “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d need it anymore.”

The kobold just sighed and rolled his eyes, hand still out as Walter removed items from his bag and set them on the table: registration paperwork, quills, ink, comic scrolls, dorm room key, student handbook—

He cleared his throat and gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I know it’s in here.” He pulled out the small checkbook—the account contained the princely sum of two copper phalluses, one of which would soon be claimed by the bank as a monthly low balance fee—and found the ID underneath the cover.

He sighed, handed it over, then set to shoving everything back into his bag.

Marvin checked the ID, handed it back, then opened a gigantic tome. He flipped through pages of remarkably small text, ticking marks every now and then.

“You’re lucky,” Marvin said, marking another tick. “‘Hexes, curses, and the unholy art of retributive magics’ is being taught by Dr. Heckel. She’s a great teacher, but watch out for her assistant. Mr. Jyde can be a monumental asshole. I suggest sitting near the back and try not to show any fear.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Walter said and peered at a line of ticks. “Did I get into ‘Necromantic studies in horde building’?”

“Second to last spot,” Marvin said.

“Yes!” Walter did a little happy dance.

Marvin drew in a breath. “However, I’m now required to point out that it’s horde building, with a ‘d’.”

Walter blinked. “I don’t follow. What else could it could—oh dear Gods!”

Marvin nodded. “Yeah, an undead brothel makes one hell of a mess. It’ll be another year before ‘Ratigan the Fleshy’ hall is cleaned up enough for anyone to stay there.”

Walter shuddered. He wasn’t a prude, but he’d never understood not-so-necrophilia.

“You do not want to meet the ghosts that haunt that place,” Marvin said as he resumed marking the tome. “Sorry, ‘Raining fire and destruction 101’ is full.”

Walter knew that’d been a long shot. “What about ‘Intro to outer-planar contracts’ instead?”

“It’s open,” Marvin said and made a mark. “But you’re still missing the required athletics and liberal arts courses.”

“Um, well,” Walter said, adjusting his robes, which reminded him they were secondhand and freshly mended, by his mother no less. “I’m either majoring in Applied Necromantic Arts or Thaumaturgic Annihilative Studies,” he shrugged, “maybe a double major I don’t know, so I—”

“Tough tinkles, Dungharvester,” Marvin said, giving him a flat look. “It’s required that all freshmeats take an athletic, and an arts course in their first two semesters—”

“Freshmen.”

“What?” Walter asked.

“You said freshmeat,” Walter said. “You meant freshmen, right?”

“No.”

Walter opened his mouth to question further, but decided against it. “What are my options for athletics and arts?”

Marvin flipped to another page. “For athletics we have openings in beginning jousting.” He smiled. “You know the Erstwhile Ents tourney and jousting team made it to the all kingdom finals last year.”

“Yeah, I know,” Walter said, “but, um, jousting isn’t really my thing.”

“You sure?” Marvin asked. “Coach Horzrath, eater of spleens, teaches the class himself. And we only had seven student deaths last year. That’s an all-time low.”

“Yeah, tempting, but I have really bad carpal tunnel syndrome,” Walter said.

Marvin shrugged. “Archery?”

Walter tapped his spectacles. “Far sighted.”

“Hammer throw?”

“Anything less, um,” Walter bounced his head from side to side. “Physical?”

“You do understand what the word athletic means, right?” Marvin asked.

Walter opened his mouth.

Walter glanced down then back up. “What about bowling?”

“Oh, I like bowling.”

“Huzzah, I’m sure we’ll have a festival to celebrate,” Marvin said in a flat tone. “For arts class we have—”

“I don’t want to be a bard, why do I—?”

“Because it’s the rules,” Marvin said and pointed across the room. “And the line for people who give two shits is over there. This is the line for people give a single shit, and I’m fresh out.”

“I see why they have you working the table.”

“Yeah, my people skills are the stuff of legend and song,” Marvin said. “You can take a philosophy course in lieu of art. What about ‘Discussions on Current Events’? It’s taught by Sarlakin the baby gnawer—”

“The ogre that invaded the kingdom a last year?” Walter asked. “He wasn’t list in the handbook.”

Marvin shrugged. “Part of the peace treaty granted him tenure. He also teaches ‘Human privilege and non-human studies’ as well as ‘Intro to interpretive dance.’”

“I’m from the Feculence Hills,” Walter said. “I’d rather not take a class taught by the ogre who slaughtered a third of my neighbors.”

“Typical human,” Marvin said. “There’s a spot in ‘Crumbling Towers: The Toxicity of damsel in distress stereotypes’?”

“Probably a lot of girls in that one,” Walter said to himself smiling.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Marvin asked.

“What? No! I didn’t mean, uh, I just—”

“I know what you ‘just,’” Marvin said. “You think the rampant sexism princesses have had to deal with all these years is some kind of joke? You don’t suppose they’d rather armor up and take on that dragon themselves instead of waiting for Sir Bro to rescue them?”

“No!” Walter said. “I mean yes! I’m sorry, I. Um.” Walter cleared his throat. “I guess, um, put me down for non-human studies?”

“Good choice,” Marvin said and marked the book. “I think you’ll find it quite enlightening.”

Walter nodded as the memory of his neighbors being pulled apart like string cheese flashed in his head.

Marvin marked up the parchment and thrust it at Walter. “Your required tome list is in the class catalog next to each course,” he said. “Orientation for freshmeats is in Lord Tautkeister the Frugal auditorium every three bells, starting at noon.” He looked at the line. “Next.”

A human girl dressed in all black, probably a student acolyte of the dark goddess Penelope, stepped around him, and handed her paperwork to Marvin.

Read the entire story here…