Monday, March 31, 2008

Establishing the Genre

Very early in a story, the author often shows the reader which category the story fits into. It is a mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc? This sounds easy, but is not always so.

Orson Scott Card, in his book about writing speculative fiction, tells about his first attempt at selling a story. The editor of the magazine, a famous science fiction author, rejected the story, explaining that the magazine only published science fiction. Card saw his story as science fiction. But eventually Card realized that anyone who did not know the background that he had worked out for his story would not recognize it as science fiction.

The steampunk sub-genre of speculative fiction sets stories historically, but with some key changes, either scientific or fantastic. If Andrew Jackson uses dragons in the Battle of New Orleans or if Elvis is kidnapped and sent back to confer with Mozart, the genre may be steampunk. But if the author waits until page 10 to introduce the dragons to Jackson, the reader may stop reading on page 8, since she was looking for a speculative fiction story, not historical fiction.

So, just stick a dragon in scene 1 of the Jackson story. Right? Maybe not. The author does have a story to tell and it might be nice to introduce Jackson in some other way first. But somehow, soon, the author needs to let the reader know early on that this is not just history.

One reason that Dean Koontz is fun to read is that one often cannot tell if she is reading a story about space aliens, wizards, a gifted hypnotist, a drug induced hallucination, or a simple mass murderer. Koontz often waits for many pages to establish the genre. Koontz can "get away with it" because many readers trust him since they have read his previous work.

So until one can command readers in the way that Koontz and King (and now Card), the author has another ball to keep in the air.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nirvana Cat (Excerpt)

I leaned on my manure shovel and wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my habit so that I could better see the gleaming spider making its way down the street with the Mogul slouching behind on his too-short horse. He parted the pedestrians, carts, and horses on Brünn’s streets as if he were Our Lord, entering Jerusalem on an ass. I was so in love with his spider that it was some time before I realized that Father Gregor Mendel, leaning on his shovel, was in love with the Mogul’s horse.

An ornate carriage crossed the spider’s path, obscuring our view. As the carriage passed the spider, the horses spooked, dancing sideways. The carriage balanced on two wheels for an impossibly long time. Father Gregor nervously said, “Ach, du leiber."

I exhaled as the carriage’s wheels clanked back down onto the street. But then the rigging yanked the horses backward and they screamed in surprise. The terrified horses twisted the carriage the other way. A policeman on horseback shied away from the careening carriage. The Mogul, who continued to ride toward us, looked back over his shoulder at the chaos and adjusted his turban. All the while, the brass bodied spider clicked and buzzed toward us, leading the Mogul horseman along by a rope.

The carriage fell on its side, crashing down onto the policeman’s horse’s legs, knocking the policeman off the horse and into the shop nearest to our abbey. Pedestrians stepped back from the accident, staring dumbly. The horses screamed as they struggled.

The shoulder-high spider stopped just before it reached us. The Mogul said in clipped, accented English. “This is very bad.”

On the edge of frightened immobility, I stared at the last of autumn’s dead brown leaves that the spider’s legs had skewered as it walked. When I looked up, workmen in their filthy clothes, students in uniform, and even a banker in his suit and top hat rushed by our open stable door, toward the accident.

Father Gregor, who did not speak English, urged in German, “Once those in the street recover from the shock, they might harm this man. He is a foreigner and cannot defend himself from an enraged crowd.”

A policeman on foot stopped suddenly in front of the Mogul’s spider, glanced at us, then hurried toward the chaos. I opened my mouth and tried to speak. Finally I motioned to the Mogul and found my voice. “Come quickly. You will be safe with us.”

Someone in the crowd screamed, “Dame Gelderhaus!” I could hear a woman and some children crying. I feared that the crowd would rush our way at any moment. The Mogul, horse, and spider, entered the stable; I closed and barred the doors.

Gregor spoke calmly. “We must act quickly. There is nothing to fear, Brother Vincent.”

Nonetheless, I feared. Horses backed in their stalls as the brass spider’s buzzing and clacking hulk ponderously crept forward. I rushed to open the door to the abbey yard. The spider’s wondrous brass body gleamed in the morning light, the initials “J. C.” calling Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to my mind. Confused and frightened, I teetered at the door, on the verge of one of my episodes of emotional incapacitation.

As I stood, rooted, the Mogul loosened the leather straps that held the tarp that covered the spider’s head. An ornate wooden cage sat on top of a conglomeration of boxes and sacks, bound by a system of straps. The dark haired man waggled a finger between the bars of the cage and two grey-white muzzles appeared and nuzzled him. He murmured to them in his language, detached the cage, and reattached the straps.

Because I was not responding, Gregor put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Vincent, I need you. You must hold your composure. Take him into the abbey and feed him. I will see if the accident caused serious injuries, then I will inform the abbot. We can inform the police later.”

Gregor had seen my mental paralysis before. He gave me a gentle shove to move my feet out the door. The shove set me in motion, perhaps because the danger was out of sight and because I had not fully frozen.

I led the Mogul into the abbey as Father Gregor went out into the streets. Holding back tears of embarrassment at my inadequacy, I set a table in the refectory with bread, cheese, pickled shallots, and wine and left him there to eat. I brought a tub to my own cell and heated water for his bath with Brother Wojciech’s help. When I returned to the Mogul, he was sleeping at the table, leaned back in his chair with one hand dangling down so that his fingers curled into the little cage.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Other Than That, How Was the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

I love history. I loved history in elementary school, high school, and at the university. The creation of The History Channel (TCH) was a great delight to me.

