Friday, October 31, 2008

Ghost Stories for Ghosts

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As you probably guessed from the teaser cunningly slipped into my last post (I'm sure only the most observant of you noticed), my NaNoWriMo novel is likely to be a ghost story, a spectral Tam Lin. Instead of the Queen of the Fey, we have the Queen of the Dead and instead of making Tam Lin mortal again, our Janet will... make Tam Lin mortal again.

Of course, the names and places have been changed to protect the highly derivative. Tam Lin's name is Erik. In 1976 he was a (insert instrument here)ist with (insert band name here), a punk band in San Francisco. Then, he died defending one friend and band mate from the another friend and band mate's drunken rage. His good looks, musical talent, and rage-spawned capacity for violence quickly attracted the attention of Los Angeles's young queen of the dead, a femme fatale who died in the 1950s. She made him her chief knight. After annoying herin some way, Erik found himself back in San Francisco, a backwater of L.A.'s empire because the city's large population of AIDS Epidemic dead are difficult to govern. He's assigned to guard some ghostly peril... and then he meets Janet (or whatever I decide to call her). They fall in love, produce a creepy half ghost baby, and then she somehow brings Erik back to life.

You can see I've got the entire plot down cold. This is going to be an exciting month.

The question of the day is, what is it about ghosts that fascinate us (and by us, I mean me - if you aren't fascinated by ghosts come back on Monday)?

For me, a great deal of my fascination comes with the fact that I actually find ghosts quite comforting. As someone who has had a lot of anxiety about the inevitability of death, the idea of being able to linger on a little longer is quite compelling. I want to live in a world that has ghosts, because I like the idea of dying on my terms, not on the cruel and arbitrary terms of the world we live on. Similarly, there's also something nice about a fantasy element that manages to conclusively support the existence of a soul without rendering moral and spiritual questions moot. Again: comforting and compelling.

However, ghost stories are not without a cost. Comforting as weirdos like me find them, ghost stories take place firmly within the world of transaction. Ghost stories grant us a dear wish... but they make it expensive. A great example of this is White Wolf's Wraith: the Oblivion (a game line I whole-heartedly recommend that is, sadly, a bit of a cult favorite that never caught on and was swiftly canceled). Wraith was the first roleplaying game where you get to be the ghost. This post's title, "ghost stories for ghosts" comes from one of that game's design goals.

Ok, so, ghosts need to live in a transactional world. How can I boil all this down into a form that will benefit me this November?

The deceased (speaking of ghostly) Gamer: the Podcasting identifies the three necessary elements of a ghost story as Loss, Hunger, and Malice. First someone looses something. Usually this includes life, but in many ghost stories it's something else first. Next comes hunger, hunger for what the ghost had and lost. And last - and most importantly - comes malice. Malice towards the living. Malice towards those that disturb the ghost's illusion of life.

You can live beyond the end of your life, but at the cost of giving in to Loss, Hunger, and Malice. Wraith: the Oblivion works the same way, with each character having a shadow, a self-aware dark side living in the back of her head and occasionally taking over. I could (and probably will) write an entire post about why transaction is essential to literature - especially fantasy literature - but I don't think anyone can argue that this isn't cool. Loss, Hunger, and Malice go into Ghostly Tam Lin. Check!

Gamer: the Podcasting also referenced M.R. James's Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, which identifies five common points:

  1. The Pretense of Truth: the story must pretend to be true, even though it probably isn't.
  2. A Pleasing Terror: the goal of a ghost story is to scare its reader just enough that he enjoys it.
  3. No Gratuitous Bloodshed or Sex: cheap thrills are cheap. Good horror is expensive.
  4. No Explanation of the Machinery: explaining the supernatural robs it of the super, making it merely natural.
  5. Those of the Writer's Own Day: it's scarier if it happens now, rather than then.

Some of these premises are going to be difficult for me. The pretense of truth I can do - I'm planning on first-person narrative, switching back and forth between Erik and Janet. Perhaps there should be an introduction asserting that this story is true, told to me by Erik? Pleasing terror is likewise easy - or, rather, if I do my job right in every other way, there it will be. And of course, Janet is in the story to represent those of my day. Erik is a bit anachronistic, but Janet is a woman of our day and age.

Avoiding gratuitous bloodshed or sex and explaining the machinery will be harder. The first, well, everyone's definition of gratuitous is different. There will be blood and there will be sex. I'll try to keep them under control, but I'm not going to try to write this story without them. Similarly, this is a fantasy story. The ghosts aren't in the background, they are some of the main characters. Erik has learned something about the world of the dead in the thirty years since he entered it, and there's no getting away from it. There will still be some mystery, but some of the machinery is going to be explained.

The big three, however - Loss, Hunger, and Malice - are going to be easy.

Erik lost his life. He was young, pretty, and happy, living life on the edge of the continent, playing at rage with a band of young punks. More than that, Erik lost his future. Somewhere in his angry young heart, he knew he was going to grow up, get married, have kids, grow old... and part of him was ok with that. And then a drunken asshole with a lead pipe changed that with a swift blow to the back of Erik's head.

Erik still hungers for sensation: touch, taste, and smell, food, drink, drugs, and sex. Although I don't plan on writing smut, I want this story to be sexy. Erik is smoke, sure, but he's dark woodsmoke. He's a ghost who wants.

And malice... The malice is obvious. Erik became an adult in the days of punk rock 'n roll. He's very angry and prone to violence. He can be contemplative, but when he acts he explodes into action, and therein lies the malice. He's not forethoughtfully evil, but he has poor impulse control and an angry streak.

Loss, Hunger, and Malice. Truth, Terror, Subtelty, and Mystery. Seven watchwords for Ghostly Tam Lin and ghost stories in general.

Wish me luck.

* * *

  • What books do you recommend I read to feed my brain? I'm already planning on rereading War for the Oaks and House of Leaves, for the rock and roll and the creepy, but what else might be good? Not that I'll be doing much reading this month...
  • Anyone out there have a good grasp of the history of punk and the 1970s (I'm looking at you, older than I am folks) who would be willing to tell me a little about it? Similarly, anyone able to recommend a good playlist?
  • While I'm still starting here, any recommendations when it comes to my premise? Most importantly, I know lots about Erik, but who the hell is Janet?
  • What attraction (or antipathy) do you feel towards ghost stories?
  • What is a particularly interesting ghost story you once read or wrote?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ambiliterous Ambition

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Well, I know I said in this post that I wouldn't be doing NaNoWriMo this year, but as I alluded to at the end of this post, there's an increasingly strong chance that I will be doing it, after all. I've got an idea and everything. I'll post about it tomorrow - and muse about its themes, and ask for advice - since it's a fairly Halloweeny sort of idea.

The question then, is, how am I going to keep Rat and Starling going during this month of writing dangerously? The fact is, I have very little experience with writing two things at the same time. Or, do I...

When I think about it, I have always written more than one thing at a time. I wrote my way through middle school, high school, and college. At the same time that I was developing a large body of unfinished fiction, I was successfully completing papers and writing assignments.

Maybe this will be easier than I thought.

What worked for me back in those days? Well, it probably helped that there was usually one project I really cared about (the fiction, of course - have I ever mentioned that I was a pretty lousy student?) and another I could take or leave, but that distinction isn't an option here. The other tactic I took was to draw distinctions between the time I spent on my fiction and the time I spent on my papers. Drawing distinctions between work time and play time was never my strength (I gave way to many of my study hours to PopCap Games and Kingdom of Loathing), but this should be easier, as I am equally passionate about both my projects.

I can't divide my hours, however. I'll be doing most of my writing on the train and in the evenings with the Abigail. What if I divide my days?

To be successful, a NaNoWriMo novel needs to grow by about 1,700 words a day. If I could write about 1,900 words a day, I could dedicate one day a week to Rat and Starling rather than Ghostly Tam Lin (<--- Look, it's a teaser! Also, another lame working title).

1,900 words is a lot, but I think I can do it. If it gets too tough, I can always drop either Rat and Starling or NaNoWriMo. Even if I do the former, every week I keep it up is one less week that Rat and Starling will languish, and NaNoWriMo is only four weeks long. I think I have a pattern I can live with.

NaNoWriMo here I come. Maybe.

* * *

  • What is your experience with ambidextrous writing? Have you had successes? Failures? Hilarious stories?
  • Am I completely insane?

* * *

Incidentally, I finally have working titles for the sections of Rat And Starling.

Part One will be called, simply, Rathscalla. After all, it's all from her point of view.

Part Two will be from Starling's point of view, and entitled (you guessed it) Starling.

Part Three, the exciting conclusion, will be called No Evil Star, which is both an epic and eye-catching title and also a joke.

You see, I'm a fan of palindromes. My personal favorite is 'rats live on no evil star,' which, backwards, is 'rats live on no evil star.' At the end of Part One, Rat starts calling herself Rathscalla, and it seems increasingly that she has forgotten her own better nature and thrown herself into her new, heartless persona. In Part Three, however, we discover that it's not true. Rat lives on... in No Evil Star.

