Monday, December 31, 2012

Goals for the Coming Year

So, from my clock, 2012 has a mere 13 hours and change left to it.  2013 is coming, so its high time to set some unrealistic goals for the year:

1. Book deals for Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, and Maradaine Constabulary.  If we're really aiming pie-in-the-sky, this deal will involve the same publisher and all three at once.  That would be very nice, indeed, Universe.  But in the case of all three, I think I've really done what I can do, and it's past time to be focused on the Next Project.

2. Finish Rough Draft of Way of the Shield.  I should have finished this last year, but between various rewrites of the other three, a hectic summer and a few other things on my plate, it didn't come together.  Part of that was due to a flawed outline, which I think I've got a handle on now.  I understand why it wasn't working, which is a big hurdle to clear.  Time to drive it forward.

3. Finish Rough Draft of Banshee.  This is a project that's gone through significant conceptual changes over the years (you may notice that it's no longer USS Banshee, which is one major shift), but I've finally found an angle that combines character, plot and worldbuilding in a way that works pretty well, at least so far. 

4. Attend my first Worldcon.   It's in San Antonio, it's literally taking the place of ArmadilloCon this year, so it's what I'm doing.  Hopefully I'll have something good to do there.  (See point 1)

5. Have a good reason to start second books of Thorn, Holver Alley or Constabulary.  See point 1.

6. Hash out some of these random ideas into usable outlines.  Because if I accomplish 2 & 3 before I accomplish 1, I'll have no good reason to do 5.  So I'll need a new "new project", as it were. 

7. Never give upBut this one's a given.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 In Review

So, a year ago I put out my goals for 2012, for which I can say: some came to pass, some not so much.  I still don't have a book deal, for Thorn, Holver Alley or Maradaine Constabulary.  However, I can honestly say I feel like I'm a lot closer on those.  All three of those were re-drafted or fine-tuned, so this year I have finished-until-a-paying-editor-tells-me-otherwise levels of drafts for all three. I got a really excellent rejection letter for Thorn. So for the first three goals, I'm still a bit short of the line. 

Number 4: Finish Rough Draft of Way of the Shield, did not come together.  I see now that my initial outline for it was woefully flawed.  In outline, it was a politically-themed murder mystery, but that was far too thin.  It needed scope, grandeur, and more antagonists who had a clue.  I need to get back in there and work out the details. I've had recent epiphanies that made things gel in my head.  Now I need to get them onto the page.

I did do more outlining and worldbuilding-- and some scene writing-- for what Banshee has morphed into.  I feel good about how this is coming together.  The bits that I have written, I really like.  But I need to solidify the outline before it really starts to live and breathe as a novel.  The finale is still something of a mystery to me.

Also, had Out of Ink produce one short play, wrote another for this year's.  I wrote an actual short story that I feel pretty good about.  ArmadilloCon and the Writers' Workshop went very well.

All in all, 2012 went strongly.  Not as well as I would have liked, but still: progression on the writers' path.  That's good, though.  It serves as a humbling reminder that I can always do better.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Special Worldbuilding: Religious Texts

Given that it's Christmas eve, I'm not devoting a lot of time to today's blog.  I'm sure you understand.  But I was thinking about religious texts, and how they inform the world one builds.   Now, "inform" is a key thing.  They are a great supplement to what you write.  It's probably not a great idea to actually include it in one's work.

I hadn't actually written out any significant religious texts for Druthal.  The Druth Bible, as it were (The Books of Saints and their Deeds) is mostly a collection of saintly stories, fables and parables, collected from all over Druthal.  In some ways, it has as much in common with the works of the Brothers Grimm as the Christian Bible.

Now, the Acserians, to the south of Druthal, are a lot more codified and rigorous in their religious texts.  Their bible, the Acseram, is a more classical religious text.  Back when Crown of Druthal was a thing I was working on, I wrote this bit from the Acseram: The Book of Nalesta, Chapters 1-6:

1               Here is the life, as I have come to understand it, of the Great Prophet of God. I have known the man, his words, his thoughts, the touch of his hand, for I am Nalesta, born in Heniza to Traalen and Yienna, and I served at his arm as a disciple to his teachings. I know not how the Great Prophet knew God, but I knew God through him, and his light and his word and his greatness will shine on the world like the sun through me.
2               The Great Prophet was born by the name of Acser, which he humbly kept through his days, in the city of Poriteiza, to a family that had been privileged with the favor of the Kierans. His father was Icseien, who was the son of Telees. Acser grew knowing little but comfort, no worries of hunger, no worries of poverty, no worries of violence, no worries of ignorance. He was friendly with Kieran and Futralian, and greeted all with an open hand of warmth.
3               One day in his sixteenth year, the Great Prophet took his boat onto the lake, since he did love little more than to take his day fishing. This day he did so without friend or manservant. This day his line was pulled by a fish stronger and mightier than he had ever known. This day, he was pulled from his boat under the water. His man on the shore saw him go under the water, and swam to save him. He was pulled to shore, but he breathed not, and his head was bloodied. The servant wailed and cried at the death of his master.
4               A beautiful hawk flew down from the sky, and landed on the chest of The Great Prophet, and in moments he again drew breath. He was confused, but joyous. He had died and seen the face of God. He had heard His words in his heart. He kissed his man, telling him he would return, and walked to the east, to the high mountains. The bird stayed on his shoulder.
5               Five years later, he came back down. He returned to the city of his birth, now a man. At his arm was his first disciple, the dark traveler who had wandered from the far east, far beyond Mahabassa, far beyond the seas, who was known as Hiedrovik. On his shoulder was the bird, proud and noble. The Great Prophet first went to the Kieran Stronghold, and demanded to be let into the prison there. It was in a cell, chained to a wall, that his old servant was found, imprisoned for all believed he had drowned his master years before. “Walk free, good friend,” The Great Prophet told him, “And serve no man, for you are now given to God, and He declares that your suffering must now end. And so did this servant, Zanik, find himself free and at The Great Prophet’s arm as his second disciple.
6               He spoke in the streets of the Word of God. “We are all His Spirit. Our Souls are the very essence of God. They are pure fragments of his will, poured into our flesh, gifts of his love for us.” In the streets, he was asked, “Is this all men, and all women, be they Futran or Kieran or Mahaban or Kindric?” And the Great Prophet said that God touches us all, every man and woman. In the streets, he was asked, “If we are all the essence of God, then why are some men wicked?” “The flesh of the body is of the earth, and like the clay we built with, it sometimes can crack, it sometimes can break,” said The Great Prophet, “God did pour our souls in our flawed bodies, for it was no test of our goodness were there not the possibility of temptation, unless we can fail. He knows of this, that we can be wicked, so it is all the more great when we are holy and pure.”
Happy holidays, one and all.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wide Sprawling Epic Casts

It's the nature of sci-fi and fantasy to go big, and big means a cast of "main" characters in the dozens, and hundreds of minor characters.  And, as much as I love that sort of thing, it is in this very aspect that a lot of said big, sprawling epics just lose me completely.

Because the writer doesn't necessarily get me to give a good damn about who these people are.

I'm going to pick on a specific example, in that it was one that didn't work for me, personally.  I know there are plenty of people who love it, of course, but I'm not one of them: The Honor Harrington Series.  Now, I liked the first book fine, and several of the subsequent books.  But over time it lost me, and I think a large part of that was the enormous sprawl.  The shear volume of characters involved is incredible, and I salute anyone who can keep track of all that.   Frankly, there wasn't a character I really connected to, really felt endeared to, besides Honor and Chief Harkness.  Chief Harkness is a minor character, but he was a lot of fun, and in In Enemy Hands, he plays a key role.*   Whenever one of those two characters were center stage, I enjoyed things.  When they weren't, not so much.  And even though Honor is the main character, she is not center stage a lot

The following book, Echoes of Honor, is structured in alternating sections-- one section details Honor, Harkness and others on a prison planet, the other section just... other stuff.  Slogging through those sections was rough, because I just didn't care about who was on the ruling council of Manticore or the People's Republic (especially since those people were A. relatively disposable, B. easily interchangeable and C. by design, horrible and stupid.)  Now, of course, in both cases, these are the "bad guys" of the novels, for all intents, and you're not supposed to "like" them.  But you should be able to enjoy them, and I didn't find any of that.  And, frankly, many of the characters I was supposed to "like" I didn't find particularly engaging, either. 

So, for me, HUGE parts of that book, as well as many other books in that series, lacked any hook.  These people could live or die, and I really didn't care, as long as they never had another meeting. 

