465. The Five-Step Writing Conference

I recently attended a professional writing conference. It was… well, it was a lot of things. I’ll outline my experience at the conference in five steps.

1. Early Misgivings

I hit the road a few days ago. My car, Eliezer, is dependable but dilapidated—after all, you can’t spell trusty without rusty. Eliezer lacks such vain frills as air conditioning. I call it a car, but it’s more like an oven on wheels. Thus it was a hot, disheveled Adam who arrived at the conference, sweating like a traveler in the mighty Kalahari, and having second thoughts.

Kalahari

Artist interpretation of writing conference weather.

I should also mention that my jeans kept creeping stealthily toward my ankles. This utterly baffled me. These jeans had previously fit me just fine, and their tag claimed they were my size. They insisted nonetheless on their downward trajectory. I found myself frequently hitching up my jeans until I was able to change into another pair in the privacy of my room.

The conference was held on the campus of a university. It gave me repeated flashbacks to my own college career, which began with severe depression and ended with existential dread. Speaking of which….

2. Crushing Despair

As I attended the conference’s early sessions—which were excellent, by the way—I slid slowly but inexorably into depression, guilt, hopelessness, and acute social anxiety.

This really surprised me. I suffer from chronic depression, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve followed my blog for more than five minutes, but it usually comes and goes gradually. At the writing conference, it crushed me with the steady force of a steamroller. I was also surprised by the social anxiety. I’m an introvert, but I can usually deal with social events.

The guilt and hopelessness were worst of all.

Depressed Adam

Artist interpretation of depressed Adam. (In case you were wondering, I didn’t actually make faces like this at the writing conference… I don’t think.)

I was surrounded by people with serious aspirations of professional writing, and people who actually write professionally. By comparison, I’m half a writer. I know a few things about writing as a craft, but hardly anything about writing as a profession.

In those early sessions of the conference, with their unfiltered insights into a tough and competitive industry, my bravado and optimism were quick to evaporate. I felt seriously out of my depth. I felt like a fraud.

3. Redeeming Peace

As a pragmatic (and sadly skeptical) follower of Christ, my faith leans more toward intellect than emotion. I don’t often have those moments of raw emotion sometimes called “religious experiences,” and I talk about them still less often, but halfway through the conference, I found one.

Having retreated to my room (which I had formally christened the Introvert Cave), I switched on the air conditioner, sat on the bed, and prayed. I told God that as I held on to faith in him, I had to believe he had brought me to that conference for a reason. I asked him to help me find it, and to see him at work.

I immediately felt a profound peace—a sudden, absolute conviction that everything was going to be okay. This peace carried me through the rest of the day, redeeming it, and giving me a little hope.

4. Shower Misadventures

The showers at the conference deserve a mention. They were lined up along a hallway in a communal bathroom, and guarded from the public eye only by flimsy and ill-fitted curtains. After a long day in the summer sun, I really needed a rinse. I had no choice. Casting off my misgivings, I cast off my clothes. I would not be conquered by a public shower.

I immediately ran into another problem. It was my old enemy, the Tiny Hotel Soap.

My old enemy

We meet again.

Have you ever stayed in a hotel and tried washing yourself with those itty-bitty bars of soap? It’s impossible. The Tiny Hotel Soap provided at the conference was roughly the size and shape of a saltine cracker, with the density of carbon steel. I tried to work up a lather with the Tiny Hotel Soap. It would have been easier to work up a lather with a soap-sized slab of sculpted marble.

I finally concluded my shower, only to realize I had forgotten my towel. (Forgive me, Douglas Adams.) It was a wet and abashed Adam who sneaked back to his room. It was a good thing God had given me peace, or that shower may just have broken me.

5. Caffeinated Resignation

I blundered through the rest of the conference with a kind of resigned determination, fueled by coffee. I learned a lot, actually, and took pages of notes. I also hung out with an old friend, a fellow blogger, and a couple of nice ladies from Argentina, so that was cool.

In the end, the writing conference made me seriously question my vague pretensions of someday being a professional writer. It would be a radical shift, and would take tons of hard work and research for no guaranteed payoff. If I ever make that plunge, I’ll have to go all in.

The conference also reminded me that there are so many other dedicated writers out there, many of whom are admirably ambitious, successful, and gifted. I must keep a healthy sense of perspective. I am, to echo Gandalf, only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!

Gandalf

When in doubt, quote Tolkien or Doctor Who.

A speaker at the conference made a good point: “A hobbyist writes for himself. A professional writes for his audience.” I’m a hobbyist. I write for fun, and God only knows whether that will ever change. If it does, I now have a slightly clearer idea of what to expect. If it doesn’t, I now have some idea of what I’m missing.

Either way, it’s nice to know.

I never tire of quoting the good Doctor from Doctor Who. (My readers probably tire of it, but I don’t.) As he might have put it, while the conference itself was excellent, my experiences there were a pile of good things and bad things. The good things didn’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things didn’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.

And the conference definitely added to my pile of good things.

How Games Tell You What to Do

Link partners

Video games create vast worlds for players to inhabit, and offer endless opportunities for interaction. That’s pretty cool. It also poses a problem unique to video games as a medium.

It’s easy to get lost.

