Monday, January 30, 2012

Stepping Back to look at the Big Picture

This weekend was spent, in part, organizing and purging.  This tied, in part, to deciding to rename the warrior orders in Druthal.  Going through documents, finding outdated info, changing the names of things, purging out needless duplicates of paperwork.  (It's amazing how many times I've, frankly, thoughtlessly re-printed the same info.)  But I'm working on putting together both clean working files to reference (in Scrivener format primarily, though exporting that to a text format as well, in case of disaster), as well as a single, easy hard copy to go to if I need it.  It also involves digging through random handwritten notes (as I will jot down ideas just about anywhere) and making sure I've transcribed them somewhere where they'll do some good.

Part of this, of course, involved taking a good, hard look at the bigger picture of things.  I've made no secret of the fact that I have four different "heroes of Maradaine" series mapped out, with Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, Maradaine Constabulary and Way of the Shield each representing the first of their own respective series.  Each of these four books stands alone just fine, though I've made a point of including hints and connections that pay off for readers who read everything. 

Now, I have a big crazy plan for each and all of these series, which I've worked to some degree.  Part of this weekend's process involved finding more detail to fill in, which then filtered back into the final bits of the Maradaine Constabulry re-write. 

On some level, I know that it's completely crazy to even be contemplating the level of plan that I have.  But I think in terms of epic.  And hopefully, I'll be able to make that pay off.

It occurs to me that this particular blog is coming off just a hair short of a total box of crazy.  Which is how stepping back and looking at my whole big-picture plan makes me feel, sometimes.  The scope of what I want to do is so huge, it feels like a tidal wave that I have to hold back.  It's almost the opposite of writer's block: there's so MUCH you can't get out. If I just let it go, it would be an intelligible word-salad of madness.  An unsolved jigsaw puzzle, dumped out on the floor.

Thus: Plan.  Organize.  Focus.  Build the edges of the puzzle first.  I've got three sides almost done, and I'm starting to build the fourth. 

This whole thing will probably make no sense to you, or it makes perfect sense, in which case you should probably be scared for your sanity.  Mine's toast. 

Off to the word mines.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Using Structure to Best Effect

Like I've always said, I'm a planner and an outliner. I can't just wing my way through a novel.I need my big picture.

Part of having that big picture outlook is knowing what the meat and bones of the story are ahead of time.  The dressing, the sinew, the sauce (depending on which metaphor you feel like using), that always comes out in the writing itself.  Sometimes on the second draft.  (Case in point, in the currently-wrapping-up Maradaine Constabulary, I've found Minox's whole extended family, something that didn't exist before.  Taking him out of the standard 'loner' trope has had some interesting effects.) 

But a problem I've run into, almost every time, is that desire to write those "meat and bones" scenes, making it something of a challenge to write those "sinewy tissue" scenes, that are just as necessary.  Each time, on Thorn, on Holver Alley, and on Maradaine Constabulary, I reached a point where, in frustration, I would write a [SCENE ABOUT THIS] notation and move ahead. 

And that's fine.  I think every writer needs to learn their own particular process, and accept how they work it.  It took me a while to realize I had to be a planner.  I had many, many crash-and-burns romanticizing the "just write and see where it takes me" method.  It doesn't work for me. 

(If that works for you, excellent.  I'm not knocking on any one person's methods.  If your methods work for you, then continue with what works.  Though I think people should always analyze whether something REALLY works for them, or they just THINK it does.)

Anyhow, I've now accepted that simply writing straight through in a linear way doesn't work for me.  I need to satisfy those urges to write the big tentpole sequences that hold the story up, and then use the ropes and canvas to hold it all together.

(I'm just throwing all sorts of metaphors around, aren't I?)

So, this is the experiment with Way of the Shield.  It'll also be my first attempt at writing a novel entirely on Scrivener.  Scrivener, of course, it's quite useful in non-linear writing.  Scenes can be written individually, and then assembled in the desired order, new scenes stuck in-between, and so forth.  I believe that this will yield faster results, as my finish-by goal for the rough draft is May 15th.

