Write what you would want to read

In the past weeks I’ve written some stuff about my ongoing concept work forĀ A Warrior of Kaendor. About the preparatory worldbuilding and the stylistic influences that are going into it, and my considerations for the right format and presentation. But I have been noticably quiet about any narrative content or plot. Which is because this main aspect of writing is still very much work in progress. There is a high concept for a series of mid-length stories, but turning it into actual plots continues to be an ongoing challenge. I have a rough outline for a first story, but I have to admit that I am still not entirely hooked by it. It would be good practice to write, but is it really something compelling to read? It keeps striking me as somewhat banal and an exercise by the numbers. There are also four much more fascinating ideas, but they seem too daunting to tackle with such little practical experience for now.

But I think to create something really good, you have to be fully convinced that you are working on something with the potential to be great. It’s hard to put your passion into practice work. One frequent, and wise, peace of advice for creating a draft is to write what you would want to read. And I have made good progress with figuring out the setting by putting together the things that I would love to see appearing in stories. But things that are appearing in a story are not a story. Simply looking at a collection of things and making a story out of it is hard. I would know. The question of what you would want to read goes beyond that. What kinds of events and situations would I like to see in the book of my dreams as a reader?

The first thing that comes to my mind is characters travelling through vast isolated wilderness, being dwarved by huge trees and massive cliffs, disappearing between the deep shadows and thick undergrowth on the ground while the bright sun and moon are half obscured by the branches far overhead.

And I want them to climb up to villages high up in the trees and creep along balkonies and crumbling walkways of towns carved into mountainsides, wearily peeking into the black doorways leading deeper into the stone while the wind is tearing at them.

I would love to read about great clear lakes far out in the forests whose magical waters connect to a higher reality, even when just looking at them.

I want the stories to take the characters to ancient towers that are overlooking a sea of green below and have a clear view of a large, dim orange sun and a huge blue cloudy moon, surrounded by bright stars and polar lights.

I want them to ride through shallow streams between the trees a d giant boulders on their dinosaur steeds and observe giant flying beasts cast their shadows on the ground.

I want them to encounter eldritch spirits made from light and water and talk with the shadows of men dead for centuries, standing over their crumbling bones. To glean wisdom from the empty eyes of a sorcerer’s skull.

I want them to meet warriors with painted skin and feathers on their spears, witches with wooden masks, and warrior priests with faces of bronze. To walk up the marble stairs of temples flanked by fire bowls lighting up the chilly night. And descend into vast caves covered in huge crystals and glowing moss.

I want them to have moments of quiet insight when they see the distant past and future, and touch the minds of people far away.

That is what I would want to read! And maybe that is what I should try to make into a story. Not begin with filling in the vacancies for villains, locations, and macguffins.

Smokey, this isn’t ‘Nam! There are rules!

I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding these past days and I think that the best worldbuilding always has a function, instead of just being something that would be cool or fun to have in the setting. Either it communicates something emotional about the characters, though I see that working best in visual media, or it establishes the rules that the plot will have to follow and that limit what the characters can do. To tidy up the often messy worldbuilding of Kaendor, and to tighten it up, I made this list of basic rules that define the setting and also the stories to take place in it.

  • All the land is either forest or mountains.
  • Spirits control the natural forces of the environment.
  • Spirits do not care about mortals.
  • Civilization can only exist in places where powerful spirits shield the people from unpredictable weather and encroaching wilderness.
  • Civilization is always limited to only city states and some surrounding farmland.
  • City states never last longer than a few hundred years.
  • Outside of civilized regions, time and distance aren’t as clear.
  • Magic can only provide awareness of the environment and subtle manipulations of minds, and summon spirits for direct services or to ask for their insight about the past and the future.
  • Sorcery can reshape things and change the laws of nature in limited areas.
  • Sorcery always corrupts anything it changes, making them sickly, brittle, and insane.
  • The powers of great spirits can reverse the corruption by strengthening the natural life forces to break the sorcerous restraints put on them.
  • The size and strength of spirits is reflecting their supernatural powers.
  • There is no afterlife for the dead and no reincarnation of the soul. Undead are only immitations or shadows of the dead.
  • Priests and shamans always have great political power.
  • Architecture and environments are often very vertical.
  • Travel is almost entirely by water.
  • Traders make up most traffic.
  • The economy runs on salt, silver, and slaves.
  • Mounts can not keep up with runners over longer distances.
  • Spears and bows are the primary weapons. Knives, axes, and short swords are used occasionally. Armor is lamellar or leather scale, but shields and helmets are the most important.
  • Personal disputes are settled with boxing duels.
  • Killing someone will always have repercussions.

Making this list made me spot a Chekhov’s Gun. When so much about the world’s culture revolves around the fact that civilization consists of tiny precarious islands of stability within a vast hostile wilderness, the audiences will reasonably expect to get shown the demise of at least one such city. And of the five plot ideas I currently have in reserve, two of them have this as one of their stakes.

A place as from a dream

Recently I have been talking with my father about visiting the places where my grandfather grew up and where our family takes its name from, which now lie in Poland. Even though it’s now almost 30 years since visiting for West Germans became possible, we never did. We’re planning on making a trip next year and I plan to write a longer piece about the experience and the wider context when we return back. But it also had me thinking back to my own experiences of spending a lot of weekends and holidays as a child with my mother’s parents who lived right on the border between West and East Germany. I was only 6 when Germany was reunified, but I still have some memories from before that which now in hindsight seem hilariously absurd. One local oddity I would find hard to belief if I hadn’t been there myself.