But I mostly ran out of history two years ago. That is, I have seen almost everything that THC and the other educational channels have to offer on the topics that I like--and I like most all of it. Of late, though, I will watch nearly any new program on history, no matter what time period. For instance, I had never wanted to know about the Spanish American War. But, what the heck, a documentary series was being aired, and I had not already seen it, so I watched a week of it.

I could read more history. I find that authors of histories are often poor (boring) writers, though. And many of these authors have such different worldviews than I have, that I do not relate well to them.

Here is my pet peeve. Some history documentaries have almost nothing to say. For instance, Mary Magdalene is mentioned in about 12 verses of the Bible, and many of the verses repeat each other. Hence, an hour-long documentary on Mary Magdelene previews and rehashes about 10 minutes worth of content, padding the content with baseless speculation and counter-speculation.

Did you know that Grant was supposed to attend Ford's Theater on the night that Lincoln was assassinated? But some months before, Lincoln's crazy wife had flown into a rage and accused Lincoln of flirting with Grant's wife--in front of them all. Because of this, Grant's wife did not like Lincoln's wife, so Grant was not at the theater that night, along with his substantial security detail.

I love this stuff.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Gang of Three

Last night one of the members of our Gang of Three brought her brother and his two older teens along. They were probably bored out of their skulls by 2.5 hours of people reading their stories and discussing each others' stories.

We looked at Nirvana Cat. Group members confirmed Julia's (my wife's) view that the story is engaging, except for part of the first scene. Since the first scene of any story is crucial to holding a reader's attention, I'm fixingfixingfixing it.

The only other problem the group had with the story was that the transformation at the end of the story needed more preparation. They told me this in response to my direct question, "Does it need more preparation?" I had an inkling that it might be a problem. Julia had not seen a problem with the ending, so I was not certain that I was correct. Julia is seldom wrong. She is a woman, after all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Debriefing The Reader

When someone reads an author's unfinished work, the author will get the most out of the reader's work if the author debriefs the reader. "How did you like it?" is not the kind of question the author should ask.

My first questions are meant to tell me if the reader understood the story. Why did Velma like Tara? Why did Tara leave home? What would have happened if Velma had found the magic ring that she was looking for? I ask these questions because (1) I need to know that the reader understood the story in order to judge whether the answers to the rest of the questions are meaningful and (2) I want to know if I wrote clearly.

After those first questions, I ask general questions. When were you bored during the story? When were you confused about something during the story? Where did you have to slow down or re-read?

Then come what are, for me, the most important questions. Did you want to know the answer to the mystery that Velma and Tara were trying to find? Was the answer obvious? Did it make sense? Did you like Velma? Why? Did you like Tara? Why not? Did you know where this scene took place? Why did it seem logical that Velma would think of Levin as someone who would not protect her? Did you think that Levin would protect Velma? Why? Did the scene where Velma was going down the stairs drag on too long? Did that scene seem necessary? Why? Was the magic in the story "believable?"

If the author has found the right reader and debriefed the reader properly, the writing can progress from good to great.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dragging the Dog

Once my grandmother took a short trip on which she hit a dog. Before I talked to her about her trip, relatives warned me that her story was expanding.

First, she hit a dog.

Then she hit the dog and he rolled and bumped under the car.

Then she hit the dog and he rolled and bumped under the car all the way through the town, making horrid howling whimpering sounds.

It only got worse from there.

So, in my family when someone is "dragging the dog," they are wildly exaggerating.

Steven King is one writer who uses private family language as a device to build realism and atmosphere. Private language takes us into a character's intimate environs. Private language tells us about the characters in a sly way, slipping in exposition of the character's history without trying our patience (at least one would hope so).

On the one hand, part of the way through a King book, one can almost "get in" on the conversations in the characters' private language. On the other hand, overuse of the device tries my patience. It may be that King does not overuse private language from the standpoint of realism. But realism should not get in the way of telling the story well.

But, on my third hand, am I really arrogant enough to say that Steven King makes mistakes? Yes, I guess I am. Even the masters can make mistakes--fewer and smaller mistakes than writers like me.

In any case, a bit of "dragging the dog" would deepen many stories.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Skilled Readers

The author must have people read his work before it is considered finished. I discussed editing in my previous post.

Readers are a vital part of the editing process. They will spot almost all of the grammatical errors that the author could not see. They will also suggest story improvements that the author can make. But when the author tackles these corrections, he will create more errors. It is too much to ask readers to read minor edits. Perhaps if the author has changed a significant part of the work, the reader would not mind reading the new sections.

Finding good readers is not necessarily easy. A good reader has to appreciate the kind of story that the author writes. People who do not like fantasy will probably make bad readers of fantasy. If the author has a priest pull someone back from the Spirit World on page 1, the non-fantasy reader will likely assume that the priest is a Catholic priest to whom the Christian God granted a miracle. The reader will be confused when the priest turns out to wear armor and wield a sword. The reader's frustrations will boil when the priest tells his wife (priests can have wives????) that his God is angry that the priest snatched someone from His realm (why did his God let the priest do it if it would make Him angry???).

