The Hallucinations Will Not Come

It’s 7 PM and it’s at least 10 degrees hotter in the dining room than it is outside. The dining room, now full of the brain cell-eating tang of very, very strong markers and a cup long emptied of ice water.

Louis is ready to start hallucinating. He feels it’s the next step after the lightheadedness. But it does not come. Of course it doesn’t. Because hallucinating would be an escape.

He looks down at the picture he’s finished inking already-the one he’s attempting to color now, although you couldn’t tell from the fresh square of bleedproof paper beneath it. It’s not even a main character, that’s the thing. Louis will return to this and know that:

a) he cannot post it before posting a finished picture of Lethe, a picture that he hasn’t inked yet.

b) although this character is one of his favorites from the book (and his artist’s favorite overall), he’s still just a side character. A side side character even; he doesn’t make an appearance until around page 140.

c) tragically, although he’s completely ready for Tron, Louis cannot take another Tron: Legacy teaser break and be completely entertained.

And seeing this, Louis decides it’s time to give his world of distractions a little nudge, via text, like so:

“Dude. Will you be on tonight for gaming?”

and

“I know what I’m making for your Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cookin’? party.”

But these do not work. So he pops open Warm Grey #3, and sighs.

But then he looks down at Exelel. Exelel. His artist has done an awesome job and the inking is done. It’s done because Louis did it. And it’s not a hallucination-he’s certain.

But he leans in close to the inked cell anyway. When he’s satisfied that it’s really real, that he did it, he smiles.

Fantasy NYC: Lev Grossman signing at Borders at Columbus Circle

From the start, Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians was disarmingly awkward.

Well, not from the start. He eased into it, if such a thing is even possible. But still, it was disarming. I’d spent the previous night absorbing the first 100 pages of Grossman’s first fantasy novel and feeling dwarfed by it’s prose. It was real, familiar, and bold, and it almost immediately made me think that I should’ve written something as sharp of wit. A look at his website didn’t improve matters;  it was a clean, grey slab of modern design, solidly professional. So I expected someone stark. Someone completely calculated.
And that’s not at all what I got. Clean cut and fashionable in his blazer / Justice League T-shirt combo, Grossman walked onto the stage and gave us a quick outline of the night that included a 30 second awkward pause after his reading.

It made me feel better. A lot better. This was my first venture in my initiative to hear as many fantasy authors speak as I could, and I hadn’t been excited to find a group of peers who weren’t peers at all. Instead I found someone I could talk to.

Even though, again, I was completely awkward when the chance arose.
“Awesome shirt. Where’d you get it?”

“Online.” I offered no more than that. Aside from an intimidated smile. This is the problem with meeting celebrities I actually admire; I’m sure I’d be comfortable talking to Tori Spelling for hours. Well… not really. But you understand. It was depressing.

But I still got a lot out of the night. If unintentionally, Lev Grossman’s talk about his struggles with his career after college, a major theme in The Magicians, was incredibly inspiring. I told him as much in one of the fleeting moments of lucidity I had when I was directly in front of him. It’s harder than people think, being a writer. Especially an aspiring one. You spend so much time on your own, working on a project that you know might fail, despite how incredibly confident you are about it. You miss events, cancel hanging out with friends, forfeit job opportunities. You watch those friends advance their careers just by going to work. And all the while, you convince yourself that it’s probably easier for other writers. Perhaps others graduated from Columbia, landed a job in publishing, and pumped out their first novels at the same time.

But then you find out that maybe they didn’t. It took Lev Grossman four years to get The Magicians published. And this was after trying to figure out what to do with a degree in Literature for a long time. He’s 35 now. I’m 28. Suddenly, getting published wasn’t something I was struggling to achieve. It became something I’m doing.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians marries fantasy and reality in a way that shows us the absurd beauty and horror of both. If you haven’t read The Magicians, definitely do so. It will not disappoint, especially after the story repeatedly veers away from being what you expect.

