Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Queen of Cinders, Book Two Complete

Though overdue, I'm happy to announce that the second book in my current work-in-progress, Queen of Cinders, was finished in mid November, and I immediately launched into writing the third and final volume.  My plan is to finish the entire trilogy, and then do editing runs on all three books at once.

So, how did writing this second book (Widow) compare to writing the first (named, for those not in the know, Waif)?  This is a tough question.  Waif was written so quickly, and went so smoothly, that writing Widow came as something of a shock.  Repeatedly interrupted for painting commissions, it took a year an a half to write, as compared to the first book's twenty-seven days.  Even being longer, this book wasn't that much longer.

Also, I know that there are continuity errors written into it that I'll have to tackle when I do an editing run.  Having gaps of months between writing blocks made keeping certain things straight very difficult.  For example, I wrote the same dialogue twice, from different points of view.  Worse still, the characters took opposite sides of the argument in each of these two scenes.  Taken together, the exchanges make no sense.  Also, I'm not certain how well developed certain characters are, given their secondary but pivotal nature.  This is a common problem with first drafts, and rereading often makes this sort of balance issue easier to spot.  But for now, I'm just going to have to live with the uncertainty of it, and plow ahead writing book three.

Also, Widow jumped the tracks about half way through, flying free of my outline for it as the plots matured.  Strangely, this wasn't the reason for the continuity errors.  The story just outgrew the conception I'd had of it before beginning the series.  The characters are deeper, their motivations more nuanced, and the sharply defined actions and motivations I thought would be needed for clarity turned out not to be needed at all.  This is one reason that planning too far out isn't really a good use of time, for me.  I'd have to strangle a lot of the growth of the characters in order to service my planning, and keep the story in the lines.

And we've all read books that have that particular flavor, haven't we?

So, Book Two is done, and I'm happy with it, including the very different denouement than I'd planned.

Onward, to Book Three!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spotlight's on You: A.G. Carpenter

This short story, highlighted in the very first Stupefying Stories Showcase feature, shows how to do SF right.  Man, this is creepy stuff.  Hats off to A.G. Carpenter for crafting this small gem.

Friday, June 7, 2013

For the Love of a Grenitschee

The cover story for the maiden voyage of Stupefying Stories in a print edition is Mark Keigley's For The Love Of A Grenitschee, and I was asked to do a cover painting for it.  The story itself is rather fun and straight forward, and I quickly had images come to mind for it.

One main problem with these, however, was that, in order to be true to the story, most of them would have to feature a bare-ass naked guy riding around on a huge desert beast.  This required a bit of compositional jujitsu for the concept drawings, and, in the end, I went with a simpler image that fit the story's tone, if not any particular moment from the tale.  The images from the story itself gave entirely the wrong impression, and came off, visually, like some sort of Fifty Shades of Conan kind of thing.  Not the image I thought would send magazines flying off the shelves!  Or would it?

Hmm.  Mark, if you read this, there's a new literary project just waiting for you!

Anyway, the main element, of course, was the titular grenitschee, a desert-dwelling animal on some planetary backwater.  Described in some detail, I tried my best to stay true to the narrative.  On the whole, however, I was free to do as I saw fit.

Many fantasy artists like the go for the grotesque with alien creatures, and the grenitschee, as described in the story, could have gone that way.  I toyed with that, in the concepts, but, in the end, I went with something a bit more emotionally engaging.  As odious as the animal is to be around, I wanted the viewer to feel something positive when they looked at her.  Her loving gaze toward the man, and his somewhat exasperated glance while half turned away, pretty much sums up the story's emotional framework.  She's sweet, in her way (assuming she doesn't reject you when you first meet and bite your head off like a huge desert nut), but grenitshee are obnoxious to be around.

I kept the rest of the scene almost barren, to fit the isolation the character experiences in his journey.  In the distance is the spaceport, and his clothes (presumable in the minutes before losing them) are obviously not designed for desert travel.  Though not described in the story (that I remember), I put him in something that looks suitably spacey but functional.

So, there it is.  Simple and direct, like the story itself.  Overall, I'm happy with how dusty and desolate it looks.  The only comforting element are all those long-lashed eyes.  Who wouldn't want to give that big girl a nice hug?

Just mind the kitten-sized parasites!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I the Jury: Oblivion

The Charges:  Derivative plot devices, Uneven pacing, Tom Cruise

The Verdict:  Guilty as charged, but released for good behavior after time served.

The Finding:  Science fiction works very well with small casts.  Usually, stories with very tight casting are good vehicles for intimate character studies, and SF gives this formula twists by the nature of the external problems the characters face.

Oblivion uses the small-cast formula to effectively set up a mystery.  Technician 42, a stoic man named Jack, shuttles about an abandoned Earth, repairing the drones that maintain security for a system of automated fusion reactors.  These reactors give power to the space station called the Tet (after its strange tetrahedral shape), used as a staging point for sending humanity to Titan.  These developments occurred after a ruinous war with an alien power, forcing humans to flee an occupied Earth, and technicians to guard against the attacks of forces of alien stragglers, called simply “Skavs”.

