Thursday, February 28, 2013

Future Worldbuilding: Geopolitics in the Interstellar (Part Two))

Last time, I talked about working out every culture's homeworld, how advanced they are, and when they achieved FTL tech.  So, knowing that, the rest is simple, right?  Whoever has the most advanced tech, who gets there first, they're the most powerful, right?

Not necessarily.

First of all, there's a matter of location.  Where species are in terms of not only each other, but other worlds, and what those resources mean.  A species that hits the stars and finds they have thirty-some odd other stars within 10 light-years, and most of those have vibrant solar systems chock full of potential resources-- they're going to have a different interstellar experience than a species whose closest star is 15 light-years away. 

Even with that, I make deliberate decisions, since I'm the worldbuilder here, for example, if a species takes an aggressive or isolationist stance in exploration.  If they focus on staying close to home, or perhaps try and spread themselves thinner than they should.

For example-- I've set up my FTL rules so increases in velocity jump in increments.  Ships form a field around themselves, and the level of that field determines their velocity.  An Alpha Field is the slowest FTL field, then Beta Field, Gamma and so on.*  This gave me an easy way to benchmark future tech-- I can measure general advancement of cultures compared to each other without having to get too specific about what that means, techwise.  A culture that can form a Zeta field is more advanced in general than a culture that one can only form a Delta field.  I don't need to figure out the specifics of hull composition or missile yields for every different culture.  So, every culture is rated by their maximum speed.  And with that, I can estimate a reasonable radius a species can maintain control over.  That Zeta culture can spread out, say, 30 light-years from home, while the Delta really can only manage 16.  But at the same time, a culture's nature might be to push themselves.  They might have to push themselves to reach resources they need.

So, that process of building every culture out from their homeworlds, figuring out what they build and where, who they bump into, what they decide to do when they bump into each other-- that's the real gearwork of the worldbuild here.  It's not sexy, and it's not stuff that really appears in the text.  Iceberg rules apply in spades here.

Then comes the next big step: figuring out who the Big Dogs are.  Of course, the Big Dogs are the ones I chose-- especially the ones that are big dogs because they joined up to form larger empires.  I've got eight First Tier* level powers, and four of those are joint-species collectives of some sort or another.  And also, that isn't just about tech level, but about dominion and influence. The Colmerohn are more advanced than the Zutheka-- but the Colmerohn are slow and deliberate, and would rather withdraw than engage in conflict, while the Zutheka are hyper-aggressive conquerors.  So the Colmerohn are a Third Tier power, and the Zutheka are First Tier.

The next step: figuring out the "borders".

*- I've worked out the math, but you knew I did.  An Alpha field will make the trip to Alpha Centauri in 2.95 years.  With a Delta field, it takes 40 days.  An Epsilon field cuts that down to under two weeks.  If you managed to form a Xi field**, that trip is slightly over a minute.
**- No one has a Xi-field level of tech.
***- There are also three Zeroth-level, i.e. very high tech isolationists.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Future Worldbuilding: Geopolitics in the Interstellar (Part One)

Now, if you've been following me for a while, you know I take working out the geography pretty seriously.  I've built out a 150 light-year radius from Earth, and while in the building process I let a certain degree of randomness occur*, once I had certain things set up (namely, initial homeworlds and tech level of all the intelligent species in 150-ly radius), then I had to build with deliberateness.
That deliberate comes from decisions that I need to control-- and not just because I can't figure out an effective way to randomize it on Excel-- because the way a culture expands into space says a lot about their character.  Do they reach out and claim every star system they can get their dextrous appendages*** on as quickly as possible?  Or do they move slowly, maximizing the usage of resources in each system.  Do they aggressively strike out, clashing with any neighbors they might meet?  Or do they engage diplomatically, building bridges amongst cultures?

Whatever they do, once I allow an interstellar culture to claim a star system, I need to decide what kind of claim it is.  This depends a lot, but not entirely, upon what options that star system gives them: a star system with planets gives more options that one without, and one with planets with life gives even more options.  My designations are as follows:

Homeworld: This is self-explanatory-- the Homeworld is the world of origin for any given species.
Colony: The next highest-level of designation, a Colony is fully-autonomous and self-sufficient world that has a civilian population.
Station: If there are no planets, then the highest level of designation is Station.  Of course, there may be multiple stations within a system-- military, corporate or civilian, or a combination.
Outpost: An outpost is a planetbound facility that is neither self-sufficient nor civilian.  It can range from a military listening post to a mining-and-refinery base to a terraforming crew to a high-security prison.  These are typically on systems where no planet can support life, and are dependent on an infrastructure of supply ships.
Holding: This is the lowest-level of claim-- basically, little more than the claim itself.  Perhaps there is a squadron of ships or automated satellites to maintain that claim.
Preserve: This is a special designation, in which a species lays claim to a system and does nothing with it, other than protect it.  Of course, only a certain kind of culture is ever going to make a star system a Preserve.


