Too good and not good enough

Screenshot anime Aho-Girl

I have written 36000 words, and have nothing to show. Story of my life.

I am talking about my NaNoWriMo writing, but it appears to me that this may have a wider application for myself and others.

I am ahead of the official schedule with my NaNovel: Currently at over 36000 words. This is pretty much as expected, I estimated about 2000 words a day on this project. I also write some other even more unofficial fiction. I have been blessed thus far to not have serious Repetitive Stress Injury to my wrist, as I often had in my early years. I even have had some repetitive typing work at my day job (this is the first November in quite a while that I am not having my vacation) and still can type mostly without pain, so that is good. But as expected in the dreaded Week 3, misgivings about the project rise up.

***

Problem number one is that the story is not very good. I just today read a thread on the NaNoWriMo Adventure forum, “Who is your favorite character” in your own story. And I realized that none of them were. The main character is certainly an unusual hero: The only known Player Character from when the the world was a game, he used to be one of the top non-Pay-to-Win players and has extensive lore and meta-knowledge of how the world works, which should make him quite powerful if he can survive the racism, fear and hatred as a scary-looking barbarian in a homogeneous society that sees itself as the only possible civilization.

But this fellow does not really have any passion. He is not looking to get back to the real world to his family. He is not trying to protect his true love or find some precious person who is lost somewhere in the wide world. Actually he rather likes this world, and his main concern is to stay alive. Which is somewhat harder in a world of warring states, roaming bandits, supernatural monsters, wandering swordsmen and superpowered monks. Still, a quietly worried Swede is not really the way to keep readers on the edge of their chair, I suspect. He may be relatable, but so is your neighbor and your Facebook friends.

***

So far, so bad. The other problem is that the book is not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and do the NaNoWriMo “quantity over quality” thing. And by that I mean throwing in pirates and ninjas in places where they don’t belong. Or the Traveling Spade of Death that goes from book to book, possessing people to murder named characters. Or Belinda the Chicken of Death. If all you want is the word count and a text that is recognizably English (or some other known language), then Not Taking Your Book Seriously is definitely the way to go. But by and large, at this stretch of my life, I don’t start that kind of book in the first place.

In a way, this is the story of my life, and probably many other lives. It is certainly unique, but not good enough to stand out in a good way, and not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and go hitchhiking in Caucasus with a backpack of chocolate-filled gold coins. And so we keep slogging through, even when we have come to 36000 out of 50 000 words and can dimly see the end in the distance, and suspect that it will be unremarkable just like the path there was unremarkable.

“Someone is searching”

Screenshot anime Kamisama Kazoku

Maybe they are right there, but will you find them? What if to everyone else they look like everyone else?

I recently read that every novel can be summed up as “Someone is searching for something.”

This made me think about my current candidate for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, as I’ve mentioned in the previous entry. The main character and viewpoint character, a teenager who used to be an old man, now trapped in a world that used to be a game, is definitely searching for something. But I don’t really see him as searching for a way back home, not after the first pages at least. After all, in his own world he was ageing and with less than perfect health, no close family or friends nearby, no job and really no accomplishments to look forward to in the rest of his life. This was the world he loved, when he was not in it.

It did not take long for me to realize what he truly is searching for. Alone in a world that used to be a game, he is surrounded by Non Player Characters – people who used to be just pixels and scripts run by a computer, but who now have real lives of sorts. But they are still Non Player Characters. They know nothing about Real Life and the world from which he came. As far as they know, their origin and purpose and the meaning of their life lies entirely within this world, and everything else would be like pure madness to them. In fact, that is exactly how they will react if he tries to broach the subject.

And yet he must do so, because he is indeed searching. Not in the long run for a way back – that will come if it comes – but for others like himself. The one thing he cannot except is that he is the only one of his kind in this world, the only one for whom this world is not the ultimate reality. And it is not for him to find someone who says “OK, I believe you” even though that is hard enough. You’ve got to have been there. To share his memories before they are lost forever.

Of course, this is just a work of fiction. But it is an interesting perspective, is it not? I wonder if I could manage to write it.