With only a few unconventional exceptions, other media guide their audience along one specific path. When I read The Lord of the Rings, for example, I’m given a clear story to follow—the one Tolkien wrote. As he describes Frodo’s journey to Mordor, I can’t choose to see what’s happening back in Hobbiton or Rivendell. Either I read Tolkien’s story, or I don’t. I merely experience it. I don’t create it.

Video games are different. A game allows players to interact with its world, giving them a hand in creating the story. Maybe, as I play a Legend of Zelda game, I’m supposed to rescue Princess Zelda, but choose to smash pots and attack chickens instead. The protagonist, Link, is only a hero if I want him to be.

Games give players an amazing degree of freedom, with many potential paths to take. It’s only natural, then, for games to guide the player toward the path their developers intended.

There are many approaches to guiding the player. The Legend of Zelda series often gives Link companions, as seen in the picture above. (I wanted to attribute it, but couldn’t find the artist.) These range from the traditional (a fairy) to the bizarre (a talking hat). These partners give Link advice on where to go and what to do next, guiding the player toward the game’s intended objectives.

This approach works pretty well, but can become irritating as Link’s companions boss him around or spell out every little step of his journey. The latest Legend of Zelda game doesn’t seem to have a partner system, which should allow players to wander more freely.

Other systems for guiding the player include marking objectives on a map, offering text or audio cues, or structuring game environments to direct the player toward the next goal. Some games are straightforward enough not to offer any guidance: Tetris and Pac-Man are good examples.

When I pick up a new game, I’m always interested to see how it tells me what to do.

456. TMTF’s Top Ten Dragons

A while back, TMTF ran a top ten list of hot guys in fiction—guys who are literally hot, I mean. As I made the list, I was strongly tempted to fill it with fire-breathing dragons. I eventually wrote about other fiery characters, saving the dragons for a future top ten list.

That time has come. Today is a day of dragons.

Well, I won’t let this introduction dragon—sorry; drag on—any longer. There’s no claws, um, cause for further delays. These dragons hail from tails, I mean, tales of all kinds, old and new. (Heck, am I ever ember-rassed—embarrassed, I mean—by these dragon puns. I thought they were clever, but the scales have fallen from my eyes… so to speak.)

Feel the heat, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Dragons!

Be ye warned: Here there be dragons, and also spoilers.

Before we begin, a quick note: I considered including Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock on this list, but it’s clearly not a dragon. It’s a Jabberwock. There’s a difference… I think.

10. Elliott (Pete’s Dragon)

Elliott

In this classic Disney film, Elliott is the dim-witted but well-meaning protector of Pete, an orphaned boy. Elliott communicates in good-natured grumbles, mumbles, and clicks. He can also turn invisible, which allows him to hide from grownups (and made less work for the film’s animators). Nearly everyone assumes Pete’s dragon is an imaginary friend, but that doesn’t stop him from being a faithful one. A remake of Pete’s Dragon will soon be released, but its oddly furry Elliott won’t replace the lovably derpy original.

9. Trogdor the Burninator (Homestar Runner)

Trogdor the Burninator

Have you ever wanted to draw a dragon? It’s easy! Just follow Strong Bad’s simple, step-by-step instructions—and witness the creation of a beloved Internet icon. Trogdor the Burninator began on a sheet of notebook paper as the letter S, followed by teeth, “spinities,” angry eyebrows, and a beefy arm “for good measure.” This silly sketch quickly spawned a cheesy death metal song and a couple of browser games, and went on to become one of the Internet’s most enduring memes. Strong Bad puts it well: “When the land is in ruin … only one guy will remain. My money’s on Trogdor.”

8. Ran and Shaw (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Ran and Shaw

There are basically two types of dragons. The Western dragon, rooted in European folklore, is a fierce beast. The Eastern dragon, born of Asian mythologies, is nobler and wiser. These dragons are that second type. Ran and Shaw are godlike creatures who guard the secrets of firebending, an ancient martial art. They are silent and mysterious, helping only those who prove themselves worthy, and adding to the fascinating lore of my all-time favorite show.

7. Mushu (Disney’s Mulan)

Mushu

I just declared Eastern dragons wise and noble, but Mushu is an exception to the rule. This tiny dragon is sent to aid the heroine of Disney’s Mulan by the spirits of her ancestors. (They meant to send a bigger dragon, but Mushu went instead.) This irreverent spitfire is full of bad ideas, but his heart is in the right place. Forget Malificent. In this story of war and loss, Mushu makes us laugh, and earns his place as Disney’s best dragon.

6. Spike (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic)

Spike the dragon

This young dragon is a dude in a world of candy-colored ponies, and he knows it. He survives as any self-respecting male does when surrounded by emotional females: he makes sarcastic remarks. Behind the snark is a kid who is in turn earnest, selfish, thoughtful, and insecure. In a couple of unexpectedly deep episodes, Spike comes to terms with his identity: neither a pony nor a typical dragon, belonging to neither group, yet finding acceptance in both. And did I mention his deadpan snark? Spike may not be the most consistent character ever written, but I like him.

