The “They” In “They Say”

Humans have an incredible desire to believe things, especially things that explain how the world works. It’s far easier to believe the pyramids were built by aliens than a large and dedicated work force because it explains something we can’t come to grips with: how would you get that many people to put in that much hard work with so little reward? The people that question this are usually coming off an eight to ten hour shift where they put in as little effort as possible for the maximum reward. Such is our culture that a different work ethic is so alien it may as well be aliens behind the whole thing.

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New Mexico needs warning signs like this.

I think it’s because of this uncanny desire to simplify, understand, and believe things that conspiracy theories are as popular as they are. Conspiracy theories provide us with an easy answer to a complicated problem. 9-11 wasn’t the end result of decades of questionable choices and intelligence foul-ups – it was an inside job. No one has ever landed on the moon; it’s too far away and there’s no way we could get there – the moon landings were faked. Jade Helm is far too large of an operation to be a training exercise – it’s a plot to take over Texas.

Conspiracy theories play into our desire for simple solutions and the best ones play on our preconceived notions. How could Hillary Clinton get as far as she did when it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that she’s a criminal? Simple: she’s a criminal mastermind. But also stupid. And a woman. And she needs to be locked up for whatever those supposed crimes that decades of digging haven’t uncovered. Infowars to the rescue with a whole mess of half-baked theories that “prove” she’s a stupid criminal mastermind that needs to be locked up. Boom! Meet #pizzagate. And people bought it because they already hated her and were looking for a good reason to justify that hate.

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No, it actually happened. Multiple times, too.

For the record, I don’t think Hillary Clinton should be locked up. I think she would have made a fine president.

Also, for the record, I don’t think Trump will be the end of the end of the world. I don’t particularly care for him and he’s already off to a rocky start, but I like to think someone will pull him back from the edge and he’ll do at least a few good things. At the very least, if he does decide to go to war with China, we’ll hear about it on Twitter before the bombers leave.

This last election cycle still leaves me wondering how we got to this place. As a writer, I’m used to fabricating tales and live in constant worry that someone will think I was serious about the events of Henchmen. What still boggles my mind is there are people out there writing fiction, passing it off as fact, and it had a massive impact on the world when people who were worried about their futures decided to swallow the easy lie rather than face the harder truth.

Nebulous sources, alternative facts, and “they say” is easier to handle than digging down and figuring out the root cause of the problem. It’s unfortunate, but our access to information has gotten so expansive that it’s trivial to find an example that supports our philosophy. All it takes is someone saying something we agree with and suddenly that person is a trusted source. This unfortunate desire to believe things has allowed unscrupulous swine to manipulate our understanding of the world.

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As long as we blindly believe things, yes we are.

Conspiracy theories can be fun. I even wrote a post not too long ago on how to make one of your own. The problem arises when they change our perception of the world because, unfortunately, perception is reality.

Next time someone provides you with a piece of news that seems to validate everything you believe, take a moment to ask yourself a couple questions. Where did this come from? Can I find any other evidence for it? And, most importantly, who profits from this bit of information being out there. Always wonder who the “They” in “They say” are and what their endgame is. Follow the money, follow the power, and then you might find the truth.

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It may just not be the truth you want to find.

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Conflict

Way back when I was in high school and getting regularly busted for insisting on writing my papers with a turquoise pen (it was a kind of blue!), my 11th grade English teacher gave us the usual discussion on conflict and had us write up examples.

At the time, conflict was broken into three major categories and she was adamant that all forms of literary conflict can lumped into one of them. Just in case you (like me) weren’t paying attention at the time (totally not my fault the girl next to me was so cute), here’s what we were taught were the only categories in 1988:

  • Man versus man
  • Man versus nature
  • Man versus himself

Just as a side note, we weren’t totally into gender equality in Farmington back in the day, but this was always meant to mean mankind – as in all of us hairless apes – not just men. Although, even a quick glance at Wikipedia and the various nooks and crannies of the Internet this morning confirmed it’s still man versus stuff, so whatevs.

