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Writing Level-?: That dog cannot swim.

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Dec 13th, 2010
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The other day while coming home on the metro, my wife looked over at me and said, “What are you doing?”

Busted. Her question yanked me out of something I now realize probably looks kind of creepy. A little crazy perhaps. I wasn’t even conscious of how obvious it was until she called me on it: I was standing there, staring out the glass into the tunnel, talking under my breath, mouthing complete sentences. I do this a lot lately. Walking to and from work. Standing in the elevator. Sitting at my desk. I mutter things like, “Yesterday I ate chocolate.” Or “That dog cannot swim.”

Only, it’s in mangled French, because that’s where I am right now. In France. In the beautiful city of Lyon, the gastronomic paradise of things like quenelles, charcuterie-ized donkey flesh, and of course delicious regional cheeses. The game development studio I work for, Arkane, has an office here. I’ve been here for nearly three months, and will be here for another three months, at least. My family and I are loving it.

The downside: it’s lobbed a grenade into my writing routine.

Back home in Austin, it was easier. I had my own space to write. I wrote in the morning before work, or sometimes in the evening. I had a semi-consistent pattern. But here, it’s more like guerrilla warfare—hit and run sessions where I snatch 10 minutes here, a half-hour there. I have no fixed position from which to give battle.

Instead, most of my time and energy is consumed by the very busy (and tremendously exciting) phase of the project the dev team is currently in, not to mention the added strain of our family adjusting to living on a different continent. Then, add to that the fact that I’m also trying to learn how to speak the language. Hence, the weird self-mutterings my wife witnessed.

I’ve gotten to the point where can carry on basic, albeit halting, conversations with people. Afterwards, like a someone stewing over an argument, I replay the entire exchange in my mind, reforming the phrases I should have said, correcting mistakes, re-hearing the sounds they made to pluck out the words I missed on the first pass.

Because when a native French person speaks at full speed, it’s hard to catch everything when you’re brain isn’t accustomed to the way the language sounds. Where exactly did that one word end and the next one begin? Plus, French has this beautiful, but maddeningly difficult, feature called liasons. Generally, you don’t pronounce the last consonant of French words—that is, unless the next word begins with vowel. Then it’s like a combo-ing moves together in a fighting game. Game over for me. Here’s a typical encounter:

Work colleague approaches me and a rapid, unbroken wave of nasally yet silky sounds flow out of his mouth. Something like:


If I’m not ready, it takes about a second for my brain to go, “French! He said something in French. Quick—transition!” At which point I start repeating the sounds he made in my head. A few words crystallize at a time:

“NOUS allonzalahboolansherree. TU vuvanear AVEC NOUS?”

We’re going somewhere? You with us?

Meanwhile, my colleague is still looking at me, starting to register amusement at the semi-stunned look in my eyes that happens while my brain is furiously decoding the French signal. A few seconds later, I’ve got the message nearly translated and I’m about to respond, but he decides to have mercy and switches to English (because everyone I work with speaks passable to superb English, smarty-pants game developers that they are):

“We’re going to get some lunch at the bakery,” he says. “Do you want to come?”

Dammit! I almost had it! Too slow. But, I respond with a sheepish, “Oui.”

Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad. But it is taxing. Just listening takes significant effort.

So, anyway, all of this is partially the cause for my recent silence on the interwebs. But the writing continues to make progress (in fact, I’m working on a few exciting things I hope to be able to post about soon), it’s just an irregular, lurching, sort of progress, until things once again resemble some version of normal.

Until then, Ce chien ne peut pas nager, mais il peut retenir son souffle pour longtemps.

Writing Level-Up: It Comes Back

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Sep 14th, 2010
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My seven year old daughter is a deeply sensitive person. And she never forgets. Anything. I forget that she never forgets, and then it bites me in the ass.

We’ve had several beta fishes over the last year and a half. When the first one died, it was a big deal. In fact, it was pretty devastating for our daughter who found the poor little fish floating with “strange eyes” in its tank one morning. We did an official family funeral in the front yard. My daughter decorated a box for the fish, and even set a delicate white vase with flowers picked from the front yard over the shoe-sized hole we dug. I said a few words. She wept. (And so did most of us, watching her.)