Down to the word mines I go.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fantasy Tropes: The Noble Warrior

Generally speaking, the classic Anglo/Francan/Germanic knight doesn't exist in Druthal or Maradaine.  It's a trope that doesn't fit with the worldbuilding I've done, despite it's longstanding place in the genre.  Don't get me wrong, I like a good full-plate clad knight thundering on his horse as much as the next guy.  But it's not something I'm interested in putting here.

That said, I do have two elite warrior orders in Druthal, neither of which fit the traditional "knight" model.  (There are also various elite orders in other cultures throughout the world-- it is a common trope for a reason.)  However, on some level, I'm dissatisfied with these two orders.

Conceptually, I still like them.  On a basic level, they represent two sides of the same coin.  One specializes in offensive combat; the other, defensive.  It's the defensive order that is the focus of Way of the Shield, with the main character a fledgling member of the order. 

Also, since Druthal as of 1215 has a centralized government and a standing army, an organization of specialized warriors with no direct accountability to that government becomes problematic.  The orders still stand, mostly out of tradition, but their roles in society have become obsolete.  This obsolescence is a key factor in Way of the Shield as well.  Dayne believes in the order, but he sees that others around him are using it more as a political stepping stone.  Successfully joining the order offers a lot of social mobility.  Dayne is the son of a horsegroom, and now he can rub elbows with nobles and parliamentarians. 

So, what's my problem?  The names of the orders. 

See, originally (the initial worldbuilding, which I did in my early 20s), I had named them the Vanguard (the defensive order) and Warlords (the offensive order).  I still like the orders themselves as part of the worldbuilding, the culture.  But the names?  I'm less comfortable with them.  "Warlord" conjures up images of despotic rulers.  "Vanguard" means "the foremost division or the front part of an army; advance guard" or "the forefront in any movement, field, activity, or the like."  While it could be used for a warrior who stands in front, placing himself between others and harm, I'm not crazy about it.
But what to change them to?  That's my question.  I'd prefer not to simply have made-up names*.  Druthal does follow certain anglo-saxon models, so names that derive from the plain English would be ideal.  And ones that conjure up images of "defensive warrior" and "offensive warrior".  But I'm at a bit of a loss as what those would be.
Or am I overthinking this?  Are "Vanguard" and "Warlord" fine?
*- I do have a certain fondness for Eddings's Pandion, Genidian, Alcione and Cyrinic knights in his Elenium, but I would feel a bit gross simply mimicking that kind of name.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A less binary look at Genre Fiction Quality

Earlier this week, Strange Horizons reviewed Michael J. Sullivan's Thief of Swords, in which the reviewer finds the book quite wanting.  Her review is pointed and barbed, though entertainingly so.  It's the kind of negative review that, I have to admit, I enjoy reading.  It is scathing, but it makes its points and backs them up with examples.  I've not read Sullivan's work yet, so I cannot comment on the review's accuracy (or, more accurately, how my opinion would differ from the reviewer's), but my gut tells me that I would probably agree with her.*  Especially with her point of incorrect usage of Shakespearian style English, where it appears the author had a character speak with  "thou", "methink" and "would'st" without much regard to how the grammar of Early Modern English actually works.  But that's neither here nor there.

What is here and there is the bit of online firestorm this review sparked.  The reviewer was accused of being "mean" and "unprofessional".  There was speculation of her motivation in writing a review, even to the point of wondering why Strange Horizons should even publish a review of this book.  (This puzzles me, since reviewing genre lit, movies and television is pretty much what Strange Horizons does.)  But one of the recurrent points that really jumped out at me was the accusation that the reviewer was too "literary minded", and thus she couldn't appreciate what Thief of Swords is supposed to be: a fun, pulpy romp.  The term "ivory tower" is even bandied about.

Now, I'll admit I have read some Strange Horizon reviews with an air of haughtiness to them, but on the whole, even when I don't agree, I find them intelligent and well-thought, showing me a perspective I hadn't considered.  But I won't get into that.  I won't even get into the personal attacks made on the reviewer and her motivations for writing it, which had some uncomfortable hints of misogyny to them.  Rather, I'd like to address the notion that a genre novel can be excused of being well-written if it's a fun, pulpy romp.