Jack lives with his controller, a woman named Victoria.  They have a simplified domestic existence together in an ergonomically perfect apartment suspended far off the ground to protect it from Skav attack.  But Jack feels dissatisfied, prodded by fragments of memories that have snuck past his mandatory memory wipe.  Together, these two form, as Victoria periodically assures Sally (their mission control contact aboard the Tet) an “effective team”.  This mantra is laden with overtones, suggesting some sort of social engineering at work, binding Jack and Victoria together beyond the requirements of reactor maintenance.

Warning:  Spoilers for Oblivion and Moon (2009) follow.

This is the sort of setup that SF handles very well, and Oblivion, with its clean tech and comfortable design, keeps the audience in line by giving us new information at a decent pace.  The fact that this information is discordant and contradictory makes the somewhat pedestrian action sequences involving the Skavs more interesting.  Strangely, the action sequences feel the most tacked on, and not really necessary.  They detract from what could have been gripping tension, and take time away from the storytelling..

But Oblivion will suffer among more dedicated fans of cinematic SF, as it offers little that hasn’t been seen before, and relatively recently.  The Skavs being humans doesn’t come as any sort of surprise, given that very little effort was taken to make the seem alien.  Tinted POV shots accompanied by strange audio-filtered sounds don’t go nearly far enough.  The fact that the Tet is the alien force, and Jack is serving it unwittingly, is only surprising if you are picking apart other mysteries.

After that revelation, the learning curve that goes along with the plot flattens out.  Jack’s discovery that he, along with Victoria is one of uncounted duplicates, each living parallel lives as technicians on an abandoned Earth, will only remind viewers of 2009’s Moon, another story of an isolated man servicing a high tech installation and discovering he’s a clone.

Oblivion’s resolution to the questions it sets up is more complete than Moon’s, and this will satisfy some, while leaving others to rage that the lack of laying out the logic of the alien’s motives.  For me, this is just fine.  An alien’s methods don’t need to make sense, and given the huge inefficiencies of human endeavors caused by our cultural mores, it’s all right if aliens are shown as having a similar cultural maintenance cost.

Where Oblivion shines is in the more subtle acting by Andrea Riseborough as Victoria and Melissa Leo as Sally.  Victoria’s character is subtle, and she fights her own doubts so that she can maintain an illusion of a perfect life with Jack, a man her original self pined after.  Her pain at the reappearance of Jack’s wife Julia is very convincing and touching.  It is the perfect counterpoint to the subtle menace of Sally.

Melissa Leo somehow walks the line between friendly and accomodating and menacing and distant, which is perfect for the avatar of the alien Tet.  As the friendly human face of the distant mission controller, Sally’s role is important, and not given enough time to grow.  Thus, when she needs to embody the alien revealed, her effectiveness is diminished, which is a shame.

One other aspect of Oblivion bothered me, and that is seeing the female lead of Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko, portrayed as so helpless while Jack kicks ass.  While it’s not really in her character, the contrast between Jack fighting and flying while Julia is helpless next to him bothered me.  Perhaps if Kurylenko weren’t so gorgeous it might come off less like the hero guarding his cheescake, but I was really hoping that she would do something materially important during the many crises she was present for.

One last element that struck me later was the huge apparent influence of Portal.  The flying drones looked suspiciously like that game’s turrets, if you were to give them high-tech suspensors and double their guns.  Maybe that’s just where good design leads us.  And maybe the physical Sally, with her single glowing eye and mechanical distance, wasn’t influenced by GlaDOS, but I would be surprised if someone on the design pipeline hadn’t played that awesomely influential game.

Not bad, but not a film for the ages, either.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

This Page is Half Empty: The Five Horsemen of Literary Apocalypse

This was originally posted on the Black Gate Magazine site on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011.

Right now, as I type this -- and as you read it -- I’ve got a new manuscript half done.  For a writer, this is sort of like me saying that at this very moment I’m not wearing anything under all of my clothing.  Well, duh, these people are saying, while trying not to involuntarily imagine me naked.

For writers, there’s always the current project.

The process of forging the first draft is much like any other relationship between the mind and the will.  Romance, for instance.  There’s the initial flare of interest, the slower “getting to know you” stage, and a much longer “I know you, now” period.  These are all easy to navigate, because they are exciting and interesting.  They are effortless, and writers know the feeling of a WIP-crush.

But this infatuation period cannot last.  While in it, there’s always the potential that your feelings are mercurial, diaphanous dream-fluff that make no sense when you try to go deeper.  To your shock, you realize that perhaps your burning love isn’t the stuff of ages, but mere puppy love.  Your ardor has brought you no glamour, but instead made those around you somewhat uncomfortable, hoping, for your sake, that it will all end soon without you getting hurt too badly.

Am I just a puppy-lover? you find yourself asking.

For writers, our inner puppy lover is revealed by the number of abandoned projects we have stashed in drawers and on hard drives.  Inspiration flares, sputters, and dies, consigning yet another creative relationship to the dustbin.  Over and over this happens as we develop our ideas.  There’s always the hot young thing coming along in something revealing, with toned abs and mischievous eyes, and the partner you’re currently with suddenly seems...

Boring, really.  And with bad teeth, to boot.  It’s easy to tell yourself you weren’t really meant for each other.  But the new hottie idea, they’re the real deal.  You two were meant for each other, and this time, you’re going to make it work.  Really, this time things will be different.

