Monday, May 30, 2011

ArmadilloCon and Writers' Workshop

I will be at ArmadilloCon this year, including participating in the Writers' Workshop, this year from the other side of the table.  I am incredibly excited.

I can honestly say that I am the writer I am today in no small part due to ArmadilloCon and the workshop.  I first went in 2005, and on some level I was completely unaware what I was going to.  At that point, I had written (as a NaNoWriMo) a novel called the Fifty Year War-- which is terrible, by the way-- and was working on Crown of Druthal, which at the time I was convinced would be my grand opus.  For the workshop, I had submitted the first chapter of Crown.

Friends, let me tell you, I walked in there totally cocky.  I had read the other pieces for my group, and found them all wanting, and was convinced-- absolutely rock-solid certain-- that I had something truly awesome on my hands, and that's what I would be told.  Sure, they'll give me some notes on polishing it.  Just the little tweaks it needs to go from, say, A+ to A++.

It was savaged.  Deeply, horribly savaged.  Torn to pieces.

And, looking back, rightly so.  It was deeply, deeply flawed.  I'm talking on a fundamental level in terms of POV and verb tense.  Let alone a third of the whole thing was an infodumping history lesson on how the main character's uncle got elected to Parliament.

Now, that said, despite said savaging, I realized that there was more going on than just the workshop-- there was a whole conference.  With panels of writers talking about writing, and the business of writing.  And I, in my cocky ignorance, had already paid to go to all this and could.  So my weekend was redefined from my previous plans.

I went again, including the Workshop in 2006, and was again savaged, but with a sense of a glimmer of potential.

I had to miss 2007's conference, but I went again in 2008.  And what I brought with me that year was the beginning of what would become Thorn of Dentonhill.  And that was not savaged.  With that, I was told, "You're really close."

So, if you're in the central Texas area, or can get to it in August without significant hardship, come on down.  You'll be glad you did.

Monday, May 23, 2011

State of the Writer, May 2011

It's been a bit more than a year since my last update of my various writing projects, and I figured given the recent news it was high time to update again.

First, from what was listed then:
  • Crown of Druthal (Book 1 of Crown of Druthal series): This project is well and truly Trunked.  I don't plan on going back to it in the foreseeable future.  Doing it was definitely a valuable learning experience, but the problems it has are fundamental flaws.  Namely, it's a travelogue where the places I wanted the characters to go dictated the plot, rather than the other way around.
  • Thorn of Dentonhill (Book 1 of Veranix series): Finished. I'm currently polishing the synopses of planned sequels so my agent can shop it as a potential series.  But other than that, it's as done as I can make it.    
  • Holver Alley Crew (Book 1 of Holver Alley Crew series): A finished, polished draft.  
  • Maradaine Constabulary (Book 1 of Maradaine Constabulary series): Finished first draft, with tons of notes from my critique group to start the process of the second draft.
  • From Star to Star (Book 1 of Banshee series): The original concept behind this I've more or less utterly scrapped, trashing just about everything except the central character and the name of the ship (though the nature of the name of the ship itself has changed, from being the actual name to an humanization of an alien name.)  I really think the new concept can be a lot of fun, but I need to do a lot of work before real writing can begin.
  • The Way of the Shield (Book 1 of Vanguard series): I still have a full outline, and I've done some more detail work, and some initial writing.  But it's only been starting to come together now, since I've just figured out some key things about the main character that were eluding me.
Now, what else is there? A few things that are really just at the Initial Concept stage: characters, setting, rough starts and scraps.  There's the tentatively named "Starstruck", an alien abduction/space opera story, "Zodiac 13", a modern/soft-sci-fi action adventure, and the scintillatingly titled "Untitled YA Project".  Those might, of course, never coalesce into an actual written works.  Lord knows I have stuff in the graveyard.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Short and Sweet

I don't have a lot of time right now, so I'll make this post brief.  Just a bit of news.