A good reader not only needs to appreciate the genre, but needs to be able to appreciate the author's writing style. If the reader expects to see the story begin, "Jared, the God who guards the Spirit Door, gives powers to his armored warrior priests," he will be confused by a writer who tends to convey information through scenes with characters, setting, action, and dialogue.

A good reader will be honest with the author and not just say, "I liked it," if he did not.

A good (skilled) reader can be specific about the things that were wrong with the story. The good reader will be able to say, "I was bored because I knew that the hero was not going to fail. I knew the hero was not going to fail because she never worked hard to solve her problems."

A good reader does not mind being debriefed by the author. What does it mean to debrief a reader? More on that later.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Parental Tales

When I was ten my family was at a hog roast at my uncle's and aunt's house. The Cajuns call it a couchon de lait (pronounced KO shawn de LAY). Couchon de lait means "pig with milk." What the Cajuns mean when they say that is, "milk fed pig." Maybe in the past someone actually raised a pig on milk and cooked it. But I think the term refers to the fact that a properly roasted pig is succulent.

Anyway, we were having a couchon de lait and the pig was taking much longer than the kids thought it should. The kids were starving, as kids usually are when they can smell the food cooking on a slow grill. My much older cousin, Juggie (a nickname that he was unaware that everyone in the family called him), said, "I don't care if it's done or not, I'm going to eat some."

So all the kids took up Jug's battle cry. We'd eat some even if it was not fully done. Mom told me, "You can't eat rare pork. You'll get beriberi (pronounced berry berry).

So over the years, if someone mentioned eating rare meat, I would either think or say, "Careful, you might get beriberi."

I was around twenty years old at my parents' table with my fiancee (now my wife) eating pork tenderloin. Someone said the pork was perfectly done. I said, "No chance of beriberi."

My mom gave me a skeptical look and said, "What?"

I said, "You can get beriberi from eating undercooked pork."

Mom said, "Where in the world did you hear that?"

I said, "You told me! Back at the couchon de lait at your sister's house. The kids wanted to eat the pig before it was done, and you told me I'd get beriberi."

Mom hooted. When she recovered her breath she said, "You can't get beriberi from undercooked pork! Beriberi is a vitamin deficiency!" Then she hooted some more.

Mom died in March of 2006.

From beriberi.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Parallel Processing

Authors should have multiple works in process at the same time. Editing one's work is difficult. After the first draft is finished, one can find errors in a first read. But the author misses some errors and creates more in the editing process. In addition, the author may find that some part of the story needs rewriting--creating something new or substituting for other parts of the story.

A second read-through is not very productive at catching errors and accuracy declines precipitously from there. However, if the author picks up the work after leaving it alone for a while (a month or so) he can do a much better job of editing. But what does the author do during the month? That is why authors should have multiple works in process at the same time.

Sending the work through the word processor's grammar/spell check can help. It will catch all the the repeated words. Will catch fragments. It will also tell the author that many of the names he used are wrong and will suggest many other changes that the author does not want to make. Finally, the grammar checker will not understand some perfectly good grammatical constructions.

Maybe you have found some errors in this post to which I was blind. That's just part of the process.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Limitations of Form

I wrote poetry for a year or so. I enjoyed it, then said everything I needed to say, so I stopped. Some of my favorite music uses poetic imagery. But the form of writing limits the author's ability to incorporate different elements.

Fiction authors that attempt to use poetic imagery throughout their work may fail to understand the limits of form. What this reader wants is a story that gets started and keeps moving. Once the motion of the story is established and the reader is inside the author's world, the author has more freedom to use strong poetic images. But, at first, the images are hit-and-miss. The author first has to orient the reader and build up the atmosphere.

In George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones the most cunning, merciless, schemer tells the most heroic, noble, honest character, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." In its place, that is a powerful line. The line cannot have the same power in this blog because the reader is not "in" the world of the story.

I recently read the lyrics to Tom Waits's song, A Soldier's Things. It is a powerful, moving song--all the moreso for its subtlety. But the lyrics do not convey the power of the song. The tenderness of the piano and the vulnerability of Waits's voice build the atmosphere. The slow speed of delivery hands the reader one image at a time, slowly, to ponder. Then the last two or three lines of each stanza delivers the punch. It is unbelievably powerful.

But the lyrics of A Soldier's Things on paper or computer screen rob the song of its power. The reader's eye moves too quickly to give the mind time to engage and build the emotional power. A Soldier's Things succeeds as a song, but, for me, fails as a poem. A short story that related the same experience would have many of Waits's excellent concrete images, but they would be couched in the words necessary to make a story and the images would lose their power, being so disbursed.

Many of the songs that I most like are similar to short stories. They have characters, a setting, action/plot, and atmosphere. But very little popular music has these elements. Mostly it has fragmented emotions attached to nothing.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reading Too Much

I am near the end of my Spring break and I am reading too much. With my wife recovering from surgery on painkillers, I stay around home and read. I finished off one of George R. R. Martin's 700+ page novels in his Songs of Ice and Fire series and am halfway through another.

While washing my hands, I noted a scratch on my thumb. Immediately I thought, "at least the burns on that hand are better." Then I realized that it was not me, but a character in GRRM's book, that had a hand burned. So yes, I'm reading too much.

