Winter is Coming!

First of all, I have to give a huge thank you to everyone who visited my blog yesterday and to WordPress for making me Freshly Pressed. I had no idea that my fledgling blog would receive such a distinction so soon, but I’m very happy that my post about keeping a to-do board helped so many of you.

Game of Thrones (TV series)

For this installment of Fantasy Friday, I have to start by explaining that about a year ago, I discovered George R.R. Martin, one of the biggest names in the fantasy pantheon. I have to admit that when I first saw the covers of his books and read their descriptions, I wasn’t immediately taken, since it sounded like a lot of political drama (something I had gotten a bit weary of in Robert Jordan‘s Wheel of Time series). However, as soon as I began reading A Game of Thrones, I was enthralled.

Martin’s world is different from a lot of other fantasy because it doesn’t contain much overt magic or traditional fantastic elements, but it’s for that, I think, that I have loved it even more. Mr. Martin is proof that you don’t need to rely on shiny gimmicks or dazzling fictional special effects to create a gripping tale. In fact, one of my few beefs with the series so far is this lean towards dragons since the world of Westeros has been holding my attention just fine without flying, fire-breathing reptiles.

Now, I realise that not all of you may be fans of this particular author, and that’s ok. But for my fellow A Song of Ice and Fire fans, imagine my delight when I discovered this HBO series in the works last autumn. Here is the most recent trailer for the TV series followed by a fascinating in-depth look at the making of the show.

I particularly like how in the second video, the interviewees address the elements of fantasy in the series and what makes it such a great story. Obviously, I’m geeking out right now. Who else can’t wait until April 17? 😉

Much “To-Do” About Nothing

Feb 20 (Day 51): To Do List
Image by dmachiavello via Flickr

Last week, I talked about setting goals. We discussed rather large, longer-term goals and how to be effective when setting them. However, one of the key components to achievable “big” goals is a clear understanding of the many “small” goals that comprise them.

What does this mean?

Well, for example, I’m currently revising my very first NaNoWriMo manuscript by using Holly Lisle‘s How to Revise Your Novel course. This is a massive undertaking, one which I’ve been working on for the better part of a year, and a project on which I have a long way to go. So the question is: How do you manage to keep moving along when faced with such a huge prospect?

The answer lies in taking one small step at a time and rewarding yourself when you do. A couple years ago, I learned this technique from Holly (she is a wealth of information for writers; if you haven’t checked out her site yet, go do it now!). In her article on how to maintain your writing discipline, as well as every other bit of chaos that intrudes on your life, she suggests making a sort of “to-do” list. But this isn’t your ordinary, fridge to-do list; this is the mother of all to-do lists.

Don’t worry, it’s not as frightening as it sounds, and it actually works a lot better than just scribbling some notes to yourself on a scrap of paper.

First of all, you’ll need a corkboard, or some other board to which you can attach index cards. Obviously, you’re also gonna need some index cards. The amount doesn’t matter, as you’ll just replace them when you need new ones, and anyway, they’re cheap. In her lesson, Holly advocates using different colors for different tasks, but I don’t usually bother with that unless I feel a real need to prioritise.

So, make three cards: one that says “Do,” one that says “Doing,” and a third that says “Done.” Pin them (or use a magnet or whatever) across the top of the board to form three columns.

Now, take any index card and write today’s date in the top left corner. In the top right corner of the card, write the date by which you wish to complete this particular task. Then, on the index card itself, write something you need to do. The trick is to make it measurable and to make it manageable. For instance, “Finish revision” is not a good one for the reasons we discussed last week. However, “Finish revising Chapter 13” is. Lastly, write a line near the bottom of the card where you will eventually write the date of actual completion.

You can use these cards for anything you need to get done. For instance, here is mine for my students’ French homework that I need to grade.

(My cards happen to be red only because they were left over from something else; the color doesn’t mean anything here, although you could assign writing-related projects to green, real-life chores to red, etc.)

You should only make enough cards for the next week or so. Then, once you have them made, pin them up in the first column under “Do.” As you work on your projects, move them across the board to the other columns. Be sure to put it under the “Done” card when you are actually done! This visual signal is more rewarding than you might think, and it gives you a real sense of accomplishment to see them pile up on the right side of the board.

Once you have started some more cards under the “Do” column, discard the old done cards as you need space, or if you have recurring things such as “Grocery shopping by Saturday,” you could start its march across the board once more.

Here is a picture of my current to-do board (sorry the quality isn’t very good at all):

It’s been too long since I’ve used this handy tool for, but every time I keep it up, I feel much more productive and I can stop stressing about what I need to do since it is all right there to look at. Also, by assigning the dates by which I need to finish certain tasks, I am assured that I can be free to write since I know I will have to do other things by X date.

