Monday, April 30, 2012

Action, Agency, Passivity, Pacifism

There is a tactic some writers (and screenwriters) use to put their characters in the "hero" column.  It's a tactic that is most recently used in "The Hunger Games" (with a single exception that is glossed over so much it's barely an exception), but I first noticed it in about 20 years ago in a little B-movie thriller called "Surviving the Game".  The tactic is pretty simple:  You put your character in a life-or-death fight, but you let them slip through it without actively killing anyone.  Your hero might do something that lets their enemies get killed, but they don't take active agency.  They win, but their hands are clean.

And it's something of a cheat.

I mean, yes, it allows them to be hero by being exceptional, but at the same time, it's the author giving them a free pass. 

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as being actively a source of violence.  There's a difference between being a passive character to whom victory is handed by author fiat, and a pacifist character, who truly tries to get throw a violent situation by making the active choice of non-violence. 

See, that's the key difference.  A character who chooses not kill instead of a character who manages to get away with not killing despite being in a kill-or-be-killed situation.

This is the challenge that's been hitting me with Way of the Shield, as Dayne is a pacifist warrior.  That's not an oxymoron-- his "weapon" of choice is a shield, and when it comes down to it, he will actively take that role: put himself between another person and harm. 

But it's hard to mold that pacifism into action, at least in the way I'm used to.

In Thorn, in Holver Alley and in Maradaine Constabulary, my main characters were active, even impetuous.  They would jump into a situation and crack skulls.  In some cases, they would even actively seek out skulls that need cracking.  Dayne isn't going to do that. Nor is he, unlike the characters in Maradaine Constabulary, granted the same kind of official authority to go and take action.  So the challenge is finding that same internal drive that Veranix or Asti and Verci have, but have it being superego driven instead of id.

It's a very different way of thinking.  Dayne is, in many ways, the opposite of Veranix, but they are both heroes.  It's an exciting challenge. 

But the question is, to the readers, does using that cheat make a character a more "moral" hero, or does it come off as a cheat?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Elegantly Bare-bones Fight Scene

I had the opportunity to watch Haywire this week, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring the impressive Gina Carano. 

Now, I won't make more of this than it is: as movies go, it's fine.  The plot is pretty thin (Spy X is betrayed by handlers, therefore Spy X must Punch Everyone), the dialogue is unremarkable, and while she is bolstered by an impressive supporting cast (Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonion Bandares, Michael Fassbender), Gina Carano isn't going to be winning any Oscars.  She's not bad as an actress-- she carries herself equitably, unlike Van Damme or Segal in many of their 80s actioners-- but she's not there to deliver lines.* 

She's there to Punch Everyone, which she does fantastically, because that's what Gina Carano does for a living.

What's remarkable about the fight scenes in Haywire is how pared down they are from the usual Hollywood action scenes.  There's no wire-work, no slow-motion, no rapid-fire edits, no obvious foley-audio and no pulse-pounding score.  They aren't hyper-choreographed ballets of fists and feet. 

In other words, they look and sound like actual fistfights.

I really liked that approach, and it's something I've tried to capture in my writing, although in a different medium.  My fighting experience is mostly limited to stage fight choreography**, but for me the key thing is grounding it in point-of-view, and focusing on the emotions and raw kinetics.  Not to showy, nor too technical.

Do I succeed?  I hope so, since action sequences tend to be centerpieces of all my Heroes of Maradaine books.  But we'll have to see.

*-I will credit Ms. Carano in doing just fine with her expression work. In her big showcase fight, there's a moment where the fight's not over, but she's already won, really.  And her face goes from intense to Zen calm for a moment.  I really liked it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Nothing In, Nothing Out: I'm Not Reading Enough

Back when I did the DFW Writer's Conference last year, the keynote speaker said, in part of her keynote speech, "Stephen King reads four hours a day and writes four hours a day.  That's fundamental"*  The quote got posted to Twitter, and then retweeted like crazy until it reached the level of public consciousness that my wife** quoted it back to me.  Of course, upon hearing this, many complained that they, unlike the esteemed Mr. King, do not have eight hours a day to devote to their craft.  This misses the point: it's not the total hours, it's the ratio.

Of late, my ratio has been off.  Very off, and I think that it's had an impact on writing the rough draft of Way of the Shield.  It's not quite writers' block, but it is a sort of slow-as-molasses drip of words that isn't coming as easily as I would think it ought to be.