Now, why didn't I care?  Was this my fault as audience, or the writer's fault?  I can take some of the blame, and I don't want to attack Mr. Weber in any way, but I think a lot of it has to lie on his shoulders.  As for why, I think it ties into what I talked about on Monday-- when it comes down to it, I don't think he believes in his antagonists.  By this, I mean, he sets them up as strawmen to fail.  When they argue their positions, it's usually a flawed, if not downright stupid argument.  They enact plans that the narrative tells us is doomed to failure.  They're not just playing checkers while Honor and her allies play chess; they're just flinging the checker pieces at her king and don't understand why that doesn't mean they win.

I'm exaggerating for effect, but the point stands: they aren't people, at least I don't feel the author believes in them as people.  And if they aren't people, I can't invest in them. 

And this ties into where I was going wrong with Shield.  My two main antagonists were weak.  One was a strawman of wrongness; whatever your personal political leanings are, imagine an absurdist, reductive take on that.  And the other one was a cynical user of the first one.  He might as well have a tattoo on his forehead: "I AM USING YOU AS MEANS TO MY OWN END".  That's not what I needed to make Shield an interesting book.  I needed these guys to be the heroes of their own stories.

One of my favorite bits in Thorn of Dentonhill involves only the antagonists.  It works, in my humble opinion, because I did my best to make them their own characters.  I haven't-- yet-- succeeded on that same level with my Shield antagonists.  Maybe I need to figure out what's the story is that they are the hero of. 


*- But even still, I had to go look that up.  The fact that the name of the character I liked the most who wasn't the title character wasn't in my brain signifies something.  It might be my failing memory.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dark Side of Outlining

So, I was reading back through what I had written for Way of the Shield, trying to figure out what wasn't working, and why it wasn't.  I am still most likely to keep my attention focused on Banshee, but the problems with Shield are now becoming clear.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that I was thinking more about the long-game instead of this book as it's own standalone.  There were choices that, in essence, I wasn't letting myself make because they weren't fitting my predetermined plan.  It was the writing equivalent of not moving any chess pieces because I was saving them for later. 

And the real problem with that boiled down to this: that's not who Dayne was.  Dayne is the throw-himself-on-a-grenade type.  And in not writing the story with that same hell-bent care, it wasn't working.

This is, of course, the potential problem with outlining in general: letting it be a trap.  I know more often than not I've caught myself thinking, "I can't have that, because it goes against [future plot point that I haven't actually written yet]."  Why was I beholden to that?  Because I had a plan

Now, this tends to be the argument of those who prefer not to outline: if I outline, then I'm STUCK.  I'm LOCKED ON THE PATH. 

And this isn't true.  But it is sometimes challenging to see that straying from the path can lead to a clearer road once you're already lost in the woods.

The other problem I was having stems, to a degree, from the outline as well, in that in the outline, my antagonists were not well-defined.  So, at least in this work-in-progress rough draft, they were coming off as one-dimensional strawmen.  They were just wrong people who were wrong in thinking wrong things wrongly.  They were only the heroes of their own story if you accept that their story was about stupid people.  And that's not interesting. 

So that's my challenge, before diving back into that project (eventually): figuring out who the antagonists REALLY are, and from that, how they'll implement their goals, and what the consequences of them doing that are.  And to be willing to have real consequences hit my protagonists. 

Because, when it comes down to it, I was essentially protecting a "status quo" that doesn't really exist yet.  Why do that?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 5

Parts one, two, three and four of looking at Star Trek: Enterprise's third season Xindi Arc.

"Home", the third episode* of the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise served as an epilogue to the Xindi Arc, primarily by dealing with the emotional fallout of the character subplots.   Specifically, it focused on Capt. Archer, and Trip & T'Pol.  Both of these aspects work fine in terms of the episode itself.  For Archer, he's somewhat broken by the things he did in the Delphic Expanse.  He specifically mentions the theft of the warp core, which as mentioned last week, was his greatest sin.  But beyond that, his optimism about exploration in general is broken, despite the fact that things did end relatively well. This ties into the one other minor plot thread in "Home"-- the Enterprise crew might be hailed as heroes, but there are some people who aren't thrilled with the fact that they had spent two years running around space saying, "Hey, we're from Earth.  Come on over and smack us around, why don't you?"**  For Trip & T'Pol, their subplots of his grief over his dead sister (more or less resolved in "The Forgotten") and her emotional damage due to self-inflicted Trellium exposure*** dovetailed into their semi-romantic friendship.  So they go to Vulcan together, and deal with T'Pol's family drama. 

So, in the end, what worked, and what didn't in the Xindi Arc?

For me, the broad brushstrokes worked: a threat is presented, and to defend themselves from that threat, core principles are challenged and strained.  Despite that, in the end, it is those core principles that saves the day: friendship is achieved with (most of) the Xindi council, creating a lasting peace through conversation. 

What didn't work, though, is how things went in terms of character.  Specifically, character never tied into plot in a real organic way.  The closest was with Archer, who's moral center was challenged, but that balance between what he needed to do and what he had to bring himself to do always came more with an axe instead of a scalpel.  Archer doesn't get a slow descent into darkness.  He gets one questionable moment (putting a pirate in an airlock to get answers) and one really bad no-win scenario (the theft of the warp core).  Beyond that, what does he do?  True, he doesn't blow up the refinery in "The Shipment", but that seems less of a Moral Choice, and more thinking in terms of long-term strategy: going in guns blazing isn't the smartest thing to do if you've only got one shot at that, and you haven't found the right target.  In the final third of the season, Archer seems ready-- even eager-- to die for the cause, but why he's gone semi-suicidal isn't really explored.  Despite Daniels coming from the future TWICE to tell him, "Yeah, you're important, you can't die," he seems hellbent on it anyway.  There is a bit of lip service of not wanting to order someone else to their deaths, but that wasn't something ever really discussed.

What also didn't work was the lack of focus.  Most of the first two-thirds is spent wandering: some of it ties to the Xindi or the Spheres, but the rest is largely irrelevant.  It doesn't move the plot, nor is it called back later.  So it doesn't serve a purpose.  Perhaps if it had done more worldbuilding of the Expanse, creating encounters that mattered, so that they could be called upon at the endgame, then it would have seemed more meaningful.  And that would have also tied into a Trek solution: humans build communities, create allies, so when the chips are down, friends come to their aid.  But no species in the Expanse really were important other than the Xindi and the Spherebuilders.  The Spherebuilders were, at the core, the Big Bad, and the Xindi-- while having solid individual character-actors-- themselves had no definition beyond "five subspecies in fractious alliance". 

As counterpoint, I might present the end of Farscape's second-season.  After two seasons of more or less random encounters-- those stand-alone episodes-- the crew is faced with having to do a Big Crazy Plan.  And to pull it off, John Crichton calls on various species and people they've met along the way.  Now those stand-alone's tie into the solution, and to worldbuilding as a whole. 

But, credit where it's due: they took chances, and in the end, created something that had value.  In my recent re-watch of it all, I was largely entertained.  With a little more streamlining and focus (which, admittedly, in the world of episodic television, especially a decade ago, is challenging), it really could have stood out as something special. 

*- The first two episodes had nothing to do with the Xindi storyline.  Instead it involved time-traveling Nazi aliens, and served mostly to tie off the Temporal Cold War storyline, which had never been very well handled.  "Zero Hour" ended with an exceptionally bizarre Hail Mary of a cliffhanger, and those episodes are at best a serviceable affair of digging themselves out of that hole, as well as the entire TCW one. 
**- Though you have to wonder why, when the Xindi weapon showed up, Earth's only defense was, apparently, a single Andorian cruiser.  It made for some satisfying drama, but didn't make much sense.
***- A clumsy drug-addiction metaphor.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 4

Parts one, two and three

The third act of the Xindi Arc is pretty action packed.  On some level, it does make up for the heel-dragging and aimlessness of the first two thirds:  Episodes are: "Hatchery", "Azati Prime", "Damage", "The Forgotten", "E2", "The Council", "Countdown" and "Zero Hour".  

Of these eight, really only two are inessential: "Hatchery" and "E2".  But both of them do speak to the character of the Enterprise crew.  Since the one character-arc that's really tied to story-arc is "How far will Archer go?", to a degree "Hatchery" answers the question, "How far will the crew let him go?"  Now, it approaches it from a different angle, where Archer goes to extreme measures to help a creche of Xindi-Insectoid infants, and the crew, sensing something wrong, engage in a mini-mutiny.  As Archer is Being Affected By Something (a Trek staple to avoid actual conflict or responsibility), the real conflict boils down to the crew vs. Major Hayes, since Hayes just follows orders.  This is also the closest thing we get to something resembling focus on the Xindi-Insectoids, who in terms of story never amount to actual characters, simply additional muscle to back up the Reptilians.  "E2" is a kind of fun what-might-be time-travel episode, where the crew meets their descendents from a failed future-version of their mission, but other than turning the screws a bit tighter on the Trip/T'Pol romance, it's largely a placeholder.

