Friday, December 31, 2010

Pulp Fiction Friday: The Phoenix on the Sword by Robert E. Howard

"The Phoenix on the Sword" was the first Conan story to be published in Weird Tales which began a long run of tales featuring the Cimmerian conqueror.  The story ran in the December 1932 edition of the pulp magazine. 

In the story, a middle-aged Conan finds himself as the king of a foreign land after slaying the former ruler and taking the crown.  A man by the name of Ascalante attempts to take the throne for himself and engages with four other nobles in a coup.  Ascalante has in his service a fallen wizard from another land whom, now powerless, has no other choice but servitude.  During the night Conan meets with an ancient sage named Epemitreus in a vision.  The sage marks Conan's blade with the symbol of a phoenix.

As the plot unfolds, Ascalante sends a group of men to attack Conan while he sleeps, but Conan, now awakened, is prepared for the attack.  Meanwhile the fallen wizard, having now recovered a powerful ring which was once stolen from him, has regained his power.  He summons a creature to attack Ascalante.  The creature attacks and kills Ascalante during the attempt on Conan's life.  Conan then slays the creature with the marked sword. 

The story is reprinted in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, a collection of Howard's Conan tales, but can also be read online for free along with many of his other works, as I pointed out in last week's entry. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jim Butcher's Guide to Constructing a Novel

Unless you've been living under a rock on a distant planet, or you're simply not really a big sci-fi/fantasy fiction fan, chances are you've heard of Jim Butcher. The guy's Dresden books are all over the place at your local Barnes & Nobles or Books-a-million, no doubt.

So, in my casual interwebs surfing in which I occasionally read the blogs of writers (in a non-creepy way...really), I stumbled upon Jim Butcher's livejournal blog in which he essentially lays out his method for constructing a novel from start to finish. Notice I didn't say "writing" a novel, but instead used the term "constructing" because that's exactly what it is.

In a series of articles, Mr. Butcher diagrams and describes his own process for building the novel from the all important story question down to the particular details of each protagonist. It is essentially how he outlines and prepares to tell the story which he intends to tell.

He points out the folly of merely sitting down in front of a computer with no real direction and how it will only lead an aspiring writer down a frustrating road of re-writes and revisions. Only he says it much more succinctly than I because, well, he's freaking Jim Butcher.

Now, I myself have never read any of Mr. Butcher's works so I can't count myself among his fans, however one of my better friends, also an aspiring writer and a damn good one at that, is a huge fan of the man's writing. Bottom line is, this isn't some fluff bullshit piece designed to get you "motivated to crank out that best seller." No, Mr. Butcher tells it to you straight; writing a novel is hard work and is just as much a craft to be practiced and perfected as it is an art form to be appreciated.

In fact, I'm using his method myself in constructing my own novel because, frankly, I'm a disorganized mess. I wish I could keep every detail about my characters and the worlds they inhabit in my head to refer to from memory, but unfortunately my mind these days is filled with the mundane. Anything fantastic or amazing I might think of has to be immediately placed on paper lest it be forgotten forever.

If you're like me, and in need of a little push out the door on getting that novel off the ground, I think you'll find Mr. Butcher's advice quite handy. A practical guide for creating something magical. Thank you, Mr. Butcher.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I Should be Writing

It's officially the day after Christmas and being fortunate enough to have the next week off from my job, where I pretend to be a safety professional, I find myself doing what any procrastinating wannabe writer would do; finding any excuse NOT to write.

Procrastination is the bane of my existence. It's something that many of us share and for me, it's always been a major thorn. Today is a great example of that. I had in my head on Christmas eve, an idea for a short story which I simply had to put down. So, I immediately jumped up and typed up a very brief outline highlighting the major points of the story. I sat back in my chair and smiled thinking "this is a start." I was so happy with myself I could barely stand it. There it was on my screen; an outline by god! Something to build upon and a framework to get started on the story. Since then I've done just about everything I can think of to prevent myself from diving right in and doing what I should be doing, even right now as I type this blog entry--writing the damn thing.

I've spent all afternoon checking NFL scores, watching the Freaks & Geeks marathon on IFC, and doing just about everything under the sun one can do on a cold winter Sunday that doesn't include writing a damn short story.

So, what does one do to avoid procrastinating in writing? What are the causes of it? How do I overcome it? I think the answer to the first and third questions are simple. I must write. The second question is a bit more complicated. I suppose there are a number of things that cause people to procrastinate. I think for me, it is fear. Fear that what I produce in the end won't be good enough. Good enough for what or who, I can't say. I don't plan on submitting this story I'm going to write. In fact, it's merely an exercise more than anything else. An experiment more or less, to see if I can make an outline work for me in developing a story from start to finish. To see if it actually will make it any easier for me in writing the thing.

So, I've determined how I will defeat this monster that sits on my desk called the procrastinator and replace him with the lovely enchantment of the muse instead. I will set aside at least 30 minutes a day (hopefully longer) in which I will be committed to writing. No internet, no television, no radio. Just me, the keyboard, a word processor, and the lovely muse. Because when you read other writers talking about the writing process there is one universal truth that they all agree upon; a writer must write above all else.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a short story to finish.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Neil Gaiman

From one of the masters in modern fantasy, Neil Gaiman, comes a fantastic Christmas short.  Enjoy.

39 Degrees North: Christmas Card 2010 from 39 Degrees North on Vimeo.

h/t - Ain't it Cool News

Pulp Fiction Friday: The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E. Howard

This is the first installment of a weekly feature here on Black Hole Diaries I call pulp fiction Fridays.  Every Friday I will highlight a story from the pulp age (1920's and 30's Weird Tales and the like) from authors such as Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and others of the time period.  In cases where possible, I will provide links to the stories themselves as many of them can be read online for free.  Let us begin.

Before Robert E. Howard brought down the wrath of the mighty Conan and the Hyborian Age onto the pages of Weird Tales, he was busy spinning similar tales centering around Kull the Conqueror.  "The Shadow Kingdom" was first published in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales magazine.  Although it didn't seem important enough for even a cover blurb at the time, the tale would go on to have a significant impact on fantasy fiction. 

Many people credit "The Shadow Kingdom" with creating what would later become known as the sword and sorcery genre of heroic fantasy fiction.  In the story, Kull, a barbarian from Atlantis, has seized the throne of Valusia through the might of his sword.  One night he is visited by a man from a rival tribe who reveals to him a plot on his life.  As the story unfolds, Kull discovers there is a secret power behind the scenes that has been working in Valusia for years through evil and treachery.  I won't give away any more of the plot for those who may not have read it yet.

Howard's use of words in this story is brilliant as his setup for the action packed climax.  The story, while probably not revealing anything new in the way of storytelling for seasoned readers in the genre, still manages to keep the reader engaged and turning the page until the grand finale.  Of course, most seasoned readers of fantasy literature have likely read "The Shadow Kingdom," but I often find that younger readers of the genre have allowed these foundational stories to escape them somehow.  Classics like "The Shadow Kingdom" are becoming lost along the way in the wake of modern day ground breakers like George R.R. Martin and R.A. Salvatore.  And that is a true shame considering so many of these stories can be found for free online.  In fact, that is where I first read "The Shadow Kingdom" myself.  The full text of this story, as well as many others by Mr. Howard, can be found by visiting ManyBooks.

If you're a fan of fantasy fiction, especially heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery, "The Shadow Kingdom" is an absolute must read.  Head on over to ManyBooks and dig in.  You'll be glad you took the time to read this classic of the genre.