And I think the problem is I simply haven't been reading like I should.  The Writer Brain is a hungry beast, and if nothing goes in, nothing comes out.  I've been justifying this to myself in saying that I haven't had time to read, but I know that's really not true.  The truth is I hadn't managed my time of late to make reading a priority.

That's got to change. 

So I went to my bookshelf and took down all the books on my ever-growing shortlist.  Here it is, in no particular order***:

So, starting with Kingdoms, which I'm about a third of the way through, I'm going to devote the next few weeks to reading all of these.  I'm going to TRY to read one a week, and write about each one here. 

Because, when it comes down to it, being a better reader makes one a better writer.  I'm kind of amazed when I hear people say they want to write a book, but when pressed they basically will tell you they don't read at all.  AT ALL.  It shocks me. 

If anyone has suggestions about reading order (in other words, what I tackle after Kingdoms), I'm all ears.

*- I cannot comment on whether the quote is accurate of Mr. King's actual habits. 
**- My wife is relatively off-the-grid, and certainly not connected to the writerly blogosphere.  If something viral reaches her, it mean it's gone airborne.
***- The order is pretty much "Order I grabbed them off the shelf and made into a pile".

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Slept The Whole Way Interview

I was interviewed for my play for ScriptWork's Out of Ink, opening this weekend.

Marshall Ryan Maresca's SLEPT THE WHOLE WAY is part of Out of Ink: Sound Off, the 14th Annual Showcase of 10 Minute Plays.
"Four people wake up from suspension sleep on a space ship to find something has gone horribly wrong."

1) Three required ingredients, 48 hours - how did you start your play?

 In this case, it was with a series of false starts. For the Out of Ink plays, I've found that one ingredient has to form the spine of the play, the driving force. So the first step was figuring out which ingredient worked best in that role. This year, I analyzed the three ingredients to see how they worked with each other, which ingredient might "demand" being the driving force of the play. The 3000/300 ingredient gave of a sense of scope, that the play needed to be epic in scale. This made it the most logical choice to be the spine. But figuring out what that scope would mean became the big challenge. Let alone the 300 characters-- how to express 3000 years in a way that can make sense on stage in a 10-minute play? I tried several different paths, most of which showed my roots as a sci-fi/fantasy writer, such as time travel.

2) Did one of the ingredients this provide a special challenge? If so, how did you approach it?

This time around, it was the children's song/rhyme/fairytale rule. Just as one rule makes the spine of the play, one rule tends to be almost tangential. In one of my failed paths, I played around with the idea of using it as a code phrase. ("Mother Goose, this is Rapunzel. I need to let down my hair. Repeat, Rapunzel needs to let down her hair.") Once I reached a certain point in "Slept the Whole Way", I knew I was going to need a code phrase, so that was the obvious way I could use that ingredient.

3) How do you like to approach a rehearsal process and collaborators - what are your expectations for any revisions?

For Out Of Ink, I'm personally opposed to making revisions, beyond the most minor of line/business changes. Anything more feels like cheating the process of the 48 hours.

4) What else are you working on right now?

I'm a fantasy/sci-fi novelist, and I'm currently working on a draft of an action-heavy political-thriller fantasy. I have three other manuscripts currently seeking a publisher. Excerpts of those three are available at my website,


ScriptWork’s 14th Annual Ten Minute Play Showcase
Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale Rd.
April 19-21 and 26-28, 2012 at 8 PM
Tickets:  $15 general admission, $12 students/seniors/ScriptWorks
April 19th is a Pay-What-You-Wish preview
$25 includes pre-show reception at Zhi Tea (4607 Bolm Road) and performance on Saturday, April 21st
Purchase tickets online.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Organization of Worldbuilding

I've mentioned before how I have the various nations of the world that Druthal occupies given some degree of definition in "National Documents".  These are, in essence, a handful of neutrally-written wikipedia-esque files on each country (or, in the case of areas of lesser organization, regions of general geosocial commonality).  These documents were organized as follows:

  • Government
  • Laws
  • Criminal Activity
  • Military
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Maps
  • Regions/Political Subdivisions
  • Major Cities
  • Currency
  • Key Imports/Exports
  • City Life
  • Country Life
  • Religion
  • Holidays & Ceremonies
  • Family Units
  • Homes
  • Clothing & Hairstyles
  • Education 
  • Food
  • Entertainment
  • Great Works

  • Key Historical Figures
  • Current Major Personalities
 Now, while this format is solid, and given that it's mostly for my own personal use, it's just fine, I'm not thrilled with it.  I feel something is missing-- flavor mostly.  Possibly from my own desire to maintain that dictionary neutrality, I've lost some degree of voice.  And perhaps there is a key element to these documents that I've somehow glossed over.

