Monday, September 30, 2013

Worldbuilding: Aliens and Environments

Now I'm working on Banshee, a space-opera novel that, on a fundamental level, is about putting a human being on a ship with a whole lot of different aliens and asking, "So how is this going to work?" 

There are some hard questions that can be asked that a lot of sci-fi works tend to ignore or only give a passing nod to.  

If I'm being honest, on my end, I'll probably be giving a passing nod to some of them myself.  But here are some things I've been thinking about in terms of putting nearly a dozen different alien species on one ship together.  First and foremost, the question of, "Is this even worth the trouble?"  Can the advantage of mutual cooperation amongst different species outweigh the inherent difficulties in trying to live in the same space?

Let's just presume, in this instance, that most species on the ship have a respiration cycle that requires oxygen.  It's not a terrible presumption, mind you-- any respiration cycle will need a molecule that's reactive, but not TOO reactive-- but then you have the question of How Much Oxygen?  Odds are not everyone will need the same balance as everyone else.  What if one species needs, say, 30% oxygen in their atmosphere?  Then the reactive properties that make oxygen molecules useful for humans becomes a little more problematic.  What if one species requires an atmosphere that's toxic to another?  What if one species's waste product is toxic to another? 

How do you decide who needs to just wear an environmental suit, since their environmental needs are far too inconvenient to everyone else?

Other factors to consider, just for starters: Gravity.  Light levels. Temperature tolerances.  Radiation levels.

And that's just about being in the same space.

What about working in the same space?  Even presuming that interspecies communication is functional enough to facilitate working together, what about ergonomics?

How do you make workstations that accommodate beings with different body sizes, body types, forms of fine-motor control, visual ranges and hearing ranges?  Do you put chairs at them?  If you aren't humanoid, chairs are pointless.  If you have only two hands (or equivalent) then using a console designed for four or more will be very challenging.  Similarly, if you have four or more, using a console designed for only two would feel woefully inefficient.

So you have to ask yourself, which compromises are the best fit for everyone, and which ones create ones that everyone can tolerate, but no one is comfortable with?  And at what point would it become too hard to be worth the trouble?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Future Worldbuilding: Choosing the Future

I've now switched gears, in earnest, with my "primary" writing project.  I've written four books in Maradaine and the world around it (six if you also count the two trunked novels), and while I'm not at all bored of it*, a palate-cleansing switch is due.   So I'm now (finally) writing the project that I've been calling Banshee for some time, which is pure space-opera.

The setting of this book is something I've been cooking for some time.  I've done a fair amount of worldbuilding here, with regards to future history, alien species and technology.

Now, trying to predict the future, especially in broad strokes for the next four hundred years, is pretty much a fool's errand.  You're not going to get it right.  So, you need to just embrace what the future you're creating is going to be, and jump in at the deep end.

The way I see it, you need to ask yourself three Big Idea Questions:
  1. Where are we?
  2. How did we get there?
  3. Why aren't we over there instead?
The first two are essentially about establishing what your setting is.  In the case of Banshee, it's a wide-sprawling, vibrant space-opera where great interstellar powers are forming alliances and empires... and humanity is a minor power that has only started to be a part of the larger community.

The third question is about establishing what your setting isn't, which is just as vital and necessary thing to think about when building sci-fi in the future.  For example, is genetic engineering of people common?  To what extent?  And if it isn't being used to the fullest possible extent, why not?  Cybernetics, nanotech, cloning, brain-taping?  Artificial Intelligence? Have these been fully embraced as part of normal life?  Or have they been shunned?  If so, why? 

For example, the future humanity in Banshee do not have artificially intelligent computers, and any form of cybernetic replacement of limbs or organs is done in a very controlled way (or on the black market).  Partly because, as a writer, these were cans of worms I didn't want to open and had little to do with the future I wanted to explore.  But I felt I couldn't just ignore it, pretend that such sciences didn't exist.  So I've included in the history a point where humanity achieves Artificial Intelligence, and it goes horribly badly; a bloody war against the machines where AIs try to take over, and people with cybernetic implants are unwilling meat-soldiers used against the rest of mankind.  Humanity wins out, but the cost is high, and the result is the feelings behind never do that again are quite strong.