I'm a terrible person.

All I need now is a title for the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hark, the Lark Arc!

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Last night, the Abigail and I brought the first run of Lark sessions to a close (actually the second arc, but "Hark, the Second Lark Arc!" just lacks a certain... not-lameness).

Lark is a character for White Wolf's Exalted (see here for the official page, not that it contains much), an epic fantasy game of adventure, heroism, hope, and corruption. In Exalted, you portray the chosen of the gods, blessed with the potential for incredible power, cursed with overweening passion and burdened with the welfare of Creation (the setting's name for itself).

One of the things that makes Exalted such a brilliant game is that it has so many levels. You can play Exalted for action-adventure (I mean, you're playing an incandescent demigod), you can play it for serious drama (I mean, you're playing a cursed incandescent demigod) and you can play it for pathos (I mean, you're playing a cursed, overwhelmingly passionate incandescent demigod). The game also has subtle threads of transhumanism lying just beneath the surface and the potential to tell large-scale stories about cultural change and nation-building.

Lark (a catchy chronicle name is still pending. The Abigail couldn't care less about naming our games, so it falls to me; in the meantime, the game is named after the character) is about a young girl from an island tribe who's voice was sacrificed to the island's god... who later turned out to be actually a soul-eating faerie, right before Lark killed him. Since then, Lark has been wandering Creation, putting wrongs right and and getting into trouble.

The biggest writerly challenge in Lark has been the issue of Lark's voicelessness. Lark lacked the ability to speak for the entire first arc, between leaving her island for the first time and returning to deal with her people's false god and put an end to his deprivations once and for all, after which she got her voice back.

It was rough. As the storyteller (which is, in some sense, the writer of the game - at least, one of the writers) I was torn between making things too easy and making things too hard.

How too easy? If enough people in Lark's environment were able to communicate with her, either by learning her sign language or writing what she wrote on her chalk board, her silence lost it's punch. Her terrible sacrifice - she had been a singer, raised by a people who valued beauty and music - would be meaningless, and when she finally killed her god and reclaimed her voice (something I was planning from the beginning) it would be an anticlimax.

If it totally sucks to make it too easy, then, where's the temptation? The trouble with a character that cannot speak is that it cuts down on the possibilities for dialog. If you game (and write) like I do, dialog is the heart of stories. In dialog, characters change and display their change. In dialog, future actions are foreshadowed and information is disseminated to the audience. Most importantly, in dialog, I have a fun time writing and roleplaying. Making a silent character's life too rough threatens to tear the soul out of the story.

Lark was a challenge, and I can't say I hit every ball out of the park. However, I think I have discovered a few keys to writing silent characters as primary protagonists:

  1. Provide the character with someone - anyone - to talk to. Do it quickly. You can take the person away eventually (though be sure to give him - or a voice - back soon). In a roleplaying game, this probably means an NPC who can communicate with the character. In writing, you have more options. Giving the character a habit of talking to himself internally, like a noir character's internal monologue, might help. Another option might be to write frequent flashbacks to when the character could/did talk. The longer a character goes from the beginning of the story without being able to talk, the less your audience will know or care about this person.
  2. Make sure the character suffers from her silence on a fairly regular basis (since that's why you made him silent, right?), but make sure it isn't always by wanting to communicate something and being incapable of it. While botched communication is the meat and drink of drama, attempting the same drama with a character who simply can't talk is ham-fisted if you do it too much. Instead, try to find ways for the character's silence to be a challenge in more subtle and interesting ways.
  3. A character's silence is no excuse not to pepper her dialog with descriptors! With Lark, Abby and I both talked about how Lark emoted with her hands and body, whether she was using sign language, writing on her chalkboard, or just standing around (or, at one point, sitting on the ship's railing and playing magically-empowered heartbreaking music on her flute).

Well, now Lark can talk. And so - after a brief flirtation with silence - can her boyfriend. This island girl has found an enemy in the most personally dangerous ghost in Creation and a stalker in a faerie queen (a very bad thing), and she's been to hell and has plans to visit heaven. Best of all, Lark has her eye on the throne of Creation. Empress Lark... it has a nice ring to it.

* * *

  • Have you ever tried to write, play, or run for a silent character? What challenges did you face and what rewards did you find?
  • What do you think should happen next in Lark?

* * *

Two closing notes.

First of all, it's growing difficult to post every day of the week, and I might - might - slow down to once a week. This wouldn't be too bad for the Burning Zeppelin. A lot of bloggers post even less frequently. I'm going to keep at it for as long as I can, though. There's something really cool about watching that post count go up up up!

Secondly, recent events have led me to reconsider my stance on doing NaNoWriMo this year. Basically, the Abigail might be NaNoing this year, and this might be only year in the immediate future when we could NaNo together. There's something really sweet and romantic about running the writer's marathon as a couple, and it's attractive enough that I'm willing to find a way to do it without losing steam Rat and Starling. There were some good comments on my previous post about NaNoWriMo, and I won't be the only one working on more than one novel at a time.

Of course, faithful readers, I'll keep you posted on both developing developments as they develop.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Veni, Vidi... What?

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[Know-it-all aside: the famous 'I came, I saw, I conquered' quote was probably pronounced with significantly less badassery than the quote is usually spelled in English. According to a friend who was a Classics major (making this about as reliable as it deserves to be), it probably sounded more like 'weenie, weedie, weekie.' Nothing that includes the word 'weenie' can possibly be badass - 'weedie' and 'weekie' aren't helping any, either.]

The question is, what is success?

The Online Mirriam Webster dictionary calls it:

degree or measure of succeeding b: favorable or desired outcome ; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.

But really, I only included that because I like definitions. It's almost completely irrelevant to the issue.

Writers (and everyone else, presumably) are mad about success. We want it. Especially as artificial goalposts of success, like NaNoWriMo, loom on the horizon, we covet it. We all set goals, and sometimes we achieve them. We all have hopes and dreams, and some of them come true. How can we determine if we have, in fact, been successful?

I think it's important to remember that success is subjective and comes in stages. If we hold ourselves to goals that make more sense for someone else, or for ourselves further on down the line, we're going to make ourselves miserable.

For example, for me, right now, success means posting in this blog every week day, getting my final draft for White Wolf in on time, and then picking up Rat and Starling again and resuming my goal of at least 1k words per day every weekday, no excuses.

Once I've done that, success will mean getting a second contract with White Wolf, finishing the first draft of Rat and Starling (and finding a title for the thing that is, you know, evocative), promoting Burning Zeppelin Experience until I have more than a handful of readers, and maybe branching out a little. Polishing up a few short stories and sending them to magazines? Editing A Knight of the Land and sending chapters to agents? Getting caught up on I Should Be Writing? The possibilities are endless, and I haven't decided what to tackle next.

But let's say one morning, I woke up and mistook myself for the creator of I Should Be Writing, the inimitable Mur Lafferty (that would be difficult, as she is a slender Southern female with a husband and child and I am a bulky New York-bred Californian male with a girlfriend, but I'm sure I've made dumber mistakes). Suddenly, I would be saddened and distressed by my lack of progress on my third book, worried about promoting a popular podcast, and annoyed at myself for falling behind in scheduling interviews with science fiction and fantasy luminaries.

Then I'd realize who I was, roll over, and go back to sleep, swearing to myself that I'd never again eat Indian pizza before bed.

The point I'm making, though, is that alien as they would be to me, those goals all make sense for Mur Lafferty. She is working on her third book, promoting a popular podcast, and interviewing science fiction and fantasy luminaries on said podcast. For her, success means finishing that second book, gaining another thousand listeners for her podcast, and scheduling more interviews. For me, success means editing that first book, gaining another ten readers for my blog, and meeting some science fiction and fantasy luminaries. And resisting the urge to tell them about my book when I do.

At the same time, there are people for whom having an idea - let alone writing it down - is a huge victory. There are people for whom even attempting NaNoWriMo is success. And there are those for whom those goals would be total cop-outs. This is not about quality, talent, brains, creativity, passion, worthiness, goodness, divine favor, or infernal revelation. It isn't about anything except for where you are. It just what it is. Where you are. Being someone for whom succeeding at NaNoWriMo is a distant dream but trying would be a success has no more moral value than being in Pittsburgh.

This is such a serious issue for me because I was for a long time - and let's face it, I still am, I just tripped upon a little confidence-building success - the kind of person who did place a moral value on that status. I was sick of being Mark Simmons who never finished a story, for whom writing for money was a distant dream. I wanted to be Neil Gaiman already (I mean, who doesn't?).

The thing is, I get the impression that at one point in his illustrious career, Neil Gaiman wanted to be Michael Moorcock.

You are who you are, where you are, and while you can aspire to be somewhere you might like better, try not to attach a moral value to it. You'll only get in your own way. Be where you are, set goals to improve your situation, and to hell with anything else.


* * *

  • When have artificial goals distracted you from realistic, self-defined goals?
  • When have your own goals gotten in your way, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • What is your definition of success? What has this definition got to do (if anything) with reality?

