Because the only thing more terrifying than velociraptors are velociraptors that can fly.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Star Wars Lesson

A question, dear readers: If I asked you, "Would you consider the world of Star Wars to be futuristic, what would you say?" I'm confident that most would answer, "Yes." Star Wars contains, after all, space ships, lasers, and robots, hallmarks of classic science fiction. And yet...If one pays close attention to the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope, one sees the words, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

Star Wars is set explicitly in the past. This seems strange, doesn't it? Science fiction stories, by virtue of having advanced technology (compared to our own, in any case) feel as though they should be set in the future. Technology advances over time, doesn't it? If everybody in a work of fiction drives flying cars, then the audience seems justified in saying, "Ah, OK. Future."

But the Star Wars lesson says this is a dangerous assumption. If a piece of fiction (a book, movie, or video game) does not explicitly state that it takes place in our universe, do not assume that it does so. This is one of my pet peeves.

The same holds true for fantasy. While classic high fantasy (think Tolkien) takes place in an era of sword-wielding men riding on horseback, people using siege engines against castles, and other tropes of long-ago eras, this does not necessarily mean that a work is set long ago.

The flipside of the Star Wars example is Anne McCaffery's The Dragonriders of Pern books. I mean, right off the bat we have people riding around on dragons. Classic fantasy trope. There are people living in villages and holds (essentially fortresses). There are bards, even. And yet... The Dragonriders of Pern take place thousands of years in the future, after people colonized the planet Pern. Using genetic engineering, they modify a species of semi-intelligent lizard and turn them into the eponymous fire-breathing dragons. Every so often, a micro-organism called the "Thread" falls from the sky, dissolving all organic matter (including people). The dragonriders use the dragons' fire to burn the thread before it has a chance to eat people. 

While the science in the novel is shaky, it is science fiction, and it's set in the future. Conversely, Star Wars features space-wizards with laser-swords whose story happened "a long time ago."

The moral of today's blog? Dig deeper, pay attention, and make no assumptions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Word Counts? Boon (Mostly)

My dear friend, Maeve Murray, recently blogged about the importance (or lack thereof) of word counts to a writer. You can check out her post here:

I agree with Maeve, to a degree. Just because a writer works more quickly or has more words in a story, does not make that writer/story better than others. Quantity, after all, is not quality. But when I'm working on a first draft, all I care about is getting words on the page. They probably aren't going to be the same words that will be there in my final draft, but I have to get the first draft done before I can worry about any other draft.

I like word counts because they give me a concrete and easily measurable goal. I can say to myself, "By the end of the month (or three months, or whatever) I will have written X number of words." Now, as Maeve points out, there's no guarantee that those words will be any good. In fact, they probably won't be. But it's a first draft. I'm not concerned with that yet. Hemingway said, "The first draft of anything is shit," and I believe that. Short of Mozart, nobody comes writes something perfect the first time. Stories go through countless drafts and rewrites and revisions. But if I don't get that first draft down on paper, I can't fix it. Word counts give me a way to motivate myself to get that first draft done.

Without them, I flounder. If I don't have a deadline, if I don't know approximately how long my story is going to be, it doesn't get done. Even if the deadline is a self-imposed one, even if the story ends up needing to be longer or shorter, by giving myself a structure, I give myself a way to plan. "That's 2000 words a day," I say. "But I have plans this weekend, so I need to spread those words around ahead of time, etc. etc."

True, needing to fill up words and not finding inspiration, I have a tendency to go on long tangents and talk about nothing in particular. My first drafts feature long (often longer than I'd like) sections of filler that I end up having to pare down or even cut entirely.

And I'm fine with that.

While it's true that a NaNoWriMo novel (50,000 words in the month of November), or any other novel written in that mode, probably isn't going to be any good (I know mine aren't), that's OK. I hate to harp on this, but it's only a first draft. No one ever has to see it. But it still needs to get written. As Nora Roberts once said, "I can fix a bad page. I can't fix a blank page."

So those are my thoughts. Even if the NNWM structure doesn't work for anybody else, it works for me. I need a concrete, quantifiable goal in order to get my first draft onto the page.