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

When I got serious enough about my writing career that I started feeling guilty for spending a bunch of my time playing video games, I started to rationalize my pass time by calling it research. Example:

“Yeah… I can play Final Fantasy XII today because, hey, maybe it’ll give me some inspiration.”

Not the worst logic. Until it’s applied to something without a strong fantasy element, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed.

Or, ya know, Hexic.

But there were times where I felt justified. There were games that had sound stories and characters that I’m glad I didn’t miss for the impact they’ve had on me not just as a fantasy writer, but a writer in general. In retrospect, I call them Games for Writers.

And when I thought of blogging about them, there was no competition for which came first.

G4W-SilentHill2

Okay. I know. You’ve probably seen the movie and know how lackluster it was. Or you didn’t see the movie because you thought it looked horrible or because you played the first game and either quit early or (God forbid) beat it and discovered that the story made no-and I mean NO-sense at all. Ya know what? On all counts, I don’t blame you. Seriously. Both game and movie go off the deep end with weird, mystic, hell lingo that took many viewers and gamers right out of the experience.

Silent Hill 2, however, was nothing like that. From the start, it’s story, characters, and mood grab you and never really let go.

You play as James Sunderland who’s received a letter from his wife, Mary, who died years before the game starts. In the letter, she urges him to come to Silent Hill, the resort town where they spent their honeymoon, where she’s waiting for him. Needless to say, an amazing hook.

It only gets better when you start playing and the fog sets in along with Akira Yamaoka’s eerie music. It creates enough intensity and dread with its mood that it’s easily a lesson in setting and tone. And also, because it can get so, so far out there, it doubles as a huge, huge lesson in originality. One that keeps going for the rest of the game.

But I think where things really pick up is when you meet Maria, a woman who looks exactly like James’ dead wife but acts nothing like her.

Suddenly, the situation changes. Cinemas and dialog become more interesting and frightening; James might be falling for Maria. He might be forgetting about Mary. But either way, the game does something surprising. It stops being about a town that’s cursed or a gateway to hell or whatever. It starts being about James. And Maria. And Mary. And the other people you meet in town, all scary in their own ways because each of them seems like they’re the worst in us. So then, Silent Hill 2 becomes about us and the terrible things we do. Yes, there are monsters you have to kill and puzzles to solve, but they don’t get in the way of the story the same way the story doesn’t get in the way of Silent Hill 2 being a game.

I won’t go on and spoil anything, but I will say that Silent Hill 2 is definitely worth a play for writers, especially if they’re already gamers. There’s a surprisingly intense and original emotional journey here that too many people have missed.

The Editing Process

Around when his eyes start to sting and his head begins to throb, Louis realizes he misses the writing process and very much prefers it to the editing process. Fondly, he remembers that the former was like this:

-Louis sits down at his computer and rereads the pages he wrote the previous day (or the day before that, or the one before that, etc.).

-He then remembers what he wanted to happen next. He contemplates the next pages, running them through a complex, mental filter.

-He then starts awake and remembers that he decided what he wanted to happen and how best to execute it around when he dozed off.

-Ready now, he starts. With “Then.” Or no-wait. “But then again.” Ah yes. That’s right. “But then again.”

-Satisfied with this start, Louis gets up and locates a snack.

-He returns to find “But then again” and sighs deeply.

-He starts awake again and realizes he needs to brainstorm.

-He lies down on his bed to do so.

In contrast, editing is a far more constant and steady business that is frighteningly portable (like Pokémon), so that it can dominate your life even when you think you’re safe (likePokémon).

And so, Louis squints at the red mess of a particularly bad page and realizes that there are no snacks. There is no “brainstorming” required. There is only the deed, so glaringly simple now (as it is, in fact, simply transcribing corrections from his massive hand edit to his computer).

But then again…

Character Design: Why Bother?

I was sitting in class at City College once, not taking notes – drawing instead. One of my peers looked over and asked what I was doing. I turned my book so she could see a sketch of one of my favorite main characters.

It wasn’t enough for her. “Who’s that?”