That said, the three in between those episodes, "Azati Prime", "Damage" and "The Forgotten" do a very nice job illustrating the Collapse-Retreat-Recovery aspect of the Twelve-Part structure.  The ship is really hammered, but at the same time Archer makes some connection with Degra and the other Xindi-Primates.  It's here that the core Trek principles are pushed to their limits: having discovered the Xindi world-destroyer weapon, the first plan is just to blow it up.  This goes wrong, and Archer gets captured, but in being captured, he uses his knowledge from "Stratagem" to his advantage.  This convinces Degra enough to at least listen, and stop the Reptilians from attacking the Enterprise.  Degra (with the help of the semi-enigmatic Aquatics) returns Archer to the broken ship, and sends message for a secret rendezvous a few light-years away.  The ship being in such a state, making that rendezvous is impossible without a new warp-coil.  Fortunately, there's another damaged ship nearby, and Archer feels forced to take theirs by force in order to make the meeting.  This is without question his lowest point, committing for all intents an act of piracy in the name of saving Earth.  It's very non-Trek, which works excellently for the sake of drama.  Capt. Archer is torn up to do it, but he feels he has no choice.  You could easily see, for example, Cmdr. Adama, John Crichton or Malcolm Reynolds doing the exact same thing under the same circumstances.  The only question is, would they feel the same weight?  As horrible as the act is, it is in service of, ultimately, a Trek-solution: solving the Xindi situation through dialogue instead of violence.

Of course, the cracks in the plotting armor are quite evident.  Degra could have this clandestine meeting somewhere easier for Archer to reach, given that Degra knows the state Enterprise is in.  He even could just go to Enterprise directly, and not even be clandestine.  The need for secrecy from the Reptilians (and Insectoids) is a bit artificial.  And that's a big part of the problem with this plotting, in that it forces Enterprise to go from Point A to Point B (this necessitating the stolen warp coil) and then from Point B to Point C (this using the subspace passage that creates the timetravel accident in E2, which is neatly avoided, meaning the second Enterprise may have "never existed".)  It's mostly hoop-jumping so Degra can use Archer as a surprise in "The Council".

"The Council" is, in theory, Archer presenting his case that Earth is not a danger to the Xindi and that the Sphere-Builders/Guardians have been playing the Xindi for their own purposes.  It's the latter point that is most crucial, since the Guardians are worshiped as deities by the Xindi, though they were unaware of the connection between the Guardians and the Spheres.  While the Xindi Council has five groups, really only three matter: the Arboreals back up the Primates, and the Insectoids back up the Reptilians.  And the Aquatics are the enigmatic deciders.  In terms of character, it really boils down to Degra (Primate) and Dolim (Reptilian). 

It should be noted that Randy Oglesby and Scott MacDonald deserve a lot of praise.  Both are journeyman actors who have done tons of guest roles on various shows, including all four of the modern Treks.*  They do solid work, often under a lot of latex, and you have to respect that kind of actor. In fact the real dramatic centerpiece of "The Council", and to a degree the turning point of the story arc itself, is between these two actors. 

The final wrap-up of "Countdown" and "Zero Hour" is serviceable, in that the Xindi-Reptilians cement their role as the irredeemable villains, who have tied themselves to the Guardians.  The Guardians, of course, want to reshape reality-- terraforming our space, as it were, to one that they can survive in.  The Reptilians are their willing dupes.  Even the Insectoids wise-up, though all they do is wonder why the Spheres are suddenly working to help their efforts to destroy the Earth before the Reptilians sudden-but-inevitable betrayal.  The final push, in which Archer enlists Reed and Hoshi to destroy the weapon, saving the Earth, while Trip, T'Pol and Phlox destroy the Spheres themselves, saving the Xindi (and all of reality)-- is entertaining and fun, but sadly mostly involves pushing buttons and punching aliens.  The highlight in terms of What-Makes-It-Trek is not the bit where annoying-time-travel-exposition-fairy Daniels pulls Archer to the founding of the Federation (to convince Archer not to sacrifice himself, something Archer is pretty hellbent to do).  Instead, it's the moment where the Andorians show up to help defend the Earth.  Jeffery Combs-- another strong member of Trek character-actor stable-- sells the hell out of it as the Andorian Commander Shran, and that's a lot of fun. 

But in the end, it's a Big Finale: Things go Boom, and the Day Is Saved?  Is that all there is?  Is that all there can be?  That's the big question remaining.

*- I'm fairly certain that the two of them and Jonathan Frakes are the only actors to appear in all four modern Treks.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 3

A continuation of my analysis of the Xindi-arc of Star Trek: Enterprise.  Parts one and two.

The argument could be made that the first third was a "slow build", putting pieces in play that would be needed later.  While there is some truth to that (Rajiin introduces the idea of the Xindi working on a biological weapon as a Plan B, and Exile has a B-plot in which a connection between the Spheres and the Anomalies is made clear-- but both of those are drops of data in otherwise wheel-spinning exercises.) 

So, onto the middle third of the arc, things should pick up?  Should, yes.  But doesn't.  This middle third batch of episodes are: North Star, Similitude, Carpenter Street, Chosen Realm, Proving Ground, Stratagem, Harbinger and Doctor's Orders.  Of this batch of eight, only three do any heavy lifting in terms of the arc plot, and they're back-to-back-to-back: Proving Ground, Stratagem and Harbinger.  The rest are very mushy mushy-middle stuff. 

The two biggest missteps are North Star and Carpenter Street.  Strictly speaking, Carpenter Street does do some arc-work, but it's not compelling.  Both these bits suffer from having an "neat idea" supersede what the story arc really needs.  In the case of North Star, it was doing an old-school, Original-series style of episode where they come across a planet that's a History Planet instead of an alien world, in this case, the Old West, and it doesn't tie to the Xindi arc at all.  It's disposable.  For Carpenter Street, it's having the characters time-travel to modern-day Earth.  For that, it does tie to the arc, in that they go back to stop Xindi Reptilians in Earth's past who are preparing the biological weapon.  The time travel is so incidental for both parties, it's pure handwavium, and raises more "If they can do that..." questions than the arc wants to answer.  It does, in the end, provide Capt. Archer with something tangible, and that proves important later... but that could have been achieved without the time travel mess.

Chosen Realm is largely disposable, but it throws a small long-term setback into the mix by having all the data they've collected on the Expanse and the spheres deleted from their computer.  It's only small because it doesn't seem to slow them down significantly.  It also introduces the idea of Who Built The Spheres, and that said Builders might be worshiped.  Similitude and Doctor's Orders are also relatively disposable, but both of them are, at least, nice character pieces.  Similitude again pushes the character-arc question for Capt. Archer: how far will he go to succeed?  In this case, he allows a sentient being to be born and live for a short period of time in order to save Trip's life, on the principle that he cannot succeed without Trip.  The plot requires a lot more of sci-fi handwavium (Dr. Phlox happens to have a Morally Questionable Miracle in the back of his cupboard...), but it works if you can swallow that pill.  Doctor's Orders is fun enough, carried largely by John Billingsley's charm.  It does built off the idea that the Spheres are Changing Space, set up in Harbinger, so that helps give it some purpose.

Fortunately, Proving Ground, Stratagem and Harbinger do some good work.  The first two bring the Xindi and the Xindi Weapon into focus, largely through Degra, the Xindi-Primate who is responsible for actually designing the weapon.  An excellent job is done in these episodes changing him from a Nameless Councilmember to a real character, someone who has agreed to do something terrible because he believes it's necessary.  Strategem in particular, is a fun exercise, because it plays the "You don't remember but it's been a few years and we're friends now" trope in reverse-- having our protagonists be the perpetrators of the trick instead of the victims.  But in doing so, Archer gets to know Degra the Man, as opposed to Degra the Weapon Builder, which also helps shift things towards a more Trek-oriented Final Solution.  Harbinger, of these three, does suffer somewhat because it feels more disposable than it actually is: it's mostly character work, filling the time from the travel-with-purpose to Azati Prime (the location of the weapon construction, learned in Strategem) to work on character subplots.  It turns the screws on the Trip/T'Pol romance, as well as the Reed/Hayes hostility.  And, as mentioned, it sets up the Real Villain: The Sphere Builders.  In doing that, the stakes are changed. 

