Writing a Fiction Series: Monstrous Challenges

Bruce Lee, relevant for his being both an athlete and an artist/philosopher, wrote famously: “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”

I am an author and also a surfer. The two complement each other better than might be immediately apparent. For example, the quote above definitely applies to surfing. If you search for videos of professional surfers online, you’ll see two things in focus: the most unbelievably successful rides and the most painful wipeouts ever recorded. Mediocrity is just not worth putting into the edits. It is often said among surfers that if you aren’t going to have a exquisite ride you may as well have an exquisite wipeout. More relevant perhaps, is the surfing adage that if you aren’t wiping out often, you aren’t trying hard enough.

When I go surfing, I’m proud of myself for paddling into a large wave (relative to my comfort level), what surfers call a cleanup set — a wave that’s much bigger than the average for a day. When that monster wave comes and I look up at it, it is very intimidating, but still worth going for. Either way something memorable is going to come from it. I will either get the best ride of the day or get thrown into a very violent washing machine.

I’ve written elsewhere that novelists take on the marathon of the arts. How long does it take to finish a painting? A poem? An essay? A song? How long does it take to prepare your lines and act in a play? To do a dance routine? Compare that to how long it takes to write a good novel: many sources say a year is too short.

If writing long fiction is the marathon of the arts, then writing a series is closer to an ultra-marathon. A marathon is about 42km. So your triology is going to feel like a 150km ultra-marathon. Some ultras are 200km. That’s what writing a multi-volume series is like.

I’m currently taking on a series that may run to 20 short books. I estimate, because each volume is not very long, it will run to about 800,000-1 million words. So is this going to be a wipeout so bad its a waste of years of my life? Or will it be my life’s greatest accomplishment?

I don’t know, but that’s exciting isn’t it? We only live once. One life, once chance to do something amazing. To push ourselves to the limit in whatever makes us happy. It’s why people mountaineer, go on polar expeditions, hike the Appalachian Trail, surf waves that might kill them, and do heavy squats for four years just for one chance at an Olympic medal. In death, I think, all failure will be forgotten. So the question is, what if I succeed?

I don’t mean succeed at getting book contracts and movie deals and all the public praise authors dream of. The market for books is kind of like the restaurant market. Most fail. To say it is a tough business is an understatement so misleading as to nearly be a lie. That would be akin to actually winning 1st place in an ultra-marathon. I mean what if I succeed in just finishing the thing to the end?

Imagine the sense of accomplishment any of us would feel if we wrote a multi-book series we at least are proud of. It’s a deed that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Quite a unique thing to have on one’s shelf. The series I wrote, sitting on my shelf. That’s what I dream of. Thanks to the support and encouragement of the Taipei Writers Group, I’m not the only one who is well on my way to having that.

Bruce Lee is right about this. It will be glorious even to fail.

I saw another quote recently while listening to classical music while writing.

Ludwig van Beethoven

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”-Ludwig van Beethoven

I don’t agree with Beethoven. I don’t think it can make us divine. But the secrets of one’s art are the secrets of life itself.

We can learn something from inside fiction that helps us to create fiction and create a meaningful life. I was just talking to fellow TWG member Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis about how compelling villains are often more important than compelling protagonists, because tension comes from there being a real possibility that the protagonist could fail. This is a secret of the art of writing that is also a secret of life.

I want to write a 20 book series. I want to take on a pursuit where almost everyone is guaranteed to fail. I want to run the ultra-marathon of the arts. Because what’s my life, what’s my story, without a worthy challenge I have a real chance of failing at?

A theme of my writing is that the cozy sort of happiness, contentment, is overrated. Excitement, tension, and the feeling of being alive — that’s true living for me. I feel it when I see that big wave approaching. I feel it when I go to the coffee shop and sit for hours, knowing I’ll only made millimetric progress towards the massive goal of finishing my series. I get to wonder on a daily basis if I’ll finish it, what it will feel like if I finish it, whether anyone will like it.

