Post-GRE Prepping, Post Haste

I did not give myself a large enough window for the admissions process. Nuts. And bolts. I’m screwed. Actually, it’s not that dire. Two of the schools don’t require all the application materials until mid-January. One requires everything by Dec. 10th. It’s alright. I am calm. I am capable. I am concerned about losing my sanity.

Enough about my ill-scheduled application attempts. I want to discuss some important, but difficult topics. After all, I need a twenty page example of critical writing, and that means I need to refresh a topic I covered during undergrad. I want to synthesize a few topics to show I have a broad background of interests/studies and information to draw from. I did a paper on colonial women writers, one or two on Native American literature, and a few on international/global literary topics (i.e. non-Western writers). I’m quite interested in topics of ethnic divides and immigration, refugees and cultural identity. I’m about to dive into the long literary gulf between Manifest Destiny and modern Israel/Palestine.

God help me.

I want to be fair, and objective, but it’s hard because the issues certainly don’t play by the rules. What I’m going to attempt is a critical analysis of literature created by displaced peoples. Sometimes groups that have experienced hardship and oppression create poignant writings and art. These writings are not a Band-aid for the hurt, but an expression of it, a voice for those without a voice.

This will be a comparative study, with an examination of the history of Native American relations and treatment since European settlers arrived, and what it looks like now after all this time. Then I will take a look at the more recent and ongoing issues between Israel and Palestine. The lens I plan to use to examine these places and issues is that of fiction and poetry, but there will be a lot of historical and critical research supplementing my primary texts and argument.

P. S. My GRE scores were great for Verbal Reasoning, abysmal for Quantitative Reasoning, and meh for Analytical Writing. That does not bode well. At least I nailed one section.


What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

The regular post this week is pushed back to Saturday. I’m taking my GRE today. This test is not everything, but doing well will certainly help when the admissions offices of schools get a glimpse at my transcripts. Don’t goof off in undergrad, kids.

That’s my PSA for the day!

Next is the school search process. I plan on applying to three. Have you seen graduate admissions fees lately? Sheesh.

See you on Saturday for fresh* writing ramblings.


*totally subjective opinion, likely just regurgitated and reconfigured rehashing of the advice of others

The Great Library Day

I’m not one to get lost in research for days or months. I’m a pantser (as they call it over in NaNo land) by nature, although I’m trying to change my ways. The planners, when they are able to balance prep and writing, tend to be more productive. A better organizational system might prove helpful for my writing projects. The greatest tool I have so far is my library card. My second greatest is a day planner. As I push to finish the rewrite on my current novel before NaNoWriMo begins, I’ve found I need to become more diligent in the use of both.

Saturday, I went to the library for a couple of books on medieval history and life. I found two good ones, fairly recently published narratives with a scholarly bent. I like historical books that read more like a story than scholarly research. I’ve already read a short history of the Bubonic Plague in Europe, and a short account of the rise and reign of Charlemagne, HRE and Frankish king. I also read a sweeping and detailed analysis of the Battle of Hastings, which mostly covered the century or so leading up to the events of 1066 and all the circumstances that allowed a successful Norman invasion of England to occur. Fascination stuff right there. I’d go into it but this isn’t a bedtime stories blog.

The two books I got are:

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, by William Manchester, and

Barbarians to Angels: the Dark Ages Reconsidered, by Peter S. Wells.

The first book was originally published in 1992. The ‘more info’ tab on the library site describes this work as “the preeminent popular history of civilization’s rebirth after the Dark Ages”. That’s it. The second–published in 2008 by a professor of archaeology–attempts to look at the Dark Ages through the lens of newly unearthed archaeological records. The written record is spare, but the author contends a rich culture is evident by the artifacts left behind. Basically, I have a book from the perspective of the long held tradition of the Middle Ages as a dark time intellectually and economically, and another book that throws the old standard out in order to show–with new evidence–that the Middle Ages had its own bright spots, and the Renaissance didn’t spring randomly from the morass of medieval ignorance.

I haven’s finished either one yet. I’m not reviewing the merits of the books today. Rather, I’m making a point about libraries and research methods. Again, I’m a pantser, which I’ve recently heard described as a ‘discovery writer’. That sounds more diginified, but it’s the same thing. My book has come together in fits and starts and lacks the cohesiveness of great stories I’ve read. I have nuanced characters and not-terrible dialogue, and that’s a good start. The world they inhabit, however, looks much like the decoy town in Blazing Saddles. If a reader took a moment to check around back, or test the sturdiness of a building with a good push, the whole illusion would crumble. My characters are running around through a bunch of back lot set pieces, populated by too few extras. I’m doing my research after writing, to bolster up what I have so far, to give my world the life and color it now lacks.

I don’t know what the reality of living in non-technological world is like. This little foray into the land of research should help. I’m exploring my options, and formulation questions to answer.

