My Writing Playlist

Iggy Pop once said that literature was like cocaine for the mind (because it sharpens it), and that music was heroin (I’ll let you extrapolate). He’d recently read a book at the time (I forget which one) and was so inspired that he created a whole new album’s worth of music. I should think that the author would be feeling pretty chuffed about that; his ideas and perspectives helped to inspire an iconic musician to create new material. Music, and I’m generalizing here, is more about communicating emotions. The ideas generally tend to be pretty straightforward and accessible, at least in the commercially mainstream sphere. In my situation, my writing is and was heavily influenced by my mood. The following songs were ones which I used to help get into the ‘zone’ for writing specific characters and scenes. I am not trying to say that these songs are the best ones for writing, I am just trying to share with you which ones ended up influencing my novel the most.

Skorchawk Bezerk “Theme”

When I first heard this, I immediately tuned out of the real world and into my novel’s universe. The opening riff sent visions jolting into my mind which have persisted to this day as I write this blog post. The song affected my mood in two important ways. The first way was its aggression, which helped get me fired up for writing about the good old ultra-violence. Second, it helped me get angry about people being taken advantage of, which is essentially what is happening to the Bezerks. Every aspect of their lives is controlled by their clans from their diet to the posture in which they sleep. It makes me angry just to think about it. Sometimes people see my resting bitch face and ask me what is wrong. Every once in a while I have to make something up because it’s simply too awkward to explain that I am fuming over the maltreatment of some of my favourite fictional characters.

Air Battles

One of my more consistent waking dreams set in the series’ universe is a mission where a set of dropships drop off a small army of soldiers near an enemy installation. A spy tipped the enemy off to their arrival and they are barraged mercilessly from below. Although this scene doesn’t actually happen during the novel series itself, I have often considered writing a fourth book as a collection of short vignette pieces all set in the same universe, with all proceeds going to kidney research. More on that later, once the trilogy has been completed.

Krohl Massacring His Fellow Soldiers

The only part of the song which really inspired writing for the novel was the heavy base line- for some reason it really helped me to visualise Krohl running through the small dunes of a desert in slow motion before cutting through a small group of soldiers with a double-ended blade staff.

Svalinn‘s “Theme”

The opening theme song for the the masterpiece Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex helped my mind get in the zone for a nice blend of cyberpunk science fiction and ethereal fantasy. The Matrix borrowed many of its visual elements from this franchise and I am not ashamed to admit that I have done likewise.

Flamberge‘s Escape

I’ve often visualised Flameberge’s escape from his birthing chamber frame by frame to this music. The desperate energy, the anger, all of it fit together so logically in my mind. It was also one of my favourite scenes to write in the series so far.

Flamberge‘s “Theme”

Flamberge has several moments where his anger and deadly energy heap upon themselves. The beginning of the song seems to give it a voice almost perfectly. I also very strongly encourage you to listen to the next song on the album, Last Year’s Nest. This album, which I listened to constantly throughout 2003, was the emotional bedrock upon which the character of Flamberge was built.

Skorchawk Battle

Limp Bizkit will be remembered for many things. It tried to rip off Korn after Korn stopped being cool. Their faux, try-hard hip hop take on “Nu Metal” made a brief splash before Linkin Park did it slightly more emo, and solidifying the genre as the speshul little brother of the grownup rock styles. Not only that, but it was basically created specifically for whiny teenagers that thought they were being edgy by telling the establishment to go screw themselves whilst handing their money over. For all the legitimate reasons why I so strongly dislike this band, I do have to admit that I got really sucked in when their Chocolate Starfish album came out. The last half of this song in particular helped me to get into the mindset for a large-scale battle which happens in the first half of the first novel.

Apocalyptic Battle

I’ve always had the final battle in my third novel set to this song, in my mind. The mix of electronic sounds and heavily distorted, passionate strings mirrored the duality of biology and machinery in the same being. The battle takes place between heaven and hell itself, ultimately deciding the fate of many significant characters throughout the series.

When I Was Feeling Particularly Shirty

This was the first Tool song I ever heard. It was in the far more innocent time of 2003, a store was playing the video clip out of its store front. I started in about three minutes in and I was mesmerised. I’m not sure if I blinked for the rest of the video. Sometimes whenever I was doing a workout or out for a jog, this helped me to push harder. I was always willing to overlook the somewhat condescending tone so I could get some fairly gratifying anger out during physical activity.

When I Absolutely Had To Cheer Up

From 2010 I was bursting with inspiration for the novel, but entering a rut at work. I tried to stimulate my voracious appetite to constantly improve my mind by applying for secondments, graduate programs and doing private night study in a post-grad degree, as well as begin this novel. I essentially had to listen to this song every morning on the commute to work before I could face the day, and it’s basically my get out of jail free card in terms of beating the grumpies.

Samurai Outcast “Theme”

I am  a huge fan of graphic novels, Lone Wolf and Cub being one of my favourites. At the time of this blog, I am on the 15th Volume of the 28 Volume collection of the original series. In Volume 11, Talisman of Hades, the story A Poem for the Grave features a disgraced samurai guard captain by the name of Zako Gennoshin. One of my characters from the second novel, Zoang (borrowing several letters from Zako’s name), is is very strongly influenced by his fall from grace. Exiled from his lord’s service for saving his men rather than dying for the burning castle, Zoang has traveled far and wide to seek a way of restoring his honour. When the opportunity arose to adventure with our second novel’s heroes and kill the evil Fajun, he jumped at it. He bears many burdens in his heart, and keeps many things secret from even those closest to him.

Smartass Ninja “Theme”

I heard this song for the first time on the radio and my mind instantly went “This is so Kyce!” The irreverent tone matches his shtick perfectly; he lulls his victims into a false sense of security by pretending to act silly and acting carefree. Once he is in action though, he is able to kill five men in the space of a breath. He maintains this facade around his fellow adventurous in the second novel, which often makes me wonder- is he naturally like this and relishes the opportunity to mask it by using it as a diversionary tactic or did his unbelievably harsh training and upbringing totally destroy that part of him, reducing it to just an act? I also like the song’s lyrics in that they can be applied to both a love scene and a deadly standoff (both of which he partakes in when he gets a rare chance in the spotlight).

Cybernetics Expert Alec Pollard

I’ve enjoyed imagining one of the foremost robotics experts that had ever existed (and amateur surgeon) having this music or something similar blaring in the background of his lab/workshop/surgery in the second novel. It’s something that he would share with the love of his life, Melanie Hamilton (regardless of how much she liked it or not). It’s also nice and ironic when you consider what happens to him later.

Marcus‘ Transformation

I discovered the band Sigur Ros in the criminally late year of 2006. The lead singer sounds like a terminally ill owl, but the song builds into a whirlwind of power. I think this matches the moment when Marcus transforms into what he believes is fully human and communicates how all the people around him would have felt. The lack of intelligible lyrics ads to the sense of wonder and appreciation.

The Battle between Marcus and Fajun

Discovering a new song that changes how you perceive a vital part of your novel is an absolute joy. This one immediately guided the atmosphere for when the novel introduces the mysterious Fajun (a demonic warlord), and when he squares off against  Marcus. Any fighter worth his salt knows that they need to keep their attention on the other fighter’s eyes in order to read their movements. The eyes of Fajun don’t hypnotise as such, but their blankness is so difficult to read that it actually makes it more difficult to avoid his attacks, putting him at a tangible disadvantage.

The End

One of my favourite parts of this song is the reference to the opening lines of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It’s one of the greatest opening lines in literature: “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”   In order for Marcus to begin his journey towards full humanity, his original self goes through a traumatic ‘death’, which raises another question about his identity- did he actually die and get replaced by something created by the Tabetoren or did he in fact get reborn as another version of himself with the same ‘soul’?

Natania’s “Theme”

I mostly like to think that Natania became a priestess mostly out of altruistic motives, but part of it is definitely to prove something. She wants to prove to herself that she is wrong; she knows that she is a monster, but she had reached the stage where there was nothing redeeming about her besides. When she became a priestess and did not fit in, it was like everybody could look right into that part of her, confirming her worst fears about herself. I hope that during the second novel she manages to find some piece with this, much like how I want this for myself as I write her.

Something To Keep Perspective

For all this analysis, time and emotional outpouring, this story ultimate means nothing. For someone like Johnny Cash to borrow these words from NIN’s Trent Reznor and declare that his immensely influential portfolio of music equates to an ’empire of dirt’, then surely this story is ultimate worth less than dirt. It is vapour within the breath of a whisper. And it is simple delusion to imagine it to be any more meaningful to anyone. Instead, I hope that is fulfills its purpose as it is written and if anyone else gets anything out of it, I guess that will just have to count as a bonus to celebrate later.