So I'm thinking about how to rectify that. And, of course, whether I really need TO rectify it, or just focus on, you know, the actual writing.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Uncommon Questions in Worldbuilding

When it comes to worldbuilding, I live by the Iceberg Rule: Most of it goes unseen.  Another way to look at it is the corollary to "Show, Don't Tell": Know, but don't show.

What this means, in practical terms, is I sometimes ask myself questions that knowing the answers probably won't impact the writing itself.  At least not directly.  But asking the questions, and then forcing myself to have the answers, enriches the worldbuilding process, and hopefully, enriches the writing itself. 

Questions like:

How did prehistoric people spread out onto all the continents?  In our world, by around 11,000 BC human beings had more or less filled out the habitable parts of the world, migrating out from Africa into Europe and Asia, across the Bering Strait into the Americas, and island hopping through Indonesia, Australia and the Pacific Islands.  All this before any significant agriculture or animal domestication.  In the worlds we build, have you figured out the logical A to B to C of diaspora?  If you have multiple races-- or, more correctly, different intelligent species-- have you worked out where they each started and how they spread? 

Who were the big thinkers of history?  Even if you have a relatively boilerplate Medieval/Renaissance style fantasy world, the steps necessary to get there still matter.  It's important to know who the Caesars and Alexanders of your world are to shape the politics, but what about the building blocks of culture?  Who was the Euclid or the Pythagoras? Who was the Socrates, the Aristotle?  Who was the Homer or the Sophocles?  And that's just the classical: advance things further, and you have to ask, who did the sort of work done by Galileo, Newton, Kepler, da Vinci, Robespierre, Descartes, Shakespeare?

In a world with magic, what does the periodic table look like? This is a specific example, but it hits the heart of how magic and science interact, in a world where both exist.  If magic is real, what does that mean in terms of science?  Can it be explained scientifically?  Does it change what we know to be the concrete building blocks of matter?  Take for example, in Thorn of Dentonhill, a key plot point involves a magic-altering metal called napranium.  Now, I could take a lot of different paths of what this metal is, on an atomic level, even if this never becomes part of the text itselfFor example, napranium could just be, say, gallium, and gallium simply has magic-affecting properties that in the real aren't an issue.  Or, napranium might be an unstable isotope of gallium, and there is interconnection between magic and radioactivity.  OR, on a subatomic level, protons and neutrons might ALSO have a magic-based aspect, so while regular gallium has 31 protons, napranium has 31 mago-protons, and is a fundamentally different element.  Meaning the periodic table itself needs to be expressed in a way that doesn't apply in our world.

These are not the kind of questions that really get addressed in the average sword & sorcery type book, nor do they need to be.  But they are the sort of thing that I think about, and thus shape the underlying texture of my worldbuilding. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Elves and Originality

Tim Akers, author of "The Horns of Ruin", writes "In Defense of Elves", where he defends using elves in fantasy fiction.  Or, at least, that's what it says the article is about, but he doesn't actually get to talking about elves at all until the penultimate paragraph.

Which is kind of a shame, because everything he says up until that point, I think is spot on. He's basically talking about how wide open fantasy can be, and how strange the self-imposed limitations we fantasy writers put upon ourselves when writing it. Horns of Ruin appears to be exactly what I was calling for last month: secondary-world fantasy in an advanced-technology setting, with railguns and jetpacks.  (Though I find the Amazon descriptor of "the first perfect merger of steampunk and sword and sorcery" a bit much, especially since it doesn't sound like steampunk.)

But then Akers gets to elves, and for me, his point is lost.  Because the core of the argument is, "Some stories just need to use an elf", and doesn't get into particulars about why an elf might be necessary for certain stories, other than "can't be translated into mopy humans".  I'm honestly confused by that statement.  Are humans "mopy" and elves are not, and that's why an elf might be necessary?  Or are humans being mopy the closest they come to being elves?

Here's my counter-argument: elves, as most fantasy writers use them, are painfully generic.  Same for dwarves.  Same for medieval-Western-Europe-with-magic copied-and-pasted settings.  It's one thing to shorthand worldbuilding in text, knowing keywords that evoke technology or culture.  It's another to say, "Here are elves" that are essentially the same kind of elves found in Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons/World of Warcraft, and shrug and say, "Yup, you've got it, I can move on".

What does that give you?  Fantasy that risks being indistinguishable.