We purchased a new carmine red beta-fish the next day. This one didn’t last half as long. In a tragic water-changing incident, it leaped out of its temporary bowl of water while the tank was waiting to get rinsed. My wife found the dogs nosing it on the living room floor much later. So, after some tears, we decided another funeral was in order. For some reason I can’t recall, we couldn’t do it immediately, so the body was set on a folded paper towel inside a powder-blue teacup, then set in the fridge for storage.

And there it sat … for months. A few days ago we were cleaning out the fridge (as part of a larger moving out/cleaning effort). I spotted the teacup tucked into the way-back of the fridge. I thought, surely she’s forgotten by now. We’ve had a third fish which has been alive and kicking for a while now. And even if she hasn’t forgotten, it probably isn’t as big a deal now, right? Besides, I was ready to be done with all this cleaning. My wife, who knows much better than me, gave me a skeptical are-you-sure look. Yes, it’s fine. So I tossed the fish’s shrunken body into the trash.

Huge mistake.

If this were fiction, you wouldn’t believe what happened next. But it’s not. The very next morning, my daughter shuffled into our room at the crack of dawn, wrapped in her fuzzy blanket, rumply-haired and wild-eyed and said to my wife, “Mommy, I had a dream that you flushed my red fish down the toilet. He’s still in the fridge, right?”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

My wife croaked a response, “Talk to your daddy about that.”

Needless to say, I had to face the wounded and scalding stare of my daughter’s watering eyes. I think I muttered some weak excuses. What a complete tool. Fortunately, with my wife’s quick-thinking assistance, we rectified the matter and immediately had a second, very touching funeral.

On the drive to work, this got me to thinking about how some powerful moments in fiction happen when an author plants the seed of some drama that bears fruit much later in the story. A character tries to sweep something under the rug, and the result comes back to haunt him much later. When it works, it can be a great surprise, but one that, when looking back, follows naturally from the preceding narrative. You’re surprised, but thinking, “Of course!” Or maybe you saw it coming, but when it happens it’s not dull or predictable, it’s satisfying. A good example of this–watch me reach for the universal nerd common ground–is Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite in Empire Strikes Back. Stiffing Jabba had to pay off at some point.

Another version of this is Chekhov’s Gun, which is really an example of foreshadowing. Chekhov said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” A recent example that stands out for me is in the second book of Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game series. The games master, Plutarch, flashes the main character, Katniss, a watch with an image of a mockingjay on it (which is the symbol of the rebels, but also being worn by fashionable elites in the Capitol).

It seems to me there’s a delicate balance between being so subtle that the reader feels like the results of the seed-planting come out of the blue, and so obvious that the reader thinks your treating them like they’re stupid. Personally I think I can tolerate the former more than the latter.

Anyone else have any good or bad examples of either version?

Writing Level-Up: Anthony Huso and The Last Page

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Aug 17th, 2010
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The Last PageMost of the books I read end up finding their way to Half-Price Books–even if I enjoyed them. But, I have a bookshelf (shoddily but proudly built by my own hands, I might add) reserved for my favorite authors and the stories that have lingered in my imagination long after I’ve read them, things like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and pretty much anything written by Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny.

Anthony Huso’s The Last Page has earned a place on those warped timbers. Huso’s novel debuts today, and he’s kindly offered to subject himself to a few of my questions–readers and aspiring writers will find some gems in his answers. But before we get to that, let me tell you a little about why I like the book:

The Last Page stars Caliph Howl, reluctant High King of Stonehold, a backwater kingdom gnawed by external enemies and on the verge of civil war. Mix into that Sena Ilool, Caliph’s old college lover, now an agent of the Shradnae witchocracy. Despite the fact that she’s been sent to spy on him, Caliph is hopelessly obsessed with her, even when it becomes apparent that Sena is pursuing a personal agenda far grander and more monstrous than even the witchocracy could anticipate.