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Knows a thing or two about conflict.

Anyway, my teacher insisted all forms of literary conflict would fit into one of those categories. She likely still does, even though the literary world has moved on and learned there are some other categories that should be added. For instance, a cartoon rabbit chasing down a cartoon Martian is obviously conflict, but what kind? Neither of them is a human, so that conflict would have to be shoehorned into one of the aforementioned categories. Probably man versus man.

At some point, someone realized trying to plug hot rabbit on Martian action into one of three categories was problematic. Rather than do the logical thing and realize no one really cared, they created more categories. Thus, the original three I was taught have been expanded into more.

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People love to categorize things.

Now, in the global scheme of things, what category of conflict something fits into is completely unimportant. This is one of those things academics fret about while the rest of us are busy playing Xbox. That doesn’t make conflict an uninteresting field of study, though. Conflict is at the very heart of storytelling. A perfectly happy tale may be heartwarming, but it’s going to be boring. Yay! They’re still happy. Wonderful. Where’s the Xbox controller?

What is important, though, is some level of conflict in a story. It can be internal or external, but it needs to be there. Personally, I think external conflict is more interesting, but your mileage may vary. Stories with conflict – especially when that conflict is resolved by pushing the bad guy out of the top floor of the Nakatomi Plaza – are much more engaging than stories about someone brushing their teeth.

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Or, you know, when the good guys on flying motorcycles foil the bad guys in Russian tanks. That’s some good conflict resolution right there, especially when you end it with “The good guys always win. Even in the 80s.”

Back when my high school English teacher told us to come up with examples of conflict, I went out of my way to find conflicts that couldn’t fit neatly into any one category. Irking my teachers was just one of the many useful services I provided. Her response, while I was busy arguing that you couldn’t really categorize Cthulhu as a man, was simple: rewrite the damned thing or fail the assignment.

Conflict and conflict resolution in tidy package.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t like my 11th grade English teacher. She was a nice person (unlike the ones from tenth and twelfth grade. Those people were unspeakable swine), I just enjoyed seeing if I could push her buttons. It was childish, but I was young and needed the money.

In the end, I relented and came up with some lame conflicts that salved her bruised ego and let me pass the class. Not any more, though. Personally – and this is just me, mind you – I think the whole idea of categorizing conflicts is a huge waste of time. Conflict doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It doesn’t need to fit neatly into a categorized box. “X versus Y” sums it all up nicely. Conflict just has to exist to be effective in a story and a good story can have lots of varying types of conflict. As long as those conflicts get some resolution that involves flying motorcycles, you’re all good.

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Talking cars work, too.

Toss away the idea of what kind of conflict you’re writing and just write some conflict. Make it nasty or make it subtle. Make it involve chainsaws or flowers in rifle barrels. One side of the conflict doesn’t even have to show up until late in the story because the conflict could consist of “I want to find this person or thing and it doesn’t want to be found.”

Just make sure there’s some conflict.

Fantastical Worlds, Fantastical Writing. And Rules.

I think I’ve said it before, but I didn’t get into writing to follow rules. Unfortunately, even if I ignore the rules, there are usually some guidelines that need to be followed if a book is going to be read by anyone but my dog.

I’m working on my first foray into a couple shifts in my writing. My tense use and POV has shifted. Henchmen was first person, present tense. I still love the way I can get into the character’s head with that model, but it makes complex stories with a lot of characters tricky. Plus, when something happens off-page, someone has to take the time to explain it to everyone else. I’m also writing the next book in past tense. Because reasons.

The biggest change is a shift from the real world – well, New Mexico, anyway – into a full-on fantasy world. For those who’ve read The Clock Man, this is the much anticipated full-length novel sequel to that novella. It keeps the story on Aluna – a world I’d already created some rules for – and keeps the major players in place. The difference is, this is fully realized story that loops in a lot more of the world. Since I’ve never written off-world stuff, that meant thinking more about how that world operates. In other words, Greetings From Sunny Aluna is as much a fantasy novel as it is a detective noir story and a wuxia novel.

