Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Online personality tests

Over on The Blog That Helps You Diagnose Your Characters (which I read, because I do diagnose my characters) there was a link posted to an online personality test -- it's a version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, which is a handy link to have.

IMO, the best way to develop characters is to talk to them, carry them around in your head all day, make them do things, let them argue with me, and most importantly write about them... personality tests like this are handy as feedback on how well fleshed out they are (how much pondering it takes to figure out the character's answers clues me in to that) and to get additional insights/ideas about them.

And their relationships. 41Q is interesting in that it will let you compare two profiles once you've created them, so I did that for my trio of characters in Disciple -- yeah, it's another love triangle, how un-original -- and was intrigued by what came up.

Kate's profile

Kate comes up as an ISTJ, which is one letter off how I test in these things. That isn't too surprising, as the line between me and Kate has always been a bit blurry and I probably identify with her way too much. Other characters grow away from me more.

One might think this makes Kate an easy character for me to write, but I find myself second-guessing a lot. As well as pushing her away from me and encouraging her to be herself. Not me. (Though all characters are, in essence, a piece of yourself... writers are vast, they contain multitudes... that's a whole different blog post, though.)

Prince Kiefan's profile

Kiefan diverges a bit more: ESTJ. Two letters off me; this is a good thing. The description they give here is pretty close to how he's developed in my head. He's good prince material, just throw in "handsome," "likes to read," and "handy with swords" and... a few flaws, so he isn't too perfect. I've tried to keep him skating along the edge of arrogance and possessiveness.  

At first glance, it's pretty obvious that Kate and Kiefan have a lot of personality traits in common. They fell for each other pretty quickly on that basis.

What 41Q says about their relationship (edited down a bit):

Your relationship type: "Invalidation"
The state of invalidation cannot survive as a romance unless one partner is willing to take a subordinate position. One will be a stronger personality and will transmit orders to the other. The second partner is the receiver and is expected to carry out the orders. [...] This works out as a good romance and long-standing relationship if (one of them) accepts being subordinate in return for being supported and protected. [...] Each partner in this relationship is playing a role that benefits both of them. If both are satisfied, invalidation may remain a workable relationship and last through life.

The amusing part here is that I read this the morning after Kate and Kiefan first butted heads. It didn't turn into a big disagreement, but it could have. I hadn't planned for it to happen, either, they were just going with the sketched scene and Kiefan said one thing, Kate said no and... well, I guess now we know where the honeymoon ended.

How will this influence their relationship in the longer run? Could they escalate to some sort of emotional nuclear war? (Well, sure they could. There are some potential hot buttons on hand.) How will that impact the other aspects of my plot -- the kingdom's war, their personal development?

Tune in on Thursday for the third point in the triangle.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sex and realism

The Word-Whores topic of the week is writing about sex, and Wednesday's post "Nobody Farts During Sex" both amused me and caused some eye-rolling.

I've written sexually explicit scenes. I've written erotica too (well, I tried at least.) My characters all know that off-stage, non-canon hijinks are encouraged and getting slashed is an occupational hazard when you're starring in one of my stories.

It's not sex that's at issue with me, in "Nobody Farts." It's the intentional avoidance of reality. Farts happen, as do wet spots, sudden muscle cramps, and discovering unfortunate patches of acne/hair/moles/birthmarks/regrettable tattoos/etc. I'm sure we all could think of situations where any of those things could be used in a sexual scene to build character, charm and amuse the reader, or deliberately derail the scene to create tension.

And if you're mentally cringing... why?

Let me step back a moment. It's not for me to tell anybody how to go about their writing. I'm sure my bias is pretty obvious to anyone who follows this blog -- I take both physical and emotional realism very seriously. I strive to include those awkward details and situations because they're true and they can be just as important to the story as anything else.

Do I throw in awkward details just for the hell of it? No. Everything has its place and every place has something.

I was influenced, in this, by John Gardner's book The Art of Fiction -- about which I will write a post for the A to Z challenge in April, so I will only mention it briefly here. In the back of the book are a list of exercises which range from challenging to massively intimidating, and the one that came to my mind immediately upon reading the "Nobody Farts" post was #24:

Without an instant's lapse of taste, describe a person (a) going to the bathroom, (b) vomiting, (c) murdering a child.

Confession: I haven't written that exercise. When I first read it (as a teen), merely thinking about it was enough to rip my horizons open rather painfully. Twenty-mumble years later, I don't doubt that I could do all three of those if (a) it's what the character did and (b) the reader needed to see it in order to understand the story.

