Going For It

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Imagine vs Do)

I wonder which gymnast commentator was the first to excitedly shout “…and he sticks the landing!” It’s become a staple of the sport, used to signify that the athlete has performed some particularly difficult dismount, and still managed to land with perfect finesse. In this sport it isn’t so much about how many flips and twists you can do in the air, it’s how many you can do while still maintaining your control through to the end.

This is “theory versus execution,” and “easier said than done,” and “not just talking the talk but walking the walk.” In so many circles of life people are far less impressed with what you can imagine, and more so with what you can actually do.

And yes, this applies to writing as well. The fact is, coming up with a great idea for a story is not that hard. Go attend any writer’s group and you will meet dozens of people who all have “great ideas.”  And it’s not that they’re wrong, either. Every person has a genius inside of them, and when they really set their imaginations to something the result is both exciting and awe-inspiring.

Yet very few of these would-be magnum opuses ever actually get written. It’s one of the greatest tragedies that so much creativity goes unrealized, so much potential goes squandered. And why does this happen? Well, “easier said than done.”

I’ve written about this before, the gap between imagination and execution. The talent is not in having a great idea, it is in being able to give a voice to it. We do not praise Da Vinci for having the image of the Mona Lisa in his mind, we praise him for actually getting it onto the canvas.

 

Failure and Fear)

I’m sure we can all think of experiences where an author has gone for something impressive and left us disappointed. Just recently I read a novel that had me cringing as the main character had a story related to him, one that was meant to be wise and profound, one that would compel him to action. And while the main character was nodding his head and expressing amazement at such “profound wisdom,” I was just rolling my eyes at such shallow kitsch.

Of course some authors may wish to avoid falling flat on their face like that. And so, if the story calls for a moment of grandeur they try cheat their way around it. They will say something impressive happened, but they don’t actually show it. I remember a film where the main character stood up to give a rousing speech at the film’s conclusion. Instead of actually coming up with something meaningful for him to say, though, the movie simply drowned out his voice with sentimental music and slowly panned past a row of people, all nodding as if they were hearing him say something very moving.

That’s hardly any better, and it’s quite possibly even worse. So what then? Well some authors will just avoid including anything meaningful at all. There’s no risk of flubbing an impressive sequence if there just aren’t any impressive sequences. Or maybe they figure out how to do one thing right, and then they just churn that out over and over with every story. It’s like that childhood friend who could draw Fred Flinstone really well…but only from this one angle and in one pose.

 

The Professional)

In my work-life these sorts of limitations are not tolerated. The software industry is ever-changing and ever-evolving. If you stand still and never stretch yourself, then you will not keep your job. Perhaps your work is poor quality, you will get feedback on that and you will be expected to improve. To improve you are expected to ask for training and put in the hard work to master that area. Once you have mastered that task, then the process starts over as you are expected to now take the next step.

Sometimes you see the moment of epiphany in a new developer’s eyes, the moment when they finally get it. Their daily work isn’t the software, it’s the improvement. We aren’t asking them to “do their task,” we’re asking them to “own their craft.”

That transformation is where the worker becomes the true professional. Steven Pressfield, a very accomplished author himself, explored this very notion in his book The War of Art. Here he explains that being professional isn’t about being paid, it is about being a master of one’s craft and not accepting any personal limitations. The professional author is a true artist of the page, one to whom creativity is both the means and the end.

If a professional writer found he couldn’t stick the landing he wouldn’t rewrite the scene to hide his weakness. He would say “well, I guess that’s what I need to learn next.” When the professional writer publishes her next book she doesn’t “play it safe” and just rehash everything she did before. No, each of her entries is a testament to how much she’s challenged herself, and how she’s grown to meet those challenges.

 

My Own Downs and Ups)

The second short story I published on this blog was called The Houses’s Finest Hour, and it was my attempt at doing an ambient piece. For the entire post I ignored characters and plot, and instead focused on describing a location, using all of the long and flowery sentences I could muster. I did it because I knew it was something I didn’t do very much, and I wanted to give myself a challenge. Well, I certainly succeeded in that regard.

It was one of the most difficult things I had ever written. I just wasn’t any good at it. I wrote and rewrote, and second- and triple-guessed every sentence. It took tremendous effort to post what I did, and frankly even then it still wasn’t very good. I knew it wasn’t very good, but it really was the best I could do then.

At that moment I knew I had found the next thing for me to learn. Throughout the entire year that has followed I have returned numerous times to this same task, not willing to let that freshman effort be my final word on capturing an atmosphere. Almost all of my work has involved scenery-painting in one form or another, and a few have even been built exclusively around it. Sculpting Light, Deep Forest, and The Last Grasshopper all represent milestones in my journey to improve in that regard. In fact, just two weeks ago I posted Washed Ashore, which represents my latest attempt at writing a piece that conveys a palpable mood.