5. Eustace Clarence Scrubb (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Eustace the dragon

By the time the Dawn Treader, a ship battered by wind and waves, reaches the safety of a deserted island, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is sick of everything. This ill-tempered brat abandons his fellow passengers and goes for a long walk, which ends with a nap on a dragon’s abandoned treasure. He awakes, in the fine tradition of Gregor Samsa, transformed into a monstrous vermin—a dragon, actually. This outward change is horrifying, but prompts a positive inward transformation. As a dragon, Eustace finds his humanity, and eventually regains his human form in a scene that echoes the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ. Eustace may be only a temporary dragon, but he’s quite a good one.

4. Hungarian Horntail (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

Hungarian Horntail

In the Harry Potter series, the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is notable partly for training witches and wizards, but mostly for child endangerment. (A troll and a three-headed dog in the first book alone? Really?!) By the fourth book, Hogwarts has made child endangerment into a formal competition with the Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which teenagers face giant freakin’ dragons. (No wonder Harry Potter is controversial.) The spiked Hungarian Horntail is the deadliest of these, giving Trogdor some serious competition in the “spinities” department. I love how the various species of dragons in the Harry Potter books seem so believable, with different breeds having different countries of origin; the Hungarian Horntail is the coolest by far.

3. The Dragon (Beowulf)

We’re dipping into the classics here with the unnamed dragon from Beowulf, the Old English epic. (I recommend the poem; it’s fairly short, and modern-language translations are surprisingly readable.) After conquering a couple of frightful monsters, Beowulf finally meets his match in this dragon, and dies shortly after killing it. This beast made literary history. According to Wikipedia, it’s an early archetype of the Western dragon, establishing classic traits such as hoarding treasure and breathing fire. John Gardner’s novel Grendel adds its own interpretation of the Beowulf dragon, depicting it as a nihilistic philosopher. Huh.

2. Toothless (How to Train Your Dragon)

Toothless

Toothless is basically my cat, but even more adorable. He can also fly and shoot concentrated blasts of explosive energy, which I’m pretty sure my cat can’t do. In the film How to Train Your Dragon, the Viking lad Hiccup defies his culture by refusing to kill this injured dragon. The dragon, which Hiccup names Toothless, rewards his compassion with fierce loyalty and adorable affection. In the original book, Toothless is actually kind of a jerk; this is a rare case in which the movie is way better than the book. Toothless is cuter than your average dragon, which makes him pretty much perfect.

1. Smaug (The Hobbit)

Smaug [alt]

Yes, Smaug is number one on this list. Of course he is. Inspired by the Beowulf dragon, Smaug is the ultimate example of his kind: cruel, vindictive, petty, vicious, powerful, and scary as all heck. After destroying an entire kingdom, he haunts the land for many long years. The entire story of The Hobbit builds up to Smaug, and it doesn’t end with him: Smaug’s death ignites a battle between three armies, which is interrupted by legions of goblins eager to claim the dragon’s hoard. Even in death, Smaug causes all kinds of horror, and I consider him the greatest dragon ever imagined.

Who is your favorite dragon? Fire away in the comments!

454. Adam’s Story: Introduction

A new series of posts begins today. As this blog stumbles doggedly toward its final post, I’m planning my next big personal project. I want to rewrite a story. I speak, of course, of the Lance Eliot saga: a trilogy of fantasies, and a dream I’ve chased for more than a decade. At this point, I have no delusions of grandeur, fame, or literary excellence. I just want to get the damned thing written.

Sooner or later, every creative person reaches a point at which he just wants to scream and shake things—preferably sharp, pointy things. (Art by JK Riki.)

A while back, when I wondered whether to discuss my story here, nobody raised any objections, so here we are. I’m not sure how often I’ll publish posts about the Lance Eliot saga, but they won’t take over TMTF or anything. This blog’s regularly scheduled nonsense shall continue!

I’ve decided to title this series Adam’s Story. I considered longer titles, like Adam’s Story Project, and more specific ones, like The Lance Eliot Saga, but settled on a title that’s short, sweet, and personal. After all, Adam’s Story refers to more than a story I want to write. It is also my story, the story of Adam, who has spent (or misspent; the jury’s still out) an alarming number of hours making up stories about a guy named Lance Eliot.

I’m actually really excited to write about the Lance Eliot saga, for at least five reasons.

  1. It will let me work on two things—this blog and story planning—at the same time, and with the same effort. How efficient!
  2. It will provide, I hope, a smooth transition from writing a blog to writing the story itself.
  3. It will force me to be a bit more disciplined. I can’t write about an aspect of the story until I’ve made sufficient progress in planning it, so I won’t be able to skip steps or cut corners!
  4. It will allow me to express my enthusiasm for the Lance Eliot saga, and to spread awareness of it. Every bit helps!
  5. It will allow me to share some of my ideas. Even if I’m not able to finish the Lance Eliot saga, at least I will have gotten some of its details out of my head.

I’m currently rereading the latest version of the story’s first part, the one I published a few years ago, and it… needs a lot of work. Heck, it needs a lot of work.

This is a picture of me throwing away the torn-up pieces of my story’s published version. Hold on, my mistake, it’s actually that version’s cover. How… apropos.

The new version won’t be anything special, but I hope to make it much better than previous ones.

