Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Writing hell


You carefully crafted a post about writing query letters and ONE SLIP OF THE KEYBOARD deleted it. Poof.


 Tune in next time for... something. I'll try to re-write it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I have lost my mind


Yes, I signed up. The link list is growing here -- go sign up if you dare! I'm #124.

I'm thinking of doing an alphabet's worth of world-building and non-fiction reference. I'm also thinking I will start on these ahead of time. I've got two months to come up with something for Q and X...

See you in April!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book report: Deep Survival

Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales, uses a number of grueling survival tales to explain a handful of character traits that are shared by people who are thrown into the rawest of survival situations -- and survive.

In short, these qualities are: accepting the situation, remaining calm, doing what they can to survive (big bonus for knowing what to do and having the equipment, but not required), and hanging on to hope. Gonzales describes more nuances as well, but that's the basics.

He goes into why those things are so difficult to do, which is in itself a fascinating question with both biological and psychological roots. He also points out that there's nothing new to these qualities either -- they are mentioned as the best way to survive disaster in sources as diverse as the Tao Te Ching and the Stoic philosophers of classical Greece.

And yet statistically, most of the human population does not seem able to do these things when presented with serious challenges like being stranded in the wilderness, clinging to ship wreckage, or trying to get out of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

If I were critting this book, I might say that Gonzales wanders a bit in the narrative and maybe he could present his points in a more structured way -- but really, these things don't detract from the readability of the book. They're just me being picky. His style is easy to read and his points ring true. And he does sum it all up neatly in the appendix as a series of numbered points.

He's also persuaded me that I probably ought to read All Quiet on the Western Front. Though I'm guessing it's a harrowing read.

If you're going to put your characters in grim situations (not that any of us do that, of course) I heartily recommend this book. I'm going to be revising parts of my fantasy monstrosity with this in mind.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book report: Six Medieval Men & Women

I haven't done a book report in months. In the spirit of this being a world-building-heavy blog, I'll talk about this one, though.

Six Medieval Men & Women, by H.S. Bennett, is a collection of information originally presented in university lectures during the 1950s. At the University College of Wales, for what that's worth. This isn't an easy book to find -- I got mine through Paperbackswap.com.

The book presents daily-life information about four men and two women living the late-14th to early-15th century, all in England. It was all gleaned from official records, letters and other sources.

When I heard of it, someone was describing it as dry and sort of dull. I've read worse, to be honest. It's not that difficult to get through, and of course I wish there was more personal detail about the people described but there's enough here to get me thinking.

He starts with the Duke of Gloucester, about whom there is the most information. However, he's the least interesting to me. I found the portrait of Thomas Hoccleve, scribe, minor functionary, and part-time poet, more interesting. Maybe because his travails sound familiar. :)

The sketch of Margery Kempe, who was described as a "minor mystic" was also intriguing -- "minor mystic" being a polite term for a pious (and/or mentally troubled) lady of modest means who led a rather gypsy life. And the most interesting, but also shortest, is the account of one Richard Bradwater who was an ordinary farmer that spent most of his time getting into arguments with his neighbors and filling up the local court records with the results of those disagreements.

These are only glimpses into a very different world from ours, but there are also clear parallels. The little excerpt where Hoccleve complains about his day job sounds far too familiar. Writers have been trying to cram their art in next to their "real life" for centuries.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On using all that world-building...

I've been posting about world-building a lot, and I've recently been thinking about another aspect of it: what the readers want from the writer. Because as we know, only the tip of your world-building iceberg actually appears in your story...

How much of the iceberg do YOU want?
I've gotten a huge amount of feedback on Course Corrections. Three people read the first draft. The first two chapters and the outline were workshopped at VP. Four people read the second draft. I've got two, maybe three lined up for the third -- I can't believe my luck in this, to be honest. I've been writing for a long, long time but getting a variety of feedback is new for me.

Of the seven who've read the whole manuscript so far, they've shaken out into an interesting bell curve. At one end, confusion due to insufficient info-dumps. At the other, the assertion that the info-dumps are just fine and shouldn't be touched. In the middle, people pointing out a few unclear areas and saying the world-building might actually be slowing the story down a little.

So I've been trying to synthesize a consensus. A fellow Viable Paradise graduate pointed out that everybody has different expectations when it comes to world-building, and I've spent a couple days unpacking that thought.