I would say there is obviously still room to grow, and I still haven’t given my final word on that subject. But I have actually improved, and I am glad I didn’t try to shy away from a portion of storytelling just because I wasn’t very good at it initially.

 

Being able to pull off an impressive narrative sequence is, in some ways, what being an author is all about. It is a large part of what characterizes and defines all of the most celebrated writers. If you really want to make your next piece sing, you’re going to have to write that is hard.

That’s what I’m personally going to be doing with my very next post. In my current story I’ve already introduced our main character Taki, and established that he is about to engage in some sort of futuristic and dangerous racing competition. Now this particular sport is going to be central to all the rest of the story. So I really need it to be something that is exciting and original, somewhere that the reader will want to spend time. The reader needs to readily understand how this sport works, they need to be utterly captivated by it, and they need to be curious to know more!

If I fail in this ambition, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, the meat of the story is going to be taking place around the race track, so if that track isn’t an interesting place to be then the story isn’t going to be interesting to read. I’m flipping off the pommel horse and I may just fall flat on my face. But I’m all for the challenge. In fact I’m excited about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!

Glimmer: Part Two

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Reylim’s feet made loud echoes as they pattered across the stony plains. Now that Glimmer soared alongside of her, illuminating the way, she was able to move along far more quickly. She had settled into a well-practiced pace, one that she could maintain for a few hours if needed. Glimmer had explained to her that it was necessary for them to reach something called “the Nexus” which held a direct stream to all of the life on the planet. If Glimmer could imbue itself into that Nexus then it would be able to provide a spark to all peoples and creatures, awaking them from their current slumber.

As she ran Reylim kept turning different parts of her conversation with Glimmer in her mind. Suddenly a thought occurred to her that was so fundamental she couldn’t believe she hadn’t conceived of it sooner.

“Glimmer,” she queried, “you say that when your light enters the Nexus this whole world will become illuminated and people will be able to act and choose as they see fit. Similar to how things are on my world, Celsar?”

Essentially yes. The people here will be far behind in development and understanding, but their fundamental existence will be the same.

“Right…” she affirmed, coming now to her main point. “So does that mean that Celsar itself was once like this? And that someone helped you to ignite it as well?”

I assume so. I know of many things generally, but of specifics my understanding is limited to this world. And if things did occur in a similar way on Celsar it was done by another reflection of the Glimmer.

“Oh right…because you are not the core Glimmer?”

I am a reflection of Glimmer. Think of it as an individual spark from a fire, just as there is an individual spark of Glimmer in you as well. All of the sparks are merely extensions of the original flame, and yet they are their own fire as well And as you know many things naturally by intuition, such as the importance of goodness and virtue, yet there are many specifics that are known to the Glimmer but which remain hidden to you.

“And so you are specifically the spark of this world?”

I am meant to be, if we successfully ignite this world.

“Does a hero ever fail to ignite a world?”

The original Glimmer cannot fail, it cannot be destroyed, but we individual sparks can. I am keenly aware of my own fallibility and mortality. Therefore it is possible for a world’s intended intended spark to be killed, and then that world would be consumed into the void, torn apart into nothingness.

There was a pause.

And certainly a hero has failed before. Reylim, I must be honest with you. You are not the first to come here. Indeed, Nocterra has existed since long before your own world, Celsar. I remember watching Celsar burn into life many eons ago. And still no hero has been able to save this world. I think you will be the last, as the nether regions are already disintegrating into the void.

Reylim shivered. Her heart thumped, protesting the next question that dangled on the end of her lips, but she had to ask it. “And what is the void?”

Exactly as it sounds, a void. The more you try to define it, the further you stray from comprehending its pure nothingness. It is not right to call it living, as that would require the existence of some intelligent entity in it. It just absence, and that is all.

“If I fail, I will be consumed by it?” Reylim’s feet had slowed drastically, barely moving above a slow walk now.

I will not lie to you. Yes.

Suddenly Reylim wondered what she had gotten herself into. Of course she had been aware that her great quest would involve danger, but she had always been thrilled at the excitement of such things. It had all sounded so romantic, now the stark reality of it terrified her. She should not be here in such a place. How could the sentinels have sent her? What was one young girl and a dim spark against an eternal–

Please don’t think such things! Glimmer chided. You’ve already summoned it!

