Friday, January 29, 2010

Burning Complications

In a recent I Should Be Writing interview with Gail Carriger, it was revealed that the author's debut novel, Soulless, was written entirely as an exercise in trying something new. Carriger sat down to write urban fantasy because it wasn't something she'd ever done before, though she did make it a Victorian steampunk story just 'cause. Carriger suggests the exercise as one that we all might enjoy, and frankly, I'm intrigued.

The trouble is (isn't it always), what to write?

I'm profoundly not in the mood for urban or modern fantasy, nor do I feel like writing science fiction right now, yesterday's mad idea aside. Horror has never really done it for me - I'm too into heroism and good ends - and besides, it's just too hard to do well. Similarly, comedy is just really difficult. If I tried to write something literary ("conventional"), it would probably be about teaching in a high need school, and while I'm living that experience every day I don't want to be writing it every evening.

Thinking back to what I've been reading and listening to lately, I see that I've been getting into a lot of very complex political fantasy, from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series to Abigail Hilton's equally awesome (and significantly less, ah, porny) Guild of the Cowry Catchers and the Prophet of Panamandorah. Complex political fantasy; maybe I'm on to something here.

Both of my novels (and most of my short stories) are fairly straightforward fantasy fare: sympathetic characters, epic plots, high magic, and lots of swordfights. That's not to say I don't twist the occasional plot, fake a death or two, write in the occasional betrayal, or generally play with the readers' expectations. However, it would be incorrect to call my work political. So, political fantasy it is.

The first question is what are my potential problems and how can I solve them?

My biggest hurdle is that I don't generally do a lot of prep work before I write. I build huge settings, but I tend to keep them in my head rather than laying them out on the table to look for interrelations and inconsistencies, both of which are vital in more complex plots. I certainly don't outline - I never have outlined fiction and I'm not even sure how to go about it.

Of course, there's also the story itself. I've got some ideas, and I'll post more on that when I've got more to say.

Before I move on to my usual discussion questions, I want to briefly discuss the appeal of low magic, smaller scale political fantasy. This subgenre's super power seems to be putting large - but not too large - events into the hands of small characters who it is easy to empathize with. When the story is about the fate of nations, not the fate of the world, and the story is told strictly from the point of view of a small number of individuals (or even just one person) who find themselves wrapped up in events, it's possible to combine the best aspects of big and small stories. The stakes are big, but not so big that individuals cannot partake of them. The focus is tight, but not so tight that the larger world falls off. It's a perfect combination of themes, and in my experience, very hard to pull off.

And me? I want me some of that.

* * *

  • What suggestions do you have to help me achieve my goal of writing a complex political fantasy?
  • What genres or subgenres do you find interesting but have never explored yourself?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Idle Musings

For newcomers (do I have any newcomers? I'd really like to have newcomers): once in a while I'll toss an idea into the tubes, just to see what sticks. Sometimes the ideas are sticky... and sometimes they just need to be hit by a stick.

A question that occurred to me on the way home from school: what would the story implications be of a science fiction in which the obligatory force field technology had two main flaws: firstly, the force field has to be a sphere, and secondly, the object that produces the force field needs to be outside the area of effect? Other than the obvious - some really interesting design choices for warships - what else would be true? What style or feel of space combat would these limitations produce? What else is not occurring to me?

Post if you've got 'em.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jumping on the Bandwagon

This just in from a wide variety of sources, including two game developer livejournals and a forum for the Reign rpg that I just joined: DriveThruRPG is offering a ridiculous deal, more than one thousand dollars worth of rpg pdfs as an incentive for donating $20 to earthquake relief in Haiti.

I don't normally do stuff like this. I like to think that my donations come from the heart, not out of avarice. But this... oh my God. There's some good stuff in there. Check it out.

That is all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pickled Tink

In response to your comments in your feed and the lovely reading of your favorite paragraph from my review, oh Abigail Hilton of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, I have this to say: however delighted you are at being reviewed by someone you don't know, you can't possible be more delighted than I am at being mentioned in your feed and in actual audio in an actual (mini) episode of your podcast.