The underlying idea here is that there's only one axis to look at: at one end of the line, you have more literary genre novels (let's put, say, Michael Chabon's Cavalier and Clay as an example), and at the other hand you have the pulpy genre novels.  The false argument is that someone who likes books at one end of the line simply can't appreciate books at the other for what they are.  There's no looking at the perpendicular axis of skill and craft: how well-written or poorly-written the books are, be they literary or pulp.

To take my analogy to food, it's not just a choice of haute cuisine or burgers and fries.  Haute cuisine can be a truly well-crafted, elegant dish whose flavors you savor for years to come, or it can be a busy, over-dressed plate whose presentation is designed to cover the fact that the food itself is nothing special.  Burgers and fries can be McDonalds Value Meal, or it can a fresh-ground, fire-grilled grass-fed beef patty served with hand-cut fries.  Skill and craft matter, and I see no value in excusing sloppy writing and poor research under the banner of, "It's just supposed to be pulpy fun!"

In other news, since we're speaking of reviews, I found** this review of Hint Fiction which specifically mentions (and praises) my story.  So that's pretty cool.
*- Strange Horizons, I discovered, also had a review of my current read, Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves, and while I haven't finished, I'm finding that I am so far agreeing with the negative points the reviewer raised.

**- Yes, I was Googling my own name.  Like you don't.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fantasy Tropes: The Gentleman Thief

Right now my fiction-reading* is Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick, which I had heard from several sources as being the best fantasy book from a debut author in 2011.  So far, I'm enjoying it, but it is definitely a cozy walk down some familiar road.  The worldbuilding aspects are a bit more info-dumpish than I care for, but certainly workable-- especially given a first-person narrator that has an interest in history.  But on the whole, it's an underworld romp with a thief-hero that does what it says on the tin.

I have to admit, I'm kind of fascinated by how common the thief-hero is in the fantasy genre. We have tons of them.  Gray Mouser in Leiber. Prince Kheldar in Eddings.  Vlad Taltos in Brust.  Locke Lamora in Lynch.  You could even make the argument for Bilbo Baggins as a thief-hero.

I'm not immune to it myself.  Veranix in Thorn of Dentonhill certainly has thief-hero qualities, and Asti and Verci Rynax, as well as the rest of the Holver Alley Crew, are thief-heroes as well.  In both cases, I at least try and subvert the trope a bit.  Neither Veranix or the Rynax brothers are just work-a-day thieves in the guild. (It's always a guild, isn't it?) Not to say that's all other writers are doing, but that is the common trope, to the point that Pratchett specifically mocks it in Discworld.

But what is it about the charming scofflaw that appeals to us, as readers?  Do we just love the bad boy?  I don't think it is quite that simple.  We (by which I mean audiences in general) do love to see an underdog win, especially if he does it in a fun way.  Heist movies, of course, have the same appeal.  We love to see someone beat the system by being clever. 

But it's always a tricky balance to walk-- you want your thief-hero to do bad things, but never so far that you can't call him a hero.  That's my hiccup with Hulick's book so far-- his main character starts out torturing someone for information.  It's a bit hard to get on someone's side when that's how you first see him. 

Any favorite thief-heroes that I didn't mention?


*- At any given time, I'm probably reading three different things: one fiction (Among Thieves), one non-fiction (The Edible History of Humanity) and one for-critique for a fellow writer (Elle Ven Hensbergen's latest, for which writing up my comments is on this week's to-do list). 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Whatever you prefix to the -punk

My good friend Dan Fawcett has started up his own blog, kicking things off with a conversation about the various subgenres in SF/F that get called (prefix)punk.  Dan, being much more of an academic scholar that me, notes several of them.  The big boys, cyber- and steam-, of course, and then the lesser entries to the canon: clock-, diesel-, sandal-, atom-, tesla-, and the somewhat bewildering "nowpunk".