Wuxia-inspired worldbuilding

Screenshot anime A Sister is All You Need

Worldbuilding is something novelists do all the time. Taking pictures of naked friends with our smartphones “for research” is not something we actually do. Rejoice therefore!

In my previous entry, I wrote about a Chinese comic I recently came across. It gave me some ideas for a short novel draft I could write for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month.

I am not talking about writing fan fiction here. It is true that you could probably summarize both of them in a short paragraph that was identical, if you specifically was asked to do so, but that would require cutting out some pretty central themes. You see, I take this as an opportunity to practice the two new literary interests of mine from the last couple years: Wuxia and LitRPG. And the comic has nothing to do with LitRPG, which is the genre I have read the most by far this past year.

LitRPG is basically literature set inside a role playing game, or a world following the rules of a role playing game. There are basically two branches of this, the main branch is probably the one where in the future games become so lifelike that they are experienced similar to Real Life even though they are not actually real. Another branch is where the world is assumed to be real but has the same features as a role playing game, sometimes even including a user interface where you can see your statistics! That’s going a bit far, I think.

I will go for a plot device used in a Japanese light novel series, Overlord. In it, the main character remains in the game when it shuts down, and instead of being disconnected he follows along with the game world when it disconnects from the real world into some parallel universe where the game is real and real life is not. In Overlord, the main character retains all his powers and artifacts and even the base of his guild, making him hideously overpowered. I am not going that far.

Worldbuilding 1: “Real” Life

My main character – let’s just call him Marty Stu for now – is a 68 year old retiree sometime around 2030. He has some unnamed health problems by now but is still faithfully playing his favorite MMORPG, the Wuxia-inspired Lands of Soulcraft. When the game is closed down after 12 years, he decides to stay up all night playing till the end. However, in the last seconds before the shutdown time, he becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. Some time later, he wakes up and realizes that he is somewhere in the game world, but this world is now real and he is a teenager again. Either that, or he is dreaming and can’t wake up. Or dead.

Worldbuilding 2: Lands of Soulcraft – the game

The game had a cult following, but was also infamous for design decisions that made many players either give up or ragequit.  Leveling in the game is extraordinarily slow – if you have a job and a family you can expect to spend a year gaining one Rank. There are ten of these, although only five are known in the beginning of the game. Each Rank has 5 Rungs. The Ranks are from lowest to highest: Iron – Copper – Silver – Gold – Platinum – Topaz – Emerald – Sapphire – Ruby – Diamond.

The metal Ranks exist in the Lush Lands, where the first half of the game takes place, a land where the heroes mingle with various ordinary people. To advance to the gem Ranks you must leave for the High Lands, the mysterious mountain world where immortals are said to live. Here are no farmers and only a few courageous traders in guarded camps at the bottom of the valleys. The land is populated by powerful monsters, mysterious races, and masters of swordmanship and Soulcraft (basically magic). Once you go there, your opportunities to return are severely limited, and you cannot use any powers gained there in the Lush Lands even should you be able to visit. A condition for going back is that your powers are restrained for the duration.

You gain rank by a combination of three factors: Practice, Lore and Exploration.

Practice is the simplest but the most boring. You practice with weapons and body training or meditate using various spiritual practices to improve the strength of your Soulforce. You can basically do this as a player while reading a book on the side. Obviously this get a bit different if you are trapped inside the game which has become real.

Exploration is the opposite: It is exciting but requires your full attention, and the results may vary a great deal. Quests give you rare experience that is valuable in leveling up, and you find rare weapons, armor, amulets, and ingredients for Alchemy and Inscription (enchanting).

Lore is found in the many large libraries. The game has thousands of books, hundreds of them are important for understanding the game mechanics. They are detailed, complex and interwoven so that some players claim the game actually equals university level. Understanding the game lore only superficially will hamper your progress, but once you have deeply understood, experimented with and practiced the game lore, “reincarnating” as a new character is much easier and faster than your first time. You may even catch up with and overtake your first character, because it is possible to make stupid decisions that hurt your maximum abilities forever. (Much like in Real Life.) This detail caused a great deal of ragequitting, by people who discovered after up to five years that their character was flawed beyond repair and would never become number one in this world.