A cold thrill tore through Reylim’s as her eyes lighted on dark forms approaching ahead of her. They were tall and thin, and barely humanoid in form. Their edges were too sharp to be organic, though, forming sharp geometric edges. All the area around them appeared warped and stretched, as though the very matter and light around them was tearing apart at their presence. At their cores there was pure nothingness. They did not appear as three dimensional entities with a front, sides, and a back, but rather they seemed more like holes that had been punched clear through the eternities of space, reaching out to swallow Reylim.

“What do I do?” she begged, her voice shrill and panicked as she fumbled with the ceremonial dagger at her side.

Your weapons are of no use here. Get away from this place and calm yourself, I will try to slow the advance.

Reylim still wasn’t ready to put her dagger away, and she didn’t want to turn her back on these apparitions. Instead she awkwardly fumbled backwards, until her heel caught a rise in the rock and she fell onto her back. Then her panic fully set in and she scrambled back up to her feet and sprinted away.

As she went she shot glances over her shoulder, and she saw Glimmer rush up to the dark forms and begin encircling them with long streaks of light. Those streaks hung in the air as barriers which seemed to restrain the advance for a moment, before the light was dissolved back away into nothingness.

With her eyes turned backwards she failed to notice that she was running straight for one of the small ditches in the rock. For a brief moment she felt the shock of nothing beneath her feet, and then the thud of impact as she hit the ground beneath. She instinctively converted her momentum into a roll, tearing her robes and gashing her knees in the process.

She stumbled up to her feet, noticing that her breath was coming rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Glimmer had told her to get calm, and now she felt even further panicked as she tried to do just that and found that she could not. As fresh waves of despair began to wash over her she noticed new void forms materializing on either side of her. They began as small pinpricks of emptiness, only noticeable by how the world around them warped inwards as if towards little black holes. Then the voids widened outward, stretching out to her.

She wanted to run away but her legs were trembling so badly that she dropped back to her knees instead. Her mouth moved in the shape of the word “no” but no sound came out.

Please, Reylim, I need your help to diminish them!

A streak of light shone over her head and Glimmer spun around each of the void figures, binding them in light.

“I don’t understand,” she croaked.

Your fear and your despair cripple you. They take away your will to act and draw the void toward you. You need to leave here, but you need to do it calmly.

“I don’t know how.” Already the dark forms were breaking past Glimmer’s restraints.

Just stop focusing on them. Focus on yourself instead. What do you feel?

Reylim tried to stand once more, but her legs continued to waver uncontrollably. “Unstable” she flustered, unsure of what Glimmer’s point was..

What is unstable like? Glimmer continued dashing back and forth between the two dark forms, putting additional light barriers before them, each fell more quickly than the last.

“Like having no power,” she answered, but then realized that that wasn’t quite right. “Or maybe having too much power, but it isn’t going the right way.” As her mind shifted inwards her legs began to quake less, just enough that she could hobble to the end of the ditch. She put her hands over the edge, but when she tried to lift herself over found she still lacked the finesse to do so.

That’s good Glimmer encouraged. What else?

She tried to push the sense of danger from her mind, and instead closed her eyes, centering herself. “And I’m hurt,” she winced. “My leg is throbbing.”

Yes, there’s blood on it, can you feel that?

She paused. “Yes–I missed that somehow.” The warm liquid pooling down her skin, sticking to her robes. It was unpleasant. Reylim felt a rush of clarity and she easily swung herself up to the higher ground. Once above she opened her eyes again and saw the void forms following her out from the ditch.

Her heartbeat quickened and she tried to calm herself again. Her inhale came sharp and rapid, but the exhale was slower and more controlled. The void forms wavered.

Very good, now we need to do this next part carefully. Glimmer came bounding up from the chasm, resuming its perch above Reylim’s shoulder. Take in your surroundings. But keep calm.

Reylim slowly turned about and summed up her situation. The two void forms in front were being joined by the original three, and were fanning out to come at her from different angles. She looked to the left and the right and on each side there were another three forms approaching as well. Behind her, the way she had intended to depart, there came another six. They were all closing in.

Reylim’s heart began escalating again and she noticed the periphery of her vision starting to warp and darken.

Accept them for what they are. Let them exist, but apart from you. You are in danger. Say it, but say it calmly.

“I–” Reylim’s voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “I am in danger,” she forced out in a monotone. As she did it seemed more factual than emotional. Her heart returned to normal. She noticed that the calmer she was the slower and smaller the void forms seemed to become.

Good. Now if you recall, the widest angle of retreat was between the ones on your left and the ones directly behind. Move that way. You may run, but only if you can do so calmly.