The truth is, the creative process can be a lot like a romantic relationship.  But, unlike a two-person relationship, those between a creator and their creation stay intact when the creator moves on, assuming they’ve been fully consummated.   Indeed, success with one creative relationship makes your next one better when you leave the first behind.  In fact, you’re expected to move on to that supple new idea, just after you’ve completed the one you’ve got.

But there are those for whom finishing a story, or a novel, is a truly difficult task.  The introduction pounds itself out, page after page, and then, in the buildup stage of the relationship between creator and creation, there appears the first hint of a lull.  This is when the Hot Tramp makes her first appearance.

A Hot Tramp is an idea that just begs you for attention right now.  “I know you’ve got a real story you’re working on,” she’ll whisper.  “I’ll finish up real quick.  I promise.

Writers who fall for the Let-Me-Go First allure of the Hot Tramp almost always lose their steam in their previous project, and find it very hard to get back into the groove.  The Hot Tramp interrupts a story before the meat is fully on the bone, and the foundational structure of the tale isn’t in place yet.  Recovering from a quickie with a Hot Tramp can be a painful experience generally worth avoiding.

This is relatively easy, however, as Tramps can be satisfied with a simple synopsis written in a notebook.  Their coy glances and suggestive outlines will be there waiting when you’ve got nothing else to get in your way.  Take the easy way out, and jot that Tramp out of your head.

At any time, however, another menace can come calling: the Beautiful Idealist.  They will invite you to their ivory tower in the clouds, where every word is chosen with excruciating care, and sentences, paragraphs and scenes blend together into a perfect mosaic of glittering gems.

Those who fall victim to the sway of the Beautiful Idealist will read previous paragraphs and chapters, over and over, tweaking them until moving on.  And then adjusting some more.  And polishing.  And soon they have an exquisitely crafted partial they can bury in their desk drawer.

To master yourself in the face of the Beautiful Idealist, quote George Lucas to yourself like a catechism: “If you revise while you write, you’ll never get past page four.”  Striving for an ideal first draft is, frankly, like passing up everyone who’s genuinely interested in you because they aren’t a supermodel.  This is the stuff of fantasy, not fantasy writing.

After a story has been going for a while, and you’ve got the setup complete, the third temptation tends to make an appearance.  This is the Clever Friend.  She’s witty.  She’s fun.  And she’s only looking for something Platonic.  Really.  You can spend a night with her and nothing’s going to happen because you’re just friends, right?

A week later, you look around and notice that your original idea is hard to recall, and the days spent developing a relationship with the Clever Friend aren’t going to amount to much after all.  Clever Friends are creative endeavors that are different enough to let you feel like you’re still in the groove, but also sap the excitement and interest you had in your manuscript.  They often lead nowhere because they are large-scale or long term, like learning Swahili, or building hang gliders by hand.

To defeat Clever Friends, leave a post-it for yourself somewhere for when you’re finished, as a reward for completing your current project.  Or make it a New Year’s resolution for next year.  But don’t act on it now, while on track with a story.

As you plow through the meat of your manuscript, as the buildup transitions into the resolution, the Staid House-husband comes calling.  This is your manuscript itself, sitting on the couch all day, watching the soaps while swilling cheap wine from a box.  Their once-lustrous hair has transitioned into a thicket of coarse body hair in unexpected places, and the cute love handles you used to wrap your arms around have become a full-on gut.  It’s hard to get the Staid House-husband to do what needs to be done, and you spend more and more time trying to get them to do what they should.  Your commitment to the manuscript suffers, inviting a new round of Interesting Friends and Hot Tramps to come calling.

The wall of indifference personified by the House-husband takes a real professional attitude to overcome.  This is where the working writer earns their robes.   The House-husband is often the classic incarnation of writer’s block, and it sometimes helps to think of him as a distorted point of view about your work in progress.  A change in your work habits can often get the House-husband to at least do the chores, however much he might grumble, allowing you to complete your first draft.  Daily wordcount goals, checklists of story events, and renewed outlining are all ways to whip the House-husband back into the athletic literary Adonis you remember.

These are the Four Horsemen of Literary Apocalypse.  But, just when you head into the home stretch, winding ever closer to the “Till Death Do Us Part” final scene and the completion of your relationship with this project, a fifth rider appears.

This is the Cabana Boy, and he doesn’t appear to everyone.  But his seductive allure promises a renewal of the excitement you felt for the manuscript when it was young and nubile.  The Cabana Boy hints that you can have that feeling forever by renewing your relationship time and again.  How does this happen?

By making your standalone novel a trilogy, or a ten-volume series.  But the Cabana Boy is not destructive because he, perhaps, gives you new ideas to continue the story in an additional volume.  No, he makes you hold back what you intended to give to your project: a final resolution.  The Cabana Boy is not just unfair to your project, but to your readers as well, offering up plot holes and loose threads in place of a final denouement.

Resisting the charms of the Cabana Boy requires determination, and a resolve to make your current project work in its intended form.  If you find a trilogy is the true format of your story, that’s one thing.  But if your entire story pointed toward a final resolution, and you hold back for just one more novel, it damages not just the trajectory of the story, but the trust of your readers.  And, as writers, our relationships with our stories are ultimately our relationships with our readers.