I hope this technique helps you stay organised and efficient! What methods do you use to stay on track? How would you modify this board for your particular needs?

The Four Temperaments

I have to make a confession:

I have made no progress on revising my manuscript this week. Sad, but true. With the start of the new semester, figuring out how I’m going to get to my classes on my huge campus and gauging when major assignments are due, ordering textbooks that I actually need, and becoming involved with a few activities hasn’t left me a lot of time to write fiction. However, I also admit that I have wasted a lot of time I could have used to make little steps of progress.

I realise just how much time I waste checking the same things (*cough*emailfacebook*cough*) over and over throughout the day. I also have realised that even though I am usually pretty good about working diligently on a project once I get started, getting started is the hardest part.

My friend recently lent me a book about the four basic temperaments that everyone is born with, and I’ve learned that I am the “melancholic.” I am highly introspective, thoughtful, critical, and attentive to detail. These things are excellent qualities when applied to a work in progress, especially during a revision phase, but they can also paralyse melancholics at the get go. So many choices, so many ways to screw up, where do I begin?

If you happen to be a “sanguine,” though (my temperament’s opposite), you’re usually very enthusiastic and peppy about everything, but you may have a hard time focusing on a project when it gets arduous. You’re a great cheerleader and can motivate others, but you may struggle with precision and staying on task.

“Cholerics” tend to be motivated by challenges and debate; if you tell a choleric he can’t do something, he will dig in and do it just to prove you wrong. This bullishness is great once the fires get stoked, but you better clear the line! Once the choleric gets going, he can be like a bulldozer on a rampage, disregarding trivial things like accuracy and empathy for the feelings of others he may step on in the process.

The “phlegmatic” is a gentle soul who prefers to avoid conflict at all costs, even his own happiness. He is an easy-going fellow who provides loyalty and stability, with a knack for peacemaking. However, his passive nature can be his downfall if he never makes a stand for anything or rouses himself to action.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s interesting, of course! No, but seriously, it occurred to me while I was reading this how I might apply it to character development in my own writing; if everyone in the world tends towards one of these four characteristics (we are all a blend of a dominant one and a secondary one, however; these are just the extremes), then it should be easier to understand their motivations.

Also, I have begun reflecting how best to motivate myself and harness the creative energy so innate to melancholics in order to better my work; what I think I need is a booster shot of enthusiastic, go-get’em energy from a sanguine companion.

If you want to read more about the Four Humours (or temperaments), I recommend The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Larraine Bennett. Hopefully, I will have better news to report next Monday!

What type of temperament do you have? How can you harness its strengths to improve your writing? What areas do you struggle with in writing due to your temperament?

Fanning the Flame

"World View" by Rob Alexander

Why do I love fantasy? Probably because ever since I was able to read on my own, I have read novels for escapism. While any type of leisure reading can offer us a break from reality, I particularly enjoy fantasy’s ability to transport us to entirely different worlds altogether.

Some people dislike fantasy because they feel that they can’t relate to such “unbelievable” stories; others decry it as a genre for nerds, along with its sibling sci-fi; and still others find themselves jaded by the recent rash of commercialism the genre has experienced with the likes of such blockbuster series as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Each person is entitled to his own opinion, of course, but I’d like to make a defense of my favorite type of literature against all the nay-sayers.

Firstly, while most fantasy novels may not be “literary” in the sense of the type of reading required in high school, it is certainly a real form of literature in its own right. Despite the usually impossible events that occur in fantasy stories, the author must have a real grasp of reality, as well, in order to render his narrative to the reader in an immediate and believable fashion. The characters, setting, and plot must all be as fully developed as those of any literary novel, and often (in my opinion, anyway), they appear more vividly in my mind than the more symbolic characters you might find in say, Hemingway or Shakespeare. Perhaps that’s why the genre seems to lend itself so well to film adaptations.

"Abandoned Temple" by Rob Alexander

Speaking of worldbuilding, plotting, and characterisation, when you consider the casts of thousands and the sheer amount of detail realised in the worlds of such authors as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and George R.R. Martin, the execution of such a colossal feat of mental organisation is astonishing. There is a certain limitlessness to fantasy that lets the imagination run wild, yet at the same time, working within the constraints of an entirely imaginary world with its own laws of physics and culture is no easy task.

However, it is precisely this seeming boundlessness that I love so much, since it allows me to form entire new worlds from nothing but dreams. Writing is inherently a creative process, but when you realise an alternate universe entirely from scratch, I think you discover an even deeper connection with that creative spark that dwells within all artists.

There is value in portraying events within our own world, but what I find really beautiful about fantasy is how it allows us to see reflections of ourselves and our own experience of “reality” through the lense of a different one. Though the events be wholly imagined, they carry the same universal messages that we know and experience in our own lives, and we can still recognize and learn from these themes in the exploration of what could be and what might have been.

