Monday, December 5, 2016

Worldbuilding: The Spectre of the Familiar

Last month I did a Reddit AMA in which was asked the following:
When designing fantasy cultures, how do you create enough 'alien intricacy' to make them breathe? Every time I try, it seems like a core of some real world culture with a few nifty traditions and rituals tacked on...
Which is a damn good question.  My answer, in part, was the following:
I'll admit I still struggle with that. I mean, we are saturated with the familiar, and that's hard to escape from. Even when you think you've crafted something unique, you'll still have readers go, "Oh, this culture has element A, element B and C, and that means they are really the Prussians."
To expand on this: any time you're worldbuilding a new culture, you're going to be informed by your knowledge (and preconceptions) from our own world and history.  You can do your best to file off the serial numbers, but your own biases will be there.
But, more importantly, your readers biases will be there as well.  Most of the time, this will be something they use to ease their way into your new cultures.  They'll latch onto a familiar element and connect it to another and use that get their handholds to pull themselves to the stuff that's more out there.  Which is fine-- that's how you hook your readers in.
If you really created something truly alien, it would be almost impossible for your readers to wrap your head around.
Now, where you can get into trouble is if you do it lazily, and just make a culture an unmistakable "X with the serial numbers filed off".  Especially if you're touching on something with a marginalized culture.  You will get your lunch eaten over that, and you can't just say "Oh, but it's a fantasy world, it isn't really that".
However-- and this is a big however-- remember that the readers are bringing in their biases.  So someone saying, "Oh, this culture has element A, element B and C, and that means they are really the Prussians." or such-- it doesn't mean they're right.  They've connected dots and found their own picture.  And if that picture is something they're going to get angry about, well... you're probably going to have to take a few punches to the nose.
For example, let's say you have created a fantasy culture in a story and you've included, let's say twenty different cultural elements about them.  Now a reader takes elements 1, 2 and 3 and goes, "Oh, this is really X".  But elements 4-20 have nothing to do with X.  Many people will go, "I guess this culture is kind of like X but with these differences."  But a few will go, "This writer is doing X but has ALL THIS OTHER STUFF WRONG and CLEARLY didn't do the research!"
And what can you do about that?  Nothing.  You don't hit back-- rule one about criticism.  You take that and see what you can use to learn and change.  And part of what you may learn is there will always be a portion of readers you're not going to please. And that's OK.
--
I've done some updates in my Appearances page for 2017, and I've got two things in the Austin area this week.  On Thursday, December 8th at 7pm, I'll be part of the "Novel Night" presentation at Malvern Books with Amanda Downum and Yasser Bahjatt.  And on Saturday, December 10th at 2pm, I'll be part of the WRITER SIGNING EXTRAVAGANZA at Dragon's Lair Comics & Games.  If you're in the Austin area (or can easily come to it), come on over and say hello.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

That Moment in The Novel Writing

I'm not prone to the freak-out, especially while writing.  As I've said before, I'm pretty big on structure and outlining, but that doesn't mean I don't make discoveries and revelations along the way.
And sometimes, when you're about two-thirds through the novel, you hit this sudden epiphany, where you realize, "Oh, there's a thing happening here that needs to be this."  It could be a revelation about why someone is doing something, or why you've been using a certain storytelling device, or the next level of a character's plan, and all of a sudden, everything clicks.
Almost every time, that's when the story you're writing hits the top of the roller coaster, and then you drop down and it's off to the races.  You know the whole story, all the tweaks you need to put in earlier, each scene for later that you're going to need. 
It's a little scary, but it's also really fun, because a lot of the time, it's just a matter of how fast you can get the book out of your fingers.  
I say this, as I reach the point in the Lady Henterman's Wardrobe manuscript where I am almost-- almost-- about to go over that peak.  Almost.
In the meantime, look who was interviewed over at File770.  I give up a few secrets for the future.  Just a couple.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Perils of the Writer: Who is the Protagonist?