Movies or books that show scenes out of chronological order cause a similar mental quirk. A Seinfeld episode on a wedding in India messed up my head for a few hours, as did Pulp Fiction and Catch 22 (the book, not the movie).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Knickknack (Excerpt)

“What is a Son of Rovish?” Jane asked her father as she climbed out of the traveling bag he had packed her in. He took a few belongings out of the other bag and arranged them on the bed. He grimaced, looking between the bed and his bag. He lifted his bag, turning it upside down over the bed. Nothing fell out.

Jane wiped her hair from her eyes and tried to rub the sweat from her face with her damp tunic sleeve. She stretched her thin body and looked up at the big man as he shook his hands to the heavens in frustration. Then her father looked down at her and said in his deliberately calm voice, “Where is the case? It had the scrolls that I will trade.”

Jane reached into the bag that she had spent the last hour in and handed the thin wooden case to her father. He eyed her suspiciously. “Why was it there?”

Jane shrugged. “You put it there before I got in. Don’ think I wanted it all poking against me.”

Stefan Geist took a deep breath, shook his head, and corrected her speech. “It made me uncomfortable. I did not wish it there.”

Jane repeated the phrase, knowing that she was probably giving him “that look” again.

Stefan nodded. “Better. Keep in mind that eight year olds should show respect.”

She put her hands on her hips. “I’m nine.”

Stefan scoffed. “I’m sure that makes all the difference. I correct your speech because you must be able to associate with important people if you are to be of any use in the world.”

Jane muttered, “That’s the way we talk. We’re useful.”

Stefan plopped down on the cot. “We? You mean that your mother’s family speaks that way? First of all, your mother does not speak that way. Second, if you continue to follow the example of your worthless uncle, Asil, you will be a vagabond, like him. I have let you spend entirely too much time with him.”

She had heard it before. “What is a Son of Rovish? You said you’d tell me.” She wanted to hear what he would say, even if it was a lie.

“Rovish was created by Silas. Rovish had the gift of making things. When he fathers a child with a human woman, a son or daughter of Rovish is born. They have Rovish’s gift. I am searching for a scroll that this Son of Rovish made. I think he still has one and I wish to trade him some very valuable things for it.”

“What does the scroll say?” She lay back on the cot beside where he sat and dried her sweaty face and hair on the sheets.

Stefan contorted. “Ach! Do not! Revolting.”

She sat up. “What does it say?”

He sighed heavily. “It is not a scroll that says anything interesting, you disgusting little rat; it is a scroll that does things.”

She leaned back against the wall, bonking her head softly. “What does it do?”

He just sat there looking out the open shutters at the darkening red sky for a time. Finally he said, “Maybe I will tell you after I have the scroll.”

The knock at the door startled Stefan. He muttered, “So soon.”

Jane whispered, “Is that him?”

Stefan stood up, his eyes locked on the door. He whispered intensely, “The Son of Rovish? Of course not. It must be Lord Chappell. But I did not tell Lord Chappell where I was staying because I was supposed to contact him before we meet tomorrow.” He looked around the room. “Quick! Back into the bag.”

Jane almost obeyed him without thinking. She decided she would rather use the bed, so she put the bag on the far corner of the bed before climbing in, while Stefan urged, “Hurry, hurry.”

Jane tried to quiet her breathing so that she could hear every word they said. The door creaked open, then after just a murmur or two, it closed.

“The maid,” said Stefan.

Jane climbed out. Stefan held a pitcher and rag, which he laid on the washbasin. He grumbled, “I am so tired.”

First he sat on the cot. Then he lay on it. Then he slept.

He was good at sleeping when he needed and waking up when he needed. Jane quietly closed the shutters so that the light would not disturb him. She washed up, then combed her hair with her fingers. Jane’s hair was cut short because she was a boy on this trip--a boy that had never heard of Stefan Geist.

If only.

She examined the latch, and then remembered to grab her pouch from the bag she had traveled in and put it on her belt. She removed a thin, pliant, copper bar, unlatched and opened the door quietly, then shut the door on the bar, bending it just right. She stepped out and closed the door, then slid the bent copper back through the space and twisted it until she relatched the door. The key lock on the door only worked from the outside--Asil would have told her that the innkeeper wanted guests to be safe, but not to lock themselves inside so that he could not get at them.

Jane was not going to doze in the room when she had a chance to see Morrow--a real city! Her mother had not wanted Jane to visit Morrow without her. Jane certainly did not enjoy being alone with Stefan, but when she had overheard her mother saying, “Stefan, he is a Son of Rovish! A little girl cannot help you with him,” Jane was dying to go.

She looked down the hallway. Something good was cooking in the kitchen. She had to return before Stefan woke or there would be trouble. But she first had to get out of the inn without attracting attention.

She was a boy for this visit, so she concentrated on the way that her brother and the other boys at their people’s camp acted. If she were a boy she would run screaming down the stairs and out through the door, but she might be stopped for misbehavior. She must be a well behaved boy. She thought that surely there were well behaved boys somewhere, though she had never seen any. What was the difference between a well behaved boy and a normal girl? She remembered the time her brother brought the baby rabbit that he had found back into the camp. She pasted on a grin and strutted down the stairs, past the innkeeper’s wife.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

World Building

I took a major step in developing the The Arch of Time fantasy universe in 1987. A new role playing game was released. I decided to create a supplement to the game--religious role playing.