So, to conclude this week’s theme of dreaming and new beginnings, I’d say that all writers are dreamers. And we need writers of all kinds to continue to keep dreaming beyond what is to what ought to be, to continue to guard the soul of our civilisation and keep fanning that little flame against the darkness that overshadows our existence. In a world where there is so much despair and where things can seem rather mundane at times, who wouldn’t want to live in a world touched by a bit of magic?

Fantasy has allowed me to do just that.

Goals: Getting from Here to There

To kick off the first Writing Craft Wednesday post, I think that the topic of setting goals is especially pertinent.

There is something about new beginnings where everything seems fresher and the possibilities are infinite. Just yesterday I was talking with one of my good friends whom I’ve known since kindergarten about how inspired I have been feeling lately now that it is a new calendar year, a new school semester, and a new perspective for me coming back to the United States from abroad.

One of the challenges I face regularly is having too many interests and things I plan to do and not enough time to do them all. In short, I’m a habitual over-achiever, and the reality is that I just can’t do it all. However, rather than become overwhelmed by everything I not only want to do, but also the things that I must do, I find it helpful to prioritize these activities and set goals in order to make the most of what limited time I have.

Goals, however, are one of those tricky things that can end up hurting you more than helping you if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Here is a list of goals I could possibly conceive for things I’d like to do this year:

  • Work out more often
  • Finish revising NaNo manuscript
  • Become more involved with student activities
  • Keep blog about writing
  • Return to playing piano like I did before I left for France
  • Try to compose more music
  • Learn more about freelance writing
  • Figure out what to do after graduation
  • Begin learning Arabic

This is a horrible set of goals!

Why? Well, the only good thing about it is that it is written down. One of the most fundamental aspects of goals is that you must take them from out of your head and place them into reality, otherwise, they are worthless. This point is linked to the question of why we write in the first place: While there is a proper time and place for ideas to germinate in our minds, they will never grow unless they are exposed to the light of day, or, in a more dramatic analogy, until we “give birth” to them by putting them down on paper. With regards to my writing, I have found that until I finally make a decision of some kind from amongst the many branching ideas I have for my story by writing them down where I can see them, they will never congeal; they remain ethereal and nebulous, constantly shifting shape and never coming to anything more than vague wisps of thought.

So, let’s analyse why this list doesn’t work:

First of all, it is random; there is no logical order to any of these things, nothing to indicate what will demand more time than others, or which things I would value above others. It is simply a group of ideas, sitting there like a herd of cows, waiting for nothing in particular while they chew their cud and stare blankly back at you.

It would be much more helpful to consider which of these activities I’d like to accomplish more than others, and which will probably take the most time or effort.

In my case, I place a premium on continuing to revise my novel manuscript, maintaining this blog, working out regularly, and becoming involved in some student activities.

As far as playing piano goes, I do that anyway when I feel like it, but as much as I prefer not to let my abilities slip any further, it’s not my focus in life right now, so I’ll remain content to play recreationally. Similarly, while I love learning languages, with my course schedule and job as a teaching assistant, learning Arabic from square one is not likely to happen, especially since I know from personal experience how much time and energy are required to learn a foreign language. Researching freelance writing would fall under my leisure reading, and figuring out what to do after graduation will happen as a matter of course.

But there is still something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it… oh right. Specificity.

These goals are much too vague to be of any help. What does that mean “more often?” What exactly does “keeping a blog” entail? And when do I know when I’m “finished” revising my manuscript?

Logically, “more often” implies a comparison to some previous status quo. So, as far as writing or working out goes, I need to assess how often I originally engaged in these activities in order to know whether or not I’m making any progress. Considering the fact that I’ve never been good about frequenting a gym, and my writing discipline has been spotty for the past year, there’s really nowhere to go but up from here.

Still, it’s not enough to use abstract ideas like “more” or “less.” I need to know exactly how often I want to do these things. For me, going to the gym at least three times a week is realistic, though probably not very helpful. Better to consult my schedule and actually assign particular times to go each week in order to establish a habit. Same thing with writing.

For my blog, I have decided that I will write three posts each week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so as long as I can keep that commitment, I will have achieved that goal.

Finishing my revision is a nice thought, but what timeframe have I given myself? By the end of the semester? The summer? The year? Also, that may be the end target, but considering where I currently stand on that project, it’s like trying to hit the Statue of Liberty with a marshmallow launcher while I’m standing in downtown Los Angeles. I know I’m going in the general direction of New York City, but unless I know my next immediate destination, I’m going to waste a lot of time wandering back and forth instead of planning a direct route there.

So, we have established that goals are: Concrete, prioritized, specific, and measurable.