* * *

For those of you following at home, by the way, the (*bump bump*) wordcount blues are over. I've cut my submission down to a mere 200 words over, and it turns out that one can usually go over by up to 10% before it becomes a problem. Yup, I emailed my boss. Funny how it was the right thing to do all along.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dungeons and Dialog

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I had a request recently to talk about what I bring from the gaming table to the writing table. Eventually I'll bring some specific anecdotes (hopefully, my gaming life will pick up - right now, other than a highly intermittent Mage: the Ascension game and a largely theoretical chat-based Exalted game, all I'm doing is one-on-one games with my Abigail, most of which are not for public consumption). Right now, though, I'll make the best of what I've got and let you know how roleplaying has informed my writing and writing has informed my roleplaying up to this point.

The biggest contribution of roleplaying to writing is that, on some level, gaming is writing. A four hour session of game isn't equivalent to four hours of solid writing - for me, at least, nothing is better than writing - but it's pretty close. In a world where both writing time and gaming time is precious, the fact that the latter can be the former is a lifesaver.

Another realm in which my gaming contributes to my writing is sympathy and identification. When I write, I find myself getting into character, almost as though I were at the table. My ability to identify with my characters improves my narrative, my ability to write my characters' decisions, and my dialog (which I was just complimented on by my lovely Abigail). Also, because I care about my characters so much I'm a lot more hesitant to kill them in stupid ways (unlike a certain television writer *cough* Joss Whedon *cough*). I love my characters, I respect their stories, and I want them to have cool endings. I'm perfectly willing to kill them off, mind you, but only when it's cool, and I think readers appreciate this.

Similarly, thinking of my characters as player characters and thinking about how to make the game fun for their theoretical players improves my narrative as well. On some level, when you read a novel, you are the characters' player (in a weirdly static sort of way). You identify with the characters, you want to see them have awesome stories and reach their awesome conclusions. Keeping that in mind as I write has, I feel, positive results. It keeps characters from falling off the story, loosing their awesome, or becoming sidekicks in their own story. You know, all the things that piss off readers that us writers seem to do all the time.

Of course, my writing contributes to my gaming, too. Possibly more so.

The greatest of these contributions is in pacing. Have you ever been in a game session that just dragged? Maybe the players were all stuck on trying to figure out the solution to this one puzzle and they thrashed around, doing everything but the right thing, or there were endless lame conversations that went nowhere. Yeah, I hate those, too. I also don't run them anymore. Becoming a writer has taught me that the story has to be kept moving no matter what.

And, of course, descriptions. It seems that I have a gift for describing things that happen in a cool and evocative way, a gift that I attribute to my writing.

Of course, the best thing about this whole situation is that since gaming is writing, these things all feed into each other. For example, I claim that my writing has helped me improve my pacing as a game master... but who's to say that the eye for pacing that I bring to the table doesn't come from all that gaming in the first place?

Lest I come across as arrogant, I should probably admit that gaming opens me up to some particular foibles as a writer, and being a writer can create problems for my inner gamer.

For one thing, it's possible to screw up a story by adhering too slavishly to gaming tropes. I just finished listening to a rather nifty podcast novel (Heart of the Hunter, by Sam Chupp) that I think has this problem. I really enjoyed it, but there were places where the story and dialog felt a little forced. People became friends a little too quickly here or made certain illogical choices there, things that would have made sense in a roleplaying game but were jarring in a novel.

I also think it's possible to like your characters a little too much. That way lies the path of raw mary sewage. Horrible things happening to sympathetic (or at least ambiguously nifty) people is what drives most stories. In most games, while it's really awesome for a player to contribute to her character's troubles, the game master exists to provide opposition. A writer has to provide opposition - and not just bad guys, but real, challenging opposition - all by himself.

And of course, I think we've all gamed with someone who was also a writer. Those intensely beautiful snowflake characters that break the setting and the system left and right? Those novel-length backstories? The phone book of NPCs? Yeah, I don't know about you, but I do that all the time. It takes a lot of discipline to curb my instinct to bring my writing to the gaming table and overdo it.

Wow, I think every one of those paragraphs above has the potential to be a post all on its own, some day. I'll be sure to come back to this topic in the future, hopefully with some examples from my writing and (please, God, someday soon) my gaming.

* * *

Here's where I want to hear from you. How has gaming influenced your writing and writing influenced your gaming? What are some anecdotes and examples from your creative life?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Storyteller: Adrian's Walk

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I have this idea for a novel. One day, I'll even write it - probably in a mad marathon of writing, since that's what seems to work for me. It will be called The Storyteller, and it will be a frame story of love, loss, and loyalty surrounding numerous fairy-tale like short stories. One of the characters, Quinn, has 'the trick of speaking to things,' which lets him talk to anything. As a result, he knows a lot of stories. He survives by trading these stories for services to the various things and people he meets. He also fights two storytelling duels, where he and another storyteller square off, telling tales back and forth until one of them tells a story the other knows he or she can't top.

Here is one of Quinn's stories.

* * *

Adrian's Walk

Once there was a boy named Adrian. Adrian lived in a village on the plains. The skies above Adrian’s home were as wide as they were blue and the plains beneath them rolled with gentle hills, as though a patch of sea had chosen to give up on water and curdle into mile upon mile of frozen waves.

Adrian was like most boys his age. He had a boyish face and a boyish charm, a boyish laugh that was sometimes embarrassingly high and at other times, gratifyingly low. His head was full of thoughts he only barely understood himself, for he had given up being a child but had not yet decided what he was going to be next. Only two things set him apart from the other boys – a secret strength, one even he wasn’t aware of, and a secret pain, that, of course, everyone knew about. In short, he was exactly the sort of person that stories happened to.

What was Adrian’s pain? It was simple: Adrian couldn’t run. Oh, he could move fast when he had to, but it hurt him, and he couldn’t keep it up for long. Even ordinary walking was sometimes difficult for him. Something in his legs was wrong, and had been for his entire life. This made Adrian something of a pariah amongst his fellow boys – for if you have never been a little boy, trust me when I tell you that a lot of their games involve a great deal of running about – and, not understanding why he was the way he was, and fearing it, they mocked him.

‘Adrian the Slow’ they called him, ‘Adrian the Lame.’ ‘Walking Adrian,’ ‘Limping Adrian,’ and ‘Sore-Foot Adrian.’ Of course, they never let him play with them.

Adrian grew up different from the other boys. Having to move more slowly all the time gave him depth and thoughtfulness before his time. Instead of being fast, Adrian was strong. He had shoulders when all his peers were still slim, and those shoulders had muscles on them. Adrian had few friends. Though he was loyal to the friends he had, he believed, in the way that some boys do, that he had no friends, and was sad all the time.

Even in his terrible boyish sadness, Adrian loved. Adrian’s sorry, schoolboy infatuation had settled on none other than the town beauty, a young woman named Isabella, only a little older than Adrian himself. Isabella had married already – breaking in one afternoon the hearts of every boy in town – and was, by the time this story begins, already heavy with child.

All Isabella’s other admirers had abandoned her. To them, she was spoiled, despoiled by her husband and ruined by her great belly. They set their sights elsewhere. Adrian, however, was not so inconstant. He loved her even more, and used many hours that could have otherwise been spent productively dreaming her the Queen and he her loyal knight, protecting her against all dangers with his love, forever unrequited, hidden in his heart, giving him strength, only to die in agony, in her arms, whispering his long-frustrated passion from between cracked and bleeding lips as he passed beyond all pain.

As I may have said, Adrian was a sensitive sort of boy.

Life was all set to progress in the usual way; Adrian would fall in love with someone else, become a man, and decide what he wanted to do with himself, perhaps several times each, in no particular order. Everything was set, but it was not to be. Heaven had ordained a more dramatic fate for Adrian.

One day, the riders came to town. They were soldiers dressed in black iron, with the sea carved onto their breastplates and great serpents on their shields. They were from a kingdom across the western oceans. They were marauders and ravagers.

Before long, they had Adrian’s village subdued, many of the men dead and most of the buildings burning. Isabella was one of those who lost her home and husband that day, and Adrian lost both his parents and too many of his few friends. Adrian and Isabella the rest of the survivors were herded into a huddle in the center of town, where they wept and wondered what would happen next.

The ravagers from across the sea held a brief council and decided what was to be done next. Those whose horses had survived the battle – most, but not all, of them – would continue on to the next town, and those who had lost their horses would gather up the survivors and take them west, towards the sea for transport back to the fatherland where they would be enslaved.

They said this in full hearing of the gathered townsfolk, who began to wail in misery, for those who were taken across the sea never returned.

“And be sure all the pretty young women make it to the shore unharmed,” the leader of the sea-folk said, thinking of the price that womanflesh demands in the markets of bondage. “And also that one,” he pointed to Adrian and laughed. “He’s built like an ox. We’ll make more than five hundred drachans selling him for hard labor.” After all, the only kind of slaves more in demand than playthings for the rich are the kind used to do the sort of work that no one wants to do.