So stick it out, and complete that first draft, no matter which of the Five Horsemen tempt you to do otherwise.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sealord's Successor, Part Two

Some reviews are in for Part Two of The Sealord's Successor (Part One is here), and they seem pretty positive.  This is something of a relief, to me, not so much because I'm on the fence about the story itself, but because of the torturous route its creation took.

Before I wrote Part 2 of this story, the most trouble I had ever ecperienced in getting a story off the ground was when writing another story about Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh, called The Highwater Harbor.  I'd come up with the plotline while in Paris, and so had written it down, rather than keeping it all in my head, like I normally do.  So you'd think I'd be ready to go as soon as we touched down back home, right?

Sort of.

I did start right in.  And then I started again, somewhere else in the story.  And then again, elsewhere.  And again.  And once more.

This was a phenomenon I'd read about, but never experienced.  The false start.  I knew the story was in there, but couldn't seem to set my sights on the true beginning.  It was horrible, but I knew at once when I wrote the opening words to what became the true starting place.  The story was flowing, without any effort, like my others always had.

Whew!  I remember the feeling of relief as I continued with the opening of what was to be my longest Gallery Hunter story to date.  But I never expected the same thing to happen when I agreed to write Part Two of The Sealord's Successor.  After all, the original ending was a cliffhanger chase.  So, to start part Two, simply begin there.

More easily said than done, in this case.

Logistical problems began at once.  The main characters were separated, in the beginning, and I labored to reunite Yr Neh and Gloren.  It showed.  It was a tapestry of seams.  I finally wrote an opening that served its purposed.

Then I began telling what was structured like a new short story, including introducing a new cast, as if I was going to either jettison the original, mostly, or increase it.  But it mattered not, as I dragged Gloren and his new compatriots through one scene and then another, stopping and scrapping dead-ends and false starts for every scene.

Finally, I sat back.  What did I think I was doing?  Time for a reboot.

Start again.  Cliffhanger ending.  A chase through the rain down a switchback mountain road.  The suspects of a fantasy mystery story in full flight.

Stay focused, I told myself, and the real story should just start itself.

And, like with Highwater Harbor, it did.  Eventually.

Part Two is a testament to how writers sometimes have to show a little grit, and tough out the bad times.  It's frustrating work, though, and that's often the kiss of death for fiction.  Though I rarely have problems starting stories, it's nice to know that I can keep at it when the going's not so smooth.  I admire writers that fight through this sort of thing all the time, as a normal part of their process.

Those are some tough writers.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I the Jury: Snow White and the Huntsman

The Charges:  Kristen Stewart’s acting; CGI for its own sake; Poor storytelling

The Verdict:  Guilty as charged!

The Ruling:  Fairy tale re-imaginings are all the rage at the moment (as my own current project will attest), and what makes them usually such weak tea is the fact that they expect the audience’s knowledge of the tale to do the heavy lifting.  Very little setup or development is ever attempted, and this is a problem that Snow White and the Huntsman (hereafter “SWATH”) has in abundance.

The installation of Charlize Theron as the evil queen is perfunctory at best.  An evil army appears out of nowhere, and is met by some knights led by the king.  The evil army is destroyed, clearly betraying their non-natural origins by collapsing into glittery rubble when defeated.  Rather than causing suspicion, this fact is ignored, and the king falls in love with a convenient captive woman being held nearby.  The fact that his love is magically extracted is all well and good, but the rest of the kingdom isn’t under the Queen’s spell, so the fact he marries a complete stranger after knowing her for just a few hours would raise eyebrows, if not open protest.  The king doesn’t seem like he’s a “yes-men only” sort of ruler, so this circumspection is odd.  The entire palace just sort of shrugs and washes the accumulated grit from their new queen’s athletic body so they can hurry her through a dress fitting before the sudden marriage.

It takes her just a few minutes after getting the crown to kill the king.  Not much time for an exploration of her motives.  She just walks up to the castle gates and lets in an army.  Where the soldiers are who would normally be manning a palace’s front doors is never addressed, nor is the fact that castle gates don’t exactly have doorknobs so one person can just open them casually.  And shouldn’t there be someone on those walls, looking at the army that is waiting just outside for her to open the doors?  But no, that would be too much effort.  Anyway, the queen opens the gates and lets in her real army.  Coup achieved.

The young princess is spared for the ominous potential of using her royal blood in some way in the future.  Charlize Theron makes this line sound convincing, and by the power of her delivery alone justifies keeping the young Snow White alive until adulthood.

During the rest of the film, though, Theron is stuck acting and reacting to nothing, as if expecting hordes of CGI servants to be inserted later.  If that was what they told her, imagine her surprise at the final screening, when she’s stuck shrieking and glowering to one or two people, who react not at all.  I think there was some cradling of her head during those sequences.  Acting can be a cruel business.

Cruel, too, can be the experience of watching acting.  Or, in this case, non-acting.  As my first brush with Kristen Stewart’s alleged craft, I was put off from the very first moments of her being on screen.  Her gaze is so utterly devoid of emotion, I had to keep reminding myself of why Snow White might be doing any of the things she was doing.  Her brooding gaze and jutting chin was entirely unsuited to a character who was always being billed as being pure and good.  It wasn’t so much that she was unattractive physically (though, I have to add, she really is), as unattractive emotionally.  Her vacant stare is only occasionally replaced by a sort of icy determination, of the kind people use to chew off their own arm to escape a trap, or torture someone for information.  It is not the look of purity we are always being told she radiates.

