Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Long Journey of the Writer

My thirties are coming to a close, officially this Sunday.  So, needless to say, I'm getting a little introspective.  But when I think about what my thirties were to me, in the big picture, it was about the process of becoming a novelist.

I mean, I had been writing before that, of course.  In my twenties I had written a few plays, and made several false starts on novels, done a lot of worldbuilding work... but it was all still just dabbling.

So, we come to 2003.  Oddly enough, what flipped the switch in 2003 was NaNoWriMo.  Now, as I've said before, NaNoWriMo is a great way to learn how to write a novel, but it's not a good way to get a novel written.  NaNoWriMo, is, in essence, your Trunk Novel Workshop.  And for me, in 2003, it was Fifty Year War.  Of course, I didn't realize that at the time.  One never realizes they're writing a trunk novel when they're writing it. 

I "finished" Fifty Year War by the end of 2003, if you can call a 57,000 word plotless meander with no protagonist a finished novel.  I kept working on drafts of it, trying to send it out, somewhat clueless to its pointlessness.  Then in 2004 I tried another novel- a non-genre one called Long Night of the Pieman.  This didn't really come together at all. 

In 2005 I tried my first (failed) attempt at USS Banshee, which was a mess.  Mostly because this attempt to write it was semi-public, in that I was posting 3-5K chunks online every week, like it was a serial.  While that worked nicely on a motivational level, it again was a failure in terms of actually writing something good.  Over the years, I've kept coming back to that space-opera verse, trying to find the story... and I think I finally have.  But, along the way, everything except the main character and, tangentially, the name of the ship has been scuttled.  It's a completely different story than the first one I was doing.  And that's good, because again: plotless meander.

Also in 2005 I took my first shot at Crown of Druthal, which was, I was convinced at the time, going to be the Real Deal.    I even took the fist chapter of Crown to the ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop, my first time attending it.  It was shredded.  At the time, I was all, "What do these people know?", thinking they were fools.  In retrospect, they were right on the money, but I wasn't in a place to hear that at the time.

2006 didn't see much progress in any of these projects-- all of them, as well as a few other vague ideas, didn't ever coalesce into anything.  Frankly, it was a terrible year for me as a writer.  Nothing was coming together.  Not coincidentally, my day job at the time utterly depressed me, and my health and weight were probably at the worst in my life.

In 2007, I turned that around: I left that job, dropped 35 pounds, and put my nose to the grindstone, finishing the draft of Crown.  I also came up with the initial ideas that would evolve into Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, Maradaine Constabulary and Way of the Shield

In 2008, I worked on a new draft of Crown, and started attending SlugTribe meetings, bringing chapters of Crown with me.  I also wrote the first draft of Thorn, the first chapter of which I brought to ArmadilloCon.  This was the year when things started coming together.

In '09, I rewrote Thorn and wrote the first draft of Holver Alley.  I also started shopping Thorn to agents.  Now, one thing to note: this draft of Thorn was 70,000 words long.  I didn't think this was a problem, though most of my queries were getting form rejected or ignored.

But then there was one, at the end of the year-- an agent who said, in essence: I love this, but I can't sell it at this length.  Rewrite it to 90K and get back to me.

So 2010 was, in no small part, about adding 20,000 words to a novel that was already pretty tight, as well as cleaning up Holver Alley to a respectable draft.  I also wrote My Name Is Avenger Girl, which I sold to Paige Ewing's The Protectors, as well as selling my piece to the Hint Fiction anthology.  I also started the rough draft of Maradaine Constabulary.

In 2011, that same agent who advised me on Thorn loved the re-write, and agreed to represent me.  I then sent him Holver Alley as well, while getting the rough draft of Constabulary finished. I also started being on the Teacher's side of the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop.

Bringing us to last year.  Finished Constabulary and send it to the agent.  Started the rough draft of Way of the Shield.  Did another round of re-writes on Thorn, Holver Alley and Constabulary by my agent's request, which also helped me strengthen the worldbuilding ties between them all.  Wrote and sold Jump the Black to Rayguns Over Texas.  OK, technically, the Rayguns sale came in on January 1st.  Making a great start to 2013.

So where will 2013-- and with it my forties-- take me?  With three novels out there shopping, and a fourth one (and fifth, really) in process... I hopeful that this year will be a Big Year for me as a writer. 