I'm now represented by Mike Kabongo of the Onyxhawke Agency.

This is awesome, and I am thrilled. But it means I've got some work I have to get to RIGHT NOW. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Worldbuilding: Listening to the whispering muse

I'm not much of one for personifying my process, or presenting it as being something outside of myself, out of my control.  I'm not a fan of, as I once heard it called, "method writing", which is a very accurate description.  (Side note: as an actor, I was also not fond of method acting.  I'm never one to question a process that delivers results, but more often than not I saw "method" being used as an excuse not to follow direction rather than a process that generated a remarkable performance.) 

Were I, though, to personify my muse, it would be something of a wild-eye, chain-smoking, unshaven conspiracy theorist, complete with a Wall of Crazy of plot points, character sketches, long-term plans, connections and concepts. 

See, sometimes the muse comes and whispers things that feel completely useless, in terms of actually writing.  Just this weekend my brain started revving on things like Druth astronomy (and thus astrology) and playing cards and putting all the saint-day holidays in the calendar.  Will any of these things come into play in any of the books I've completed* or are currently drafting?  I don't know.  But on some level, I want that stuff worked out. 

So I've got to get back to work.  If I don't name these other planets and constellations (with their classic Kieran names, since all astronomy has its roots in the Kieran Empire, and it remains a language of scholarship), then someone will start putting out his cigarettes on my arms.  Metaphorically, that is.


*- "Completed" is a relative state, of course.  There's the difference between a complete, polished draft that I'm shopping, and the eventual Final Finished State a book might be in.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Worldbuilding: Avoiding the Generic

I was going to talk about maps and food today.  Then I decided I needed to rework the map in question.  Looking at it again, I was unhappy with it-- mostly in how it looked.  I knew I could do it cleaner and better.  So I started work on that this week, but it was too much to get done before today's post.

I've heard some writers dislike using maps because they don't want to "lock anything in" before it's time to write that.  Whatever is over the next hill is in a quantum state, undefined until someone goes to have a look.  I respect that, but it doesn't work for me.  I need to know what's over the next hill, so I know why my characters might want to go there in the first place.  More to the point, when I'm writing, I crave the solid ground of the map, to have those details at the ready for when I need them.  If those details exist, then everything comes off more real.

There is a strange tendency in fantasy worldbuilding, both on the professional and fledgling level, to be almost painfully non-specific.  Especially within cities.  Vague shops on unnamed streets.  Neighborhoods with little definition beyond rich or poor, east or west.  No personality.  No character.  No sense that the city is anything of greater depth than Generic City.  Could be anywhere.  Sometimes a little bit of name is given, but it's even worse: neighborhood names that are purely descriptive.  The wealthy part of town is the Golden Quarter.  The slums are Beggar's Row.  

Worldbuilding like that makes me feel like the writer didn't care about the world.  And if they don't, how can they expect the reader to?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Worldbuilding: Wonder and Amazement

So here's a question for you worldbuilders: Do you have a subscription to National Geographic?


Get one.

Regardless of what kind of worldbuilding you do, odds are there will be articles in National Geographic that will be useful or interesting to you.  Frankly, I don't know of a single resource out there that would be better for compiling together the kind of fascinating cultural, biological, geological and historical information that any worldbuilder would want to get their hands on.  Every issue is chock full of ideas you can use.

Some favorites:

Paris Underground: This one was so critical.  Maradaine is an old city, with lots of underground sewers, catacombs and forgotten tunnels.  The article helped me clarify depths, usage, and practicality.

Angkor: The ancient city, then and now.  A good encapsulated look at a non-Western culture's ancient style and engineering.

Incas: Another great look at a historical culture.


Next time, we'll talk more about food.  And maps.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Worldbuilding: Crawling Towards Advancement

Today's required reading: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. 