If only they had something like that for for the second draft...(and the ones after that...)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

After the End (with a small digression in the middle)

Arthur C. Clarke once said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So if I whisper to a small crystal ring on my finger, then disappear, it could be magic (an enchanted ring, for example) or it could be really advanced technology (some sort of light-bending force field). It's difficult--if not impossible--for an outside observer to know for sure.

This also applies to the real world, even without magic. Bring a Medieval French peasant to the modern world, and see if he doesn't think half the things you show him are of the Devil. Clearly planes are roaring demons. Clearly televisions have captured people's souls inside little boxes. And so on. Our tech, to him, is so advanced as to be incomprehensible.

Ah, so what happens if everyone forgets how technology works? A post-apocalyptic scenario, for example. In Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, Max encounters a group of feral children. They tell him their story, about flying on a giant metal bird that died, several of the children telling him this through a wooden frame they made out of sticks, complete with bunny ear antennae. They were remembering TV, but didn't have a way to talk about it beside "magic box." And that was something they'd directly experienced. Imagine if Mad Max was set a thousand years after the end of the world. What would the world look like then? How would people talk about the things they'd found, the remains of cities, nuclear dumping grounds?

I've been thinking about these things because I'm working on an after-the-end type story, but I'm not interested in setting it on Earth. I don't intend to have a giant green statue of a crowned woman with a torch mentioned in passing and the reader goes, "Oh, Statue of Liberty. I got it." I'm not going to do that because that's not what the story is about. It doesn't need to be anchored in the real world, or our current age. I don't know what planet it's set on but it's irrelevant.

Digression: I find a lot of times that people who read one of my fantasy stories, but who don't normally read that genre, tend to ask certain questions that irk me. I understand why they ask those questions, but they're usually a non-issue. For example, one I heard back in college was essentially, "This thing [word, school, social structure, etc.] wouldn't make sense back then." I italicize back then because that makes it clear to me that the reader hasn't understood my story. Sure, there are knights attacking a castle. Similar things happened during our Medieval period. That's true. It's also true that I haven't had anything explicitly magical take place, so one can't see a wizard and go, "Oh, clearly this isn't taking place on Earth." But I never said it was taking place on Earth. I constructed a world with knights and castles in it because I wanted to have knights attack as castle. I didn't set it in the real world or in our history because I didn't want to step on anybody's toes. The issue my reader had was the mention of an "Academy" that a knight had attended. It seemed that such an idea was too modern a construct to fit into my story (not even the world that I'd constructed, but the "real world"). Of course, the word "academy" comes from Plato's school of philosophy in about 300 BC, so it's been around for a while.

What irked me was that they thought I'd made an error. Rather than thinking, "Hmm, here's a medieval-type world and someone is talking about a [modern] Academy. I want to learn more about this world," they thought, "Medieval world, okay. What's that? Academy? Oh, this is wrong."

With fiction, especially fantasy and scifi, one isn't constrained to the real world, to actual historical events. If one wants to create a world with more advanced technology than Earth and have governments settle their dispute by sending platemail-wearing, horse-riding, battle-axe-wielding soldiers into combat against each other, that's fine. (In fact, there are a number of stories that use that idea.)

Back to my original topic: My current story is set far in the ruined future of a once technologically-advanced people. Their city still stands, as it was mostly self-maintaining, and many of their artifacts still function, although no one knows how they work. Imagine a room-sized microwave with an eternal power supply. I'm not sure why one would use something like that--to cook man-sized hotdogs, perhaps--but say such a thing exists. But then the people who built it and know what it is vanish. Other people stumble upon it. Maybe somebody dies in it. Imagine what those people would think about such a thing: Their fellow stumbles into it, somebody pushes some buttons or says something the computer interprets as the "On" command. Maybe it had a safety-circuit, but a thousand years have corroded it. The thing starts beeping, lights come on, and then their friend starts screaming, dying horribly, but not from anything they can see. Clearly the machine is a demon, or a god, or something incomprehensible. Can't you picture the Cult of the Microwave?

