Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Writing With Responsibility

For a while now, writing and re-writing the script for Oak and Thunder, I've been wrestling with the main character. Specifically (and I'd say this is a common issue) with her sex being different from my own.
Can I do this? Will she end up a caricature, do I even have a chance of empathing out what a woman would think, do and say in the situations I describe?
After reading quite a few "How to"s and various writing guides specifically aimed at this problem, I decided not to worry about it too much. Of course I'm reading female writers' work, of course I will ask women for feedback, but ultimately I want to write a solid character, giving it the same treatment as all the other ones.

All this research however allowed me to see how many different (sometimes quite contradictory) ideas there are out there, about writing female and minority characters in stories.
Some of them stood out to me as reasonable or useful - chief example among these was Ursula Le Guin's method/philosophy. I highly recommend her collected essays - "The Language of the Night":


Now, in OaT, my main character is a woman, her best friend would be probably described as non-heterosexual and many characters in the story are not "white".
The thing is, none of these choices were made (primarily) for the sake of inclusivity, being progressive, or activism. They sort of happened, mostly springing out of the setting I chose or from myself. 
My primary goal is to write an interesting story, not a political statement.
"Recent American SF has been full of stories tackling totaliarianism, nationalism, overpopulation, pollution, prejudice, racism, sexism, militarism, and so on: all the "relevant" problems...But what worries me is that so many of these stories and books have been written in a savagely self-righteous tone, a tone that implies that there's an answer, and why can't all you damn fools out there see it? Well, I call this escapism: a sensationalist raising of a real question, followed by a quick evasion of the weight and pain and complexity involved in really, experientially, trying to understand and cope with that question....If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No door shut."
Le Guin, a very vocal feminist, of course wrote some books held up as examples of SF activism - " The Left Hand of Darkness" among them, a story set in a world of androgynous beings who develop temporary sex+gender only at the time of mating. It would seem she's not fond of easy answers, of black and white interpretations of the world. (her essays on Tolkien and his concept of good and evil are great, a firm rebuttal to anyone claiming T.'s work uses a simplistic and childish sense of morality)
"The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialize in this country. He says that if you think you can fly very fast, why, then you can fly very fast. And if you smile, all is well.
...
What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons-horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless "Why?" and "What's next?"...What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, childish questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken - errors are more valuable than truths; truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow's stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud."
(emphasis mine) 

In other parts of the book, Le Guin warns wannabe-writers from becoming preachy. What we write comes from us, it's inevitable our view of the world, ethics etc. will seep into it. It's the easily given answers to real questions and problems that lead to preachiness and eventually - propaganda.

From "Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin":
"I have often been told by critics that my writing is too didactic, my adult books, that the moral is too clear. And I'm always embarrassed and afraid they're right, because the book as I wrote it was sort of an argument to me, and when it's written, it all sort of becomes clearer. And so it seems perhaps more didactic, and less a sort of an ongoing argument which usually it was, while I was writing it. I never wrote a book, ever, with the intention of teaching something...Some of my stories are openly polemical, but that's a bit different, art and polemics can go together."
and in another answer:
"Art is action...Any practice, any art, has moral resonances: it's going to be good, bad or indifferent. That's the only way I can conceive of writing - by assuming it's going to affect other people in a moral sense. As any act will do...Taken as a whole, overt moralizing is not an admirable quality in a work of art, and is usually self-defeating...I don't want to get on hobbyhorses in my fiction, saying that this is "good" and this is "bad"."
I'd very much like to avoid moralizing and preaching  in my own stuff, as well as criticizing or shunning the work of others for not doing so.

I think everyone should make whatever they think is right and good. And if not create, then support, help others create whatever it is you enjoy or whatever you feel is important.
(at this point I listed a few things being made where I thought they were "doin' it 'rong", but then I took my own advice and deleted it. Judge not...etc.)


To finish this post, I'm borrowing a quote from Nuno Miranda Ribeiro:
(from comments on this blog: http://www.blographia-literaria.com/2011/01/dispossessed-by-ursula-k-le-guin.html)
"I think that Ursual K. Le Guin, and don't trust me fully, because as someone who admires her, I am biased, does not try to think for the reader. She uses her view on society, of course, but what she does is what she calls (and I trust her, because I admire her) "thought experiments", where she, by the artifice of science fiction, creates situations (societies, civilizations, moments in history) where elements of human nature, of the dynamic of society, of the complexity of gender relationships, can be looked upon. But then she never tells the reader, "this is what you should think about it".
I would like to make this my approach to writing, as much as I can.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On Not Jumping to Conclusions p.2