So, this past week I went and saw Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which was largely an "OK" movie with good performances.  But it's got some fundamental flaws, that largely tie to its storytelling structure, and that it doesn't actually have a protagonist.
Needless to say, Spoilers follow
Now, I imagine you must be saying to yourself, "But surely Eddie Redmayne's character is the protagonist.  He's on all the posters."  Well, here's the thing: the movie believes he's the protagonist, and all the filmic language throughout signals him as the protagonist.
Problem is, he's not.  He's the Mysterious Stranger.  
See, Newt Scamander arrives in New York City with a box of secrets and he acts secretively, and we spent much of the first half of the movie not knowing anything about who he is or what he wants.  We don't know anything, really, until he brings Jacob down inside his case to his transportable menagerie.  And that's when we finally know why he's in the United States (to release a creature in its native Arizona), and that his own goals involve the care and protection of magical creatures.  He's made a bit of a mess, which he cleans up, and then he helps clean up the larger mess that happens incidentally around him.  The movie constantly keeps Newt at arms length from the audience.  He doesn't give us viewpoint, nor are we invited to sympathize with him.
So, then, obviously, the protagonist is Jacob.  He, after all, is a clear viewpoint character with a clearly defined goal.  He wants to get out of the cannery job and start a bakery.  He's a no-maj, so through his eyes we see wonder and magic and experience everything new the story shows us.  He has almost the classic Campbellian journey where he gets the call to something fantastic, to then return to the normal world changed.
Except, he isn't changed.  He is forced to forget it all.  And, on top of that, he doesn't DO anything that requires active choice and affects the plot.  His most active moment is punching a goblin, but that doesn't have any impact on events-- things would have proceeded more or less the same without that goblin being punched.  He basically floats through the movie being awed, and ends with a reward, but he doesn't affect the story.
Who does make choices?  Tina.  Tina has all the markings of the protagonist-- she's got an arc of needing to redeem herself, she makes active choices, and she's the one whose life the Mysterious Stranger impacts.  But the movie doesn't want her to be the protagonist-- it wants her to be the (other) plucky sidekick to Newt, and thus consistently minimizes or sidelines her.  It places her in the position to be rescued from the execution*, it tries to establish her bond with Credence, but then does nothing with that in favor of having Newt connect to him.  
So this gives us a thing to look at in your own writing: figuring out who your protagonist is, and WHY they are the protagonist, and the key things are ACTIVE CHOICES and CLEAR MOTIVATIONS.  You need to know, and you need to show clearly to your reader, what the protagonist wants and what they are choosing to do to get it.
Don't do that, and you've got a muddled mess.
Speaking of, I've got a group of protagonists who need to pull their collective fat out of the fryer, so to work I go.  See you in the word mines.
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*- I think nothing highlights how screwed up the wizarding world in this movie is more than the two scenes where Tina tries to talk to the authorities about Newt.  The first time, she's basically told "We don't want to hear anything you have to say" and the second time she's told "Why didn't you mention this sooner, you clearly need to be put to death."  

Thursday, November 24, 2016

My Biggest Early Influence, aka Navigating the Hurricane

This week's topic is talking about someone who was a good influence on you early in your writing career (aka, someone you're thankful for).  I'm going to cheat slightly here, and pull out a piece I wrote when I was asked to do a bio for one the guests of honor at ArmadilloCon, who coincidentally, is exactly that person in my life.  (Plus, it's the holidays, and I've got plenty on my plate, so I'm allowed a bit of a blog-cheat.)