Seriously. Any goon with a keyboard can write a blog (and there's probably some goon without a keyboard proving me wrong right now, out of spite), but podcasting? Podcasting takes guts. Podcasting takes equipment. Podcasting takes sheer, awesome cosmic chutzpah.

Similarly, writing a novel? Bah. I've written two. Actually putting novels out in the world for people to consume, as you have with The Guild of the Cowry Catchers and The Prophet of Panamindorah? And without the assistance of a publisher? That takes real iron. My hat would be off to you, but I don't often wear hats, so you'll have to do with my hat-challenged accolades.

Finally, for those of you who aren't Abigail Hilton, check her out already! Also, The Prophet of Panaminodrah is similarly amazing. I've been obsessed with it since Monday - I'm actually about to start the final book - and you can expect a longer review soon. If you trust me enough to start listening to a podcast on my mere say-so, listen to this podcast. It's seriously awesome.

So Swears the Zeppelin!

"I will have that back from you. That and everything else you ever stole. I swear it. I swear it." With those words, my character Glyph drove our game in new and unexpected directions, spawning a semester-long epic that the players lucky enough to participate in still remember fondly. The resulting quest took us into the heart of the Dreaming, and, on multiple occasions, to the edge of death and total despair.

The game was White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming. We were facing down the Lillyu, an eater of souls who had hollowed out the Duke's sister and was driving her like a car. She had just stolen a piece of Glyph's soul while visiting him in prison, where he had been tossed for the night after throwing a chair at his teacher, the Lillyu (the Duke's sister, remember). Why did one twelve year old's hastily sworn oath change the direction of an entire game? In Changeling, the fae (and the fae-sold changelings) must abide by their sworn word or suffer a wide variety of terrible consequences. Rather than force my character to break his oath, Jon (the Storyteller) gave me the opportunity to fulfill it, at great personal cost. I still consider the idea of binding oaths to be one of the best ideas in fantasy. It's also (of course) one of the most problematic.

I can practically hear you thinking: ok, Mark, enough with the war stories. Where's the cool?

The greatest part of the cool is in the scenario described above. An oath sworn in anger and frustration had consequences. Big C Consequences. Hell, big everything CONSEQUENCES. In addition to catapulting the entire motley (group of changelings) on a new adventure that lasted past the death of the Lillyu, the game enforced a transformation on Glyph's character. When he swore the oath, Glyph traded some of his childlike innocence and wonder for more personal mettle (that's Glamour for Willpower, for those of you who know the game). Even if that choice weren't enforced by the mechanics of that particular roleplaying game it would still be what Glyph did. What's awesome is that one choice could unfold into so much sheer, awesome story.

In a similar vein, binding oaths are fascinating examples of an inhuman constraint placed on human (or semi-human, in Changeling) characters. I consider it a very human trait to lie or otherwise bend the truth. Some of us do it out of hope and some of us do it out of cowardice. Even the act of creating a narrative - a story, a myth, a faith - is an act of fiction, and therefore on some level a lie. Absolute truth is anathema to us, but with the fantasy conceit of the binding oath, a human character can be intimately wedded to an inhuman concept. Aren't these sorts of justifications the very heart of what fantasy is?

In a somewhat broader sense, binding oaths also provide an opportunity to explore consequences in the broader sense. What happens, after all, if and when you break a binding oath? There are huge story possibilities in committing, justifying, and being redeemed from such a crime.

With all this awesome - awesome plot possibilities that get to the core of what fantasy is about, awesome potential for passion and CONSEQUENCE - what's the problem? What stops the binding oath from being the best thing in fantasy since Tolkien invented swords?