Quickly and efficiently, the surviving townsfolk – perhaps three score of them – were chained together. Adrian was chained near the center of the line, with Isabella in front of him. His hands curled into fists when he heard the things the sea-folk said about her, the plans they had for her and her child when they reached the western lands, but there was nothing he could do. The sea folk had swords and axes and great, cruel lances, and Adrian had nothing. Then the townsfolk were set to jogging across the plain, towards the west, as the sea-folk goaded them along, jeering at their stumbling feet and pitiful tears

Before long, of course, Adrian’s feet began to ache. Only a short while after that, his legs began to ache, too. Then the shooting pain began, driving up from the soles of his feet to the bottom of his knees. He stumbled and fell, regained his feet before he was trampled, then stumbled again.

The only person to suffer worse than Adrian was Isabella. Her belly was so heavy she could barely walk, and Adrian could see from how she moved how her back and legs ached and shook. Her weakness gave him strength, but only for a little while. Eventually, Adrian fell a final time, and when he dragged himself to his feet, he knew he would not be running anymore any time soon. Instead, he began to walk.

As I have said, Adrian was strong. The whole line had to move at his pace. It did not take the sea-folk long to figure out who was slowing down the march. They began to shout at Adrian and threaten him. They told him they would cut the skin off the bottom of his feet and make him walk over coals if he did not start running. They told him they would cut off his hands and maim his face and leave him rotting and bleeding in a ditch. They threatened to do terrible things to him, but Adrian could not run another step, and when he saw Isabella’s face, turned over her shoulder to look at him, for what seemed like the first time, tears of gratitude running from her eyes, he did not want to.

The sea-folk began to whip Adrian. Their master had told them not to kill him, but surely a taste of the lash would do no harm to a man who would soon be a slave. Their whips flayed the flesh from his shoulders, but still, Adrian walked.

The sea-folk began to beat Adrian with the butts of their long spears. He felt his ribs and arms and shoulders crack beneath the onslaught, but still, Adrian walked. He looked at Isabella, and he walked.

Soon townsfolk other than Isabella had noticed what Adrian was doing. All the mockeries of the boys and the sad shaking heads of the grown-ups were forgotten. Now, they cheered for him, calling his name. They saw that Adrian could save their lives, but Adrian saw only Isabella.

Then one of the sea-folk lifted up his head. He thought he heard a sound in the distance. He turned to one of his fellows, who took off his helmet and picked the wax out his ear to listen better. That man struck another, who listened as well, and by now the sound was unmistakable; it was riders, not far away. One of the sea-folk peered into the distance, and saw a white banner flashing in the sunset, and another heard a hunting horn crying out over the plain. The sea-folk knew that the High King of the kingdom on the plain had come, that their companions who had continued inland were dead, and that if they did not reach the shore soon, they would join them shortly.

The sea-folk cursed and began to drive the townsfolk even harder, but Adrian was past caring, for he had heard the sounds as well.

So the sea-folk killed him. One of them took his sword and drove it through Adrian’s belly. The boy – the young man – fell to his knees for the last time, but he caught the sword and held it fast in his hands, knowing that every second counted. That raider wasted precious moments trying to take the sword back while Adrian sat on his feet, keeping the sea-folk from getting to the shackles around his ankles. He was dead weight on the line. So long as he was there, the sea-folk had to choose between their prize and staying alive.

In the end, they ran, but it was too late. The High King’s men were upon them, their terrible swift swords cutting through black armor and the flesh beneath.

Adrian collapsed at last, into the waiting arms of Isabella, who cradled his head against her swollen belly. His lips were cracked and bleeding, and he whispered, “Isabella, I have always thought you were the most beautiful woman in the world, ever since I first laid eyes on you. I have always loved you.”

And Isabella said, only, “Adrian,” and kissed him on the forehead. And Adrian died.

Isabella named her son Adrian when he was born and taught him the story of the man he was named after, so that the name and the story would never pass from the world. She was not the only one to remember him. The High King’s soldiers heard the story from the villagers, and they told the High King. To this day, by order of the King, the plains between the village of White Hill and the Western Shore are known as Adrian’s Walk.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Got the *bump bumb* Wordcount Blues...

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Man, wordcounts suck.

When I first got my redlines back from White Wolf, I arrogantly assumed that I would be totally done with them in a few days.

That rapidly transformed into oh sure, by the end of the weekend.

And then I'm ok. I can finish this before the deadline.

And now it's become uh, boss, can I have an extra five hundred words? or have a look, any advice for cutting five hundred words?

I haven't actually asked for those words. I'm very nervous about doing so. My pride demands I keep trying, my common sense tells me that the sooner I communicate with my boss/editor the better, and my insecurity tells me not to admit weakness in front of the man whose yay or nay determines my future with this company... regardless of how nice and reasonable I know he is.

I'm fine with every other sort of limitation. In fact, I welcome guidelines. When I received the outline for this project, I dived into it. I read it start to finish and my brain was immediately fizzing with ideas. I had a much harder time coming up with ideas for the writing sample I sent in, for which the guidelines were "write a thousand words that display your knowledge of this game and ability to write cool and evocative stuff."

But wordcounts... man, this 6k limit is kicking my butt. I know it sounds like a lot of words, but it really isn't.

That's really all I have to say today. If you want to, you can call it the first ever Burning Zeppelin Whine (no, I won't make a tag for that).

* * *

  • When have you run up against the demon that is wordcount, and what have you done to overcome it?
  • What is your experience with, in a professional setting, asking your boss/editor for more words or help keeping to a wordcount?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Permeability

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As a writer, I am extremely permeable. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it's bad. Mostly, it just is.

What do I mean by permeability?

Whenever I read something and like it, I find myself wanting to create it. Not exactly the same thing, of course, but something like it. It's not that I loose my writing voice altogether, it's more that my voice adapts to whatever it is I just read, flowing into its patterns.

Sometimes it's kind of fun. A while ago, for example, I decided that I wanted to write a modern fantasy noir. I was having trouble getting it right until I picked up Brooklyn Noir and D.C. Noir, both brilliant collections, by the way. Whenever I wasn't writing, I was reading, soaking in that dark, smoky noir. I didn't have to take notes or make any conscious decisions about how to adapt what I was reading to what I was writing, but it worked. What came out was something I'm really proud of - I might post it later.

Sometimes, though, it's aggravating. When what I'm reading and what I'm writing don't match up it takes a lot of discipline to stay focused. It's not that I loose my voice and can't keep going, it's more like I find myself caring less. New ideas play at the edge of my writerly consciousness, tempting me with their awesomeness, and their newness.

The trouble is, I refuse to always and only read whatever it is I'm writing, and I'm not the kind of guy who can go very long without a book I'm reading (I think a week or two is the longest). Sometimes when I'm still in the midst of writing a fantasy novel I want to read some modern fantasy/horror. Sometimes when I'm working on a contract for White Wolf I want to read some fluffy young adult fantasy. God alone knows what I'll do when the time comes to work on my steampunk story. Read Jane Austen?

I haven't got a simple answer for this, other than discipline, discipline, discipline. The more I write, the more I make writing a practice, not a passtime, the better I will be able to resist the siren call of a new idea until I am good and done with the one I'm working on.

And of course, discipline is good for something else. It takes discipline (and confidence) to simply be who I am as a writer and not worry about the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of it. I'm permeable. I write on trains. It is what it is and I am who I am.

* * *

  • Are you permeable, too? Please tell me I'm not the only one. It's easier to be a mutant freak if you have a team of mutant freaks to run around in tight blue and yellow costumes with.
  • If you are, what have you done to deal with this condition? And if you're not, what do you think contributes to your immunity?
  • What particular hilarious situations have arisen from your permeability or lack thereof?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

With A Heart of Gold

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Lest you all think I'm a grumpypants who never met a book he didn't hate, I'll review something I actually liked.

I just (as in yesterday) finished Heart of Gold by Sharon Shinn, and I was greatly impressed. Of course, I expected to be. Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite writers. She's seriously brilliant. If, at my best, I'm half the writer she is, I'll be twice the writer I deserve to be.

In Heart of Gold, Shinn takes on race, gender, and culture. Heart of Gold is low-tech science fiction, taking place on a world that could be ours, except that it is inhabited by (at least) three distinct species who are marked by radically different skin color and sufficient biochemical differences that they are effected by different diseases. The indigo (blue people) dominate the continent where the story takes place, having pushed back the gulden (gold people) again and again. There are also albinos (white people), but they don't come into the story much. At the same time, the indigo have a land-based matriarchy and the gulden have an often violent patriarchy, leading to no end of misunderstanding, as if the typical dance of power and privilege weren't bad enough.

This tri-colored world is experiencing an upheaval akin to America's 1960s. As the indigo population becomes increasingly urbanized, they rub shoulders more and more with the gulden. More young indigo men and women begin to rebel against the strict expectations of their culture. More gulden women find places to flee violent marriages and begin to create a society of their own. Reactionaries and terrorists on both sides rear their heads, and things quickly reach a dramatic crisis point.

