Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Which I Become A Word-Whore; Or, Who is Marshall Ryan Maresca Character Anyway?

So, as of today, I've been added to the Word Whores blog, joining Jeffe Kennedy, James Moore, K.A. Krantz, Linda Robertson, Marcella Burnard and Veronica Scott.  I'll be appearing as their Thursday blogger, though what I write over there on Thursdays will be the same thing I write here on Thursdays.  My Monday post here will be unaffected.  So here's my first post for Word Whores, in which I introduce myself (which might be news for some of you anyway), and discuss this week's topic.
Hello!  I'm Marshall Ryan Maresca, the latest addition to Word Whores, and I know exactly the question you're all asking.


I just told you.

No, really, who are you?

All right, fair question. 

So: Marshall Ryan Maresca, Fantasy and Science-Fiction writer.  I'm also a playwright, but in all honestly I don't focus on that as much, leaning more toward fantasy and sci-fi writing. 

Yeah, but, have I read any of your stuff?
Product Details

Well... maybe?  My short story Jump the Black appeared in Rayguns Over Texas, an anthology of sci-fi short stories all from Texas authors.  It's a very cool anthology, and I highly recommend it.

Texas, huh?

Yes.  Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, a city known for its rainfall and winters where daily snow can occasionally be measure in feet.  All right, admittedly, that's during freak blizzards, but it still happens.  So after finishing a film degree at Penn State, I moved to Austin, Texas.  A place where snow is so uncommon, a wisp of it shuts the whole city down.  It is bliss. degree, playwright?  Why are you writing novels?

I actually spent quite a bit of time doing theatre in Austin, as a playwright, director, producer, and even a bit of time as an actor.  As an actor, I mostly specialized in characters who got beat up, smacked around or killed.  I even played a character who was killed twice: first time, getting my neck broken, and then having my brain stolen.  Said brain was installed into a virtual reality system, and then my virtual self was killed.

It was a weird show.

But over time I began to realize that writing novels was what I really wanted to do, and I but all my focus into that.  I still write short plays on occasion, mostly because it helps keep those dialogue writing muscles sharp.  (More on that in a bit)

So, ahem... novels, you were saying?

Right.  I've got two fantasy novels coming out in 2015 from DAW Books.  First is The Thorn of Dentonhill coming out on February 3rd.  The next one, A Murder of Mages, will be coming out later in the year.  Both books are in the same fantasy setting, in the same city, but they are each, individually, the first of a series. 

So you're launching two different series essentially at the same time?

Yes. I'm crazy.

All right, man, it's your life.

Is that all?

Hey, I'm asking the questions!

Actually, you're not any more.

Oh, yeah.  So, aren't your posts for WordWhores supposed to be on a topic-of-the-week?

Yes, they are!  Which I'm quite grateful for, so now I won't spend Wednesday nights thinking, "What the heck am I supposed to be writing about for tomorrow?"

What's this week?

This week is about dialogue in non-action scenes, which is a right-in-my-wheelhouse place to start.  Dialogue and I are good friends.  This comes from cutting my writing teeth on plays.  I can throw two characters in a room and have them banter and bounce until days end. 

Which means sometimes, in writing prose, I fall into the trap of thinking like a playwright.  I mean, I just give them the words to say.  Action, emotion, intention?  The actors will bring that in their performance.  What's that?  No actors?  Just words on the page?  Ah.  Have to go back and revise.

So, yeah, for me, it's always an active process of remembering the action of the non-action scene, what the people are doing, how they physically react to the conversation, how the POV character feels and their observations of other people's emotions.  But part of that being an active process means I have to be aware that it isn't becoming inorganic.  It's one thing to make sure the characters are active while they're talking.  It's another to make sure I'm not just marking minutia for no reason other than to give them bits of business to do while talking.

That's overdirecting your actors.

So, on some level, you do have to trust in the effectiveness of the words of dialogue themselves.  Like you trust your actors to find the meaning and action that goes with it, you can trust your readers to do the same.

And with that, it's time to head back into the word mines.  See you down there.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Worldbuilding and the Challenges of the Cosmopolitan City

So, I've finally begun the work on The Little East (aka the sequel to A Murder of Mages) in earnest.  Without delving too deep into spoilers, it deals with investigations in the sub-neighborhood generally referred to as The Little East, which is kind of Maradaine's equivalent to Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy and Little Ukraine all rolled together.

