Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hippocampus, Seen but Rarely Heard About

It’s time once again for another Wednesday.  And, that means yet another mythological monster brought from the shadows of time-long-past into the light.

Near the Aegean Sea, the Etruscans held a significant maritime presence and date back to at least 1000BC. Within their mythology is a curious creature known as the hippocampus. Part house—part fish, the hippocampus is a creature that has survived to the modern age as much in form as by stories. Various artistic representations of hippocampi (plural) can be found as statues, in mosaic displays, and in paintings.

The mythology of this rarely talked about creature appears to have migrated from Etruscan to Greek lands. According to Homer, Poseidon’s see fairing chariot was drawn by great horses whose hooves where made of brass, but like so many Greek stories, there are always discrepancies. Other authors and artists have depicted Poseidon, instead, pulled by or even astride a hippocampus. This is no surprise. Sailors who worshipped Poseidon out of fear and necessity for their safety were own to drown horses as offerings to the power and vengeful god.

The hippocampus was also the theme of several heraldic shields, as were many of the ancient and powerful monsters of mythology.

It should be also noted that although the hippocampus survived into Greek mythos, many other fish-hybrids from the Etruscans did not seem to be as far reaching. Among them were hybrids of lions (leokampoi), leopards (leokampoi), goats (aigikampoi – such as the astrological sign and constellation Capricorn), and bulls (taurokampoi).

There is little more written, but the imagery in both ancient and modern times is stunning.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Good vs. Bad Goal Setting Strategies

Time to discuss something of interest to everyone, writer or not: the art and science of goal setting. I hinted at this in a previous article and it seems important enough to expound in greater detail. The purpose of goal setting is not to create so lofty a spire as to never reach its summit but rather to set a point of reference, a guidepost that you can use to tell where you are, where you want to be, and determine how you’re going to get there.

Let’s first discuss what makes for bad and good goals.

A bad goal is one that is either to simple and easily obtained or one that is so difficult that you might never achieve it. We’ll talk a little about the second part of that later, but first let’s consider setting a goal too low. If the objective isn’t challenging enough, then several things will happen. It’s true that you WILL be able to reach said goal, but at what cost? One of the primary reasons for setting goals is to push yourself a little harder than you would normal do without it. Through that experience, you learn: what you can do, what you can’t do, and what you might be able to do with a little more effort. If the target is too small, easy, or simply accomplished than are you going to learn anything from the experience? Probably! You’ll learn that setting sub-standard measurements of achievement can be accomplished with minimal effort. You’ll be proud; after all, you DID accomplish your objective, right? But, you’ll learn something else too: that you can get by doing less than your very best. Is that what you want to train yourself to do? Settle for less?

This brings us to setting goals too high. Not surprisingly, many people SAY they want to accomplish more than they KNOW they can. When this happens, it’s easy to understand why people become discouraged. Our objective here, though, is to help you realize that your lofty goal is not as bad as it might first seem. The issue is a matter of semantics. Saying that this great endeavor is a “goal” is dangerous, however if you take that same accomplishment and make it a “dream” then things start to fall into place. As an example, I have dreams. My dreams are to finish the draft of my first novel, finish my degree, move to a mansion in the country, and own the latest and greatest home computer systems known to mankind. Are these achievable? Certainly! Can they be done quickly? Not a chance. That’s one of the defining differences between a goal and a dream: time. If the goal could be achieved but will take over a month to achieve it, then consider t a dream instead and something to strive for in the long-term.

So if you can’t set them too low and they can’t be long, drawn-out dreams how do you know if you’re setting your goals within acceptable limits? This is easier than it may first look. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it common sense that each of us has. The trouble, often times, is that goals seem smaller than we’d like to make them and bigger than we can complete in a reasonable amount of time. Believe it or not, that’s exactly where you want to be!

Let’s take writing a novel, since this blog is about fiction writing, but the principal applies to nearly any dream, big or small. The average fantasy novel runs between 90,000 and 110,000 words. Let’s use 100,000 as an easy-math average. The first thing to do is set the dream: “I will write my novel in 12 months time.” Please notice that my statement doesn’t say “WANT to write my novel” but rather “WILL write my novel.” This is a positive affirmation, not a guess or hope. Dreams are not hopes—they are achievable and don’t let anyone tell you differently. So if writing a 100,000 word novel in 12 months is the dream, what are the goals? I’m hoping this seems obvious. The goal is to write 100,000 words / 12 months = 8,333 words/month. Weekly, that’s 1,923 words. Assuming you take at least 2 days per week away from writing and only work on the novel 5 days a week, that’s 385 words/day (or around one page double spaced). WOW, only one page a day and I can write my entire novel within a year?!? That’s maybe an hour a day? Maybe more, maybe less—depends on how fast I write. Some days will be good and others I’ll have to skip and make up somewhere along the line. When you take the time to break down writing, or any goal for that matter, into smaller units, it not only looks simpler, it really is!