The supplement had two parts. One part was counsel on using religion in role playing. Since role playing games are viewed negatively by some religious denominations, I advised players not to use gods that had ever been worshipped in earth's history. Game masters should create their own gods or use gods made from whole cloth, such as I provided in part two of the supplement.

My view was that if one used a god such as Cernunnos, the irate denominations would "demonize" the game, no matter that the players, in actuality, viewed the god as a prop and not as a deity that they revered. The denominations would draw parallels between that stag-horned god and another horned figure from their own religion.

Perhaps nothing could inoculate the role player from the charges of those who demonized anything beyond their scriptures. But in my view, it was prudent to do what one could to appeal to the reasonable end of the spectrum.

I further counseled players that the important aspect of using religion in role playing was that religion could enrich the game environment and the players' conceptions of the roles that they played. The precise amount of damage that Odin's spear does is irrelevant to the role play. So my emphasis was on building a fictional world, not on game mechanics.

The supplement also had to create specific abilities and rules for players of priest roles. In role playing games, the in-game physical struggle is somewhat important. The players want to defeat the enemy. Many games are set up so that the players battle a great many enemies in a playing session with no time to fully rest and recouperate in-between combats.

Games (including the game that I wrote the supplement for) traditionally used the priest class to heal wounds. Who/what the priest's god is like should affect the abilities of the priest, not just his outlook on the world.

As I looked over the set of myths that defined the gods in my supplement, I realized that few priests in my universe fulfilled their usual roles. Some priests would be warriors, skilled beyond human abilities. Some would be scholars who had some mental/esp/communications abilities. Some would have many abilities similar to elemental wizards, harnessing fire, for instance. But some priests would mostly heal.

This made my universe into a something that I had never seen in fiction--a fantasy world where some characters have abilities that work similarly to magic, but are religiously based. If I put magic in the hands of the gods, how would my literary universe work?

Do I know that this concept is unique? Of course not. How can one ever know that he has a unique literary creation, since no one has read everything. For instance, a couple of days after I patted myself on my back for creating an excellent name for a street in my city of Tistrin, I found that George R. R. Martin had the same street name in one of his novels. And GRRM may not have been the first to "invent" that name.

In any case, I enjoy exploring a world with wizard/warrior/scholar/mentalist/bezerker/ninja/healer priests.

If you want to explore, you can find excerpts of stories on my website. You can also find my cosmology there--the story of the gods.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Interesting Character Trait

Today I contemplated an interesting character quirk. This will be something fun to work with for future characters.

I am associated with a liar. He lies often. He gets caught in lies and usually tells new lies to cover the old lies. Sometimes, though, he gets undeniably caught in his lies.

He has a few interesting traits. First, he expects to be believed when he says anything, though he will admit that he has previously told many lies. "Yes, I lied all those times, but this time I am telling you the truth." Sometimes, of course, he is lying when he says that.

Second, he feels slighted if his lies are not believed when there is not sufficient evidence to strongly conclude that he is lying. That is, he might angrily say to himself, "How can they accuse me of lying about X when they do not truly have conclusive evidence that I am lying?" (though he is)

Third, if he has told 100 lies, but has been accused of lying 101 times, he is furious over the false accusation, even though he seems to understand that he has a bad track record.

Yes, it is frustrating to deal with this person. But this is an analytical post, in which I am marveling at his worldview, not fuming at him.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Raising the Stakes

I have not read enough by fiction writers about writing to find out what others feel their strengths and weaknesses are. Some things come naturally for me.

The plot is the essential thing for me. Keep the plot moving toward a climax.

I have a feel for the issues of control of the plot. Before I begin writing, I know the direction and the final destination. But I do not know each step and learn the way as I go. And sometimes I find a new direction and twist, but I always keep moving ahead.

The characters live for me. They feel unique with unique voices.

I have difficulty with two issues. I have discussed my difficulty with decisions about moving the plot ahead, vs. creating an atmosphere.

I also sometimes have difficulty with raising the stakes. Not only does the conflict have to take place. For much of the plot, the protagonist has to face difficulty in moving ahead. Sir Edmund Hillary does not just start at the bottom of the mountain, then execute a plan for climbing and make it to the top. Sir Edmund must sacrifice, suffer, face death, etcetcetc.

So after I write a few scenes, I often must then look into what I have written and say, "Are the stakes high enough for enough of these scenes?" Often I find that I have work to do.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

To Sleep, To Dream

It usually takes me three seconds to get to sleep. Occasionally, I have problems staying asleep. I have something that usually works well in getting me back to sleep, so that I seldom stay awake for long if I use my trick.

Before I found the solution, I would try lying there, counting sheep, trying not to think, reading, listening to music, watching television, eating something, and a million other things. What works for me is this. I always have a book on tape nearby with some comfortable headphones. For some reason, being read to generally puts me back to sleep, even if the book is interesting.

I often go to and download public domain recorded books to import into my iPod. A month ago I was listening to The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli and The Art of War, by Sun Tsu. Lately I have favored Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

This past month, the books have started to bleed into my dreams. Last night in my de Toqueville dreams, some friends were arguing with me about politics, one of them, in particular, favoring a weakened executive branch of government. I would have agreed with him if he had added weakened legislative and judicial branches to his wish list.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Writers collect interesting experiences and use them. I got some great ammunition today.