To make things worse, the lore in the Lush Lands is hideously incomplete, something you will only learn in the last half of the game. Basically the greatest heroes of the Lush Lands are just milling around in ignorance, making do with what looks to them like a complete, deep and rich lore but is actually grade school compared to the deeper understanding available in the High Lands. Among the discoveries is that some characters that had seemed to be irreparably flawed were actually in a pretty good position to advance if they had continued long enough. Cue more ragequit.

The game was destroyed when it was sold to a large gaming company that made it free to play but sold Rank promotions and other goodies for real money. The High Lands were overrun by rich noobs who had the most powerful characters in the game world but no idea how to play. This caused the regular players to quit, and the noobs to quit as well, and the game closed down two years after the acquisition.

Worldbuilding 3: Lands of Soulcraft – the world

Once Marty wakes up in the game world, he notices that it seems completely real. He can not only see and hear, but also touch and smell. He gets hungry and needs to eat and drink. The people he meets seem way too intelligent and realistic to be Non Player Characters, but none of them have heard about any other world that is more real than this one. More disturbingly, nobody comes back from the dead. What has happened? Where is he?

Is he comatose in a hospital, dreaming that he is trapped inside the game? Or did the psychic energy of the many dedicated players actually create the game world in some alternate reality? Or did it already exist and the original designer of the game was some kind of psychic? Is Marty dead and some kind of deity or karma has shunted him to this world? Or is his body dead but his brain frozen down and later thawed up to be wired into a computer recreation of the game? And most importantly: Are there others from his world there? And if not, what is his relationship with the people of this mysterious world? And what is his destiny there?

The width of time

Screenshot anime Futakoi

If time were to restart, where would it take us? Life is not only short, it is also very narrow: You can only walk one single path, and it is hard to see far from it.

Today I will continue on the topic from my previous post about imaginary time travel of the mind. The main character leaves the present (which is fairly late in his life) and travels back to various points in the past, eventually to his teenage years, living through life again. Even before any other psychic powers manifest, the second iteration of life starts to diverge a great deal from the first. This is to be expected when you have decades of memories from the future. But the truth is that even with a much smaller and more vague core of memories, life would still have begun to take a different path. (I wrote “different past” here accidentally, but that’s not too far off either.)

Famously, biologist Stephen Jay Gould (of “punctuated equlibrium” fame) said that if we could rewind time to when life began, the lifeforms that would result would be completely different today. Meaning that there was so much randomness in the process that even if the circumstances were exactly the same, the outcome would still be different. There is some philosophical debate about whether the material universe really is non-deterministic, but what is clear is that it would take extremely little to change history if you intervened early enough.

In a similar way, if you could travel back in time to your childhood, it would take very little to change your fate, perhaps in a major way. A few words, perhaps even a smile or a frown, could have set you down a different path. Certainly some things are pretty much set in stone: Your height, your basic intelligence, your skin and hair color, and at least part of your sexuality. But many other things could end up very different. Your education, your job, the place you live, your spouse or lack thereof, even your weight.

So what I am saying is that even with the same body, we could each have lived a thousand different lives if we got to start over. All it would take to change our path would be the song of a little bird … or a vague sense of deja-vu.

***

But if we really do live our lives many times, we do not remember them. Scientists tell us that even deja-vu is not a paranormal thing, but a misfiring of the brain. I wonder about that: When the brain has an ability that is found in most people, it does not seem unlikely that it has some purpose. Whether you believe in creation or evolution or some combination of them, it seems suspicious that something as elaborate and expensive as the human brain should come with functions that have only negative value. (Remember, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy at rest … it is an obvious place to cut down if you don’t have unlimited calories, which only part of the world has even today, let alone in the past.)