I think of myself as an easy-going reader most of the time. I'm willing to wait for explanations or just accept that we're doing this because this is how we do things -- up to a point. If we're riding cool motorcycles without helmets, you don't need to explain that to me. If we're killing kittens and puppies, I'm going to need a heck of a good reason.

Obviously, other people are going to want more. Some people want it explained right now. Others  have different priorities when it comes to information. I'm biased toward science and technical details, personally. Relationship histories are okay, but not my top priority to find out about in a story. I like anthropology and sociology, if it's relevant. A lot of people talk about sounds, smells, other sensory data but to be honest...? They're distinctly secondary for me.

My writing is biased by my priorities, of course. And it's an easy guess that people with similar preferences will find my writing enjoyable. The struggle is to find your balance between what you think is a reasonable amount of info and the sum of what all your readers want, I suppose.

What sorts of things do you most want the writer to tell you about?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Demons between the lines

I've admitted before that I send my characters to face my personal demons. They do my fighting for me, to convince me that it can be done. I try to set things up so my characters charge into the fight of their own free will, but sometimes it's more like this Frazetta painting here.

Course Corrections is an adventure -- a caper, even. I wanted it to be exciting and fun. I was inspired a lot by Ocean's Eleven and the story of a ballsy rescue of Irish independence fighters who were imprisoned in Australia.

Surely there are no demons being fought here?

Maggie instigates this caper because she wants to rescue her cousin. She thinks she needs him back to support her as a leader, but by the time she actually pulls this off she's quite capable without him. I didn't tell Maggie that, mind you, but that was my plan.

...so rescuing people is a personal demon? No. It was Maggie's growing into a confident leader that I needed. In person, I'm not leadership material. But on paper, I'm reaching out to readers and saying Come on, this will be fun and interesting and I won't let you down.

Self-confidence? That's a demon of mine. Maggie pulled off her caper by working hard, assembling a good team, taking risks and applying a mix of trust and discipline to the team. It was kind of like writing a book, actually. I put together a good ensemble of characters, took a risk on a plot twist and when it started to blow up I let go of the reins and trusted my characters to find their way. I've applied some discipline through revisions to keep them focused and tighten up the tension.

Maybe I did learn something from Maggie. This's why I call my writing self-therapy. 

That was an easy demon-between-the-lines to talk about. I did chain one character down and spring a demon on him, in Course Corrections, but that one is a lot more personal.

What did you bury between the lines of your story?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Worldbuilding: Therapy

O my droogies, 'tis time for a little of the ultraviolence.

And then to fix those antisocial tendencies. Or at least the memories of past trauma that are contributing to your antisocial tendencies.

Memory is unreliable, memory is malleable, false memories can be put into your head and real memories get over-written all the time. Memories of past traumas shape our behavior in conscious and sub-conscious ways -- better known as "once bitten, twice shy" in milder cases, PTSD in more severe cases.

That's a vast over-simplification, of course. Psychology has known about that for a long time. And science fiction has known about it for a long time too -- from Brave New World on down, there are plenty of stories about different ways to control human behavior for whatever reasons you care to give. Some use drugs, some use violence, some use persuasion, some aim to make the world safer and some aim to take control of the world.

There's an underlying sameness to everybody, in those stories. The worst kind of equality, for me -- mashing everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Stories of enforced conformity always hit a chord in me, always incite a stubborn belief that I have a right to be my own slightly damaged, social-fringe-seeking self, misery and all. Thus, it turns up in my science fiction.

Brain scanning has given us an unprecedented ability to watch the brain go about its business in real time, and the mapping of all our brain's activities is currently underway. Our understanding of the biochemistry going on in there is improving too, and now that we can more directly see what's going on in there I expect that pharmaceuticals will become much more targeted and effective.

Well, there's your problem
I did a little homework on it too. It's fascinating what they're already figuring out. This is an even more recent article than the ones I was reading. If you're brave, this is the abstract to a paper that doctor was involved in. Let me try to translate it a bit: they gave a drug to people soon after a traumatic experience, and later monitored their physical reaction to memories of the event. Those who'd gotten the drug had significantly lower physical reactions to remembering the trauma. What physical reactions? The physical indicators of fear, essentially.

So if you can reduce the fear people feel when an old, buried trauma gooses them... would that keep a guy from throwing the first punch and let him try talking his way out of a fight instead? 