 

 

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Prayer and Writing Hygenie

The bible says that man does not live by bread alone. It’s meant to emphasise humanity’s need for spiritual fulfillment, but since it is from the bible, it has been removed from this context and adapted to every possible meaning that it is possible to fabricate. The Japanese student Taro Nagazumi from Mind Your Language very unconvincingly quotes it when encouraging his teacher Mr Brown to do the no pants dance with fellow classmate Anna Smidt, implying that it was really about a red-blooded male’s pathological need to dip his wick rather than one’s reliance on God.

As much as I admire and appreciate how clever some of these interpretations are, for me, the heart of the matter is as clear as it is necessary to remember; without God I am lost. Sometimes it even gets physical; when I do not go to church or bible study for a couple of weeks I begin to feel drained and generally unsettled. If, when listening to His word I find myself listening with snide dismissiveness or when I’m engaging in ungodly behaviour I often get anxiety attacks.

During the first two or three years of working on this novel, my spiritual life and my creative writing were inextricable. During sermons at church I would get floods of inspiration which I would compulsively tap into my phone with my thumbs. Whole characters, sub-plots, locales, sequences and new directions for the overarching narrative poured out of nowhere. Combined with my dreams, my ever-building need to offload my depression and anxiety, along with my (very basic) research into both the physical and metaphysical, I had more ideas than could every fit into an averagely-sized book trilogy. Being around other Christians seemed to feed me this energy that I could not find elsewhere.

The cynical part of me comes up with plenty of other reasons why there was such a strong correlation. Probably the most obvious thing is that I was actually bored stiff with the sermons in question, felt like they had little relevance or connection to me in real life and my brain craved stimulation, the most enjoyable of which was to continue to create. Furthermore, I can’t claim that my closeness to God is what granted me my inspiration; some of my best writing has happened when I was furthest from him. When the pain was the sharpest and I was at my most desperate was when I was able to reach that voice inside of me screaming to be heard and escape.  When I was writing several evil characters and had to get inside their head space, some very dark things emerged which I really hope nobody looks into too deeply when they read the novel.

But like I’ve said again and again, if people are going to suspend their disbelief for a science fantasy novel, I believe that I have to make the desires and emotions of the characters as real as possible. The core of the novel has to be grounded in something real so that readers will be willing to go on a journey with aliens and different planets and magical runes as suchlike. That reality is the overbearing solitude of pain. Pain is universal in two ways; everyone feels it, and nobody can possibly know how another person experiences it. It is much easier for a beginning writer to make that relatable than the impossibly high standards that God has set for us and then died as Jesus to save us from. Sure, we are naturally empathetic creatures but it is a lot easier to relate to real and genuine pain rather than (what could easily be interpreted as) smug self-congratulatory tales of overcoming adversity (which get deservedly eviscerated online).

Writing a novel is a lot of hard work and you take the inspiration and motivation whenever you can get it. You can plan all that you want (which I clearly do, a lot), have all the skill in the world (which I clearly don’t), but without a fire in the bellows the train won’t budge an inch. Novels also take a life on of their own and it can sometimes be an awful idea to try to ‘correct’ the direction that it heads in for fear of coming across as forced and awkward.

Now-Learn-How-to-Conquer-Your-Writers-Block-and-Summon-Inspiration-820x380
Source: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

So what did I learn from this experience? From being totally God-centred to dwelling in the most gruesome and sadistic, borderline-nihilistic part of my mind? Mostly that it is dangerous to do this sort of thing completely alone. Towards the end when I was especially obsessed with finishing, I shudder to think what my state of mind would have been without the support of family and friends. Not so much in terms of how they influenced the book (far from it; sometimes the worst things that happened in the book were directly inspired by people I was close to at the time), but more that they brought balance to my life. When I needed to withdraw, I could get some of the darkest things off my chest, and I could write expressively enough to attain that sort of relief. Then I would communicate with other people and the social part of me would force myself to become normal again for the sake of the relationships. If not for these, I have no doubt that I would have continued to slip further and further away from everyone.

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Source: ViniTavares

When it comes to one’s relationship with God, finding accountability and fellowship with friends can be an invaluable part of that journey. Sometimes it isn’t. When I first became a Christian, I remember recounting several occasions in my youth where I would get frequent auditory hallucinations. Sometimes it was several voices, but often it was a single hushed female voice who sounded like she was about a foot behind my head. She would whisper things to me when I was at my desk. It never contained any explicit instructions like ‘burn the house down’ or the contemporary equivalent to, ‘like that girl’s picture from five years ago at two in the morning,’ it was more just general comments about what I was doing or seeing. I later found out that this was a totally harmless and common symptom of someone who played lots of video games growing up. I haven’t read too much into it but it has something to do with how the brain gets stimulated during play, and how placing yourself in to realities (the one you live in and the game world) can encourage some degree of cognitive disassociation. My Christian friend(s) told me that I was demon-possessed after exchanging very worried looks with the others present. This sort of ignorant fear-mongering was definitely not helpful, and was an important lesson in taking things that other people said at face value.

The Christian walk requires wisdom and discernment just as much as it needs faith and dedication. I cannot lay claim to any of these, but I really hope that my novel and its portrayal of how the various members of Project Trinity respond to their calling will be able to get across what insight I’ve gained from these experiences over the last few years, and that readers will be able to either share in them or even learn something new about themselves.

In my next blog entry I will share my song playlist for when I write on this current novel series, as music turned out to be a much bigger source of inspiration than I’d anticipated.

The Tabetoren and the Fourth Dimension

I tend to view ideas the same way that some Catholics view sperm; every wasted one is an affront to God’s infinite and continued creativity. This works brilliantly for me as a teacher because it is such a dynamic environment. Every day, every class and every student is different. Ideas that work well with some classes are disasters waiting to happen for others. Star pupils can completely blank on some topics and all of your plans can collapse into pieces in a matter of minutes. Creative puzzle-solving is one of the most advanced levels on thinking and the more ideas you have tucked away, the easier it is for you to use your professional judgement in any given situation.

For writing stories, however, having lots of ideas can actually be a tremendous burden. Just because you can do something does not automatically make it a good idea. I probably could eat a whole box of Krispy Kremes, and I would enjoy it immensely, but I won’t because I want pants to fit me that aren’t tracksuit bottoms. By extension, I could try to work in every idea I had into my novels but the dream that I had about Eddie Redmayne getting shot into swiss cheese by a barrage of musket fire while dueling with a French aristocrat (I blame Les Miserables) doesn’t really fit into an apocalyptic science fantasy novel with aliens and sexy magical zombie cyborgs. One thing which I find really easy to write about are the things that scare me… but that can’t be the only thing. Sometimes it actually requires quite a lot of discipline to discern what works and what doesn’t.

But you know what I did manage to fit in? Angels. Not the ones from our universe of course, but ones which perform a reasonably similar function. Like the real God, Ayun is a very capable delegator. When he created the fictional world that the novel series takes place, he granted his race of helpers called the Tabetoren a portion of his own power. Part of this power is being able to travel in four dimensions; although time goes no more quickly for them than it does for us, they are able to pick a precise moment in time to travel to and exist in. This gives them unlimited flexibility to move and create, totally free from the effects of time and gravity.

ds_003

But as always is the case, for some people, when you give them an inch, they take a mile. Some of the Tabetoren were not exactly satisfied with the direction the universe was heading in and decided to reject Ayun’s authority, and as a consequence, they had the majority of their powers stripped. These fallen Tabetoren are called the Brukk, and are (very, very, very) loosely based on the Nephilim, which I’ve just arbitrarily decided were ‘sons of God’ in the more literal sense.

These characters were originally a combination of the eponymous Dark Savant (from the video game I referenced in my first blog entry) himself and the frustratingly over-voweled Althaeoides (Al-thee-oh-dees). One drawback though was the fact that these were fairly nebulous characters in their first iteration. Those who are seeking to do the work of their god (or seeking to undo it) should be working actively and constantly to see their plans through, and so the Tabetoren had to become key players in the story. As the novel stands, the key inciting incident for the whole plot revolves around one interaction between a Tabetoren and Marcus.

So just how much power do these beings have? Well, imagine an ant crawling on a balloon suspended in mid-air. The balloon is quite small, but if the ant only travels on a two-dimensional plane, the balloon becomes infinite; the ant will never find the end, no matter how far he crawls.

scienceblogsdotcom
Let’s not even get into the balloon’s expansion Source: scienceblogs.com
If we extrapolate this comparison between an infinite two-dimensional plane on a small three-dimensional object into the third and fourth dimensions respectively, then human beings become the ant.

We are bound by gravity and time like a drawing is bound to the surface upon which it has been drawn. So how do we respond when confronted with the thought of beings that can just as easily travel in the fourth dimension as we travel through the third?

