The Tao, the Force, and good vs. evil

If you’re familiar with Star Wars, you’ll also know about the Force. It’s the energy that holds the universe together. There’s a Light side and a Dark side, and both sides have to be in balance. That’s what the Jedi Knights are all about.

This system of morality is also completely, utterly futile. Here’s what Taoism actually teaches.

While many Western religions emphasize a duality between good and evil, urging devotees to embrace the good and spurn the evil, Taoism saw these moral qualities as two extremes of a single spectrum. Virtue did not lie at one end or the other of this spectrum, but through carefully maintaining a balance between the two. This idea is often expressed through the terms Yin (rhymes with English mean) and Yang (rhymes with English long). The two words together mean the fundamental and opposite forces or principles in nature. Yin originally meant “sunless” or “northern.” It was associated with darkness, femininity, emptiness, coolness, and passivity. The opposite state was Yang, which originally meant “sunny” or “southern.” Yang was associated with light, fullness, masculinity, heat, and action.

These traits appear oppositional on first inspection. However, that opposition is only a surface illusion in Taoist belief. In fact, the two states of nature require each other. Just as an art student knows that negative space around an object is what creates the outline of positive space in a drawing, the enlightened Taoist knows that suffering, pain and misery are necessary for traits like contentment, pleasure, and happiness to exist. Sickness and health are the same phenomenon; they are just at far ends of that same phenomenological spectrum. Masculinity and femininity are also the same thing; they are both the phenomenon of gender expressed in opposite ways. Love and hatred are also the same phenomenon, and so on.

When the Taoist realizes the falsity of these divisions, the Taoist realizes that extremes of either sort are temporary and unnatural. It is the cycle of nature for the pendulum to swing back and forth from one to the other. By resisting or refusing to experience these swings, the human throws himself out of balance with nature, and intensifies the lack of balance and alignment.

The great aim of all Taoists was to conform to the way of nature. They believed that all attempts to behave in accordance with strict codes of discipline, either personal or governmental, were artificial and temporary; they tended “to deform human nature and waste life” as Schafer puts it. Rather than trying to embrace one of the two opposite and reject the other, the enlightened individual sought balance between the two. S

Source

Well well, look at that. It’s all the rules of the Force right there. Good and evil are just a spectrum, and it’s better to just let them do their thing than to interfere, because interfering just makes it worse. No wonder Jedi tend to be annoying pacifists. I’m looking at you, Old Republic. It also explains why Luke became a hermit in The Last Jedi, rather than the founder of the Jedi Academy, as he was in the old continuity.

The Tao doesn’t offer any reason for the existence of good and evil. They’re just part of the duality of all things, like hot and cold. The Tao isn’t real into good and evil, anyway. It’s better to just go with the flow, dude.

When one realizes the need for balance between yin and yang, and stops struggling against that which is natural, one can gain contentment through wu wei, enlightened non-action. This involves discarding elaborate or needlessly complex plans to improve oneself and the world. Instead, one must accept the world (and oneself) as it is. It involves giving up materialistic desires and living life unplanned, from one fluid moment to another. This route leads one to Te, a word that in various forms can mean “moral virtue,” “bounty,” and “power or force,” or “gratefulness.” One learned to live life spontaneously rather than become trapped in the process of preparing for the unpreparable, avoiding the inevitable, or seeking the unobtainable. Such a route always leads to a lack of balance.

Source

In other words, the way to be happy is to be utterly passive. Don’t react to the good or the bad. Just … sit there.

I know quite a lot of governments that would dig a passive populace. A passive populace would never try to conduct business, enforce reforms, fight for their rights, or any of those messy things.

Meanwhile, the Bible is over here in the other corner, talking about how Good was First and evil is an aberration to be fought against.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Romans 1:18-24 (NIV)

Doesn’t look like sitting passively by would help much in this paradigm, would it?