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Google Image Search for Fantasy might not have been my best choice.

I was never into the swords and sorcerers thing when I was growing up; my head was in the stars. I think the last true fantasy book I read was Susan Faw’s Seer of Souls. Prior to that it was Terry Brooks’ Elfstones of Shannara back when it came out. In 1983.

Neither of those are bad books by any stretch of the imagination and both were excellent resources, but I figured I’d better brush up a bit on the rules. Or, at the very least, the guidelines. Thankfully, Google was there for me with both some fantasy pictures (better than the one above) and a wealth of information.

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There you go, fantasy. If your fantasy is bewbs, look a couple paragraphs up. If your fantasy is a very slow-moving mobile home, you’re welcome.

The funny thing about fantasy is it really isn’t all that different from science fiction once you strip away the skin. As others have pointed out, fantasy is about things that likely can’t happen, while science fiction about things that haven’t happened yet. Both involve a lot of the same elements, though. Different races and non-Earth locales are common in both sci-fi and fantasy. The key difference lies not in who is wearing the wizard hat or the flight helmet, it’s all about the explanation of things.

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sci-fi writers, and Star Trek is notorious for this, will use science-y sounding explanations for why things happen. “The quantum carburetor broke down, we’re stuck in this microverse!” or “The warp nacelles can’t handle anything above warp factor 10!” Why? Because they can’t, that’s why. And that science-y sounding explanation is all you need to know.

Similar things happen in the fantasy genres, except instead of science-y sounding explanations, you get magic-y explanations. “When she touched the staff of Jolan-Tru, the power of the universe flooded through her.” or “The Force is strong in this one.” Why? Because reasons, that’s why. And that magic-y explanation is all you need to know.

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Magic, sci-fi, or run-of-the-mill awesome?

The trick to writing fantasy is the same as the trick to writing sci-fi: keep things seeming real even when they’re completely fantastic. That means the world has to have rules and they have to be immutable. Nothing kills a story quicker than some deus ex machina nonsense or a sudden, rapid shift in the way that world works. Aluna, for instance, doesn’t have any mammals aside from the humans that wound up there. To them, something with fur is freaky. That was a minor detail in The Clock Man, and one that nearly sunk me since I described a bit of cat graffiti early on. A quick fix before I hit publish quashed that. Minor details like that can add a lot to a story and when they break down, the story goes along with them.

The bigger problem is dealing with magic. It’s tough to have a fantasy novel without at least touching upon some kind of magic or another. The Clock Man established the basic rules of Alunan magic and, in the interest of keeping things the same, I actually had to go back and re-read it to see what I’d said a couple years ago. It’s better than I remember, so I had that going for me.

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Magic, by its very nature, doesn’t adhere very well to rules. Trying to apply real-world logic to magic is like to trying to nothing but pork rinds and stay healthy. So, we may not be able to say definitively “Magic cannot do that!”, but we can establish through the narrative what magic is in the context of the story and how it works. One character may have no magical capabilities whatsoever, while another might have mad phat skillz at tossing magic around. Why? Because the story said so, that’s why.

In the end, I came back around to my one and only hard and fast rule of writing: Don’t confuse the reader. The Clock Man built a lot of the groundwork for the world and people of Aluna; Greetings From Sunny Aluna takes that groundwork and expands on it. Sure, there are rules in writing fantasy to keep things consistent, but beyond that there are no limits.

 

An Exercise In Silliness

 

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I would actually love to hear this on vinyl. It seems so appropriate.