A quick one today. Going through my news feed at Academia.edu, I noticed a paper called "The Anatolian Myth of Illuyanka".
The name rang a bell and indeed, it's a dragon/serpent in the Hittite version of the eternal battle between a storm god and a chaos beast.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuyanka


Anything related to that part of mythology, beginning with "ill", "wal" or "yl" I always have to check. I'm no etymologist so I'm most often wrong, but any language relations between the Hittites and the Tocharians/Yuezhi would be most pleasant and could be used in some way. (in Oak and Thunder)

Alas, it was another case of me getting too excited over nothing. :-D Illuyanka is in no way related to Ylaiňakte. In fact, despite Hittite being an isolated branch of the IE language family, this is a case of the typical naming tradition for the storm god and his serpent.
 Illuyanka is probably a compound, consisting of two words for "snake", Proto-Indo-European *h₁illu- and *h₂eng(w)eh₂-. The same compound members, inverted, appear in Latin anguilla "eel".
And of course, his opponent is Tarhunt/Teshub:
Teshub (also written Teshup or Tešup; cuneiform dIM) was the Hurrian god of sky and storm. He was derived from the Hattian Taru. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun (with variant stem forms TarhuntTarhuwantTarhunta), although this name is from the Hittite root *tarh- "to defeat, conquer" 
Just as with Ylaiňakte (= Indra/The Smiter), Tarhun means "conquerer", the PIE root is even the same as with Thor and other IE thunder gods and smiters. (the meaning "smiter/conquerer" is also the same in the Iranian god - "Verethragna")
Taranis, as a personification of thunder, is often identified with similar deities found in other Indo-European pantheons. Of these, Old Norse ÞórrAnglo-Saxon Þunor, Old High German Donar—all from Proto-Germanic *þunraz (earlier *þunaraz)—and the Hittite theonym Tarhun (see Teshub) contain a comparable *torun- element. The Thracian deity names Zbel-thurdos,Zbel-Thiurdos also contain this element (Thracian thurd(a), "push, crash down"). The name of the Sami thunder god Horagalles derives from Thor's. 

All in all, nothing new under the sun, no exciting connections to explore. The Tochari are still weird and isolated.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"Oak and Thunder" part 3 - Tone Deaf?

I've had a bit of a break from work on OaT. (a couple of months. I've done concept art and illustration, both set in Glorantha in the meantime. Lots of cool stuff I won't be able to show for quite some time, sadly.)

I still thought about it a lot, but haven't done any writing or drawing. The reason is simple - I realized I didn't know enough to be making it properly.

Yesterday I finished "Language of the Night", a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin.
(a great book by the way, I really recommend it. It's not a light read and not all the essays are equally interesting, but it's worth buying a used copy even.)
It named an issue in my current script for Oak and Thunder and in other works of art where I noticed it, but couldn't quite name it before - inconsistency of tone.

In my case, I didn't realize I was writing two or three different projects into one, not quite knowing what exactly it was I wanted to achieve.
And then it dawned on me - I want to play it straight. All that I appreciate about Tolkien's writing, about old fairytales and heroic epics - the style, the language, the "setting", I want to do that.

Not a clever twist, not a play on the themes! Everything these days is (seems to me) a mashup of genres, a spin on something, a cliche or a trope reversal. It's cynical, ironic or goofily nonsensical.

I've been playing Dragon Age Inquisition and it's a great example of tonal dissonance (in more ways than one) - the overarching narrative is written straight - epic and classically heroic, while many of the dialogs and banter are contrastingly mundane and out-of-place "current". I'm not at all asking for ye olde speak, especially in American-voiced games it always sounds silly. Just more of a vocabulary and topical consistency.
The game uses well-tested and familiar ways to tell its story, set up its characters etc., but the world and characters themselves (the gameplay as well at times) don't always fit, don't mesh, the gears grind.
I cringed when SPOILER FOR DA:I

in a moment of desperation and disorder, everyone started to sing. They sang to get their spirits up, to unite, to honor the player as their savior. And I'm angry at myself I cringed, because that was a moment which the game attempted to play straight, without Sera laughing, making silly faces and throwing innuendos around, without penis jokes, or talk about "riding the Bull". And I recognize it was partly my fault I couldn't take it seriously. /SPOILER

The Witcher series, for instance, tried to play with tone on purpose, the contrast is there to say something, not as a jarring byproduct.

