Monday, March 31, 2014

That Was 40: A Pretty Good Trip Around the Sun

So, today is my 41st birthday.  And in the end, 40 was a pretty good year.  A quick recap:

  • "Jump the Black" was published in Rayguns Over Texas
  • With the sale of "Jump the Black", I'm eligible for the Campbell.  And, you know, nominations for that end today.  In case you were curious. 
  • I finished the long-suffering Way of the Shield, a book that just tasked me for the longest time before I figured out how to crack it.  
  • I attended my first WorldCon.  
  • I finally started properly writing Banshee, having now put in 70,000 words in it.  The idea of Banshee had been bouncing around in my head for YEARS, so getting real traction on it was quite a victory.
  • I SOLD TWO BOOKS TO DAW: Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages.  Yeah, this was definitely the highlight of the year.  
  • Got underway on Thorn II so there is minimal turnaround between those two books coming out and the next ones.  And now I'm halfway done.
So, clearly, a milestone year.

It's definitely the year in which I've transitioned from how I feel about writing, from being someone who took writing seriously, devoting much of my energy and time to it, to being a professional writer.

It's been a good year for me, and I'm looking forward to the next one.  More writing, ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop, and Thorn and Murder coming out.  And who knows what else.  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Worldbuilding: Integrating the Top Down and the Bottom Up

I'll fully admit, the worldbuilding work I've done for the Banshee space-opera verse has was done in a strange way.  Namely, I did a combination of top-down and bottom-up building. 

To define these terms: top-down building is when you make first big decisions about the different cultures, borders and interactions, and then build the map to meet those needs.  Bottom-up building is when you create the map first, and then figure out cultures, borders and interactions based on what the map demands.

Neither approach is right or wrong, good or bad.  They're just different ways to go about it.  In fact, I advocate the hybrid approach.

In this case, the "top down" involved the decisions about some of the alien cultures closest to Earth.  I knew one thing I wanted was a large Alliance in close proximity to Earth, who had taken a preservationist/non-interference attitude to the planetbound cultures in their spheres of influence.  I knew I wanted an aggressively expansionist culture (the Paxin) and an imperialist culture (the Surani), and a recent interstellar addition who would give the humans a good fight (the Krek'nik). 

Also, in general, I wanted our interstellar region to be filled with intelligent life that was all, more or less, in the same place-- i.e. everyone had gotten into space or could potentially get into space within a few centuries of each other (or in the case of the three "old" powers in the region, a few millennia)-- which, in cosmic terms is the blink of an eye and highly improbably, unless you incorporate a serious don't-poke-this-too-hard conceit.  Which I did. 

But, in terms of "bottom up", I knew I wanted the stellar geography to be sensible.  Real stars where they really are. Now, this meant I probably did a bit of homeworld-fudging-- I'm given to understand that Procyon is probably too young a star to have a planet with advanced life on it, for example-- but that fulfilled at least a sense of verisimilitude.

But the other "bottom up" aspect I had to ask myself was-- what else was out there?  I had the raw data on stars within 150 light-years of Earth, and from that, crafted some randomization for each star:  Are there planets?  Where are the planets?  Do any have life?  Is that life intelligent?  How technologically advanced is that intelligent life?  Have they achieved FTL travel, and if so, when?  From all that, I could build up exact details of the 147 starfaring cultures, and how their potential interaction might be.

This bottom-up method gave me the opportunity come up with ideas that I might never have had without star-map based data fueling it.  Seven alien cultures in relative proximity to each other form a loose coalition.  One advanced culture with no one in proximity builds a sizable empire before encountering any pushback.  Another with a powerful aggressive species nearby builds their culture on defending themselves. 

From this, I found more interesting discoveries.  I devised a little equation based on expansion (how many colonies or outposts a culture had) and their tech level, and were able to calculate who the true "First Level" powers in the region were.  And from that, I've been putting together how the Astronomical Geopolitics (Astropolitics?) really work. 

I'd like to think doing that work-- while anal and time-consuming-- has created something a little more organic than just a top-down alone process would have.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Injuries, Accidents and Healing

As far as injuries a writer can get, several metatarsal microfractures is far from the worst.  It's frustrating, and it's slowing me down in general, but I can, at least, sit and write. 