Well, more than three million people so far have said that it is/was aliens. Quite a few more have said that they are angels, demons, ghosts or other supernatural beings.

expressdotcodotuk
Why does everyone keep asking me where Voldemort is? Source: http://www.express.co.uk
These extra-dimensional beings have an incredible potential for our destruction. If we every met and communicated with beings that existed solely on the second-dimensional plane, we could very easily convince them that we are gods. We can seemingly break their laws of physics at will and our knowledge of the universe would be almost infinitely superior to theirs.

What do the majority of people who’ve encountered aliens describe the experience to be? Pushing aside the many anal probing jokes which popular culture has flooded the science fiction comedy sphere with, usually it’s along the lines of “Your religion is wrong. You are a subordinate species to ours. Gather what followers you can and dedicate yourselves to us.”

That’s some pretty messed up stuff right there. The humans become the plaything of the superior (and demonstrably malignant) being. And you know what, I think that for the majority of people in that situation, that being would be speaking from a highly convincing position.

Marcus, the novel’s protagonist, meets one of these being very early on and has next to no context about one of these beings. He is essentially left defenseless against his influence. The things that this being asks him to do involve a great deal of pain, death and destruction with a vague assurance that what he is doing is for the greater good. With no higher sense of purpose or strong sense of truth and fiction, Marcus has a great deal of difficult reconciling the newcomer’s instructions with his worldview.

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This is how the universe is built. Can we just finish the movie Mission-to-Mars style and grab our paychecks?
I would like to think that many people will be able to relate to this struggle. Whilst readers may not be particularly religious or have seen anything supernatural happen to them in their lives, there are still many situations that this sort of struggle applies to. Any person who is particularly charismatic, violent or knowledgeable is capable of exerting this same type of influence on everybody. Whilst these leaders have a great responsibility towards the people they are leading, it is also the follower’s responsibility to be well-informed and assertive about their own morals and beliefs, and I believe that my novel explores the turmoil experienced by the follower who is manipulated beyond what they would normally see as being tolerable. It happens all the time, and the world will be a better place once everyone becomes aware of it.

In my next blog entry I will write about how my spiritual life influences my writing and vice versa.

Bright Lights & Dark Skies

I didn’t experience a whole summer until I was an adult. Every summer holiday we had in Hong Kong (the northern hemisphere for the geographically challenged) would be spent traveling to Australia, where it was winter. Well, the Australian version of one anyway.

When I came to Australia, there were cavalcades of experiences which were totally unlike anything I had encountered living in Hong Kong. A decent beach with waves. Snow. Marsupial feeding and cuddles. Relatives. Fishing trips. Horse riding (although there are plenty of horses in Hong Kong). Wood chips in a playground. Easily accessed beef pies. All of these things were immensely fun and novel, but looking back at it, the part which stuck me the deepest was the fact that I could see stars in the night sky. Before you read any more of this entry, scroll through and look at the photos of Hong Kong and tell me how many stars you can spot.

Laser light show Hong Kong Harbour
Source: Lonely Planet
Neither could I.

One of the most precious memories of my childhood was that when I went outside by myself to look up at the stars, my uncle Ian came out and showed me how to find the southern cross. I never said anything, but I was very grateful to him for validating my own sense of wonder at what I was looking at, and for his desire to reach out and enrich my life, like so many other amazing people I have met.

Since this is my tenth entry, I would like to steer away from the self-pitying tone that the last few entries have had and share one part of my novel which didn’t get inspired by emotionally traumatic events from my childhood. The truth of the matter is that I was incredibly blessed to have the childhood that I did. I went to a very prestigious school (there’s not much you can do about it being mostly full of wankers), I was fed very well and my parents spent a lot of time and effort making sure that I had an actual childhood (time for play, friends, sports). I used to have this view when eating dinner at the Hong Kong Yacht Club every other weekend. Fairly frequent international flights. Extra tutoring for school. My own mini-sail boat. Piles of pirated gaming software. Tennis lessons. Apartments that weren’t the size of a hamster’s butt crevice. The Yacht Club had its own island that we could go exploring and playing on while my parents gas-bagged or went for a sail. It was a very privileged existence.

Since we had a domestic helper (I hilariously remember that one of them used to even peel my oranges for me), there was a lot of time to get out and about in during the week when my parents were busy working or studying. Trips to the park and the zoo were as frequent as they were enjoyed. Not a lot of people associate this with Hong Kong, but it’s actually very green and leafy. I find being surrounded by lush vegetation to be extremely comforting (which in part explains why I am so unfashionably disgusted with the Australian outback). This very cool bunch of retro photos is probably closer to what I would have associated with daytime views of my childhood. Sometimes on slow days I would star out at the densely packed trees and my mind would create faces and shapes out of the leaves and shadows, very much like how some people do the same with clouds.

But the real magic happened at night time.

renegadetravels1renegadetravels2

As you can see, in terms of spectacle and splendour, it certainly was not a deprived youth by any stretch of the imagination. With twice as many skyscrapers as New York, Hong Kong was a glittering, buzzing hub of manic activity, ceaselessly pulsing with light and energy. All throughout my early life I became used to this being the norm; this is what was the most safe and beautiful in the world.

Giovanni Mirabueno
Source: Giovanni Mirabueno
Don’t even get me started on Chinese New Year and the fireworks. I’ll just say that there is a good reason why I show almost no interest in the Sydney New Year fireworks or Brisbane’s Riverfest.

It is so mind-blowing that you don’t really care that much that you can’t see the stars thanks to all of the light pollution. So no, whilst it was very rare and difficult to see them, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out on anything as such.

But when I was in Australia, man. The stars (even in Brisbane) sure were pretty. It was no Hong Kong skyline, but it was a very nice temporary substitute.

night-sky-stars-milky-way-photography-23__880
Source: Johannes Nollmeyer
In 1996 when I was first working on the novel, little 12 year-old me was adamant that there had to be no stars in the universe at all. What followed was a very naively-designed time travel story where the cybernetic Jazz Jackrabbit did not travel to another world through space, but rather got sent back in time to prevent the deaths of thousands in order to bolster support for his country in the final war that happens at the end of time. When he travels back in time, yes he does fall in love with Bunnie Rabbot, but he is also enchanted by the night sky. He brings Bunnie back to his world in the future and she is shocked to find that there are no stars. Jazz is happy to look up because his memory of the sky in the olden times were good enough for him. He turns to Bunnie and tells her that his imagination is more than capable of filling the night sky with stars, but it could never hope to create anything that he could love as much as her. She realises that she has gained something far more substantial and important and this helps her deal with the pain of leaving home and her friends. They are very happy together, have a beautiful child and she spends the next two years totally unaware that Jazz’s cybernetic programming has cross-wired his organic brain to always crave bloodshed. He spends agaonising night after night looking at his daughter wondering how it would feel to crush her head between his palms or to rip her stomach open with his fingers. He also wonders what it would be like if he pulled off Bunnie’s remaining limbs, or to punch her face until it was a pulpy mess as she lays in their bed.

Years later in the year 2000, the reason for the lack of stars changed; all of the planets and stars in the universe suddenly and catastrophically all collide together in a single point. All of the stars crash together to form one incredibly compact star, and all of the planets do likewise. The survivors just happened to be at the right place and the right time, and spent years climbing up through the planets’ debris until they got to the surface. The land was quickly divided up and through a series of attacks and alliances, two factions remained to fight for control.

This backstory has also been abandoned, and I hope I don’t need to explain why. But it did take until 2010 to change to something a lot more supernatural; a Unicron/Galactus-like being called the Star Devourer is slowly consuming the universe, but one planet is mysteriously immune to being drawn towards him. Marcus is born on this world, but he is told that once this being is finished consuming everything else, he will simply come to them and it’s goodnight Gracie. The only time he ever sees stars is when he ascends to an extra-dimensional plane which is immune to the influence of the Star Devourer, and a place where the reader will be seeing a lot more of in the third and final book in the series. These stars helped to create the foreign, other-worldly atmosphere for me and I hope that this comes across well in the book, courtesy of Marcus’ reaction to experiencing it.

In my next blog entry I will discuss the extra-dimensional beings who exist in this universe who refer to themselves at the Tabetoren.

Svalinn and Symbolism

One thing that skilled writers are particularly good at is the usage of symbols in their writing. Some symbols are so deeply etched into our collective consciousness, thanks to their constant association (and from lazy writers), that very little effort is required to explain the implied meaning. If they have been especially popular over a long period of time, they become clichés. When you see a little boy called Timmy, you instantly recognise that the child will inevitably face a painful and grisly death. When you see someone who spends more than two seconds in front of a computer (with a few exceptions), you know that they will be able to hack into any computerized system the villain has, often without the need for a space bar. When you see lettuce, you think sadness (or if you are an Australian, probably salmonella).

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Just… ugh. Source: gizmodo.com

But what have we been programmed to associate with romantic love? Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this as we build up to Valentines Day 2016. I would say in my experience that the things we’re told about love are mixed messages at best, and cripplingly misleading at worst. It is so rare that a show or film is emotionally honest about romantic love that they are almost like real life friendships; you have to try so many hundreds of duds in order to find a decent handful.