I was driving to work this morning when Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” popped up on my playlist. For some reason, one of the lines stuck in my head as something other than the usual bubblegum pop-metal Sweet is known for and I started building a scene in my head based on the lyrics to the song. That started me down the dark path of thinking about how other songs could show scenes that they weren’t necessarily intending to show. Some songs are pretty obvious: Bowie’s Major Tom and all the variants and songs about him tell a story of an astronaut slipping the surly bonds of Earth. Mike + The Mechanics did similar stuff with “Silent Running”, telling a story of a world falling to dictatorship. Roger Waters has made a career out telling a story through an entire album. But it was a particular line in “Ballroom Blitz” that built a much darker scene than Chinn and Chapman likely had in mind when they wrote the song.

So, as an exercise, I decided to see if I could take some other songs and build new scenes off the lyrics. Not all of ’em are winners, but there are a few gems scattered here and there. Most of ’em should be pretty obvious, but there might be a couple you haven’t come across.

The Marine lay dying on the floor. Blood leaked from his torn parade uniform and pooled on the floor under his prone body.

“What happened, son?” General Modine asked as he applied pressure to the young man’s chest.

“It was a trap sir,” the young Marine replied. He turned his head and winced as he coughed up a spray of blood. “The man in the back said, ‘Everyone attack!’. It turned into a ballroom blitz.”

 

Noboru was proud warrior, the last of his line after the near disastrous rout at the hands of the Hakama clan’s dark wizards. He knelt in front of the supreme overlord, his head bent forward exposing his neck that he might be spared the dishonor he had brought up his clan. The overlord’s mechanicals clicked and whirred, a sure sign of his displeasure. Noboru only hoped it would end quickly.

“For your bravery,” the overlord intoned in a voice filled with the ticking of his gear-like body, “you are promoted to field marshal. You may see the fight as a failure, but you saved the lives of your comrades. Rise Marshal Noboru, that my realm may see what a warrior looks like.”

Noburu’s mind whirled as he stood. He had expected death, had convinced himself to welcome it. Instead, he had to learn to convince himself he hadn’t failed. The overlord’s glass eyes stared at him without emotion, but a hint of smile formed on his rubber lips.

Noboru bowed his head to hide both his shame and his relief. “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,” he whispered.

All around them the desert cracked and blew in waves of dust. Her lips were dry and cracked, eyes sunken in her head. She felt like she was inches from joining the sand. His smile was the last thing she expected to see.

His skin was little more than a thin parchment stretched over a skull, but even though his lips were split, he smiled and said, “You look like rain.”

“Good morning world! Well, what’s left of it, anyway. There are reports of mutants swarming Central, so be sure to avoid the university area this morning. Also, Drox says he has water, but he’s lied before. Let’s be careful out there today. This is the last radio station on Earth and we’re getting ready to play the complete Supersuckers catalog because, man, this sure does suck. You’re listening to the last bit of civilization on the planet and I’m coming at you live from a Mexican radio.”

Sergeant McClaine thought he’d seen it all, but this was horrifying. He couldn’t even tell where her body began and ended. As usual, he buried it deep in his psyche and fought to dig up a witty response. His normal flippancy fled when the bile rose in his stomach and all he could come up with was a lame play on words. “Well,” he said. “She was pretty. Now she’s just pretty fucked up.”

Your turn. Drop ’em in the comments. If anyone’s interested, I can put up a list of the songs I used.

Book Review – Smoke and Mirrors by Tom Benson

I like short stories. Honestly, I always have. I guess it stems from reading shorts in various sci-fi magazines when I was growing up. Or perhaps it’s just because I’m not the most patient person in the world. At any rate, while I enjoy a novel I can sink my teeth into, a collection of short stories can be a blast to read.

I’m not sure if it’s a British convention or what, but the shorts I’ve read from British authors tend to be shorter than their American counterparts. Personally, I follow the US convention of fairly lengthy short stories when I write, but Benson follows the British convention which means some of these short stories are really short.

And yet, even given the paucity of words in a given story, Benson manages to convey a complete tale in a tiny amount of time. There are some in here that could be longer, but he manages to get his point across – oftentimes violently – in a concise manner.