The biggest problem is one of world-building. In a setting where binding oaths are real, what's to stop everyone from demanding binding oaths for every third promise? If every broken oath is a matter of CONSEQUENCE, where is there room for petty treacheries and well-intentioned lies that make for smaller, but still compelling plot? I can see it now:

"Honey, why didn't you tell me that you were sad about missing the baseball game to attend my sister's wedding?"

"Well, it wasn't a big deal, and I thought I'd just let you enjoy your sister's wedding and not trouble you with my feelings."

"But… you promised! You promised that you'd tell me when you're upset about things!"

"You're right! I did! Nooooo…" [Insert here the sound of the earth cracking open and consuming the oathbreaker body and soul.]

On a more serious note, there's also less room for the bigger, potentially more plot-relevant treacheries. How can the border lord defect to the enemy side if he's bound by a web of supernaturally enforced oaths? How can you trust someone who refuses to swear an oath you know he has no good reasons not to? You get similar problems in settings where magical means of determining someone's truthfulness or "goodness" are common (or even present) in the setting. The solution to these problems is… careful world building (who's surprised?). For all it's awesome possibilities and copmlications, you can't just drop binding oaths into a setting and expect it not to cause any problems.

In my mind, anyone trying to drop binding oaths into a setting needs to answer the following questions:

What are the limitations of binding oaths?

Does the magic that binds oaths listen to the spirit of the oath, or just the words? Are there circumstances in which one can weasel out of an oath? Can the person you swear to release you from your oath? What about a witness? What if the person you swear to dies... or breaks his half of the oath?

It's important to understand the limitations of binding oaths, because the limitations are where dishonesty - and conflict, and passion, and plot - can happen. They are the cracks that let story into your world.

How hard is it?

Is swearing a binding oath difficult, or is it easy? Can anyone do it, or is there a special class of people who witness or swear binding oaths?

The right answers to these questions can do a lot to help and hurt you. For example, in Changeling: the Dreaming (the roleplaying game mentioned above), anyone can swear an oath and it's easy as pie. This is a good thing - because it means that oaths get sworn left, right, and center. It's bad, because in theory, it often makes bad and untrustworthy people easy to spot: they're the slimeballs who won't swear to anything.

What is the role of binding oaths in your setting's culture?

Because binding oaths are so powerful and unnatural, they certainly occupy an important place in a setting's culture. What is that place? Are they a practice of the nobility, or do commoners do it, too? For that matter, is the swearing of oaths something commoners do and nobles eschew? Is it rude to demand that someone swear an oath? Are there settings in which it is appropriate to swear oaths and others where it would be considered rude, blasphemous, or just plain weird? Are there certain classes of people who could, theoretically, swear oaths like everyone else, but categorically refuse to? How does this effect their social standing?

... and this is where Changeling finds its saving grace in the matter of binding oaths. The culture of the earthbound fae places a great deal of weight on binding oaths, so much that they can't be demanded (except in certain situations), only offered freely. Requiring that someone swear to something before trusting him is considered a fairly massive faux pas and makes you seem like the untrusting (and therefore probably untrustworthy) one. There are entire social movements that consider the swearing of binding oaths to be outmoded, tyrannical, and rude. Therefore, it's entirely possible that that person who merely promised to help you has no intention of doing so... and that's where stories happen.

And finally, most importantly...

What do oaths mean to you?

This is the last and most important question. As with everything else in world building, the swearing of oaths needs to have a place in the setting. Does it underscore the world's strangeness or allow you to emphasize a character's uniqueness? Is it an unnatural rigidity that your all-too-human characters must struggle against? Do oaths exist to make noble warriors more noble or to keep star-crossed lovers apart? These are the choices - the most important choices - that should drive the answers to the questions above.

So, in conclusion, oaths are neat, but use them well. If you do, you'll find they add a lot to your stories.

I swear it.