As for pushing a little harder than what seems achievable, consider adding perhaps 10% more effort. If you’re writing an hour a day, then +10% means writing 66 minutes instead of 60. Does that 6 minutes make a big difference? Let’s see: if I can write 385 words/hour (using the number from before), then writing 66 minutes means a new 424 words/day (a difference of about 40 additional words). That means a 100,000 word novel could be written in 236 days, and adding in 2 days per week of rest comes to 47 weeks... 5 weeks ahead of schedule. And that was only pushing an additional 6 minutes per day. What would an extra ½ hour do?

Push yourself to set and achieve goals. Set them to reasonable, if challenging levels. Don’t let anyone steal your dreams. And keep writing!

Q4U: What strategy do you use to set goals?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring Break

I’ve let the blog go this week.  Spring break = visiting family out of town.  For both of my loyal blog followers, I’ll be back soon with another exciting rendition of my take on Life, the Universe, and Everything.  See you then!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Naga: Trickster or Constable of the Universe

Buy Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
Time for another Mythological Monster Wednesday.  This week, we’re moving away from Western culture monsters and shifting to the Far East.

The naga (pronounced nah’-gah with the first syllable slightly elongated) has been written about in such languages as Sanskrit, Chinese, Burmese, Hindi, and a list of other Asian tongues for centuries and found in Buddhist and Hindu religions. In Hindi, one of the primary languages of India, nag (nahg) still refers to a cobra while nagini (nah-gee-nee) indicates a female of the species. For those that remember back a few years, Rudyard Kipling’s immortally popular story of Rikki Tikki Tavi is that of a mongoose’s struggle against a pair of cobras named Nag and Nagaini.

As a fantasy creature, naga are gods or other deities that take the form of snakes, often having human hybrid features, but most notably the reptilian aspects of a king cobra. Depending on the religion and particular story, they are seen as both good and evil, though they do tend toward the negative side.

In Hinduism, it is the naga, Shesha that holds the world upon his head. This is a great honor for Shesha and shows the positive aspects, while at the same time, other naga vied to trick their cousin, the great eagle king Garuda, into stealing away the elixir of immortality from the gods and give it to them. Garuda tricked the naga so that the cut containing the elixir was stolen away before they could drink. But, a few drops fell upon the grass, and when the naga licked at the grass, it cut their tongues. Ever since, their descendants (snakes) kept the forked tongue to remind themselves and us of this treachery.

Modern Hindi tradition makes the naga guardians of water: wells, rivers, and the like. They are relatively peaceful spirits that protect the waterways and environment. However, if one should dare to desecrate the sanctity of the natural world, the naga are quick to take vengeance.

Buddhism also has its share of naga, but unlike the creatures of Hinduism, they are sometimes indistinguishable from Chinese dragons. This fact may be one of the reasons that the serpentine dragons of the orient are more snake-like than their Western cousins. Buddhist naga typically have long snake bodies with one or more heads. They are said to inhabit and protect both water and deep underground. Some are even said to have the ability to transform into human shape. Depictions of these human-like naga are often shown with a tell-tale sign: one or more cobra headed snakes extending from their backs and over their human heads.

Truly a creature worthy of respect, the guardians of water and earth, the protectors of nature, the vengeful spirits of her wrath, naga are a deeply seeded tradition in Eastern culture that has survived even into the contemporary world of oriental beliefs.

Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Take Critique Gracefully

Recently, a writer friend of mine has had quite a bit of intermediate success. That seems like a mouthful, and it is. Her book is yet to be published; however, in the last few months, she’s had an agent requesting information from her, had a publisher approach her about a “secret project,” and also been accepted into an exclusive mentoring program where published authors assist their protégé in becoming the best writers they can be. In talking to her and another good writer friend of mine, we discovered that everyone has an opinion about what we write, good or bad.

This brings up the topic of critique: how to accept compliments with grace and how to interpret criticism without becoming personally emotional. Many writers feel that their work is their “baby,” and rightfully so. It is a labor of love that we writers pour our souls into. When (and if) we dare to let others read our work, we usually want honest reactions in our heads, but our hearts tell a different story. Receiving negative feedback feels akin to loosing ones puppy to a streetcar accident. Fortunately, writers have one advantage over this issue; our work is neither a baby nor a puppy. In fact, I propose that it is something both more intriguingly important and yet less significant.