Be that as it may, for us who don’t have the power of remembering multiple versions of our lives like fictional characters, I guess the closest we come is to get to know other people. They may not be us, exactly, but they tend to have a least some things in common with us, while other things are different. Well, if you want to try, there’s my archives from the years when I wrote a long entry every day. That should certainly be enough to get to know me better than eveb my own brothers do. Whether it is worth the time, though, I am not so sure. We are all different, but some are more different than others.

 

We want to live long…

Screenshot anime Erased

Screenshot from the anime “Erased”, in which the main character’s mind travels back to his childhood to change the past. Well, that’s one way of living long without growing old: Living the same time over and over… Of course, I thought of that years before the anime.

Thanks to the current ongoing Shellfish Festival here in Mandal, I get some free live music whether I want to or not. Today I caught a very catchy tune that has been around for a while here in Norway, “Vi vil level lenge” by Halvdan Sivertsen. There’s a YouTube clip for those who may want to listen to it, but it is in Norwegian. It is actually a song mocking cosmetic surgery mostly, but the recurring lyrics are some I can certainly identify with: We want to live long, but we never want to grow old.

Curiously this is the theme of my current main dicewriting project. Not the cosmetic surgery, but living long without growing old. It is a story about psychic time travel, in which the mind rather than the body travels back in time. You may remember one extreme instance of this as the movie Groundhog Day. I thought also reviewed the book The first fifteen lives of Harry August  by Claire North, but it seems this is one of the innumerable entries I have written and not uploaded? There are a number of related stories that largely fall in between these, featuring people whose minds are sent back in time (usually without their control) giving them the chance to “do over” some part of their life. It is something that I am sure a lot of us have thought about. It is a natural human trait to do this in our minds, although for me as a hyperlexic it is difficult to do so without something to write on.

So anyway in my Imaginary Random Psychic  series, the main character has the ability to travel at will into the past (although not before puberty) and stay there until he decides to leave, or until he catches up with the time he left. At that point, he returns to Real Time. The catch is, the timeline he was in disappear shortly after, like a dream. Even though it feels completely real while he is there, nothing of it remains when he returns. Nobody else remembers anything of it, and even his own memories soon become vague and dreamlike. Skills he has cultivated in the other timeline are reset, as is his health. Only a vague narrative remains. He is able to maintain a connection to a timeline for a couple minutes, allowing him to write brief diary entries during long stays in the past, but if he stays longer the timeline is lost in the swirl of All-Possibility.

The “imaginary psychic” part refers to a secondary effect of traveling through the fourth dimension of time: Gradually he starts to drift sideways in the fifth dimension and vertically in the sixth dimension, gaining supernatural powers. The powers of the fifth dimension augment his natural abilities, making him stronger, faster, more intelligent, resistant to damage and to ageing. The powers of the sixth dimension are indistinguishable from magic: Telepathy, telekinesis, healing, various forms of energy manipulation. But these abilities increase very slowly, rarely noticeable from year to year and hardly from decade to decade. It is only over centuries of living his life over and over that he gradually becomes aware of his supernatural powers and gets used to them. And like everything else, these abilities too fade when the returns to Real Time.

It seems like a slow and steady wish fulfillment fantasy, and I intend it as such too, but there is a subtle undercurrent that undermines that aspect of it: No matter what he achieves, it is un-achieved by time. If he finds love and a family, he is sure to lose them. If he makes friends, they are sure to forget him. Even when he gains some power to change the world for the better, the world forgets him and reverts to what it was. Even inside the story, all his triumphs are hollow from the start.

Of course, the same could be said for real life. “Futility! Futility! says the Preacher. Utter futility! All is in vain. What does a person gain from his labor that he strives with under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1, the Bible.) Or, to translate the Buddha’s partings words: “All things that have form are subject to decay.” We who have meditated for a while may actually have caught some glimpses of the fifth or sixth dimensions, but the truth is that even eternal time is not enough. Anything that can be accomplished within time is trapped within time. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as the Americans say. Only the spirit can transcend the six dimensions of space and time.

We want to live long, but even then we will just as much be forgotten. Transhumanists want to reverse ageing or upload the mind to computer networks that can last for millions of years. Certainly that would be great, but even the stars fade and galaxies shatter. There is no escape hatch that can be opened from the inside of creation.