However, one should avoid having the word "disposable" being used too much, especially in the middle third of a storyline.  It leads your audience to wander away and say, "I don't know what's going on, really".  And who wants that?  In terms of twelve-part structure, I feel like this only really brings us to Part Five: Payback (with the Sphere Builders being brought into play showing the real stakes).  Five/twelfths of story when we're two-thirds in?  Problematic.  But it does offer the opportunity for a fast-paced final act.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Archetypes, Rituals and Tropes

First of, let me say I'm going to be talking about Cabin in the Woods here.  So, because this is a movie that it matters for: there will be SPOILERS for Cabin in the Woods.


After watching this movie, it sparked a very specific memory from back in college.  No, I didn't go on a doomed camping trip.  But I did try my hand at writing a by-the-numbers horror script, just to see if I could do it.  The result was a script called Stacks of Evil.  This was in '94.  Watching Cabin in the Woods reminded me just how by-the-numbers Stacks of Evil was.  It hit every single point that is part of the Cabin in the Woods sacrifice ritual.  For the folks Downstairs in Cabin, the events of Stacks would have served perfectly.

Though it would have been a woefully mediocre movie.

But seriously: five college friends (A Good Girl, A Bad Girl, A Jock, A Brain and a Drunk, aka The Virgin, The Whore, The Athlete, The Scholar and The Fool) all decide they are going to sneak into the school's library to spend the night.  Why?  Because, that's why.  They press on despite the warning of the janitor (The Harbinger).  After some partying in the library, the Jock and Bad Girl split off, and the Drunk wanders off.  The Drunk, specifically, commits the Transgression.  He breaks into a locked room and knocks over a jar that houses a vengeful demon.  The Demon then kills the Bad Girl, the Jock and the Drunk, in that order.  The Brain and the Good Girl manage to figure out what's going on, and how to potentially stop it, until the Brain is killed, leaving the Good Girl alone to fight the good fight and survive to be the Final Girl.  Because that's how it's done. 

And I totally had it down that that is how it's done back in '94.

Because I knew my horror tropes.

Now, I'm not claiming that I wrote Cabin in the Woods first, because I didn't, because Stacks was nowhere near that clever.  Though I did have a meta- ending*.  But it does show how pervasive those tropes that Cabin plays with are.  It hits the notes perfectly because they are so well known.** 

After watching Cabin, I went into a TV Tropes hole for a bit, reminding myself about not only horror tropes, but sci-fi and fantasy ones.  One thing I love about the Tropes page is the reminder that "Tropes are not Cliches"-- these are the broad brushstrokes of storytelling archetypes.  Whether a writer makes them cliche is based on what they are doing with them.  With Stacks, I was pretty much trying to be as cliche as possible.  Cabin shows one can take those tropes and do something fresh and clever with them-- even with the fact that they ARE tropes in the first place. 

*- Namely, after the Virgin "wins", there's a final "Jump Scare" where the demon comes back up, but then the film crew rebels and declares the whole thing ridiculous and goes home, leaving the demon decidedly unscary without special-effects backing him up.  Kind of dumb, really.
**- My wife, not being a horror movie fan-- at least, American horror-- was not familiar with these tropes, so much of the meta- aspect of the movie was lost on her.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 2

As I mentioned earlier, I'm analyzing a flawed structure as part of an exercise to improve my own writing, specifically using the third "Xindi Arc" season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Now, let's look at the beginning section of the arc, the first third.  This would consist of the second-season finale "The Expanse" as prologue, and the first eight episodes of the third season: "The Xindi", "Anomaly", "Extinction", "Rajiin", "Impulse", "Exile", "The Shipment" and "Twilight".

In three-act parlance, which I'm not a big fan of, this is all Act I.  And, as far as I'm concerned, that's part of the flaw here: these episodes mostly serve to put the pieces on the board, and there really aren't that many pieces.

The Prologue set-up of "The Expanse" does its job relatively effectively, but it doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny.  Earth is the victim of a Pearl Harbor/9-11 style surprise attack, killing seven million people.  The attack comes from a single-occupant probe of unknown origin.  Here's where part of the problem comes in: rather than have Starfleet actual figure out its origins, at least in part, answers are  handed to Capt. Archer by an exposition fairy from the future.  And said answers, as they usual are from poorly conceived exposition fairies, do little more than nudge in the right direction.  In other words, the information they gain could have been gained in a less clunky way, and have been just as useful.  But "The Expanse" sets the tone, puts a name to the adversary (The Xindi) and a place to find the (The Delphic Expanse).  The Expanse, itself, is set up as the equivalent of the "Here Be Dragons" part of the space map: physical laws don't work right there, and it's so dangerous even Vulcans and Klingons steer clear of it.

The true "Act I" of those eight episodes serve to establish a few core elements: the dangers of the Expanse (tied to bizarre spacial anomalies), which may be connected to a mysterious sphere; the stakes for the crew of the Enterprise, personally and globally; the Xindi themselves.  The problem is, only three of these episodes really effectively achieve these establishment goals: Anomaly, The Shipment and Twilight.  The key points in play in this section are tied to what the crew needs and wants.  They want to find the Xindi, but they really don't know where to start looking on once in The Expanse. They need to keep the ship safe from the spacial anomalies they constantly run into in The Expanse.  For the latter, there is a running subplot involving Trellium-D, a substance that will protect the ship, but that solution isn't acceptable: Trellium-D is toxic to T'Pol, so they can't use it.

This ties into the only real character arc in this section: what is Capt. Archer willing to sacrifice to save the Earth?*  His morality takes a bit of a pounding here, at one point torturing a captive pirate to get the information he needs.  He's also willing to pimp out Ens. Sato to a mysterious alien in "Exile", though that's a sacrifice Hoshi volunteers for.  He spends much of these episodes at the end of his rope, because he really doesn't see the mission as anything more than a ridiculous long shot.  IF they can survive the Expanse, and IF they can even find the Xindi, then they'll still be outnumbered and outgunned.  This comes to a head in The Shipment, where they find a Xindi refining facility.  The materials made at this facility were used in the weapon of the initial attack, and Tucker, Reed and Hayes are all ready to start blowing things up.  Archer, instead, decides to get to know one of the Xindi, and reaches an understanding with a decent man who didn't know what his materials were being used for.  Two key things accomplished: The Xindi aren't All Bad, and Archer moral compass veers back towards where Trek's is supposed to be.

The final step in this part is in Twilight, a psuedo-time travel story that nails home the stakes of failure: Earth will be destroyed if the Enterprise doesn't succeed in their mission, which they don't due to Capt. Archer being incapacitated by on of the spacial anomalies.  It is a classic Trek "reset button", but one with a point.  It doesn't just give us craziness and then undo it.

Even still, the big problem with the arc in this part is it mostly just meanders.  It takes eight episodes to do the work of three or four.**  Extinction, Rajiin and Exile are largely pointless, serving only to provide us with funny make-up, cheap titillation and a poor Beauty-and-the-Beast homage, in that order.

When it comes down to it, the first section only really does the work of the first two parts of the Twelve Part Arc Structure, when it should be doing the first four.  Once the situation is Established in The Expanse/The Xindi/Anomaly, we don't get back on point until The Shipment/Twilight to incite the plot to really start moving.  That aimless wandering in between those points is where an audience is lost. 

Next up: the mushy middle of the Xindi Arc.

*- The other character arcs set-up here are essentially minor bits of business.  Cmdr. Tucker is assigned the personal loss from the initial attack (his sister was among the seven million), but this mostly serves as an excuse to push him romantically towards T'Pol.  T'Pol's main conflict is resolved in the prologue: the Vulcan High Command don't want her on the mission, but she resigns from the High Command to stay on board.  Of the minor four members of the main cast, only Lt. Reed is given anything: bristling against Maj. Hayes, of the newly added MACO forces.      
**- I'll allow that "Impulse" does a fair amount of work of increasing personal stakes, and ties into what the Enterprise can do to keep themselves safe from the anomalies.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 1

Of course, there is much to learn from the masters.  But there is also plenty to learn from mistakes.  And the great thing is, there are so many out there, you don't need to make them yourself. One thing I've made several analyses of is arc structure, specifically in the work I did to create my Twelve-Part Story Structure.  Even the stuff that didn't work.

Now, for these purposes, I want to talk about something that, as a story arc, was a great example of stepping up to the plate, pointing to the fences... and then hitting a double.  Not terrible, but... not really what you were hoping to do, either.

I'm going to talk about the third season "Xindi Arc" of Star Trek: Enterprise.

I can imagine all the raised eyebrows. 

But bear with me here.  Like I said, I'm talking about flawed works.