I’m in a car in the middle of nowhere on a deep, deep back-country road. Flash floods and washed out roads have forced my journey home off the main highway, and then off the side road. I’m literally in a moment one plot-point away from being a horror movie cliché. But it’s cool, because I’m riding shotgun with Stina Leicht.
All right, here’s the sitch: We were both on panels at ComicPalooza in Houston, scheduled for a last-panel-of-the-con slot at 5pm on a Monday. My wife had to drive home early, so I asked Stina for a ride back to Austin, and she was happy to oblige. So we get into Locksley—her blue Miata—and hit the road. Problem: there’s been serious flooding in Austin, and the heavy storms are making their way to us. Our respective spouses are texting us, “You might want to stay in Houston” messages. But we’re both thinking A. the storm is coming to Houston, so that’s not a better choice and B. no, we want to get home. And this is Stina Leicht I’m with. She’s navigated the choppy waters of the publishing industry, including the implosion of her first publisher, and came through with two Campbell nods and brand new flintlock fantasy series hitting the shelves. Rain ain’t gonna stop her.
The first time I saw Stina was ten years ago at the ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop, my first time attending it. I was sitting in the room, surrounded by strangers and feeling a bit intimidated, especially with that panel of professional and experts at the front of the room. And then this woman walks—nay, strides—into the room like a gothic warrior intent on conquering. But, you know, cheerfully. She walked right up to that panel of experts and said hello. And I thought, “I don’t know who this woman is, but she’s clearly the champion of this workshop.” I was right about that—she finished up the con weekend getting a manuscript request from the Editor Guest of Honor. That’s not something that happens very often. Actually, having been involved in the workshop in varying capacities for the last decade, I don’t think it’s happened since.
Stina took over coordinating the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop shortly after that, which is how I got to know her. In running the workshop, she repeatedly showed her dedication and commitment to learning as much as she could about her craft, and then turning right around and sharing what she learned.
So, back to riding through that storm (spoiler: WE LIVED)—we just about made it to LaGrange when our phones lit up with TORNADO WARNING SEEK SHELTER. Stina pulls us into a gas station for a few minutes while we check the radar. The worst of it is just ahead of us, and past that? Clear sailing. If we just get through it.
Stina’s car, Stina’s call: “Let’s wait for the rain to be less… horizontal.”
Fifteen minutes later, gravity starts behaving again. We push through the downpour and past the other side. The sun is setting ahead of us, filtered through a heavy blanket of orange clouds and lightning across the sky. It’s a gorgeous alien horizon, and we talk about Ray Bradbury’s All Summer In A Day.
Then everything stops dead. The highway is flooded, and the troopers tell us to turn around. When asked for the best route to Austin, we get a shrug. I go into navigation mode and find us an alternate path that, near as I can tell, is clear. Rural country highway, but it’ll get us there. There’s already been hell and highwater, so we press on.
See, that’s the thing about Stina. She charges full-tilt. She’s not fearless, but rather looks the fear in the eye and beats it. She stood at the Gates of Mordor—or rather, the gates of traditional publishing— and proved her worth. But then she turned around to those behind her and said, “Hey, look, it can be done. Come on!” That’s what she did running the Workshop for seven years. And after a couple years of reading my stuff, she said, “You don’t need to be taking this workshop anymore. You should help me run it.”
She knows that the real secret—the honest to goodness this-is-how-you-do-it secret to succeeding in this business—has nothing to do with special clubs or handshakes or having the right cousin. It’s about doing the best damn work you can do.
Take her first two books—Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies from Pain. She didn’t just say, “I’m going to write about Ireland in the Troubles, so I’ll watch In The Name of the Father and get to it.” No way. She did the work. She read primary sources. She emailed people who lived through it. She took classes in the Irish language. She did everything in her power to make those books right. That’s how she works. They don’t give two Campbell nods to just anyone.
So, our country highway was also washed out. I figure out a new route to get us around that, but we are going deep into Nowheresville with this detour. Now it is totally dark, and the cell reception is spotty. We’re a breakdown and castle away from Rocky Horror territory, which we comment on. Then we miss a turn, leading us to a dead end where we see a sign that makes us both burst out laughing.
GRAVEYARD
We turn back around at get back on track, eventually getting to a clear part of the main highway and back to Austin. Three hours later than we originally had hoped, but no worse for wear. We had gone through the gallows humor phase of our trip by that time.
“I mean,” I said once we were in the clear, “If we had died together, it would have boosted our careers. Well, at least mine. I’d have been the Ritchie Valens to your Buddy Holly.”
Fortunately, you’ll have Stina Leicht around for some time to come. Even still, you might want to pick up Cold Iron and pre-order Blackthorne now. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

