Dear Beta-Reader

Dear Beta-Reader

I’ve been writing a lot about my novel Ghets recently and that’s because I’ve finished draft II! I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally ready to be shared. I put out the call for beta-readers and sent the novel to friends, family and acquaintances. The novel is far from complete at this point. I need to collect all the critiques and edits from my beta-readers and use them to sharpen the book into draft III. After draft III I’ll either be lucky enough to have an agent and publisher or I’ll need to hire an editor for draft IV and then finally publish the thing myself.

I know it’s a lot. So, let’s not get ahead ourselves. For this post I’m sharing the letter I sent out to beta-readers to thank them and let them know what I’m looking for. You might find it helpful, if you’re thinking about using beta-readers for your own project. Also I’ll never say no to people reading Ghets so if you’ve checked out the chapters I’ve posted and want to be a beta-reader too, let me know!


Dear Beta-Reader,

First, I want to thank you so, so, so, much for taking the time to read my novel. I know it’s long and it’s asking a lot of you. But just by reading this book and giving your critiques, edits and insights you are helping to shape this story. Books, like all creative works, are collaborative, the storyteller reacting to listener, feeding off their energy and emotion. It’s like a dialogue. And like all dialogues it helps to know what we’re discussing.

In truth, I will take any edits you have to offer, but please don’t overextend yourself trying to correct every spelling, wrong word or grammar mistake. There are a lot of them and I will hunt them down with the help of an editor during the next draft.

What I’m looking for right now are ‘big picture’ reactions. What about the story worked for you? What about the story didn’t? Where was the writing confusing, where you couldn’t tell what was going on? Were there any characters that felt unnecessary? And most of all, were there repetitive chapters or sections, or chapters that you felt didn’t add anything? This book is on the long side and I would love to be able to trim it down.

I will take any critiques you have to offer. If you couldn’t finish the book because of the time commitment, that’s fine! Just tell me what you thought of what you could read. Same is true if you dropped this book because the grammar was so bad, or because the general writing was awful, or because the story isn’t your thing. You don’t need to finish it to give me your thoughts. And please, be honest! I won’t be upset. In college I had my writing torn apart by my ex-girlfriend and her new ‘poet’ boyfriend during creative writing club. If I can survive that and still want to write, I can survive anything.

Once again thank you so much!

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?

The Importance of Journaling

The Importance of Journaling

Over the weekend I hung out with a friend who wants to write a play. She asked for writing suggestions. I told her to start a journal.

Journaling is the most important thing that any writer or anyone who wants to start writing can do. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was twelve, but I didn’t consider myself a writer until after college when I started a journal. Thanks that journal I write every day. I’ve improved in all elements of my writing and have six hundred-page novels to share.

For most people journal writing conjures up images of mole skin notebooks with dear diary written in looping cursive, but that’s not exactly, what I mean. When I say journal, I mean a space, be it a word processor or notebook, where you sit down for at least twenty minutes and write. It doesn’t matter what you write in that space, it just matters that you do it and do it every day.

Writing, like exercising or learning a musical instrument, is hard. It requires practice and that’s what the journal is, your practice. You have to force yourself to do it, especially when you’re first starting. After a long day of work, you’re not going to want to do anything, even write, same is true if you get up at five am and try to squeeze in a writing secession before work. You have to make it a habit.

I write at least a paragraph in my journal every day before I start a writing secession. It’s how I limber up my creative muscles. My journal is freeing, I write whatever I want. I don’t care about quality or the mistakes I make. I write as fast as the thoughts come to me and I write down all my thoughts, no matter how bad, or lazy or mean they are. Most of my thoughts are just boring. 90% of my journals start with the phrase, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to write.’

When I journal I don’t tend to write fiction. Instead, it’s more like a compressed dairy. I’ll write a summary of my day or talk about something that’s bothering me. I use the journal to plan a lot: review goals and progress. I will talk about writing ideas I have as well as what I liked or didn’t like about the book I’m reading or game I’m playing. It’s a lot like a less polished, more personal version of this blog.

My journal is also home to some of my best writing, entries that I love stumbling over again and remind me that I can actually do this thing! But it’s also home to my absolute worse writing, a reminder that I need to stay sharp and edit. Because I have horrible penmanship and spelling, I keep my journal in google docs which makes revisiting old entries easy. I can trace my progression as a writer, as well as other goals, see where I’ve succeeded or fallen behind.