There is absolutely no harm in occasionally indulging in a bit of escapist fantasy. It’s fun to watch Aragorn skewer a few Uruk-hai, or Luke blowing up the Deathstar, or to imagine Tommy Wiseau winning an Oscar. But the difference here is that you know that you are suspending your disbelief; it’s obvious that you are pretending. When I was a kid, Doom wasn’t particularly upsetting or confronting because the violence was so cartoonish that it had next to no impact on me. But stories about love? Sometimes it’s not so clear whether the story itself is meant to be a fantasy or not.

When you do find one that represents love accurately, it often serves as a heartbreaking reminder of loss, rejection, embarrassment, and feelings of being unlovable. When things go belly-up, you often have no clue if you yourself are undesirable, that you went about it the wrong way or there is in fact a problem with the person you are trying to get close to. I’m fairly certain there are a lot of people like me who’ve come around to the idea that there is actually no such thing as love. There are only other people, and how they feel about and treat each other. None of this it’s-a-mysterious-force-that-transcends-time-and-space crap. As Toni Morrison wrote, love is never better than the lover. And like I said in my previous posts, we have become so individualised that many people simply are not suited to being able to live in a genuinely loving way. This isn’t just restricted to people nowadays though; just look at Jenny Gump. She treats Forest like absolute crap for decades and he still keeps coming back for more, proving once and for all that as long as you are persistent, the woman who is absolutely not right for you will eventually come around.

But then when you get past the bitterness and the lies, you can occasionally discover something precious. Something that changes how you see other people and who you are.

Some time ago I discovered a show called Sword Art Online, and whilst the premise and action are very entertaining, one of the parts that really stuck with me was the journey of a character called Suguha. She falls in love with her cousin and adoptive brother. Seeking escape from these confronting and confusing feelings, she loses herself in an MMORPG about flying magical elf warriors. She becomes friendly with another player in the game and after spending lots of time with him, she falls in love. She then discovers that the player and her cousin are one in the same person. The moment that she discovers this bent my heart so far out of shape that I had to stop watching for about twenty minutes to take a walk and clear my head. And afterwards I was so grateful to this show. Thank you, I thought. You’ve made me feel something about love again.

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Suguha & Kirito get cozy via their avatars in Alfheim

Incestuous love affairs seem to be getting a second wind in fiction, what with prominent characters in shows like Game of Thrones and Penny Dreadful featuring sisters using their feminine whiles to manipulate their brothers. While the physical nature of the relationship is somewhat shocking, I can’t help but feel sympathetic for the male characters in both of these examples, but the sympathy has its limits. Yes, people will often tell you that you cannot help whom you love, but you can certainly choose whether or not to cultivate these feelings. As my old pastor once said, “You cannot stop a bird flying over you, but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.”

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These many thoughts I’ve had about this topic led me to crafting several important dimensions of the character Svalinn, who is one of the members of the eponymous Trinity in my first novel. The three members are nicknamed the Fist, the Shield and the Sword. Svalinn is a mythical ice shield which protects Earth from the sun (which in my humble opinion is pretty freaking impressive for them to come up with when you consider how the ozone and our atmosphere work). She is called the Shield because she was crafted as a cyborg whose power source was an ancient artifact that allows the user to infinitely alter matter and gravity. Since she only has half of the artifact, she can only apply this to her own body, giving her the ability to become indestructible, invisible (which I had a lot of fun researching, particularly by reading H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man), insubstantial, anything that her imagination allowed. But she was not born this way. She was actually born as Elise Todd, the daughter of a highly senior military officer. I will save the details of this for when you read the novel.

Elise is in love with her brother Dominic, but not in a sexual way. She is completely asexual. This lack of sexual desire led to her breeding partner becoming frustrated with her and, confused and angry, attacked her savagely. She was rendered infertile and suffered heavy brain damage with prevented her from being able to speak. Her life was saved by her brother. To her, he represents her only chance for safety; he is the only one who cared enough to step in and save her life. Her feelings of isolation from other members of the military (what did she do to get her partner so mad?), her disappointment at the resultant transfer to a menial administration job within the intelligence office and her closeness to her brother all contribute to a cocktail of confusing emotions, emotions which she has never once been given any guidance on. She thinks that it is love, and maybe that’s what it is.

This might seem tragic but harmless at first, but things take a turn for the worse when her brother Dominic becomes reborn as Flamberge, the Sword in the trinity. I’ll go into more detail about him in the next blog post, but long story short, he inhales hate and exhales death. As a non-combative member of the military, Svalinn finds this very distasteful and she grows to fear him even more so than anyone else she had previously. But she allows these illusions of love to blind her to do what she should; take steps in stopping him. To not compromise her own sense of justice for the sake of her feelings towards her brother.

How does it work out for Svalinn? Well, again, you’d have to read the novel. But I will say that the novel is primarily about coping with doubt, and this has been one very important aspect of my own personal development. When I allow my own fear to prevent me from taking action, or to allow it to influence me too greatly, what does that lead to?

That’s how I’m hoping my approach to symbolism will come across; how their own respective characteristics represent the many parts of us that are in conflict with each other as we go through our lives.

In terms of my inspiration for Elise/Svalinn’s likeness, I have mostly pictured her as looking like Karen Gillan. Aside from being drop dead gorgeous, one of the things which really drew me to her was her excellent portrayal of Nebula in the 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy film. She is a vicious cyborg willing to obliterate planets in order to get revenge on her adoptive father, Thanos. Underneath her impossibly attractive looks beats a heart of steel, and this is an absolutely vital part of who Elise is when she plays her part in the series’ conclusion in the third novel.

She’s also extremely likable. I think that’s also very important if you’re going to have someone who is constantly getting shat on by life; it’s only really going to be possible for readers (or viewers if this ever gets made into a show or film) to be sympathetic if you actually want the character to succeed. And in Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was kind of furious at Drax hurt her towards the end of the film, or that I was hoping that she would make friends with her adoptive sister Gamora soon after.

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On the set of Selfie, probably composing a reply to my fan mail.

In my next entry I will talk about her brother Dominic, one of my other favourite characters in the series.

I will try to talk as little about love as possible so that I don’t kill your Valentines Day buzz, or alternatively, not remind you that the only thing you’ll be putting your lips on are a quattro formaggi and a wine glass.

Natania and Neofeminism

There are quite a lot of reasons why men (and women) hate feminism. I am not going to presume to understand or even claim to be aware of most of them but I can tell you how it has challenged me as a father and a writer.

Most of my friends know that I spend more time than I should on the internet. One of the first lessons that you learn about people online is that almost everybody is a total arsehole. You can literally close your eyes, point at any comment thread anywhere you will find someone writing in a way that would get them slapped with a restraining if it was real life.

Since my opinion is worth so much compared to normal human beings, I do occasionally comment or share an impromptu bon mot on the occasional status, article or video… which has occasionally been met with a torrent of abuse in a way one would think that I had just urinated in their soup. These people tend to vary wildly in terms of their ethnicity, age and level of education, but they generally tend to have three things in common. First, they have shocking reading comprehension (their offense stems from a lack of understanding of the article in question or my own comment). Second, they always have to be right; no amount of evidence or appeals to logic will ever sway them and will only cause them to grunt and pound their keyboards all the harder, like Fox News “journalists” who shout over the top of guest speakers that they don’t like. Third, they are almost always Americans. Not content to let their politicians and military have all the fun of bullying and alienating the rest of the world, many enterprising individuals have decided to take the fight to the internet as well in order to assert their proud nation’s superiority.

My favourite recent encounter was getting ambushed for being in favour of universal healthcare. After I explained my position and gave a list of its benefits, I was met with the flat response of “It’s not free, someone has to pay for it.” As if that is actually some kind of legitimate counter-argument.

To be fair, most people are totally ignorant about how horribly they come across when they advocate a certain position, so I shouldn’t just single out these individuals. But when it comes to something like universal healthcare, there are two thinly-veiled positions you can take. One is that you think that everyone should be entitled to subsidised medical treatment (and access to vital medications), and the other position is that you want slightly more money for yourself. And if you genuinely want to slightly more money and are content to let other people struggle and suffer then you are the worst shit in the seven kingdoms. And yet there are millions of people who brazenly hold on to this position.

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Source: The Amazing Athiest
It is people like this who are so incapable of looking beyond their own individual wants and point of view which I think holds the key to understanding why feminism has lost so much steam in recent years. It’s not because it’s no longer relevant (far from it), it’s because most of its purpose is that it challenges people and requires them to consider the serious and practical need for change. In order for someone to change, they have to accept that there is something about their outlook or lifestyle which needs to be changed in the first place. If you refuse to accept that change is needed then nothing will ever happen. But people are so indulged, so egocentric and self-centered that this is almost never necessary.