A life where each day includes not just happiness, but the thrill of struggling with a challenge I’m not sure I can handle, that’s a life I’m really enjoying living. That’s my secret.

I hope it helps if you’re inclined to start the journey yourself.

By the way the first two books of my series are already available on Amazon, so please check out Chadwick Yates and the Cannibal Shrine and Chadwick Yates and the Forest Labyrinth if you enjoyed this piece and want to see what I’ve been up to.

-Bradley Verdell

 

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The Ecstacy of the End

Bradley Verdell here.

You know the feeling: when you hand in your last exam of a semester or school year, walk out into the sunlight, and know the last challenge of many months’ work is over at last. At first you don’t know what to do with yourself. So many possibilities … For once you feel you have all the time in the world. Soon you will get wrapped up in new goals, get used to the feel of the next segment of life, but for a few precious days there is that afterglow. The future is bright and open to anything. For the first time in a long time, the present is so calm.

I remember turning in my final paper of my final class in university, the last thing on my checklist before graduating. The only matter on my horizon was moving my things out of my dormitory sometime in the weeks to follow. What a day that was. University finished. The afternoon involved mini-golf at one point and breakdancing later that night.

We’ve all been there, usually by necessity. The great part about being a writer is that I get to create more days like that. I can give myself that feeling again. Whenever I finish the long project of writing a book, I get to taste that sublime relief all over again.

Recently I finished a novel tentatively titled The Fourth Warlock which I hope to publish in 2016. I have been so tranquil, so relaxed, and so uncaring about everything for about a week now. I know the crash is coming. The let down and emptiness as I come back into balance will be tough.

But right now, I can go to the coffee shop and not feel I have to work as hard as possible the whole time I’m there. I don’t have to think, “I’m so close. So close. Gotta get this done. Don’t stop, we’re nearly there. Gotta make this session count.”

Now I can sip my drink in total relaxation, write a blog post, tinker with other stories and ideas, do some research, and just let the clouds float by.

I’ve also been thinking about how I should celebrate. I’ll do something special when a free weekend comes along. Maybe I’ll go clay shooting, or maybe I’ll take a camping trip. I need to think about it. But having that kind of dilemma on my mind is a nice break from over-analyzing every aspect of a plot, worrying about holes or problems.

So writers out there, if you’re in the middle of a project, living in the grind of getting that idea out a few thousand words at a time, take heart. Remember the prize is worth it. The prize isn’t money or fame or seeing your book for sale. For me the prize is knowing that I can tackle a huge obstacle, like a marathon or a dissertation, and finish it. I can whittle down a monstrous task. I can complete the journey step-by-step without distraction or giving up. True self-esteem, for me at least, comes from that: doing what you love, getting better at it, and not giving up until you have something to show for it. When other challenges arrive in life, you get to say, “Come on now, I started and finished a novel that took __ months. I can handle this.”

That’s a reward no one can take from you, not to mention the book that you created that will be there for the rest of your life. I’m savoring it now, and I know from experience that though the afterglow will fade, that new note added to my life history that reads “finished another 130,000 word novel” will bring me satisfaction for the rest of my life. Unlike something bought, I’ll grow even fonder of it as time goes by.

I’ve often said that novel writing is the marathon of the arts, with something like painting or poetry nearer to the hundred-meter dash. Short stories or playwriting strike me as sort of the 1600 meter. Writing that story in your head is a painful process, but the relief when it’s over is the more for it. That’s one more reason, if writing appeals to you, to do it.

To everyone who has read any of my work, I have to say a big thank you. You give me invaluable motivation to keep doing it. Thanks to your encouragement, I get to experience this wonderful rush again … and hopefully again soon. Thank you for pushing me into this state of bliss.

From Reality to Fantasy (Part 8): Dobereiner’s Cigar Lighter

It doesn’t get much wackier than this when it comes to mad science and 19th century ingenuity. I’ve written before about matches, but why light your cigar with primitive matches or an ember from the fireplace when you can use an elaborate chemical contraption — and hydrogen gas!