A lot of books and movies take a Taoist view of good and evil. You can’t really ever defeat evil. You just kind of tolerate it until the balance changes and things go the other way. There’s no point in struggling to make things better. Nope, that just makes the other end of the balance stronger. Better just to sit and do nothing.

In the end, there’s no point in the whole good vs evil struggle. Fighting for Good makes Evil stronger. You might as well go full Sith and make Evil as strong as you can, so Good will win out.

Can you imagine what that would look like in reality? Whole countries just go out and destroy other countries and people groups, “just to bring about Good … for somebody”. Definitely not the people being destroyed. Where’s the good for them? There’s no justice, no righteousness, not even kindness. There’s only this imaginary balance we think we’re maintaining.

But what if the other paradigm is true, instead? And God, the ultimate Good, in whom there is no Evil, is going to judge Evil and destroy it forever, until only Good remains?

Yikes, those Tao balance people now have egg on their faces. Looks like the Jedi should have grown some backbone and fought for Good in the first place. Sucks to be you, Luke. You should have gone out and started the Jedi Academy after all.

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Mystery boxes in stories (and why readers love them)

I’ve written 19 fanfics since last May, and it gave me a lot of leeway to experiment. Mostly, I’ve been able to step back and look at which stories consistently get the most hits.

I like to write in a lot of different subgenres. For Destiny, I wrote sci fi > drama, sci fi > romance, sci fi > mystery/thriller, and sci fi > humor.

While all of them found a decent number of readers, the ones that always do the best are the mystery/thriller types. Or, as I like to call them, the mystery box stories.

Now, you’d think that romance would be the most popular. And stories with a dash of romance have performed well for me. But the mystery box stories have them beat, hands down.

What is a mystery box? This is a concept JJ Abrams talks about in his TED talk here. A mystery box is simply a box with something in it. But you don’t know what it is. So you open the box and solve the mystery.

But what if there’s another mystery box inside that box? Ah, the puzzle isn’t solved, then. You have another box to open. And so on and so forth, mystery after mystery. The human brain is wired to be curious. We can’t stand mysteries. We have to find out the answers or it bugs us.

My first mystery box story was about a girl who gets revived by a ghost who can’t talk. (Ghosts are these little robots.)

Why can’t he talk? First mystery box. Turns out he’s broken. But why is he broken? Second mystery box. This is hard to find out because he won’t let anybody touch him. Why not? Third mystery box. Turns out, he’s been rebuilt with alien tech. But how, and why? Fourth box. And on it goes, each mystery getting the heroine into hotter and hotter water. The final mystery isn’t solved until the very last chapter, when the heroine is on trial and only the ghost coming clean will save her neck.

That story went crazy for a while. It got a ton of hits and interaction. People had to see the mystery solved. It still gets hits, even though it’s a bit older, now. It doesn’t have any romance–only the somewhat stressed friendship between the girl and her ghost.

Right now, I’m posting another one that also deals with mystery boxes. In this case, it’s a very Bourne Identity setup–a guy with amnesia just might be a covert operative with the key to a super weapon in his memory. And it’s getting a ton of hits and interactions. People want to see what’s inside that mystery box.

I’m considering doing a romance/thriller to see how it does. All the romance stuff AND mystery boxes? Of course, I’ve been partial to romantic thrillers since I first read Mary Stewart’s books. She does the mystery boxes hardcore. I still think about this one twist in the Moon Spinners that took me completely by surprise.

Anyway, I think all genres can benefit from a few mystery boxes. Not only do they keep the reader curious, but they keep the suspense engine running. I think all authors do this more or less by instinct. But it’s fun to actually build your boxes and scatter them throughout your story. Because, in a story, mystery boxes are also Pandora’s box–opening them should unlock a whole bunch of new problems for your protagonist.

Story noodlings

I’ve been writing along on my superhero story and just got royally stuck.