Shinn handles this story with grace and compassion. Nobody is the bad guy. Even the terrorists and conspiring genocides are human beings. Everyone struggles with racism, sexism, the expectations of their elders, and the inherent human fear of change.

My Abigail pointed out that the books have another high point: the matriarchy. The indigo matriarchy manages to avoid the three pitfalls that often plague depictions of female-dominated societies in science fiction and fantasy. It isn't demonized and it isn't idealized, and it seems genuinely female. The forceful indigo women are distinctly female, even though they wield all the power in their society. It takes a lot of imagination to invert the patterns of the world we know without falling into either extreme of characterization, but Shinn manages it.

The only thing missing is the other force that shaped the 1960s - Rock and Roll. But even Shinn can't be perfect.

I have always loved Sharon Shinn's work, probably because I think we have a lot in common. Not quality - not yet, anyway - but style. Shinn writes deep, rich settings that are as much characters as the actual people in her stories. And just as the characters grow and change with the events of the story, so to do the settings. I can't say that Shinn bats .1000. Sometimes she falls a little too in love with her settings and the characters get a little flat and she has written at least one clunker (Jenna Starborn, though I haven't read it myself). In general, though, you can expect Sharon Shinn to entertain at least and enlighten at best.

Also, Shinn writes really pretty love stories, and I'm a goon for a good love story.

If Sharon Shinn sounds compelling to you, I recommend Heart of Gold without reservation. I also recommend Archangel and Wrapt in Crystal, Shinn's explorations of religion, and The Shapechanger's Wife and Mystic and Rider, rather straightforward, non-issuey fantasies.

Monday, October 20, 2008

ToNaNo or NoToNaNo?

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I have a problem. A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Call it a dilemma, a quandary, or any other silly word you can think of for a decision that has to be made in an ambiguous situation.

I need to decide whether or not I'm going to do NaNoWriMo this year.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. In the month of November, ambitious amateur, and professional writers all across the world unite in one desire: to write a novel of 50,o00 words in 30 days, starting on November 1st and finishing on November 30th. It need not be edited and it will not be good, but it must be finished. To do so, one must write about 1,700 words per day, every day. It's a mad month, but there is a lot of support available. There are online tools accessible through the NaNoWriMo site to help participants track their writing and post it for review and encouragement. People meet in cafes and bars to write and bitch about writing. It's supposed to be a grand old time, but I wouldn't know. I've never done it.

The first NaNoWriMo to come to my attention was when I was in college, as was the second and third. I would have participated then, but I wanted to not fail all my classes. In retrospect, I could have pulled it off, but that was before I realized that I could pretty effortlessly write 1k words per day. The fourth and fifth NaNoWriMos, last year and the year before, it was a girlfriend I wanted to keep.

Now, though, I find myself in a delightfully enviable and frustrating position. Thanks to my commute and a newfound sense of dedication, I have been writing a lot, 1k a day at least. As a result I am hip deep in a new novel. My job situation is such that I can't be 100% certain that I will have it next year, and the opportunity to take advantage of my commute to finally, finally do NaNoWriMo is almost too good to pass up.

The trouble is, I know how bad I am at picking things up once I've put them down. If I put Rat and Starling on hiatus - say, to write my steampunk dreamscape idea - I'm afraid I'll never get back to it. The crazy energy I've been riding will be lost and Rat and Starling will never get finished, or it will but it will take me four years, like it did with A Knight of the Land.

I guess there's always next year.

Actually, my current position is this: I'm going to keep on working on Rat and Starling, and if I happen to run out of steam or want a break at the end of October, I'll jump into NaNoWriMo. If not, however, I'll keep at it with Rat and Starling and do NaNoWriMo next year, which is sad, but hardly tragic.

Anyway, if you're reading this, I encourage you to check out NaNoWriMo. It's supposed to be lots of fun. Maybe I can enjoy it vicariously, through you.

Friday, October 17, 2008

First Ever Burning Zeppelin Rant: Raw Mary Sewage and Lazy, Lazy Writing

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I just finished the last installment of a fantasy trilogy, and boy am I pissed. I'll try to avoid any blatant spoilers, but don't expect me to tread too carefully.

The books are Poison Study, Magic Study, and Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder. The premise of the first is fairly simple: Yelena a young woman in a fantasy world is sentenced to die for murder is given a choice, to die by hanging, or to gain a temporary reprieve as the food taster for her country's autocratic military dictator. She must survive threats from her past, an ambiguous relationship with her boss, the military dictator's chief spy, and living with the fact that every meal might well be her last. And there's a nifty plot where Yelena has been poisoned by her boss and needs to be given an antidote every morning or die in agony.

There's some good. The idea of a military dictatorship rising to replace a standard fantasy mage-king is a novel one, and the magic system is interesting, though I find Snyder's word-choices to be a little stilted. There's a slow, clever romance plot. The first book is definitely better than the latter two, and possibly worth reading all by itself. The series doesn't really sink into it's failings until Magic Study and Fire Study.

But when it does, oh boy, watch out!

The series has a number of lesser problems that I don't want to go into right now. I find the pacing a little rushed. I think the language is stilted. Some of the dialog seems anachronistic - I don't want my fantasy novels to be full of thees and thous, but there's something to be said for the language just sounding right, and these books don't. What I want to talk about is a bad case of blatantly lazy writing and the presence of a clear Mary Sue.

I'll tackle these in reverse order. According to Wikipedia (ah, Wikipedia, what would I ever do without you?):
[a] Mary Sue... is a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and clichéd mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors...
The term originally comes from the world of fan-fiction, but it has been co-opted by geeks across the world. Yelena is definitely, enthusiastically a Mary Sue. She's beautiful, talented, inspires love and loyalty in everyone she meets, and has access to a rare and unusual form of magic that at first seems morally ambiguous (necromancer) but later turns out to be completely innocuous (soul guide). Even animals love her!

In this series, the Mary Sue problem pales before (and is probably related to) a larger problem with blatantly lazy writing. Specifically, morally lazy writing. What do I mean by that?

In fiction, especially in fantastic fiction, there is a temptation to make the opposition very, very bad so that the heroes can be so very, very good. However, this is lazy. No one is purely good or bad. Everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and those reasons are never universally noble or despicable. Most people imagine that they are doing the right thing, no matter how horrible their actions. People who do terrible things in one area of their life aren't necessarily terrible in every arena; more importantly it's more interesting, from a narrative perspective, if they aren't. Finally and most importantly, people who are 'good' don't automatically hate people who are 'bad,' and they don't automatically love each other.

Not so in the world of Yelena, however.

In these books, everyone who opposes Yelena and her interests turns out to be an utterly despicable person with a taste for rape, domination, torture, rape, murder, and rape (note the repetition of 'rape'). With one exception, everyone who takes a disliking for Yelena turns out to be in league with the villains. And finally, all the villains are more or less in league with each other. Their agenda is nothing more than an increase in their personal power, and they are willing to murder, torture, brainwash, and rape (again) to get it.

It's not that I have anything against absolutes. Sometimes in fiction, especially in fantasy fiction, it's fun to have a villain you can really hate. Sometimes a fantasy story needs the black evil from beyond the walls of the world, a science fiction story needs an alien, and a conventional fiction needs a war, or a plague, or a faceless bureaucracy to wear the mask of wickedness. But when it's a real person that wears that narrative mask, I start to get a little twitchy. Real people are infinitely more complicated than that, and it's doing a disservice to humanity at large to characterize them so simplistically. More importantly, it's boring.

In defense of absolutes, take the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The ultimate villain of the piece is Sauron, a twisted being of near-total evil, and his tribes of degenerate, born-bad slaves. And yet, all is not peace and cooperation in the camp of the heroes. There are disagreements, arguments, and shades of gray. There are good people who do bad things and regret it. Even against a backdrop of the final battle against absolute evil, Tolkien manages to express more moral complexity than Snyder.

I like to think I live my convictions in what I write. In A Knight of the Land, the faction-defining characters are a broken shard of a god lodged inside the body of a dead woman, and three people trying to do what they think is best. The only trouble is that one of them is the leader of a tribe of nonhuman creatures struggling with a call to wipe out humanity for the sake of the land, the other is a human eco-warrior trying to balance the needs of the land with his human nature, and the last is a young king trying to ensure his people's safety. With the possible exception of the goddess-shard (who is really more sick than evil), none of them is clearly a villain. All of them are the heroes of their own stories.

The challenge of a writer is to continually think critically about what we are creating. Both Mary Sue characters and moral laziness come from the same, overly simplistic way of thinking. It's easy to get emotionally invested in someone who is perfect, we think, easy to like him. It's easy to hate someone who does horrible things, easy to hate her, to want to watch her fail. It's harder - but more rewarding - to write ambiguous heroes and villains who nonetheless capture the hearts of our audience.