*- Within 150 light-year radius radius, we're talking about over 10,000 stars in that space.  We're talking 14.1 million cubic light years.**  So you better believe I created a randomizing script in Excel that went through each star and decided how many planets it had, and the orbital radius of each of those planets, and then IF one of those planets was in the "Goldilocks" zone, IF there was life on that planet, and IF so, how advanced that life was, and IF that life was intelligent, how advanced the technology of its culture was, and IF that advancement has reached the point of Interstellar Travel, WHEN they broke the light barrier, and how advanced their interstellar tech is.  Randomizing those factors was necessary just to get the work down to a manageable level.

**- Douglas Adams wasn't lying.  Space is big.  Really big.  Because that figure is nothing compared to the rest of the galaxy. 

***- They all have dextrous appendages.  Else you can't build ships.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Keeping Routine and Getting in the Zone

I don't try too hard to be a creature of routine, partly because I think it helps to be able to work whenever you get a chance.  This is part of why I'm not a big fan of working "on the cloud"-- I like being able to open my laptop anywhere and being able to work on something, be it writing or outlining or worldbuilding, and I can't have my ability to work be dictated by the strength of my internet signal.*

But I do have some routines, of course, as life demands we keep certain schedules.  Thursday mornings, for example, are pretty locked down: take my son to school, stopping for breakfast tacos on the way over.  Drop him off, go to the gym for an hour and change.  Drop my wife off for her class, and settle in at the coffee shop, and write this blog entry.  Once that's done, get working on other writing projects.  

Now, how much other writing work gets done on a Thursday morning depends on a few factors.  One, how long it takes me to write this blog.  Next is, once the blog is done, how long it takes me to get the Writer Brain into the zone. 

Unfortunately, it's not something I can just turn on like a switch.  Some writers can do that, I most definitely can not.  On top of that, writing this blog doesn't quite do the job of putting my brain there.  It's a gear shift, it's a different set of muscles.  It's similar, and getting myself in a typing groove helps, but it's not the whole story. 

Part of getting in the zone means almost putting my Writer Brain into a trance state.  That involves music.  Now, a lot of writers talk about constructing soundtracks for their work, and that's awesome, but I can't do that.  Well, I can, but the music I need to use usually doesn't have any sort of thematic connection to the work. 

You see, I have a wide and eclectic taste in music.  But my Writer Brain is a tasteless traitor.  It doesn't want thematically interesting music.  It doesn't want a mood-setting soundtrack.  It wants the pop-iest, four-chordiest, hook-filled riffs, and it wants it on repeat.  It wants songs that I won't even tell you, because it's just plain embarrassing for a 39-year-old man to be listening to some of this stuff.

But that's what gets the work out.  So I've got to give it what it wants.

Time to get in the zone.

*- The coffee shop where I currently am tends to have... sporadic problems.  Posting the blog from here is sometimes challenging.  If I had to rely on it for ALL work, I'd be screwed.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Active Body, Healthy Mind

After a particularly trying January allergy season, which induced vertigo attacks the likes of which I've never experienced before, I'm finally feeling back to normal.  Both in body and mind.

For a writer-- at least especially for me-- keeping one's body healthy and active is a crucial element of maintaining creative energy.  Let's face it, the life of a writer can be very sedentary if you let it.  Little more than sitting and typing is required, after all.  On top of that, there is the tendency for many writers to consume pure junk on a regular basis.

Several years ago, I was on a very unhealthy path.  My weight was over 215-- not that I regularly got on a scale at the time.  On top of that, I had a job where I organized academic seminars, which meant I had donuts in my office on a very regular basis.  And, to be honest, back then, I wasn't writing.  Oh, had projects I was working on, if by "working" you mean opening up the file and staring at them blankly.  But progress simply wasn't happening. 

So then I got my act together, physically and mentally.  I've dropped my weight down to the 180s, and I won't lie, it's a struggle to keep it there, but I keep up the good fight.  I'm cut out the junk food: processed food has been right out for years.  I eat mostly fresh, homemade foods.  Significantly less red meat.  Less dairy.  And much more exercise. 

And since then, my writing has jumped to the next level.  Three books finished and shopping, and much more planned beyond the ones that I'm currently working on. 