Except not exactly, because none of the foreign cultures that are enclaved the Little East are really equivalent to Earth cultures.  Not exactly.

And that's the big challenge I've given myself with this book.  I need to depict these cultures as their own thing, unique to my world.  If readers start going through and going, "Oh, these people are just Japan with the serial numbers filed off" or something like that... then I've done something wrong.

So, how do I accomplish that, exactly?  One way is by trying to avoid any cultural buzzwords that will immediately but a specific culture in mind, especially in combinations.  You might be able to get away with "silk" or "paper lanterns" without evoking China, but put both together, and that's where your readers will go.

The other thing I try to do is give each culture some unique element or feel that doesn't directly evoke any real world culture.  For one culture, for example, there's a caste system that involves dying the hair specific colors. 

How do you evoke new cultures in your worldbuilding without making it feel like a copy-and-paste job?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Worldbuilding: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

As an old school D&D person, one of the things I loved about the old Monster Manual was that it wasn't just a listing of monsters and their combat stats.  Care was taken it A. also putting regular animals in there and B. discussing the behavior, habitats, biology and ecology of all the creatures discussed.

Earlier when I talked about Bottom-Up Worldbuilding, I touched briefly on adding the flora and fauna, and how those decisions would shape the cultures around them.  Of course, those choices also have to fit the environments around them.  You can't just, for example, stick lions or tigers or bears just anywhere because they're awesome.

Nor can you have any animals just be domesticated, just because that's what you want.  The animals domesticated over the course of human history were domesticatible for a reason.  And more to the point, those that were NOT, were not for a reason.  Zebras are the angry jerks of the equine family, and they do not want to be your friend.  Bison are skittish and can JUMP like you wouldn't believe, and thus are challenging to put into a corral.  Elephants can be tamed, but they stay pregnant for two years, just to have one calf, which makes raising them for meat or transport unideal. 

But this is fantasy worldbuilding, and you can make whatever creatures you want, right?  Right. But make sure they make ecological sense. Fast-moving apex-predators, for example, are going to need a lot of calories, so their food supply should be ample, and there's a limit to how much competition they should have for that supply.   Non-domesticatible megafauna should have a good reason for not having been hunted to extinction for their delicious meat.*

And if you want to create a from-whole-cloth domesticated animals, remember that they should include many or all of the following traits:
  1. Flexible diet (i.e., it can eat a variety of things, especially the foods that humans can either spare or not need themselves)
  2. Reasonably fast growth rate (i.e., one where it's worth the trouble to domesticate it-- if it takes several years of care before you have a useable animal, it's not worth it.)
  3. Can breed in captivity 
  4. Pleasant disposition and minimal/usable panic reflex.
  5. Social hierarchy, especially ones where humans can take over the role of pack leader.
  6. Useful resource for humans: including and not limited to meat, milk, cloth, transport or labor. 
What animals do you use in your worldbuilding, and how do humans interact with them?


*- Australia had quite a bit of mega-fauna**, including cow-sized marsupials and sheep-sized monotremes (platypuses), but a leading theory is that when early humans arrived in Australia, they were already accomplished hunters, while the Australian animals were not accustomed to humans or being hunted, and thus were easily hunted.  Contrast that to African megafauna, which had the advantage of evolving with humans, and thus learning how to adapt to human hunting techniques.
**- If you want some inspiration for fantastic-seeming creatures, googling "Australian Megafauna" is a wonderful way to go.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Worldbuilding: Pure Bottom-Up Worldbuilding

Since I'm in the process of editing my draft of Thorn II and working on the rough of Murder of Mages II, I clearly don't have enough on my plate. 

At least, that's what part of my brain seems to think.

Because that part of my brain has become strangely obsessed with an idea of a brand-spanking-new-from-scratch worldbuilding project.  And by "from-scratch", I mean completely.

Whenever we do worldbuilding, there is typically some form of top-down idea guiding the process.  There's some underlying idea of what we want the world to be or have, the technology leer, the way the culture is.  We start from that concept and build down, forming the infrastructure to make that idea work. 

And there's nothing wrong with that.