Cross your fingers.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Balancing the Gender Imbalance

So, in the past month I finally got around to reading the Hunger Games trilogy.  As I've said before, I don't read as much as I should, or more to the point, I don't get a chance to sit down and read for long stretches as much as I would like.  But once I finished, I went digging around on the internet for commentary that I had been avoiding for the past several years, and stumbled across this gem of a reviewlet:
I would have liked it if I was a girl, but since I'm not a girl, it just made me mad.
I just stared at this for fifteen minutes in shock.  Like, what does that even mean? Because the more I look at it, the more astounded I am.  The most charitable parsing of this that I can think of is, "If Katniss had been a boy, I would have liked it more." 

Especially in sci-fi and fantasy, writing female characters can be a minefield.  I honestly don't know if it's more of one for male writers or female writers. However, I do know when female writers write books with female leads, there are bound to be accusations that what they are really writing is a Romance.  And you get reactions like the one above-- that essentially a book by a woman that is about a woman is only for women.  But a book by a man about a man is for everyone.

For male writers, the minefield is very different.  Here, it's a matter of doing it wrong, if it's done at all.  On one hand-- especially in fantasy-- there's the danger of having one's female characters be little more than wives or prostitutes.  I'll confess, when I first wrote out the outline for Holver Alley Crew, I didn't have any female characters, save Verci's wife.  This was problematic, to say the least.  So when I was actually writing it, I made several of the main characters female.  Hopefully, I did a good job in making them dynamic and interesting.

The other minefield is, of course, overcorrecting. By which I mean writing fantasy, set in some sort of pseudo-Renaissance or such, but with enlightened, modern attitudes regarding women's roles in society, or sexuality, or equality.  Enlightened attitudes that are hardly universal or mastered today.  So then you have an idealized fantasy world where such issues just plain don't exist.  I'm not one for writing fantasy all grim-and-gritty, but I think a degree of reality along those lines makes for more interesting reading.

What I attempted to do with Maradaine Constabulary was find that balance.  Here I had my heroine, Satrine, joining the constabulary force as an inspector.  She's not the only woman on the force, she's not even the first one to make inspector.  But these changes in Druth society are still in their nascent stages.  So Satrine faces several challenges. 

Did I get it right?  Again, I hope so.  We'll have to see what the critics say.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Milestone Entry: 300th Post, and How To Look To the Future

So, amazingly enough, I've made 300 posts here.  Though I think the main thing that demonstrates is dogged perseverance.  If you look at the earliest days of this blog, when I first started I hit the ground running, posting nearly daily.  Then that petered out, and for many months my posting style was... haphazard.  Which is pretty typical.  The internet is positively littered with blogs-- especially writer's blogs-- that start with a fury and burn out just as fast.  But getting past that phase, to push through despite the fact that doing so feels like screaming into a hurricane, that's the challenge.  That's what it takes to get a novel done.

I had been thinking about the future.  Not my future, specifically, but as any sci-fi worldbuilder would, what the future in general is going to look like.  Of course, actually predicting it is nigh-impossible.  But you can at least get a sense of where the technology will take us. 

Twenty years ago, there were a series of commercials from AT&T showing us where the technology was taking us, the things we will be doing in the future.

On one hand, the general accuracy of all this pretty good.  Most of the things presented here are part of our reality today: video conferencing, pervasive telecommunication anywhere in the world, wireless communication, voice controlled systems, automatic tollbooths, electronic books, distance learning.  Most of what's not part of our world today is technologically possible, but the infrastructure or wide-range implementation hasn't been done.

Take, for example, the "Keep and eye on your home, when you're thousands of miles away."  Utterly possible-- my parents have it set up in their house, for example-- but not common.  But how much longer will it really be before Apple releases iHouse? 