So, some background: Star Trek: Enterprise was the fifth and final (to date) Star Trek series, and it came loaded with controversy.  As a prequel, set a century and change before the classic Trek, and two centuries before the three other modern versions, it set some fan's teeth on edge from the beginning, for a variety of reasons.*

I enjoyed the show, but where the flaws really stand out in the first two seasons, are when it comes to stakes and drama.  Stakes were, frankly, consistently low, and from that, drama stayed low.  The show barely took itself seriously, aiming more often for light comedy and cheap titillation** over any real human drama.   When you come down to it, for much of the first two seasons, the "mission", such as it was, involved tooling around and delivering fruit baskets to the neighbors.  "Hi, we're from Earth, nice to meet you!"   Yeah, the mission was "explore!", but it came off more as, "Eh, fly around and see what happens."

Season Three was where they changed things up: both in terms of trying something new for Trek in general, and in raising the stakes for the characters themselves.  The stakes were high for the show as well.  In 2003, Firefly had come and gone, BSG had a fantastic beginning***, and Enterprise was almost quaint in comparison.  The need to reinvent themselves was paramount.

So they tried a season-long arc, with a more reactive, aggressive mission.  The underlying hook was pretty simple: Earth suffers a devastating surprise attack, and the Enterprise is the only ship capable of investigating-- and possibly retaliating against-- whoever was behind the attack.  Woven into that was a crucial question: Can Trek maintain its relevance in modern television, while at the same time maintaining the core values of hope and peace that made Trek Trek?  

The overall story-arc consumes the third season, which was a first for Trek, even though DS9 had done more than its share of long-arc plotting.  But the third-season of Enterprise was far more focused towards it's arc plot, dedicating almost every episode**** to the arc, as well as the second season finale as a prologue, and the third episode of the fourth season as epilogue. 

So: we can't fault the ambition behind it.  You can definitely say they tried

With that, next installment I'll break down the arc into its sections, and how each one worked or didn't work.

*- A lot of those reason boiled down to continuity complaints, or rather "continuity", because more often than not, Enterprise didn't contradict established continuity as much as it contradicted fandom presumptions.  There are plenty of legitimate gripes with the series, but I found many hard to take seriously when they boiled down to, "This ruins my fanfic!"
**- Much has been made of the show sexing-up Jolene Blalock, which is totally true.  But, to be fair, they were just as eager to strip absolutely every cast member down whenever they could remotely justify it. 
***- The ending was another story...
****- Almost.  Which is one of the problems I'll get into.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Quick Post

Happy Thanksgiving, all.  I've got pies and stuffing and turkey to make*, so I won't go on for too long on this post**.  I had considered just linking to some past posts, like on worldbuilding holidays or food details.   But I didn't want to be quite that lazy. 

So: state of the writer, thankfulness version.

First and foremost, I'm thankful for by amazing wife, whose love and support have kept me going through this journey.  She's put up with the many, many times I've stayed awake into the wee hours or sequestered myself with headphones on and nose in the computer, accepted the fact that my head is quite literally in some other world half the time, and has kept the fire under my feet when I get distracted.  She's willing for me to not only have giant maps printed, but to have them framed and hung in our studio.  Thanks to her I've got three novels*** in my agent's hands, and more on the way.

Second, my agent.  It's hard to quantify what an agent does for someone, but in the time we've been together, he's been a source of support, as well as inspiration.  He's pushed those three books into being better than they were without him.  He's regularly plugged this very blog.  He's working for me, and he doesn't make a dime from me until we have a sale.  And when we do, you damn well better believe he's earned his percentage. I sure do.

I'm thankful for my health and my energy, and that I've had the ability and freedom to keep working like I have been.  I'm thankful that I've just finished a draft of a short story, and wrote another short play last week.  I'm thankful that I have more ideas than I know what to do with.  Novels are cooking and brewing in this brain, and I have every intention of continuing to crank them out.

I'm thankful for all the people who've given help and advice over the past year and more-- from my mentor and friend Stina Leicht to my worldbuilding brainstorming partner Dan Fawcett to the café manager who doesn't charge me every once in a while because she likes supporting writers.  Too many people to name.  Besides, that's what the acknowledgement page of books are for, right?

All right, time to hit the kitchen, folks.  Have a good one.

*- I'm a traditionalist, but that ties to my roots as a worldbuilder and an amateur food historian.  Turkey, potatoes & corn are all native foods to the Americas.  That's important, in my mind.  That's why desert is a chocolate pecan pie. 
**- I swear, half the times I say that, I end up writing twice as much as a normal post.
***- And two trunked ones.  I don't think anything tests the patience of a writer's spouse quite like a trunk novel. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Out of Ink Season Again

For the past 13 years, I've participated in Austin Scriptworks Out of Ink ten-minute playwriting "fling", as it is called, which basically works like this: Every year in November, on a Friday evening we receive three "rules" for a ten-minute play.  The deadline is 48 hours later (give or take, since it's usually by 6pm on Sunday).  Then eight of those ten-minute plays are selected for production in April-ish. (It varies from year-to-year, but it's usually April.)

It's a process I really enjoy, and it keeps various tools in my toolbox sharp.  This is a key reason why I participate every year. 

2000:  Last Train Out of Illinois (Selected) My first year with Scriptworks, the rules involved boots, a character directly addressing the audience, and someone performing an "aria".  I had, at the time, had the vague idea of a Tom Waitsish Musical called "Last Train Out of Illinois", but all I had was Atmosphere and an Ending. Which is just fine for a ten-minute piece. 

2001: Dead Air On The Open Road (Not Selected) I don't remember all the details, but one of the rules here was an "incongruous element".  So the story involved people in a car breaking down in the desert, and then a foul-mouthed puppet shows up to save them.  When we did the reading, it was actually pretty hysterical, but I can see that as a script, it's rather thin.

2002: Freaks of Nature and Acts of God (Selected) The rules aren't quite in my memory, save "only one chair" as set.  I came up with three young women stuck in a near-empty beach house during a hurricane, who are then rescued by a pizza-delivery guy who has the wrong address.  It's probably the weakest of mine that was chosen.

2003: Danger Girl's Night Off (Selected) The rules dictated 1. something involving superheroes and 2. a seduction, so I immediately thought of a grown-up sidekick who just wanted to have a date night.  This was a lot of fun.  Elements of this story ended up fueling the core ideas behind my story in The Protectors, which you can still purchase on Amazon.

2004: Triangles and Broken Circles (Not Selected)  The rules had something to do with chalk and a ceremony, but what I wrote was pretty much weak sauce.  Can't blame it not being selected.

2005: No Entry.  This year, for budgetary reasons (I think, I could be wrong) the format changed, asking for a 5-minute radio play.  I was at something of a loss with that idea, so I didn't enter this time around.

2006: Alignment of Celestial Bodies (Not Selected) Of the "not selected" ones, this is probably my favorite.  I forget the details of the rules, but it was a sweet romantic story of a couple going stargazing, with an interconnecting Creation-of-the-World Myth of my own creation. 

2007: Hourglass (Selected) I'm really pleased with this one.  The rules involved 1. A physical transformation on stage, 2. a secret and 3. a piece of music connecting to a memory.  This may have been, for me, the most synergous set of rules.  The discovery of an old hourglass reminds an old woman of the true paternity of her child.  Hannah Kenah did really lovely work on stage going from 107 to 20. 

2008: Ten Minutes Ago (Selected)  The play goes backwards!  That was the rule that had to define this one.  The idea I was struck with here was having an innocuous instigation (a woman answering her door) lead to events that had disastrous consequences (her husband and a stranger dead in her living room), and then show it Consequences-Events-Instigation.  This one was challenging to stage, but enjoyable.

2009: The Q (Not Selected) Here, I think I bit off more than I could chew.  The core idea was about people being smuggled out of a quarantine-zone after a biological attack.  I think it ended up too dense and too vague.  I like it, I may revisit it at some point, but I'll admit in the writing, I wasn't quite "feeling" it.  So when it wasn't chosen, I wasn't all that surprised.

2010: Entropy (Selected) "Time is Running Out", "Use the Beginning and End of Finnegan's Wake" and "A Ceremony of Forgetting".  How does this NOT say "two people stuck in a time loop"?  OK, it does to me, because I'm a sci-fi geek. 

2011: Slept the Whole Way (Selected) Again, the rules sent me to an SF place: the play needed to span 3000 years and have 300 characters.  So a cryosleep ship that missed its target and kept everyone in stasis for 3000 years made perfect sense to me. 

2012: I Asked My Friend Art, And He Said It Isn't Him.  Given that I just sent this, and don't know what it's fate is, I won't talk about it too much.  I will say I enjoyed writing it a lot.  I found myself cackling and grinning much of the time, and I'm hoping that's a good sign.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Riding the Muse Where it Takes You

Sometimes it just doesn't come together.  And that's okay.

