Monday, February 27, 2012

Austin Theatre Announcement, and the "Process Play"

I received this in my email last week:

At long last, selections for the upcoming ScriptWorks 10-minute play showcase have been made!

SLEPT THE WHOLE WAY - Marshall Ryan Maresca
THE GREEKS - Colin Denby Swanson

The plays will run April 19-21 and 26-28 at the Blue Theatre.

Excellent news!  I always enjoy being part of this yearly production.  This year was the 11th time I've participated, and the 7th time my play has been chosen.  It's a fun experience, and a fun process.

I've often heard the term "process play" used for this kind of production.  A "process play" doesn't have a specific definition, but in my mind its a play that invites the audience to look under the hood to get a better appreciation of what's going on in the production.  At its best a process play is something where an additional level of understanding enhances the enjoyment of something that's already enjoyable.

In the case of Out of Ink, I think it works well because the process is front-loaded in the writing phase.  We write the plays in a specific time frame, within a specific set of rules, and then eight are chosen.  Do you need to know that, in order to enjoy the show?  No.  But in knowing it, your experience changes.  Case in point, in my piece from last year, there's a laugh line when one of the characters mentions Finnegan's Wake.  This isn't because Finnegan's Wake is inherently funny, but because the audience knew that including Finnegan's Wake was one of our rules.  But the play stands on its own without knowing that.  The scripts are developed via the process, but the production of the show itself is straightforward.

"Process play", though, can be used as a pejorative. At its worst, a process play becomes a masturbatory exercise where more emphasis is put on how the performance got put together over the performance itself.  I've known a few actor friends who have used the phrase as a backhanded knock on shows they were in.  "How are rehearsals going?"  "Well, it's a process play."  Code for, "The director doesn't have a plan and we're meandering and wasting time."  I've been involved in shows like that.  It's no fun.

But with Out of Ink?  I've always had fun.  I've always found it a fun show to watch.  If you're in Austin the last two weekends in April, come check it out.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

PSA: In which I am grateful I'm a freak about backing things up

As I mentioned earlier this week, my laptop died on the way to Boston.  Just dead.  Kaput.  Hard drive shot, apparently.  But it is under warranty, so I should be getting it back, good as newish*, some time today.

Which means I've got a fair amount of work ahead of me setting it back up.

Fortunately, I've been exceedingly anal about backing up non-replacable files.  Namely, anything to do with writing and worldbuilding.  I don't use any sort of automatic service for this.  It's just me, manually and actively backing things up on a regular basis.

This is a habit borne from necessity, from hard lessons.  I've had two other laptops die on me, but fortunately they both had lingering, sputtering deaths, and in both cases their replacements were in hand and loaded with their data before they shuffled off.  But those two were not the hard lessons.

Rather, the hard lesson was one of my own stupidity.  This is when I had my old desktop PC, which I had purchased in 1998.  By 2005, it was slow, outdated and a bit sputtery.  We called it Tortuga**, and when my wife was bringing in a new desktop***, she wanted it GONE.  The day came**** when she decided she would tolerate no further nostalgia for Tortuga on my part.  I needed to save all my data (burning it to CD, because this is 2005 we're talking about) and put the computer on the curb.  Which I did.

A few months later I was caught with a bit of a bug to dig up some old work, namely a novel I had started back in the 90s called "Convergence of Angels on the I-35".   Don't ask me what that title means, because I really couldn't tell you.  I never got far enough into it to figure that out.  This, by the way, was pretty well in the height of my "I'll just write and see where things take me" pantsing delusions.  I had no plan, other than writing in purplish prose about diners, miracles and broken people.  But mostly diners.  Hell, the thing was originally written on a yellow legal pad while seated at the counter of a greasy spoon diner, drinking obscene amounts of coffee.  I was deep in a Tom Robbins phase at the time.

I digress.  I looked for that file in my archive CDs.  Nowhere.  Checked older archives.  Nope.  Checked all over the place.  Not to be found.  "Convergence of Angels on the I-35" was lost to history, since I was terrible at backing things up.

(This is kind of a lie, as I do, in fact, still have the handwritten yellow legal pad.  It's actually in my hand right now.  I could, if I really wanted to, re-type the thing.  And given that its been 16 years since I wrote this, and I'd like to think I'm a much better writer now than I was then, said re-typing would probably be a significant improvement over whatever I had typed before.  Maybe it might be an interesting experiment.)


*- The CD/DVD burner had been glitchy for some time, and they're replacing that as well, so it's not that much of a tragedy.
**- Spanish for "turtle".
***- Which she named "Coneja", Spanish for "rabbit".  Our current computers are Cheetah, Dolphin and Coneja II, which is the machine that just died this week.
****- If I were to guess, it would have been September 18th, 2005.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Post-Con Report

So, I spent the weekend up in Boston for Boskone, and the whole weekend was something of an up-and-down experience for me. 