How does trade work, both internally and internationally? What is the town structure? Are there lords, vassals, and serfs, or kings, landholding nobles, and tenant farmers? How’s the currency doing? What’s the gross domestic product, and is it affected by weather and climate? Any recent population decimators, like war or disease/plague? How often is there intercultural exchange of ideas?

This will all add texture and depth to my world, and change how the characters interact with it. External forces may throw wrenches in their internal motivations, creating a richer, more real story. That’s my hope anyway.

October will bring *daily* prep updates for NaNoWriMo. Also some scary stuff. The haunted house near me opens this weekend! 

Applied Magicks

I’ll be honest. I planned an entirely different post for yesterday, but I scrapped it. It was boring, rambling, and neither educational nor useful. That’s alright. We writers have to write garbage sometimes to get to the good stuff. It’s a process of turning over stones to find treasure. All we go out with are two hands and a bit of time, and the promise of reward if we work hard enough and have a little luck.

Speaking of scrapping ideas and garbage first drafts, I’ve finally come to the crux of my book. The rewriting is an interesting challenge for me. Currently I’m running constant thought experiments in the back of my mind, trying to figure out the foundational principles of my magic system. I want it to be unique, organic to the world in which it exists, and have realistic limitations. It’s hard to check those boxes and end up with something satisfying .

I don’t want vague wizardry, or power objects (rings are for proposals), or wands, or ultra-powerful time-and-space bending portals, no academic institutions devoted to the study of spell casting, no potions, and no incantations. What does that leave me? Not much. I do want a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of magic, and one that costs a great deal to use. I want one that the users think twice about before exercising their powers. I want magic that is rare but not unknown. I want the magic to have a dual nature, a benefit and a downside, a give and take.

Here’s what I have so far. My magic system should be a known aspect of life, but it is not a trusted skill nor are all magic users highly regarded. It’s origins should be tied to the earth, for example, certain powers are only attainable at certain locations. Surviving the actual transference of power from one of these “wells” is an iffy matter, hence only a few people willingly try. The potency of the magic depends directly on the energy of the user. Energy can pass from person to person when facilitated by a magic user. In the hands of an ethical user, this can be a great help. An unethical user would be a terror. The way magic is used and viewed varies slightly from urban to rural arenas and varies greatly from culture to culture. One of the cultures has a genetically inherited magic system in the form of seers. The gift passes from mother to daughter and the practice is highly formulaic and ceremonial. It is also highly respected when real, but subject to the discrediting effects of charlatans.


I really need to decide how many people have magical abilities, what their natures are, and how they relate to the larger culture around them. Anyways, this has been rambling as well, but I work through plot problems in this way a lot. I hope it helps you, too!

What’s New, What’s Coming 

Ladies and gentlemen, I have signed up for the GRE General Test. I take it in less than a month.

Why? you ask.

I want to go to grad school. That’s the simple answer. The more complex answer stems from a combination of factors. Here they are in handy list format:

1. I need a change.

2. I’ve been at the same job for eight years and I’m borderline ready to walk out.

3. I can’t find a better job with my current schooling and experience.

4. At least not in this area.

5. My transcript is 80% flaming garbage and 20% soggy toast. I need to put up spectacular scores to show I am ready for the long, hard grind of a master’s program.

6. I’ll have been out of academia for six years by the time I get in again.

7. Mostly, to prove to myself I can do this. And I will!

The end game is to get my Master’s in English Literature. By some miracle I already acquired my Bachelor of Arts in the same. My undergraduate career was less than stellar, but I’ve always had a love of learning. I want to put that love to good use. I also need structure and to build good habits when it comes to scheduling.

I put editing my novel on semi-hiatus to get ready for the test. I needed a break. My rewriting efforts were suffering over the last month as I approached this decision. I intend to finish the project soon, but the GRE and grad school application take precedence now. Which leads me to another issue, one at the crux of a writing career and the pursuit of a degree. The latter does not necessarily aid the former. One is not a requirement of the other. 

There’s no bridgekeeper asking for your CV and a list of three references before letting you cross into the land of authorship. (Honestly, I wish it were that easy.) It’s more of a Sisyphean task. You hit the high of completing an entire first draft of a manuscript only to look at it a week later (or a month, or six months) to find the shine worn off. You fall back down into the pit is self-doubt and uncertainty. 

Personally, I’m only on my second trip up the hill. I’m doing my first round of rewrites on my first novel. Thanks to The Internet, though, I have no illusions about the amount of work still ahead of me. There are still quite a few highs and lows. I have yet to scale critique partners, querying agents (and piles of form rejections!), edit letters, beta readers, and a whole host of other various challenges that come with the territory of transitioning from writer caterpillar to published author butterfly. 

And I know there’s no guarantee here. I could hit all the marks and have a book ready to hit shelves, and GRRM’s publisher might release his long-awaited book the same week. I could be a butterfly crushed under the wheel of fate.

But I’ll keep persisting, I’ll keep putting pen to page and writing because that’s what writers do. 