So, with that worked out, I'm diving into tomorrow.  See you there.

*- In fact, I've got specific outlines for Books Two and Three for each of those four books, and a rough plan for more beyond that, which all really excite me. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Clarity and Transition

Earlier this week I was reading a piece with a very troubling section.  Troubling in a technique and clarity way, not content. 

In the scene in question, two characters were talking-- dialogue back and forth, always perfectly clear who was speaking.  And then there was a descriptive paragraph of what was happening while they were talking.  And then they continued their conversation.

Or so I thought.

Because I grew increasingly confused as the conversation continued.  It seemed their circumstances had changed utterly. 

I went back and re-read that descriptive paragraph and found my error, and it was huge.  HUGE. 

It turns out that the paragraph had not only moved the two main characters ahead in time several weeks, but had moved them to a different living situation.  The conversation which had felt like an organic continuation of the earlier conversation was, in fact, a completely different conversation, weeks later.

Now, I'll fully, fully own that my confusion here was utterly due to my lack of care in reading and processing that crucial paragraph.  My bad.

However, it doesn't change the fact that it's a lot to pack into a single paragraph.  The story had, up until that point, all been in a single night, and focused on a lot of minute details.  A sudden leap ahead in such a casual manner was... unexpected.  At the very least, one would expect a chapter break to prepare the reader for such a change.  Instead it's just one paragraph between two separate conversations between the same two people. 

This is, of course, a question of style and voice.  I would never write a transition like this, but that doesn't make it wrong or improper.  And for all I know, this was an editorial edict-- condensing what had been five to ten thousand words into a single paragraph, in order to get on with the core story. 

However, it does remind me of a point I've made again and again in workshops: Clarity is never the enemy.  Especially in moments of great change.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Writing Race in SF/F

A little story from some 20 years ago:

My college roommate and I were watching Deep Space Nine, and in the episodes a small group of Bajorans were meeting with Cmdr. Sisko.  One of the leaders of the Bajorans was played by a black actor.

"That's cool," my roommate said, "They have African-American Bajorans."  Then after a moment he said,  "Of course, that's inaccurate.  He's Bajoran.  Bajor is a different planet, there's no Africa, there's no America."

Over the course of the series, we saw that the Bajorans were as racially diverse as humans are*, but we never learn any real details of that diversity.  And that's fine, because it didn't need to be directly addressed, it just was a part of their reality, easily achieved by color-blind casting.

Writing different races in secondary world fantasy, though, can be a challenge.  And I'm not even talking on a cultural level, though that's definitely an aspect.  I'm talking about purely on a level of clarity and description. 

Here's the exercise: describe a character whose race is different than the norm of the primary culture of your world, without using any geographic or geopolitical signifiers from our world.  Also, avoid words or terms that could be racially charged.  Now do five more. 

How do you feel about what you did? 

Now, one thing you can do is make distinctions between races and cultures in your world without getting too specific, and noting how the characters are aware of the cultural differences themselves. 

   "You reek of fish, you know," she said, her flat nose crinkling in disgust. Kaiana Nell was a dark haired, brown-skinned girl. Ruder people would call her a Napa: half Druth, half Napolic. She was a soldier's daughter, born out on the tropical islands during the Fifty Year War.
   Ruder people would call Veranix a "Dirty Quin" if his Racquin heritage were as clear on his face.  Of course, Racquin were only a little darker than 'regular' Druthalians. They just kept to the roads and kept to their own, for the most part.  Though Veranix, like Kaiana, was only half.  His father was a 'regular' Druth, born and raised in Maradaine, just blocks away from the University.  Veranix had inherited his father's fair skin and green eyes, and could speak in his father's Aventil neighborhood accent.  No one suspected he was anything but a local.

Did I hit the mark, or did I miss it?  Perhaps badly?  I think I've still got room for improvement.