What, exactly, is "nowpunk"?  I'm not entirely sure, beyond the fact that Bruce Sterling, my dear close personal friend*, describes one of his recent works as that.  I'm not entirely sure what it might mean.

The various (prefix)punk subgenres are often about style.  Not entirely, of course, but style is a big part.  They're alt-histories, but specifically ones where culture and technology branch off in a different direction, rather than the usual "What if X was different?' sort of alt-histories.  To "punk" something, in this usage, is to alter history in terms of technological and social changes.  Give the past something more advanced than they had, or as advanced but in a different way.  And the "punk" suffix has become a really useful shorthand.  If I tell you I'm doing, say, a "clockpunk" story (and I might argue that the various Maradaine books, especially Holver Alley Crew, have clockpunky elements to them), then you'll probably be able to conjure up a solid idea of the look and feel of the story.  (The other edge of that sword is if a writer relies on that trope lazily, figuring just the subgenre name will do the work for them.)

But back to "nowpunk", which kind of fascinates me.  What does it mean?  Tweaking tech and history of current times?  I can't help but think that 24 might be a fine example of it.  On one level, it has a recognizable setting of "now" (or the "now" of when it was airing).  But it actually presents a very different America than the one we live in.  We see eight single-day glimpses from the year 2000 to 2014.  In those fourteen years, there are seven US Presidents, three of which are vice-presidents who assume the office after the death or removal of the sitting president.  The series centers around CTU, a federal agency that exists to investigate terrorist activity on US soil, and has a fair amount of latitude in terms of violating civil rights to achieve its mandate.  It's an America that never had 9/11, but accepted even more trade-offs of liberty for the sake of security than we did after 9/11.  It is also an America that fell prey to several more homeland attacks, including two nuclear explosions over those 14 years.  Not to mention the technology-- cyber and surveillance tech are slightly more advanced, though to the degree that is typical in any modern technothriller.  (Of course any grainy picture can be "enhanced" to perfect clarity.)  Would this be "nowpunk"?  Possibly.

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that cyberpunk has, in a way, become as much of a past-offshoot as steampunk, where tech and culture branches off in a different direction in the 1980s.  Consider this: Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is set in 1998. (This isn't made explicitly clear, but Hiro Protagonist is about 25 years old, and was born in 1973-- same year as me!  And the fact that his father served in WWII is a major plot point.) Though I'm sure there are more current cyberpunk books that are based on branching off today's tech. 

So, that all said, anyone have any good (prefix)punk recommendations?


*- Or, in reality, the sci-fi superstar I sat next to in a panel that one time.

Monday, January 9, 2012

January is not the Month of Doom, for once

Last year at this time, I was sinus-deep in misery, thanks to Austin Cedar allergies.  It was pretty awful, much like it was in 2010 and 2009.  It actually had been bad for me in Januaries before 2009, but that was when I realized what was causing the problem.  Anyway, in the two years since, I mostly did my best to manage allergy season once it hit.  This year, I was actually proactive, taking daily doses of antihistamines, starting a few months out.  This has made a huge difference.  Cedar levels are ridiculously high, yet despite that, I'm as mentally functional as ever.

(I'll let you all judge how functional that actually is.)

So projects are getting done.  Holver Alley Crew was sent to the agent today.  I've been doing plenty of work on Maradaine Constabulary, and should have that draft finished pretty soon.  Ideas are percolating.  Work is getting done.  I finished reading the manuscript for my critique group ahead of time, for once. 

I like having my January be useful and productive.  How about that?

So therefore, back into the Word Mines.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Crazy Shakespeare Ideas

Every once in a while, that germ of an idea plants itself in my head, and I like to let it play out a little bit, even if I know I'm not going to actually do anything with them.

This often takes the form of ideas for theatrical productions that I'll never do.  My days as a theatre producer are behind me for the most part, having already lost my shirt on it once.  But that doesn't mean the bug isn't still there.