Are these things connected?  I think so.  I know my mental energy, my creative energy have drastically increased by being more physically active.  On top of that I've got a lot of things planned.  If I'm going to write everything I've got outlined, I'm going to need time.  So I don't want to take any chances with not being here to get it done.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Watership Down: My Favorite Fantasy Epic

"All the world will be your enemy, Prince with A Thousand Enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
A band of adventurers set out from their home, heeding a prophetic warning of imminent destruction.  They cross dangerous wilderness, surviving on their courage and wits.  They find a new community, but quickly realize it's an illusion of security, as dangerous as the outside world.  Pushing forward, they forge their own community.  To grow their community further, they stage two capers to liberate new blood: one simple, and a second, far more elaborate.  Both succeed, through cunning and courage, but the latter one brings war upon their home.  Against impossible odds, they defend their community, and defeat the invaders.  Succeeding in all that, they become the stuff of legend.

The fact that they're rabbits is incidental.

In fact, part of why this works so well for me is the characters truly are rabbits.  They aren't anthropomorphized animals.  No disrespect to Brian Jacques's Redwall series, but his mice and other animals live in a castle, harvest and cook food, use swords and other weapons.  Richard Adams's rabbits may be exceptionally clever, even psychic in the case of Fiver, but they live and act as rabbits.

This book also gives a fantastic ensemble cast: Hazel, the brave leader with enough wisdom to know how to listen to his people; Bigwig, the warrior whose loyalty never wavers, who strives to become more than just muscle; Fiver, cursed with second sight; Blackberry, the clever one; Dandelion, the fastest and the storyteller; Bluebell, the jester, and more.  Even beyond the Watership Down rabbits, there's Keehar, the gull they make into an ally, and General Woundwort, who is a fantastic antagonist.  Even as he's defeated, he gets to be as much a myth as anyone else in the story.*

I've read this book more times than I can count.  I've had two copies fall apart on me.  I still re-read it on a regular basis.  And I'm sure its fingerprints can be seen in most of what I write.  The Thorn of Dentonhill surely has a bit of the spirit of Elhrairah in him.  The Holver Alley Crew's plan is as impossible and daring as the raid on Efrafa.  And you better believe that Dayne's heart in Way of the Shield is a match for Bigwig's.  "I swore to my Chief Rabbit that I'd hold this run," is exactly the sort of thing he'd say.

*- The 1977 animated movie is interesting but flawed, but it get's General Woundwort's end perfectly.  The Nutinger Farm dog is tearing through Efrafan rabbits like paper, and Woundwort emerges from a hole, bloody and torn from his fight with Bigwig, and screams, "Come back, dogs aren't dangerous!" As he leaps in to take on the beast, the scene fades away.  The fact that the dog tore him to shreds is irrelevant, and not something we need to see.  The General fights to the end.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Plotting and Crafting Action Scenes

So, I'm a planner and an outliner.  I've made this pretty clear.  Without plotting out a clear path of where I'm going to go in a story, I'm going to get lost in the weeds.

This is doubly true for action sequences.  I can't just know who the players are, who fights or runs away, who wins, who loses, who dies and who is captured.  If I try and write the scene with only that laid out, I'm going to freeze up.  Before I can really write the scene, I need to work it out, beat for beat.

I think this is partly because I approach action scenes, as a writer, from three different angles, all of which are detail oriented.

  1. As an RPG Player.  I played a lot of D&D and GURPS back in my youth, and my group was totally that group, that kept adding more and more of the optional rules to make combat more complex.  I never wanted those parts of the game to be just a collection of dice rolls and stats.  I was always of the mind frame that clever choices, playing with the terrain.  A dynamic trick or atypical use of an object was a winner in my book.  
  2. As a film student. If you have any familiarity with the process of filmmaking, you know it is a meticulous process, at least if you want to do it well.  Each shot has to be planned, practiced and set up before it's shot, and then edited together into something clean and exciting.  Even with a gifted fighter like Gina Carano, you can't just turn the camera on and let them do their thing.
  3. As a stage actor.  In my time on stage, I was in more than my share of stage fights.  I actually had a degree of infamy for being able to take a hit and fall to the ground.  But that was never out of control-- every move was explicitly laid out, step-by-step.  Each performance would be prefaced with a fight rehearsal-- first at half-speed, then three-quarters speed, finally at performance speed.  Get sloppy with that, someone goes to the E/R before the end of the night.  This also gave me a certain amount of practical experience in what one can actually do with their body*, what it feels like to hold a weapon in your hand, the jar on your arm when you block a blow.  Is it true fighting experience?  No, but it's controlled experience, made to look as good as possible. 
So I'm working on one such sequence in Way of the Shield right now, and it wasn't coming together until I plotted it all out: drew a map of the relevant terrain, explicitly noted the positions that Tharek, Lannic and the rest of the patriots take, where Dayne approaches from, where the other Tarians are stuck, and how they get out, and each movement they all take over the course.  I broke it down into four main sections, writing on the map with circles and arrows of different colors, each color representing a stage in the fight.

