A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

From Games to Fiction

by Matthew Lowes

The history of fiction inspired by games goes back at least to the 1970s when the first Dungeons & Dragons inspired novels were released. If we count gladiatorial games we might push this back to the Roman era. And if we count the “game of life” we can push it back to dawn of humanity and the very origins of story telling. In any case, there are enough examples, both good and bad, to discuss some of the issues involved with writing a story inspired by a game.

When I first designed the first Dungeon Solitaire card game, I couldn’t have foreseen the success we would have with the expanded Labyrinth of Souls game. And when that game launched, I couldn’t have foreseen that there would soon be a series of Labyrinth of Souls novels. When that opportunity arose, thanks largely to writer Elizabeth Engstrom and writer & publisher Christina Lay, I felt strongly that there were some game-inspired fiction pitfalls that we should avoid.

Games with a narrative element, like Dungeon Solitaire, lend themselves to fiction because the game itself is designed to generate narratives. Once involved with the game, the mind is already spinning stories. However, game narratives and fiction narratives have some key differences. And as a writer of fiction engaging with game-related material, one should be clear about this.

Game narratives are generated through game-play. They are generally open ended, often meandering, and sometimes surprisingly random or short. Dungeon Solitaire is a good example. The game is a kind of hero’s journey, and can generate some classically structured narratives. But it is also possible to die on the first turn, or to lose the dragon-battle or get lost forever, right where the classic story would end in victory. In a game, that’s all part of the fun. What’s going to happen is really unknown, and like life, there is an element of randomness to the outcomes.

Good fiction, on the other hand, is always a kind of optimized or archetypal narrative. Take thousands of games played, or thousands of lives lived, and artfully choose from them the most satisfying and illuminating narrative structures and elements. That’s what fiction does. It is a kind of distillation of the game or life narrative into its most essential and moving forms. No book randomly ends after the first chapter. And no good book sets up one ending and then delivers a completely different one. The archetypal narrative forms, like the gods, must somehow be appeased for the beauty of fiction to flourish.

   

With all this in mind, I wanted the Labyrinth of Souls novels to be good fiction first and foremost. We had a lineup of incredibly talented fiction writers and they had to be free to do what they do best. The idea of the Labyrinth was broad enough to encompass a broad range of stories, without limiting authors to any predetermined setting or time period. And that’s one of the things I find so exciting about the novels so far. Although they all involve a journey into an underworld labyrinth of some sort, each one is entirely unique.

In creating something inspired by something else, we are still creating something new. So when writing fiction inspired by a game, it is primarily important to fulfill all the requirements of good fiction. Evoking the game in some way is necessary, of course, but only of secondary importance. Any constraining requirements should be kept to a minimum. For inspiration reaches its greatest potential when it happens with the greatest liberty to explore one’s own ideas.


You can learn more about Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and download the free PDF of Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings at matthewlowes.com. Discover Labyrinth of Souls fiction titles and follow new releases at shadowspinnerspress.com.

Free Yourself From Your Work

by Matthew Lowes

rainbow-road

The experience of hesitation just before one starts writing is something all writers have probably felt at some time. Whether from doubt of our abilities, the fear of what might come out, or the aversion to collapsing our grand nebulous ideas into something concrete, we hesitate, sometimes only for a moment, and sometimes for a lifetime. In the middle of a big project, doubt may seize us and again we hesitate, certain the work is a mess. Likewise, when we have expressed ourselves freely and fully, we may hesitate to rewrite and to put it out there, to let others see what we have done. And all these fears, all these doubts and hesitations, spring from one simple thing. We identify ourselves with our work.

In this day and age, when we are encouraged to brand our work and our identities to suit the market, this tendency to internally identify with our work finds ample reinforcement. It may prevent some from writing all together. It may prevent some from finishing a great book. It may prevent some from doing their best work, from fully opening themselves to writing the most challenging, most daring words they have to offer. And it may prevent some from sharing with others what they have written.

Of course, one must be critical at times, especially when learning the craft and while in the midst of doing any edit or rewrite. But to cling to this criticism or to identify ourselves with any work, is not only to suffer, but to stifle our own creativity. The creative mind is free and open, unlimited by any expectation, and unhindered by self doubt or personal identification with any work, past or present.

Don’t allow this tendency or pressure to identify with your work to stand in the way of your creativity. Whenever you feel this hesitation or doubt, just remember that you are not your work. The work itself is just a stream of words on a page, just symbols on paper. And while you have a right to the act of putting these symbols down and arranging them as best you can, you do not control the origins of this act, nor its ultimate ends.

Our own true nature will always be beyond all words. So free yourself from your work, whether it is the work you are about to do, a work in progress, or the work that you have already done. Our work is really not our own anyway. For we do not know what thoughts will arise in the act of creation, nor from whence they come. It is all a spontaneous happening. Just allow it to happen.