Based on these criteria, my new list might look something more like this:

  1. Write three blog posts per week on the topics of motivation, the writing process, and fantasy.
  2. Complete revision of NaNo manuscript by December 31 by reading and completing each chapter of Holly Lisle‘s How to Revise Your Novel course each week.
  3. Establish a workout routine by visiting the gym on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  4. Investigate how much time potential student activities will take.

There, that’s much better.

Next time, I will go into more detail about breaking these larger goals down into more manageable waypoint steps. For an even more comprehensive guide about setting good goals, read Holly Lisle’s article “How to Get There from Here: The Magic of Goals.”

What goals have you set for this year?

I Have a Dream

"I Have a Dream"
Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr

Welcome to the first Motivation Monday! I’m riding a wave of creative optimism right now, so what better way to take advantage of it than to write a blog post and pass it on to you?

Why am I feeling inspired? Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States and, incidentally, the day before my classes start this semester. I know I’m a bit late as far as getting blogging now that’s it’s 2011, but I have a good reason: I was travelling around Europe over Christmas vacation, and I only just returned to the United States about a week and a half ago.

Still, now that it’s officially the first week of school, I can’t think of a better Monday to launch this series.

First of all, MLK Day: On the holiday where we commemorate this great visionary of human rights and social justice, I feel inspired particularly so after coming back from spending a semester in France. There is nothing like being an outsider in a foreign culture that broadens your perspective and deepens your ability to empathise. With Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary speech still echoing through our hearts even half a century later, I can’t help but appreciate it even more now that I have spent some time with another people. As an International Studies major, I’m preparing myself to find solutions to conflicts between all sorts of people in the hope of building bridges between chasms of difference in order to construct a more peaceful world.

Also, on the subject of dreams, I think especially at this time of year, when we are fresh out of the gates with high hopes for the coming months, it’s entirely appropriate to dream a little with regards to our writing. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I, too, have a dream that I will improve the content and character of my own writing. I haven’t set any concrete resolutions this year, but I hope to improve through keeping this blog as well as continuing to revise my first NaNoWriMo manuscript, a project I began last January, but which has been interrupted for the past five months while I was in France.

So, with regards to that project, I have not yet taken it back up, but I plan to continue within the week from where I left off in Holly Lisle‘s How To Revise Your Novel Course, an excellent walkthrough to the painful, yet glorious, process of revision. I will have to see about my class schedule this week, but hopefully by next Monday I will have at least read through the next chapter of the course and begun the practical revision.

As we begin this new year, what are your dreams for writing that you hope to accomplish in 2011?


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

-Langston Hughes

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The Blank Page

There’s something unnerving about a blank, white page.

Empty. Cold. Infinite.

So often, it’s too easy to feel the spark of inspiration, only to be confronted with the great abyss of a blank page. And yet, there is also something about that emptiness and infinity that holds tremendous potential. Even more mutable than a field awaiting planting, or the foundation of a magnificent cathedral, the blank page is the basis for any written work.

And so, with the start of this new year, I have decided to take a concrete, measurable step toward improving my skills and recovering the joy of being a writer by launching this blog.

In the past, I have flirted with the idea of blogging, but I didn’t know what I was doing. The idea of keeping a blog or even a private journal has always held a romantic appeal for me, but without consistent, quality content, a blog is no better than either the directionless ramblings of just another narcissistic wannabe (however well-intentioned), or an abandoned vacuum taking up room in cyberspace.

I may still not know exactly what I’m doing, but thanks to the guidance of people such as Holly Lisle and Kristin Lamb, I have a better idea, now. Even though I have taken some previous bold steps toward realizing my dream of being a writer, such as participating in National Novel Writing Month, for too long, I have languished in my excuses instead of actively writing.

Thus, I introduce you to The Aberrant Pen.

Here, not only will I post my personal progress as I resume revising my first NaNo manuscript, but I will share what wisdom I learn through my own experiences and research as a writer, including the craft of writing itself as well as topics specific to the fantasy genre in which I write.

Motivation Mondays are where I will share my weekly progress on my own writing projects as well as provide inspiration and a place for my readers to share their own victories and problems in a spirit of communal support to kick off the week by chasing away the demons of apathy, self-doubt, and procrastination.

Writing Craft Wednesdays will discuss the process of writing itself, whether on fiction projects, blogging, or just school essays. Here, I’ll share what I’ve learned through my own experience as a writer as well as the wisdom I’ve gained from other gurus who have gone before me.

Fantasy Fridays, I’ll share bits and pieces from my favorite genre, whether it be recommendations for authors, games, and music, or research I come across in the midst of my own writing.

I hope that The Aberrant Pen will not only improve my discipline as a writer, but that it will help you, my readers, to grow in your craft, as well. And so, I invite you to join me as we set out on the adventure to conquer the vast unknown of the blank page by putting pen to paper and seeing where it leads us.

Pure, unadulterated France

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