Of the good: Boston is a gorgeous city, and this weekend was perfect walking-around weather.  As much as I love Austin, it's not a city that's visually inspiring on an architectural level.  Boston-- there are parts of Boston that look almost exactly how Maradaine looks in my head.  (If you take out the cars and traffic lights and such).  We got to visit with my sister and her family, and my parents came up as well, so that was nice.  I live 2000 miles away, so everyone being in the same place for something that's neither wedding nor funeral is a rarity.

Also of the good: I met my agent face-to-face for the first time, which I was quite pleased with.  Especially since one of the first things he said was, "By the way, I absolutely loved the Holver Alley Crew rewrite you did."  So that's making its way out in the world.  Hopefully Maradaine Constabulary will follow shortly. Also, he highly praised my beta-reading people, and I can't help but agree.  They're an awesome group.  Another bright spot, connected to meeting with my agent, is when the editor from Baen saw my nametag and said, "Oh, yes, you're his new guy."  Editors recognizing your name are rarely a bad thing. 

Of the not-as-good: This is more my own issue, but being at a con where I don't really know people is something of a challenge for me.  Yes, my agent was there, and he introduced me to people, and that was great.  And Elizabeth Bear, whom I've met before, was very friendly.  But I didn't have people, if you catch my meaning. I didn't have comfort-zone-familiar-faces to gravitate towards.  It was a different experience for me last year at DFWWriterCon.  I mean, there, I knew NO ONE, but at the same time, EVERYONE there was in the same boat: we had books written, and we were there to pitch to agents.  We were kindred spirits, and it was simple to bond.  I'm sure there were people in the same agented-but-not-sold position as me, but there was no badge color or hand signal to recognize fellow travelers in the last miles of the marathon.

But, like I said, this is probably more my own imposter-syndrome issues above and beyond anything else.

Of the REALLY-not-good: My laptop died.  Horribly.  Fortunately, I backed up ALL my writing stuff the night before I left, AND the machine is still under warranty, but it was still annoying.  I feel kind of hobbled, writing-wise, until I get it back up and running.  Even though I could use the desktop I'm writing this on.  I'm strange like that.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

First Plug at ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop 2012

It's time to start thinking about ArmadilloCon 34, especially since this year it will be at the end of July instead of the end of August.  You don't want to be sitting around mid-July and think, "Oh, yeah, I should plan to go to that" and then realize it's next weekend.  That would be bad.

And, of course, I'm plugging the Writers' Workshop. It's not hard to see why, especially since this year I have full-fledged "Workshop Coordinator" status.  No "Assistant" on my title this time around!  (Note: I don't think my actual duties will change in the slightest.  But who doesn't love a title bump?)

So what's it all about, if you don't know already?  Check out this post by the fantastic Stina Leicht*, the head coordinator of the workshop. 

And then go sign up.


*- Really, fantastic.  Of Blood and Honey was one of the best books I read last year, and with her upcoming And Blues Skies from Pain, she's got some serious Campbell Award buzz.  Which I fully endorse.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Is It About Books, or Is It About Novels?

The ground is shifting under our feet, as the publishing industry is still dealing with the biggest shift in production and distribution since Gutenberg.  This is not news, of course.  We all know that Things Are Going To Change.  It's just anybody's guess as to exactly how.

Rachelle Gardner wrote an interesting piece today touching on this point, comparing where the book industry might be headed to the recently-filed-for-bankruptcy Kodak.  Her main point was Kodak focused on selling the physical printed image of a photograph, and not on the real content people were most interested in: the image itself.

The same applies for novels.  While there are, and will continue to be, die hard real-printed-book lovers, the important product is the content, the novel itself.  People who want to read a novel will read it in the format that is most convenient to them, period.   If that's in a printed book (purchased at brick-and-mortar, shipped via website or borrowed at a library), or a Kindle or Nook or other reader, it doesn't REALLY matter.  The thing that matters the most is the content, and as long as the content-delivery system is convenient, the reader doesn't care as much.

Does this mean I'm saying Real Books are out and E-Books are in, so everyone should get with the program?  Not at all.  As of right now, my primary goal is "traditional" publication.  That means printed books in book stores. 

Is that out of some sort of psychological need to, say, have a real printed book that I can hold in my hadn?  I won't deny there's an appeal to that.  You work hard to make something, having that thing you can actually hold, point to on a shelf, hand over to another person-- that physicality has meaning.  Impact.  But that's not the only reason.  It's not even the primary reason. 

At least right now, E-Books are only 5-10% of the book sale market. (From what I understand- please correct me if I have my numbers wrong).  So putting out your book exclusively in a format that ignores 90-95% of the current reading market is ridiculous. This is the key reason why I'm not so keen to stampede over to ePublishing my work.