You can come up with any cop-out excuse you want (Feminism has double-standards; it’s an excuse for misandry; it undermines some women’s self-confidence; Anita Sarkeesian is an attention-seeking fraud, etc etc), but no rationally-thinking adult could deny that feminism as a movement has been just as important as it has been divisive, much like the teachings of Jesus, the trade union movement or Disney’s decision to euthanise Lucas Arts.

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The grotesque Greendale Human Being with human physical perfection personified herself, Alison Brie
But one major, major problem that I have with mainstream feminism is the idea that men and women are equal. They are not. It is ridiculous to act like they are. Yes, they totally deserve to be paid the same wage for the same work and to have all of the same opportunities that men do, but women are better at many things than men are and they should be celebrated and admired for it. Without going into a big rant about it, I think the show Community did a good job of taking the mickey out of people who go to extremes to try to be as homogenous and inoffensive as possible with the creation of the Greendale Human Being. As someone who has been treated as different for almost their entire life, I find it difficult for people to get past what makes everyone different. So we might as well make people feel good about being different rather than labeling it as anathema and scurrying to find ways to say that we are all the same.

We can expect more from ourselves. One person who highlights this to me especially well is Emma Watson’s positive but ultimately shallow platitudes which she made as part of that whole HeforShe thing. They have been described by mainstream media as amazing and inspirational (before they laughably say “Hey, look how pretty she is in these various red carpet outfits,” revealing just how much they care about her opinions as opposed to how she looks).

Seriously?

It’s great that she took the time to do that for the great unwashed masses. It was very generous and sanguine of her. But is it really worth all of this praise? Have our standards really sunk so low that some laconically cheery and ineffectual encouragement from whoever was operating a celebrity’s twitter account is enough to garner the level of hero worship that she has been receiving? Everyone should be saying this stuff to the women in their lives on a daily basis. Their teachers, families, friends, their heroes on TV, everyone. The fact that they don’t to the level where it seems unusual is terrifying, and the fact that most of the women who are outspoken on these issues have to look as stunning as Emma Watson or Amal Clooney to have their intelligence taken seriously is even more so.

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Futuristic Punk Priestess
So how has this all affected me in my novel writing? Well, I guess the biggest impact has been on crafting the story of Natania. Inspired by my Wizardy 7 Rawulf priestess character, she began her existence as Savatta (Sav to her friends in the adventuring party) as the good natured if someone eccentric mother hen. After I examined the character and her behaviour more closely and recoiled in horror when I saw that she was a poster child for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype, existing solely to further the ambitions of the far more interesting male characters while showing no discernible goals herself. Since then, I can safely assure anyone who will read or listen that no two characters have occupied the same amount of thought that I have put into Natania. It was important to me, as a father with two girls, that they have a strong female character that they can relate to if they ever do decide to read any of my books. One friend suggested that I take an already well-rounded character and turn them female. Whilst I guess that it’s possible for some people to do it this way, I think it kind of defeats the purpose of writing an goal-oriented and competent female character whose sole motivation extends beyond being another character’s leading love interest. Why should it be so hard to imagine an interesting woman? Other, much more articulate people than myself have discussed at length how petty, creepy and sad it is that studio executives are so against the idea of female protagonists. Examples of this antiquated way of thinking are rife in the entertainment industry.

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Maxine Caulfield discovers she can manipulate time and is quickly overwhelmed by her mysterious power. She is a fascinating and likable character who almost got changed to a male due to pressure from the game publisher.
Many chapters in the novel are told from her perspective to help the reader to sympathise with her motivations and point of view. I have crafted a very detailed history of her childhood, her relationships and her careers in both a gentleman’s club and in her priesthood. I have given her carefully defined goals and it makes perfect sense for her to help the other characters in her party as it benefits her as well. But as Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet demonstrates, just because a female character has a tragic backstory with a list of talents longer than a line of cocaine on Charlie Sheen’s coffee table doesn’t make her immune to being treated in a revoltingly degrading manner.

I may not have been planning to strip her down to a bikini to fight baddies, but there exist other forms of narrative development which can be just as damaging to her credibility as a character. This has lead me to overthink pretty much every stage in her story. How much help does she need during fights? Should I take extra care to make sure her goals become fulfilled and that she survives longer than her compatriots, or even to the end like Emily Blunt’s character in The Edge of Tomorrow?

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Source: Warner Bros
If there are two action movie tropes which drive me absolutely insane with frustration, it’s that the big dumb likable character almost always dies (Jaws in the Bond films being a notable exception, even though he dies in the novelization), and the woman who decides to help the male hero (or by-stand dangerously close to the action) gets killed in the process, because she is so gosh darned fragile and the bad guy is such a meanie.

I really do help that I have done Natania justice. She has spent four hours a day practicing hand to hand combat (Something I learned recently: Wing Chun kung fu was actually developed by women as a means for self-defense, so I thought it would be cool to have the only people in the universe to be master hand-to-hand combatants to be women) and has technologically-enhanced telekinetic powers, making her an extremely formidable combatant. She burns to be redeemed for a horrible decision she made in her youth and is willing to put everything on the line to see it through. Like I said earlier in this post, I wanted to celebrate her differences by making them as interesting and compelling as possible. I just want to have it here on record that this is what my  ultimate intention for Natania was regardless of how she comes across in the final version of the novel or any other means you learn about her story.

In my next blog I will talk about Svalinn and the crippling and confusing power that both love and fear can have on decision-making.

Krystan and the Relative Worth of People

It’s funny scary how so many stories seem to centre around or have an inciting incident which involves separation from parents. Interstellar, Batman, Moon, The Land Before Time, Conan the Barbarian, just about every Disney movie, I’m sure you could list many of your own and are annoyed at me for not listing your much better example.

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Source: seekersofthebat.com
There are many sides to the appeal of this theme to a writer, but in this post I will focus on how three of them affect the protagonist in the context of one of my own characters, Krystan. These three sides are survivor’s guilt, the desire for revenge and the jarring thrust towards independence.

Revenge, anger and its security

Anger is the easiest emotion to manipulate people with. Immigrants are taking your jobs. Liberals want to take away your guns. Social justice warriors are threatening your way of life. That religion is trying to indoctrinate my kids. This government is mishandling your money. Ricky Gervais is making jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and (somehow) threatening the trans community.

The one emotion that makes it impossible to do nothing with is anger. If you make someone really sad, they will collapse into a pit of despair. If you make them scared, they will either freeze, eventually go into shock or slump exhausted from their flight instinct. If you make them jealous then the normal response is to stew in a pit of resentment and insecurity. But anger? Make someone mad enough, they will be unable to remain passive for very long. Anger is a brilliant way to ‘persuade’ the protagonist to take drastic action. What better way to anger someone than to take away that which is most precious to them?

This was my solution to the question posed in my previous blog entry. If a lizardman has barely any contact with the other bipedal & speaking races then what could motivate him to join an adventuring party where he will be surrounded by them constantly? I had the villain send assassins to kill his family. Their boss was on another planet. The lizardman needed a means to avenge his family (and to make sure the villain was of no further threat to him by putting him in the cold ground), so he joined the group out of bitter necessity. He is of course not happy about this arrangement which gives me the potential to put in lots of potential conflict with other members of the group.

In terms of characterisation, anger can also be used as a safety measure. There is also less time for you to be sad if you are angry. You know those people who get angry at sad people? The ones who tell them to get over themselves and to cheer up? It is a mask that they wear over their own sadness. Rather than empathise with others, as is biblically commanded, they wear a veil of anger over their own sadness for fear of being consumed by it.

Why them and not me?

Sometimes death is preferable for the people who survive tragic events. I certainly know that if any of my family died I would wish that it was me instead of them. But often I get that feeling when it’s not even someone who’s connected with me at all. Why do I get to live when other, better people who have worked hard towards their goals their entire life are dying with their dreams unfulfilled?

Again, this is a common tactic used by writers to make someone’s death seem more meaningful. We as readers get invested in their goal with them, and then they go and die before seeing it through. That feeling of a loose thread that’s never going to get cut can be haunting for some, traumatic for others. It’s a fear shared by many and it is the writer’s job to leverage that fear as best they can to add some emotional umph to the story.

But with this sense of disappointment comes two sides to one very strange coin. On one side, there is the beautiful truth that when we feel disappointed for a character’s failure, we are doing the human thing and empathising with their plight. We know that we are caring people when we can observe ourselves feeling bad for a sympathetic figure. But on the other side of that coin is part of the reason why the human race is so lost. The other side of that coin is a very selfish sense of entitlement. There is the arrogance that we understand God’s plan better than he does. That our sense of justice is somehow superior to His. Life isn’t fair is just another way of saying If I was in control, I would make things better than they are now. You don’t need to have seen Bruce Almighty to know how far from the truth that feeling is.