On the other hand, what is interesting is how the implementation misses the mark.  "Tuck your baby in from a phone booth."  The concept of long-distance video calls is spot on, but... a phone booth?  They saw where things were going, but didn't imagine the widespread of personal communication devices more or less eliminating public payphones.    Or "pay a toll without slowing down."  Common practice... but nobody swipes their credit card on their own dashboard as they drive by.  "Borrow a book from thousands of miles away."  That one is kind of amusing how clunky it is, but I can see how the this-is-clearly-wrong image we're presented with came about.  They wanted the visuals to signal "book" and "library", so we see her sitting in a cubicle in a library, looking at a screen, that shows the actual book, and pages being turned.  So the book isn't a digital object, so much as there's a camera pointed at a book sitting on a counter on the other side of the world.  "Answer a phone call.... on your wrist." Wrist phones?  I'm sure it's possible, but not something people have really demanded.    But it's spot on in terms of the concept of what we've achieved-- that you can get a call out in the middle of natural nowhere.  Just last year I got message from my agent that he needed a synopsis of one project, and I found the file, polished it and sent it to him... all while out by the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. 

The future is a pretty awesome place to live.

Time to keep driving into it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Worldbuilding: Hard and Soft Imports

In the earliest days of this blog, I talked about my "fantasy manifesto", and part of it was, "Do Not Copy And Paste Cultures".  I still believe in that fundamental idea, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think it's about Hard Imports and Soft Imports.

I mean, when building secondary world fantasy, you can't help bringing in certain elements from the real world.  There has to be an anchor of some sort for the reader to get a hold of the fantasy world. The only question is, how much do you bring?  And more specifically, how much do you bring from any one culture?

This is how I define things, roughly: if you bring a lot, give yourself plenty of well-known aspects for the reader to get a hold of, with recognizable titles and tropes-- in other words, copy-and-paste before you tweak it with your own elements, that's a Hard Import.  If you bring only a bit, just enough to give it a familiar sense but not enough to feel like a full copy-and-paste, then that's a Soft Import.

The way I see it, the rule one should live by is this: You get ONE Hard Import.  And your Hard Import should be your Viewpoint Culture. 

Viewpoint Culture is, of course, the culture of your POV characters.  And in fantasy, let's face it, 95% of the time, we're talking about some form of Medieval/Renaissance British/Western European culture.  There are some variants-- Scott Lynch brings a certain Venetian flair to his, for example-- but that's typically what fantasists use.  I'm not excepting myself either: the British elements* of Druthal are undeniably there, though I've also brought in elements that are distinctly American as well, and I hope that makes for something intriguing in the final mix.

The main point is, with your Hard Import, you're letting familiarity with real world elements and standard tropes do some of your heavy lifting, on the principle that you need a certain amount of heavy lifting done for you to get things moving.  Someone once told me that "readers will allow you only one Big Idea"-- in other words, that you're world's basic set-up needs to be describable with a simple high-concept to define it. 

So now we have the Soft Imports, and this is where you can really get yourself into trouble.  Soft Imports are best where you can see what the influence is, but it's little more than influence.  You read it and can say, "OK, this has a Middle Eastern flair" or "This has a Japanese flavor to it". But that's all.  Those elements, again, give the reader some grounding of familiarity as building blocks for the worldbuilding that's going to dazzle them.   But then you can take it that hint too far, that bit that's too much from our own world's equivalent culture, which will make them shake their head, and possibly even put the book down.

And it can be so little.  It can be a single word.  Jihad. Pharaoh. Samurai. Something that is too specific, and collapses your house of cards.

This also applies to Hard-and-Soft Imports from other fantasy works.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you've got Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, well... everything else in your book better be very special.

*- One critiquer of the first chapter of an early draft of Holver Alley Crew commented, "I thought it was very British.  Very, very British.  As in, I'm shocked to learn you're not British."**
**- I did consume a lot of Monty Python and Douglas Adams in formative years, but even with that, I'm not sure what to make of that comment. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Future Worldbuilding: Geopolitics in the Interstellar (Part Three)

Borders are a hell of a thing in three dimensions.  They aren't lines, of course.  They aren't usually even walls.  If anything, they're planes where spheres intersect. 

I made a decision about how my FTL drive works that kept the whole "space is a lot of big empty nothing" front and center-- namely, you're still navigating in real space, you've just created a field around your vessel in which reacts to normal space in an amplified way.  So if you're going from Earth to Alpha Centauri, you still have 4 light years to traverse, just you can do it in, say, three weeks instead of twice as many years. 

What this means is there's a lot of space to "control", once a civilization has decided it wants to hold dominion over a region of space.  What even is a "region" of space?