Our “brilliant work of staggering genius” is, in the end, just one work of art, whether it’s a poem, painting, or the most intricate purple prose. The amazing thing about creating art is that the act is limitless in terms of imaginative potential. Or to put it more bluntly, you can always start over. In contrast, there will only ever be one puppy like yours and only ever one child like yours. Those are unique and worth fighting for. Art, on the other hand, is something of a different matter. You can always make another.

So, how does one accept criticism? The answer is with a great deal of patience and understanding. Let us say, for example, that you’ve just received an email from a “friend” who graciously agreed to read through your story and offer her suggestions. You anxiously click the email and open the attachment. Eyes scanning quickly, you spot red marks all over the page. It looks like the scene of a bloody battle. Once the initial shock of the gore wears off, you start to scan your friend’s hints with a wary eye. The natural response is to become defensive. That’s OK. Let yourself feel that emotion, but only for five seconds. Count: 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... *whew* Feel any better? OK, maybe not yet, but we’ll get there.

Now, take a close look at the critique. Don’t worry about responding yet. Just scan what she wrote. Read through and get the overall impression. Now, let that sink in for a moment. Remember, this friend just took the time to not only read your work but also to respond to it. It would have been easier for that person to simply take a quick glance (if at all) and say, “Looks good!” That’s not the case with your work. Your friend really wanted to try and help - which bring me to an important point. No one in their right mind spends time critiquing another person’s work unless they have the best intentions. Think about that. Would you critique their work with the goal of hurting their feelings? It’s more likely that you saw flaws and wanted to point them out.

Now that we understand the critique isn’t a personal attack, let’s look at what types of comments you might see and also how to interpret and react to them. I’ll use some of the remarks that I’ve received on my own work as reference (generalizing, of course). There are many more possible scenarios.

• This doesn’t make sense!“What? That do you mean it doesn’t make sense? I wrote it! I know what I’m talking about! “
And, perhaps you do. But, a comment like this (or something with the same meaning) indicates that the reader is confused. At the very least, it may be cause for you to look over your material more carefully. Often times, confusion is created when a critical element or detail is missing. Perhaps you thought you included the color of the murderer’s dress but in reality missed it. Did the rusty, broken-down car suddenly sparkle in the sun when it shouldn’t have? Was north by that big pine tree in one paragraph and then in the direction of the bolder 200 feet away in the next? Look for clues as to WHY the reader doesn’t understand. That may give you insight as to what is missing.

• The sentence is too long, short, or confusing.
There’s something to be said for style, here. If it’s confusing or doesn’t make sense, look for reasons why the reader doesn’t understand. If the sentence is too short or too long, perhaps it’s worth considering revision, perhaps not. Look at the pacing and rhythm of the sentences. Try reading them aloud (into a recorder if needed) to see how they flow. Imagine the work being read as an audio book. Would it work “as-is” or does it need tweaking?

• Wouldn’t he do this instead?
“It’s my character. I’ll make him do what I want!”
Amazingly, readers have a keen eye for finding lines of dialog and actions that are out of character. As a writer, it is easy (especially late in a story) to mentally merge character traits together. This is in part because we stare at them for so long within our own minds. Readers have the uncanny ability to find these discrepancies, in part, because their only window into the character’s personality is what you’ve provided. If the wallflower suddenly springs to life at the homecoming dance, there should be a good reason. Likewise, if a character sounds uncharacteristically smarter, dumber, or arrogant or if they do something that seems out of their nature, a reader will find it. Take a look. Did you really mean to do that or was it simply a slip of the pen?

• The shift from thought/situation X to Y is too fast/slow.
This is, again, a great opportunity to read the passage out loud. How does it sound? Might the reader be on to something? Should you change the pace, or is there a particular reason why you want it that way?

• I know you mean X, but it looks like your saying Y.
I get this one allot, personally. It’s usually one of my favorites because it means I’ve got the right idea, but the wrong words (or more often the wrong word order). Consider rewriting the sentence or paragraph in a different way that clarifies what you intended. This is again an example where some readers (not necessarily your critique buddy) might get confused. The comment is meant to help you sort it out before it gets into the hands of a less well-trained eye.

• Maybe you should add this piece of information I’m providing into your story.
“Who died and made you the writer? Who’s the author here? If I wanted the story like that I would have written it that way!”
Slow down - take a breath. OK, now reread what your friend wrote. Does the suggestion have merit? Do you see why she gave you that comment? What would happen if you took the suggestion and added the information/event/situation? Does the story collapse or does the suggestion make it stronger? Is there a reason to not add the information? I find this all the time, myself. For example, in one scene of my book, a group of limitary cadets is gathered in the mess hall. Their newly appointed commander bursts through the door and, the cadets quickly rush into formation: boots sparkling a glossy black with their burgundy berets tightly seated on their heads. Sounds great right? OOPS!! My critique friend pointed out that the cadets were indoors. Military tradition typically says headwear comes off to show respect when indoors. So, is this something I need to change or leave as-is? That depends on the story, and it’s something only you can decide.