A look at chemistry through the lens of history, The Disappearing Spoon talks about every element on the periodic table, its properties and its history, not to mention the history how the periodic table itself came about.  I found it a fascinating read, and the history of science in general is a subject I feel gets something of a short shrift, both in academia (in study of history or science) and in worldbuilding.

Until this century, science was something someone could putter around with.  There were, of course, men (and women) of scholarship working out of universities.  But there was plenty of science being done, more or less, by the bored and wealthy as a hobby.  A lot of discoveries came about through trial and error of people filling up their spare time.  X-rays, for example, were discovered by someone who was just messing around with different stuff to see what would happen.  When said messing around resulted in a picture of his bones, he was convinced he had actually gone insane, and in order to prove to himself that it wasn't real, he kept repeating it over and over, and then showed it to his wife (who fainted dead away). 

Most science was done with the time honored tradition of the following steps.
  1. Poke something.
  2. See what happens.
  3. Poke it again and see if it happens again.
Secondary worldbuilding tends to ignore science and the history of science.   I've been guilty of it as well.  History in secondary worldbuildingn tends to be mostly about kings and nations and wars.  But the history of a civilization is more than that.  When looking at your world's history, ask yourself: Who was the Socrates of this world?  Who was the Pythagoras?  The Isaac Newton?  Galileo?  Kepler?  Pastuer?  Curie? 

Will this stuff come into play in what you write?  Probably not.  But it's always more interesting when you know it.

The other good reason to read The Disappearing Spoon?  Little bits of science trivia you just might apply in your worldbuilding.  Here's a free one: copper is a natural disinfectant, killing bacteria.  Water piped through copper pipes won't have bacteria, nor will copper coins or doorknobs. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Worldbuilding: How We Fall

Next bit of Required Reading for worldbuilding is also by Jared Diamond (seriously, worldbuilders, this man is a goldmine), namely Collapse.  While GG&S is about how and why civilizations prevail, grow and dominate, Collapse is about how and why they fail and fall.

One of the most important lessons from this book is how the prime reason for a civilization to fall is due to resource management failure, and this can happen to just about every civilization.  And does.  I love how Diamond eviscerates the myth that various non-European/Caucasian cultures are these gentle guardians of their environment, while Western cultures are destructive wasters.  For example the whole "Native Americans used every part of the buffalo" thing.  Yes, they did.  And westerners used every part of the cows and sheep, too.  And they pretty much still do on an industrial level.  It's really only now in the modern, household usage that we throw away potentially useful animal products. 

But the other underlying reason for a society to collapse, and for poor resource management, comes back to the Tragedy of the Commons.  This is the fancy name for the idea that for any public resource, it is in the best interest of any individual to A. use as much of it as possible and B. invest nothing in maintaining it.  Problem is, if everyone does that, the resource gets used up.  But this happens all the time, and societies have fallen apart for it.

So in worldbuilding, look at how your societies use their resources, and if that is leading towards collapse.  And the conditions that led up to that. 

In my various Maradaine books, you'll catch mention of a country called Poasia.  Mostly it's in passing, as Poasia had a war with Druthal in the recent past.  Poasia is a nation that is potentially headed towards collapse.  In my initial notes, made years ago, I had made it that Poasia never had a strong agricultural base.  I've since revised that, based on last week's information.  Now its that the resource base is dwindling, and the Poasians have spent decades overmining, overfarming, and pushing the limits of their resources and people.  They mostly ended the war with Druthal because they were literally unable to maintain it. 

Collapse isn't just about the failures, but also the success stories.  Civilizations that excelled at resource management, and how they thrived because of it.  Both Japan and Germany treated their lumber industry like long-term farming.  Those same principles I put into place in Druthal, and helped define the character of the Druth people.

I'm still thinking about how to apply these principles on an interstellar level.  Space Opera is quite fond of "Old Ones", ancient interstellar societies that eventually fall and leave only remnants.  It's fascinating to think about, but I'm still trying to figure out how to make it work practically.