Actually, I was royally stuck on it months ago, when I jumped ship and went back to fanfiction. So I’ve come back to it, full of determination … and I’m still stuck.

So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I’m stuck. And I think it has to do with how I’ve written these characters over and over and …. O V E R. These are the Spacetime characters, which I’ve been trying to get right for years.

I’m afraid I’m stuck on that treadmill of perfecting that first book by rewriting it over and over. I should just throw it out and write something else, but every so often I go back to these characters and try something new. First they were … something like urban fantasy. Then they were actually urban fantasy. Now they’re more superhero. I think superhero fits their personalities the best, but the story is giving me fits.

At one point, one of the characters becomes a werewolf. I’ve done this in different ways in each incarnation of the story. The first version was a really cool science fiction werewolf that had the guy actually having two bodies, and one of them was always swapped into hyperspace. I still think that was my favorite version. But the story also had this whole Fortnite plot of OMG teh giant storm! And it was … uh … lame.

See, this is cool. And stoppable. I never could come up with a good way to stop the storm in my old stories.

So then I had him be a more traditional werewolf, and that worked all right for urban fantasy. But for the superhero world, it doesn’t work as well. I actually don’t want him to be a werewolf this time, because his other powers are so cool. And really, once he turns, he steals the spotlight from the other hero. Maybe I should just give him his own book for that.

Anyway, as soon as I started messing with that plot angle, my story came grinding to a halt. I think my brain was trying to tell me that it wasn’t right for this particular story. This story, aside from being about superheroes, is also about Youtube politics. And I was getting away from the Youtube politics thing.

So I think I’m going to have to delete about 2k words of this story, go back to before this particular plot point, and let the story go a different direction.

My writer friends, at this point, are screaming at me to re-outline the story. I’m writing this story without an outline, just following the logic of the characters and their choices. I used to write with outlines. The stories they produced were shallow and too quick. I’ve gone back to writing by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go. But as long as the hero and villain have strong enough motivations, their clashes drive the story quite nicely. And if I have no clue what will happen next, neither will my readers. 😀

Watched anything good lately? (YES)

People are always asking, “What have you read lately? Seen any good movies lately?”

I always want to shout, “YES. YES I AM FOLLOWING A GREAT STORY RIGHT NOW.”

Then I remember that it’s inside a videogame and most of my friends don’t play shooters.

So, let me try to explain what this story is and why I’m so fascinated by it.

The game is Destiny 2, which I’ve been wild about since the first trailer launched.

I mean, seriously, this trailer is hilarious.

It’s a science fiction universe where mankind was granted Space Magic from this alien orb called the Traveler. Trouble is, a lot of bad aliens wanted the Traveler’s Space Magic, so they tried to wipe out humanity and nearly succeeded.

The first “season” of the story, aliens launch a surprise attack against the Last City, cage the Traveler, and just about win the war. Naturally, your character fights back with the aid of the in-game characters, all of whom are just as well developed as anybody in a movie. When you finally defeat the villain and free the Traveler (or … help it fight back), it’s like the finale to a Marvel movie.

Season 2 picked up a little later. It follows the race of space elves who live out in the asteroid field in this place called the Reef. There, the Prince of the elves, who used to be an ally, unexpectedly murders the most popular character in the game.

So long, Nathan Fillion. This was like watching Mal from Firefly be killed. The entire fan base lost their ever-loving minds and swore eternal vengeance.

The story played out like a revenge western. You hunt down the Prince’s band of alien outlaws and kill them one by one. But as you do, your in-game friend asks over and over, are we doing the right thing? Is this justice or murder? What makes us different from the outlaws we’re killing?

By the time you track down the Prince, you already have a few misgivings about this whole revenge thing. Then you find out that the Prince is being played, too. He’s got this evil space dragon pretending to be his sister and asking him to free it from a prison dimension. He’s busy doing it, but he’s beginning to doubt the whispers, as they ask him to do scarier and scarier things. By the end, the thing outright bullies him into taking that last step and opening the portal.