Hamburg Museum 2010-1207-217Döbereiner_fire_gadget

Basically, sulfuric acid and zinc are reacted inside to create hydrogen gas. When opening the valve, the hydrogen gas shoots out and hits a platinum sponge catalyst, causing the hydrogen stream to heat up and ignite. This can be used to light a stick of wood, a candle, a cigar, etc.

This ingenious, though perhaps very dangerous, device was invented in 1823, before widespread use of matches. According to a paper on the subject there were 20,000 of these in use in Germany and Britain alone. In 1856 you could buy one in America for $2-$4, depending on the size you wanted.

Yet I bet you hadn’t heard of it. Why did I never learn this in history class … or chemistry class? I answer myself that we were all too busy learning BORING stuff, like how to memorize dates. Or maybe they thought we’d try it for ourselves if we feasibly could. I have not been able to find any source that clearly states how much use you could get out of one fill of sulfuric acid and one block of zinc. It would have depended on the size of the device. But obviously given how popular it was, it was economical. When the valve is closed, more hydrogen gas is generated by the well-designed layout of the chambers. Check out the video above for a detailed explanation. You can also see the Wikipedia article. Also Harvard University has a specimen in their collection, which you can see on this Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments page.

Now let me restate why Victorian fantasy is my hobby horse. You can’t get this kind of sophistication in pre-industrial fantasy worlds. Magic is often substituted for technology to give more civilized infrastructure and capabilities to medieval cultures. Not to mention an appearance of modern scholarship. But, tell me, is it ever this believably complex or charming? What is really more amazing? Enchanted floating stones that bear people around, or those early Victorian elevators? Words and spell tomes that produce fire in a world where you’d otherwise have to rub sticks together, or Dobereiner’s lamp? History is just the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe I’m lacking creativity with all this research, but not everyone can be Jules Verne. In fact, Verne routinely just extrapolated on and combined real existing technologies from his day, from scuba gear and air guns to miner’s gas discharge lights. He followed the technology of his day and saw its potential. I would never have thought of a cooler or more whimsical way for a character to light a cigar on my own. I would never have thought of using a jet of hydrogen gas, catalyzed by platinum, all from a device that is simple and 100% practical.

Capital!

Keep checking this blog for more about how nonfiction can improve your fiction.

-Bradley Verdell

From Reality to Fantasy (Part 7): Hand Washing and Hygiene Before Indoor Plumbing

The idea for this post came to me during one of the Taipei Writers Group critique meetings. We were discussing a fascinating horror/fantasy novel project by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. One of the settings conjured up images of cathedrals and monasteries and cloisters, and that struck a light in my brain. You know what a bloody world with that kind of architecture needs: more places to wash your hands.

Ah, the days before indoor plumbing. Chamber pots, outhouses, and wash basins. Think about what hands washing would be like with two dirty hands if you had to pour water from an ewer with one of them onto the other. This is same problem that airplane bathrooms have. How can you hold the faucet with one hand and scrub your hands? It’s baffling.

Well, enter the lavabo, and the lavatory it is kept in (hence the name). While mainly a religious invention, it saw secular use as well for the practicalities of washing dirty hands. The lavabo is an architectural feature of gardens and old religious buildings in Europe, which you have probably seen and not noticed. Before copper pipes and plumbing, a simple precursor existed.

Basically you just need some kind of container or reservoir in a high place and a basin to catch the falling water. Maybe the stream you use to wash your hands had a stone drain. Maybe it just was caught in a basin and carried off when full. Maybe they were operated by a spigot, maybe they flowed automatically like a fountain, or maybe you can to manually tip the water out.

What’s cool about these lavabos to me are that, instead of the modern sink, set on some kind of vanity in front of the wall, many lavabos were built into the thickness of garden and church walls. They came in many forms. Here are some examples I was able to find.