An ember of passion seems to animate Stewart for her climactic rousing speech to the troops before the battle.  The writing, however, leaves her spouting utter nonsense, a rambling rant that is makes her sound completely insane.  The troops around her would, if she weren't the paragon of purity, roll their eyes and wonder what they were doing following an utter twit.  Instead, they give a somewhat rousing cheer and ride off to battle.

By the end of this short tale (which takes but a few days), Snow White is an armor-clad, sword-swinging badass-ess.  Huh?  Is the only means to any goal armed combat?


Kristen Stewart’s patented stare serves her well as she storms up steps and charges the Queen’s exposed back.  That’s honorable!  The Queen, however, reminds us of what experience and training can do, and proceeds to wipe the floor with the metal-wrapped girl.  Why she cannot capitalize on her success, and finish Snow White off is a mystery, but somehow she can’t seem to go that final step.  The Queen’s punishment is a ho-hum death, followed by having Kristen Stewart deliver a painfully inept parting line.  Ouch!

The final confrontation itself is pretty much just resolution, so drained of suspense is it.  A note to evil sorceresses: if you have a magical army made of obsidian shards, that fall to pieces when a blow that would kill a human strikes them, they aren’t much better than human troops.  But if they can become an unstrikable storm of flying glass, as the ones in this movie apparently can, maybe you should skip the vulnerable man-form and go full-on glass tornado.

Just saying.

So bad is this movie that I kept meta-viewing, wondering what the cast and crew were thinking as they made this film, rather than what the characters were thinking and feeling.  This is never a good sign.  After her speech, for example, I couldn’t help but feel that half the cheers came from the cameramen and crew at the thought that the scene was finally over.

SWATH is completely dreadful, saved only by the abused reputations of excellent actors like Theron and Bob Hoskins.  What the making of this film has cost those unfortunate enough to have been involved in it is equalled only by what it costs the unfortunate masses to have to view it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Sealord's Successor, Part One

The Sealord's Successor has gone live over at Black Gate Magazine.

This was the second story that featured Gloren and Yr Neh.  It was my first story using the same protagonists from another tale, and I wanted it to have a different feel to it.  I brought in the services of Aven Penworthy, the young chronicler that Gloren meets in The Daughter's Dowry.  Even while writing that short story, I was setting up the stage for more adventures, and intended roughly half of them to be told from Aven's point of view.  This was my first attempt at this.

Having the narrator not be the focus of the action was something that I admired a lot about Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  It always seemed to me that the character observing the action has so much impact on the tale, and I wanted Aven to be as rosey-tinted as observer as possible.  That's why Gloren is usually presented as perfectly unflappable, here, as opposed to the stories he tells in his own voice, in which he is often debunking Aven's work.

I also brought in the running written record, in which Aven writes events soon after they happen, but before the next section occurs.  This is the narrative effect I enjoyed most in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  I loved the way we, the reader, would finish a section, and, a few pages later, the characters themselves would be reading and discussing the very same written document.

And, given that this is set up like a mystery, I like letting the characters comb the pages of this very tale, searching Aven's writing for hints and clues.  The clues are all there, in the story, for those who know what to look for.  I had a hard time actually getting the scheme to work, and the actual crime to take place almost on-camera, as it were, and to give Aven strong reasons to note the clues, even if he didn't recognize them for what they were.

Writing mysteries is something that I've never tried before this, but the challenge of weaving a plot around a crime in a way that is clear enough to be understandable and limited to a few suspects, and opaque enough to not be completely obvious is a lot of fun.  I can see why so many people enjoy writing this sort of thing.

Obviously, mystery writers are constrained by what can happen in the real world, and I think that having fantastic elements in the comission of the crime itself would cheapen the whole thing.  So the crime is done clean, the way it could happen in our world.  No shortcuts.  Otherwise, what's the point?

Part One was, until a few years ago, the entirety of the Sealord story, and I only considered expanding it at the advise of my editor, John O'Niel.  But his main criticism, that the story wasn't fully resolved at the rather cliffhanger-ish ending, was one I'd heard before, and so I decided to heed his words and write what happened next.  And that was why there is also a Part Two.  Now that Part Two exists, I have to agree: it's better now.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Copyright and the Public Good

With the trend in recent decades being toward perpetual copyright protection, what will become of the idea of the public domain?

Traditionally, copyright holders lost their copyright after some number of years after death.  Their works reverted to the public, to be used and owned in common.  Over time, this has given us a rich shared cultural base of literature, and all writers, no matter what their attraction or aversion to "the classics" have benefited by this.

But with estates now holding on to copyrights in perpetuity, this stream of literature freshening the common ocean is being dammed off.  The idea that you descendants are more worthy of benefiting from your work is not only sort of selfish, it creates a sort of aristocratic system whereby, through accident of birth, you may be entitled to wealth you had no part in generating.  Tolkein's work, for example, should have already entered the common domain, and yet changes in copyright law (if I remember correctly, made in the early 1990's) extend this time till somewhere around 2060.  Plenty of time to get the laws changed again, to add on a few more decades.