What comes through the portal is some alien monstrosity that eats the poor guy.

This being a shooter, you unload a few metric tons of lead into the monster and kill it. It spits the prince out as it dies.

The prince isn’t dead, but he’s completely defeated. Your in-game friend begs you to spare his life.

“The line between dark and light is so very thin.”

Fade to black.

Gunshot.

Despite the whole revenge story, it was a very unsatisfying end to the season. Was it right to kill the Prince, even though he killed our friend? The Prince was being manipulated.

Then the next season got rolling. When the Prince opened the portal, the evil space dragon got out and starts corrupting the space elves’ most sacred city.

The Prince’s sister, the Queen, who had been in hiding, gives the order to kill the dragon and cut out its heart.

One problem. These dragons grant wishes. But they twist the wishes, feeding off the desire of the one making the wish.

The queen takes the heart and wishes that her people would be strong again. The dragon twists this into “strong = corrupted by Darkness”. But somebody, somewhere, engages a time loop at the same time.

So now, the city spends 3 weeks being corrupted and getting uglier and uglier. Then the time loop resets and it starts over. This gives the heroes time to try to find a solution to the corruption curse. Seven cycles in, there’s no end in sight.

And then we find a cutscene of the Prince being resurrected as a good guy.

Looks a little worse for wear, but he’s the same guy.

In this game, Space Magic resurrection comes with a complete memory wipe. Resurrected heroes have no idea who they used to be, and finding out details of one’s past is frowned upon.

That’s as far as the story has gone, but it’s caused endless debate in the fan base.

Can we trust the Prince, who murdered our friend, even if he doesn’t remember doing it?

Should we kill him again?

Should we give him a chance to redeem himself?

What will the Queen do when she finds out that her brother has been resurrected by the Space Magic she hates?

It’s like a TV series. We’re in the middle of the season right now, waiting on tenterhooks for the next episode. People are scouring the game, trying to find clues as to what might happen next.

So, when people ask, “Watch anything good lately?” I want to scream, “YES. YES, I’M STUCK IN THE MIDDLE OF AN AWESOME STORY.”

But none of my friends play shooters.

Character concept sketches

I’ve been building a new character for some stories. Actually, he’s kind of an old character I’m adapting, but whatever. This is Jayesh, and he has a tiny dragon that is actually half his magic. I had to draw them hanging out.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? These guys have had a short story so far, and I can’t wait to put them in a book. Thinking of tossing the story online somewhere so folks can give it a shot.

The January slump

Here it is, the middle of January. And I’ve hit the slump. And a lot of my friends have hit the slump.

January gets cold and dark from the snow and storms. I think the lack of daylight contributes to the slump, as well as the cold. You just want to stay bundled up and not move. Screw exercising and eating right. All you want are high-calorie foods to help keep your body warm.

Holidays seem to start in October, with the Halloween madness. Then we charge through Thanksgiving and onto Christmas, with all the shopping and parties. Then we hit New Years, with the resolutions and year-end analysis. And then … nothing. For weeks. Cue the slump.

It might also just be burnout from all the madness and bustle on top of our already busy lives. It’s just nice to kick back and do nothing. But after a while, the resting becomes slumping.

So how do you kick the slump?

People usually suggest exercise at this point. Get off your butt! Move your muscles! Get that circulation up! And those are good things. The brain is connected to the body and exercise fires it up.

For me, I embrace the slump and use it to absorb books and movies that I’ve missed. Kind of like storing up fat for the winter, only it’s stories. As a creative, you’ve got to fill your tank with the things that delight you. And when it’s cold and you don’t want to move, what better way to embrace it than with books or movies?

This is the time of year when my family used to binge-watch the BBC Jane Eyre, or the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. (Or the BBC Hercule Poirot … yeah, we did the BBC in our house.) In later years, it became the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings.