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

I can’t write Log Horizon

Screenshot Log Horizon

A minor character – in more than one sense of the word – from Log Horizon. Even these are surprisingly well developed (in this case only in one sense of the word, thankfully).

I have belatedly finished watching the second season of the anime Log Horizon. (Legally, in this case on Crunchyroll which is a site that lets you stream anime and read manga for a quite reasonable fee, and in some cases for free but with a time delay. They don’t have light novels yet, though, as far as I can see, but recently they have a lot more manga. I watched the anime, but it is based on light novels that I have not yet read.)

The novels fall squarely in the LitRPG category, which I have mentioned before. This genre is stories that take place inside roleplaying games, or worlds nearly indistinguishable from roleplaying games. In all cases I know of, this refers to MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. While I am sure there is a lot of fanfiction on the Internet based on existing games, the games in the LitRPG books are original creations which may be more or less vaguely similar to existing games, but generally more advanced. As such the stories are usually set in the future, where games have become even more immersive. And then, in several of these stories, the characters find themselves literally transported into the game world, a parallel world that is now their new reality.

This is also the premise for Log Horizon. One day after a new expansion to a popular game has been rolled out, suddenly the players find themselves trapped in the game, their in-game avatars now their bodies, and the game world fully real to all senses. This causes various problems at first, for instance at first you cannot make food without the in-game cooking skill even if you know how to do so in real life. Some of the strongest guilds try to become rulers of the cities and enslave others. The tentative main character of the story is Shiroe, a young man who plays a fairly pure support class (Enchanter-Scribe) but is fiercely independent and introverted by nature. He is valued for his obsessive knowledge of the game and as a master strategist, and manages to organize a “round table” of different types of guilds to serve as a loose kind of government, preventing the player-killer guilds from taking over the capital city. (Players that are “killed” in the game revive at the cathedral, but it is said that each death causes you to lose some of your memories from Real Life. As such, most players avoid it as much as possible, but some seek it out.)

While Shiroe is an interesting personality, the story really shines because of its many supporting characters, which are given a great deal of personality each, and interact in sometimes dramatic and sometimes comical ways. In this regard, Log Horizon differs from many LitRPG stories, including some that have been made into anime. In a way, it could be said that these are really single-player experiences. The most extreme example I can think of is Overlord, in which only one player is transported into the alternate world, as far as we know, although certain events imply that one or more others may also be there. The rest of the cast in Overlord have personalities, but are clearly marked as non-player characters and therefore inherently less real. The perhaps most famous LitRPG anime is Sword Art Online, in which there are thousands of players, but the main character Kirito is written as superior both in skill and personality, causing the other players to seem largely irrelevant except for his love interests.

A concept often used about amateur writers (and especially prevalent in Fanfiction) is “Mary Sue”, often called “Marty Stue” for male characters. A Mary Sue is a character that is supposed to be relatively ordinary, but is written as superior in every way, unbeatable and ridiculously overpowered in every way that counts. The Mary Sue is often given character flaws that are not flaws, often an excessive humility that serves only to highlight their superiority. The story treats the Mary Sue differently from everyone else.

In Log Horizon, Shiroe is possibly the smartest person in the game, but he is limited by his supporting class character. He only shines when he can make others shine. You will not see Shiroe stand up alone against an army of enemies and defeat them singlehandedly. But because of his reliable support, he is loved by his friends and they go out of their way to help him even if they don’t always understand his plan. Several of the other characters are given opportunities to shine in their own right, including a large story arc featuring some of the underage players going on a quest.

Log Horizon is not the only LitRPG anime with multiple well-developed personalities. There is also Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, which I actually encountered as a novel before I saw the anime. The main characters are few but well developed, including one who dies partway through the story. This story differs from most in that although the world is similar to a game world, the characters do not arrive there by playing a game.