I’ve mentioned before that my favorite stories are those that have the power to transport me. The Last Page swallows the reader into a rich world that blends weird technology with a whiff of steampunk, cryptic blood magic, and a splash of lovecraft in the form of horrific creatures lurking in the sewers and the membranes between realities. Like Wolfe, Huso also delights in slinging neologisms that spark in the imagination, or unearthing crusty old words into the light of day. But beware: the story doesn’t do any hand-holding. Never does it pause to explain what a chemeostatic torch is, but that’s okay, if you’re attentive to the text, you’ll pick it up soon enough–even if the meaning is never laser-precise. And thats part of the draw: the edges of this world are always smoky and threatening.

Aside from that, there’s the pure action-coolness of airship battles, soldiers who ambush their enemies from giant bulbs of meat, and witches with skills that put Sam Fisher to shame.

Now, on to the questions:

1. Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.

Rugged and fraught with deep apathy.  How did I overcome?  Well, rugged, you can kind of gun the engine, and muscle your way through.  But deep apathy will screw you over, bottom you out and leave you hanging, unable to move for long periods of time.  Good news is that there are Samaritans that happen along the road and do nice things for you, anything from encouragement to  actively pimping your work to people they know.  I was lucky.  I had reached the point when I was about to chalk my writing up as a pipe-dream and abandon it forever when Marc Laidlaw, for reasons he’s unable to explain even to himself, agreed to look at my book.  He was my sterling champion, I shit you not.  He gets free chocolate milk shakes in my presence until the day he dies.  My suggestion: be friendly and open.  You never know when that magical connection will materialize.

2. If you were a brand new writer, picking up the pen (or the keyboard) for the first time today, is there anything you’d do differently? Maybe pitfalls for others to avoid?

I would never (again) pay a middle-aged woman in a black and gold moo moo $350 to “evaluate” my manuscript that I wrote at the age of 23 and then sit quietly and despondently as she told me that one of her “readers” evaluated it and that, sorry—it has no real value.  She even thanked me for my business and suggested I keep on trying…bring it back and pay her another $350 to evaluate it again when I thought it was good enough.

Yes, we are stupid when we are young.

Also, when someone tells you that your story is horribly boring, don’t despair.  They probably don’t like gunfights, or mid-air collisions, or whatever.  That’s not your fault.  My favorite rejection letter of all time is, and I quote: “Seeing as how I find fantasy to be ridiculous and genre writing wholly without merit, I don’t think I’d be the right person to represent you.”  Well.  Not much you can say to that except “Thanks for the most memorable arrogance of all time.”  Then you move on.  Keep at it.  And above all, learn to accept that a lot of what you write really  is total garbage and will need to be rewritten: even the stuff you feel euphoric about right after you finish writing it.  Also, if you are not writing for yourself, you will probably fail.  You may fail anyway, but if you are writing for yourself, you are doing something right and something important.  We learn from our own writing, deep mysterious things about the universe and our place in it.  No I’m not being sarcastic.  It’s true.  Believe it or not.

3. What do you want people to know about The Last Page?

It is a story that I wrote for myself.  I always say it is the story I had to tell.  Fantasy allows me to pull real demons out into the light, in a semi-safe framework, where I can dress them up in other clothes and parade them around, let them wreak a little havoc and then try to shoot them through the left eye.  I always aim for the left eye.  It should be noted that sometimes I miss and the demons live on.  Some people wrestle with their demons directly, using the same sorts of characters and places where those demons first appeared.  Vietnam is a great example.  I prefer to transform my demons into something that *feels* the same but still manages to mask the origin.  Fantasy lets me do that.  The Last Page is about things much bigger than the characters, about the characters coping with those things and about how that coping affects the characters on the inside.  Yes I know this is vague enough to describe a library-full of books, but this is what all the best stories in the world are about.  And besides, I have red, tentacular oyster abominations in my book that will suck the juices from your body before humping grub-like back into the underworld.  So that’s sort of new.

4. What was the hardest part about writing The Last Page for you?

The hardest part of writing anything for me is figuring out how to cope with really dark concepts in a way that will still be palatable to the widest range of people.  I don’t want to whine or cry.  I want to have emotionally charged scenes without the bathos.  This has lead me to use a fairly terse voice in much of my writing.  As a result, scenes where the emotional content is delicate and nuanced take me many, many passes to get right.