Having done that, now I know what I need, in terms of terrain, and in terms of who does exactly what, and when.  Which made achieving the end-result I needed, storywise, much easier.  Now that i have that plan in hand, the actual writing of the sequence is coming together very well.

*- The director I had for one show prefaced our fight-training, telling us, "Don't tell me, 'I can't do that.'  This is your instrument."  He pointed to his body.  "When you're on stage, you need to know how to play it, or I can't use you." 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Everything You Wanted To Know About Worldbuilding

Some time ago, I posted links to my various Worldbuilding posts.  I've written quite a lot more of them since then, so it was high time to reorganize. It occurs to me this could add up to a whole course.  I might have to start teaching a class...

Wonder and Amazement
Food and Regionalism 
Setting Limits
Fantasy and Sports
Constructed Languages
Calendars and Holidays 
You Are Who Your Neighbors Make You 
Language: Idioms and Slang
Cultural Perception Filters 
Elves and Originality 
Uncommon Questions in Worldbuilding 
Organization of Worldbuilding 
Adding a Hint of Mustard 
Further Small Steps for Man 
Unfolding the Future 
Geography of the Interstellar 
New Life, New Civilizations, and the Mos Eisley Cantina 
My Love of Spreadsheets and Map Tools
Stellar Maps
Aliens: Form Follows Function
Good and Bad Neighbors 
Mapping in 4-D
Fantasy Fiction and Democracy
Worldbuilding, Psychohistory and the Power of Numbers
Religious Texts
Alien Perspectives and Communication
Space Opera and the Future of Food
Complexity in Political Landscapes
Great Forces in History
Building the Non-Humanocentric Universe
Art and Culture in the Fantasy World      

History of Druthal:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Old links:
Worldbuilding, and the real world intruding on that

Monday, February 4, 2013

Worldbuilding: Art and Culture in the Fantasy World

The most fundamental way to define a culture is through its art.  Geography, food, religion, technology and government are critical as well, of course, but none of those quite get to the soul of a people in the same way.  With fantasy fiction, we're mostly dealing with forms of art of limited technology: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, literature and theater.

Music tends to be the way many fantasy writers go, to the point of cliché.  Especially with songs.  This is probably one of the quirks of genre that we inherited from Tolkien.  Let's face it, Tolkien loved his songs.  Personally, when I was reading him, whenever I saw indented, italicized text, I knew it was time to skip ahead a bit.  The same thing with poetry.  Now, part of the reason why these parts of a book seem so disposable is because the writers are not the poets/songsmiths of the ages that the work purports them to be.  It's one thing to say that a poem is a soulcrushing work of rhyme and meter that drives men to tears; it's another to actually write it.  I could do without it, personally.  I could also do without mention of lutes or mandolins.*

Painting, sculpture and architecture, I'll admit, are a little out of my ken.  Especially architecture.  For painting and sculpture, I tend to go in the direction of what they depict, rather than how they're depicted.  That's a nice way to drop a little worldbuilding history into the mix without it being as much of an infodump.  At the very least, having your characters seeing a painting or statue of a former king gives a slightly more organic way to drop in some background. 

Literature and theater are my favorite, though I tend to again go for what such pieces are about (and what that says about the culture) over trying to come up with excerpts.  In Thorn of Dentonhill, I have a snippet of dialogue from Three Men and Two Wives, which is going on in the background while Veranix is searching for someone in the public square.  Three Men and Two Wives is one of the ribald comedies of Darren Whit, a playwright from the previous century that I occasionally mention that is the Druth equivalent of Shakespeare**.  At a different point, I have Kaiana quoting from one of Whit's history plays, Queen Mara.  But, again, only snippets.  And in Holver Alley Crew, there's mention of the banned play The Marriage of the Jester, which is being performed in an especially shabby part of town.  While Three Men and Two Wives is a lusty, romantic farce (filled with crossdressing and confused identity), The Marriage of the Jester is little more than smut, presented to give the audience a cheap thrill, or for a little more coin, the opportunity to join in. 

I have to admit, I have fun just brainstorming potential play titles.

I intend to include a little bit of loftier theatre in Way of the Shield-- perhaps even an opera, if I can make it work.  Amanda Downum's The Bone Palace has a nice bit where her main characters go to the opera, and it's the blood-soaked tragedy kind. 

The other element I'm interested in adding to the mix is the use of magic in creating art.  I've hinted around that in Way of the Shield as well.  Still pondering that.  It's something I'd like to do, but at the same time, I don't want to stop the story dead in its tracks just to include it. 

*- Yes, historical, but they also come off as Fantasy Clichés.
**- I also have some equivalents to Jonson, Marlowe and Webster.  Definitely Webster.  The Druth do so love a blood-soaked tragedy.  Especially since Whit was rarely a tragedist.