I'm in a strange position, writing-wise.  Three novels are out there, shopping at various publishing houses.  Any or all could hit tomorrow, or in a month or six months or never.*  If and when that happens, I need to be ready to shift focus to the Needs of Publication-- including and not limited to starting the Book II of whatever series hits. 

But until that happens, it behooves me to continue to produce more first-of-a-series novels, which is where Way of the Shield comes in.  It ties to the other three novels, in that they are all set in the same city at around the same time**, but it is not necessary to the other novels (as they aren't necessary to each other).  While it would be ideal for me to have Way of the Shield done, and get a deal in which all four books are published in rapid succession, that's not necessary either.*** 

This is all a rather long-winded way of me saying that no one, with the possible exception of my agent, is really asking for Way of the Shield to be written right now.  And I'd be willing to bet if I sent him something else, say something space-opera, my agent wouldn't complain. 

Which is good, because The Muse, as it were, has been muttering Space Opera and aliens and interstellar politics and how Lt. Samantha Kengle of the Terran Stellar Fleet wants people to know that the hairless monkeys from Sol III are not to be trifled with.****

And that's what you have to do sometimes: listen to the Muse, and figure out where it's taking you.  Ignoring it, frankly, just makes everything work slower.  And that doesn't mean one project is dead because focus is shifted onto another.  Quite the opposite.  It's getting a chance to breathe. 

*- Personally, I'm hoping more in the tomorrow-to-a-month range, myself.
**- Strictly speaking, Way of the Shield takes place about a week after the end of Holver Alley Crew, which itself starts about a week after Maradaine Constabulary, which starts three days after the events of Thorn of Dentonhill.  Yes, I have a whole calendar.  Yes, I am that obsessively detail oriented about these things.
***- In fact, that's pretty damn pie-in-the-sky.
****- Her language is a bit coarser on the subject.  Sailor's mouth on that one.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Perils of the Writer: False Starts

It hits like lightning across the forebrain.  The Brilliant Idea that will be the Next New Book.  And every thought is consumed with the "Oh, wow!"ness of this new idea.  It's fresh and exciting, especially if it hits in the hard-middle-slog of a novel.  Then, it inhabits your brain like new lover, with promises of how everything is going to be easy and light and problem free and THIS is the project you should be working on.

And the initial worldbuilding snaps together, characters are as clear as day.  You open up a document and just start writing, because isn't that's how it's supposed to be?  Isn't that how real writers write, right?  They just pound it out and go where the story takes them and they do it brilliantly on their first draft and that's what you're going to do this time because it's brilliant and you're brilliant and this is the best novel ever written by anyone ever and--


Somewhere between five and fifteen thousand words, the fiery passion part is burnt out, and then you're poking at those dying embers and realizing, "I don't actually have a plot here, do I?"

So you put it do the side, mourning its failure for a bit.  Get back to work on the things that need work, where the work is paying off, slowly and surely. 

But, of course, the siren call is there, summoning you back with the promise that this time it's going to work.  This time it's going to be brilliant.

I've gone through this particular cycle with USS Banshee  several times now.  I do have a good sense what "went wrong" on my first few attempts: namely, that lack of plot.  But with later ones, it was almost as if I didn't want to actually get to the plot.  Put simply, I kept wanting to just write a "hang out" book.  I was having fun with the various sets of characters in different sections of the ship, just playing with the personalities, showing off shiny toys, that I could never manage to get to the point where they went anywhere for something to actually happen.  One failed draft reached 40,000 words of NOTHING

That's the most prominent false-start in my stable.  I keep coming up with new takes on it, one of which I'm currently quite excited about.  Still hashing it out, but I think this one might work.  But I've thought that before.  Not to mention, there's all the "terminal cases" I have in my writing folders.   But USS Banshee is, frankly, the one I can never give up on.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Worldbuilding, Psychohistory, and the Power of Numbers

So, now our election is over, and if one thing can be declared an uncontested winner, it's Math.  Despite having his vocal detractors, Nate Silver's meticulous statistical analysis of polls produced an electoral college map that was spot on.  You might not like what his results were, but you can't argue with their accuracy.

Any old-school Asimov fan could have told you that.  While I doubt any of us would argue that Hari Seldon's level of psychohistorical projection is probably impossible, there is a simple truth that pure math has no bias. 

Now, applying this to worldbuilding.  I will fully admit that I'm more of a numbers geek than your average writer, so I will do things that would probably make most people weep at the prospect of it.

Take, for example, my latest bit of Build Process, incorporating a dimension of time into my already-complex 150-ly radius Space Opera Setting.  I looked at my several hundred intelligent species*, and even knowing their technology level, I asked myself, "Yes, but who got their first?  How did they expand?"

So, I start with some assumptions, some of which probably have underlying errors, but work in terms of large-scale worldbuilding as a whole. It also works in terms of applying the Guns, Germs and Steel ideas on an interstellar scale.

Assumption #1: That all intelligent species in question, in this patch of interstellar neighborhood, were all at an equivalent state of Intelligent, Pre-Civilized Hunter/Gatherer at the same time.  This is a HUGE presumption, especially in terms of evolution and cosmic time.  It more or less requires some form of direct Precursor Intervention, which I've included in the model.  The point is, the bell is rung at 11,000 BC, and at that point, every species starts the race.

Assumption #2: All species hit certain Technology Level Benchmarks, and the time ratio for those benchmarks is consistent.  These benchmarks are broad brushstrokes, and don't represent the details of how a culture gets from A to B to C, or exactly what that Tech Level might mean at any given point.  But it takes into account that the journey from Pre-Civilization to Early Metalworking is a much longer one than from Late Industrial to Technological. 

Now, with those two assumptions, I add in two Randomizing factors to tweak those ratios for each Alien Civilization.  One broadly represents Ingenuity-- how quickly a species as a whole comes up with and enacts new ideas-- and the other represents Resources-- having the natural means on hand that enable enacting new ideas.  As per the underlying thesis of the Guns, Germs & Steel Model, Resources is the bigger determining factor. 

For example, for the sake of the model, I assign Humans an Ingenuity Factor and Resource factor of 1.  With the Ingenuity, the range of variance is pretty minute: with one exception (a species I wanted to beat everyone else to space by a wide margin), the range of Ingenuity is between .95 and 1.05.  No species is really significantly smarter than anyone else.** 

Resource Factor had a much bigger range, and small changes in the range could generate much larger effects.  The range was, for the most part, between 0 and 2, but for species that I wanted still in a Hunter/Gatherer phase, the RF might be well into the negatives.***

And then I generate an equation that plugs the IF and RF into the Advancement Ratio I've already created, and: Bam.  I now know to the year when every alien culture breaks the FTL barrier, and where every culture is, broadly speaking, in any given year. 

Now, whether or not this is really useful information for a writer to know, that's debatable.  It certainly falls under the Iceberg Principle of worldbuilding: stuff the reader will never see above the surface.


*- Yes, I am a loon.  We've established this.
**- Not to mention, the "Ingenuity" factor really represents several different factors that don't necessarily tie into "Intelligence", such as broad social factors that could enhance or hamper scientific advancement.  But I'm not a sociologist, and the math here was complicated enough.  A single number that represents all those things broadly was sufficient. 
***- Which could represent a lot of things: a complete lack of domesticatible animals or crops, or a sparsity of easy-to-work metals like copper or tin, for example.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fantasy Fiction and Democracy

Let's face it: democracy is not a key factor in most fantasy fiction.  It is a genre that has its foundations built on a primarily European-based aristocracy/nobility model. One of the tired tropes of the genre is the idea of rule-through-birthright: the king of Return of the King is the great-to-the-infinite-power grandson of a long-gone king, and the rulers of Gondor are "stewards" who have essentially been waiting for an heir of Isildur to bother to show up and claim his throne.  Same thing in The Belgariad: Garion is the heir of the secretly-preserved line of Riva, and the empty throne has waited for the Rivan King to show up for 800 years.

Seriously, these are some patient people, since they go centuries working on the premise of, essentially, a temporary regency waiting for the "proper" ruler to show up, even though the ancestor who last occupied the throne is long out of living memory.*  Why do they put up with this?  Because, apparently, in this type of fantasy, birthright never fades.  Nobility is important.
 I'm not entirely immune to this: Druthal has a king (Maradaine XVIII) whose line comes from the first king of Druthal (Maradaine I), and that line being on the throne was not continuous.  There are some key differences, though: The line broke in the first place because the son of Maradaine I was something of a dullard, so other various lords quietly shuffled him to the side while someone else claimed the throne.  Second, the line was restored to the throne nine centuries later not out of prophecy or divine providence, but because a small group of conspirators discovered that a minor noble they liked was a direct descendant of that dullard son, but more importantly because the current king was a complete and total loon and they were desperate to get rid of him.  So the line claim was really only about giving their revolution a bit of extra legitimacy.  It didn't launch a golden age where everything in Druthal was now wonderful since the Rightful Line was Restored.** 

But, while I have those European nobility influences-- Druthal has a king, not to mention archdukes, dukes, earls and barons-- it also has a Parliament.  An elected Parliament, where the real legislative power lies.  Democracy is a crucial element of how Druthal works.  The people's voice is important, even if it gets corrupted and twisted and bought out from time to time.