And the master’s degree? That’s an entirely separate pursuit. A master’s degree and a writing career can exist in a kind of symbiosis, one boosting the other. The degree is specifically to increase my chances of finding a job in a field I’m passionate about. 

Incidentally, another obstacle to being a writer is making enough money to be a full time writer. Many published authors don’t, and they hold down day jobs, or part time gigs, or evening and weekend shifts. Sometimes it’s to supplement income, sometimes it’s to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on. Those who divide time between the grind and the dream must be diligent in alloting time to write and then using it to that end and efficiently. I struggle desperately in that category. 

So, what do I hope to accomplish with a master’s degree in English Literature? I want a job in something closer to my interests. Perhaps I’ll teach in the future. I definitely want to make a career of a writing. I want to get published, and be a professional author with at least fifty percent of my income drawn from book sales. Lofty goal, I know. Realistically I’m aware this may never happen, but I’m certainly improving my chances with every word I write. 

A writer writes, by definition. I intend to keep doing so. But I also want to get a little more education in, and this time around I plan to actually pay attention. I plan to sharpen my writing skills by analyzing the greats that have gone before. I plan to build my connections so that I have a community of other writers and readers around me. Most of all, I plan to have fun and I plan to learn a lot. 

Coming up is my journey to  the GREs, and grad school and a master’s program, if all goes well. Wish me luck! 

I want to get back in the habit of posting regularly. This is the start. Future posts: National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November. Even sooner, October is just around the corner. Halloween is the most fantastical holiday, and the season puts me in the mood for horror. I’ll have some related material posting then. 

Fantasy World Building 101: A Course in Making It Up As You Go

Part 1: Over the River and Through the Woods

Show of hands—who’s seen a good example of a topographical map? A few of you? Okay, that’s better than none. Now, who’s seen a map in the first pages of a fantasy novel? Everyone? Good. Those of you who’ve seen both know what I’m up to here *cough* Tolkien’s square mountain ranges *cough*. What’s up with the extreme geological features?

All the mountain ranges resemble the Alps. The forests are all lowland, old growth, sprawling masses of trees. The farmland tends to the flatness of the Midwest, if there’s any at all. Deserts are vast, dune-covered affairs of blinding sun and wicked heat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these landscapes. They’re dramatic, challenging, easily recognizable, but they’re overused. And sometimes they simply don’t make sense. You aren’t going to have a generally stable landmass with an active volcano camped out in the middle, especially if it’s the only volcano around. Volcanoes tend to crop up at the edges of tectonic plates. Ditto for mountains. Continents drift over time. Newer mountain ranges are taller and sharper, old ranges are worn down and smoothed around the edges. Waterways flow to larger waterways, flow to lakes, seas, and oceans.

I recommend making Google Earth your friend. I also utilize Google Maps in Terrain mode. This gives me a clear idea of land formations without all the extra ‘noise’ (vegetation, roads, buildings) that occurs in a satellite image. Familiarize yourself with your region’s terrain and go out from there to wholly unfamiliar environments. Research unique geological features. What causes them? How do they affect the landscape? I live in a zone known for its glacial moraines. It’s the where the southernmost edge of the glaciers reached in North America during the last ice age. The glaciers scarred the land as they formed, leaving lakes and marshes. They left plenty of debris behind when receding, some of which piled up to form moraines. I live near a moraine valley, a glacial gorge, and an esker. Eskers are funny things, long, narrow hills consisting of whatever gravelly stone the glaciers pushed around, covered in a thin layer of dirt and vegetation. Northern England has drumlins, as does the upper Midwest, a different kind of glacial leaving due to the same recession process.

Geology is fascinating, and the little details of it can speak volumes about the world being presented in a work of fiction. Specifically, fantasy can benefit from strong world building as the world of the story tends to be completely made up, or turned on its head, or otherwise manipulated. The little details can make the world seem real. Find out about tectonic plates, vulcanism, groundwater aquifers, river watersheds. These are the things that shape a landscape, whole regions of space marked by the geologic forces that move in and through them. The shape of the land can also influence a host of other factors in your story. A mountain range can signal a natural border between nations. Or a sea, or a marsh, or any impassable feature, or ‘waste’ land can do the same. Are there canyons? Is the place prone to earthquakes or flooding? Is it high desert or near the ocean? Is there a rich supply of precious metals? Gemstones? Are there granite quarries or limestone?

Speaking of natural resources, climate and weather can have an impact on that just as much as geology. Learning a bit about how the two interact to form and shape distinct regions of our earth can inform the creation of a fictional world. How do the seasons cycle? Is there wetland or rainforest? Some places are better for grain crops while others support fruit orchards. A warm, wet environment can foster exotic trees used for specialty hardwood. A sea bound society might provide fish to the market.

This actually leads into the topic I’ll cover next week, namely, the economic patterns of society and how that is an essential part of the world building process.

And yeah, sometimes drawing a map helps wrap your head around the place you’ve created.

Happy world building!