Combine that with the idea of reconditioning that was used so well in A Clockwork Orange,  re-wrap it in targeted, branded pharmaceuticals and active brain scanning, and then smile and say "This is for your own good, dear," as you tighten the patient's restraints.

Gives me chills. You?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Worldbuilding: Corsets

Yes, this is a science fiction world-building post. Some of my beta readers have asked what's with the corsets? Why are the women wearing corsets?

They usually mention steampunk in the same breath and yes, there is some of that in there -- I remember the birth of the genre and how, sadly, it seemed to be dead on arrival. I started working on this universe long before steampunk's resurrection, you see...

But I put my women in corsets for a practical reason. Not simply aesthetics.

It grew out of the homework I did on the effects of sustained acceleration on the human body. I needed an idea of what kinds of gees (multiples of Earth-normal "gravity") my space travelers could reasonably be enduring on a regular basis. The problem with space is, of course, that it's so big and you need big speeds to get anyplace in a reasonable amount of time and getting to big speeds is a big problem because humans are soft and squishy (relatively speaking.)

You can only accelerate so fast before you start hurting people. Most people black out at five gees. Trained fighter pilots in special suits can manage to function at nine gees. The experts seem to agree that a sustained 50 gees will be fatal.

Part of the problem is that humans are not uniformly squishy. We have bones and muscles and organs, and they all behave differently under heavy accelerations. I read a bit about various organs getting pushed around and how the ribcage is a problem because of the hollow lungs inside.

Being female, I couldn't help wondering what happens to those two lumps of fat stuck on the outside of my chest. You know, the pair the guys are so fond of (not the one on my stomach.) Being 40 now, I know what the long term effects of just one gee are on those lumps. What would ten years of pulling five or ten gees on a regular basis do?

If only the girls could get some industrial strength support...

You're going to want more
 coverage than this, even, 
for maximum support

Get yourself some smart fabric that can detect angles of pressure and adjust its elasticity and lines of resistance accordingly, then build a couple full-coverage cups so that you're covered in all directions. If you're small-chested, you could probably get away with just a bra. If you're big-chested, you'll probably want to distribute the weight of those boobs over a larger area -- thus, you extend the corset down to your waist so that the fabric can do that. 

Maybe you need a little processing power built in to handle the calculations and to design the best support structure on the fly. Heck, bluetooth it so it can talk to the ship's navigation computer.

Then add some lace, satin, rivets, buckles and straps, whatever floats your boat. I'm putting a zipper in the front for easy on and off.

That would be the heavy-gee corset that I mention in my stories. I figured that once corsets were back in real use, they'd become more popular as lingerie items that didn't have much to do with support. They come and go from popularity now, for that matter, so it didn't seem like much of a stretch.

If it sounds like a lot for just a pair of boobs... dumber things have been done to look good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In transition

Unlike NASA, I am still sending people into space.
I'm putting aside my fantasy outlining and returning to space to work on my hard scifi novel(s). This always takes some mental recalibration. Switching from English to Metric (ha!) as it were...

(Actually, that's true. My fantasy uses feet/pounds and my science fiction uses meters/...well, I generally tried to avoid specifying units. I managed to go 140k words without specifying a unit of currency, though I'm not entirely sure why. I just didn't want to get into that whole thing.)

The major adjustment is, actually, in voice. My science fiction tends to come out tight and sparse on the details -- maybe a little too sparse. My betas poke me for more. For some reason, I'm more reluctant to talk about world-building and description in science fiction. I want to get to the action, the explosions, the cool stuff.

In fantasy, I always have the feeling of OMG SHUT UP AND DO SOMETHING because my characters are less inclined to LISTEN TO ME. (Kiefan's "bad idea" from a few weeks back? Totally worked. Listen to your characters.)

But then again, I'm not getting many confusion complaints on the fantasy. Hmm.

Anyway, I was trying to hack together a post about voice and it wasn't working. I will get back to it. Maybe I will do some more world-building posts for science fiction. Your comments would be extremely influential on that, you quiet people out there. :)

On a somewhat related note, if you're writing fantasy you may be interested in the Magic Appreciation Tour proposed by Daniel Marvello. I have a long way to go on my fantasy monstrosity, but I'm interested. Maybe something similar could be done for science fiction.

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