There are big questions there about Art and What Art Means To The Artist as well as The Viewer... and again, it's not my place to tell anybody those things about their own art. I can only speak for myself. I only hope to get your brain burbling about it.

And I would not hesitate to inflict farts, wet spots, or bacne on my characters -- they knew what they signed on for. The horny little buggers deserve it, practically.

Funny how quickly one can go from "farts" to "what does it all MEAN???" isn't it. :)

See also my musings on the "why" of erotica in general.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Plotter FAIL!

I generally consider myself a plotter. I don't start writing until I have a beginning-to-end outline that sketches all of the major steps in all of the plots and how they intertwine. Usually I have a good idea what the minor steps are, too.

For Disciple, those plots include: the background action (a war the kingdom is fighting), which my MC might or might not be able to directly affect; my MC's personal progress along two tracks (developing her magical powers and the romance arc); and the progress of the two co-MCs along those same tracks (their part in the war, their own magical development, and their involvement in the romance arc). There are a few secondary characters who warrant mention in the master outline too.

It sounds like a lot when you lay it out that way, but when you braid them together they take up less space... mentally, anyway. And honestly, I need to outline all that because I'm a flake at heart. My characters are constantly distracting me by goofing around, charging off on tangents and mugging for the camera.

From my master outline, I write more outlines on a scene by scene basis. These aren't formal things, they're more like sequential notes: here's where we start, point A, point B, here's where we end. Notes on what people want, what the conflicts are, any important points about the setting and who is there, If a conversation is especially important/complicated, I might have the dialogue sketched.

Scene outlines get shuffled all the time, sometimes on the fly as I'm writing the scene because the characters decide to take a slightly different tack. No big deal. I roll with it.

But I don't usually get to a point, look at the next major point in the master outline and think "Oh crap -- how am I going to do that?"

A little shift here, a little shift there, and eventually the pieces are simply out of place for the next major event in the siege to create the situation in which a very important conversation was supposed to happen. And we've got to have that important conversation before the third (and final, since three is a magic number) disaster so that the right emotions are in play.

So I buckled down for some brainstorming, which meant finding an appropriate soundtrack and juggling chainsaws for a while. I think I've got a reasonable bridge from the second major military disaster to the third, and I'd like to thank Celldweller for being such a reliable inducer of testosterone poisoning.

This playlist induced a lot of snippets of violence: brutal sword fights, cavalry charges down narrow streets, bloody-clawed monsters, trebuchets cranking off shots, stone walls exploding... good times. 

Caution: there's some loud dubstep in here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Worldbuilding: Urban warfare

This is actually a continuation of my previous post about sieges. My fantasy monstrosity contains a siege, and yes in a sense I am skipping over posts I could write about siege engines, battering rams and such -- but that information is easy enough to find, people are generally aware of them, and it's really just a question of what's appropriate for your technology level and dramatic needs.

There's an aspect of sieges that one rarely sees in fantasy: urban warfare. Or, at least, I haven't seen much. (recommendations?) Even personal-level fantasy warfare on a battlefield can be difficult to find -- warfare, that is, as in organized group fighting. I heartily recommend Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles for its close-up view of first-millennium-AD warfare if you're looking too. He puts you right in the shield wall with his MC.

One can find resources about urban warfare online with a little work. It's all modern urban warfare, of course, where hand-to-hand combat is far less common. Those principles will still apply whenever archers are available, but that still leaves the question of your average medieval-based fantasy soldier who's carrying around a sword or a spear and a shield.

Briefly, the range-weapon urban warfare skills to keep in mind are:
  • Stay under cover as much as possible. Out of sight, essentially -- don't be a target to shoot at.
  • Move fast when you must cross open spaces. This includes knowing where you're going and where any obstacles may be.
  • Be alert! Watch for lines of fire, especially from above, double check everything, and be paranoid.
Which leaves the question of how small groups of soldiers armed with hand-to-hand weapons set about securing (or defending) a city on a street-by-street basis. The closest equivalent I've found thus far is the techniques that riot police use to try breaking up masses of people -- and they are using some ancient techniques.

Questions of squad size will come into play, but these techniques can be adapted to small groups of men in potentially tight spaces.

Shield wall
Shield wall: Present the enemy with a line of overlapped shields and get into a shoving match while trying to stab through the enemy's shield wall. Losing even a few men in the wall can cause the whole thing to collapse. When the Romans were doing this, the second row of men would lay their shields over the heads of the first row for added protection -- could be useful if there are archers on rooftops. The second line also adds to the pushing match, so the questions become: who has more men, who's stronger, who gets in a few lucky stabs first.