One note I was given for Thorn was to keep an eye on the injuries that Veranix and various other characters receive, and how hard they push themselves afterwards.

Now, I wrote Veranix as the kind of person who can and will push himself to the limit of his endurance.  He's specifically experienced in pushing himself that way.  But even still, the limit of his endurance is still a limit.  I tweaked one of his injuries to be a little less catastrophic than it naturally would have been, and don't have him pass out from the strain of it, only to be back in it and fighting a few minutes later.

I've never really been in a real fight, where I get hit or cut and have to will myself to keep going.  But I have had plenty of accidents over the years, where I've had to the push myself through to make it.  Plenty.*  Sometimes you just have to take the time to heal.

So, how do you all temper the balance between characters getting hurt-- because if they were just invulnerable machines, what would be the fun?-- and pushing themselves to keep going?


*- My wife keeps count of the number of times I've been on crutches in our marriage.  Including this time.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Ego in Check

Many years ago, I worked for the English department at the University of Texas at the main office front desk.  This meant I also answered the main phone line for the department, which as you might imagine, got several odd calls.  One call stands out, even a decade after the fact.

The call came from a poet who was at another University, calling about a journal that, if memory serves, we did not publish, and wanting to speak to the Chair of the Department to inform him that she was contributing to this non-existent publication.  Now, one thing that you should know is that a standing rule I had was that I never just sent phone calls to the Chair without a certain degree of screening, either on my own or through the department's executive assistant.  So I asked for some clarification about who she was and what she was talking about.  And that's where it got weird.

It got weird for several reasons. First, this poet in question was acting like she was a huge deal.  And, without going into details of who she was, researching it after the fact, she was, in fact, a rather notable modern living poet.  However, one would have to be somewhat familiar with a specific subgenre of poetry to be aware of that, and I was not.  So that's a little bit on me.  However, this was compounded by the fact that she had a professional name that was more than a little pretentious (which began with "The Poet") AND she referred to herself by that name in the third person.  Add in some understandable homonym confusion with her professional name, and the net effect meant that to a person who was unfamiliar with her and her work, she sounded like a crazy person. 

However, she knew who she was and that she was a big deal, and as such, seemed to be completely unaware that how she was presenting herself would come off as lunacy to someone who didn't know that.  So she kept repeating the same thing, since to her frame of mind, she was talking to a fool who didn't understand he was talking to someone quite important in the poetry world. 

And, I swear to you all, I honestly thought it was some crackpot who had written a bunch of poems and was insisting that the English Department publish them for her.

The only thing it would have taken is a small amount of clarity, coupled with her not presuming that I ought to know who she was.  I'm not talking a ludicrous amount here.  I mean saying, "My name is The Poet ____, and I'm the Poetry Emeritus at ______, and I would like to talk to the chair of the department about XYZ." 

Now, with that verbose wind-up, my point: it can be easy, as a writer's career grows, to lose oneself a bit in one's ego.  Of course, a bit of ego is a good, healthy thing.  You need that to be able to do that bit of shameless promotion to get your work out there.  Hell, you need it just to be able to query.   But when you cross from, "This is who I am" to "Don't you know who I am?", you're in dangerous territory. 

So that's something to keep in mind: even if Thorn and Murder of Mages are huge successes, it's important to remember being here now, remember being where I was one, three, or seven years ago.  Maintain humility, especially when dealing with the people who are coming up behind me.

Of course, that's easy to say now.  Hopefully I won't lose sight of that down the road.  But I would think the last thing I'd do is berate some poor kid on the phone for not giving me my due. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Worldbuilding: Music and Popular Culture

There are some fantasy writers-- I'm not going to name names and I'm not going to necessarily say, "This is bad" or such-- but there are some fantasy writers who will give you lyrics and lyrics of in-world songs.  Sometimes this gives you a fascinating look into history and culture.  Sometimes it stops the action dead while characters sit around and sing.

Again, not saying right or wrong, it's a stylistic choice.  Sometimes it pays off.

It's never the route I go, mostly because... not a lyricist.  If I wrote songs I might have a different frame of mind.  Now, I do have a poem in A Murder of Mages, but it's plot-relevant. Songs typically aren't.  They are a typically a pleasant diversion at best, a nice bit of atmosphere to set tone and enhance worldbuilding.