***

I wish I could write stories like that, with multiple believable characters. But that is still beyond me. I am now past 40 000 words on my designated NaNoWriMo novel of the year, but it is a rough patch. I had hoped that the colorful personalities in the Royal Art Academy of Greater Akikei would interact with each other and the narrator character to fill this part of the story, but so far they have remained flat and hiding in the shadows. One of them is actually kind of active, but she is too much of a cardboard caricature, not a believable person like the two main characters. She certainly does not add much in the way of romantic tension, although I will give her a few points for trying. The rest are little more than nicknames and I find myself unable to wake them up.

Oh well, it is good that I am not a professional writer after all. I guess I shall continue in my office job until I die or am disabled.

NaNoWriMo again!

Screenshot anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, featuring Monet

Return of the colors, from episode 6 of Magic-Kyun Renaissance. Tsukushi is known as the “Monochrome Prince” but upon getting to know this one special girl, he starts to see the world in colors again.

I have been taking part in the National Novel Writing Month pretty much ever since it became international approximately ten years ago. For most of that time I have taken November off as my paid vacation for the year. (Norway has 5 weeks of mandatory vacation. I like my job, but my boss could get in trouble if I don’t take my 5 weeks every single year. So may as well have something else constructive to do.)

To be honest, I feel that my writing has gone downhill lately, and it was never more than around the level of the $0.99 and $1.99 books in the Kindle Store. But at least I could write some pretty funny dialog.

That said, the craft is still in my fingers, it seems. This year, I did not pick a topic or even a genre until around an hour before midnight on the last of October.  At that point, I randomly decided I wanted to set a story in  a world somewhat similar to the anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, which I had just watched some episodes of. (Legally, on Crunchyroll. Try it for free.) It is actually an anime for girls, based on a genre of games called “dating sims” (not related to The Sims from Maxis/EA). Most of these sims are for boys roleplaying a male character befriending and dating girls, but the reverse can also happen, and these games seem to be increasingly popular, and along with them anime of the same type. They tend to be more romantic and less erotic, which I don’t mind, and it is always interesting to see things from the female point of view (which is sorely lacking in my writing, seeing how I have never been female.)

***

Now, my NaNovel is not about a girl with a harem of boys adoring her. The viewpoint character and narrator is a young man, but arguably the girl is as much a main character as he is, at least at the outset she is the most active, the most competent, the one that moves the story forward. The male narrator is mostly preoccupied with himself (and his impending death, seeing how he has cancer and the hospital has given up on him). But in the corner of his eye there is always this girl, coming and going, doing what needs to be done, moving things forward, until the point (at the start of chapter 4, as of the draft) where it becomes obvious at least to the reader that she is the real hero of the story so far.

The part that is inspired by the anime, and then only partially, is the magic of the world, which is based on art. In the anime, exceptional performers in different arts have the ability to cause “sparkles”, patterns of light that flow from their art and awe the audience. That’s it, they are basically idols. Otherwise the world is as we know it. I wanted to go further. The Light of Arte, changed simply to Artlight in my novel, is more of a metaphysical or perhaps even divine element that is able to perform miracles or at least magic.

But only the most extreme combination of Talent and effort give rise to spectacular, obvious magic. Most works of art and craft simply has what the book calls Quality (a feature I also used in my failed and mostly boring attempt at a NaNoWriMo novel some years ago, called The Eternal Road or words to that effect. No wonder it was boring.) A work of high Quality does what you would expect it to do, but better than should be possible. If you sleep in a bed of high Quality, you sleep better than you would in a normal bed. But if a bed is made by a Master, it may be able to cure illnesses of body and mind simply by sleeping in it regularly. Only the Great Artists themselves can see the Artlight, and once they have done so, they lose interest in most things of the world.

The simple premise of the novel is that there exists a world parallel to ours, with the same flora and fauna and races of human (almost, at least) but where a single rule is different. In our world it is called Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in Artworld (not actually called that by its natives of course) it is “Any sufficiently advanced art or craft is indistinguishable from magic.” As a result, our near-magic technology based on electricity doesn’t work there; crude steam engines is as far as you get. But instead they have art that can, in extreme cases, heal cancer, or open a portal to another world.