A far worse example is the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose descendants control with an iron fist.  If ever there was someone whose writings and speeches should be made available to all, it's Dr. King.  And yet, they vigorously defend their right to profit from any use of his words or image.  This is a great harm done to society, and is not how copyrights were designed to operate.

I think this trend is wrong, and, as someone who owns many dozens of copyrights in a lot of different mediums, it occurred to me that I could do something about it.

First, using creative commons licenses, rather than traditional copyright protection.
Alternately, I could voluntarily forfeiting my copyright by posting it copyright free at some point.  I'm currently thinking that a voluntary limit of twenty years after I create it.  If I haven't done anything with it in twenty years, tough luck for me.

By voluntarily giving up our rights to control our work, we allow others to use and perhaps expand on it.  While this is unlikely, it might be nice to see someone use your work as the basis for their own.  Without copyright, they are more likely to be open about it, and acknowledge your work in theirs.  With everyone running in fear of copyright enforcement actions, it might be a breath of fresh air to see someone just putting their stuff out there for everyone.

I think that renouncing our copyrights while we're alive eliminates the possibility of them being held by our descendants (some of whom we might never know) forever.  It's sort of scary, but I think it may be a good way to go for society as a whole.  We're so used to thinking of protecting our prerogatives, it might feel pretty good to let everyone benefit, and give up our copyrights after a while.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing Uncomfortable Scenes

Our latest guest blogger is the infamous Eli Ashpence, author of “Genocide to Genesis”.  This is the first in line on my "read on a tablet" list.  Yeah, there really is such a list.  Regular readers of this blog are advised to follow my lead on this one!  The Uncomfortable Circle is created by the enigmatic Xeth at Xeth.com.

When I first started writing, I was terrified of 'crossing the line'.  I wrote chaste love scenes rather than chance a reader's self-righteous anger.  And I wrote generic violence rather than face the nightmares I was capable of creating.

I got over my reticence, but it wasn't easy.  Everyone has subjects that make them uncomfortable:  rape, slavery, child death, torture, sexual sadism, drug use, etc.  There are times when a subject is so foreign that it becomes frightening for an author.  “Did I really just imagine that?”  And there are times when the subject is so close to home that it makes the author feels exposed.  “Please don't let them know I'm writing from experience.”  There are even times an author fears writing too well, out of fear of judgment.  “Anyone who reads this is going to think I'm a _____.”

 The first step to writing an uncomfortable scene is to accept that it makes you uncomfortable.  Identify your emotions.  Recognize the discomfort.... then run away.  That's right.  Run away.  No one is forcing you to write.  There's nothing wrong with backing off to gain some perspective.  Sometimes, simply knowing 'I don't have to do this' can relieve the pressure of 'I need to do this'.

By doing this, you're also recognizing that it's a 'need' instead of a 'want'.  When a scene becomes uncomfortable, it's not pleasure writing any more.  (If you don't need it and don't enjoy it, then what's the point of forcing yourself to write it?)  Undoubtedly, you're trying to make a point, provide an example, or give readers a few white hairs.  Identifying the need, instead of allowing it to remain a nebulous direction that must be followed, can help you get through those uncomfortable scenes.

There are times, though, when no amount of resolve or perspective will make a scene easier to write.  And that's when we come to techniques.

Chronological Outline
This is simple enough.  You start with a basic list of events in chronological order.  Don't describe anything yet.  This is only for action/reaction sake.

She puts needle in her arm.
Drugs pump into her veins.
Vertigo ensues.
Man enters room.
She can't move.
Man leaves.

Oh, how uncomfortable!  But--!  This type of simplistic outline tells you the minimum amount of action you need to get through the scene.  In some ways, the worst part is over.  You've written the scene.  It's on paper (or screen).  Now it's only about adding the senses.

She puts the needle in her arm.  She bites her lip at the prick of the needle against her flesh and eagerly injects pure Madness into her body.  Tossing away the used syringe, she quickly unties the rubber tourniquet.
Drugs pump into her veins.  She rests her back against the headboard and closes her eyes.  The throbbing in her arm spreads to her fingers, leaving a pleasantly numb sensation.  It spreads up to her shoulder and down into her chest until her body is forgotten within pulses of the universe.
Vertigo ensues. 

Using this method allows a writer to face each uncomfortable moment in bite-sized chunks, rather than forcing them to swallow the whole scene in one large bite. 

The Flashback
As you may or may not know, flashbacks remove the immediacy of a scene.  In essence, it's already happened.  So, you guessed it, write an uncomfortable scene as a flashback, then make it fit with editing!

(I could remember how) the taskmasters were cruel and quick to raise the whip.  (I could still feel) every stroke burned my skin and fried my nerves.  (Back then,) I wanted to take it from his hand and give him as good as he gave, but I was too afraid to stand. 

The taskmasters were cruel and quick to raise the whip.  Every stroke burned my skin and fried my nerves.  I wanted to take it from his hand and give him as good as he gave, but I was too afraid to stand. 

The Game
Imagine the reader's potential expression as you write each line.  This keeps you from thinking about your own reaction.  And, again, this method is reliant on editing if you write out the extra bits instead of merely thinking them.