Now, these numbers may change, and when they do, the industry needs to be moving with it.  One has to ride the wave of the sea change or drown. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wheels within wheels

Part of looking at the big picture means not only making plans for further installments, but making sure that those further installments also involve good plotting and storytelling.*  The series has to work, as well as the individual books.

Because, let's face it, we use the term 'series' to describe two very different things.  One type, like Lord of the Rings of The Belgariad, is actually a single story, which happens to be broken down into several separate books, for one reason or another.**  The other type, like Harry Potter, tells an overarching story, but each books stands on its own as an individual unit.  The latter is the type I prefer, and that's what I intend to write. But the overarching story needs to pay off, as well as the individual books.

This is where I go back to the Twelve-Part Structure.  It can apply to whatever grand arc-plot the series has, as well as each individual book.  How much of the twelve-part structure goes into each book, that depends on how many books you plan for your series.*** Trilogies are easy to break down.  Tetrologies work, but come out a bit odd in the twelve-part structure.  Pent- and Heptologies, which seem to be the very popular****, don't necessarily break cleanly, but that isn't a big deal.  But personally, I like the Hexology.  Possibly because it breaks down so cleanly with my twelve-part structure.  So this is how it works for the Hexology, though it's pretty easy to re-work it as you see fit for however many books you think your series should have.
Book 1: Establishment and Incitement. This is pretty clear, as any first book in a series need to set establish the players of the larger arc-plot, and lay the hints for the bigger things to come.  On the whole, this story needs to stand on its own the most, for obvious reasons. 

Book 2: Challenge and Altercation.  The plot of this story needs to turn the screws tighter on the larger plot.  Here, really, is where your main characters realize that something bigger is looming, and they will have to deal with it.   More important is, though, is that in Book 2 your main characters need to be challenged far beyond whatever Book 1 did to them, they need to push themselves further than they thought they were capable of, and they should prevail. 

Book 3: Payback and Regrouping.  On some level, Book 3 should be a dark mirror of Book 1.  In the grand scheme of things, Book 1 is a romp (even if it leaves plenty of bodies on the floor).  Book 3 should make the problems of Book 1 look like fun and games.  But even with that, it can feel like conclusion, in terms of the arc.  It can feel like, despite the things your heroes go through, everything is going to be all right.
Book 4: Collapse and Retreat.  Everything isn't going to be all right.  This is where the hammer drops. On whatever sliding scale you use, Books One through Three were walks in the park.  Book 4 doesn't leave scars, it leaves walking wounded.  This phase of your arc needs to be about despair.  Even if the individual plot of Book Four can be considered a "victory" for your heroes, it's a Pyrrhic one at best.  Things will not be the same after this.

Book 5: Recovery and Investment.  The arc is in a dark place in the beginning of Book 5.  The dark place is the "new normal" that the characters need to believe they live in, and the plot of Book 5 needs to be their fight back to the light.  This is where they consider quitting. This is where they decide they can't do that.
Book 6: Confrontation and Resolution.  The last book is, of course, about wrapping up the arc plot. 

That's how I break it into six books, but like I said, it's easy to shift and shuffle that for however many books your series is.  Take, for example, a classic example of seven: Harry Potter.

Sorcerer's Stone (Establishment and Incitement): Harry learns about the magical world and his history (Establishment) and makes the decision that he stands against Voldemort and what he represents (Incitement).

Chamber of Secrets (Challenge and Altercation): Harry learns that the legacy of Voldemort has deeper roots than he expected, and it's still effecting his life (Challenge), and in facing Tom Riddle and the basilisk, he steps up to actively fight that legacy (Altercation).

Prisoner of Azkhaban (Payback and Regrouping): Harry faces uncomfortable truths about his parents, having to confront his own fears directly (Payback).  He stands up to those fears, masters the Patronus, is able to fight off the Dementors, and gains some apparent stability through his relationship with Sirius (Regrouping).

Goblet of Fire (Collapse): Voldemort is back and Cedric is dead.  Things just got serious.

Order of the Phoenix (Retreat and Recovery): Harry is devastated, ridiculed and tormented over the events of Goblet, and through Umbridge, the system itself is against him (Retreat).  Despite that, he pulls it together and creates Dumbledore's Army, and refuses to go along with the lies of the Ministry (Recovery).

Half-Blood Prince (Investment): In learning the full scope of what it will take to stop Voldemort, and losing Dumbledore, Harry decides it is his responsibility to defeat Voldemort.

Deathly Hallows (Confrontation and Resolution): Harry goes after the horcruxes (Confrontation), and then faces Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts. (Resolution).