5. If you had to inhabit body of one of the characters in your book, who would that be? Why?

Caliph Howl.  Caliph accomplishes things I never could.  He also has a hot girlfriend.  But I think, really, Caliph is a seeker of good things.  He wants to do what’s right, which is something I can get behind.  Even when everything is going wrong and the answers to the problems facing him are unclear, Caliph will stick to his guns.  He represents a kind of maudlin idealist perhaps, easily lampooned—and he has his weaknesses—but he is undeniably good.  He tries to hide his soft side under a rigorous pragmatic approach to life, but he can’t hide it from me.

6. Magic in The Last Page is esoteric and dangerous, consisting of an intriguing blend of blood sacrifice and reality-warping math equations. How did you end up with that approach?

Most fantasy today is what I consider canned fantasy.  That is, the book starts out saying that Jenny is a werewolf and that it’s kinda hard to deal with the vampires on the west side of town.  Or, Ernie is an acknowledged powerful sorcerer.  Everyone knows he’s got spells and he can sling them.  The mish-mash of fantastical creatures enters the picture and it soon becomes a dog’s breakfast of recognizable mythology crammed into a map that looks a lot like Europe, only upside down.   Not every book is like this, but the ones that are, I think are doing exactly what I don’t want my fantasy to do.  That is, they are making magic mundane.  You can feel it when you read the first few pages of X book.  The way the author treats magic is the way you or I would talk about a gun.  It’s an accepted, concrete element of the world.  It is banal.

My reaction to this is strong.  I say, what is the point of writing about fantastic things if you make them sound run-of-the-mill?

Horror does a splendid job of playing with the reader’s mind, making the thing that is or is not lurking in the darkness an entity of uncertainty and ill-conceived danger.  In fine, the beast in the horror short is probably far more fantastic than the talking coat rack in the fantasy novel.

Fantasists have much to learn from horror.  In horror, we feel the awe.  We feel the tension, the danger and the edge of the known, where it crumbles and falls into the void.  There are no recipes in horror stories for the one true way to break the witch’s curse.  Think about it.  Just saying that there is a recipe to break the witch’s curse somehow makes everything ok.  There’s suddenly a known solution.  Go get the golden fleece or whatever.  Sure you might have trouble getting there, but at least you know what you’re doing.  In Horror stories, the protagonist is often overwhelmed by things he or she has no means to understand, let alone fight.  It was critical to me that magic in my setting borrow from esotery.  It was important that people in the world could doubt in the power of magic.

Magic is therefore something unstable, dangerous, and of questionable value.  Businesses have an interest in it much the same way the US military experimented with psychics: if there’s a chance it will give them an edge they might as well try.

I could write for several pages on this.  Suffice to say that magic in the setting of The Last Page is designed to be more Lovecraftian , tapping into numbers and ratios that are above the normal systems of reality.  Like Neo bending the rules of the Matrix.  My hope is that this produces the kind of awe I would expect from a work of fantasy.

Many thanks to Anthony for stopping by! You can read more about Anthony Huso and The Last Page at his spiffy website.

Writing Level-Up?: Music

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Jul 21st, 2010
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Whenever I work on a novel, and sometimes short stories, I like to have some inspirational theme songs. It helps me to block out the world around me and sink into the story. For my most recent short story set in a desert, I had a nice, deserty-sounding tune I grabbed from the score of an old video game. For my novel, Jack of Hearts, I built an entire playlist of songs that captured the mood of the story, or touched on similar themes, or just resonated with the work at some raw intuitive level.

Some of my writerly friends warn against this–that the emotional tides of the music might just make you think your text has more awesome-sauce than it actually does. Maybe so. I have to admit, at least when I’m editing, it’s hard for me to listen to music. I need silence so I can concentrate on breaking sentences down. Editing, for me, is more analytical than the flow of generating new content. So I switch back and forth. Writing: music. Editing: silence.

So, what do you think? Does music help you to write better, or does it just trick you into thinking your writing is better than it really is?