Harvey slid his hand under my shirt.  (Ooh!  I bet they're already anticipating!)
I grabbed his wrist and pulled his away.  (That's what they get!)
He slid his hand behind my back and hugged me close so I couldn't escape.  (Fine, fine.  Let's get to it.)
As he leaned down, I pressed my lips together and turned my face away.  (Bet they're frustrated.)
He nibbled my ear as punishment.(*giggle*)
With my hand still on his wrist, he reached up to push my shirt from my shoulder.  (Uh oh!)
I didn't stop him.  (Let's make them slack-jawed!)

Harvey slid his hand under my shirt.  I grabbed his wrist and pulled his away. He slid his hand behind my back and hugged me close so I couldn't escape. As he leaned down, I pressed my lips together and turned my face away. He nibbled my ear as punishment.  With my hand still on his wrist, he reached up to push my shirt from my shoulder.  I didn't stop him.

Face yourself—Everyone has a closet nudist within them.  They have a closet exhibitionist, a closet voyeur, a closet sadist, and a closet masochist.  Most of the time, human beings don't like to face these 'shameful' parts of ourselves.  However, they ARE part of us.  All of us have the potential to be both assailants and victims, hunters and prey, dominating and submissive.  And sometimes we're uncomfortable because we actually enjoy walking on the dark side.  If this IS the case, then no amount of avoiding it will make it less comfortable.  Gather your courage, face it, acknowledge it, and harness it to make yourself stable.  Afterward, you'll be amazed at how much discomfort will vanish because YOU are in control.

Solitude—send everyone else out of the house while you write (or hide behind a locked door).  It DOES make it easier if you're not afraid of someone looking over your shoulder.  Get the scene over with, then take a shower or whatever you do to unwind. 

Alcohol—I don't recommend this, but I'd be a liar if I said I never drank a shot of whiskey to take the edge off before writing a scene. Just remember to put your car keys somewhere up high and don't touch them for the next twelve hours.

Split Personality—I'm not joking.  This works best if you have a pen-name, but the whole idea is to keep telling yourself 'someone else is writing this'.  And 'no one will know it was me'.  Even if it's a blatant lie, this is one instance where it's okay to lie to yourself for the short-term. 

Get it over with—Time only allows fear and discomfort to grow.  'Doing something' will always be easier than 'thinking about doing something'.  Don't get stuck in your head.  Get those fingers moving!

What are the hardest scenes for you to write?  How do you over come them?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Coming in for a Landing

Today writer and editor T.J. Loveless ruminates on when pantsing it just isn't cutting it, and how to get the benefits of an outline even when you don't, can't or are morally against outlines.  T.J.'s cat-filled, heavily padded web lair can be found here.

~Standing at the podium~

Hello, my name is T.J.  And...I'm a Pantser.

There are two types of writers. The Outliners who write every plot point, scene and the sequence it should follow.  This type of writer knows their story, understands how it will move forward, how it should end.

Then there are Pantsers.  Called this because the idea pops in our heads and we sit in front our writing medium of choice to blindly follow our imaginations to the bitter end.

Followed by major revisions, edits and “I can't believe I wrote that.”

The problem with pantsing through an MS is the obstacles, speed bumps and brick walls when not sure what happens next.  It is a common complaint among pantsers – we know the beginning, the end and what should happen, yet don't know the details of how to move our worlds forward, the conflicts, or most of the plot. We prefer to remain airborne, flying by the seats of our pants, hoping we can work through the various problems faced while writing our lovely stories.  And find ourselves cleaning our homes to a bright shine, cooking, the dogs are worn out on walks and driving the family crazy as we try to get over the dreaded writer's block.

I tried outlining. I really did. Composed five pages of plot points, scenes, characters, places, issues.  The problem?  I boxed myself in, obsessed when the story took a turn I didn't have on the outline, unable to move the story forward. I froze. Deleted the entire fifty plus pages I'd already written.

Seems I couldn't win.  I needed to find some kind of middle ground.

For those of us unable to work with an outline, and tired of hoping we can fly through the turbulence to the end, it's time to land in reality. Design various ways to stay true to our Pantser style yet learn lessons from Outliners.

As an example, I'll toss myself into the fire. Aaron? Got the fire extinguisher ready?

For my current WIP, Going Thru Hell, I decided to try something a little different.

I knew outlining would render me useless, however, I did know the beginning and end of the story, the characters and their roles, the place and the major plot.  I had an idea of what conflict would be necessary to keep the story moving.

How? Instead of immediately sitting down to type every thought attached to the story, I let it stew a little. Thought about it, went over the characters until I understood all of their idiosyncrasies, what kind of action scenes I wanted and why. I didn't write it down. I simply let the story roll through my gray matter, allowed it to unfold and my imagination take flight.

Once I managed to get a very rough outline in my head, I typed it out. Not in typical outline fashion. I wrote two sentences saying who, what, where, when, why and how. Followed by little three sentence paragraphs about the major points, conflicts and location.  I went online and found pictures of actors in roles of characters similar to the characters in my story.  Found a picture of a dragon to match how I thought the Mesopotamian goddess, Tiamat, might have looked. 

Without it being an outline, per se, I felt a little freer to make any changes necessary.  I could still fly, but wrote out a general idea of how I wanted my story to move forward.

Several times I've made changes.  I'm not boxed in by the outline. One character surprised me by becoming more important than I'd originally imagined. I'm okay with it and added the new twist into my one page document.