But who doesn't?  Even George R. R. Martin has left a lot of room for interpretation.  It seems every time a new character is cast for Game of Thrones, I see intense debates on how the actor or actress does not match what various readers imagined for that character or that character's race.

*- Which makes a strange sense, in that-- save for their nose ridges-- Bajorans were indistinguishable from humans in appearance.  If you can accept that premise (as a time-and-budget saving reality on a TV show that couldn't hire actual alien actors), the rest follows. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Failure vs. Defeat

Last week I talked about failure, and how to find value in failing.

I should point out that failure is not the same as defeat. 

Failing is when you get knocked down.  Defeat is when you don't get back up.    And, reader, you're going to get knocked down plenty.  Plenty.  The process of having your work critiqued, of querying for an agent, of submitting to publishers is brutal.  Bone-grindingly brutal.  Getting up after, say, receiving ten it's-not-you-it's-me style rejection letters and saying, "All right, let's send out ten more" is not easy.

But it's what you need to do.

Now, let's dovetail this into self-publishing.  Or indie-publishing.  Or whatever you want to call it.* I'm not going to say it's bad or wrong or misguided.  Sometimes it is absolutely the right path for a writer to follow.  It's not a bad thing to do, but it's an easy thing to do badly.  And one of the biggest way it's done badly is for the wrong reasons. 

For example, let's look at a few phrases that may sound familiar:
"The gatekeepers aren't interested in new authors."
"You can't get an agent without being published, and you can't get published without having an agent."
"The 'traditional' publishing industry is going to die, so I'm not going to bother."
"I don't have time to do that sort of thing, I need to get this published now."
I've heard this sort of thing a lot.  Usually from people just starting out.  From people who haven't even finished one novel.  From people who haven't made a concerted effort to acquire an agent or get their work published. 

People who've admitted defeat before they even got in the game.

There's no value to that.  None.  Point to the fences and swing as hard as you can, and if you strike out no one can tell you it was from lack of trying.  And to me, that's a hell of a lot better than letting yourself get beaned just so you can say you got on base.**

*- I'm personally fond of Chuck Wendig's "Author-Publisher" term, as it emphasizes what you need to do to do it right: wear two distinct hats. 
**- I'm really not one for baseball metaphors, but here I find them apt.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Finding Value in the Faceplant of Failure

Failing is important.

Not just failing, but the full-on, spectacular faceplant of FAIL.

Because that kind of failure can only be managed by really trying something.

Take, for example, the movies The Fountain or Suckerpunch.  Both of these movies are absolute fiascoes, don't mistake me.  But they are fiascoes of ambition: these are works that pointed to the fences and then struck out magnificently.

And to me, that's far more interesting, far more worthwhile, than something milquetoast that merely fails to offend.  Fails to try anything.

Fantasy writers, especially, should take heed of this idea. The genre is overwhelmed with "safe" cliches, tropes that can serve as a shorthand and allow lazy storytelling and uninspired worldbuilding.  I've read enough unpublished first chapters* through workshops and crit groups to see that.  It astounds me how many fledgling genre writers really aren't willing to expand past their narrow vision of what the genre is "supposed to be".  It astounds me how often I've gotten crit-comments from people regarding how something I wrote didn't fit into that narrow vision, and is therefore "wrong".  Not, "I didn't care for that" or "it didn't work for me", but empirically wrong, like writing fantasy is a math problem. 

Take, for a selfish example, the first chapter of Thorn of Dentonhill.  It starts in a fish cannery.  I've had someone tell me that's wrong because "they didn't have canneries in that era".  In other words, they didn't see the presence of the cannery as a definition of the worldbuilding and the level of technology, but rather already decided what the technology level ought to be, and defined what was anachronistic based on that decision.

Now, did I fail in that instance?  Possibly.  I'm going to say the jury is still out right now, but I can accept that what I wrote didn't work for them, and pointing out the cannery was really a symptom of a larger problem that they were not able to articulate. But, if nothing else, in writing it, it forced my examination of what is and isn't "right" in fantasy.  Over the course of writing Thorn and the other books in that setting, I busted through a lot of my own preconceptions. 