* * *

Question time! Don't forget, this is how I know you exist. Stand up and be heard. Speak up and be counted. Comment on my blog!
  • Where have you encountered Mary Sue's, in your writing and in the writing of others?
  • When you find yourself writing a character who seems too good to be true, what do you do about it?
  • What is your take on moral complexity?
  • Where have you found books that did a particularly good job of it, and where have you found books that did a particularly bad job?
  • When have you written black and white or shades of gray in your work?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

(Finally) Writing Sins

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Forgive me, for I am but dust and ashes, and I have no good deeds to my name. Forgive me for your own sake, if not for mine.

I have written self-consciously *thud*

I have engaged in excessive self-criticism *thud*

I have declined to write when the opportunity presented itself *thud*

I have refused to seek out the opportunity to write *thud*

Please forgive me, Avinu Malkenu, etc etc etc.

* * *

If you're Jewish, you probably know what I'm blathering on about. Otherwise, there's a good chance you're completely confused. That's ok, because I like to write, and presently I will explain myself.

That was a slightly tongue-in-cheek reproduction of part of the Reform Yom Kippur liturgy (pronounced, by the way, 'kip-poor,' not 'kip-pur'). Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, one of the two holidays (the High Holy Days) that mark the beginning of the Jewish year. Jews who observe this holiday (which includes many Jews that don't observe any other holidays) spend the day in fasting, prayer, and contemplation. Imagine new year's resolutions, but with an aspect of community and a built-in resolution of the previous year's failings, so that the resolver is set up to succeed rather than set up to fail.

Yom Kippur is about contemplating our misdeeds and figuring out how we can do better. For most people, this is a purely moral process. How have I been a jerk in the past year, and how can I stop being a jerk in the year to come? For writers, who, in my experience, agonize over our writing as much as some people agonize over their moral status, Yom Kippur can take on a new level of meaning. As writers, what are we doing wrong, and how can we do right?

That's a good question.

I'll start off with the big writing sin, the one we all commit from time to time: not writing.

Oh, we make excuses. We make deals. We tell ourselves that it's ok, it's not our faults. We didn't get to write because we fell asleep on the train. We didn't get to right because it was raining and we were depressed. We didn't get to write because the dog got sick. We didn't get to write because we fell asleep on the dog and got depressed. We'll write more tomorrow. We'll make it up. We'll be better.

But the fact is that only I can choose to write or not to write. Once in a great while, something will happen such that I am completely robbed of the opportunity to write. Maybe I'll get sick and spend the day throwing up. Maybe some catastrophe will occur. But basically, I have the choice to write whenever I want, and if I don't, it's because I chose not to.

Now that that's out of the way, what do I do in particular? What are my personal writing misdeeds?

Well, I alluded it in my introuction, but I can be tremendously self-conscious when I write. I have a hard time letting go of making it read perfectly, even during a messy first draft. Sometimes I even catch myself adding or subtracting words to make the paragraphs look right.

I also confess to having a hard time with outlining, setting-bibleing, and any sort of long-term planning. It either bores me or contributes to my loosing track of the story and writing an awesome setting that I don't know what to do with. Those, I use for rpgs. My response is to take the idea, develop a rough, unwritten feel for where it's going, and let it take me as far as it can. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it crashes and burns.

I also have a deplorable tendency to write incredibly long chapters. I mean, seriously, some of the chapters of A Knight of the Land are up to twenty pages double spaced.

What am I going to do about these assorted misdeeds?

The solution to the first and oldest writing sin has been to write. I've set myself a goal (currently suspended due to finishing edits on my final drafts for White Wolf), and I've achieved it, more often than not. I know that right now my writing is in a good stage, a creative upswing, and the real challenge will be when the pendulum shifts and swings back the other way, but for now I feel good about that particular sin.

As for the rest, I am having more difficulty. Keeping chapter length under control is still a problem for me when I write novels. The answer is probably to write more short stories, to learn how to exercise more control over my wordcount. The trouble I'm running into is that that discipline runs completely counter to my third goal of being less self-conscious as I write messy first drafts.

And with the final problem - poor planning - I don't seem to be getting anywhere at all. I sometimes wonder if I'm just an intuitive sort of writer and I shouldn't beat myself up for poor planning. If the story is inconsistent at the end of the first draft, I can always go back and fix it later. That's what editing is for, after all. Then, I wonder if that's a cop-out.

* * *

I want to know, what are your writing sins, and what do you plan to do about them?

And of course, what do you think about my writing sins, and what do you think I should do about them?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Invisible Kingdom

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Here's a creepy little piece I wrote about a year ago. It was right after I started reading White Wolf's Mage: the Awakening, and I'm sure those of you who are familiar with that game will note the similarities. That's part of why I'm comfortable posting it here, even though doing so would make it harder to ever get this story published: I'm not sure I want this story published. It's good, it's creepy, it's evocative, and it showcases my strengths, but I think it's a little too derivative for me to want to make money from it.

Maybe I'm being picky, but that's where I stand right now.

* * *

The Invisible Kingdom
By Mark Simmons

“Master!” the dirty little man shouted, throwing himself on the ground at my feet. “Tell me, please, when will you return to us? When will you take up the Unseen Crown and the Lucent Blade? When will you return in triumph to the Invisible Kingdom?”

I swear, I could hear the capital letters.

I said the only reasonable thing I could say, under the circumstances, which was “What?”

“The Invisible Kingdom,” the man replied patiently. “The Mists of the Chasm have clouded your thoughts, but you are the Uncrowned King of the Invisible Kingdom, Bearer of the Lucent Blade, Magister of the Verdant Flame!”

During this little speech, I got a good luck at the guy. He was dirty, but more in a ‘too cool for hygiene’ way than in a ‘raving lunatic’ way. You know what I mean: a little ripe, a little dusty, stained clothing, eyeglasses held together with tape. He was little, too, skinny and only about five feet tall. His eyes... I wouldn’t have been able to describe them to you then, though by now I’m used to the look. There was something different about his eyes, something that didn’t match the rest of him. They were sharp and clear, but also distant, unworldly, or maybe otherworldly. He was sad, hopeful, and intense, but he didn’t look crazy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, pushing past him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He called something after me, something about the Prince of Doors and the Pact of the Silent Falls, but I was already thinking about other things.

Seriously, how long could I be expected to dwell on the ranting of one obviously crazy bum who had accosted me on the street? It was an isolated incident, a random occurrence; it could have happened to anyone, and it probably wasn’t going to happen to me again, right? I’m an ordinary guy. I have an ordinary life. I work at the Barnes and Nobles, I like Asian food and books and football, and I once tried pot in college. I have friends who care about me, and a girlfriend who loves me. My life doesn’t just turn itself upside down like this, for no good reason.

Boy, was I wrong.

It happened again the next day. I was on the train, and the guy next to me, a respectable-looking, balding, blue-suited businessman with a bit of a pot belly to him, put down his pen and the newspaper – he had been playing Sudoku – looked at me, and said “Good morning, my Lord.”

I popped one of my headphones out of my ear and turned to face him. “Excuse me?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you, Master. Your radiance fills the compartment. You are the as-yet Uncrowned King, Guardian of the Ineffable Gate, Lord of the Invisible Kingdom.” He inclined his head, a jaunty little half-bow, but his eyes were serious and hopeful. “You know, Master, if I may be so bold as to advise one such as yourself, this might be a good year to claim your throne, so to speak. Make the Unseen Seen, the Invisible Visible, open the Gates, Reveal the Secret Fire, take up your Crown and your Blade, return in triumph to the Invisible Kingdom, and so on.” He leaned in close and winked at me. “We have seen certain signs, in the Shining Mirror and the Pool of Mists. This will be a very good year.”

I stared at him in abject shock for a long moment. “Who are you people?” I finally sputtered. “What the hell are you going on about?”

“Ah,” the guy said sadly, “the Chasm. I should have known. I will do my best to explain, Master. We are your humble servants, the surviving Exiles of the Invisible Kingdom. You are our Master, the Uncrowned King, Bearer of the Lucent Blade, and owner of a great many other titles besides those. We await your glorious return, and strive to hasten it.”

What does someone say to that? Fortunately, I didn’t have to figure it out, because that was when the train stopped. I grabbed my stuff and ran for it. I didn’t look, but I could feel his sad eyes burning holes in my back as I fled.

From there, it got worse. I would run into two or three of these guys every day. The crazy people were everywhere: on the bus, on the train, on the streets, calling my cell phone, coming up to me at work. They came in all shapes and sizes, too, from the little girl who gave me a flower and asked when I was going to “open the Way to the Invisible City and lead the Exiles Home again” while two adults I took to be her parents looked on and beamed to the guy at the Quizno's who gave me my sandwich for free, saying “anything for the Uncrowned King, just open the Gates before my bitch of a landlord raises my rent on me again.” One woman started hitting on me at the local café, but it turned out that she was just “aching for the touch of the Master, the One True Lord of the Unnamed Star, if it would not be too presumptuous to beg for such attention,” and so on, and so on, and so on.

Every time it happened, I did the same thing. I watched, and listened, and as soon as I found an opening, I ran for it. I just kept hoping it would stop, and sometimes it would, but only for a little while. The lulls were just teases. After a day or two of peace, it would start up again, worse than before.