Because that's the important thing: music and songs are a critical aspect of culture, and thus part of worldbuilding.  Just ignoring it doesn't work any more than having it freeze up the narrative.

For example, in my backburnered work-in-progress Banshee, Lt. Kengle is the only human on a ship of aliens.  The only thing she really has to connect to, emotionally, is her music.  Her music is, of course, 24th century music, and I really don't go into details about what, exactly it sounds like-- though I do highlight her preference for female singers (and that it is, still sung).  What I do go into is how listening to her music makes her feel.

Would you be able to hear it, reading the book?  Honestly, probably not.  But what you would get out of it is what it means to Lt. Kengle, culturally and personally.  That same technique can be applied-- in fantasy or sci-fi--  to any pop culture element: music, drama, sports, lifestyle.  The msot important aspect of it, in terms of your story, is not what it is, but how your characters feel about it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Writer's Brain In Constant Motion

So, right now, I'm putting the "finishing" touches on the manuscript for Thorn of Dentonhill before sending it to my editor.  On top of that, I've been charging full-throttle into Thorn II. Working both at the same time has been helpful, especially in making tiny tweaks in Thorn to set something up for Thorn II.  

Which means, of course, that Lt. Kengle and Banshee are pounding on the glass in my brain, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

This is not uncommon in my headspace.  I've often made the metaphor that my creative side is much like a full restaurant kitchen.  There's something getting fired to go out as quickly as possible.  There's stuff working on backburners, simmering away to be tackled soon.  Other things are in crockpots, slowly bubbling, but won't be brought out and worked on any time soon.  Then there's stuff being prepped in the back, in the earliest stages.

And, like any closed kitchen, there's a lot of swearing. 

Also, now the orders really have to go out and reach the customers.  It's no longer a hypothetical kitchen.

In an ideal world, over the course of 2014 I will:
  • Deliver the final manuscript for Thorn of Dentonhill
  • Deliver the final manuscript for A Murder of Mages
  • Finish a draft of Thorn II, clean it up and deliver it to my editor.
  • Finish a draft of Murder II, clean it up and deliver it to my editor.
  • Finish a draft of Banshee, and get that into my agent's hands.
Which seems like a lot, but you have to remember that right now Thorn II is already a third done, Murder II is fully outlined, and Banshee is about two-thirds done.  So this set of goals will be a challenge, but a reachable one.  It's also what my brain wants to do.  I'm not saying I won't potentially run into a snag or pitfall, but there's no question in my mind of, "Oh, no, NOW what am I going to do?"

Plus it will mean that not only will Thorn and Murder have direct sequels in the pipe before the year is out, but my agent will have three manuscripts in hand (Banshee, Holver Alley Crew and Way of the Shield) for the inevitable, "And what's next after that?" question.

And now to work.  I've got deadlines, after all.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Where is the next Star Trek?

Something occurred to me recently: we haven't had a successful show about humanity's future in outer space on television since 2005, and that with a very broad definition of "successful".  Before you say "Battlestar Galactica" or one of the Stargate variants-- neither of those technically qualify.  BSG, strictly speaking, is set in the distant past (sorry, spoilers), and Stargate is more in an alt-present than the future.  The last real attempt was the interesting failure "Defying Gravity" in 2009, and even that was set entirely within the confines of the Solar System. 

In the 1990s, we had three iterations of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Andromeda. in the first half of the next decade: yet another Trek, Firefly and Farscape*.

So where is the next Star Trek?

Now, so I'm clear, I'm not talking about another iteration of Trek itself.  Not that I would object, mind you, but I'm not sure what form it would take, given the baggage of five different series, and even the rebooted movies come laden with baggage.

But it doesn't need to be Trek-- which Babylon 5 and Firefly proved.  It can be its own new thing, a brand new vision of the future.  In fact, that would probably be best.

So why hasn't it been done?  I mean, it's not like anyone says, "Well, we don't need another cop show" or "we don't need another lawyer show". 