Will I publish my story? I don’t know. I haven’t planned that far ahead. I’ve stopped calling the Lance Eliot saga “my book project,” and begun referring to it as “my story project.” I should probably write it before I think about publication, and I should probably plan it before I start writing.

As I plan the Lance Eliot saga, each post in the Adam’s Story series shall focus on an aspect of it. Relax, there won’t be any huge spoilers here. That said, there will be small spoilers, but nothing past the story’s earlier chapters.

Here are some of my ideas for posts about my fantasy and its world.

Story

I have to lay out the basics at some point, right? There won’t be any massive reveals here: just the early stuff!

Characters

There’s obviously a character named Lance Eliot. This post shall share a few more.

Setting

The setting is changing from previous versions of the story. I hope to make it more unique, with more details from personal experiences, and fewer generic fantasy elements. (There shall still be dragons, though. I can’t bring myself to leave them out.) The geography is changing a bit, too.

Goodbye, old setting. We hardly knew ye.

I guess this means my dad and I will need to make a new map. It’s a good thing he’s a patient man.

Politics

Earlier versions of the story didn’t really delve into politics. I want to change that. The simplistic political scene of earlier drafts shall be replaced with a tenser situation, finding such diverse inspirations as the Cold War, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Final Fantasy XII. Lance Eliot’s story shall be an adventure, not a political thriller, but I’m excited to give it some political background.

Lore

Like the story’s politics, its lore shall be more nuanced this time around. In The Lord of the Rings and his other fantasies, J.R.R. Tolkien imagined the God of Christianity in a fantastical context. I plan to do the same, taking cues from the later Old Testament, and borrowing ideas from Greco-Roman mythology and the Legend of Zelda series.

Aer

I really struggled with the concept of magic as I wrote earlier versions of the Lance Eliot saga. At first, I fought to reconcile magic with a Christian worldview, and I think I’ve figured out that part. Now my struggle is to invent a kind of magic that isn’t too vague, generic, or unbelievable. The magic in my story isn’t actually called by that name; for now, I’m calling it aer. What is it? Why aer? You’ll just have to wait and see.

Literary criticism

Yep, this is a theme of my story… but not really. Literary criticism, for all its usefulness, can be a bit silly. Nah, its purpose in my story is to lead to something else… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

I plan for my story’s three parts to parallel, however loosely, the three parts of the Divine Comedy. The first part of my story shall borrow from Dante’s Inferno, and it’s going to be a hell of a ride. (Alternatively: It’s going to be a damned good time. I can’t resist these puns, guys. I’m so sorry.)

I may cover more aspects of the story; I don’t know. Today’s post covers pretty much everything I have planned for now.

That said, this story won’t plan itself, so I’d better get back to it.

453. Fans, Geeks, and Cosplay: A Momentary Study

Geeks are fascinating creatures. In a perfect world, someone would make a nature documentary about them, and it would be narrated by Morgan Freeman. Tragically, since I don’t own a video camera and can’t afford to employ Mr. Freeman, I’ll have to keep writing blog posts about geeks instead of producing that well-deserved documentary.

Yes, it’s time for another brief exploration of geek culture. Today’s subject is cosplay, the hobby (or art, depending on your point of view) of dressing up like characters from movies, comics, video games, or other media. It’s sort of like wearing Halloween costumes, but really… hardcore.

Lord of the Rings cosplay

Here’s some Lord of the Rings cosplay.

The word cosplay is a portmanteau of costume and play; it denotes not only the hobby, but also specific examples of it.

Dedicated cosplayers often create their own cosplays. This sounds easy, but flipping heck, some cosplays are complicated. Depending on the complexity of the costume, a cosplayer may need the expertise of a tailor, makeup artist, leatherworker, blacksmith, or even computer modeler (for 3D printing).

Cosplayers show off their creations by attending geeky events (such as conventions) in costume, or by holding photo shoots and sharing the photos via blogs or social networks. Some fans are so good at cosplay that they do it professionally. In order to promote their brands or products, companies may hire professional cosplayers to mingle or manage booths at conventions, trade shows, or other events. Some cosplayers don’t merely dress as characters, but act and speak like them in improvised performances.

While some cosplay strives for perfect authenticity to its source material, other styles may feature creative twists on familiar characters, or gender swaps.

Darth Batman and Lady Link

On the left is a gender-swapped Link from The Legend of Zelda. On the right is… wait, is that Darth Batman? That is AWESOME!

What separates cosplay from other forms of dressing up? Costumes feature in some holidays and cultural events, but their purpose is nearly always rooted in tradition, religion, or symbolism. Cosplay, by contrast, is an expression of enthusiasm for a particular work or character. (Halloween costumes can be a bit cosplay-ish.)

Aided by the spread of the Internet, cosplay has gained prominence in just the past few decades; the term itself originated in the eighties. However, dressing up as fictional characters has a long and rich history. For example, just off the top of my head, I recall a scene in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott in which a couple of its characters dress up as literary figures for a fancy dress ball. Cosplay has evolved as a hobby in recent times, but its roots are firmly planted in centuries of human history.

Like many geeky hobbies, cosplay sometimes carries social stigmas. Cosplay may be considered childish, creepy, or inappropriate.