I told her and she asked, “You draw your characters? Why?”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Writers are taught that in prose, it’s a clever tactic to leave the physical appearance of characters to readers. Give them guidelines – simple descriptors that create an image of the kind of person someone is. You could say, for example, that Rock Stout had golden hair, perfectly curled, and wide teeth that almost glistened when he smiled they were so white, and from that we’d generally get that Rock Stout was an ass – or probably an ass.

The same occurs in Fantasy writing. The simplest description in the world is “he had a chest like a barrel.” I’d almost be worried about quoting someone specifically, but this has been said in so many ways in so many stories that I believe it’s impossible to quote anyone specifically with this, and – furthermore – I’m not saying this descriptor is a bad one. The point is, we get everything we need to know from that phrase: this man drinks, laughs loudly, probably uses an axe or warhammer, probably likes wine and whores, is possibly a black smith. It’s simple – about as simple as Rock Stout’s description. Likewise, our hero can be simply described as “usually the tallest head in a room” and again, we get the idea.

The question then is, why bother doing more than this? Why devote as much time to character design and artistry for a media that barely needs it?

The answer is simple. Because I don’t want this to happen:

My... God.

This is the US cover of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. And, sadly, it’s probably the best cover for the series so far, or among the best.

Now, let’s see what happens when, Seamas Gallagher, who takes his time and, more importantly, cares, renders Rand Al’Thor:

Kind of totally way better.

So, what am I saying here? Is it that all fantasy writers should spend time trying to draw and design their characters? That even if they do, the artists assigned to do their cover art somehow will – or will even try to get it right? No. What I’m saying is that when War of Exiles is released, if it has a cover that looks as off base as this –

This book is not about a waterfall. It's - wait... Are those people?

– you can come back here and look at the awesome character sketches and art that I’ll have up by then until the pain stops and the tears go away. Mine and yours.

Where to Start?

I’m embarrassed to tell you exactly what hooked me into writing fantasy.

Embarrassed because, in retrospect, it’s shameful. Most writers will tell you immediately that they were turned by Tolkien, or someone very similar. While I feel such a start has it’s disadvantages, it’s definitely based in literature. And that’s good.

Because I got my start with J-RPG’s. Please, please don’t stop reading. I know, I said it and I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you. Well, warned you more. I just thought it was best to come out with it.

But it occurs to me that you may not know what “J-RPG” means and that’s great. Hold on to that. First,

Disclaimer: I’m not in any way married to the visual or narrative style of J-RPG’s. In no way is my writing just a vessel for convoluted plots that revolve around progressively larger weapons and star extremely pretty, teen characters with unfathomable hair.

That said, “J-RPG” stands for “Japanese role-playing game”, a genre of video games that’s only different from manga in two ways:

1. Manga is more often not set in fantasy worlds.

2. You can play J-RPG’s.

This poses an interesting question, I bet: How does such a start lead to a credible career as an American fantasy author? Alone, I would say it doesn’t. But following it up with plenty of sci-fi and fantasy literature creates a different perspective on things.

Yes, it is a bit embarrassing to have begun with J-RPG’s, but I often feel now that if I hadn’t, I’d be writing about orcs. The heroes in my stories would inevitably run into old mages who would send them on a 400 page long horseback journey. Not – and I stress – not that those things are terrible; dragons for example, are awesome, and someone like Brandon Sanderson can blow your mind with their approaches to magic. However, a basis in J-RPG’s can put everything on an interesting slant. Do there need to be dragons? Does there need to be that old wizard? Does my hero have to have a special power only he can pull off? But also, conversely, with tempering from American fantasy, do my characters all need unfathomable hair?

And, of course, such questions lead to more questions. Does my hero always have to win, unharmed? If my hero and his entourage win, will they be happy? Is it more believable for love to come out of nowhere or for it to, perhaps, be something my characters can – and do – miss?

The end result of all of this questioning and tempering is necessary, I think. At least it is to the kind of author I want to be. A different author, with the kind of style and visual artistry you would find in… oh… let’s say this picture.