* * *

  • Where have you seen binding oaths used well in fiction?
  • Where have you seen them used poorly?
  • How have you used the concept of binding oaths in your work?
  • If binding oaths were real, what would you do with them? What promises would you labor under, which would you have your friends and family swear... and which would you avoid? How would it change our world?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Burning Into Showbiz

I just heard a fascinating bit of news in the outro of the newest episode of Escape Pod, The Threnody of Johnny Toruko. The Union Dues series of short stories by Jeffrey DeRego, a frequent contributor to Escape Pod, has apparently been optioned for television and the big screen. This doesn't mean that Union Dues will appear in live action - as Escape Pod's alien master Stephen Eley points out, lots of things are optioned and never manifest in reality - but it does mean that it might.

What's fascinating about this piece of news is that it shows the growing influence of the new media in the old media. One of the selling points of Union Dues is that the universe already has a huge following in the 'tubes. In fact, this post is part of that effort - by writing this post, including lots of links, and writing the words "Unions Dues" in this context as many times as I can (Union Dues Union Dues Union Dues), I'm adding to that movement, in my own small way.

Anyway, the point is twofold. First of all, if you Hollywood types are reading this (hah!), know that Union Dues is an awesome series of short stories, set in a universe that is a truly fascinating take on super heroes. It's fresh, fun, and bold.

If you aren't a pipe dream (Hollywood dudes reading my tiny little blog? Get real!), you should know this: Union Dues is a series of short stories set in a world where the superheroes got representation... and it hasn't worked out so well. The organization that runs the superheroes certainly isn't on our side, and it isn't really on theirs, either. It pretty much is it's own side, and it exists to ensure that the spotlight stays on the supers and as much money and influence as possible stays in it's collective pocket.

The other fascinating thing about this development is that Escape Pod, Jeffrey DeRego, and Jeffrey's Hollywood backers are all requesting that tin-can fantastic fiction pundits (like myself) post their thoughts on what causes superhero shoes and series generally devolve into meaningless camp. Following is the email I wrote to Steve Eley and the Escape Pod team:


I just finished listening to The Threnody of Johnny Taruko and I'm overjoyed to hear about the possibility of the Union Dues universe making the leap to television and movies. I'm going to make a post to my blog with a lot of the same thoughts that you'll see in this email, which I hope will help a little. My blog isn't very well followed (calling my following "modest" would be anything but modest), but it's reached the "people read it who I don't already know" stage, which might make it useful.

Anyway, my thoughts are these: what makes super hero stories fail in the long run is pacing.
Super hero stories are based on being much, much larger than life. A cop or private detective fights crime... a super hero fights crime WITH LAZERS!. A spy fights foreign terror... a super hero fights ALIENS! An action hero comes back alive from certain death... a super hero comes back from ACTUAL DEATH! Everything in a good super hero story is turned up to eleven, pumped up to the max, and otherwise large and in charge. Here's the quandary: audiences get jaded. In order to maintain the feel of over the top action, the "top" has got to keep on moving up, so that the super heroes can continue to go over it. Eventually, when a super hero has saved the world for the twelfth time, come back from death five or six times, experienced several personality, physicality, and universe shifts, the story becomes absurd. The audience can no longer empathize with what the hero has become. The narrative no longer holds together coherently, devolving into a series of unrelated explosions and associated sound effects, with the occasional flash of super-heroin cleavage.

Consider Heroes. Isn't it a good thing they didn't try to make a third season? Seriously, though: the first season focused on the heroes and their personal problems, how their personal problems interacted with their growing powers, and so on. The second season had them fighting one of their own gone bad, which was also pretty cool because it dealt with their own doubts about what they were becoming and their place in the world. Later, though, and the heroes were dealing with alternate histories and apocalypse plagues, several of them were functionally immortal or basically gods of time and space, and I lost all interest.

The trick with super hero stories is all in pacing. You've got to build the action, bring the climax over the top, then take it down to a more manageable level, deal with the emotional and narrative fallout, then bring it back up again. You've got to resist the temptation to keep on building and building and building.

Hope that was helpful.