So I see the story having three main characters. The first is a guy from outside the city. He's heard stories about it, but the inhabitants--mutated remnants of the original city-dwellers' servants--are cannibalistic  homicidal maniacs, so he doesn't know much. The second character is one of the mutated creatures, something part-rat, part-cockroach, and part-human. Originally designed by the city-dwellers to work in the sewers, the mutants have had thousands of years to themselves in the city, and through garbled oral histories, they know how to use a lot of the technology that's there (what isn't too complex or corrupted, anyway). Finally, we have one of the city-dwellers, just out of a thousand years of hibernation. He knows how things in the city should work, but a lot of its broken and mutated. He's not quite as lost as the villager, the outsider, but it's close.

So...yeah, that's what I'm working on/thinking about currently. Hopefully it goes well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Liebster Award

Recently I received an award (YAY!) from my friend Maeve Murray ( called the Liebster Award, which is given to blogs with less than 200 subscribers. She posed eleven questions to me, which I shall now answer. Enjoy! (Also, I'm not sure what's up with the formatting of this thing. It got really screwy after number two. Sorry about that.)

1.  What is the biggest recurring problem you have when writing?

My biggest problem while writing is keeping myself excited about whatever piece I'm working on. If I'm excited, (and disciplined), I can write thousands of words a day. If I'm not excited, if I view getting in my daily word count as just that-- getting in my word count--rather than getting to work on my story, then it can be hard to write more than a sentence or two. I think of it as riding a bicycle up and down hills. If I'm excited, that's like having someone give me a boost up the hill. I still have to pedal, but it's fun. If I'm not excited, it's like having to work against gravity and my own aching muscles, struggling for every inch until I pick up enough momentum to keep going, or fall over.

2. What is your method of editing?

Heh. I'm almost never excited about editing, so I end up relying on other people probably more than I should. one of the things that makes a good writer an excellent one is the number of times they're willing to redraft their work. For me it's not so much a matter of being willing to do that, is that I'm so close to my work, I can't see why certain parts strike me as not working. I can tell they're not working--I don't thing everything I write is awesome from the very first draft--but I have trouble seeing, "Oh, this part doesn't work because he resolves the tension too easily," or "this part is very interesting, but doesn't actually do anything for the story," etc. If I can have someone who's not read the story read it, they're mote likely to see these big picture issues than I am. So, short version, I write, edit once or twice or spelling/awkward sentences, etc. then send it to someone I trust. Getting back those comments, I work on big picture things, then rinse and repeat.

3. If you could write one novel, and ONLY one, what would it be about?
Oh dear, that is a tough one. As much as I force myself to work on short stories, I consider myself to be a novelist at heart, so I'm not sure I could limit myself to just one. I guess if I had to choose, I'd pick my perfect prison idea, a science fiction story that would require a lot of research into America's prisons, and (at least I think) have a lot of literary merit. That'd be pretty cool.
4. What passions did you have before you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always been a story-teller. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve actually written them down. Plus I’ve always had an active imagination. I can remember staging elaborate battles between my toys, and I’d always bring one of them with me wherever I went, interacting with the world, somehow tying it into the narrative I’d already created.
5. Have you ever read something that took your breath away?  What was it?
The Songs of the Dying Earth. It’s a collection of short stories in Jack Vance’s world “The Dying Earth,” but they’re all written in Vance’s style, which is extremely elaborate and intricate. The whole book is incredibly beautiful and the idea of so many people (including writers like George RR Martin and Neil Gaiman) liking your style so much that they want to write like you too, in your world, it just inspires me. That could be me one day. People might want to write in one of my worlds. And that would be awesome. Also, Jack Vance's short story, "Moon Moth," which includes a line that describes him perfectly, "Intricacy in all things."

6. If you could design the cover to your debut novel, what would it look like?
I’m thinking my debut novel will be my thesis novel, For My First Trick… but I’m not a visually inclined person, so I’d have to say playing cards would need to be involved somewhere. It is about a stage magician after all. Probably a top hat as well.

7. Have you ever written something you immediately erased or otherwise destroyed?
I don’t think I have, truth be told. I have plenty of things I’ve never shown anybody, but nothing I’ve put work into and then demolished.

8. What is your favorite thing about being a writer – that doesn’t have to do with the actual writing itself?
World-building. It’s probably one of my favorite things to do. Coming up with cultures, geography, international relationships, magic systems (where relevant)…It’s like a giant puzzle, and when all the pieces fall into place, it’s very satisfying.