I’m not a cosplayer, but I usually disagree with these stereotypes. Cosplay is a creative hobby. It often requires superb dedication and all kinds of specialized skills. Like dressing up for Halloween, it’s fun for a lot of people. It can be inappropriate, certainly—but generally as a reflection of inappropriate media or characters. If a cosplay is in poor taste, it’s probably because the media it represents was in poor taste first.

Sadly, not all of the stigmas against cosplay come from outside its community. Fans and geeks can be as cruel as anybody. Over the years, some cosplayers have been criticized or insulted for having the wrong body type, skin color, or physical features for cosplaying certain characters. That’s dumb.

Perfectly fine cosplay

Black Captain America? Plus-size Batman? Cool. I see no problem here.

Do you see that black guy cosplaying Captain America, a traditionally white character? He’s a cosplayer. He’s not actually Captain America. It’s okay. Everyone can stop freaking out. The chubby fellow cosplaying Batman? He isn’t Batman. He lacks Batman’s muscular physique, and he’s smiling happily, which isn’t terribly Batman-like. Does it matter? He’s having a good time. So is the black gentleman in the Captain America suit, and the lady rocking Link’s iconic green tunic, and whatever mad genius created Darth Batman.

Cosplay isn’t about rules. It’s about fun, acceptance, and coming together as geeks to wear goofy costumes. Anybody should be able to cosplay as whatever the heck they want. After all, isn’t that the point of cosplay? Isn’t cosplay a chance to be an actor without a stage, becoming a completely different person, if only for a little while?

I don’t cosplay, but I understand why so many people have embraced it as a hobby. I respect them. I wish more people did. In fact, generally speaking, I wish more people respected geeks instead of assuming the worst of them. Heck, while I’m at it, I wish more people respected other people. That would be a great start.

I’m not planning ever to cosplay… but if I did, I bet I’d make a pretty good Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, or even a tolerable Tenth Doctor. Just a thought.

Abandon Hope, but Save a Little

Thence we came forth to see again the stars.

~ Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is not a cheerful poem. It follows the poet Dante and his guide Virgil through hell, upon whose gate are inscribed these words: Abandon all hope, ye who enter hereThis slogan could just as easily be printed on the poem’s front cover. Inferno isn’t a fun read, unless you happen to enjoy long conversations (all written in archaic language and poetic meter) with the tormented souls of damned sinners.

I once wrote about my favorite opening lines in literature, and more recently considered some of my favorite last lines. For example, A Tale of Two Cities ends on a poignant note: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” My all-time favorite last line concludes The Lord of the Rings: “‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

The final line of the Inferno is right up there with my favorites. For a poem whose most enduring words are “Abandon hope,” it ends hopefully. Dante and Virgil leave hell.

I can imagine it so clearly: disheveled travelers, exhausted from climbing in the endless dark, chilled by the ice of hell’s last circle, disturbed by the horrors of the underworld, glancing upward and seeing a sky alight with stars. I can see them stumbling out of the cave into the fresh air, blinking in the soft light from heaven. I can hear cicadas buzzing and feel a breeze stirring the grass. Hell is behind them. The nightmare is ended. After all the circles of hell, they know they’ve reached safety, for they see again the stars.

Thence we came forth to see again the stars

I’m a bit sentimental, but that’s one of my favorite images in all of literature. After literally going through hell, our heroes are safe. They are no longer trapped beneath stone ceilings. Above them, the heavens declare the glory of God. It’s a touching picture, and an uplifting end to a really bleak poem.

In one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, there’s a similar scene in which the protagonists escape an underworld to find themselves beneath a starry sky. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books also feature characters ending underground journeys by stumbling out into the open, such as Bilbo getting out of the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and the Fellowship fleeing Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Escaping the underworld to find oneself beneath the sky has become a literary motif, and I dig it.

To conclude, here’s a bit of trivia: All three parts of the Divine Comedy end with the word stars. Neat, huh?

449. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Introverts (but Were Afraid to Ask)

I’m currently gathering questions for a blog Q&A this Friday. I’ve received questions from exactly one person so far. (God bless him.) Friday’s post will be really short if no one else speaks up! If you’ve ever wanted to ask me anything about my life, blog, book project, or anything else, ask away!

I plan to attend a writing conference later this summer. It will probably be an educational experience. It shall certainly be a caffeinated one. I plan to drink a lot of coffee, that very present help in trouble. After all, as an introvert at a crowded social event, I’ll need all the help I can get.

That said, I recently picked up a book titled Networking for People Who Hate Networking on my latest visit to the bookstore. The book was on sale, is marketed to introverts, and has penguins on the cover. Penguins, guys. How could I refuse?

Networking with penguins

Professional Networking: Now with 100% More Penguins!

The book hasn’t offered any spectacular insights, but it has served (so far) as a solid introduction to introverts, extroverts, and ways both groups can connect with new people.

A few of the book’s points are well worth sharing, so I am going to share them.

Misconceptions shall be shattered! Stereotypes shall be broken! A sword day, a red day, and the sun rises! Ride now! Ride—wait, sorry, that’s Théoden’s speech from The Return of the King. I got a bit carried away. Let me try again.