Just so everyone can make fun of me, here’s the soundtrack I built for Jack of Hearts (in random shuffle order):

1. The Lady of Shalott, Loreena McKennitt
2. The Host of Seraphim (Remastered), Dead Can Dance
3. Sleep Forever, The Big Sleep
4. Just Like You Imagined, Nine Inch Nails
5. The Day the World Went Away, Nine Inch Nails
6. Summer Overture, Clint Mansell
7. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), Marilyn Manson
8. La Serenissima, Loreena McKennitt
9. Fever, The Violet Burning
10. Cymbeline, Loreena McKennitt
11. Zero, The Smashing Pumpkins
12. The Nobodies, Marilyn Manson
13. My Debt To You, The Pineapple Thief
14. The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning, Smashing Pumpkins
15. Prologue, Loreena McKennitt
16. Tarantula, The Smashing Pumpkins
17. Mayonaise,  The Smashing Pumpkins
18. Eye, The Smashing Pumpkins
19. Tango to Evora, Loreena McKennitt
20. Chant of the Paladin (Remastered), Dead Can Dance
21. So Long, The Big Sleep
22. Tonight, Tonight, The Smashing Pumpkins
23. Today, The Smashing Pumpkins
24. Skellig, Loreena McKennitt
25. Bullet With Butterfly Wings, The Smashing Pumpkins
26. Little Sister, The Big Sleep
27. My Bleeding Hand, The Pineapple Thief
28. Disarm, The Smashing Pumpkins
29. The Sorry State, The Pineapple Thief
30. Ava Adore, The Smashing Pumpkins
31. Night Ride Across The Caucasus, Loreena McKennitt
32. Christmas Steps, Mogwai

Writing Level-Up: The Fire Opal

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Jun 29th, 2010
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Over the weekend I finished the first draft of a new short story called The Fire Opal. In the beginning of my novel, Jack of Hearts, Jack meets a family in the Desert of Night Walking that has been robbed of their only horse by the charlatan wizard he’s hunting. Jack gives the family a rough opal to compensate them and vanishes after the wizard. The Fire Opal tells what happens to that family.

I really, really wanted it to be 5000 words, and I had the general story arc mapped out ahead of time–but half-way through the writing process it took an abrupt turn. I should say *I* took an abrupt turn, because I don’t subscribe to the idea that I’m just along for the ride, following the story wherever it wants to go–I’m the AUTHOR dammit, the characters and plot obey me (under threat of deletion!)–but I can sympathize with that view. That’s what it feels like at times, anyway.

The disruption occurred at what I thought was the end of a sentence that went:  Kali grabbed his wrist and clawed the opal out of his hand, which turned out to only be half a sentence that spontaneously grew the following: except when she opened her fist she saw it wasn’t the opal.

Since you haven’t read the story, the significance of that sentence and it’s uninvited appendage are probably lost on you. But trust me, it was supposed to be the opal. It was a lark, a stray thought, and after I typed it, I laughed. Yeah, that would be cool and crazy. Okay, let’s just delete that and get on with the story. But I paused, because maybe it wasn’t just a stray thought. Maybe it was a subconscious signal–maybe it’s what I really wanted to happen as a reader, because it would be crazy, and more dramatic, and interesting. The worker in me balked momentarily because it meant more effort, more thinking through the ripples it would have on the storyline. You know what? Put some duct tape on that dude’s mouth because he never has the best interests of the reader in mind, or your goals as a writer.

So I let the sentence stand, thought about everything I’d have to change, then plunged ahead. I took a left turn when the map said go right. And that, as Mr. Frost once said, has made all the difference. I think, anyway. I could be wrong–maybe I should have stuck to the plan, but I believe I ended up with something more emotionally compelling (to me anyway). The story came in at 6300 words instead. It’s a first draft, so I can probably  chop some more fat after I let the story simmer a while.

If you’re a planner, I’m certainly not advocating dumping planning, or just following any stray thought, but I do recommend staying open to new possibilities that present themselves along the way. It’s along the way that you know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the journey.

On a different tack–anyone else know of any cool novels that spawned short stories set in the same universe? I think it’s fun to find out what happens to an interesting side-character or explore a locale only touched on by the main novel.

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About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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