But it tends to create limiting ideas-- secondary fantasy worlds that still are, in essence, England or Italy or Arabia or Japan in medieval or rennaisance times, or steampunked or otherwise tweaked.  The scent of the familiar stays with it. 

And, again, there's nothing wrong with that.  It makes it easy to define when it comes to writing stories.

But I've been thinking more and more about what really, truly working from the bottom-up would bring about.  That means starting with the land itself, building the details of geography and climate.  From there, decisions about flora and fauna-- especially the key domesticatible plants and animals, and then determining where the "cradle of life" where humans or other intelligent life emerges (indeed, if it's a fantasy world, the decision to have multiple intelligent species is crucial).  Once that cradle is determined, you would determine the pre-historic diaspora, as people spread across the world as hunter-gatherers before they start settling into agriculture.  And that's dependent on if settling into agriculture is even a viable option given their terrain and available possible crops.

From that point, the slow development of civilization and cultures as states and empires rise and fall, develop and regress.

Of course, the question is, would this be a valuable exercise?  Would the deliberate bottom-up process yield results that were significantly different than the more typical top-down one?  And more to the point, would it give a world that would be an interesting and dynamic setting for stories, or would it be little more than an intellectual exercise to its own end?

And is it a process a person can realistically do on their own?

I'm honestly not sure.  But I think it's worth exploring, and I'd love to hear other thoughts on the subject.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Oh Captain, My Captain

I've been spending the past few days re-watching choice scenes from Dead Poet Society.

I've never been a person who spends much time dwelling on celebrity deaths, and for the most part, I'm not really dwelling on Robin Williams.  I liked a lot of his work, though there was some I really couldn't stand.  He always struck me as the kind of performer who never phoned it in, though, even if the movie he was in was a hot mess.

Oh, but, Dead Poets Society.  That was my movie.  Which should surprise no one: a movie about embracing the power of words and breaking out of conformity, and teaching that to teenagers who are desperate for that message.  And it came out the summer I was 16.

Yeah, I might as well have had "TARGET AUDIENCE" tattooed on my chest, like Charlie with his lightning bolt.

("Damn it, Neal.  It's Nuwanda.")

Now, at the time I was quite fortunate that I didn't have parents like Neal's.  At all.  Mine were pretty indulgent of my various artistic ambitions, including going to college to study film.  So that aspect of the film-- of a voice being stifled-- didn't apply to me.

But that my voice could matter... that the powerful play goes on, and I might contribute a verse... 

Yeah, that hit home. 

So I've spent a bit of time revisiting that.  Oh me, oh life.  A powerful sentiment that Williams delivers with such quiet confidence, such honesty... that the soundbite itself lends weight to a commercial telling you that iPads will make you more creative.

I've already gotten started on my verse, but there's still plenty to do.  So off to work.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Picking Your Battles

So the big news in writerly circles this weekend involved the current salvos in the Amazon/Hachette fracas, with writers remaining caught in the middle*.  I honestly haven't been talking about it mostly because I really don't have a dog in this fight, not directly, but also because people like John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig are saying the sort of thing I'm thinking, and saying it far better than I probably would.  And in the case of Chuck, with more profanity and bushier beard.

What I find fascinating about all this is how some people who don't have a dog in this fight are turning the whole thing on its edge to give themselves a dog.  To twist distribution contract negotiations into something about THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING: BIG 5 PUBLISHERS VS. INDIES.  And, you know, I tried to see it, and I looked at it sideways and squinted... and I still didn't see it.  Closest I could see to it was Indie writers-- who use Amazon to distribute their work, and may or may not have a beef with Big 5 publishing-- see this whole thing as a chance to take one of the Big 5 down a peg.  Or something.  If you want to see it that way, if you want to frame it as a David And Goliath Fight... that's your business.  Frankly, it's far more of an Ali/Frazier, as I see it.**   But how I see it doesn't really matter, because... I'm not really in it. 

Sooner or later, though, there will be one of these writerly rows in which you will firmly be on one side or another.  That might be because things are happening that affect you, or it's a situation you feel passionate about.  Or it might be because you hold one kind of politics and said something in favor of those politics, and people who hold another kind of politics have decided you are now a punching bag.  Sometimes you come to the fight; sometimes the fight comes to you.  Sometimes the fight is an angry mob; sometimes it's just a few mosquitoes.  Both don't require a flamethrower response. 

