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. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Interstellar Worldbuilding: Good and Bad Neighbors

As I've said before, when it comes to worldbuilding on an interstellar scale, your neighbors' choices can define your culture.  This is especially true when a starfaring culture comes across a planetbound culture, because the starfaring culture is in complete control of defining the relationship it has with the planetbound culture.

So when I'm looking at my maps, when I see that a starfaring culture is going to come across a planetbound culture, I ask myself: what are they going to do?

Ignore: Let's face it, an alien species might fly by a planet, observe that a thriving-but-primitive culture exists on that planet... and shrug and move on.  It's just not something that interests them.

Look, but don't touch: Here, the starfaring aliens show a bit of curiosity, observing the culture but not interfering with the planetbound species.  At its heart, this is what Star Trek's Prime Directive is about.

Look, but don't... okay, touch a little: Like the above, but let's face it, to really understand the biology of an alien species, you're going to have to grab a few, poke and prod a little, run some tests, and then tag and release.  And, hey, there are several billion of them down there, it's not like they'll really miss a few dozen, right?  And it's for science, after all.

Preserve and Protect: This is taking "Ignore" or "Look But Don't Touch" to a more active level.  Not only is one choosing to keep a planetbound culture uncontaminated, but they will defend it to keep anyone else from getting their filthy appendages on it.

Greet and Welcome: This is more or less the opposite of not contaminating the culture... it's showing up with the fruitbasket and saying hi, friendly-like, and being willing to let the planetbound species take that information and process it how they will. 

Missionary: Look, these primitive people need help, you see?  We're going to go down there and show them how to not make the mistakes we did, or teach them the best ways to make clean energy, maximize food yields, and educate their young properly.  Look, it's for their own good.

Play God: Sure, the "missionary" method is nice, but it's inefficient.  After all, you pretty much are like gods to these primitives, so just embrace that.  Make a few proclamations from on high.

Open Trade Routes: Like "Greet and Welcome", you recognize the validity of this primitive culture, and are willing to treat them fairly in bringing them into an interstellar community.  Or, you know, relatively fairly. 

Benevolent Integration: The next level of Open Trade Routes, the primitive culture is welcomed, and brought into the interstellar community, as citizens of a protectorate of your empire. 

Hostile Integration: AKA "Conquer".

Colonize: Just because this planet is inhabited doesn't mean we can't build here.  The beaches are lovely, and they aren't using most of the resources they have!  They don't even know what Lerian Quartz Crystals are for, so they won't miss them when we set up the mining facility.  And these natives are just so adorable, hopefully they won't make much fuss.

Eradicate: The planet would be perfect for colonization, were it not for the infestation. Open fire.

Look and Touch.  A lot.: These genetic experiments have to be done somewhere, right?

Any options I missed?  Let me know.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Being Too Aware of the Gearwork

Last weekend I went to see two plays.  Frankly, neither one was worth my time.  But in very different ways.

One was just plain bad.  It was ostensibly a children's play, but the kind of children's play that makes the assumption that kids are just morons and a vague mish-mash of music, gyration and animal masks is all you need to capture their attention.  It was just a failure, but the kind of failure that most anyone watching would have been aware of.  A pure, unfiltered F.

The other one was more subtle in its problems.  For me, it was a B-/C+, where a problematic script was held up by strong performances.*  But the script problems were ones that were obvious to me-- or at least to my particular tastes and proclivities-- because I've had experience in playwrighting to know what I'm looking at when I lift up the hood to check out the engine.

There is a writing tick I see a lot in plays, and it bothers me immensely. Usually, it takes the form of  a "thing", be it a moment of shared history, a mutual secret, or knowledge of an upcoming event, that informs the emotional threads of the characters or the entire plot.  Now, a lot of the time, characters just Don't Talk About the thing.  Where it becomes a problem, at least for me, is when you have characters Talk About Not Talking About It, aka the Dance Of Vague References.  You know you've seen it.

Joe: I have to say, it's nice to fly First Class.
Bob: True, but I've done it once before.
Joe: You have?  When?  Was it... that trip?
Bob: That... oh, no.  Different time. But anyway....

Ideally, this sort of thing can be used to set up a mystery or plot point, foreshadowing its revelation later: the gun hanging on the wall in the first act is fired in the third act.  However, in its inartful, clunky usage (which is often), you are essentially having characters screaming, "LOOK AT THE GUN ON THE WALL!  LOOK AT IT!  I WONDER IF ANYONE WILL SHOOT IT LATER?"
The first half of the play was essentially littered with the three characters pasting a whole arsenal of guns on the wall, many of which were fired in the back half by the use of a direct-to-audience monologue.  

Now, maybe it's just me, that I'm aware of how these things work, that I can't not see the internal workings, and that just plain ruins a lot of theatre for me.  Oddly, not movies or TV, even though often the same ticks apply.  I wonder if that's because I hold live theatre to a higher standard, or is it because the nature of stagecraft makes it harder to balance gravity and importance with subtlety. 


*- As much as I like to believe that text is the most crucial aspect of a play, the truth is an excellent performance can bring a mediocre script out of the depths, and even a fantastic script will be lost if the actors can't do the heavy lifting.

Monday, October 1, 2012

In which I channel my madness

So I had reached the point where the floodwaters of my creative process couldn't take further damming, and the levees were going to break.  This would have probably resulted in full-on madness.  It would not have been productive. 

So I channeled it, knowing that I should go with that urge to make a Wall of Crazy to help figure out Way of the Shield, in a way I can visualize, get my hands on it in a tactile way.  If I actually went true WALL of crazy, my wife would probably not approve.  So I dug through the garage and found a large board.
And now it all makes perfect sense.

OK, not really, but it makes more sense to me, and that's what matters.  It also helped me see why I was having such challenges making things work. 

Every project, of course, has a different process to midwife it, and this one has been especially trying.  Sometimes it's about figuring out the flaw in the center of the second act.  Sometimes it's just about finding the right music to work to.

I once wrote a short story once that would not come out until I was listening to a mix of Madonna, Britney, Pink and Lady Gaga.  This is not what I normally listen to, but it was what made that story come together.  I honestly do not understand it.  I just accepted it.

And, hey, you can read that story, if you're so inclined, since it's in the anthology The Protectors, now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.