Since I began writing Going Thru Hell, I've only experienced writer's block once. I started writing the story in November, with the goal of having it finished, edited and in the query trenches by February.

I'm going to make it.

Will this method work for my fellow Pantsers? I don't know. It might. It might not.  The point is to find your way from the crash and burn of Pantsing and move to a better method, avoid the road blocks and still fly the turbulent skies of writing.

More of T.J.'s blogging is at the Writing From the Padded Room blog.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jumping the Tracks

Guest blogger Joyce Alton, who is the secret identity of the all-powerful Clippership at AQC, provides words of wisdom about when the best laid writing plans go south and don't want to come back.

Outliner: A person who pre-plots a story and follows a plan.
Pantser: Someone who jumps in and writes without a premade plan covering start to finish.

I’m both. It depends on the story. But I do tend to lean more towards Outliner these days. I like having a focus and to be able to pick up where I left off without having to go back and re-read everything I’ve already written.

So the question is, what happens when you are an outliner and the story jumps the tracks? You’re going along, everything’s falling into place the way you originally thought it would, and then you write yourself into a corner, or a character decides to ditch the script, or you get a really great idea that had nothing to do with the original idea but would make the story a lot better.

If this makes you feel panicky or upset, I recommend to keep breathing for starters. Don’t clutch your hair or kick the cat. Get up and go for a walk, down a cup of water, go do the dishes. Chill out.

One of my mantras is that nothing is written in stone, especially outlines. 

In fact, chances are, you are going to have to rewrite that outline almost as many times as you rewrite your story. Perhaps more. And that’s a good thing. Take real life for example. We can have a plan that we’ll grow up, go to college, get married, have a couple of kids, move up the ranks at work, and own a home by age 30. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But it’s good to still have goals and a plan. A writing outline is the same thing. 

We know what the story is, we’ve planned out the steps to get the reader from Point A, to B, to C, and finally to D. It doesn’t mean the story will end up that way. So what do you do? Your hero is supposed to be on a certain street at a certain time in order to save his friend’s life from a burning building. But somehow, your hero got sidetracked back at work with a project his boss threw out at him last minute and which ratchets up the tension of your side plot. Is your story doomed?


It’s just taking a more natural course. Stop and think for a moment. Suppose the friend is killed in the fire. How can you use that instead? Was the rescue scene merely to give your hero brownie points? If he was supposed to make a vital discovery during that scene, are there other ways he can find this information out? If it’s absolutely crucial for the friend to survive, what are the new repercussions you can use? Does he now resent your hero for not meeting up with him like they were supposed to? Is he badly burned or crippled? How does this change his role in the story? How can you use it to get back on track to Point C? If you can’t, change Point C to something better.

That’s one of the things I love about writing, especially before you let anyone else look at your work. Nothing’s set in stone. Entire story threads can be ripped out and rewritten. The only one who will know is you.

I’ve had key scenes mapped out in my head before that the story never reached. Disappointed? Sure. But trying to force those scenes in always ended badly. Readers can tell when writers are forcing the story line or characters. Some of the tell-tale signs are unbelievable character actions and reactions, or motivations; moments where something miraculous and unexpected is thrown in to save the outline; or too many conveniences in the plot. Outline must not come before story telling.

Story telling is a natural art form. It should flow. If an outline isn’t working, the story won’t be flowing. It’s time to ditch or revise the outline. Revising an outline is a whole lot easier than rewriting an entire story. Outlines are shorter. Having to rewrite a forced story is a pain in the neck and ego. 

Better yet, keep your outline simple from the start. I wrote a book in two weeks using this method. I had a general story summary in my head. For an outline I wrote down a list of fun titles for fourteen chapters. That was it. Then I wrote. I had a goal and was able to stick with it, but I’d left myself enough wiggle room to have fun and play with the story. It developed into something more organic, with twists I didn’t think of before. And yes, the ending came out a little bit different than I originally thought but I liked the result better.

Your story will jump the tracks despite careful planning. Look at it as an opportunity to re-imagine the story, to stop and evaluate what you’ve already done and whether you like it or not. Embrace the changes, don’t fight them.

Read more of Joyce's thoughts on her blog, Yesternight's Voyage.  It's sort of like getting fire straight from Prometheus, only with a lot fewer ravens.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"The Daughter's Dowry" picked as one of 2012's best

My short story, "The Daughter's Dowry" published by  Black Gate Magazine, was chosen as one of 2012's best short stories by Tangent Online.  Novelette, actually, is the what they're calling it.  It's a nice feeling to be chosen for this sort of thing!

For everyone who helped this story reach its final form, thank you!  This includes the intrepid first readers, Jan Moretti and Susan Lazar, who, way back in 1999, gave me their impressions, and, later on, the great and powerful Barbara Young.  With every story, the initial drafts have just enough that needs alteration to make comparisons with their final form (i.e. published form) painful.  But those early positive reactions were important in keeping Daughter's Dowry and the other stories in this series somewhere near the front burner.

As the first story I'd written for a new writing group we'd formed, The Daughter's Dowry also served to show that writing for and with a group was something that could work for me.  And, given that another story from that group, Mortal Star, was my first published piece, just made that all the clearer.  Other stories from my time in that group were also published (such as Seven Minutes to Bangor, in Stupefying Stories), and others remain fond favorites of mine.