For introverts and extroverts alike—and for all of those people who don’t know the difference—here is everything you ever wanted to know about introverts, but were afraid to ask.

Trying to cope

I’m an introvert. You may have noticed.

Introverts are not necessarily shy or quiet.

Many introverts can be talkative; this introvert, especially so. Introverts are often labeled shy because we tend to be guarded around people we don’t know well. Once we feel comfortable around others, we drop our guard and speak up.

Extroverts, by contrast, often feel comfortable talking around others, even people whom they don’t know well. That can be a great gift. Good for you, extroverts.

I’m generally very quiet around new people. Once I get to know them, they sometimes can’t shut me up.

Introverts are not necessarily negative.

Introverts tend to be less impulsive than extroverts. We need time to consider circumstances and process decisions. Thus, when given a request or invitation for which an immediate response is expected, we tend to say, “No.”

If we have a little time to think about an invitation or request, and to make up our minds without being rushed, introverts are much more likely to respond positively.

Introverts need time alone.

I use the word need here deliberately. We don’t merely want it—we need time alone in order to function well. Without opportunities to regain our mental balance, away from distractions and other people, we become stressed, anxious, or grumpy.

This, dear reader, this is why it bothers me so much when people interrupt me when I’m reading a book on break at work. It isn’t really about the book. In my job, which consists of working with dementia patients whose behaviors are often exhausting, I need time alone, immersed in a book, without coworkers dragging me into inane conversations. I get enough tiring human interactions when I’m working; I don’t need them on break.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

(I may be a little bitter.)

Introverts tend to weigh their words carefully.

I typically choose my words with near-obsessive care. I want to say exactly what I mean, and to mean everything I say. Nuances matter to me. Like most introverts, I think to talk.

Extroverts, by contrast, often talk to think. Talking is how they reach their conclusions. They think out loud. This means their views and opinions can change wildly from one conversation to the next, and even from one moment to the next. This makes it easy for introverts to label extroverts thoughtless or indecisive. It’s important for introverts and extroverts alike to understand these differences in mental processing.

Introverts excel at depth, not quantity.

Extroverts often have vast social circles. Introverts tend to have a close circle of dear friends. Extroverts go wide; introverts go deep. With fewer social commitments, introverts can spend more time and effort developing those closest relationships.

These principles can be applied in the context of networking. Introverts can be aware of different communication styles, plan opportunities to recharge, and focus on making a few key connections instead of using up their energy on small talk. As I’ve read the Guide to Networking with Penguins, or whatever that book is titled, I’ve been rather gratified to see that it also recommends some of my own strategies for coping with social events.

When I attend that writing conference later this summer, I will add to the book’s admirable list of tips my own tried-and-true strategy: liquid courage. It is for such times, after all, that God made coffee.

441. TMTF’s Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction

Do you know what this blog needs? Hot guys. This blog needs more hot guys.

What? You think hot guys are an inappropriate subject for this blog? Oh, I disagree. I won’t discriminate against anyone for being totally smoking hot. I think this post is long overdue.

It’s a burning question: Who are the hottest guys in fiction? There are a lot of potential answers, so let’s warm up with a list of ten.

We’re turning up the heat, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction!

10. Calcifer (Howl’s Moving Castle)

Calcifer

This friendly fire demon is not only helpful and adorable, but also sounds exactly like Billy Crystal. (Wait, he’s actually voiced by Billy Crystal? Well.) Calcifer may not be the hottest guy on this list, but he’s certainly hot enough to fry eggs and bacon.

Cooking with Calcifer

That’s pretty hot, right?

9. Anger (Inside Out)

Anger (Inside Out)

This one is easy. I mean, the dude’s head is literally on fire.

Hot guy. No doubt about it. Great movie, too.

8. Mario (Super Mario Bros. series)

Fireball Mario

Mario isn’t always hot, but he occasionally throws fireballs. These whirling spheres of flame aren’t terribly large or threatening, except when they get out of hand. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) When Mario cuts loose with the fireballs, things heat up pretty quickly.

Mario's Final Smash

Bowser is another hot character from the Super Mario Bros. series, but I chose Mario because this list has quite enough scaly fire-breathing monsters. Speaking of which….

7. Charizard (Pokémon)

Charizard

Charizard is labeled a Fire-type Pokémon, and for good reason. His flaming tail is a life sign, like a pulse… but more likely to burn down buildings. Charizard also breathes fire.

Totally hot, man.

6. The Fury (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

The Fury

This crazy cosmonaut hails from my favorite Metal Gear Solid game as a member of the Cobra Unit: a team of supervillains working for a rogue Soviet colonel. The Fury is a pyromaniac through and through, packing a flamethrower and a jet pack—which, I can only assume, were standard issue for Soviet cosmonauts prior to the sixties.

When the Fury finally gives up the ghost, it’s with delusions, explosions, and surreal shrieking heads of fire. So hot.

5. The Guys in the Seventh Circle of Hell (Dante’s Inferno)

Seventh Circle of Hell

The circles of Dante’s hell offer various horrors, from violent winds to ceaseless whippings. It’s the seventh circle that most closely resembles the classic image of hell as a fiery place, with a river of boiling blood and flakes of fire drifting to the ground. “Thus was descending the eternal heat, whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder beneath the steel.”