I have to confess something: I really loathe when sci-fi has some area of space defined as "Sector 47" or such, because it seems so utterly random.  What is a Sector?  Why is that one "47"?  I like a bit of sense and order to these things.  I like the idea that they were designed by someone who had a system.

So I had a system.  Actually, two, in a way, but the same root beneath it, that root being a Cartesian coordinate mapping system.  I prefer Cartesian coordinates to the Right Ascension/Declination system*.  An X-Y-Z grid, marked by light-years, creates a clean system similar to latitude and longitude.  So, since this is a human system, Earth is the "Greenwich", at point 0,0,0.**  Thus, Indus Colony, for example, has the coordinates (5.66, -3.16, -9.9). 

This system breaks all of space into eight Divisions, based on where they are, positive or negative, on the X-, Y- and Z-axes.  Initially, I went with Greek letters-- Alpha to Theta-- to name the divisions, but A. that struck me as to close to Trek's "Alpha Quadrant" and such, B. offered potential for confusion, since the FTL system also used the Greek alphabet.  So I took a different form of classical, with the eight divisions being: Zeus, Hermes, Gemini, Poseidon, Athena, Artemis, Apollo and Taurus.  It has a certain degree of arbitrary to it, of course, but human naming systems can be arbitrary from time to time.

Next, I broke those Divisions into Sectors and Regions.  A Sector is simply a cubic light year, defined by its Divisions and Cartesian Coordinates.  So Indus Colony is in Sector Taurus-6-4-10.  An alien colony, further away, is Paxin Gamma, (9.82, -7.78, -27.33), and it's in Sector Taurus-10-8-28. 

But when you're talking in terms of space, a cubic light year is nothing.  Traveling from Indus Colony to Paxin Gamma takes you through 18 sectors, and there really isn't anything there.  Some of those sectors are clearly Human controlled, some are Paxin controlled, and some... aren't much of anything.  So, where is the border between Human Space and Paxin Space?  Is it defined, or is there a no-man's land somewhere between? 

So, Regions give something with a little more scope, though they are only 1000 cubic light years.  "Only", as if a 10x10x10 ly cube was something to sneeze at, but again, in an interstellar scope, that's still zip codes on an global scale.  But it gives one an area of space that is easier to define, and define "ownership" of.  Taurus-111 is clearly Human, for example, while Taurus-113 is Paxin controlled. Taurus-112, in between them?  That's more disputable...

The other system divides the neighborhood into Expanses-- which are 30x30x30, aka 27,000 cubic lightyears.  Expanses are kind of the Celsius to the other system's Fahrenheit. It still uses Cartesian, and uses eight division, but it just numbers them 1-8.  Then each 30-ly block is letter-coded.  Expanses aren't as useful for figuring out, say, borders or areas of control-- that Indus-to-Paxin Gamma trip is all in Expanse 7AAA-- it's helpful for figuring out larger geopolitical interactions.  Sectors and even Regions are rarely populated by more than one species.  Looking at Expanses gives you a better sense of how they bump into each other.  But even that can be daunting-- in my defined 150-ly radius sphere, there are over 600 Expanses. 

So that can give you some idea how big the "big picture" really can be.

*- Though I'm given to understand that RA/D is preferred by astronomers. 
**- Which it is on Star Trek as well, despite the fact that the Federation is supposedly formed by many species.  Earth is still the center.  Hmmm.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Artist's Long Battle Up The Mountain

This is an interesting post on recent Best Director Ang Lee's long, slow path to success.  Mostly, it notes the years of his thirties-- especially from '84 to '90, where despite all the signs of imminent success, nothing was happening.  As it says, in '84 he graduates NYU, and is signed by William Morris.  It doesn't seem unreasonable that things would be happening, and happening soon.

And they weren't.

Of course, they were eventually, and that's a wonderful thing.  But those six years had to have been quite a struggle.

This is resonating for me, personally, as it's been almost six years since I worked a "regular" job.  Not that I haven't worked, mind you.  I've spent every day at my wife's side making our business grow and thrive.  And that, alone, would have been huge.  But that wasn't all at all.

Now, on some level, writing-wise, those six years feel like almost nothing.  Intellectually, I know that isn't true.  But knowing that doesn't change the emotional sense of not enough.