Julia and I were traveling in the area, discussing a family thing. We have different views of this "thing." I said, "I would like to tell you what I think about it. You can tell me how wrong I am. I will shut up. And that will be that. OK?"

So she told me what I thought about it, told me how wrong I was, and that was that.

What a character!

An hour or so later I made my proposal again and she agreed to actually let me tell her my view. So I told her my view. Then, oddly enough, she agreed with me. But I was driving, so I could not afford to faint.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


My idea for Nirvana Cat came from an advertisement that I saw on John Joseph Adams' blog. Adams advertised an issue of the magazine Shimmer that would contain steampunk fables involving animals.

For those who do not know, steampunk takes a pre-electrified 1800's setting and adds technologies or fantasy elements to it that were not originally there. For instance, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling tell the story of an 1800's mechanical (nonelectric) computer confronted by a primitive netrunner with the first virus--The Difference Engine.

I love nineteenth century fiction. Mostly I read mysteries and historical fiction set in that era. However, I did not like Shimmer's word count restrictions or compensation, so I decided that I would likely not submit. But I still wanted to write a story.

I started with John Stuart Mill, the economist who founded modern libertarian thought--the idea that if someone does an activity that does not materially harm anyone else, that he should be allowed to do the activity even if 99% of voters do not like the activity. I thought I build a moral conflict around this idea.

I researched Mill and found, to my surprise, that he was the Indian Correspondent for the British East India Company, the head policy maker for the company's rule of India. The British East India Company was a 250 years old! It ruled a country. This was cyberpunk, brought to life, in 1857.

In looking at some interesting years in Mill's life, I found that the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 in India ended the Mughal Empire and practically ended the company. Also, Mill's wife died shortly after this time. The only other piece that I wanted to find was a branch of science to exploit as a device to drive the story.

Wasn't Gregor Mendel doing research at about this time? Maybe he could produce a genetically engineered animal to wreak havoc. I found another excellent result. In 1857 Gregor Mendel was two years into his experimental breeding program on peas.

The stars were aligned.

Those are the pieces of the story. Picking these elements and deciding how they might be used took quite some time.

This was where the story came from. But this was just the place where the real research started!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Atmosphere, Point of View, Keeping the Plot Moving: A Modern Example

The problem that I referred to yesterday regarding atmosphere and point of view may be illustrated by considering what you would omit from your diary entries. Consider how someone who is not familiar with our modern world would interpret a typical day. Let's have someone from the Roman Empire read a line from your journal.

I woke up at 7:00 so I could drive to school for my first class.

How many things would you have to explain to give a full picture of this line to your Roman reader? Instead of a full narrative, just make a list. Any list I make will have holes in it, but here are a few things. Some of these concepts would have rough analogies, but would need further explanation. You might be able to picture the Roman reader asking one question after another, leading to the various concepts.

Modern reckoning of time
Alarm clocks
Electricity (the physics/chemistry)
Electric wiring of houses
Electric power generation using fossil fuels
Drilling for oil
Oil pipelines
Oil refining
Nuclear power
Solar power and alternative fuels (and current marketplace irrelevance)
Electric power wiring infrastructure of cities
The modern corporation
Public utility price regulation
Speed of automobiles
Combustion engine
Driver's licenses
Modern police
Assembly line techniques
Traffic system
Modern university education is specialized
Modern university education is for nearly everyone, not just a small percentage of extremely wealthy individuals
Mixed public/private financing of education
Modern social structure
Modern views of gender
Human capital theory. That is, most university education is sought in order to increase the individual's expected future income (it was not always this way)

I will stop there. You would not think to explain all these concepts in your journal. In fact, I could not competently explain them all. If you did take time out to explain them to your Roman reader, it would be clear that you were not telling a story as you would naturally tell it.

How would you explain any of these concepts? Some of the concepts have analogous concepts for our Roman reader--some don't. An automobile is like a big chariot, which uses a device to give it power (opening up all those questions). Electric wiring of houses and cities is like the aqueducts and public water distribution systems that some major Roman cities had--only for electrons (eesh!).

In fact, you may not understand many of these concepts. I do not have enough familiarity with physics to feel comfortable explaining how spinning a magnet inside a coil of wires generates electric power. Any physicist reading my last sentence is probably banging her head on her computer screen.

I feel more confident about explaining human capital theory vs. screening theory in education. That is, (human capital) does the university actually teach you things that make you more productive on the job? Or (screening) does the university just provide a difficult challenge that requires intellect, problem solving ability, and perseverance, so that students who can and will navigate the university maze and get a degree has shown that they will be good employees (though they learned nothing useful in the maze).

You can see that your Roman reader would need a great deal of explanation to get a full picture of what was really happening in your sentence. And if you provide these details, you won't tell much of a story. But if you change the time to "shortly after dawn" and change "drive" to "went," your Roman reader might have a clear (and terribly unrealistic) picture of what transpired and you can get on with your story.

Authors must satisfy themselves that they know enough about their world to tell others about it. Then they must tell enough so that the reader can understand the world without getting bogged down in the details. And the author's narrator (depending on the point of view that the author uses) must relate the important aspects of the world in a natural fashion.

