Why I Read

I read for more than one motive.  I began reading for pleasure at age six.  I had learned to read when I was five.  The first book I read which was not a picture book was Treasure Island by Robert Lois Stephenson.  I still have a soft spot for pirate stories because of that.  I also read to become informed.  After I got kicked out of college, I realized how much I did not know about the wider world.  As a creative writer, I read to find models for my own work.  I had limited myself to science fiction when I was a boy, and then fantasy when I was a teen.  As I have grown older, I have attempted to read more widely, including out of my comfort zone.  I never know when reading something will spark an improvement in my own writing.




A Pastiche: The Grayling and Blue Hawk

Sometime in 1980, after I was given an electric typewriter for Christmas, I began not only writing stories longhand, but typing some of them and sharing them with my father.  The first one I was inspired to do was a Fritz Lieber pastiche, based on his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser characters.  I hadn’t read the first collection in the series, yet, but I had read descriptions of the two characters and their adventures in the first edition of the First Edition AD & D supplement Deities and Demigods.

My creations were called The Grayling and Blue Hawk.  The Grayling was the big barbarian from the far northern lands, of course.  The name has two references.  First of all, he had gray hair, borrowed from the barbarians of The World of Grayhawk, even though he was only in his twenties.  Second, a “grayling” is a rather ordinary salt water fish found in the North Atlantic which has a rainbow stripe of scales on it.  Blue Hawk, was of course named for a color and an animal, like the Mouser.  Blue is one of my favorite colors and I am partial to hawks, when it comes to birds.  I used to watch them when a rare single one would fly over the house.

The actual story wasn’t much of a standout.  It was a typical adventure for two Fafhrd and Mouser type characters, a fetch quest.  They agreed to retrieve a magical artifact for a wizard.  It was held by an evil cult, of course.  They crossed as fantasy continent I had cooked up for the story, nearly killed their horses by riding them so hard and eventually ended up in far southern lands where the cult had their weird, forbidding temple.  You know, the usual stuff for swashbuckling adventurers.  Like Lieber, I added humorous touches to some of the scenes.  The final confrontation was of course epic, dramatic and violent, with several cultists being cut down when they charged the mock heroic pair in attempt to stop the theft of the artifact.

I didn’t write gory details, even then.  That was mostly because I modeled my writing on the pulp fiction I read, starting in the late Seventies.  The pulps from the Twenties onward had to be restrained in what they wrote, or the parents of the kids who read their magazines would wrathfully get them shut down.  For some reason, the neo-pulp writers of the Seventies also follow that convention.

The ending was weak.  The pair get whisked off by a wizard-ex-machina teleport spell to the wizard’s home, back in their home city.  They get their reward for delivering the artifact.  I don’t remember clearly what it was.  I think it was an appropriate reward for swashbuckling heroes as written by someone in their late teens.

Work in Progress: The Steppencow

I’ve been doing Spring cleaning in my place and that means I often find something interesting.  In this case, I found a stash of computer print outs of drafts of stories I lost in the Russian Virus Attack and Hard Drive Wipe of 2006.  I just had to share the outline of one of them today.  I’m in one of those moods.  😉

The Steppencow

Barry Ballovitch through of himself as the Steppencow, was a yak of the steppes.  This was a secret he kept to himself.

He had set aside his personal desires to find a good, solid job.  He worked as a clerk in the Department, for the Company.

Once he had settled into his job to support his family he felt content.  Two decades passed.  After such a long period of service, he began to feel the desire to break free from the constraints of his comfortable life.

Barry took his life savings, bought a Sil limousine and toured the Country.  He stayed out late, danced and drank in clubs.

In the middle of the eastern country, among the waves of grass, Barry left his luxury car and bought a horse and carriage.  He rode it into the sky, into the setting sun.

It’s Hesse with a dash of Kafka and Thorne Smith.  😉

On Reviewing Influences

I have three reviewers who have influenced my technique for reviewing creative material.  The first is Roger Ebert, the late movie critic.  I used to watch his televised reviews and the way he got into how a movie worked or didn’t work got me interested in movies in general.  He would praise movies with effective or entertaining elements and he wouldn’t hold back if a movie blew chunks.

The second reviewer who influenced my technique was Harlan Ellison, from his column “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Again, he was a movie reviewer, but he had things to say about broader creative currents in American pop culture, too.  The column that stuck with me was his description of going to a juvenile hall with copies of one of his books for the inmates to read and discuss with him.  The boys in juvie were so educationally impoverished they couldn’t comprehend that Ellison had the books they were holding published.  In their dim minds, they thought he had physically written them.  When asked what kind of media they liked, they responded by starting to describe scenes of extreme violence from movies, getting increasing excited as their descriptions became more vivid.  This was an eye opener for me.  It was the first sign to me that a notable number of parents and Hollywood both were screwing up ethically, being indifferent to the effect of what minors were viewing and finding entertaining.

The third and final reviewer is Endzeitgeist, the RPG content reviewer.  He is my go-to reviewer when I want to find out whether a Pathfinder supplement is cool or sucks hot volcanic rocks.  He goes into detail about what the good content in a supplement is, if any or if there are flaws in the product and exactly what those flaws are.

I’m nowhere as skilled, talented or experienced as these three people, but their work serves as models for my own.