See?  The structure of the arc is there, yet each of those seven books also have their own story structure.  I haven't gone through to figure out if each of the seven books individually match the twelve-part structure, but I bet they come close.
*- This is, of course, getting ahead of myself, but I always like to keep looking at the map while I'm on the road.
**- I've heard that, in the case of LotR, it had to do with binding machines at the time wouldn't be able to handle the full text.  For the Belgariad, it was pure business- Lester del Ray could make more money selling five books instead of three, as Eddings had originally planned.
***- I will not go on a rant about series that have indeterminate lengths.
****- Why is that?  Is it the prime numbers?

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Revolving Door of Death

This video hit the internet this weekend, as a sort of side-door promo for "Chronicle", but it's pretty entertaining stuff in its own right.

Now, I've always said it's pretty easy to take any story, book, TV show, movie, or whatever else and talk about it in a reductive, distainful manner.  You can rant about anything, and be accurate (and this rant is, for the most part, accurate), but not actually be honest about what really happened in the story.

I do think this one is pretty accurate and entertaining, and relatively honest.  Let's face it, there's been plenty of craziness over the past however-many-years in comic books.  (Comics, everybody!)  Death of Superman is hardly the craziest story out there. 

But one bit in which this recap is a bit dishonest is the idea that Superman coming back to life killed "death" in comics, and hurt sales in a way which Action Comics never recovered from.  The revolving door of death had always been a common trope in comics.  No one stays dead except Uncle Ben and Thomas & Martha Wayne.  Death is not a permanent condition in that world.  No one was upset that Superman came back; him coming back was pretty much assumed from the get-go.  If anything, they were mad about how it was done, with a bit of handwaving that essentially said he didn't REALLY die, he just went into a "healing coma", while still claiming that he DID really die.  It's classic having-cake-and-eating-it situation.  Superman coming back wasn't earned.  He just woke up when he needed to. 

Is that dramatically interesting?  No, it's lame.  That's what made people mad. 

If anything was killed by the Death of Superman, it was the idea of manufacturing a Collector's Item out of whole cloth.  Tons of people bought the Death of Superman issue and vacuum-sealed it, forgetting that the thing that makes a collector's item worth something is its rarity.  The bubble finally burst on the collector boom of the late 80s and early 90s, and sales of EVERYTHING dropped.  People weren't buying anymore with the hopes that they were squirreling away a fortune to be cashed in 30 years later. 

Still the video is fun, and it reminds one that if you want your stories to matter, then the consequences have to pay off.  Death can't be the same thing as a bit of a nap.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Worldbuilding and Language: Idioms and Slang

As I've said before, I'm not too keen on doing the nuts and bolts of a constructed language as part of my worldbuilding.  Well, more correctly, I think it's a great thing to do, I just don't have the skill or patience to do it. 

However, playing with idioms and slang?  That's always fun.  And, I think, an important thing to do.  It seems like it was the underlying structure behind Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves, even to the point of bringing up the details of his Thieves Cant in the foreword.  (I especially like how he admits that he combined historically accurate slang with stuff he just plain made up.  I approve.)

I made up plenty of slang for Thorn of Dentonhill and the other books set in Maradaine.  I even made a point of tweaking it a bit so that slang from the gangs in the Aventil neighborhood would be different from the slang of street kids over in Seleth and Keller Cove (in Holver Alley Crew).  Some of the things came from wanting a slang word for something, and wanting to avoid our own word.  Street kids and gang members would have a term for constabulary officers, and I didn't want "cop".  I tried to think of what they might call them.  Since patrol officers are all armed with handsticks (and might use them a little too freely on some street kids), the term "sticks" made perfect sense to me.

That, I think, is the key to doing this sort of thing: does it feel like a term or phrase that evolved naturally?  Can someone reading it parse it a figure out the term from context?  If so, then you've got a winner.

Idioms are a bit different.  I wanted Druthal to have idioms that didn't necessarily apply in English, or meant something that the idiom in our language was too modern or culturally specific.  Sometimes I look to idioms in other languages (though usually Spanish, for obvious reasons) and translate them literally into English.  Case in point, one of my favorites in Spanish is one common response to ¿Cómo te va? ("How's it going?", or more literally, "How to you does it go?"), which is Va a la patada.  Idiomatically, you're saying, "It's going badly", but literally you're saying, "It goes of the kick."  In other words, "Life is kicking my ass."  Thus, "the kick" could become slang for any kind of ill fortune.


A brief political aside, for those interested: I'm all for donating to Planned Parenthood, and if I had something I could offer as an incentive to get others to do it as well, I'd do it.  But I don't.  (At least, I don't think I do.  Open to suggestions.) Thus, I'll just point you toward some writers who are.  Buy John Scalzi's eBooks this week, and his profits go to Planned Parenthood.  Also, Amanda Downum is offering signed copies of her highly-anticipated (by me, anyway) Kingdoms of Dust to the first 15 qualifying PP donators.  Have at either one, if you are so inclined.