Reylim exhaled slowly then turned in that direction. She walked forward, purposefully. Each step brought her closer to both danger and escape, but she tried to focus on the latter of those two. Behind her she could hear Glimmer leaving more streaks of light to guard her back. Then Glimmer moved forward and worked to restrain the ones ahead, slowing them enough that she would clear their gap.

At least, she thought she would clear it. It was going to be close. She quickened her pace to a light run. Her heartbeat quickened, but not from fear. She noticed that the throbbing in her leg had increased by the faster motion and she focused on that sensation, burying her consciousness into self-awareness. She glanced down at the ground in front of her, memorizing its features. Then she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the nearing forms.

“Three steps,” she muttered to herself, “then a slight rise.” She leapt up onto the shelf. “And down the other side….Just another dozen paces and I’m clear.”

Rather than ignore the sound of Glimmer whizzing about her she noted it, projected from it where the voids must be, and so became aware when she had passed their perimeter.

She opened her eyes, listening to the sounds of Glimmer fading into the background. She did not stop, following Glimmer’s instructions to get away from that place. The further she ran the less light she had, and so she stumbled across the dark landforms. In time she slowed back to a walk, cautiously feeling her way forward and trusting that Glimmer would come and find her whenever it was safe to do so.

As if on cue, the area around her began getting brighter every moment. She spun around and saw Glimmer drifting to her. She was surprised to realize that Glimmer had lost a great amount of its luminescence and Reylim realized that its defenses of her had not been without cost.

“You’ve been hurt,” she said, her voice mixed with equal parts concern and guilt.

So have you. But we are safe.

“I’m sorry,” she looked down in shame.

Why?

“I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”

Why not? You had just been given some very frightful news. Perhaps you needed to calm down, but there is no shame in that you needed to calm down.

Now that the immediate danger was past her, the deeper more abiding one took the forefront of her mind again.

“Glimmer, I don’t think I should have come!” she exclaimed, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. “I am not the hero that this world needs. I didn’t know what it was going to be like here. I’m just one small girl and the void is ageless and eternal. I can’t even fight it!”

And so you would rather curl up and hide from it all?

There was no judgment in Glimmer’s message, the question was sincere. Reylim nodded.

What would you curl up into?

“Somewhere safe. Somewhere quiet.”

Like a void?

Reylim paused, a moment of clarity washing over her. “That’s what you meant by saying I was summoning them? When I get panicky I feel paralyzed…and I just want to let go and hide…into nothingness.”

That is how the void works. Its only power is derived from what we give to it. You can fight it by your battles within.

“But how can I want it and be afraid of it at the same time?”

It sounds strange, I suppose, but you’ll find many people tend to be afraid of the very things they want. But another part of you wants to be a hero as well, and you are afraid of that also, aren’t you? The best part of you is afraid of the void, and the worst part of you is afraid of…

“Sacrifice,” Reylim said softly, staring downwards. “My whole life I’ve been trained to give my all for a noble cause, but it’s a very hard thing now that I’ve come to it.” Her vision was becoming blurry and she pressed her eyes shut to squeeze out the water. “I’m sorry, Glimmer. I really don’t want to let this world down and I think the lives that could be here deserve to have their chance…. But I’m just not the stuff that heroes are made of.”

No one is.

“What?”

No one is born with heroism already in their blood, no one becomes a hero first and then afterwards performs their great heroic act. Every hero only became one while feeling just as small and miserable as you.

“How?”

By not worrying about the ‘how.’ All you ever need to worry about is just taking the very next step.

Reylim paused, biting her lip and feeling the streams of tears continue to flow down her cheeks. “Can you please just promise me that I’m not the last chance for this world? Please…tell me that if even if I fail everything can still be alright. Tell me that the mission can extend past me.”

Child, Glimmer lowered itself to shine warmly on her face. You still do not understand. This world is not the mission, our igniting it is only a byproduct of our true mission.

“What is our mission then?”

You are the mission.

***

Click here for part one of Glimmer.

On Monday I promised that I would introduce new characters in this section of Glimmer, specifically the enemy of the story and the people that populate this world. Unfortunately I only got the first of those done this week, and it is possible that this story might end up being split into four parts instead of three. That’s alright, though, I don’t want to rush it faster than it should be.

In any case hopefully you were able to see how the competing themes and arc were expanded in this entry, with a few more threads yet to be introduced. Then, finally, all will taper together for a single climatic finish.

Having introduced the “villain” of the story I’d like some time to examine it in greater detail. This enemy is not a a traditional character, it is more of an eternal force. Sometimes these tides of power show up in stories, in fact they have been present in each of the short stories in this latest series. Come back on Monday when we’ll examine how they have been used, and what makes them useful when crafting a tale.