Anyway, I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on this, as well. And if you're a fan of Union Dues who hasn't somehow heard and begun to spread the news, get on it! This is our opportunity to change the face of media forever, people. Let's not waste it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Guild of the Zeppelin Catchers

It's official, The Guild of the Cowry Catchers by Abigail Hilton (an Abigail, but not the Abigail) is awesome.

The premise: Gerard Holovar is a prince, disgraced by having actually married the blind court minstrel he fell in love with and accidentally impregnated. Gerard leaves home with his wife, Thessalyn, and also accidentally becomes the chief of police of an island where the chiefs of police don't last long. Now he must investigate the resistance movement (the theocratic government Gerard works for is basically a bunch of Grade A prime cut nozzles) who want to kill him, deal his fellow government employee, Silvio, who also wants to kill him, and deal with his seductive employer, the priestess Morchella (played by Kim the Comic Book Goddess, the woman with the sexiest voice in the podcasting universe), who probably doesn't want to kill him. Other inappropriate things, sure, but not kill. The sound effects, voice acting, and general production values are without peer, and the cast includes some real podcast greats.

Of course, that's just the story. There's much, much more to it than that.

The setting is clearly much deeper than I can even begin to express in this post. The world of Panamindorah, where The Guild of the Cowry Catchers is set, is clearly huge, deep, and old, and Hilton has so far done a good job implying the weight and depth of it without bogging us down in needless (and endless) exposition, the way some authors (me) sometimes do.

I'm also tickled by the content of Panamindorah. Remember when I said I longed heartily for more nonstandard fantasy races? The Guild of the Cowry Catchers is an entirely nonhuman fantasy. The characters are shelts - creatures built like the god Pan, with animal bottom parts and human top parts - divided roughly into fauns, panauns, and nauns. Panauns have paws and are higher on the food chain - and sometimes eat - fauns, who have hooves. Nauns, partly sea creatures with neither hooves nor paws, form an even more oppressed underclass. Hilton uses these many intelligent species and their to drive the plot. For example, the grishnards, part-griffon shelts, believe that their physical superiority and tendency to eat those "below" them makes them better suited to rule.

But, the setting isn't what really does it for me about The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. It's the characters. The beautiful, beautiful characters. The last episode in particular had not one, but two awesome moments (both of these could, if you were stingy, be called minor spoilers, so proceed with caution): first, when Gerard unwittingly has a moment of conversational intimacy with the person who is probably his primary antagonist, the resistance leader Gwain, second is when the borderline sociopathic Silvio flirts with Thessalyn and reveals a softer side. A moment of intimacy between people who are actually sworn enemies and the sudden - and so far, brief - transformation of a horrible, petty little shit creature into a real human being speaks a great deal to Hilton's ability to write realistically changeable creature. The perfect management of rising, cresting, and descending tensions in these scenes is also a testament to Hilton's skill.

In closing, no one says it better than the author herself:

When Abigail Hilton flopped, gasping, onto the beach of a tiny, unnamed key off the Florida coast, she was grateful that her audience included only a handful of sea gulls, a raccoon, and one very surprised panther. The panther fled, along with the raccoon, but one of the curious sea gulls hopped over to have a closer look at her. Moments later, now sticky with blood and feathers, she dragged herself into a tide pool. With the energy provided by her sea gull meal, she formed a gelatinous cocoon, where she lay dormant for months. She emerged, looking almost completely human, with nary a scale or flipper. She walked up the beach and into the world, where naturally she entered a medical profession. The scrubs and masks almost completely hide her gill slits.

Beautiful. I recommend The Guild of the Cowry Catchers without reservation. Check it out.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Let's try this again: Metamor City Podcast.

Thank you and goodnight.

Posting Fever!

I got that fever, that writing-blog-posts-from-school-when-I-should-be-calling-the-parents-of-my-horrible-children fever! Wooooh!

Anyway, I wanted to give you all a quick update, since I haven't posted in forever. We're going to resort to bullet points, because I really do need to get back to calling the parents of those naughty children.