Back in one of the workshops I attended, John Scalzi gave a quick lecture to the students, telling us to "embrace the power of sucking".  I'm telling you something similar: accept the possibility of failure.  Accept that failing has worth. 

And when you fail, you get up, dust yourself off, assess what you may have learned from that failure, apologize to the appropriate parties if necessary**, and try again to do it better.

*- And published, but let's not get into that.
**- Especially if said failure ties to, say, depiction of cultures or genders that are not your own.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Life on Step 18

A few weeks ago Chuck Wendig published a guest post on 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author.  It's a good read, go check it out.


OK, the thing that the article doesn't tell you, and it doesn't tell you it for a very good reason, is this: how long each step takes.  Because for every writer, every step is a different process, and every step takes a different length of time for everyone involved.  I read somewhere that Stephanie Myers wrote Twilight in three weeks.  This might be apocryphal, I don't know, but if it isn't, regardless of what you think about Twilight, writing something novel-length and coherent enough that you can edit it into a best-seller three weeks is pretty impressive. 

Anyhow, Steps One Through Eight are pretty much about actually writing a manuscript and getting it to the point where you can query/submit/publish it.  And that can be a grueling process that can take years.  I mean, I spent three years working on Crown of Druthal and that's a horrid trunk novel that deserves to sit in a drawer forever.  I don't regret having done it, it was a necessary learning process, and I couldn't have written Thorn/Holver Alley/Constabulary/Shield without having done it.  But that doesn't mean it isn't a marathon of a process that people drop out from before they finish Step Eight.

Then Steps Nine through Seventeen are about getting an agent, and keeping your head above water while you go through this process.*

And then you're on Step 18.

Step 18 is a place you can live for a long time, and it's a very strange place to live.  On one hand, it's excellent, because you've conquered gatekeepers, and you've received acknowledgement that, yes, this is good work that you've done.  And that's real, professional-grade acknowledgement, not just your mom or college friend telling you that it's really cool you wrote a book.  That means something.
And yet, it also doesn't mean much of anything, because you have nothing tangible.  Wow, you wrote a book, that's awesome!  Can I read it?  Oh, no, because it's not sold yet.  I imagine it's not unlike, say, an actor who got their SAG card for a pilot that didn't get picked up.  Yes, you're a professional; yes, you've received acknowledgement of your talent; no, no one's seen your work. 

Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled-- thrilled-- to have gotten this far.  I do feel like I've accomplished a lot.  And Step 18 not rest-on-laurels time: you go back and do Steps One through Eight again, this time knowing a bit more, and knowing that Steps Nine through Seventeen are already done.  I just sent a fourth manuscript to my agent, and I'm getting a new rough draft underway. 

 Step Nineteen is just over the horizon.  I just have to keep pedaling until I reach it.

*- Because the whole process of getting a book published isn't a marathon, it's an Iron Man.  Querying is the swimming portion. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

WorldCon: AfterReport Proper

All right, now my brain has properly recovered, I can write about the weekend.

For me, WorldCon didn't start until Friday night.  Circumstances kept us from leaving Austin for San Antonio until much later than I had originally planned.  By the time we reached the Convention Center, registration had closed.  So we weren't able to get our badges yet, but the guy we asked about it told us that unless we wanted to go to the Dealer's Room, it really wouldn't be an issue. At that hour there were almost no panels going on, so we just started looking around for familiar faces.

After some wandering and we found the wonderful Stina Leicht, who was giving advice to two people* who had been part of the the Con's Writers' Workshop.  (Stina and I work the ArmadilloCon one, but we had nothing to do with this one.) She led me to the hotel bar, where the action really was happening.  We split up so she could drop her stuff off in her room, and a little while later I got this as a text: "Do you want to go to the TOR party?"

The answer to this question is going to be YES.