There are also wellness benefits to keeping a journal, so many in fact that even if I didn’t want to be a novelist I would still journal. It let’s me slow down and organize my thoughts. I can dissect what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. It also helps me vent. I can write my roommate a nasty letter without ruining our friendship or formulate what I’m going to say at my next work review. I always feel better after I journal, even if I write nonsense or something I wouldn’t say out loud.

Journaling alone won’t write your novel or script, but it gives you tools you need to accomplish those dream projects. It teaches you about your own writing, about setting habits and enhances your critical thinking. It also does the important work of letting you know yourself better. Journaling doesn’t just improve your writing, it improves you too.

Star Wars: A New Trilogy defined by an Old

Star Wars: A New Trilogy defined by an Old

I left the ‘Force Awakens’ hopeful. I didn’t care for a lot of the ‘New Hope’ retreads like Poe’s quick trench run to blow up an astronomically more powerful Death Star. But the new cast felt fresh, especially Finn. And I chalked up the repeats to this being ‘Star Wars the apology tour’. Disney playing it safe after the prequels. ‘The Last Jedi’ made me second guess that.

There’s a lot of chatter online about the ‘Last Jedi’ being a radically different Star Wars movie. It’s not. ‘The Last Jedi’ continues the ‘Force Awakens’ opening act, it just plays the hits. There were direct film quotes to Hoth, another jedi duel in the emperor’s chamber, an eccentric hermit training an idealistic jedi, the third goddamn time that people have infiltrated an imperial base with a costume change. The list goes on. A friend of mine suggested that it was so long because they stapled ‘The Empire Strikes back’ onto ‘The Return of the Jedi.’

Johnson plays a little with our expectations of these scenes, which might be why people felt it was so different. But what I think is more interesting is that we have these expectations at all. Star Wars has been around for over forty years and has created countless novels, video games, comics, movies. There’s a critical mass that has caused Star Wars to morph into something of its own genre. There’s now the question of what makes a ‘Star Wars’ movie’ a ‘Star wars’ movie?’

Take Snoke and the First Order. Snoke wasn’t a character, he was a plot device, a prime example of breaking the ‘show, don’t tell’ axiom. Any time they needed to handwave something ‘Snoke did it’. Snoke turned Kylo Ren to the dark side, though we don’t see it happening (or see Kylo Ren do anything evil before Luke confronts him). Snoke created ‘The First Order’, but like how thou? In the original movies the Emperor dies and the Empire is largely defeated. So where does the First Order come from? And how did they get so powerful?

I know the answers to these questions wouldn’t be satisfying. Snoke was basically ‘Emperor II’ and Johnson did one of the only interesting things you could with a character like that. But I still crave an explanation for Snoke and the First Order in a way I don’t from other genres. In a superhero movie I don’t need to know the origin of every supervillain that shows up, some even better without origins. I’ve accepted the rules of the superhero genre, the weird costumes and powers.

But I haven’t yet accepted the rules of the new ‘Star Wars’ genre. I think it’s because I used to view Star Wars like a big world, an ongoing story not defined by its legacy. It didn’t need to have an Empire with Stormtroopers, or characters that mimicked Luke or Darth Vader. It could go in other directions, explore new ideas or ones only teased at in the original films. But to Disney the old characters, vehicles, and duality define Star Wars. You don’t need to explain ‘The First Order’, because it’s part of the genre. You buy a ticket for Star Wars, you expect to see a ‘rebels vs. imperials’.

Despite years of consuming Star Wars media, I’m not fully into this new definition. I like some of it’s tenants like adorable droids that kick more ass than their owners. But the devotion to the original three feels stifling. And nothing makes that clearer when the new characters meet the old.

Look, I liked grumpy Luke. Han Solo was fun in Force Awakens. Leia being a general is a natural evolution of the character. But their involvement sucks up time and energy away from the new characters and the new world. This is now the second movie where it feels like the legends of old are handing over the reigns to the new kids, that leaves only one film for the new cast to stand on its own and do something.

There is a density that comes with characters like Luke Skywalker, he’s so iconic now, he’s going to wrap the film around him like a black-hole. That’s why Luke’s transformation into a hero that’s crippled by his own legend is so apt. Skywalker has becomes a metaphor for Star Wars itself. A franchise buckling under its own expectations.

But Star Wars needn’t carry that legacy, it can evolve, change. In my final post on Star Wars (for now) I’ll talk about the future of the franchise, why it matters, and hopefully where it might go.