 

The Magic of Everyday Life

by Matthew Lowes

ice

Well, my post is a little late here but there are reasons. Right? I mean, first of all, I got sick. Then there was the ice storm. Then the power went out for some twenty hours or so and it got pretty darn chilly. Then we headed up to the Belknap Hot Springs lodge for the night. Wait a minute, you say, you were soaking in the hot springs with a past due deadline? Okay, the truth is although all this happened, I just forgot about the post. But because of this whole turn of events, I now have something to say about magic.

Friday morning we woke to snowfall up in the mountains. We hiked through the woods, had another soak in the hot springs, and on our way back into Eugene we saw the most amazing sights. All the trees were still covered in ice, and the sun had just broken through the clouds, making everything glitter like jewels. The whole city looked like it was built among the trees of a crystal forest. It looked like something straight out of a high fantasy novel. And all this got me to thinking both about the sheer magic of everyday life, and about the magic of contrast.

Why is it that the first snowfall of winter always seems so magical? Why does the ice storm delight us so much, in spite of the destruction it causes? Everything in life is noticed through contrast. Without contrast, nothing could be discerned. We would not even feel alive. That we are, and that there is beauty and wonder and awe is a function of this contrast. The first snow contrasts with summer and fall, and we so rarely see the beauty of the crystal forest that when we come upon it we are enchanted. Contrast creates all this magic.

So what does this have to do with writing? Just this: if you’re going to put a crystal forest in your novel, don’t make it the place your heroes visit just after the crystal meadow. To create a sense of magic, or to make a place, or a character, or an event stand out in the reader’s mind, you must create contrast. If characters are always arguing, their argument won’t have much impact. If they usually agree but finally have a blow up, there’s more contrast, and more impact. The storm is all the more impressive because of the calm before it.

But magic does not always have to be so dramatic as a crystal forest in the middle of your novel, although that can be fun. When you really notice, there is nothing mundane in this whole world. Everything is sheer magic. The flow of water, the rising of steam off a cup of tea, the drop of a leaf, a stranger’s voice, the play of light and shadow across the land … it’s all magic! And in your writing this magic is conveyed with the magic of a well chosen word, the magic of an original phrase, and the magic of a beautiful sentence. That is the wind in the trees. That is the face of the ever-changing sky. That is real magic.

Why Write Anything?

by Matthew Lowes

2016-10-12-19-42-43

If we’re going to make something, let’s make the things we want to see exist in this world. If you’re writing a story, whatever the genre, write the story you want to read, drawing from the deepest motivations you can find. This is the best way I can imagine of both insuring some measure of originality and significance to your work, as well as an ongoing enthusiasm for doing it. And really, anything else is short changing yourself and everyone else as well.

In this age of social media, online reviews, sales rankings, marketing platforms, focus groups, and target audiences, not to mention a widespread obsession with social status and material success, it’s perhaps all too easy to lose track of why we would write something to begin with. So ask yourself: why do you want to write this? Really get into it, with whatever current project you are on. If you find a really good answer that doesn’t draw on thoughts of success, I guarantee that work will become more interesting.

Not that social media, markets, and reviews and all that are inherently bad. It can all be useful, and careful use can maybe help you make a buck from this crazy racket. But their best use, I would argue, is not in your creative process. Someone who writes a book about vampires because vampire books are selling well, is only writing a book about book selling and nothing else. Forgetting all that, and the fact that vampires were more a thing of the ’90s, if you have an idea for a vampire story you really want to read, then I say go for it, especially if you have an even deeper reason for wanting to write it.

Of course, most writers would like their stories to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience. Whether this is a touch of narcissism or not I don’t know, but either way I think the desire is ennobled by a pure creative spirit. Sure I want to be entertained, but I also want to read stories with a vision beyond sales, by writers who had some motivation deeper than popularity, broader than recognition, and more profound than success.

The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

image

Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

Writing Between the Lines

by Matthew Lowes

between the lines

Photograph by Helgi Halldorsson

Description is boring … or so people say. Few people want to read page after page detailing the intricacies of a landscape or a room, or cataloging the attributes of character, however interesting they may be. But how then do good writers convey their settings and characters so well that we feel as if we were there, or that we knew exactly what a character looks like? It helps to change your perspective on what is really going on.

If you think of description as something that happens only within the lines of your text, and that only that which is included will be experienced by the reader, you are missing the point. The text is only a signpost used to orient the reader’s imagination, and allow it to engage properly. The real magic is happening between the lines. So it helps to think of description not as description, but as evocation. The words are like a spell creating the dream image of a place or a person in the imagination of the reader. Too many words and the dream will collapse, too few, or not the right ones, and the dream will not arise.

So the trick is not to describe a setting or character, but to evoke the setting or character. Just by changing the way you think about this, you will likely discover, all on your own, new effective ways of doing this. With just a short line of dialogue an entire character can be evoked. With a few choice details an entire setting can be evoked. You can’t describe everything, but you can evoke everything if you write not just for what’s in the lines, but what’s between the lines.