My pet peeve involves modern writers who feel they have to describe every mundane traffic route from one location to another. "I took the 101 to the Santa Bozo Freeway until I was nearly to Plotzville. Then I drove west on highway 42 for five miles and took a dirt road until I saw a man standing beside the road with a sign that said, "Shut up. We don't care how you drive to work."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Atmosphere vs. Point of View in Fiction

Nirvana Cat, set in the year 1857, is told from the viewpoint of Vincent, a naïve Augustinian monk. Vincent lives in a relatively large city and, thus has an excellent understanding of city life in his time. He is accustomed to the fact that the streets are worse than stables, with horse and human waste deposited there day after day. He is accustomed to coal smoke from industry and from consumer use.

As author, I seek to transport the reader to Europe in 1857 to enjoy Vincent’s experiences as he tries to thwart a steampunk Muslim bioterror attack on the west. But I am limited by Vincent. He will not tell you, the reader, about many things that he considers to be commonplace. And, of course, he cannot tell you about things that he does not know or understand.

This tension between establishing an atmosphere and creating a viewpoint exists when fiction involves a world with which the reader is not familiar. Some atmospheric details can be slipped in quietly, but others are more difficult. The author has to be reconciled to the fact that the reader will not be able to learn everything about the setting and characters that the author knows.

Some of the many odds and ends about the setting and characters that were not revealed in the story follow.

1. A pickelhaub is the Prussian military helmet with the spike on top.
2. Most of India’s Mughal Emperors were extremely religiously tolerant. They were Muslims, but tolerated Hindus. The last Mughal Emperor even took part in Hindu ceremonies when it was permitted and entertained Hindu philosophers at court.
3. There was tension between the Mughal Emperor and a class of Muslims in India, who felt that the emperor’s religious toleration was not in accordance with the Koran.
4. John Stuart Mill, the most prominent economist of the era, formulated our modern conception of libertarianism. That is, I should be allowed to take actions that do not materially harm anyone, even if 99% of voters think my actions are “bad.”
5. Some scholars suspect that Gregor Mendel, the monk revered as the father of modern genetics, fudged his experimental results so as to obtain the precise results that he thought were correct. This takes nothing away from Mendel’s conclusions.
6. Brunn, Austria was eventually to become Brno, Czechoslovakia.
7. Children were often born and raised by mothers housed in London’s Newgate prison.
8. By the time the Mughal Empire ended, when the British crushed the Sepoy rebellion, the emperor only ruled one large compound of buildings in India.
9. The Brunn monestary in 1857 was the only Augustinian abbey; the rest were priories.
10. The British East India Company was created in 1600 and dissolved in 1874. Good luck, Bill Gates.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Evil in Fiction

I was prepared to write the end of Furnace Angel. I had a general idea of how to I wanted to resolve the plot. But as I looked at the story and considered the resolution, I realized that the ending was not going to deliver a modern horror story. People with subscriptions to horror magazines demand a resolution that is unsettling--one that makes me queasy.

So I twisted the ending into one that made me queasy. The ending was EVIL.

It was so evil that I did not know if I could live with it. That presented me with the question, "Will John Arkwright write horror?" I thought about it quite a bit. I could try to change the ending. There might be even more horrific endings that I could live with. I contemplated other endings.

My problem was resolved in Sunday school. Some verses in Isaiah discuss "calling good, 'evil' and calling evil, 'good.'" I mentioned my story ending in class. Before I knew it, I put forth a point from an Orson Scott Card essay.

Evil enters fiction in three ways.

Fiction can depict evil. The scriptures depict plenty of evil. And a great deal of conflict in fiction portrays someone who is a bad guy. In order to see good triumph, we must see evil. In order to teach someone how to behave, one often has to also teach them how not to behave.

Fiction can advocate evil. Not only does evil happen in the story, but the evil outcome is the "right" outcome from the writer's point of view.

Fiction can enact evil. Child erotica is evil on its face.

That gave me a good standard for the horror story. Furnace Angel certainly does not enact evil. I have to make sure that Furnace Angel does not advocate evil. I may change the ending. I may not. I have more thinking to do. But now I have my standard. Thank you, Uncle Orson.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Furnace Angel

Cameraman Dan Held plans to quit his job after one last taping. The pay and workload are fine, but watching as Barrett Feldhaus glibly exposes the worst in humanity has worn Dan down.

Then one of the show's targets arrives early. The crew knew the emaciated hick only as his chatroom persona, Furnace Angel. Before long, Dan is unsure if he will survive the night.

-- “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” --Matthew 13: 49-50

My new short story

Friday, March 7, 2008

My Writing Group

My writing group met today for the first time. The members have different needs and skills. One of the members of my subgroup is a technology goddess at the university. Through her, have access to excellent recording equipment and software, as well as the ability to post audio feeds. I want to record audiobook short stories.

The highlight of the meeting was when B. J., our fearless leader, said, "I know people have been introducing themselves, but I'd like everybody to introduce themselves in order because I'm anal."

To which another group member replied, "I thought you were B. J."

There is a joke in that somewhere.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Killing Words (Excerpt)

Many were faint yellow, a few were black, some were green, but the dark blue ones were the freshest. After she shed her nightclothes, Riva inspected her bruises in the dawning light of her cell. This morning there was a scrape where her breasts were beginning to form. Soon her second winter in the Order of Jair would begin and the cold would hurt when she opened the shutters to examine her wounds.