HOLVER ALLEY CREW: The Streets of Maradaine

It's time for us to take good look at my third series-- The Streets of Maradaine-- launching in March with The Holver Alley Crew.  This is a new series with new characters, and can be your first book-- your entry into Maradaine-- without having read anything else. 
holver-alley-banner
The Holver Alley Crew is a story of the desperate and impoverished of Maradaine, on the west side of the city, specifically the neighborhood of North Seleth.  North Seleth is a sort of non-neighborhood neighborhood-- and the folks that live there are an odd mix.  The sort that are "too Druth for the Little East, not Druth enough for the rest of the city".  
Asti and Verci Rynax are exactly that.  Born and raised in Maradaine, with a Kieran father and Kieran names, they've spent most their lives on the wrong side of the law.  Born into that thieving life, they know each other's plans, they know the people in the life, they know how to get jobs done.
But they tried to go straight.  Life continued to beat them down, but they pooled what little they had together to create a shop, be honest businessmen in an honest trade.
And then the fire came, and destroyed all that.
So they have to start again, with only what they know.
The Holver Alley Crew is available for pro-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and you can follow it at Goodreads.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Fuels The Words

I've been talking the past few weeks about driving forward, about the endurance, doing the hard work. That's really the only way books get written.  So then when the next question comes and it's, "So what drives you to do it?", I have a hard time answering.  Because, to me, it's almost like "why are you breathing oxygen?"
In the latest episode of Westworld-- without giving serious spoilers, when confronted with why he's done the things he's done, he answers, "I just wanted to tell my stories".  I feel very much the same way.  I know the stories I want to tell, I'm never plagued by writers' block, at least on a macro level.  (On a micro level, I sometimes don't know how a scene is supposed to work, and that's frustrating.  Sometimes a project isn't quite coming together and gets put to the side... but there's always more projects in the works.)   
Of course, right now I'm in a position of privilege.  I'm writing books that are already under contract-- doing work that I know where it's going to go.  Back when I was writing books without an agent or a publisher?  There I was fueled just by the fire in my gut-- that I had to tell the stories of Maradaine, and get it out there in the world.  Someone once told me that writing novels was a thing you only did if you can't imagine not doing it. I think that's about right.  And I'm still not satisfied.  Each novel, I'm hungry for.  
And I bet you are as well.  So get down to those word mines, and get to work.  No one else is going to do it for you.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Keeping the Wheel Turning

While I don't get very political here, I've not made a secret that my lean is liberal.  So it's no surprise that I've been none too thrilled with things over the past few days.
But that doesn't change the fact that I've got work to do.  I can't let any sort of, "things are horrible" stop me.  Because, when you come down to it, writing novels is an act of endurance.  I'm not saying you have to do words every day or you're a failure (and I loathe that sort of purity test thinking) but the work doesn't get done unless you keep coming back to it.
And the work needs to get done.  If I'd ascribe any sort of "this is what makes you a writer" test, it's that for you, the work needs to get done.  That you feel it deep in your marrow.  You feel that you have to do it or you just won't live.
That doesn't mean you don't get stuck, that you don't let the work simmer and percolate.  That doesn't mean it doesn't take a long time. The work takes what it takes.  But you have to keep coming back to it.  You keep the wheel turning.
So, I feel like I've been rather heavy this whole entry, so some levity.  If you've read some of the interviews I've done for Import of Intrigue, you've probably seen that I answer the "how do you keep in all straight?" question with "spreadsheets and timelines".  Re-reading one of those made me think about the timing of events in my grander scheme, so I went to check it in the timeline, to see when it needed to happen.   And I realized it had to happen in the middle of Lady Henterman's Wardrobe.  So, I needed to integrate it into the plot of that book.  As I looked over how I needed to do that, I realized, "If I put it here, amid this major sequence, it actually makes that main plot aspect work better."
So I'm glad I double-checked that.
FB Banner ImportRight now the wheel turning means Import of Intrigue is out there and on top.  I've been pretty pleased with the reception it's gotten, especially this review from Bibliotropic, which I feel really nails what I was going for with this book.  
All right, all of you: back in the word mines.  You've got work to do.