So Stina collected Nicholas and I and up we went.  And it was lovely and interesting, and Marco Palmieri was the bartender.  I've been a big fan of Marco's since Star Trek books are totally my reading guilty pleasure, and he was the editor over there for their most interesting run.  Also of note: David Brin showed me his fillings.  This was, apparently, proof of why he is a much better writer than young whippersnappers like myself, since he gets radio reception in his head.  Now, I've heard some chatter out there about how old the WorldCon crowd is and such, but let me tell you, having there be a place where you are still considered "one of these young kids" at 40 isn't all that terrible.

photo by Gretchen Peterson Johnston
Saturday involved going to panels, and then it was time for the Rayguns reading and signing.  Everyone present read one page from their story, which we did very efficiently.  I was pleasantly surprised, I thought we might go into overtime.  Fortunately, "Jump the Black" is in the back half of the book, and we went in order, giving me plenty of time to just marvel at the fact that I was going to give a reading from my story out of an actual book, and figure out just what my "one page" was going to be.  Then we formed a line of chairs and started signing for the crow, assembly-line style.  That was a lot of fun, even when the publishers brought out two boxes of books for us all to sign. 

So afterwards, we went to Drinks With Authors, the event Myke Cole and Steve Drew from Reddit Fantasy put together.  This was quite a fantastic event, and Nicholas was completely in charge there.  Seriously, if you want to rule a bar event, being an intelligent and articulate 13-year-old doesn't hurt.  He stood out, is what I'm saying, but he backed it up by having things to say that kept people's attention.  He also won a first edition of Robin Hobb's first book, which Wesley Chu desperately wanted.  Wes eventually agreed to whatever devil's bargain Nicholas forced him into in order to get the book.  Myke was quite enthusiastic in his appreciation of my son. It's a good thing my cousins*** had toughened me up in my youth, and I could take an affectionate chest pounding from his military-grade arms. 

Sunday was a bit of a blur-- again, a few panels during the day.  Now, I haven't talked too much about the sexual politics of WorldCon, and fortunately I didn't see or hear of any specific harassment issue.  However, at one of Sunday's panels, there was an incident that fully falls into the realm of "mansplaining".  In a panel on cosplaying and gender issues, where the panel consisted of three women, they were talking about body image and how that affects their choices.  A man from audience basically told them, "You shouldn't worry about that, because we always think you look lovely", missing the point spectacularly.  The panel and women in the audience smacked him down quite well, but I doubt what they were saying drilled into his skull. 

Better things on Sunday: Nicholas made a steampunk gun.  He also bought a shoulder-holster, and just having those two things earned him some "good costume" comments.  I thought that was funny.

Also, there was the Campbell panel, in which the four Campbell nominees all wore tiaras, and got Ben Bova to wear one as well.  Worth the price of admission just for that.

Then there were the Hugos!  I'm definitely glad I went there, because it was very much worth it.  It's the Nerd Oscars, of course you go.  Afterwards, I introduced myself to the editor from DAW, and then hung out at the bar for a while before finding my way up to the Loser Party.  Again, a thing you go to if you can.  Frankly, at this point, even though I barely had anything to drink, my head was swirling with Con Overwhelm.  So details are fuzzy.  I'll simply list further wonderful people whom you should read: Max GladstoneNancy HightowerValya Dudycz LupescuChuck Wendig

(You probably knew that last one already.)

That's all I got.  Time to get back in the word mines.


*- Something funny about the scope of WorldCon-- and it is quite huge.  There were plenty of people I know, that I know were there that I never saw.  And others who I only saw in brief passing.  Yet there were other people that I ran into constantly, and that included the two people Stina was talking to.**  I'm sure there's some sort of movement-of-particles math that would explain it. 
**-  If you were one of those two people, I'm sorry, but I've forgotten your names completely-- but you were both very charming people who I hope have a lot of success in your future, and feel free to contact me.
***- At some point, I need to explain the rules of Quarterball. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Incoherent WorldCon Post

I've literally just gotten home from WorldCon, which was amazing and still a lot to process.

Mostly because of this:
 So, that's an actual thing that exists.

But, yeah, it's too much for me to go into right now.  People were amazing.  The Campbell nominees, in particular, were amazing people.  Look how great they are:
Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Chuck Wendig and Stina Leicht
 OK.  I need to recover.  More of coherence later.