I am having fun with that in Way of the Shield, where the partisan make-up of the Parliament, how various aspects of the press interpret what the Parliament does, how people feel about the Parliament (ESPECIALLY Dangerous Fringe Elements) all come into play.  It's messy, because democracy is messy, which is how I like it.

I won't get too political here, but the thing I love about democracy is the element of dissent and disagreement.  I love that I can have an enormous, pitched argument with someone on the polar opposite side of an issue, and the end of the day, we'll both think the other guy is just plain wrong, but neither of us is going to get taken in by the police in the middle of the night for what we said.  And in a little bit, we're going to have an election, and shortly afterwards a little more than half of us will be pleased, and a little less than half will be pissed.  But that little-less-than-half will dust themselves off and gear up for the next fight.  And that's awesome.  That's what it's about.

And, hopefully, I can work a bit of that into by fantasy writing, and get some good drama out of it.


*- Essentially, even though both LOTR and Belgariad have functionally-immortal characters.  Strictly speaking, there is living memory of Isildur and Riva, but it's not amongst the common people living day-to-day under the regency rule.
**- Also note, this is just an incident in the extensive history my insane-worldbuilder brain has created.  It's three centuries before the stories I'm telling.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Perils of the Writer: The Slow Process of Getting the Ball Rolling

¡Feliz día de los muertos!  We're now in November, which for some writerly types, means NaNoWriMo, aka Nation Novel Writing Month.  If you aren't in the know, participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of November.  This translates to writing approximately 16,666 words a day.  Back in the early days of writing, I participated, but I don't anymore, since every month is Novel Writing Month, and at this point in my life, a pace of 50K a month for 12 months is not something I could ever hope to maintain.  Writing at my own pace is just fine by me.

In my opinion, NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise in terms of process, in learning how to write a novel... but not one in terms of results.  The novel you write in one month won't be a particularly useful one, not without significant editing.  Briefly: I think it's a wonderful way to crank out a trunk novel.  One of my trunk novels was, in fact, a NaNoWriMo.*

But exercise and process are important, especially when it comes to getting started.  Getting a novel started is, for me, a very slow and deliberate process, in that the path from conception to writing actual text can take quite some time.  I sometimes make the metaphor of my writing brain being like a kitchen, with various projects on front and back burners.  But then there is other stuff in crockpots on back counters, slowly stewing away for years until they are really ready to work.

Phase One: Conception.   
This is, more or less, the Big Idea phase of things, where the thunderstrike of a Shiny New Story smashes across your brainpan.  It's usually the broadest of brushstrokes: Steampunk Airship Flying Through Alternate Universe Texas!  Secret Telepath War In Manhattan!  Abducted Human Wakes from Hibernation Sleep on a Dying Ship Full of other Abducted Aliens!  Cold hard truth: 75-90% of projects never get out of this phase.  It's always a bit fun and exciting, but it's also easy to mistake that Fun and Exciting for "And now I will write the book".  That never works, at least for me.  Though I suspect that many people-- at least non-writers-- believe that this phase is all you need to write the book.**

Phase Two: Setting.
Once I have an idea, I need to build the place where it unfolds.  I'm a worldbuilder, it's what I do.  For me, this phase is all too crucial: it's about placing the gears that will power the engine behind the story.  This phase can often be the longest, because it is filled with working and reworking things out. If it doesn't work, if it doesn't make sense to me, then the center doesn't hold. Case in point: when I initially conceived my Space Opera Setting, back in 2002, I created some initial star maps with colonies and alien homeworlds and such and so forth.  But as I first tried to write, this signal of WRONG WRONG WRONG across my brain was jamming things up.  Why?  It took a while to realize, but I finally hit upon it: the stars of these colonies and alien worlds, while being in close proximity to Earth, had nothing to do with actual stars close to Earth.  Back to the drawing board.

Phase Three-A: Characters.
Phase Three-B: Circumstances.
I put these two together like this because they tend to go hand in hand, but I can't honestly say which one goes first.  Both things are crucial to figuring out what the actual story is: what's happening, and who it's happening to.  It's a strange, intertwined process that, frankly, I haven't quite mastered.  Trying to craft circumstances without knowing character at the center can yield something soulless and mechanical.  But crafting characters without really knowing the story can make an unholy mess, where you end up with numerous people standing around with very little to do.  The best solution I've found is to, at this phase, focus on just the core characters and the ripe circumstances that initiates things, and let it flow from there.

Phase Four: Outline
Now that I've worked out the key elements, who, what, where, when and (to a degree) why, it's a time for a big helping of how.  Of course, I use my Twelve-Part Structure as a base, writing out about a paragraph for each part.  With that finally in hand, THEN I can start Actually Writing.
*- I gave it significant editing afterwards.  It's still a trunk novel, and that's what it deserves, frankly.
**- This is where those, "I've got a great idea for a book, so you write it and we'll split the profits!" pitches come from.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Worldbuilding: Mapping in 4-D

There's a neat little video out there that shows the various political shifts in Europe over the course of a thousand years.  It's the sort of thing you have to be something of a map/geography/history dork to really get into, but, hey, here I am:

Now, this highlights a startlingly obvious points: the politics of a map change over time.  A LOT.  The question is: does your worldbuilding reflect this?

There is a bad tendency, especially in fantasy, to have the map of the world essentially be: this is how it is, and that's how it's been.  Empires stand for 10,000 years, locked in stasis.  Any changes over the course of history are singular and tied to key events.  No tweaks, no shifts, no growth.

Of course, I understand this.  Doing a full world map (or, even crazier, a full sci-fi map of however many stars to however many light-years) is a lot of work.  To then document even FURTHER the shifts over the course of time is a daunting task, and one you have to be somewhat obsessive to do. 

Which means I try to do it. 

On the Druthal maps, it's a matter of broad brushstrokes and a few generalizations.  For example, far east of Druthal is a nation called Lyrana.  Over the course of history, that land has also been part of the Tyzanian Empire, and the Pagari Nations.  Now, "Pagari Nations" is collective term for a number of city-states in that area.  There were something on the order of fifty different Pagari Nations, but I don't really need to know the details of which were which or what exactly went on between them.   A notation of the area as "Pagari Nations" and that they were fifty-some odd city states at a bronzeworking level of technology that had ever-shifting alliances, wars and trade is all I really need to know.*

Sci-fi mapping is a bit more interesting, because you have two big factors to work in: which planets have intelligent life, and when those civilizations achieve FTL flight.  It's all well and good to note that, distance-wise, two different species might claim a certain planet as a colony.  But if you add in one species has a hundred year headstart on colonizing... then "might" goes out the window.  Am I crazy enough to create a spreadsheet crossing each intelligent species to various technological milestones in order to chart exactly when each one achieves interstellar flight, and then calculate the spread based on that?

What do you think?

*- One could argue that, given as of now all my stories take place in Maradaine, and modern Lyrana barely has an impact on it, let alone it's deep history, that I don't even need to know that much.  But I like to.  It's how I am.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Perils of the Writer: The Uphill Slog

Earlier this week, John Scalzi wrote about finishing his latest project, The Human Division. The part that interested me the most in this post was this bit on the process of writing it:

 For process fans, the first words of The Human Division (which eventually found themselves incorporated into Episode Three) were written on January 11, 2012, at 2:37pm. The final words were written on October 23, 2012, at 12:02am. Most of the words were written in September and October; there were a fair number of words written before then but a lot of that got chucked.
This makes me feel better, personally.

Part of it is the fact that it took him ten months to write it.  It makes me feel like my timetables aren't so terrible.  But the more comforting aspect is how back-end heavy the writing is, because I've found my experience is the same way. 

OK, for the way I write, a typical Novel Rough Draft clocks in around 80,000 words*, and that takes about eight-to-ten months to write.  I would like it to go faster, but, you know, LIFE. 