My friends started to notice – especially my girlfriend – but that only made things worse. They kept on trying to drag me out of my apartment, get me to go out and do things. But my apartment was safe, and the trouble with going out was that it involved going out, and out was where the crazy people lived.

My friends are persistent, so I kept on going out, and it kept on happening.

It was on one such doomed outing that things finally hit a breaking point. I was out with my girlfriend at Amber India, this nice Indian place in town. Nothing crazy had happened so far, and thanks to that, and a few glasses of wine, I was finally beginning to relax. We were about to leave for the evening, and while I was handling the check, my girlfriend had to run to the bathroom. For the first time in a long time, the crazy people following me around were not the first thing on my mind.

Natalie came back – after longer than I’d expected her to take – with a red splotch on her face and a hurt and confused look in her eyes. I jumped up, put my arms around her, and said “Nat, what’s wrong?”

“This... this bitch hit me!” she said. “I was waiting for the lady’s room, and when the line was down to just she and I, she turned around and said ‘it’s all your fault he won’t return to us. The Invisible Kingdom’s misery is on your head. You’re the one who’s stolen the Master’s heart!’ And then she hit me, just like that, and ran off while I was still stunned.”

I helped her wrap some ice in a napkin. “What did she look like?”

“She was tall and thin, with dark hair frizzy hair pulled back in a big ponytail. She was wearing this black dress, kind of revealing, like she had come here hoping to seduce someone or something. She had this weird look in her eyes, too. I can’t describe it. It’s like she was crazy, but not.”

I went cold, and it wasn’t the ice. “Natalie, take a cab home. Ask the cabbie if he’s heard of the Invisible Kingdom, and if he acts like he knows what he’s talking about, take another cab.”

“Ben, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to stop it.”

“Did you know this woman?”

“No!” I insisted. I had no idea how to explain what was going on without sounding like some kind of paranoid. Natalie is a psychology student, and she’s always diagnosing people with mental disorders. The last thing I need is for her to decide I’m crazy. “I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just... some people, out to harass me. I don’t know why. But you have to go home, Nat, you have to keep safe.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m... I’m going to call the cops,” I lied. I’d tried that already. The police officer I spoke to had listened patiently, then said: “You can’t blame them, really, Master. They just want to go home.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it wasn’t going to involve running away.

Once I had gotten rid of Natalie, I stalked through the restaurant, looking for some crazy person. I had mental images of grabbing some guy by the lapels and throwing him up against the wall, not demanding to know what was going on, but instead, making sure he understood that he and his friends were going to leave me alone, and leave my girlfriend out of it, but for the first time in a long time, there weren’t any of them there, just a bunch of diners peering at the angry young man running around the restaurant with murder in his eyes.

When the host asked me to leave, saying I was disturbing the other customers and implying that I was drunk, I left.

I found what I was looking for at my apartment, of all places. To be precise, the first one I had ever met, the small, dirty man, the one who had started this whole thing. He was standing in my living room with pretty much everything I owned in a pile in front of him, and in his hand was a stick, on fire. He held it high over his head, leaving a scorched spot on the ceiling. I was standing by the open door, jacket in one hand, key in the other, with a stupefied expression on my face.

“I understand!” he shouted. “I have found the way. The Mists of the Chasm can only be cleared by fire. Fire, I tell you, the fire of the Verdant Flame! I will burn away the trappings of this world, and free the Uncrowned King to return to the Invisible Kingdom! The Exiles will hail me as their hero, and you, you, Master, you will thank me.” He lifted his torch even higher, and made to throw.

“Stop!” I shouted suddenly. To my surprise, he did. He looked at me expectantly.

“Um...” I stammered. “Don’t you, uh... don’t you understand anything?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you employ the Verdant Flame before the time is right, it will ruin everything!” I was thinking fast, pretty much saying the words as they came into my head. It was complete bullshit, but it seemed to slow him down.

“Master! Have you returned to us? Has the Verdant Flame removed the Mists from before your Imperishable Sight?”

“Only for a time. Listen, I must be... brief. If the Mists of the Chasm are cleared away before it is time, then the Invisible Kingdom will be lost to the Exiles forever. None of you will return home.”

“But, Master, then how-“

“When the time is right, you will know it by the signs. The Shining Mirror and the Pool of Mists speak truly, but they alone are not enough. The... Laughing Stone will throw off its silence, and the sounds of mirth will fill the Hall of Voices once more. The Circle of Trees on the Stargazing Hill, the Oak, the Ash, and the Rowan, will put forth first flowers, and then fruit. The Second Star will rise along with the First, and the Celestial Music will be heard from every shadow in the Forest of Night. The Invisible Kingdom is yet too far from this world for methods as crude as yours to be effective. You must have patience!”

The guy looked at me, stunned, then dropped to his knees, letting the brand fall to the ground. I stamped it out while he groveled. “Yes, Master, of course. It will be as you say. We will await your triumphant return.”

“Now go, before the smoke of the Verdant Brand leaves me and the Mists of the Chasm return.”

“Yes, Master, of course.” He scrambled through the door, then turned in the hallway to look at me one last time. “The Invisible Kingdom yet lives!” he declared in awe, then scurried away.

I sat on my couch with a sigh.

Over the next few days, things got better. The crazy people stopped bothering me, and every time I saw one of them, I just uttered a little more bullshit about Shining this and Invisible that and Unknowable other things, and they left me alone. Natalie eventually forgot about the incident in the restaurant, and never implied that there was anything wrong with me. I mean, my friends thought it was odd that I had started carrying a thesaurus around and flipping through it when there was nothing better to do, looking for new words to use on the crazies, but that was it. My life was finally getting back to normal.

And then, Natalie and I were watching movies in her apartment – mine still reeked of smoke – when she suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, Ben, I’ve been thinking.”

“Oh?” I replied.

“Yes,” she said, “I’ve been thinking, it really is time.”

I felt my heart beat a little faster. “Time for what?”

She touched the side of my face and turned my head, so I could look into her eyes. Her shining, loving, eyes, sad and intense at the same time, and not the least bit crazy. She kissed me, and then said, “It’s time for you to take up your Crown, Ben, and return to the Invisible Kingdom. It’s time to go home.”

I screamed, and jumped up and threw her out. I’m lucky she was in sweat pants, because she doesn’t have the key. The banging on the door is getting louder now, and I don’t know what to do. They’re shouting things through the door, saying that the signs are all assembled, that all the bullshit I said in my apartment has come true. The door isn’t going to last much longer.

They’re all here, and I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what to do.

* * *

Now, I'm not terribly likely to change my stories left and right based on what my readers say, but that doesn't mean your comments aren't welcome. It's not that I don't want input, it's more that I like to think that what I'm posting is finished already. So basically, say whatever you want and rest assured that it won't upset me, but I make no promises about following your advice.

That being said, what do you think?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Raping the Puppy - The Big Issues

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In the novel I'm working on right now, with the working title Rat and Starling, after the two main characters, there is a scene where Rat, in an effort to save Starling's life, seduces him, using magic to ensure that she will become pregnant with his child. Then, three months into the pregnancy, when the baby is beginning to react to its environment, she enacts a ritual that transfers Starling's sickness to the fetus, killing it by stabbing herself in the belly with an enchanted bone knife. This is the moment that Starling, disgusted by this perversion of nature (in his view, parents die for their offspring, not the other way around), finally gives up on Rat. Rat has abandoned Starling after years of friendship, allied with a man who tried to kill him, and delved into necromancy, but he had never stopped believing that there was good in her. Not until then, when she used that black magic to save his life against his will in a way he found abhorrent.

This scene is problematic in two ways.

First of all, I am afraid that it is bordering on what the Television Tropes and Idioms Wiki (a cool web page that tries to, wiki-style, identify and mock the annoying patters TV shows tend to fall into) used to call a Rape the Dog moment, but now call the Moral Event Horizon (probably in an effort to throw the word 'rape' around less, which I can respect). The Moral Event Horizon is the moment that a character does something so horrible (or no more horrible than the other things the character has done, but somehow harder hitting) that the character ceases to be cool and becomes terrible, a total villain, someone the audience only wants to see suffer and die. A Magnificent Bastard ceases to be magnificent, a Noble Demon ceases to be noble, and a hero becomes a villain when he or she crosses the Moral Event Horizon. The trouble is, I don't want Rat to loose the audience's sympathy. In fact, she and Starling end up together in the end (awww).

The second problem is that this particular scene touches on Issues with a capital I. My opinion on abortion isn't really the point in this scene (I happen to be pro-choice, which makes it problematic when Starling, the character who has been Rat's moral compass for most of the novel, condemns her). This scene is about the moment that Rat violates Starling's person with magic he dislikes in a way he finds problematic, to save his life, more because she doesn't want to live without him than for his own sake. This scene is about selfishness and power. It's the beginning of a serious slide into darkness for a character who has been victimized and humiliated to the point that she has a hard time empathizing with other people. I am afraid that my audience will read this scene and think I am making a point about abortion, and that would make me sad, especially since the point they are liable to think I'm making is not one that I'd agree with.