This is the time of year when I read really huge, thick books. I’ve been thinking fondly of going back to Bleak House again. The book is massive, and also like watching an entire TV series in a book. But I also have a ton of books on my Kindle to catch up on. Marc Secchia has some satisfying thick dragon fantasy books that I’ve bought and not read.

So that’s how I cope with the slump. I embrace it! How about you?

Desert snow

First, there was this:

Then … this happened.

Tombstone, AZ
“I drove down here from Montana to get away from this nonsense!”

We even had flurries here in Tucson, although none of it stuck. The kids were so excited. What a start to the new year!

Money – the ultimate success metric?

I was looking over my blog post Writing Books of the Heart. It springboarded off a blog post by Kris Rusch, who talked about writers burning out, writing in a genre they don’t really like, but can’t stop writing, because it pays the bills.

I had another thought percolating related to this one. I was lurking in a writers’ discussion where people were talking about why they write.

People have a lot of different reasons for writing. A lot of them want to change the world, or help/encourage people in some aspect of their lives. Some people talk big about “if I help ONE PERSON then this book will have been worth it!”

Then they turn around and talk about how they made four bucks in book sales last month. Everybody shrugs and laughs, embarrassed.

And I’m over here thinking, but what if those four bucks came from that ONE PERSON who really needed to read your book?

But no, the only metrics that matter, when you get down to brass tacks, is the money. The numbers of books moved doesn’t matter. It’s pretty well known by now that free book giveaways don’t do anything, because readers never read something they picked up for free. You can move a million units and nothing happens.

But when people buy a book, they’re more invested in reading it. Aha! Writers latch onto those sales as a measurement of worth. Somebody wanted my book bad enough to pay ACTUAL MONEY for it.

And let’s not even get into the rabbit hole that is reviews.

So, I’m curious, now. Which is it? Are we writing to help people, seeking validation that way? Or are we only validated by making gobs and gobs of money? Or are we only helping people when they’re paying us gobs of money?

Resolutions for 2019 (or not)

Here we are in 2019, and the year is nice and shiny. I’m sitting here with a baby asleep in my lap, coffee with no sugar in it, and Switchfoot’s new song Native Tongue blasting on my speakers. The kids are playing New Years events in their various Nintendo games. I’m going to come back to this post at the end of the year and laugh at this.

I’ve been thinking about a word for this year. Last year was Steadfast. This year, I think it’ll be Kindness.

Last year, being pregnant and miserable, I wasn’t very kind to anyone. I had to work very hard, because I felt so bad. This year, I want to make up to my family for being such a grouch for nine months. My poor kids are troopers, but they need a mom who is much nicer. So does my husband, who puts up with so much.

And now for resolutions!

I resolve to read all the unread books on my Kindle.

Yep. That’s it.

Come on, I have a two-month-old baby. I’m not going to plan anything deeper than that.

Usually I have a list of all the books I want to publish in the upcoming year. But … same problem. Baby. If I release anything, it’ll be a bonus. At this point, I can’t promise anything. I do have three superhero books in the hopper, two finished, one half-written. Those are probably a lock. Beyond that, I have no idea. Right now I’m finishing up a self-indulgent romance fanfic that nobody asked for, but I’ve had fun writing.

I’ve been really brushing up on my artwork, trying to plug a lot of holes in my education, and really tackle the areas I’m afraid of. Like human eyes. Do you know how hard eyes are? ARGH. Thankfully, Google reveals billions of tutorials. If I work through even a tenth of them, I’d have a fantastic art education.

Kind of like all the tutorials I did to make this pic. It’s this joke about Bioshock Infinite … and this Sonic villain named Infinite … so it’s like … a crossover … yeah. But I had to do a ton of tutorials to make it, especially that logo. UGH especially the logo.

Anyway, that does it for resolutions. Read more books. Maybe write something. Maybe draw something. We’ll see how this year plays out. 😀