Here, Ayami Kojima has rendered a stunning Alucard as he was in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Notice that he’s not simply wearing a doublet.

Now, this kind of style and a more serious, realistic tone?

Come on. You know you want it.

Starting a War

A Different Experience

From the beginning, my approach to story telling has been grounded in a desire to give readers something fresh. But I realized early on that different experiences go further for making stories fantastic than different worlds do; a novel set in a world full of dwarves, elves, and orcs gains strength from it’s familiarity and accessibility, no doubt, but it fails to be intriguing if the three races are engaging in another war for another magical relic, or fighting the same evil from the North.

How does this relate to War of Exiles? Simple – this first novel was a side project. Before, behind, and after it, I’ll be working on my masterpiece. However, I needed something to kick start my career – a debut that’s both familiar in appearance but truly fantastic in narrative. I believe Exiles achieves this. With deep characters, the unique, exiled setting of Ashiaden, and an interesting twist on the traditional quest narrative, War of Exiles gives readers something unexpected – a different experience.

A Different World

“And somewhere, in a direction he couldn’t discern and a distance he couldn’t fathom, there was a wasted continent where someone from his long-forgotten lineage had laughed, cried, fought, and at some point sacrificed themselves to ensure that his grandparents or their parents escaped, lived, and carried on the bloodline that eventually ended with him.”

I can’t boast that Ashiaden will be visually new and breath-taking. There will be barbarians – the Baerlungs. There will be short men somewhere far away who make weapons and tools that run on steam – the Steiners. There will be druids who can shape nature – the Ceudin. But these will not be orcs, dwarves, and elves. They are Ashiads, all human – their differences cultural, not racial – with a lineage that falls back to the unifying event of their exile.

About 300 years before the novel starts, the exiles touched down at Ash Landing. Having escaped the fall of an empire, the refugees settled there or escaped South, East, and North, only certain that this new land would be called Ashiaden, “ash home” in the Old Tongue, as the elders claimed. Centuries later, villages have expanded and fortified, but unified systems of law and rule have yet to be established. Baerlungs raid towns and rob weary travelers, bandits and the native creatures called Lessermen do the same, and the strongest bit of the Old Continent’s Magic exists only in Necromancy. Travel is dangerous, travelers rare – save for bards, who gain fortune from selling information whether through story or song and in truth or fabrication, and merchants foolish enough to gamble abroad.

Among the cities on this island is New Dawn, where the novel’s protagonist, Lethe Dega, is born. An austere rock just off the coast of the mainland, the veritable island fortress is as closed as any other city of Ashiaden, and kept that way by the sects of Sentinel and Rider.

Different Characters

Traditional character types are offset by unique personal situations. Lethe Dega, a Sentinel of New Dawn, is driven to rid Ashaiden of necromancers, despite how deeply it affects his relationship with his family – an already tenuous bond. Etalen, a druid of Clan Terra, finally decides to put her life on the line if it means she can escape her family’s intent to let her dwindle into obscurity. Semacien, one of the island’s bards, seeks a story he can live off of for years to come. And all of them and others grow and change  in ways that the strapping hero, plucky rogue, and wise old mage would not.

A Different Quest

Without saying too much, the adventure of War of Exiles takes a different approach that I’m sure will intrigue readers easily. When I decided to start off with a more traditional, familiar story, I knew that I couldn’t give my readers an adventure that spent hours on the road. Although authors like Robert Jordan and Garth Nix do well with such quests, I’d already heard enough of them that I couldn’t be satisfied giving another to my audience.

So instead, I looked at all the ways you could do a quest narrative without doing a quest narrative. In the end, I found an answer that could suit my needs, serve the plot, and give readers something unexpected, unfamiliar – different.

110%

I thought I’d start the day with a Word Press blog. And man, what a day it’s been, sitting at the computer, cycling through page after page of 110% confusion.

It’ll take some time, but I’m going to get a site for my writing career up and running or my name isn’t Louis Santiago.

Which it isn’t, actually. But–I mean–well… I’m gonna do it!