Benson doesn’t shy away from action or violence. Being a former member of British military not only means he’s quite capable of dealing with the seamier side of life, but gives him an insight into detail most of us aren’t privy of. The stories in Smoke and Mirrors don’t always portray the best in people, but they portray what they find accurately and unflinchingly. From the mother who executes her son’s kidnappers to the imprisoned man who kills his captors without even realizing what they are, Benson delves deep into a dangerous psyche and wallows in the blood and madness.

Seriously, how can you not appreciate that?

These stories aren’t for the faint of heart. If you get the vapors thinking about bad things happening, this isn’t the collection for you. But if you like quick peeks into the dark underbelly of the world, Tom Benson has you covered in Smoke and Mirrors.

And for only $1.99, you really can’t go wrong.

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Get your copy on Amazon

Follow Tom on Twitter

Check out his website

Just Keep Writing, Just Keep Writing

Stephen King once said he told his wife he writes every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. He went on to say he also writes on those days. I may be wrong about the days, but I do know he said he writes every day unless something really bad happens.

In the martial arts we have a philosophy of training every day. It doesn’t have to be much; practice a kata, do a few kicks, beat up someone that looked at you funny, that sort of thing. Okay, so I’m joking about beating people up for looking at me funny, but the remainder is true. A little practice every day is a good thing.

Most things we do – whether they be physical or mental activities – get better with practice. As long as the practice is good practice, anyway. I used to tell my students in Kenpo to practice their basics like they really meant them because in a stress situation, when your brain turns to mush, you’re going to fall back on what you’ve practiced. If you’ve practiced never kicking above the shins or putting your weight into your punches, guess what’s going to happen.

You’re going to get clobbered. And probably laughed at. And you will likely have brought dishonor on your dojo.

Writing works the same way: Practice will get you better at it. Or, at the very least, more efficient at it. The quality of your writing will only improve as you strive to improve it. Read a lot, write a lot. That’s Stephen King’s philosophy toward being a good writer. Just keep writing. It’s a job as much as it’s an art. Like any art, you’ll get better at it the more you do it.

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King knocks out about 2,000 words a day. If we follow the standard of 250 words to a page, that means he’s writing a 720 page novel every few months. Walter Gibson was known to write 6,000 to 10,000 words day. I’m nowhere near their league. My average is only 500-1000 words a day. Sometimes it drops lower, sometimes it goes higher, but it’s usually in that range.

So, why am I telling you this? In the realm of questions no one asked, “How many words does Eric Lahti write per day?” is probably toward the top of the list. Most people won’t find this information useful, but there’s someone out there right now wondering how many words a day you’re supposed to write to consider yourself a writer. The answer is as many as you feel like. Some people take a decade to write a book, others crank out a novel a month for decades (I’m looking at you Walter Gibson).

The goal isn’t to write the greatest prose on Earth, the goal is to write. Just like anything else out there, if you want to get good at writing, you need to write. If you want to get better at punching or kicking, go punch or kick things. And then write about that experience.

Maybe it’s just me, but if I don’t feel good if I haven’t written something every day.

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How much do you write a day?

Book Release: Transmute

I started Transmute a little over a year ago. It’s been a long ride to get it to the final point, but I’m pleased to announce it’s now available. If you’re looking for an amazing ride, this is your book. It’s got a new god trying to come to grips with his role, an engine who can make dreams real, a Valkyrie, and some seriously bad guys gunning for them.

It also has the best food you can find in a bowling alley anywhere.

All he wants is a dinner date with his girlfriend, but there are jerks everywhere.
As if Steven doesn’t already have enough problems dealing with the Dreaming Lands actively rebelling against his rule, the freshly minted God of Dreams has to learn how to be a god, deal with overzealous followers, and generally get his head in the game. To make things worse, a powerful enemy has set its sights on Steven and Jessica, and the entire world could be at stake.
New god. New powers. New problems. At least he’s still got friends.

 Get your copy on Amazon now

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