In writing:

  • I am, against all odds, still writing. I just finished a short story called The Dead of Tetra Manna, which can be summarized as (I love this part): "a transhuman communist psychic spy versus his capitalist vampire doppleganger." The story still needs a round of edits, but then I'm going to start sending it out. I think it's a keeper.
  • I am not, however, keeping up very well in my project to earn 50 rejection letters in a year. I just don't think it's plausible, given my schedule. That doesn't mean that I'm going to give up on getting 50 rejection letters as fast as I can, however. Maybe I'll just throw myself a party at the end or something.
  • On the other hand, speaking of beating the odds, I won NaNo! I'm sure I'll put the web badge up sooner or later. What Sacred Games Part One: Heaven and Earth ended up weighing in at about 54k. What's this "Part One" business, you ask? Well, no one was more surprised than me when it ended up taking about 50k to get through the first third of what I had planned. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will have to wait for edits, which will happen as soon as I can look at the thing without feeling ill. Probably later this month. Part Two and Three will be called Shadow on the Sun and Trickster's God.

On the internet front:

  • New podcasts I'm listening to include: The Guild of the Cowry Catchers and Metamor City, both of which are awesome, both of which deserve a longer review, and both of which will have to wait until I'm not writing a lightning-fast pseudo-post in-between phone-calls to-the parents-of naughty-children (help-I'm stuck-on dashes-and can't-stop!).
  • New blogs I'm reading include: A Character for Every Game I Own, CSI Games, Destination Unknown, The Other Side, and The Subterranean Design Blog, some or all of which may eventually find their way to my blogroll. You can also expect to read more in-depth reviews of these presently.
  • Podcasts and blogs I'm listening to and reading also no longer include several you may see at right, which may find themselves removed, with or without comment.

In books:

  • The Abigail discovered and hooked me on Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series. Awesome. Review pending. 'Nuff said.
  • Uh... I'm not reading a lot right now. Mostly I only have time for podcasts (see above), which can comfortably be combined with driving. Reading... not so much.

And in games:

  • The Abigail and I continue our disgustingly adorable practice of running games of all kinds for each other, despite our absurd schedules. Life, while rough, is still good.
  • With my good friend Jon here for the winter, I've gotten a little fresh imaginative blood in my veins and got to run a little Scion, the next chapter in Jon's, the Abigail's, and my braided Storytelling Mage: the Ascension chronicle Out of the Cradle (about which more might one day be written), and played the first sessions of what will hopefully be a neat alternate-setting Mage game.
  • I just ordered Greg Stolze's Reign and Jason Blair's Little Fears: Nightmare Edition, both of which I await eagerly. Eagerly, I tell you! Feel free to link to free internet resources for either games - I may include them in any eventual posts I write on the subject.

That's about the shape of it. In my other lives I'm still teaching and planning a wedding and working out regularly. The sun still turns. Life goes on. See you soon.

Retractions and Incriminations

The good news, I can now update my blog from school. It wasn't working before, but it is now. This means that I'm now a lot more likely to blog, since banging out a quick Burning Zeppelin post is a great way to pass a lunch break or prep period when I'm feeling solitary.

The bad news... well, read on.

The writer of the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer critique I referenced in my last post commented to let me know of my (apparently several) inaccurate statements, including...

  • The article in question wasn't actually written by the guy I thought it was. Rather, it's an edited compilation of comments from a message board he was a part of.
  • My attempt at describing the dude was completely off, check out his website for more accurate information.
  • People who dislike the Yellow Crayon Speech aren't evil, just misguided... actually, that was meant to be a joke. As I've said before, I am dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves to be heard without being demonized. In retrospect, I possibly came on a little strong there.

I'm sorry for sending you all off in the wrong direction. All I can do is own my mistakes and redirect you to more accurate information.

Hopefully we can all expect more from the Burning Zeppelin's update schedule in the immediate future. Bye 'till next time.