It's a matter of tangibility, mostly.  Because my successes, my strives forward, have been mostly intangibles.  Really critical intangibles, mind you.  For one, I'm not the writer I was in 2007.  I mean this in the best way possible-- my skills have improved dramatically.  But that's intangible.

When I talk about tangibility, I mean something you can get your hands on.  Which might be a petty distinction to make, but there's a lizard part of my brain that can't break away from that marker as meaningful.  Just like climbing up a mountain doesn't "count" the same unless you reach the summit.

This pinpoints why, at least where I'm concerned, self-publishing is ultimately self-defeating.  Because it feels like arbitrarily declaring, wherever one is on the journey, "Screw it.  THIS is the summit.  I did it."  Is that real?  Is that honest?  It doesn't feel that way to me.

Because the whole journey up is important.  And I remind myself that I'm a lot closer to the top than I was six years ago. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nominating the Hugos

Since I'm attending LoneStarCon this summer, I'm eligible to nominate for the Hugos.  The deadline for nomination is this Sunday, and I'm still on the fence of whether or not I will make any nominations.

This is because I feel grossly underqualified and underread to make nominations.  I honestly have absolutely no clue what this year's best stuff is.  I'm not entirely that the stuff I read this year applies to this year.*  I certainly don't have very strong opinions of what should (or shouldn't) be nominated.  Maybe in the Dramatic Presentation fields, mostly because I'm fairly certain that we can do better in Short Form than four episodes of Doctor Who and a random viral video.

OK, I'm exaggerating on that last bit.  But not by much.

But nominating, in an open field of everything, most of which I'm woefully informed about?  It's too big, too nebulous.  And, in a way, irresponsible of me. 

Now, once things are nominated, I'd feel comfortable making choices based on that narrow field.  I'd actually consider it a responsibility to read the nominees and make an informed opinion.  That, I'm looking forward to.

But if someone out there knows of something that they think honestly deserves nomination, so much so that I should step up and make a point of nominating for the sake of that work... well, I'm interested in hearing what you have to say.  So let's have it.

OK, I do have one strong opinion:   Stina Leicht for the Campbell Award.  So maybe I'll nominate just for that.


*- Wouldn't that be the best award?  Best Book That Came Out A While Ago But I Only Got Around To Reading This Year. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sci-fi and Fantasy, Loud and Proud

Over the weekend I read this blog post by Matt Debenham on What Writers Can Learn from Purple Rain, and it's brilliant.  And not just because Purple Rain may be one of the greatest albums of all times, which it really is*.  But the bit that stood out to me the most was point number 5:

Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Look at that album cover. It’s ridiculous. Yet does Prince look ashamed? He does not look ashamed. He’s looking out at you, saying, “Yeah, I’m on a motorcycle in a pirate shirt and waistcoat. Yeah, the border is my mom’s good spring tablecloth. What of it? I made a goddamned masterpiece here that you can also throw on at a party. What have you done?” I know too many writers, both published and un-, who seem humble or even vaguely embarrassed about what they do. 

I've seen this so many times.  And it is quintuply true for sci-fi and fantasy writers.  Not only do "real" writers** often not consider us on the same level as them, we internalize that.  We accept the idea that we ought to be looked down upon, that we are lesser.

Back when I went to the DFW Writer's Conference, I had the opportunity to interact with writers of all sorts of different genres and disciplines.  But the most eye opening was when I asked one young woman what she wrote.  It wasn't her response itself, "I write fantasy books," but the way she said it.  Eyes at her feet, quiet voice, meek expression seeking forgiveness.  This wasn't the tone of a person proud of her work.  This was the tone of a person confessing the things they did to score meth. 

And I knew I had done the exact same thing.

And there's no reason for it.  We are, quite frankly, the most intensely beloved genre.  I mean, what are the biggest books in recent history?  Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games?  What do we have to be ashamed of?  Not a damn thing, that's what.

I'm going to own it.  Loud and proud.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I've got a purple vest to put on.***


*- A fact I did not appreciate at the time.  To be fair, I was 11 when it came out. 
**- The ones who write "literature"- which I'm not knocking.  I just have issue when they knock us.
***- I honestly do. And it's fantastic.