A fist pounded on the door and Lehr said, “Riva, bring steel today. You’re battling another apprentice.”

A blade of fear ran though her stomach. “I’m near ready.” She was nowhere near ready.

She dressed quickly, barely remembering to loop the thick chain over her head and center the iron key on her chainmail tunic, where she had once worn the doll made from rabbit skin on the tether that her father made.When she opened the door Lehr must have sensed something wrong. He said, “Guardian Zan said you’ve used steel all week.”

“Just against him, and he won’t cut me.”

“Don’t worry.” That was what Lehr always said; fourteen year-olds thought they knew everything.

She whispered, “Please, you have to tell how not to get hurt.”“You know I can’t. Guardian Zan and the other priests won’t let me. There is a reason.”

“Lehr, please.” Riva hated to beg.

Lehr lowered his voice so the apprentices in the hallway would not hear. “Little sister, it’s just like I’ve told you with wooden swords; land more blows and you won’t take many. Think about cutting, not about being cut.”

When he called her “little sister” it made her heart ache--in a good way because she wished he was her brother, but in a bad way because he was not really her brother. But Lehr did not have a family anywhere, so she would never tell him to stop calling her “sister.”

Riva trudged along with Lehr on the way to breakfast and morning prayers.

Riva’s knees shook inside her chain mail leggings as she looked across the training room at the grinning apprentice. This room was too bright, though only lamps illuminated the plain square chamber, ten steps for a girl, corner to corner. Were the brown rust floor and lower walls dyed by blood? Tears formed in her eyes as she told Lehr, “I can’t do it.” Lehr looked at Riva just like Ma used to when Ma said stuff like, “I’m so proud of ya’ girl.” Wanting Ma made Riva feel even more like a baby.

Lehr said calmly, “You will do it. You’re twelve. You’re ready for steel. You’ve trained with steel against Zan.”

Riva whispered, “It was just practice. This is real. I’m going to bleed.”

“Training, Riva. Cut! You’re just an apprentice, but you have more of the God’s strength than any adept I’ve fought.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true! Focus.”

“Oh, my prayers,” she said, ashamed that she had forgot. When she breathed deeply, gripped her key, and said the prayer to call the God’s strength, she felt the warmth flow through her fingers and hands, tingle up her wrists and arms, and then spread across her chest and down to every part of her, enlivening muscle, bone, and sinew. Jair’s strength would not keep her from getting cut, though, so her knees kept shaking.

She blessed her sword and fumbled it back into the scabbard. Last of all, she prayed for focus, but focus did not come. She would have to be calm--neither angry, nor heartbroken, nor laughing--for the God to give her the focus which would make her sword as quick as her thoughts. She would die here and it would hurt.

Her opponent, Bartol, and his adept mentor stood at Guardian Zan’s feet and listened to the tall priest, giving short answers.

She was the only girl in the Temple of Jair. Boys were never afraid. They were too confident, like Lehr was now. Riva knew that the other adepts taunted Lehr because his trainee was a girl, but he did not seem to care. He bumped his fist against her shoulder and said, “Finish him quickly, little sister, so we can go hear the minstrel that arrived during prayers.”

Guardian Zan finished with the two boys and stepped over to Riva and Lehr. Riva tried to slow her breathing. She did not want to sob like a baby; she wanted Zan to like her. He was the kindest priest to her since he brought her to the temple two years ago. He was her father’s friend; but unlike her father, he would not tell her stories about when he was a tanner’s son or joke with her about how many children she would one day have or tickle her.

Zan put his mailed glove on her shoulder. “Are you prepared, Apprentice Riva?” His old voice sounded sweet as always.

“I’m not ready,” she whispered.

Lehr murmured, “She’s ready, Guardian.”

Riva shook her head and said, “I’m scared. I don’t have the focus.”

Zan knelt in front of her. She really wanted a hug. The priest said, “What would help you prepare?”

“I don’t know. Nothing would.”

Zan said, “If nothing would help you prepare, then you are as prepared as you will ever be. This is a lesson in combat. This is a lesson in pain. This is a lesson in death.”

Cool tears dried on her face. “If I die, how can I serve the God?”Zan smiled. “That lesson will come later.”

She clenched her jaw so that her face would not contort into hopeless crying. “You don’t care. The God doesn’t care.” Her opponent had probably heard her that time.

Zan stood and said, “Jair guard you.”

“And you,” she squeaked back automatically.

Zan walked to an empty corner and stood against the stone wall. He chided, “Adepts. We will stand here.”

She barely heard Lehr say, “Sorry,” as they walked over to Zan. She swallowed and looked over at Bartol, the boy she would battle. He was in ready stance with his glove resting on the hilt of his sword. Her knees shook less than before. It would happen. She closed her eyes and repeated the prayer of focus. She felt a little of the God’s influence meld her mind to her body; but she did not feel the certainty that came from true focus. When she opened her eyes Bartol grinned at her. He was laughing inside. A tickle of anger started in the back of her skull. But no. She must not give in to anger and lose whatever focus the God had given her.

She hoped that Guardian Zan would take some time to teach them a lesson before the battle, but he just said, “Begin.”