The narrator is 21 years old when he comes home from college to spend his last months with his parents. Then the girl next door shows up, revealing that her grandmother came from a parallel world and their family still has a way to access it. However, anyone who would have died in one of the worlds can never return there even if he or she survives in the other. Even if he can be cured – which is far from certain – he will never be able to return. He will have to spend his life in a world where modern technology is only a rumor and where democracy is not only a crime but a heresy. So that should certainly spice things up a little. ^_^

I don’t think there will be any cease and desist from the lawyers of Sunrise, Pony Canyon, or Broccoli. (I apologize for the Japanese company names, they are actually real.) As usual with my derivative works, I have condensed the original down to a very short paragraph before expanding it again into its own story. You would probably not recognize the original if I had not told you. Well, that could be because you don’t watch anime. Or if you do, you don’t read my half-baked novels. I can’t exactly blame you, but I try to write the kind of book I would like to read myself. It’s not like many other people do that.

Subjective time

Screenshot anime Nozaki-kun

The time measured by clocks is constant, but the time measured by the soul is bewildering.

Time is something we are all very familiar with, and yet some scientists doubt that it exists: The equations that describe the universe work just as well without time. It seems to be just a name we have put on the increase of chaos: Intuitively if we see a video of a glass assembling itself from scattered shards, we know that it is being played in reverse. And yet, arguably, for most of our lives we are such a thing as that glass coming together. Our memories come together creating a more or less whole and balanced self. Even plants that grow are such things, being assembled from tiny pieces into an impressive whole. Life is like a countercurrent in the stream of time.

Although recent science dismisses time, and classic science presents a clean arrow of time, most humans have a more vague sense of causality. Yes, causes lead to effects, the past creates the present and the present the future. But we also feel that the future is real and influences the present. In English we even use the same word, for instance: “The reason I get paid is that I go to work. The reason I go to work is to get paid.” How can the two things be each other’s reason?

Our mind seems able to travel through time to a certain degree. Through the power of our memory, we can revisit the past and relive the joys and sufferings, although we cannot change it except in our imagination. By the power of anticipation we look into the future, although a future that is less certain than the past, and we take with us information back to the present. We study the outcome of our actions before we even act. And then we decide: “No, it is not worth it” or “Yes, it is worth it” and so the future – which does not yet exist – changes the present, which definitely exists.

Time is weird.

***

Time does not always seem to move at the same speed, either. Objectively it does, or very nearly so. (It slows down slightly when we accelerate, or so the theory of relativity says. But in ordinary life this is not measurable. You won’t live longer by speeding on the highway, possibly quite the opposite!)

When we are children, time seems to move quite slowly. A summer holiday is an ocean of time and we arrive on the other side as a changed person. In old age, the same summer is like a puddle in the road that we step over, barely noticing. Or that is the general tendency. But do all of us experience time the same way? I don’t think so. I have a strong feeling that, for some reason, my subjective time runs less fast than others my age.

“If you are a lifelong bachelor, you may not live till you are 100, but at least it will feel that way” someone said when I was a kid. As a lifelong bachelor, I certainly agree with this, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. “Don’t kill time, it is your life” said the Christian mystic and teacher Elias Aslaksen. I try to not dissolve completely into my habits and obligations, but learn something new and be aware of at least some of what goes on during my day.

Part of my subjective feeling of slow time is that I spend a lot of time observing lower worlds where time moves faster. Most notably, I have read books since I was little, although I read less novels now. The experience of the book’s characters are added to my own, giving me a feeling that I have lived much more than I actually have. (It is not just me: Old people sometimes tell of something that happened to them when they were younger, which the bookish listener will recognize as having happened to a literary character.) I am not sure if the same applies to movies, in which case most people should have this experience. I don’t watch movies much, except for some Japanese animation.

As a (mainly hobby) writer, I create worlds where years pass over the course of weeks of real time. (Not all writers do this – some my spend a year on describing a week.) I also play games such as The Sims series, where simulated humans live, age and eventually die after some days or weeks of real time. Other favorite games of my past are the Civilization series, where entire civilizations rise and fall over the course of a few days. Watching this gave me a subjective feeling of old age, which blends well with my lifelong interest in history and my reading of old books. I know objectively that I was born in 1958, but a part of me feels like I wandered the streets of ancient Uruk before Rome was even a village.