Lavabo-19e-p1030512

081 lawaterz1

 Sala delle udienze di vittoria della rovere (oggi refettorio), lavabo lorenese

Ferme-castrale-musee 08Puisette dans son lavabo 2

I personally love the idea of a sink built into the walls like this. They could do that in old castle-like chapels because the walls were so thick, whereas modern houses rest the sink on the top of cabinetry or a vanity because our walls are too thin for all that.

What about a shower?

Writers of medieval type fantasy, and even writers focused on the 1800s like me, may have wondered how people stayed clean without a daily shower. Days of hard manual work with no air conditioning surely left their mark on people’s aroma.

I saw the answer when I very little. When I was a kid, I loved playing at my Great Aunt Margie’s farmhouse. She had all sorts of interesting old stuff there. She even had an antique washstand, whose use I could not figure out at the time.

 233-washstand

Sherlock Holmes Museum 006

Obermillstatt3Even as a kid, I figured it had something to do with hand washing. I never realized that this was how people took showers back in the day.

Ruth Goodman is probably the world’s foremost expert on the daily and family life of working class Victorians. Her latest book is a trove of information for writers. I’ve read it twice it was so good. Every page is packed with detail. She really pinpoints the practical realities of life in the past and explores them in depth.

victoriamechfinal.inddIn this excellent book, How to Be a Victorian, she writes this:

“All a person needed was a bowl, a slop pail, a flannel, some soap and a single jugful of hot water brought up from the kitchen … Victorian soap simply did not work in cold water — it neither dissolved nor lathered …”

Goodman goes on to explain the stand-up wash in great detail, of which I have excerpted just a little:

“With a single jug of water it is perfectly easy to wash and rinse the whole body. A little water is poured into the bowl and the flannel is dipped in and then wrung out. Some soap is applied and the scrubbing of the body can begin. When this first bowl of water begins to look murky it is emptied into the slop pail and freshly filled from the jug. And so it goes on until you are clean all over. Rather like scrubbing a floor, body washing could be done in sections, one bit scrubbed, rinsed and dried before moving on to the next. This allowed a person to remain mostly dressed throughout the operation … You could wash in this way without becoming severely chilled in a January bedroom, and with a great degree of modesty if you had to share accommodation (as most people did). … A loose nightgown or nightshirt could be worn throughout if necessary, while still allowing access to all parts of the body with a flannel.”

So there you go: the 19th century hygiene routine that crossed the classes. But before all that, there was another way to clean yourself, without using water at all.

Goodman also writes about the constant changing of cotton or linen underwear to take away the sweat and dirt from the body. She explains simply rubbing one’s skin with a linen towel that was dry and could be laundered thoroughly and often.

Then she writes, “A quick daily rub-down with a dry body cloth or a ‘flesh brush’ (a pad of suede leather on the back of a wooden brush) leaves the skin exfoliated, clean and comfortable. The longest I have been without washing with water is four months — and nobody noticed. … Many modern writers and historians like to revel in the opinion that people were dreadfully malodorous in the past, before modern washing with water took hold. My own experience makes me sceptical about their claims.”

I highly recommend the book for many reasons, but the first is that it has these types of descriptions. The author writes about many subjects with the complete knowledge of someone who has experimented authentically with Victorian living. As I learned as a newspaper reporter, there is no substitute for eyes on the ground, for checking things out hands-on.

Other Factors

I guess that most modern writers loathe the idea of life without hot showers, and I’m no exception, however, I hope this little glance into the washing contrivances of the past has been fun.

I could go on forever on this topic: the role of perfumes and colognes, hair oil, Roman baths, washtub bathing, the Victorian Turkish baths, how the San people of the Kalahari bathe in animal blood, and on and on.

Whatever time frame you are writing in, check into the hygiene of the time. It sounds like a boring topic, but most of what at first sounds boring about history turns out to be fascinating. Especially in fantasy, where there are monsters to dissect, poisons to handle, wounds to wash, and long wilderness journeys to be made, remember: give your characters a chance to wash up once in a while.

-Bradley Verdell