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Lizardman potrait from the Wizardry 8 manual
God has a plan for some people and he doesn’t have one for people beyond what they have already accomplished, be it an immensely influential figure from history like Zhuge Liang dying of illness within a hair’s breadth of unifying China or an unborn infant never seeing the light of day.

Krystan has to go through this process more than once during the span of the book series, and he struggles to come to terms with this guilt. The result of it is that it tends to rule much of his decision-making which has far-reaching consequences. As a general rule, it always helps to be self-aware of how emotions may be influencing your ability to make decisions. If you sleep with someone before you’re married, it becomes very difficult to objectively decide if they are the right person for you. If you are mad at your spouse, your decision about whether or not to separate from them would be very different if it was five minutes after they drove over your golf clubs instead of five days. Your decision to quit your job would be a lot more sensible if your boss hadn’t just embarrassed you in front of a client or a colleague. Krystan’s journey with his guilt is a constant reminder to myself that I need to step back and look at the bigger picture whenever it feels like terrible things keep happening to me, and that sometimes it is necessary to rely on the judgement of others who are in a more objective situation before going ahead with a big decision. I know I certainly couldn’t have lived through the decision to push ahead with Zoe if Simone had not been with me through it every second of that process.

Do I want independence?

Independence, from my own personal perspective, is something that every developing person both yearns for and is terrified of. The reason why the death of a character’s parents so effectively plays with this dichotomy is that the security blanket of parents has been pulled out from under the protagonist’s (and by extension, the reader’s) feet. Take the Lion King as an example. One minute, Simba is excitedly looking forward to his father’s death so that he can become king, the next minute he has the nerve to act all sad when his Dad gets pummeled into lion pâté. He isn’t just mourning the death of his loving and courageous father, he is mourning the death of his days living on the gravy train where his safety, sense of belonging and every physiological need are guaranteed. None of those needs are going to be met anymore, and the suddenness of this change is easily as traumatic as witnessing the death of another person, if not more so. Is that sacrifice really worth it to be free to make one’s own decisions? If you dropped a cage-fed chicken in the middle of the Serengeti downwind from a pack of cheetahs do you honestly think that you would be doing her a favour?

Krystan is a highly capable warrior and hunter, but he has only ever made decisions as part of his brood. As the youngest and weakest (but by no means the least intelligent), his opinion counted somewhere between zero and sod flipping all. Over the course of his childhood, he had become the lizardman equivalent to Pride & Prejudice‘s Mary Bennet; overshadowed by his elder siblings, he was never given the chance to stand out and be counted. He was the lesser among equals. He was treated like a weak, ineffectual second-string family member and in time he believed it and that that it was his place to be this way. When he finds himself alone, he knows that this will not do and he sets out to create a new identity for himself, without the knowledge of the confidence to do so… much like many teens and young adults who have been mollycoddled throughout their lives.

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Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire has to constantly seek help from others to further her agenda and is constantly in over her head, but she is never helpless.
In my next blog I will talk about Krystan’s dear friend Natania and how their relationship changed both Krystan and myself.

Skorchawks and Synaesthesia

For many parents, “the plot” is that thing that your daughter loses when you are in a rush to get ready in the morning and she finds out that her favourite dress is in the wash.

For many writers on the other hand, the plot is something that gets confused with the story. The plot are all of your ideas; setting, events, characters. They are the essential building blocks to have sorted before the story can really function, sort of like the egg, sugar, milk & flour before you can start making me brownies. A lot of beginning writers amass a big fat wad of plot and then assume that that’s the majority of what they need for their novel, and then they quickly find their novel treating them like the Undertaker would after they’d stolen his last handful of curly fries.

But for a fantasy writer, this is probably the most fun part of actually writing the novel. Getting ideas out onto a page, particularly when you are on a roll, is more satisfying than taking that whiz after you’ve spent forty minutes deciding if it’s worth getting out of bed to do so. You feel like some kind of creative genius who is the creator and master of worlds. And then when you attempt to weave them together into a cohesive narrative you feel like you’re trying to build a brick house but you’re only allowed to handle the materials with chopsticks.

No ideas are created equally, and one such example of this is the Skorchawk. They first appeared in the novel in 2000 while I was listening to some metal on my portable cd player at my desk (yes kids, we actually used to carry them around with us!) during prep time. This became a defining characteristic of the writing experience; different characters required different music to help with their inspiration. It was a funny kind of synaesthesia; music going in somehow helped with the mental images and the words on the page. Cyborgs needed drum & bass and the Skorchawk needed metal, the more aggressive the better. Some songs (not always metal but it usually had to be a good ‘angry’ style of music that you could easily imagine fighting to) would need to be replayed over and over, others would whenever the mood pleased me, depending on the required mood and intensity.

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A rank-and-file warrior

The physical design has not changed one bit from their inception until the novel was completed in early 2015. They were never really crafted as such, they just immediately appeared in my head charging at an enemy in a very loose formation over the crest of a hill. They were tall, blue reptilian humanoids with long crests on the tops of their heads. Their weapons were double-ended scythes, but after spending more than a few seconds thinking about it, decided it was freaking stupid and that any such weapon would be far more dangerous for their wielder than it would be for an opponent. The skin would look leathery, but the face would often shift between that of a velociraptor and that of an eagle. Whenever I was at my most uncertain, I would just remind myself “Skeksis from the Dark Crystal, but blue and good, kinda,” and just leave it.

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These guys scared the fudge out of me as a kid. Fun times.

The real fun with these guys was picturing them fighting, but something that I found myself dwelling on so much more was imagining how their society functioned and how they could have survived as a species. Taking our own human history as an example, the cultures which survived long enough to become modern nations like France and Russia (some more than others) and survived because they were the best at killing all of their neighbours. Furthermore, the most successful fights in a battle were generally the most boring disciplined. Even the Vikings used primitive (yet practical) formation tactics like the shield wall to make their own warriors harder to kill whilst the opponents died trying to get a style bonus by imagining themselves as some kind epic warrior who can twirl around the battlefield like Li CunXin. Their culture would eventually become a hybrid of two cultures, one was the Vikings and the other were Spartans, whose qualities which made them brilliant warriors also ended up making their cultures less resilient before getting absorbed into more prominent civilisations.

But like I said before, that style of fighting is very boring. I had to get pretty creative to make them seem like both a threatening and successful fighting force as well as give them enough room to do a bit of twirling of their own. Without giving too much away regarding their equipment (which is what makes the following possible), their take on battle is very heavily influenced by their background of living on a small island and gathering most of their food from the sea. Besides harpooning the larger sea life and cutting out vital bits of their anatomy to prevent their diving, smaller fish are caught in a net that is too tightly woven for them to escape, but loose enough for water to drain. Their battle formation treats the opponent like a wave; the water runs through the empty space in between the Skorchawk warriors, never to emerge again. The Skorchawk weapons would cleave through multiple opponents in one swing, forcing them to break their tight formations in order to make themselves a more difficult target. The improved weapon power and reach would make it extremely difficult for smaller opponents to close the gap in a way that was necessary to be a threat.

Burly space / fantasy lizards are hardly a new thing, but they are usually the bad guys. It’s almost like the majority of children grow up absolutely loving dinosaurs to death and the kids whose mothers never loved them enough to take them to the museum grew up and wrote revenge fantasy disguised as popular fiction. I preferred stories where the humans and the dinos got along just fine, like Dinotopia and Dino Riders.

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Lizardman from Warhammer, where lots of other fantasy writers steal their ideas from as well

I was determined to place them on the side for good, because I think they have been mostly given a bad rap in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. This was in keeping with other elements of my novel- The protagonist is a slim blonde male (I find it particularly infuriating that the overwhelming majority of male leads in both film and video games are dark-haired white males in their 30’s). The heroine is heavily disfigured. An artificially-intelligent hive mind is one of the most altruistic people in the whole story. I felt that it was important to use characters who were traditionally villains and outsiders as the heroes because this is actually a lot closer to how God works in the real world. He has accomplished many great things through shepherds, fishermen, thieves, murderers and even the occasional woman and part of the appeal of the bible’s history is that it teaches us that anyone can do wondrous things through Him, no matter how poor or wretched.

One decision I made to emphasize this is that there are no good groups (nations, species, etc.) in this novel. There are certainly some groups which readers may feel more sympathetic towards, but every faction has highly dubious politics and behaviour, of have serious flaws in how they operate which could be easily fixed but aren’t for reasons of pride, insecurity or just plain stupidity. SK6515051110440_0004

The Skorchawks are not above this, and part of how this is depicted in the novel besides their legendary arrogance is the abhorrent way they treat their elite warriors, the Bezerks.