But this is how it goes:
First 10,000 words (or so): Sprint of awesome excitement.  Cranks out like gangbusters.  Yeah, I totally can DO THIS.  Writing sessions of 1000-1500 words.
10,000-20,000: Whoa.  OK.  This is actually a bit of work now.  Losing that pace.  Need to figure out some stuff that I thought was perfectly clear.  Writing sessions of 500-1000 words.
20,000-50,000: The Long Uphill Marathon of Pure Pain.  Nothing is working.  I can't do this.  WHY DID I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?  My outline for this part is woefully inadequate.  I HAVE NO CLUE HOW TO GET FROM POINTS A TO B TO C HERE.  I'm a moron.  I hate this book and my characters are stupid.  A 500-word writing session would be a PARTY.  This part takes MONTHS to get through. 
50,000-60,000: The uphill evens out.  Pieces click together.  The path is becoming clear.  500-1000 word writing sessions.
60,000-end: Downhill sprint.  The end is in sight, it's just a matter of getting it all out through my fingers.  2,000-3,000 word sessions. 

Right now, Way of the Shield?  Still in the uphill.  I'm getting through it by reminding myself that when I was writing Thorn, Holver Alley and Maradaine Constabulary it went exactly the same way. 

*- For me, the Rough Draft tends to be underwritten, and the final draft comes in somewhere between 90-100K.  I find it suits me better to step back and figure out what needs more depth, rather than overwrite and figure out what fat needs to be cut. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Neural Traffic Jam

The challenge of the creative mind is sometimes being overwhelmed with ideas.  Only so much can get out your fingers at any given time.  The challenge of focusing one the Project At Hand is sometimes those other voices can jump in like Kanye.

Forebrain: OK, next scene in Way of the Shield...
Way of the Shield Brain: (quietly) I think we need a scene with the antagonists planning their next move, and...
Way of the Shield Brain:, in that, they....
Forebrain: Wait, what are Q-Numbers?
SPACE OPERA BRAIN: Q-Numbers are a statistic I just made up measuring the density of intelligent species in a region of space.  And I think you have them wrong the further you get away from Earth.
Way of the Shield Brain: But we're supposed to do...
Forebrain: OK, let me do some math and figure this out...
Way of the Shield Brain: But...
 Forebrain: This will just take a second...

(An hour of fiddling with Excel and equations later...)

Forebrain: Huh.  The ratio of species per million cubic light years IS totally off out there.  Well, now I should...
Forebrain: Right, but...
Way of the Shield Brain: We want to get at least a few hundred words...

(2am, many hours later, with some hundred-plus alien homeworlds in the 150-ly radius sphere from Earth added.)

Forebrain: There, happy?
SPACE OPERA BRAIN: You didn't name the non-star-travelling alien species at all.
Forebrain: You really need to shut up. I'm tired.
Way of the Shield Brain: I'm cold and lonely.  Why have you forsaken me?

This is the downside to being obsessive about maps.  I'm apparently incapable of just going, "Here Be Dragons" and letting it be.  I have to define it, even if I may never actually use it in anything I write. 

(That said, the rest of the weekend actually was very good for Way of the Shield.  So don't worry too much about that...)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The 21st Century Epistolary, and the Importance of Correspondence

My weekly schedule has recently shifted around a bit, and it actually makes posting the Thursday blog a bit easier, as I now spend my Thursday mornings in a lovely coffee shop with a riverside view.  It's good writing inspiration: both a change of venue in general, as well as being in a public space.  The idea that people are watching me helps keep me on task.  Is that strange?

I had been thinking of late about the Epistolary Novel, and it's place in modern fiction, especially in terms of genre fiction.  It's a form I've always been intrigued by, because of what it allows the writer to do: establish multiple, concrete points of view, in a format that allows the characters to spell out events exactly how they felt about them.  It lets the writer establish a concrete timeline of not only when events occur, but when characters get a chance to reflect upon them.  The writings are, specifically, those reflections.  And since events are shown deeply in character point-of-views, the story is presented in facets.  It's up to the reader to figure out that greater whole from the facets.

Now, some might say that "letter writing" is a lost art, and thus you don't see the Epistolary Novel in the modern age.  But I would argue that between email. blog posts, Facebook updates and our other forms of modern communication, the opportunity for crafting a modern Epistolary is ripe.  (Hell, the Community episode "Blankets and Pillows" did a great job, while satirizing the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, of showing just that.)

Many years ago, in the wild west days of the Internet, I had the idea of doing an "Electronic Epistolary"-- essentially a story-via-website, where the reader could choose their own path on how to read something: journal entries by character, chronologically, or in whatever manner suited them.  However, at the time, I was not a writer of discipline, and it never came together.  I currently have some ideas for restarting that, at least as a worldbuilding exercise.

All of this made me think of how important of written correspondence, even in email form, is for the modern writer.  We tend to be a solitary lot, but at the same time, we need that stimulation of dialogue with each other.  Heck, check out this letter that Robert Heinlein wrote to Theodore Sturgeon when he needed help brainstorming a story.  And I know from personal experience that my long-standing email correspondence with my old friend Daniel Fawcett has been vital to my writing.

So, here's my proposal: write to me. And I don't mean, "Hey, how goes?"  Write to me about what you're writing, your concerns, ask me questions about my writing.  Start a real conversation, and I'll do my best to respond in kind. 

All right, back to the word mines.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Monday Melange: Protectors, Aspiring Writers, Space Maps

Various busy things happening today and all week, so some brief things:

There is, apparently, only one copy of The Protectors left in stock at Amazon.  I'd like to think this means sales have been phenomenal, but it's more likely that they didn't have too many in stock to begin with.  Either way, go get it!  It's loads of fun. 

My friend Abby has launched her webshow, Aspiring Writers.  So far, I beliee she only has one episode, but more are on the way.  Worth checking out.


If you follow me on twitter, a bit ago I mentioned having a new idea on how to make the Great Big Space Map.  So far, it's been working, though it's still a Work In Progress.  Still, I find mapmaking a good creative exercise when words aren't quite coming together.  It helps get the juices flowing, and they really have been of late.  But here's a section of it as it starts to come together.  Slowly but surely...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Next Big Thing

Rebecca Schwartz tagged me in her Next Big Thing entry.  So here are my answers:

1. What is the title of your Work in Progress?
    It's called The Way of the Shield, though the title itself is a work in progress.  I've also got a short story brewing that, right now, I'm calling "Hard Vacuum Coyote", but that's still in its nascent stages.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

   That's actually a complex question.  The main drive of it was to explore a place where traditional fantasy-- kings and knights in armor and such-- and modern, complex social structure overlap and clash.  There is an old order of traditional warriors, and young men who still want to be a part of it-- but in a setting that has more in common with 19th Century London or Boston.  What role can that old order have-- as well as the traditional nobility-- in a society with a standing army, city constabulary and elected officials?

3. What genre does your book fall under?
  It's fantasy, though I'm not sure of the subgenre.  Political/action fantasy?

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
  You know, I never like thinking in terms of actors-- certainly not famous ones.  Because more often than not, the best choice is someone who doesn't bring too much baggage to the table.  I mean, if you asked Suzanne Collins when she was writing Hunger Games, I doubt she would have even been aware of Jennifer Lawrence.
  (That said, at 6'3" with a puppy-dog honest face, Liam Hemsworth from Hunger Games wouldn't be a terrible match for Dayne.)

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
   Disgraced warrior returns home to find himself neck-deep in political scandal, assassination plots and revolution.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
   Again, a complicated question.  I first conceived of the book back in 2008-- when I also came up with Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary.  All four are in the same setting, but as separate "book one of a series" concepts.  I wrote Thorn first, with the idea that I would do Shield second.  But then Holver Alley felt right as the second, and the Constabulary as the third, with Shield getting pushed back each time.  I didn't get properly started on it until March 2012, and even then, it's been in fits and starts, as other things (such as minor rewrites of the other three) took some of my attention.  But it's still being drafted, hopefully finishing the rough draft by the end of the year.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
  I'm not sure.  In genre, the closest thing I can think of would be David Eddings's The Elenium-- for the knightly orders and the politics.  But there are a lot of out-of-genre influences, so it ends up being the small junction in a Venn diagram of The Elenium, Les Miserables and The Pelican Brief.  That's a strange combination.  I'm sure there's a spot-on in-genre comparison that I'm ignorant of.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
  Daniel J. Fawcett has been my long-term brainstorming partner, and so a great deal of my inspiration comes from hashing out core ideas of the fantasy genre and worldbuilding with him.  Pure and simple, the city of Maradaine (and the rest of the world around it), as well as the characters that inhabit it in all four books, would not be what they are without his input and influence.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
  I'm challenging myself on this one with my first attempt at a solid romantic subplot.  So if that's the sort of thing you need in your fantasy books, it'll be there.  But if you need guys with swords hitting each other, there's that as well.