• This might sound better if you moved it somewhere else in your story.
My suggestion here is to try it and see if shifting things around makes the story stronger. What can it hurt to read a few paragraphs aloud and determine if what the reader s offering might be a better way to convey your meaning.

• What’s the purpose of this part? Could you clarify more?
As shown above, readers can be easily confused. Whose fault is that? Is it theirs for not being smart enough to understand what you meant? What nerve they have for not being able to read your mind! Seriously, though, it’s more likely a case where something doesn’t make sense because there’s something missing. It might be the motivation of a character, an object that you meant to introduce in a previous scene, or the direction of the wind. You might have intentionally mentioned a character wearing a blue cotton dress, even though it seems unimportant at that moment but will come to be staggeringly profound later on. (I think of the Wizard of Oz in this last scenario.) Consider what you can do to either make the writing more concise and clear, rewording to make the flow better, add or subtract details as needed, or any other adjustment that might be needed to ensure there is no doubt in the reader’s mind about what you are trying to say.

All that to say this:

You have a great story!! What your readers want is a way to understand it. If they do not, then we can’t blame them. We can only blame ourselves. Writing is a skill that takes time to hone. Take what time you need to make it the best it can possibly be, and use your critiques as a stepping stone to greatness.

“The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion... It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider - and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation - persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.” - Alexander Gramm Bell

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Mysterious Basilisk

It has been called the king of snakes. The enigmatic basilisk is a marvel of ancient ingenuity. What other wondrous creature could be concocted in such a way that no normal person could see it without succumbing to its deadly power. Around 78 AD, Pliny the Elder wrote Naturalis Historia (Natural History), one of the few works to have survived from the Roman era intact. He describes the catoblepas, a cow-like creature with the ability to kill whomever looks at it, then goes on with the following (translated from Latin):

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odor, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.
Leonardo da Vinci added that it was the smell of a weasel’s urine that killed the basilisk and often the weasel itself.

Throughout history, many writers have commented on the basilisk, each adding their own twists to the story, but none as unusual as the birth of the basilisk. These deadly creatures are often confused and even intermixed or indistinguishable from the cockatrice, another just as deadly monster. But while the cockatrice is reportedly the egg of a rooster incubated by a snake or toad, the basilisk is just the opposite. It is supposedly the egg of a snake that is sat on by a rooster until hatching while the star Sirius is ascending in the night sky. In the Northern Hemisphere (as in ancient Rome and Greece), the rise of Sirius meant the coming of summer. As a result, it’s said that the basilisk takes on some characteristics of the rooster, including a crown on its head. Other scholars had decided the birthing was a ridiculous notion, but still they agreed regarding the creatures deadly abilities. Here are just a few of their ideas/additions:
  • It was not the gaze itself that killed, but rather the corruption of the air between the basilisk and the victim.
  • Its breath was a poisonous fume.
  • The basilisk could breathe fire.
  • It could kill with the sound of its hiss.
  • Touching a basilisk would kill. This ability also included accounts where the victim might die if the basilisk touched something the victim was also touching, like a sword or spear.
  • It grew in size (considerably) depending on the author and is described as a much larger creature.
  • On some coats of arms, the basilisk is given legs and wings, as to be a small dragon.
For all the expanded abilities of the basilisk, writers also added a few more weaknesses to the monster, usually much more common vices than the musk of a weasel:
  • Roosters could kill a basilisk, either by claw or by call. This inspired travelers in Medieval times to sometimes carry roosters with them while traveling, to protect them against the basilisk.
  • The caw of a crow could kill it.
  • The creature would die if it saw its own reflection in a mirror.
So, why was there such a fascination with this creature? Ancient alchemists believed that the basilisk held the key to creating gold. Theophilus Presbyter had supposedly found a recipe, using the basilisk, to turn copper into gold. Another story states that the ashes of the creature could convert silver into gold.

The basilisk even makes an appearance in the Bible in the book of Isaiah 14:29. "Do not rejoice, whole country of Philistia, because the rod that beat you has broken, since the serpent's stock can still produce a basilisk, and the offspring of that will be a flying dragon." The King James translation reads, "out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent." This again shows the intermixing of the basilisk and cockatrice.

Few creatures have seemingly captured the imagination of both ancient and modern writers. This was truly a terrible beast!