Every Skorchawk is born with a blood debt which they are required to pay back to their clan before they are allowed to retire, which equates to them having a quota of kills that they need to make for the glory of their clan warlord. Parents’ blood debts are passed onto their children. The way that Skorchawk society prevents people from retiring is that it is extremely difficult to have anyone formally acknowledge the full number of kills made by a warrior in battle, and minor offenses saw their blood debt increasing. Due to the resources needed to keep a Bezerk alive, their blood debt is exponentially increased to the point where it is practically impossible to survive long enough to pay it back, making them little more than slaves for their smaller counterparts.

Marcus finds himself able to identify with this group of Skorchawk much better than their smaller cousins. This makes sense from a thematic standpoint because he is also being exploited by others for his killing ability and being forced to do so against his will. This is also something that I find to be fairly practical as well. I mean, out of all the people you wouldn’t want to fight yourself, wouldn’t it make so much  more sense if the most terrifying, violent and dangerous people were your friends rather than your enemies?

The inspiration for these larger variations of the Skorchawk very squarely rests on Wizardry 7, a game my brother and I played obsessively (and very unsuccessfully) in the early 90’s. After reading a page-long review of the game on in the South China Morning Post Sunday newspaper, we waited patiently for a few weeks before we were able to get the game and play it. It was our first every science fantasy RPG and it blew our minds right from the introduction sequence. Guns and spaceships with swords and sorcery. Spider-like aliens and old fantasy staples like elves and gnomes. The music was gorgeous, the word was vast and mysterious. But best of all, we had unprecedented depth in terms of how we created a party of six adventurers to take on our quest.

uFaODRT
This was the prompt which gave me literally hundreds of hours of fun storytelling bliss

But the one race which I was particularly obsessed with was the Lizardman. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I think I was attracted to his Boba Fett-level mystery (well, before the prequels ruined that aura of mystique). What possible reasons could he have to join another band of adventurers if he’s this antisocial and others tend to avoid him? And what are these mysterious origins? How does his place in the group affect his relationships with the others given he has such a vital role as the ‘tank’ who essentially takes the hits and protects the other, weaker members of the party? So many questions, so many hours upon hours of time in my head to roll around the potential answers (after I spent so many hours upon hours in the character creation menu. I mean, wouldn’t you? A cat samurai? Not exactly original but still fun as hell to create. A dog priest? A fairy ninja? A human-dragon hybrid ranger? A bigfoot that casts magic spells? What isn’t there to love about this game?!).

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A screenshot of the Japanese port of the skills portion of the character creation menu because reasons.

The natural result of this was a series of short stories about the origins of each of my characters. I had originally planned to join them up as part of a bigger narrative and as a completely separate story from the Chronicles of Ayun, but after many years of touching and going from the story I decided to join them together and make the Lizardman (I called him Tempest originally) a Skorchawk, which gave birth to the distinction between an ordinary Skorchawk and the larger Bezerks.

In my next entry I will talk about the most famous Skorchawk of all and the protagonist for the second novel (Ohu’s Rage), Krystan.

Flamberge and Fantasy

When I was in high school, my nickname among the other boarders was Freak. It was incredible how quickly and viciously the other students turned on me. It was like a shiver of sharks smelled blood at once. The bullying was as relentless as it was vindictive; I would go to sit down for a meal and everyone would pick up their meal trays and leave without a word. At socials (time spent with girl boarders), guys (including one who later went on to become a prefect since our teachers were so good at recognising a strong moral character) would sit in the stands and throw balls at my head to humiliate me in front of the girls. I was no pushover and knew how to stand up for myself physically, but it meant nothing under the constant barrage of taunts, pranks and exclusion.

I was already a very withdrawn young person and this treatment did not exactly encourage me to seek others’ company. It got to the stage where the only place I could get some peace was to either hide in the toilets during school breaks, find a quiet place in the library or shady spot to read (or draw, or write), or to bury myself in extra-curricular activities. Eventually I caved and sought help from the boarding masters and things shortly became exponentially worse. After another student offered to help me tie a noose (I’m not sure if he was the same one who drew a gun on my door), I started to seriously contemplate suicide for the second time in my life. My peers had at this stage not only convinced me that it would be better for everyone if I was dead, but that I deserved to be treated that way. So it was actually me that was the problem, and that I only had myself to blame. My name was mud because I, myself, was mud.

This is the first time I genuinely wanted to be somebody else. Not just pretend that I was a jet pilot or Viking or something, but to be a completely different person. And it was during these fantasies that the sting of rejection from my peers became the most numb. My own students have often told me that they wish that I had my imagination; some would scratch their heads at how quickly and comprehensively I could invent new characters and scenarios or add elements to their stories as improvements. Well, this is the price that I had to pay in order to develop that part of my mind. A desperate and hopeless rejection of reality. Indulging in fantasy was a necessary coping mechanism because the only alternative was to leave, one way or another.

It has been a hard journey to be able to learn to cope with conflict and stress in the real world again. One of the thoughts which keep me going through life is the assurance that nobody in the world is so far gone that they cannot be saved. That there is forgiveness for even the most evil person who has ever lived. Even Chris Gayle.

I think deep down, as human beings, we crave this same forgiveness for ourselves. We want to know that no matter how badly we mess up, there is no rock bottom, no depths too far. Yes, the Walter Whites and the Macbeths will say that they are in blood stepped in so far that, should they wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er, but as difficult as it is, it’s not completely impossible.

I am especially attracted to bad-guy-turned-good stories. Not the stupid ones like in the WWE where well-known heels like John Cena inexplicably become disingenuously grinning imbeciles at the drop of a hat, but stories where the villain is humbled by a (usually traumatic) experience who sees the error of his ways and makes an honest effort to do right by either his former enemies or the people that matter to him the most. The best ones are the ones where the only perceivable change is their motivation; their behaviour is still just as kick-ass as it ever was. To a degree they have become set in their ways and although the main hero might not approve of their methods, they can see that the former villain’s heart is in the right place and they don’t want to fudge everything up by being too pedantic. We see good examples of it everywhere if we look for it, even in children’s television shows like My Little Pony (with Princess Luna‘s transformation back from Nightmare Moon) and Octonauts (Kwazii’s pirate past is frequently referred to and although he may not be the most obedient crew member, viewers can clearly see that he is the one with the most camaraderie with Captain Barnacles). Even Full House’s Uncle Jesse was tolerable in the show which cranked up the sickly sweet sentimentality up to 11 like it was a requirement for everyone on the set to breathe oxygen.

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This inspiration has led me to create Flamberge (named after the weapon wielded by a character from an old video game I played as a kid. The character was a disgraced aristocrat seeking to restore his family’s honour). Like Svalinn (but the opposite), his power source also grants him the power to manipulate all matter and gravity outside his body. He is bold, independent and has a very strong sense of right and wrong. Importantly, he doesn’t take crap from anyone. In short, he is everything that I am not, nor ever was. I adore sitting down with him and watching him go to work in a way that I could never hope to act myself; he was the perfect fantasy for me. Whilst Marcus was meant to mirror my behaviour when confronted with doubt (being easily influenced by others), Flamberg is the opposite. He maintains complete confidence in himself and is willing to stake the lives of thousands on his own decisions. He’s also one of the better characters because he’s, like, totally the most original out of any of them.

Because nobody has ever heard of a mass-murdering magical cyborg before, have they?

Dath Vader painting
Nope, not me.
Or a soldier brought back from the brink of death to save the day? Cody?

Source Code
Nope. What about you, Casshern?
Casshern
I got nothin’.
Orrighty then. Definitive proof that I am completely original in every idea that I commit to paper.

I hope that readers will be able to share in this indulgence with me, and that I got the balance right with the character. This is a lot trickier than it might seem. Even George Lucas messed it up with the Star Wars prequels.

A Star Wars Conversation That Has Never Happened

Kid 1: Hey, let’s play Star Wars! Who do you wanna be?
Kid 2: How about Darth Vader?
Kid 1: No he’s far too powerful and menacing.
Kid 2: Darth Maul?
Kid 1: Too impressive and mysterious.
Kid 2: Obi Wan?
Kid 1: Are you even paying attention?
Kid 2: …how about 10 year-old Annakin?
Kid 1: He’s a little pain in the arse who has the CGI do all his work for him. That’s perfect!
Kid 2: Okay then, who do you want to be?
Kid 1: Why, little Boba Fett of course!

In case you haven’t seen where I’m going with this, it’s that kids don’t want to fantasize about being kids when there are far more interesting adults going around doing adulty things. They want to be the big guy with the light saber, and usually not the sanctimonious dullards who occupy the Jedi Order. If you are going to fantasize about something, it might as well be something that’s properly removed from yourself.

Of all the years that I have been mulling over the story in my head, I am not sure why I have been so fixated in projecting different elements of my angst and personality into cyborgs. Perhaps it is part of a broader fear about what happens to our real bodies and how new technology will affect it, and by writing about it I can reassure myself somehow. The end result couldn’t have been any further from this.

But I hope that I have channeled enough of myself into the character to make it both unique and accessible within the extremely broad spectrum of existing cybernetic people in fiction. There are already so many interesting ones out there! They range from the graceful to the grotesque, and that’s just Chemical Brothers music videos!