Behind my grandparents’ house was a road that led down the hill and disappeared into the trees of the swamp. In the middle of the swamp, the road ended at the overgrown remains of a ramp. A ramp that once led up to a bridge that no longer existed. Across a small river that marked the border of the no man’s land beyond the edge of the Western World.

West Germany ends about 20 meters to the right.

And beside that ramp at the end of a road that leads nowhere, there was a lone small inn run by an old couple, the last two remaining people of a village that had once stood on the other bank. The locals from the village, who occasionally came by for a drink, called it the Russian Embassy. Since the barkeep was a Russian soldier who rather fled into exile than facing the punishment for having allowed himself to be captured alive by the Germans.

I still remember going down that road with my grandfather and getting icecream. And being told to never, under any circumstances, swim to the other shore, because the patrols were under order to shot anyone trying to escape from East Germany and you could sometimes hear mines going off in the woods across the river.

It’s just wonderfully absurd.

And I’ve heard there is a new bridge now.

Awesome future novel idea #6: Polynesian Mad Max

I’m not really much of a Sci-Fi fan. It’s generally all fantasy for me. And even with my fantasy I have a clear preference for medieval or particularly ancient and prehistoric styled settings over early modern ones. But there is one thing in modern and futuristic settings that is really cool, and you just can’t have in these types of settings.

Engines.

Engines are really damn fucking cool. Going at full power with the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars or the War Rig from Fury Road is just pure fun awesome. Going at insane speeds riding on a cycle of continuous explosions is just plan cool. I was thinking about how having something like that in fantasy while watching Fury Road the whole time. But you can’t have that in pre-industrial settings. There’s always magic as an alternative option, but using magic as a replacement for technology never feels right to me. Magic should be magical, not utalitarian.

However, there is one other alternative. Wind power. Particularly with boats. Scandinavian longships are pretty cool fast and agile vessels, but they aren’t exactly racing crafts. But polynesian sail boats are very close to that and have been around for over 3,000 years. Modern high tech racing trimarans can reach speeds over 50 knots, which is about 90 km/h in relation to the water current. Somehow it seems the internet does not have any real information about the speeds of polynesian sailing canoes, but racing dhows from the Indian Ocean are quite capable of reaching over 20 knots, which is in the realm of 40 km/h, and a wooden catamaran build for speed should get considerably faster than that. This may not seem very fast when looked at from inside a car, but in a small boat with the water just half a meter below you, this would be crazy fast. Like this:

Now imagine crews fighting each other with spears and fire bombs and trying to trick the other boat in doing tight turns that flip them over. And I think under certain weather conditions, it could possibly get a good deal faster than this.

Fast sailing boats are great vehicles for adventuring heroes and for marauding pirates. While you could create a fantasy series just around this, the Kaendor setting was always planned as a forest setting first, but also a coastal setting as the immediate second. One with strong natural forces being ever present in the outdoors. I can totally incorporate this into Kaendor seamlessly instead of making it it’s own distinct thing.

When I was in Greece last summer, I was doing a lot of swimming in Epidauros. It was also on that beach that I finally completed my reading of Conan stories with Queen of the Black Coast, which somehow had slipped by for years. Right across the water sits this looming island.

I’m pretty sure it’s a nice tourist place, but it did inspire me for a shipwreck story about Mira that starts with a pirate battle in rough waters. I was thinking more about big shooners and junks, but sea battles are already a part of the world. Making it more about small fast catamarans only makes this aspect more cool and fun.

And it also allows me to do fun crazy stuff like this.

Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

Were viedeogames really harder back then?

Conventional wisdom holds that games have become much more easier over the last 20 years or so and that they are no longer challeging. I started pondering that myself when I got my first PlayStation 2 ten years ago and soon went to play every game with difficulty settings on Hard as default. And most of the time, I didn’t find Hard to be actually that hard. But was that because Hard had become the new Normal? Or was it maybe that I just got much better over time and my experience helped me even with types of games I never played before?

Over the last years or so I have been playing a couple of really old games that I absolutely loved back at the end of the 90s but that I never got around to complete. Most of the time not even the first third of them. Playing the Thief games was a lot of fun. Then this year I’ve been playing Settlers II, which always had me become stuck at the fourth of ten maps, and Knights & Merchants, where I surpassed the furthest point that I had reached as a kid after just 4 hours. I eventually gave up on the game because it was so incredibly slow and dull. It’s charming, and I guess that’s what had me entertained for weeks with this game, but it didn’t seem to demand any real skill or planning.

Now last week, I got the racing game Redout, which I saw described as a superior clone of Wipeout. I got Wipeout HD a few years back because it seemed like the closest thing to a more modern alternative to Star Wars Racer, but ended up finding it not living up to my expectations. The tracks were just much less interesting than those in Racer, both in the layouts and visuals. As it turned out, Redout wasn’t really that much better in this regard either. So I did the only reasonable thing and actually dug up the real deal. The game that I actually wanted to play the whole time. And I very soon realized that while the tracks were still great, Racer is a much simpler game than Wipeout HD or Redout. Not just simpler, but also much easier. The game has 25 tracks and I got first place on almost all of them on the first try. I think four or so took me second try to get fist place. And after just 3 hours and 15 minuts, I was done. I had completed everything that the game has to offer.

It was a bit underwhelming, to say the least. But it also convinced me of my suspicion I had for years now. Games back in the 90s and early 2000s were not harder than the games that we get today. Instead, we really just sucked at playing videogames when we were kids.