9. Your book is going to be published!  But the day before it’s due to come out, the stock market crashes and your publisher goes out of business.  Your reaction?
That…would…not be good. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’d do. Cry, probably.

10.  Is there anything you would NEVER write for money?
I’m sure there is, probably something really depraved.
11. Are you working on or do you ever plan to write a memoir?
I’m not planning on it. Nonfiction isn’t really my thing. But I might one day. (I should probably journal a lot more than I do, though.)

Thanks again to Ms Murray for sending me these questions, and for the award.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Diamond Age: A Book Review

I'm not sure if you've ever read anything by Neal Stephenson, and that's fine. I'd certainly recommend him, but his brand of science fiction isn't everyone's cup of tea. That being said, his books, The Diamond Age or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, is fantastic.

It's primarily about nanotechnology, technology that deals with the manipulation of atoms to create tiny machines, smaller than the width of a human hair, to do all sorts of neat things. With nanotechnology (and Mr. Stephenson's imagination) the world gains access to the Feed. Like our houses of today have gas hookups and water pipes and electrical wiring connecting our home to the sources of those utilities, houses in this story have access to the Feed. What is the Feed, though?

The Feed is nanotechnology, like the replicators from Star Trek. Depending on how big of an aperture you have and the size of your Matter Converter, you can create almost anything you can think of. The Feed provides you with the elements necessary to create whatever it is that you are trying to make, and the MC provides the nanobots (tiny machines) that manipulate those atoms into the proper shape.

So people can make food, clothing, medicine, etc. from their own little magic box. Now, the Feed is controlled so that people can't just start making big piles of plutonium or arsenic or what have you, but it's still pretty freeing.

I haven't read a lot of Stephenson's other works (although I intend to, since I enjoy his style so much), but an idea of his that occurs both in The Diamond Age and Snow Crash (which is to virtual reality what the former is to nanotechnology) is that nation-states no longer exist. Instead, people organize themselves into tribes or phyles. Sometimes they are constructed along religious lines, like Mormons. Sometimes ethnic ones, like the Ashanti of Ghana. There is CrypNet, essentially a phyle of hackers and crackers, and New Atlantis who consider themselves "neo-Victorians." We'd call them Steampunks.

In a world where nanotechnology is readily available, it's easy to mass-produce goods, or any specific good in question. If I want the Mona Lisa, I can just punch up the code for it in my MC and boom. I have my own Renaissance masterpiece to hang on my wall. Or I can print out a bunch of them and go skeet shooting.

The thing is, if one places value on an object's originality or uniqueness, then my copies of the Mona Lisa aren't as good as the real thing. They're just copies. Neo-Victorians are people who place value on unique things and hand-made crafts.Take for example, Merkle Hall, one of the main buildings used by a nanotechnology company of neo-Victorians. Stephenson describes it like this:

It was Gothic and very large, like most of the Design Works. Its vaulted ceiling was decorated with a hard fresco consisting of paint on plaster. Since this entire building, except for the fresco, had been grown straight from the Feed, it would have been easier to build a mediatron [a type of screen] into the ceiling and set it to display a soft fresco, which could have been changed from time to time. But neo-Victorians almost never used mediatrons. Hard art demanded commitment from the artist. It could only be done once, and if you screwed it up, you had to live with the consequences.

That sentiment appeals to me, even as I type this on my laptop, frequently going back and changing sections, copy-pasting the word "nanotechnology" because I don't like typing it over and over again. But hand-made things feel a little bit more "real" than copied things, don't they?

Funnily enough, the neo-Victorians tend to make most of their money on creating things with the Feed, that is, things created with nanotechnology. And it is their vast amounts of money that allows them to afford the services of craftsmen and women who make things like paper by hand.

Anywho, there are a number of other things I enjoy about Mr. Stephenson's work, like the fact that he goes off on long educational tangents that read like really interesting textbooks, and I actually like that. I enjoy learning. There are also sword fights, which I feel like many literary works are lacking. Throw in a good knife-fight into The Scarlet Letter and I might pick it up again.