But under these dangerous killing machines are people who have been put in extremely vulnerable positions. The way that they are exploited and manipulated is what’s truly monstrous. They are people just like us, extrapolated into a reality where technology isn’t just in control of our work and social lives but over their entire existence.

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Source: BardockSonic
Just so that I can head off any potential comments about this in the future, the most obvious source of inspiration for this character was undoubtedly Vegeta from Dragonball. The characters’ respective arcs, their powers, their fates, many fans of the series will be able to spot the similarities and hopefully appreciate how Flamberge serves as my tribute to one of my favourite characters from one of my favourite childhood shows.

In my next entry I will write a little bit about the setting where Flamberge and the other members of the Trinity are born.

Lily And The Tipping Point

I used to continuously pray to God that my daughter would die. Sometimes for days at a time. At her 20 week scan, we learned some unpleasant news about our daughter’s kidneys and that this could potentially translate to her not surviving until full term. Assuming that she did survive, the short version of the prognosis was that her end-stage kidney failure would require constant, sustained and invasive treatment.

I did my best to put on a brave face for everyone, including my wife, but the grief was overwhelming. This was the tipping point for me. All of those anxieties and negative thought patterns were still present but they had been kept somewhat in check. Now it was like the dam that held them back had been given one last chip which turned into a crack, which turned into a gaping chasm. Eye contact was often too much for me; all I would have to do was look at someone and the dam would burst again in both a figurative sense but also a literal sense in that I could do nothing to hold back hot, burning tears. People would apologise for triggering me and I would mumble something about them not being silly, it’s no problem but what I really wanted to say was “I want a hole of blackness and numbness to open up in the ground and for me to fall into it and be sealed inside. Mkay, thanks!” 

Looking at this now it seems pretty melodramatic but it was what life was like constantly. There was often no warning or sense of control, seemingly unrelated conversation topics, moments where I had allowed my thoughts to wander or unavoidable talks about our plans for Zoe would derail me and turn me into a gibbering mess.

I avoided social gatherings like the plague because I was aghast at the thought of having to talk about anything that may even vaguely involve her.

Part of what caused this stress was the weight of a decision that our doctor posed to us. Did we still want to keep our daughter? In this specific situation, given her bleak outlook on life, we would have up until about 28 weeks to decide if we wanted to terminate the pregnancy.

Decisions are so incredibly stressful for me at the best of times. If we’re at a restaurant and someone asks me if I want to sit inside or outside, my usual thought process would go something like this:
Why are we making such a big deal out of this? Just leave me alone and let me get some food. I’ll sit in traffic if you’ll just shut up. Oh God, now the waiter is looking at me and nobody can do anything until I say something. This is unfair. Why did you have to put me in this position? Why couldn’t you just pick somewhere to sit yourself? You probably won’t even agree with where I pick anyway, rendering this entire stressful process pointless.
“How about outside?” THERE! Can we please go sit down now? Please?
“No, no, let’s sit over here!”
“…fine.” SEE?! Why did you even ask me in the first place?!
“Mike, what’s wrong?”
OH MY GOD, SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP! STOP DRAWING MORE ATTENTION TO THIS AND JUST SIT DOWN! “Nothing, let’s just sit down.”

And so forth.

Now imagine me dealing with the decision about whether or not I should allow my chronically ill child to live or die. To use a computing analogy, my brain did hit a few blue screens of death over the course of the next two months.

In my desperation, I hoped and prayed that she would just die by herself and remove any burden of responsibility from myself. Every time I thought about pushing a termination route, I would have vivid waking visions of meeting her in heaven at some point. She would ask me why I never gave her the chance. Why I never wanted to show her love in the material world before we’d moved on to the next. And I was never able to give her a straight answer. So I sat and I waited. By October it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to have my way, so I set my sites on the daughter of Marcus & Nicole, Lily.

My decision about what to do about Lily had a lot more to do with Nicole than it did for Marcus, despite her death scene being shown from Marcus’ point of view. Nicole saw Lily as her last chance to regain her own humanity after it had been taken from her by her torturer, who’d viciously mutilated her body and replaced significant parts of her with machinery. A crucially symbolic part of her to be replaced was her eyes, which are often used in storytelling to represent the human soul.

Humans are naturally empathetic beings and will find ways to anthropomorphise and connect with other mammals. One distinct thing about other mammals is the eyes. Whales, dogs, other humans all have a certain look that makes it easy to connect. On the other hand, we find it deeply unsettling when we looking into the cold, dead eyes of a creature like a shark, or Zac Efron.

Just look at them. Look! Source: Getty Images
As mentioned before, Nicole had her own eyes forcibly removed and replaced with mechanical lenses, leaving the area around the eyes heavily scarred and disfigured. To herself and to her community on the planet Gyaes, she had become something less than human, and she had tremendous difficulty in accepting how someone else could possibly love her, since her love for herself had been so completely replaced by disgust and fear.

Plenty of people are more than capable of convincing themselves that they are in love with objects like pillows, dolls and animated characters. There are lots of talented people working on making them look so lifelike that it is starting to get really, really creepy. But surely a real person is still much more lovable than pieces of fabric, silicon and wires?

One idea that has occupied me on and off over the last year or two is that there are whole groups of people who many consider unlovable. Pedophiles immediately spring to mind. People are so quick to write them off as monsters that need to be immediately killed, sterilised,  or permanently isolated from society. But didn’t Jesus say that we had to love our neighbour as ourselves, and that there was no greater commandment than this? Shouldn’t we all be trying to find ways to help these people? More enlightened cultures like Portugal treat drug addiction as a medical issue instead of a criminal one and have found that addiction rates plummeted. Surely it would be more productive to try to help treat other human beings who have debilitating psychological issues rather than dismiss them as evil?

Instead of tackling something so niche and possibly difficult to relate to (Toni Morrison does an excellent job of it in The Bluest Eye), I aim to explore the idea of whether or not it is possible to fully love someone who does not love themselves and actively sets barriers between themselves and others around them. Nicole’s blank, mechanic eyes help to act as that barrier in terms of her ability to form connections with other people. This is something that I can definitely relate to on a personal level; the only unwritten rule about eye contact that I’ve been able to consistently follow is to avoid direct eye contact in the men’s room so as to not mislead anyone into thinking I am the guy who wrote ‘7 inches uncut 2pm Saturday’ on the inside of the stall door.

But beneath that barrier I still believe that even the most determined rejector of people still crave to be accepted and loved by others. And for Nicole, the only way that she imaged that happening would be for her to see her own eyes in her daughter Lily. She could be given her soul back. She could rejoin the human race and allow herself to be loved again.

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Deckard’s earlier character design didn’t leave quite so much room for interpretation from Blade Runner fans. Source: GalacticShark
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The baby suffered from Hydrops Fetalis (Warning: extremely graphic pic in the link), with the effects on the baby somewhat exaggerated with a bit of artistic license. I inverted our situations. All I wanted was for my daughter to slip away quickly and peacefully, but she lived. Marcus would have done anything to swap places with me as he stood by, completely helpless. He and Nicole would have reasoned that any burden would have been worth Lily having a chance at life, even if it was only for a day or three.

The only type of love that is worth a damn is an unconditional one. As soon as the other person starts to attach conditions like losing weight, changing jobs or defeating their seven evil exes, then you are with the wrong person. That includes the love of yourself. If I will just succeed at this job, or buy this thing, or have this baby, then I will think that I am worthwhile and lovable. That way of thinking is doomed to end in failure and heartbreak. Her own disappointment in herself and her belief that she was not really human completely eclipsed her relationship with Marcus and it caused a traumatic tear to form between them.

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I didn’t think I’d actually find pregnant cyborgs online but I had quite a lot of interesting choices. Art by k_s
As for Marcus, this development further drove home the fact that real experience isn’t completely derived from engaging in goal-oriented behaviour. Sure, lots of stories involve a protagonist’s desire and for us to watch him chase it, but is that necessarily what our own experiences mirror? Sometimes, yes. Mario wants the princess back from Bowser, so we follow him as he slaughters hundreds on his journey to rescue her. That’s a much more entertaining story than watching the princess sit around twiddling her thumbs while Mario visits every other castle on his way over. But I have found that many of my most significant experiences are actually controlled by outside forces to myself, and I have a feeling that many others can relate to this too.

Not only that, but half of the point of Marcus’ journey is that he learns how unfulfilling it is to go after other people’s desires, and the more effort he sinks into pursuing what other people want, the more vulnerable he becomes to his feelings of guilt, resentment and pointlessness. And no other task that he undertakes in the entire novel makes him feel quite as badly as what happened to Lily, and it is a significant motivator for some more drastic action that he takes later.

In my next blog entry I will change tack and write about the Skorchawk, a race of alien space lizard pirates.