The idea hit me of doing really crazy Shakespeare productions.  I've been involved in my share of crazy ones (a slapstick As You Like It with wise-talking trees, an all-female Macbeth, an utterly doomed surreal Twelfth Night, to name a few), so those ideas still percolate up to the top of my brain.  I mean, I know that "high-concept interpretation of Shakespeare" is almost a cliche, but I do enjoy them.  Anyway, some strange ones came to me.

Zombie Apocalypse Titus Andronicus- Shakespeare's blood-filled atrocity could go quite nicely with a zombie apocalypse churning in the background.  It certainly fits in terms of bleakness.  And there's tons of bits that you can use.  When Mutius and Quintus are trapped in the pit, it can be a pit full of zombies!  When Lavinia is raped, with her tongue and hands cut off, why not go one step further: have her be zombified.  Then she spends the rest of the play muzzled and trying to bite people.  (This makes the bit where Young Lucius is freaked out by her even more freaky.)  Then when Titus captures Chiron and Demetrius, he can let Lavinia eat them!  And then Tamora will eat pies of their zombie-infested flesh!  Lucius can ride back into town with an army of corralled zombies!  It's got a lot of potential.

Military Space Opera Much Ado About Nothing- It's almost TOO easy.  Don Pedro's ship docks at Leonato's station, returning from the war.  Romance and smart talk between their respective XOs.  Alien constable Dogberry speaks in fractured English.

Steampunk Tempest- If any of Shakespeare's plays lends itself to steampunk craziness, it's The Tempest.  Prospero can have giant machines.  Caliban and Ariel can be bronze-and-pipe covered robots.  And awesome costumes.

I'm not actually going to do any of these any time in the near future.  So, if you're reading this, and you've got a theatrical fire to burn, why not try one of these?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Digging through the archives

I'm trying to figure out, going through my old files, exactly what happened on September 18th, 2005.

I say this because it appears to be a significant date, as of my old worldbuilding files and notes, MANY of them were last modified on September 18th, 2005.  So why was that the last time I touched them?  Near as I can gather and recall, that was around the time I got rid of my old desktop, so I probably transferred/saved a bunch of stuff onto my flashdrive.  And while I've kept and shuffled those files around between computers since, I've not really touched them. 

Most of this stuff is worldbuilding files of various other nations and cultures in the same world as Druthal.  I wrote up a lot of those documents (using a "National Document" format, the origins of which lost to memory) with my old worldbuilding/writing partner (who I still consult & confer with, even though he doesn't do any fiction writing anymore), mostly between 2000 and 2003.  Some of them are incomplete.  And most haven't been touched since Sept. 18th, 2005.

The truth is, they would all need massive levels of overhaul.  For one, I'm not particularly fond of the "National Document" format, and I would need to come up with a new template that's more to my liking.  Second, much of the actual writing-- on a craft and sentence structure level-- I find somewhat embarrassing.  Third, and most important, there's a lot of stuff in all that I don't necessarily agree with anymore. 

Some of it is due to being more knowledgeable now. I've done a lot of reading and research since writing those, and knowing that I have stuff in there that's just plain wrong.  Other parts I just don't like, too simplistic, or the broad brushstrokes are a little too broad.  (I'm looking at one right now that I really don't remember a lot of it, but I don't care for it.)

But the only nation in which I've done modern, up-to-date work on is Druthal.  Two other nations (Acseria and Imachan) I had some more recent work (dated in 2007)-- but that was because I was working on Crown of Druthal in 2007 (that was when I finished the rough draft), and it's set primarily in those two nations. 

Since then, I narrowed my focus to Druthal, and specifically the city of Maradaine, which was a major factor in improving what I was writing.  I was trying, since I had done an entire world's worth of building to showcase THE ENTIRE WORLD.  I mean, that was the underlying concept of the Crown of Druthal series-- they would travel around the world and stop in every country.  Because I made it so I MUST SHOW IT ALL.

I've gotten that out of my system since then. 

At some point, I would like to go back through it all.  Especially since I've made far more specific maps since then.  But that's not a project I'm going to get to any time soon.