I'm not sure exactly how I plan to handle this, honestly. I'd love to hear what your experiences have been with this sort of thing - character morality and Big Issues - as writers and readers.

* * *

Let me be clear here: I like input. I want your input. Your input is delicious. Give it to me. I want this blog to be a place where people read my posts and then tell me what they think of them. I want people to read each other's comments and comment on them.

I think I'm going to start making some kind of division at the end of my posts (like the three centered stars above, an old favorite of mine) and then writing a few bulleted questions, the ideas in the post I'd most like input on. This doesn't mean I don't want input on other things, mind you.

Also, I am always looking for input on how to make my posts more exciting to you. This blog is in its infancy, and I am eager to learn how to become a better blogger. Last night, for example, I received the verbal commentary that yesterday's post was a little dry. I hope today's post was a little juicier. You can also expect some actual fiction of mine the next time I post from my home computer.
  • When have you encountered a scene that touched Big Issues as a reader? What did you think of it?
  • When have you faced a moment when a character you were reading did something unforgivable or nearly so? What did you feel?
  • When have you encountered the above situations as a writer? How did you deal with it?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ultra! To The Max! Redlines!

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Redlines, as it turns out, are what they call the edits a roleplaying game freelancer gets back from the developer after sending in the first draft. The term refers to both the whole edited document and to the individual requests (ie. "I got my redlines back from the developers!" and "I don't really agree with this redline, but what can I do?"). The full process (with White Wolf, the only company I've worked for so far) works something like this:
  1. Freelancers receive an outline put together by the line developers.
  2. Freelancers produce first drafts and send them back to the developer.
  3. Developer responds with redlines.
  4. Freelancers produce final drafts and send them back to the developer.
  5. Freelancers get paid.
  6. Book gets published.
I was expecting to have a hard time handling direct, professional criticism about my work. This is, after all, the first time I have ever sent something out and had it critiqued by a professional. To my surprise, it was very easy. To pat myself on the back, I think my first draft was very good, and none of the redlines were very serious. They mostly consisted of things like "this word is a bit silly, use a different one" or "change the name of this thing, it is accidentally derivative of a popular movie franchise" or "this needs to change, as it contradicts something happening elsewhere in the game," all delivered in a friendly and compassionate tone. I don't feel coddled, but I do feel respected; the redlines were from competent, professional writer who wrote like he was writing to a competent, professional writer.

It's actually really, really awesome. Look at me, I'm a competent, professional writer! Another competent, professional writer thinks so! He implied it right here, in his redlines! It's going to be a long, long time before that gets old.

It's a good thing that I don't mind any of my redlines, because redlines are something you don't argue with. Extremely nice developers (like my boss) will tolerate a brief conversation about why the first draft was the way it was, and maybe change their mind about one of their requested edits. Simply refusing to change something, however, is a good way to not get a second contract.

So, for the next two weeks I am going to seriously relax my writing goal of 1k new words per day, since I will be focusing my time, attention, and creative energy on producing my final draft for White Wolf. My goal is actually to finish early, since I have this persistent fantasy of finishing this contract in time to get contracted to work on Geist. Burning Zeppelin Experience will continue, uninterrupted, however. I know how fickle your internet hearts are, and I don't dare risk losing the audience I already have.

I have no idea if working Geist is a realistic hope, but a guy can dream. For all I know, all the parts have been handed out already, or only more experienced freelancers get to work on corebooks. Actually, I'm pretty sure the latter isn't true, but the point is there's more I don't know than that I do know.

And you can count on a post to let you know how it turns out.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Our Writing Sins... Wait, I Mean Brass Goggles and Steampunk

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I had a great Yom Kippur post lined up about "writing sins," but I haven't got time to write it now. One of the perils of blogging from work is that when work is busy (or my day is artificially shortened) I don't have the time to steal for a little blogging. Anyway, I'll try to post about Writing Sins over the weekend (call it a bonus post), or Monday at the latest.

Instead, I'm going to take a moment to introduce you all to one of the inhabitants of my blogroll. Brass Goggles is a great blog all about steampunk, one of my favorite genres. What is steampunk, you ask? Let me tell you.

Wikipedia on steampunk:
"Steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy..."
But really, that definition is both limited and vague. The rest of the Wikipedia article is worth reading, but steampunk is so much more and so much more focused, at least for me.

To me, steampunk is best characterized by an odd juxtaposition of elements. The culture is archetypal, hyper-real Victoriana, complete with a highly stratified class structure, intimations of imperialism, and Victorian sensibilities of dress, behavior, and aesthetics. At the same time, the setting is full of advanced technology that is equal parts rough and unfinished (the "punk") and ornate, Victorian, and often ostensibly steam-powered (the "steam"). As the Wikipedia article noted, fantasy and science-fiction elements often exist side by side.

Steampunk aesthetics are increasingly popular these days. In some ways, it's become the new goth. You can find steampunk all over the place. My favorite sources that you might not have heard of already: the inimitable Girl Genius, a free webcomic by Phil and Kaja Foglio and the nifty indie roleplaying game Full Light, Full Steam by Kallisti Press. I've also got a steampunk story in the works that just might have a novel buried inside it.

What appeals to me about steampunk?

Well, first of all, I have a mania for syncreticism, the combination of disparate sources into a coherent whole. When Christianity is combined with animistic African faiths, you get Voodoo where Catholic Saints act as intercessors between man and spirits, who are all in turn masks for God. When you add fairy tale logic (not to mention fairies) to the challenges of modern life, you get urban fantasy. When you add neofeudal sensibilities to far future science fiction, you get... well, Dune and it's imitators, but it's still damned cool. And when you add outrageous high tech to Victorian England, you get steampunk. I don't know exactly what it is about the juxtaposition of elements that turns my literary crank, but it really does.

I also find the genre full of delicious, juicy possibilities. You have a strict culture that denies basic human impulses like lust and artificially stratifies society into classes. You have cool advanced technology that looks interesting: goodbye sleek, boring phasers and dime-a-dozen space ships, hello steam-powered giant robots with perfectly proportioned women's faces and electrified sword-canes.

And, of course, zeppelins. We can't forget the zeppelins.

Which brings us back to Brass Goggles (and the realization that, long as this post has turned out to be, I could have just gone and written about sinning).

Brass Goggles is a central switchboard for steampunk news, from heads ups about steampunk fiction you can buy in bookstores to steampunk flash games you can play in your browser. Best of all, in my humble opinion, are the photographs of steampunk creations, home-made costume pieces crafted by steampunk enthusiasts everywhere they have internet.

So check out Brass Goggles. And stay tuned for more writing on writing from yours truly.

* * *

And, I almost forgot, a special thanks goes out to my friend Inga, who kindly helped me resize the burning zeppelin above so that it fits just right. Thank you, Inga - may the burning zeppelin in your sky never fall down.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

On Setting Goals

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In this post I have something to say, but mostly I want to listen.

When I set out to write at least 1k words per day, it seemed like an achievable goal, but I knew I wouldn't do it all the time. I knew that sometimes I would do my best, but it just wouldn't work out. I'd get lazy, or I wouldn't find the time, or my hands would abruptly fall off or something (I hate when that happens). The plan was to admit it here, pick myself up, brush off the metaphorical dust, and try again.

The idea was to set a goal that was reachable, but also a stretch, and to be understanding that since I was stretching, I would sometimes fail. I suppose there was also the germ of the idea that when the goal became too easy and I was hitting the mark effortlessly, I would move the goalposts up a little and make it, say 1.5k a day. Or, alternately, I might reward myself with more flexibility and change my goal to 5k a week rather than 1k every weekday. Or a little of both: 7k a week, to be written whenever I choose.

But hearing about this goal, some have said that I am setting myself up to fail. The philosophy they espouse is to set goals I can achieve now. Certainly, the goal should be a reach, but only in the sense that I will have to work for it, not in the sense that I will fail very often. These people suggest 3k a week, with flexibility, as a good starting point.

I am currently inclined to remain with my initial goals and write 1k a day, every weekday. I like the structure and the regularity of it. As writing has become more routine this past week, I have become increasingly happy with myself as a writer. I also suspect that my writing is better, but no one other than me has actually read it yet, so who knows?

Anyway, I'm interested in hearing what my readers (assuming I have any; my Blogger dashboard says I'm being followed by one person, so 'reader,' at least) have to say about this. How do you pace yourselves, set goals, and try to achieve them?

* * *

Speaking of wordcount goals, I failed in my goal Monday and Tuesday of this week. My lame excuse? I was driven to work on Monday and drove myself to and from work on Tuesday, which ate up most of my daily writing time (my hour and a half train commute).

I have sinned, I have sinned *thud* *thud*!

And speaking of *thud*, the captain of the burning zeppelin (that's me) is of the Jewish persuasion and will be fasting and begging forgiveness of his sins tomorrow, so don't expect a post until Friday.