But, to be fair, Horns of Ruin does not look indistinguishable, and I'll put it on my shortlist.*  The argument, though, that "you just need to use an elf" puts my teeth on edge, because it's one thing in fantasy writing that I strongly disagree with.  For me, it's almost the same as a space-opera writers saying, "Sometime you need to use Vulcans". 

*- My shortlist, mind you, is getting long and unwieldy.  I'm going to need to hole up in a hammock with a pile of books for a week in the near future.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Slow and steady wins the race" - Blog Post 200

Way back in high school, for a drama class, I strapped a spray-painted cardboard box to my back and played the Tortoise in a little production of The Tortoise and the Hare for elementary school kids.*    It's kind of funny, because if you look at the history of this blog, the first month I had it, I wrote Hare-style.  Twenty-seven posts in September of 2009-- BAM!  I was blogging something fierce then.  Then it tapers off to a slow drip.  Burned out fast. Once I switched to my twice-a-week Tortoise-style, I've grown and built and slowly but surely... two hundred posts. 

And that's really what it took, both in terms of this blog and in writing in general-- that willingness to take the long view approach, slowly and sometimes painfully, acknowledging, "It may take a while to get there, but I AM getting there."**

Slow and steady.  Always moving forward.

In the meantime, I've got a play opening in two weeks.  If your in the Austin-ish area, check it out.

*- This is an important lesson in theatre and acting, though it can apply to all writing: if you want to be on stage, leave your shame at the coat check on your way in, because it's only going to hold you back.
**- If I want to start something, I might compare the self/e-publishing model to Hare-style-- rushing to nowhere because now and fast is more important than right and done well.   But, you know, I'm not going to start something on my 200th post, am I?
We are very excited to announce Out of Ink! festival: Sound Off!

April 19-21 and 26-28, 8 p.m. at the Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale (click for map)

Playwrights: Colin Denby Swanson, Trey Deason, Aimee Gonzalez, Anne Marie Newsome, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Robert M Barr, Elizabeth Cobbe

Directors: Jason Phelps, Ellie McBride, Lowell Bartholomee, Sharon Sparlin, and Debbie Lynn Carriger

Dramaturgs: Kristen Harrison, Ellie McBride, Debbie Lynn Carriger

Production & Design Team: Christi Moore, Kayla Newman, Cassandra Castillo, Christina Smith, Pam Friday, George Marsolek, Jen Rogers and Robert Fisher

ScriptWorks presents OUT OF INK 2012: Sound Off, the 14th annual showcase of 10 minute plays

$15 general admission, $12 students/seniors/ScriptWorks members; April 19th is a Pay-What-You-Wish preview;

$25 for pre-show reception at Zhi Tea (4607 Bolm Road) and performance on Saturday, April 21st


How do you encompass 3000 years in ten minutes? And do it in 48 hours? That was the challenge set before ScriptWorks members last fall at the annual Weekend Fling 48-hour writing event. At the Fling, member playwrights were tasked with writing a ten-minute play over 48 hours using three arbitrary ingredients.

This year's ingredients were:

1) Write a play with three hundred characters that takes place over 3000 years.
2) Include a children's song, game or fairy tale.
3) Include a sound that everyone hears differently.

At the end of the Fling, the plays were read in a ScriptWorks Salon at the State Theater. A selection committee picked eight of the plays to produce in the Out of Ink Festival. The selection committee included ScriptWorks co-founder Emily Cicchini, non-applying member Rhonda Kulhanek, and Cleveland Playhouse Artistic Associate, Corey Atkins.

The Sound Off scripts were written by: Bob Barr, Elizabeth Cobbe, Trey Deason, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Aimée Gonzalez, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Anne Maria Newsome and C. Denby Swanson. The plays will be performed by an ensemble of actors including Sarah Bading, Beth Burroughs, Amy Chang, David DuBose, Anna Maria Garcia, Heather Hanna, Anne Hulsman, Rhonda Kulhanek, Jenny Lavery, Christopher Loveless, Jason Phelps and Aron Taylor. They'll be directed by Lowell Bartholomee, Debbie Lynn Carriger, Ellie McBride, Jason Phelps, and Sharon Sparlin with dramaturgy by Kristin Harrison. Designers for the project are Robert Fisher, Pam Friday, George Marsolek, and Jennifer Rogers.

ABOUT SCRIPTWORKS ScriptWorks (formerly Austin Script Works) is a playwright-driven organization that seeks to promote the craft of dramatic writing and protect the writer's integrity by encouraging playwright initiative and harnessing collective potential. ScriptWorks is funded and supported in part by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division believing an investment in the Arts is an investment in Austin’s future.