I think there is a huge audience out there hungry for something new that would appeal to fans of Trek (and B5, Farscape, Firefly, BSG, and so on.)  So I'm downright surprised that no one has tried to capitalize on it.  And it can be presented in an entirely new way, because the television landscape has changed radically since any of those shows have gone off the air.  I'm also surprised that no one seems to be hungry to do it. 

My first rule of writing, in terms of what I write, is "write what I would want to read".  I don't bother with trend-chasing or mimicking others or even what's necessarily "sellable"-- just that simple rule that I would want to read it.  If it's something I'm geeked out on, then that passion would come through, and readers would be into it as well.

That's what's at the core of the universe I built for Banshee, my simmering on the backburner work-in-progress.  It's a vision of the future that's not Trek (or B5, Farscape, Firefly, BSG, etc.), but would appeal to the fans of those things. 

But in the mean time, I wouldn't mind seeing a new show.  Trek or otherwise.

*- True, Farscape is also an "alt-present". 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

An Interview With The Author

I'm under a bit of a crunch today, so I'm reposting an interview I did with my agent when Thorn and Murder of Mages was first announced.  Feel free to hit me with follow-up questions.

Q: So who is this Marshall Ryan Maresca fellow?A: Marshall Ryan Maresca is a fantasy and sci-fi writer living in the Austin area.  And he's just sold two fantasy novels to DAW!

Q: What are a few books that made you fall in love with fantasy and science fiction?A: A few early favorites are David Eddings's The Belgariad, Asimov's Caves of Steel, Richard Adams's Watership Down, and Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Below the Root.

Q: What makes you laugh?A: What specifically?  Hard to say.  It doesn't take much, I can tell you that.  I'm pretty easy.

Q: What's the hardest lesson you have learned about writing?A: It took me a while to figure out that enthusiasm alone for my settings or ideas wasn't enough to truly make a story.  I had to push through a phase where I wasn't really writing, I was essentially being a fandom of one for a thing that was only in my head.  I had to sit down and really figure out how to outline and structure a story with a driven center. 

Q: What's the most difficult thing you've learned about publishing?
A: Patience.  Still working on that.

Q: With the explosion of self-publication what made you seek an agent and traditional publisher?A: Frankly, self-publication is too easy.  I couldn't see the value in taking that route.  There's a bit in A League of Their Own that I like to bring up, where Geena Davis says that the game "got too hard", and Tom Hanks replies, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great."  That sums it up quite nicely. 

Q: What was the process in getting your agent like?
A: I first became aware of him quite a few years ago, when he did a public challenge of pounding through as many slush entries he could in a single day.  I sent something to him that, in retrospect, had very little business being shopped around.  But I had to learn that.  He-- quite rightfully-- passed on that one.  But he stayed on my radar, and when I was querying for Thorn of Dentonhill, he was at the top of my list. 
Now, here's where it gets interesting.  That draft of Thorn was, for all intents, unsellable: a 70,000 word manuscript in a genre that really demands at least 90K.  I can only imagine that a number of agents passed on it without blinking when they saw that statistic at the top of the query.  But Mike read the whole damn thing and came back with, "This is great, BUT it's far too short.  Fix that and get back to me."  Up until that point, I had been clueless about the fundamental flaw in the work.  So I got back in there and figured out how to make it longer without causing fundamental damage to it. On top of that, there were plenty more queries, sending partials and fulls upon request, and a lot of form rejection letters.  Seriously.  A lot.

Q: When you went agent hunting how long did it take you to land the aforementioned scoundrel?A: Well, that's a complicated question.  I started the query process for Thorn in 2009, and I heard from Mike there in October.  It took me a few months to rework it, and then send it back to him.  And then the process of further querying brought more drafts, and in early 2011 I sent him a even more revised version, which he accepted in May.  So: two years, give or take, where the manuscript went through a lot of evolution in the process.

Q: NightWing and Hawkeye get into a battle to the death; who wins?A: First of all, both those guys operate on a No Killing code, so I don't know how this battle to the death came about.  But, accepting the premise, I've got to put my money on Hawkeye.  He's a crafty bastard that everyone underestimates.  Plus: he beat Death itself and saved the universe from complete destruction using nothing but a carny trick. 