You can bet the sinners in hell’s seventh circle are pretty hot.

4. Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Zuko

In the fantasy world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko is a firebender: a martial artist who redirects chi (spiritual energy) and unleashes it as fire. Firebending is awesome. It can be used to warm tea, heat bathwater, or do this:

Firebending

Zuko is the show’s most dynamic firebender, learning from dragons and experimenting with advanced forms of his art. He never did learn to make a good cup of tea, but he’s still a really hot guy.

3. Hades (Disney’s Hercules)

Hades

At first glance, Hades looks like a shady uncle to Anger from Pixar’s Inside Out. Don’t be fooled. The smooth-talking god of the dead from Disney’s Hercules often loses his cool. (Pun intended. I’m still sorry.) When his temper flares (I’m so, so sorry), those flames rage out of control.

Yes, Hades is a hot guy… but he’s the master of the underworld, so what did you expect?

2. Smaug (The Hobbit)

Smaug

Do I even need to explain this one? Smaug is a dragon. He breathes fire. Dragons breathe fire. Hot.

It would have been easy to fill this list with dragons, but I limited myself to one. I chose Smaug because, of all the dragons I considered, he hit the best blend of hotness and cultural significance. (Next time, Toothless. Next time.) Smaug is far from the only hot character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books; Sauron is represented by a fiery eye, and Denethor was pretty hot right at the end of his life.

1. The Human Torch (Marvel comics)

The Human Torch

I don’t really have anything to say about the Human Torch, except that he’s literally on fire, burning at impossibly high temperatures that would reduce ordinary men to greasy little piles of soot.

I can think of no hotter guy in fiction.

Who are your favorite hot guys or gals in fiction? Fire away in the comments!

431. My Creative Heroes

Creative people are fun, quirky, smart, and responsible for most of the entertainment in my life. (The rest of it comes from acting silly in public to make my younger brother uncomfortable.) I have many creative heroes: people I know personally, people on the Internet, and professionals in the media.

Today’s post honors three of my creative heroes, one each from the media of film, video games, and literature. I admire and respect the heck out of these people. If I were the sort of person who cries and gives hugs, I would embrace these heroes of mine and weep tears of joy and gratitude. I’m not, however, so instead I’ll ramble about them, because rambling is what I do.

John Lasseter

I considered naming Hayao Miyazaki one of my creative heroes, but this brilliant Japanese filmmaker is also demanding and grouchy: not qualities I admire in anyone, creative or not. John Lasseter, like Miyazaki, is a legend; unlike Miyazaki, he seems like a nice human being.

John Lasseter

Lasseter’s career is one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories I know. As a boy, he dreamed of working for Disney as an animator. He achieved his dream—only to be fired after just a few years. His mistake was annoying his superiors by experimenting with a brand-new form of art: computer animation.

Heartbroken, Lasseter drifted to a division of Lucasfilm, which later became an independent company called Pixar Animation Studios. (You may have heard of it.) For a decade, Pixar pioneered computer animation with masterpieces like Toy Story and its sequel, both of which Lasseter directed.

It seems strange to us nowadays, as we enjoy terrific films like Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia, but just ten years ago Disney’s animation studios were stuck in a losing streak. Their films found neither commercial nor critical success, and their fans yearned for the good old days of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney, the most successful animation company in history, had sunk to the unimaginable low of mediocrity.

Faced with this crisis, Disney’s newly-appointed CEO, Bob Iger, did the only sensible thing: oversee Disney’s purchase of Pixar, and then put Lasseter and his colleague Ed Catmull in charge of basically everything. After more than twenty years, John Lasseter returned to the studio that had fired him—as its chief creative officer. His employees welcomed him with cheers and applause.

In the following years, Lasseter renamed and restructured Disney’s main animation studio, canceled cash-grab projects and lazy sequels, and oversaw the release of superb films from both Disney and Pixar: all while wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts.

I admire John Lasseter for his creative vision, which blends an appreciation for tradition with a dedication to cutting-edge innovation. Mr. Lasseter emphasizes teamwork, strives for quality in art and storytelling, and seems like a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of my heroes, and a colorful one at that.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Several decades ago, the president of a company on the verge of financial collapse made a desperate plan to salvage unpopular hardware. He tasked a young employee named Shigeru Miyamoto with creating a new game for old arcade units. That game was Donkey Kong, that company was Nintendo, and that employee went on to create Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and many of the greatest video games ever made.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Nintendo is awesome, and Shigeru Miyamoto is the genius behind many of its successes. Many of the turning points in the history of video gaming hinge on Miyamoto’s games. Donkey Kong established the platforming genre. Super Mario Bros. helped save the video game industry after it crashed in the eighties. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time pioneered movement in a virtual 3D space, and the Wii experimented with motion control.

Miyamoto has helped shape the video game industry for nearly four decades, but you wouldn’t guess it to look at him. He’s a mild gentleman who enjoys music and gardening, and walked or biked to work until his company pressured him for his own safety to drive. For a creative visionary, he seems entirely down to earth.