You've got to decide how you're going to handle it.  You've got to decide if you're going to handle it. 

Because not every fight is worth it.  Sometimes you should just focus on your own writing.  Which is, frankly, what I'm going to go do.


*- Someday we'll all be grizzled old veterans.  "I was there for the Amazon/Hachette Wars!  Fought in the great Blog Battle of August 9th!"
**- I won't comment which is which, though.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Austin's One Minute Play Festival

I've had two pieces chosen for Austin's first One Minute Play Festival (which uses the hashtag #1MPF, if you're curious.)  It was a fun writing exercise for me, and given the talent involved, the whole thing should be pretty interesting.  Details below.

The One-Minute Play Festival (#1MPF) & ScriptWorks, In Collaboration with Salvage Vanguard Theatre Present:
The 1st Austin One-Minute Play Festival
Thursday Aug 28th, Friday Aug 29th, and Saturday Aug 30th at 8PM
At Salvage Vanguard Theatre
2803 Manor RD
Austin, TX 78722
Tickets are $20 and available at: 
One-minute plays by 40 active Austin & Texas playwrights were commissioned for this special annual event, and developed with #1MPF’s playmaking process.
Featuring Brand New One-Minute Plays By
Katie Bender, Allison Orr Block, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, James Burnside, Monika Bustamante, Bastion Carboni, Katherine Catmull, Elizabeth Cobbe, Martha Lynn Coon, Adrienne Dawes, Trey Deason, Elizabeth Doss, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Raul Garza, Kirk German, Aimée Gonzalez, Meg Haley, Reina Hardy, Joanna Horowitz, Brian Kettler, Abe Koogler, Rhonda Kulhanek, Max Langert, Kirk Lynn, P. Paullette MacDougal, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jennifer Margulies, Tegan McLeod, Briandaniel Oglesby, Jason Rainey, Candyce Rusk, Sarah Saltwick, Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, Hank Schwemmer, Diana Lynn Small, C. Denby Swanson, Lisa B. Thompson, Cyndi Williams, Anne Maria Wynter, & more

Directed by Christi Moore, Derek Kolluri, Ellie McBride, Jenny Lavery, Ken Webster, Linda Nenno, Will Hollis Snider, & Lily Wolff
Curated By #1MPF Producing Artistic Director, Dominic D’Andrea
ScriptWorks (formerly Austin Script Works) is a playwright-driven organization that seeks to promote the craft of dramatic writing and protect the writer’s integrity by encouraging playwright initiative and harnessing collective potential. ScriptWorks is funded and supported in part by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division believing an investment in the Arts is an investment in Austin’s future.  Visit Austin at Find ScriptWorks on the web at

Monday, August 4, 2014

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Editing

During ArmadilloCon I had the pleasure of talking with a woman who was in the enviable-but-frustrating position of having an agent, but her manuscripts were still being reviewed by publishers.  (Enviable because YOU HAVE AN AGENT, and that's awesome. Frustrating, especially at cons, because while you are on the path to success, you don't have that tangible commodity to show for it.  Talking up your agent-having alone just sounds strange.)  She was already worried about what might happen when an editor got a hold of it. What sort of crazy changes might be demanded?

Fortunately, I had just been through two editing processes, and I could reassure her that it wasn't likely to be as radical as the horror stories she had heard. 

In fact, I even wrote an article for Book Country on how my process was. 

Everyone's writing process and editing process are different, of course.  For example, I hear from a lot of writers that editing involves throwing a lot of words away and re-doing it.  I, personally, could never work that way... but at the same time, in my writing process, I cannot do the "just get it on the page and fix it later" method.  Not to say it's perfect when I first write it... not at all.  But if you were to compare the first draft of the first chapter of Murder of Mages to the one I submitted as a final version a few weeks ago, the fundamentals are more or less the same.  And almost all of my "major surgery" edits have been a matter of adding more to the manuscript, rather than throwing stuff away. 

Anyhow, being edited wasn't a scary process at all, thanks to having a fabulous, Hugo-nominated editor (fingers crossed for this year!)  Go and check out the article, and you can see the true finalized-cover of Thorn, including the DAW logo which identifies it as the 1681st book in their 30+ year history.