Murph World: A sarcastic satirical post apocalyptic setting

I created Murph World back in 1981, as a setting for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, the rules weren’t robust enough to support the kind of setting and characters I wanted to create.  It was a “demented Dungeons & Dragons concept album”, to quote a Playboy review of some obscure heavy metal work.

I set it aside until the late Eighties, when I got the itch to write fiction again.  I didn’t refine it until a few years later, on a walk to the library during the early  Nineties.  That’s when I described the three major characters of the setting and began to write about them.  They were Yorkirk of Mullin’bone, his sidekick Meteor Mellow and their friend Orange Zunigia.  I was inspired to do it in part because I read Cerebus by Dave Sim and he created those kinds of characters.

I didn’t get back to them again until early April of last year.  I had learned that of the death of someone who attempted to be my writing mentor on AOL, author A.C. Crispin.  She tried her best to teach me how to write according to her methods, and failed.  I already had a voice and a methodology.  They were just like nothing she’d ever seen before.  To get to the point, I was feeling low, so I decided to pick up my spirits and honor her memory by revising and expanding Murph World one more time.

This particular post is about one of the supporting characters, the Acolyte and Ward of Bishop Turpin of the Tine, the major religious figure in the setting.  Her name is Flossy.  Flossy the Sexually Explicit Cat Girl.  I blame Douglas Adams for that one.  There is irony in her name.  She is not sexually explicit in any way.  She is charismatic.  People respond to her as if she were sexually explicit.

On Writing: My Major Influences

I thought I’d take a pause from the fire-hose of Pathfinder content to blog about which writers have influenced my voice.  Some of the influences creep into Pathfinder, which reflects speculative fiction.

The first major influence on my writing was the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.  When I read The Lord of the Rings, I experienced something I had never encountered before.  I was engaged by a vision of a detailed imagined world.  In my fiction, particularly in my role-playing game writing, I have tried to echo the created reality of Middle Earth.

The second major influence on my writing was the fiction of David Eddings, with The Belgariad.  The Pawn of Prophecy is my second-favorite book after The Hobbit.  Eddings created a setting with consistent magic, amazing world-building and a wry view of human relationships.

The third major influence on my writing was the fiction of Sir Terry Pratchett, the creator of Discworld.  It’s from his work that I draw my sarcastic, satirical point of view.  That even pops up in Pathfinder.  In the adventure I wrote with a torture chamber, I had to suppress the urge to describe a Drow skeleton, with two broken scimitars clutched in its bony hands.  That is a reference to Dungeons and Dragons fan fiction favorite Drizzt Do’Urdlen, Drow Ranger and general emo Elf.  My loathing for the character, the fiction he appears in and the fans who think he is cool and worth imitating in their character creation is comparable to the burning nuclear fire of a thousand white dwarf stars.

The final major influence on my writing is the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.  I enjoy playing with language when I write, and there are few who equal Lovecraft’s purple prose.  There is a tinge of horror or strangeness in even my more conventional speculative fiction.

Then there are the counter-influences.  Much as I enjoy reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, the prose in them ain’t deathless.  The characters are unsympathetic, the situations they get into increasingly unrealistic and entirely too much time is spent on worrying what other character’s think of each other’s actions.  Then there’s the bloody detailed descriptions of every woman’s dress.  On the other hand, I like his commentary on human relationships.  My response to Jordan’s writing was a characteristic one for me.  I wrote a satire titled “The Wheelie of Time”.  The main character, Randy Al’Thud, is grossly incompetent with a sword and can barely move without tripping over his own feet.  Events go downhill from there.  Mercifully, I lost it when AOL nuked it’s user blog feature.

The other major counter-influence is George R.R. Martin’s fiction.  I had the misfortune of reading the first Wild Cards anthology during the mid-Eighties.  I didn’t know what I was in for.  I had read references to it in a superhero role-playing game adventure description.  Melancholy, grue and weird sex.  These are apparently Martin’s major themes, because they crop up in the interminable Song of Ice and Fire.  I recently reread Poul Anderson’s essay “On Thud and Blunder”.  This caused me to zero in on the faults of Martin’s writing, as I see them.  He tried to add Machiavellian politics and the hyper-realistic results of injury to epic fantasy fiction.  The results were a freakin’ disaster.  Unsympathetic and grossly self-centered characters engaging in labyrinthine pointless power plays.  Endless grue, in the form of grossly disgusting descriptions of injuries and physical handicaps.  And yes, the dreaded melancholy, too.  Not one character can manage a moment of happiness, even if they tried.  Weird sex from the first book on.

When I made the heroic attempt to read A Feast of Crows, I slogged through the book mightily.  I skipped whole chapters involved characters I didn’t give a damn about.  I started skipping chapters with one major character when she turned into a debauched sex pervert for no discernable reason.  Then he handicapped an almost-sympathetic character.  I believe he did it because he thought he could.  And that’s the limit of my ability or desire to engaged in psychological analysis of an author.  I think it would have been a less-painful experience for me if I had hit myself in the head with a baby sledge hammer at the end of each chapter.

I have no desire to satirize Martin’s fiction.  Reading it fills me with a deep-seating antipathy for the rest of his works.  I refuse to engage the material enough to care about it.  The lesson I take from reading his fiction is That Is Not How to Write Epic Fantasy.

I’m done.  I need a good stiff cup of apple cinnamon herbal tea to clear away the bile which has written from ending this entry.