Nowadays, Miyamoto is more of a creative consultant for Nintendo than a game designer. He is notorious for “upending the tea table” during game development, flipping design concepts on their heads. (His suggestions are game-changing, so to speak.) Miyamoto seems like Nintendo’s idea guy, stepping in when a development team needs a boost.

I admire Miyamoto’s design philosophy: he values fun over fancy graphics or technical intricacy. Most of his games are based on his own life experiences, from exploring woods and caves as a child to gardening as an adult. (He even made a game inspired by his attempts to lose weight!) His work is colorful, charming, fun, and friendly. Nintendo is basically the Pixar of the video game industry, and Miyamoto-san, like Pixar’s Mr. Lasseter, is one of my heroes.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course this man is one of my creative heroes. Really, they don’t get any more creative than J.R.R. Tolkien. The man created an entire world—an earth with its own geography, mythology, languages, cultures, genealogies, and thousands of years of history—and he did it in his spare time.

J.R.R. TolkienLong before he published The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was a noted academic renowned for his groundbreaking work in literary criticism. He lectured, graded papers, translated old texts, published books, raised a family, and still found time somehow to create his own vast, private, intricate mythology.

Tolkien was irrepressibly creative. For example, every year his children wrote to Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus—and, incredibly, Father Christmas wrote back. For twenty-two years, Tolkien played the role of Father Christmas to amuse his kids: writing and illustrating stories about his misadventures at the North Pole. These letters were published as a children’s book after Tolkien’s death; I’ve read them, and and they’re delightful. Even in his little pet projects, Tolkien’s creativity and cleverness were astounding.

Of course, Tolkien’s greatest project of all was Middle-earth and its stories, the most famous of which is The Lord of the Rings. The sheer size and intricacy of Tolkien’s world is astounding; by some estimates, it’s the largest and most complex ever created by a single person in all of human history. Tolkien’s influence on literature and pop culture is literally incalculable.

In his vast mythologies and in his little stories for children, at work and at home, J.R.R. Tolkien was incredibly creative, and he’s one of my heroes.

Whew! That was a long post. What can I say? Creative people inspire me!

Who are your creative heroes? Let us know in the comments!

426. I Want to Make You Feel

I recently announced my decision to revive the Lance Eliot saga, my greatest and most personal writing project. Today I will tell you why I made that big decision, but there is something else, something important, I must discuss first.

Excuse me, Sir or Madam, but have you heard the good word about Disney’s Zootopia?

Zootopia movie poster

Not far from my home in the little town of Berne there stands a cozy cinema called the Ritz Theatre. (I discovered it when I ventured forth to see The Lego Movie a couple of years ago.) The Ritz has two theater rooms, one of which is fairly small, and an old-timey lobby with a big plaster model of an Oscar trophy. I love the Ritz Theatre. It wraps the sound and fury of Hollywood movies in the charm of a friendly small business.

My younger brother and I recently made a pilgrimage to the Ritz Theatre to see Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated movie. It was fantastic. However, as much as I would love to spend this blog post explaining why the movie is fantastic, that’s not really the point. (Seriously, though, go watch Zootopia.)

The point is that Zootopia made me feel things. It evoked far deeper feelings of catharsis and happiness than any kids’ movie has any right to do. I am not an emotional person. I am, despite my sense of humor and typically sunny disposition, pragmatic and logical.

Thus, when the feels hit me, they hit me hard.

HRRRNNNGGG

I just can’t take the feels, man.

Zootopia is far from the first story to make me make me feel things. Heck, nearly every new animated Disney film since Bolt back in 2008 has left an emotional impression. For some reason, while movies for adults appeal to my intellect, movies for kids are the ones that appeal to my feelings. (Disney, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli, I’m looking right at you.)

I like positive feelings. Most people do. I’m not often emotionally overwhelmed by a story, but when I am, it’s an amazing experience. It’s a fleeting encounter with the power of storytelling: as J.R.R. Tolkien suggested, “a far-off gleam or echo” of a happy ending to our own story, which is being told by the greatest Storyteller of all.

Speaking of Tolkien, I admit few stories have made me feel as much as The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s masterpiece, especially the last chapters of its final book, The Return of the King, warms even my impassive old heart.

I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings since 2009 or so, and much of it had faded from my memory, but something happened last year to change that.

A few days after Christmas, my brother and I visited a family friend. I’ll call him Socrates here. (In real life, I call him Barabbas. It’s a fun story.) After welcoming us into his home, Socrates made snacks and put on the film adaptation of The Return of the King. It had been almost as long since I had seen the film as it had since I had read the book!

Return of the King movie poster

Something happened that night. The movie was as good as I remembered, but beyond that, something woke up inside me. I felt an overwhelming peace and happiness: the nostalgia of fond memories in harmony with the catharsis of seeing beloved characters reach a happy ending. It was then I realized something: I knew I once wanted to write a story of my own, but I had forgotten why.

This was why.

That night reminded me of why I decided to write stories in the first place: I wanted to feel, and I wanted to make other people feel, too. Stories like Zootopia and The Return of the King gave me moments of cathartic happiness, peace, and comfort. I wanted to give someone else those moments.

I still do.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. That’s my excuse for picking up the Lance Eliot saga once this blog bites the dust. I want to make you feel.

Blame Tolkien and Zootopia.