***

Yet another factor that determines subjective time may be how fast you process information. The more data that passes through and is consciously registered by your brain, the more time would seem to have passed. We know that in certain critical moments, the doors of perceptions are thrown wide open and time seems to slow to a crawl. Unfortunately it is usually not possible to make your body speed up to the same degree.

In my fourth dicewriting story, which I stared just after my previous entry, the main character seems set to become a speedster. Not on the scale of The Flash from the TV series that I believe is still ongoing in America, or the comic books of the same name. Just … living faster.

In that story, speed is one of Erlend’s five specializations, and with an expected duration of 6 years this could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing how this will unfold when we reach the borderlands of human experience. How is it like when the world slows down to half speed and a day feels like it has 48 hours? How do you interact with the people around you? If it happens gradually enough, you probably adapt seamlessly, and don’t rock the boat by being too different in everyday life.

As it happens, I have a coworker of sorts – technically his company is the client of ours, but we work together and eat lunch together – and he is highly intelligent, possibly more than me. It is hard to say: While my intelligence is exceptionally wide, reaching into thoughts that most people never consider thinking, his intelligence is fast. Ordinary humans try his patience, because he knows what they are trying to say while they are still beginning to say it, and then they just keep rambling on, unaware that he already understands it better than they do. Usually he spends his lunch break reading his smartphone. The leftover attention is sufficient to keep up with what everyone in the room is saying.  This guy strikes me as a good match for a “near speedster”, someone who lives fast in a slow world. (Of course I won’t borrow any other traits from him. My characters are all unique, not based on real people.)

The clocks keep ticking, but perhaps we each hear them tick at our own speed…

Writing a twisted character

Screenshot anime Barakamon

My main character, who incidentally looks a lot like this too, is also a failure as a human being. Then again he is not entirely human, not that this makes things any easier.

My first two dicewriting stories more or less wrote themselves, but the third has taken longer time and generally felt much harder. I don’t think I can blame the skill specialization that I outlined in my June entry – in fact, I am quite happy with it and intend to keep it for my next story, although I can see some combinations being harder to write than others.

No, the problem is the main character. He is just not a very likable person, I’m afraid. Not to the people in his world, and not to me, and probably not to most of the potential readers. While the main character of book 1 was a gentle healer with a lot of empathy, and the second was more of a classical fledgling superhero type, Rune is a deeply conflicted person and a bit of a sociopath.

The conflict is between his home and his school life. His mother loves him unconditionally and considers him a precious gift to humanity. But at school he is bullied relentlessly for almost a decade. As a result, his basic outlook is a firm conviction that humanity consists of three groups: A precious few good and innocent ones, a modest majority of indifferent people who are just passively complicit in evil, and a sizable minority of nonredeemable villains who would serve the world better as dog food or compost.

This attitude is problematic under the best of circumstances. But Rune happens to be the son of an extradimensional super-wizard on the scale of Zeus or Odin, and over the course of the 87000 words story he goes from occasionally producing some almost symbolic magical effects to achieving casual mastery of cold, darkness and sickness. Toward the end of the first book, he is easily capable of killing anyone he wants in a matter of seconds – or more slowly if he so prefers – without anyone ever knowing. His conscience is not in itself holding him back: As far as he is concerned, killing bad guys is the fastest way to make the world a better place. The only thing that holds him back is the pleas of his mother, but will that be enough when facing people who are genuinely evil and proud of it?

I think what makes this so hard to write is that I understand the character all too well. I find it hard to argue against his view without resorting to religion. Specifically, I think you have to think like Jesus on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The moment you believe that humans actually know what they do and are in control of their lives, it becomes very hard to not condemn them. It is not a pleasant mindset for me to immerse myself in. I am rather happy to be seeing the end of this draft, finally. Hopefully Dicewriting Book 4 will be less disturbing.