It's mainly a writing challenge, I'll definitely need help with this. Reading through the long script I wrote, it's too much like people talking on Facebook, or at best roleplaying on a forum. That's the English I know, the one I speak and write online. But it's not the right tone. I can't have Wala and Wape making pop culture references to each other, or drawing cat memes with their enemies' blood.
(those are the current up to date versions of the main characters' names, btw. I'm learning a lot about proto-languages)
I don't mean to write entirely straight, humorless and dry, a boring saga of head-chopping murder heroes! There need to be light and funny parts just as there need to be serious and dark parts, a balance. But I need to strive for a unity of language and themes. Tolkien is a big inspiration in this aspect, a wrong word in the wrong place is just wrong, there's no way around it.
Finding the right words! How easy! :)

I also realized I didn't quite have the characters yet. I know what they do throughout the story, sure. I mostly know what they look and dress like, but I don't fully know what they "are", I can't see their faces and their emotions.

A solution, for now, is to focus on research for the big story and script and draw up short stories. Quick ones, with minimum of writing, just to get a feel for the tone, where I want to go with characters and the art style. (I already have two stories reworked, an action one and a...different one.)
Research is also back on track, I'm reading a lot about religion and linguistincs. Definitely discovering more of the themes and philosophy than every day details about the life in that place and time.

I hope everyone had good holidays! All the best in the new year, friends!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

For the Stiff and Aching Back

Just a quick tip post today.

I'm sure many digital artists (as well as other professionals regularly working while sitting) experience lower back pain, or at least stiffness.

For the two years I've been doing this full time, I've found two things that help me deal with pain and stiff muscles.

One's hot baths. Of course, you wouldn't have those every night after a long day of painting, but I find that once a week is just fine.

The other is a magical artefact called the Iplikator.


I lied, there's nothing magical about it. You'll definitely run into all kinds of yoga or acupuncture mumbo jumbo on the internet. All it really does is poke your back, make the bloodflow a bit better and relax your back muscles.


And that's enough. If it's placebo effect, doesn't matter, it works great. It didn't improve my eyesight, it didn't improve my posture (much), it doesn't cure any diseases. 
I use it almost daily, 20-30 minutes in the evening, laid  on a hard surface (soft or springy surface makes it less painful at first, but also defeats the purpose).
Some people wear a t-shirt, I don't. It's less effective than the naked back.

No need to wriggle or do yoga on it, I just lay down, it hurts a bit, but then it gets very comfortable. I watch a movie, or an episode of a tv show (just enough time). Be careful not to fall asleep though, getting up after a nap hurts! 
A side effect that I noticed (which might be just me, or placebo) is that I sleep much better after I've used the mat.

I've had my mat for quite a few years, we bought the original version based on the Russian prototype, for some 20 USD back then. These days it's a bit more expensive, but 25 EUR or an equivalent in dollars will pay for itself very quickly. (I recommend getting the big one, D1 or just the full size that covers your entire back)

Note: I'm not paid by makers or resellers of this thing. ;) Just sharing something others might find useful.

Also, this is in no way a substitute for exercise and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. I'm not a doctor and don't have any medical training, so don't take my word for medical advice. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Not Jumping to Conclusions

Etymology and linguistics can be quite beautiful, as well as confusing.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had one of those hazy epiphanies when you dart out of bed and scribble furiously on the closest napkin.

The main character in Oak and Thunder is named "Ylai". (Whether it's her birth name, or a nickname, I've not yet decided.)
The Tocharian (an IE language that's thought to be spoken by the Yuezhi, or their descendants) word "ylaiñäkte" is commonly translated as "Indra" (Hindu god of Thunder and other things, certainly one of the many related IndoEuropean thunder gods). The etymology isn't entirely clear, but it's thought the -ñäkte part stands for "god" and "ylai" is related to various other words for "smite" or "hit".
http://www.univie.ac.at/tocharian/?ylai%C3%B1%C3%A4kte

That makes Ylai a "Smiter".

Now, in the book "Perun: God of Thunder", Czech scholar Michal Téra examines the various aspects of thunder god worship among Slavic people. Interestingly, one of the Christianized versions of Perun (and other Slavic thunder deities) was Saint Elijah. In Russian - Ilya.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elijah#Pagan_associations_and_mountaintops

How good is that?! Ylai, Ilya...

Unfortunately, the two names aren't related. Ilya is a Russian version of Eliyahu, meaning "My God is Yahweh (in Hebrew).
Bummer, right?

I'd love for there to be an etymological connection - Téra mentions the association of thunder worship and Elijah started in early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, from where it came to the Balkans and to the Slavs. Unfortunately, most IE roots for thunder gods are entirely different and don't seem to relate in any way. (*trHon - thunder, *perk- and *per- for oak, smite, thunder or mountain)
Tocharian seems to be quite isolated in this regard:

"B ylai- and A wlā- would reflect PTch *w'älā(i̯än)-, in turn from PIE *wel(hx)eha-(h1en)- ... Semantically more likely, given the connection with storms (see ylaiñeṣṣe), however, is a derivation from*welh2-eha- ‘Smiter’ from *welh2- ‘strike’ [: Hittite walh- ‘strike’ and perhaps, with s-extension, TchB wālts- ‘trample’]."