Q: Who are your three favourite superhero's?
A: If my answer above didn't already clue you in, I'm a sucker for archers: Green Arrow and Hawkeye.  Some people will mock them for being, you know, just a guy with a bow, while next to them are the likes of Iron Man or Superman or such.  But you've got to flip the script on it: they're just guys with a bow... who are good enough to be standing next to Iron Man or Superman.  For a third, I've got to go with Nightcrawler: pure panache and style. 

Q: What form does your writing procrastination take? A: Maps and worldbuilding for other things.  My space opera setting has grown quite literally exponentially while not writing various projects.

Q: Your bio says you do some acting, would you want to play any of your characters in an adaptation? If so who?
A: Oh, absolutely.  Probably one of the minor bad guys in Thorn-- Nevin or Bell-- or Captain Cinellan in A Murder of Mages. But just about anyone would be fun, because... well, I write with the perspective of a guy who's played "Citizen #4" in Julius Caesar.  You've got to make even the most minor character dynamic.

Q: What movie have you seen the most times?
A: This is the hardest question here.  I've seen many movies many, many, many times.  And quite a few of them were really not worth the repeated viewing.  I don't know if I've seen it more than any other, but the movie I can always pop in and be utterly engaged in is Die Hard.  And like I said above, that's a movie that makes even the most minor character dynamic. 

Q: What can you tell us about the books you sold?
A: Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages are street-level fantasy novels set in the same city.  In Thorn, Veranix Calbert is a magic student at the University who spends his nights slipping off campus to wage a one-man war on the drug dealers in the adjoining neighborhood, and their boss Willem Fenmere.  Using his magic skills in his fight, Veranix draws the attention of Fenmere, mystical circles and street gangs, and they all want a piece of “The Thorn.” With professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might fall apart, and the assassins and mages after him could end it completely.  In Mages, Satrine Rainey is a working mother and an ex-spy who fakes her way into a Inspector position in the Maradaine Constabulary.  She gets partnered with Minox Welling, an eccentric genius and an untrained mage.  Together, they have to solve a series of gruesome murders, in which all the victims are mages.  Both books stand on their own, but as they take place in the same city, there are little hints and connections tying them together.

Q: When they build a statue to you, how will you be posed?
A: Slumped in front of computer, writing.

Q: Where on the internet can we find you? (List all social networks that are publicly you, website, blog and whatever)
A: My webpage is, and my blog can be found at  I'm also on Twitter ( and Facebook.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Publication Transparency

So, now I'm a couple months into this process, it's time to talk a little about what this process has been.

First of all, there was a big gap between me finding out that I had sold Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages.  I learned mid-December, but with the full understanding that the process of putting together the contract coupled with the holiday break meant it would be about a month before everything was squared away and I could shout the news to the world.

Indeed, it took a month, though my experience in that regard should be considered atypical.  It was an aspect of the timing coinciding with the holidays.

Once I received the contracts, I printed them out on legal-sized paper*, signed them and shipped them back to the folks at DAW.  Once that was squared away, I could make the announcement.

So, what happened next?  For one, I decided that was cause enough to start work on Thorn II, which is now well underway.  My goal, on a writing level, is to keep myself ahead of the game.  Once books start to come out, I don't want to leave my readership hanging for too long.

Next, I had a long talk with my editor on Thorn, over the phone.  I took copious notes of things to address in the changes I needed to make.  I also put together my maps and sent those off.

Now, I have to confess-- if you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you know I'm a bit of a map geek and have done a fair amount of work along those lines.   But in sending my maps to my editor-- a woman whose career is centered on the publication of fantasy novels-- there was still a part of my brain that went into nerd-shame mode.  Like, "They're going to think you're such a dork when they look at this."  Crazy, no?  I suppose that stuff is pretty internalized.  Swallow it and move on.

So, got to work on edits, as well as sending a few miscellaneous documents: a two-paragraph description of Thorn (modified from my query letters of old), a bio and some descriptive guidelines for the cover artist, whoever that will be.

Once edits are done and sent in, I presume we'll get to work on the same process for Murder of Mages.

That's where we are right now.  Any questions?  I'll answer them as best as I can.

*- Oddly enough, for no real reason, I had legal sized paper on hand.  I don't think it had been used for years, but that's how our home office is.