It's far more likely the association was made thanks to attributes Elijah already had in the Old Testament - "he raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and was taken up "by a whirlwind.". 
Raising the dead and fire from the sky are very common things for a thunder god to do. 

Sometimes an epiphany ends in disappointment.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 2.5 - Key to Happiness?

TL;DR: Making OaT makes me happy, I think.
This post was inspired by this article by Dave Rapoza:
http://www.daverapoza.blogspot.cz/2014/10/entitlement.html

This September marked two years since I started freelancing full time. I had some experience when I started, but it certainly was a leap into dark and deep waters. It very likely wasn't as hard as it had been for other illustrators. I had great clients (and friends) in the industry already, I had a lot of wisdom compiled by others in the form of podcasts (Ninja Mountain being my Bible) and various tutorials and blogs.
I'd say everything stabilized, slowly but surely, in those two years. I'm making a living, I work on amazing projects and I don't have to go looking for work.

On one hand, routine is good and stable, I really can't complain. On the other hand, I noticed I've become less enthusiastic about my own art. I don't think it's exciting or particularly good. And that's not just the typical self deprecating artists' attitude, I'm less "into it". I think, in some ways, I stopped moving up and forward, I'm not pushing myself as hard as I used to.

A few months ago, I had the silly idea: I should make a comic.
I've not drawn anything sequential since grammar school, in nearly 10 years. I don't even read comics a lot any more. Why then?
I think I actually wanted to write something, but because I haven't written any stories in a while either, I wanted to involve painting in some way. I do illustration all the time, but a comic, that would be a challenge!
When I started researching and sketching, I couldn't get enough. I'd use lunch and dinner breaks, weekends. I stopped watching TV almost entirely. Whenever I have a moment when I'd normally be merely sitting on Facebook or browsing Reddit, now I have a PDF open, or a book on my lap and I'm taking notes.

"Write what you know." is it? I've done that as "Write what you like.". Oak and Thunder is all the things I enjoy - archaeology, mythology, linguistics, swords and heroics...
I keep finding new ways to connect the pieces of the puzzle, or several different puzzles that almost magically fit together. (or at least have edges similar enough not to break the illusion of a bigger picture)

My research book table has been getting a bit crowded lately


The thing I realized yesterday is - I'm really enjoying making this thing.
Just the process itself is surprisingly fun. It's not that my work work is boring or that I don't enjoy it - on the contrary. I get to work on exactly the kind of projects I've always wanted to do, on several of my favourite franchises. The difference between that and OaT I still don't understand fully. It's something where I'm suddenly not interpreting someone else's brief, where I'm not trying to see into a writer's head. It's all on me and from me.
If it sucks, that means I made it that bad. ;)

It's quite probable not many people will ever read it, or know it exists. If someone finds it educational, inspirational or entertaining - that'd be great!

Maybe I'm being stupid and wasting precious time I could spend improving my illustration skills, or getting more work done and making more money.
Right now, working on Oak and Thunder is making me quite happy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bizarro-Brothers From Another Sword-Mother

(A quick post in between writing more on OaT.)

I ran across an intriguing sword today - a Tibetan infantry sword (amusingly dated to 14-17th century CE. It's funny how either we really can't date something only 300 or 600 years old more narrowly than a 300 year span, or how sword design in Tibet hasn't changed much in all that time)
http://www.forensicfashion.com/1578TibetanInfantrySword.html


edit: The actual museum holding the sword dates it to early 14th century:



Either way, it's a beauty! And I immediately thought of another sword I've always liked - the so called "Hod Hill" sword:




The surprising thing - the Hod Hill sword is Roman with Celtic influence (found in Britain) and dated to the 1st century CE!

As you can see in the above reconstruction, the sword had some kind of organic material inserted in the hilt (wood, horn, bone etc.) and only the metal fittings remain.

Looking at the Tibetan sword again, I'm thinking that's probably not the case there. The scabbard seems original and its leather (and wood?) seem to have survived. So did the original sword have hollow hilt bits? Or did it have some kind of organic insides?
The blade is interesting as well, the profile is very close to late Roman spathas and looks more Chinese than Tibetan. (Tibetan swords from that period tend to be single edged and not diamond shaped in cross-section)

Does it all mean anything? No, but it's still a beautiful and intriguing piece. It's just extremely unlikely these two designs are in any way related - kind of like how bats and birds both fly, but aren't that close on the evolutionary tree.