Flying wedge
Flying wedge: As an alternative to the shield wall shoving match, a group of soldiers can charge the wall in a wedge formation. The force of impact can give the attackers enough of a break to get their stabs in and collapse the wall.

Weak center: This might not work in a narrow side street, I think, but perhaps on a wide street or in a square. The center of the shield line, here, is deliberately "weak" and falls back when the enemy presses in. Being eager, the enemy keeps pressing and the overlap of their shields loosens up. The men to either side of the weak center can attack into the gaps, or even swing around completely and stab the enemy in the back.

In combination with the range-weapon tactics mentioned above, this should make for an interesting part of the story. Though by "interesting" I mean "brutal, messy and scary" of course. And what would happen if I throw half a dozen knights on horseback into the mix?

Have you ever researched small-group fighting tactics? I haven't had a chance to mention the military references I found on I, Clausewitz's blog -- this is my chance, I guess. Recommendations and references welcome, as always!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Other than romance

Valentine's Day always brings out a lot of talk about romance. Modern Western culture puts a lot of stock in love and romance -- mainly the endorphin-inducing sort, though the comfortable, long-term bonds of life partners get some recognition too.

Modern Western culture puts love first on the list of reasons to spend a lifetime with somebody. Other cultures do not. I'm not intending to say one way is "right" or even "better" in the following thoughts -- for those of us building cultures from scratch, it's good to step back and look at other ways of doing things. Especially things that we take for granted the way most of us take the importance of romantic love for granted.

Some other factors that people consider when choosing a life partner:

Money. This includes financial opportunities and other considerations that one's culture expects one to offer to one's life partner. Or the blood kin of one's life partner -- nepotism, to put it simply, which can turn out well or badly. Usually, this takes the form of business connections or an impressive investment portfolio, but it can include social networking and standard-of-living expectations. How much weight does your story's culture put on financial advantages in a marriage?

Children. The expectations that are put on children varies widely from culture to culture. What one's partner can offer one's children -- whether it's genetics, inheritance, or skills -- can have a big impact on the child's ability to fulfill those expectations. One intriguing, unfamiliar concept I've come across in my research is the (royal) child as the physical embodiment of a peace treaty (for example) between two nations. What if this physical symbol of unity were generated as needed, rather than within a life-long marriage? What symbolic importance could be put on the health and/or well-being of such a child?

Built in here is an assumption that there will be children. Which casts infertility in a different light. Historically, that's been blamed on the woman in the equation but what if a culture were more discerning?

Safety. This includes physical safety, traditionally the male's responsibility, and social safety which tends to lean on the female a bit more (depending on the culture, it might be mostly her job). What if these were switched?

Emotional validation. Humans need relationships without fear of rejection, they need to express themselves and be agreed with. Modern Western society has put one's partner as a primary source of that. In other times, other places, that role was taken by one's best friends or close relatives. Or, perhaps, lovers -- secret or otherwise. How would marriages be different if one expected one's most intimate emotional relationship to be with one's siblings? cousins?

Sex. Modern Western society does a lot of hyperventilating about the emotional power of sex -- and it's true, it can be powerful stuff. It can also be merely pleasant, kinda boring, and it can be downright awful. What if some other activity drew the kind of obsessive fascination (and simultaneous inhibition, if you're American) that our culture invests in sex?

I'd like to shout out to Darker Radio (the recent "Free Music Friday" band Voyvoda in particular) for supplying me with a gloomy alt-rock soundtrack while I wrote this (LOL!) Yes, Darker Radio's page is in German and no, I do not sprecken the Deutsch. The bands they feature come from all over, though.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The physiology of panic

Panicking. Losing it. Going apeshit. The movies make it look easy.

It's generally charted against a measure of one's pulse in beats per minute -- as a person passes from calmness to alertness to fight-or-flight to blind panic, the heartbeat rises from 60 or 80 beats per minute up to... well, the chart I'm looking at tops off at 220.

The chart I'm looking at appears in On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. It's a highly informative look at the physical and psychological effects of combat and I'm working my way through it just barely in time for the part of the story I'm working on.

In the meantime, what you rarely see depicted accurately in movies or on TV includes:
  • Progressive loss of motor control until one is only capable of the most general behaviors (running, bashing things.) 
  • Loss of perception: selective deafness or complete loss of hearing, tunnel vision, pain immunity.
  • Changing color. People tend to go red in the face as the capillaries dilate to provide lots of blood, and then as they panic further they turn white because the capillaries constrict to reduce bleeding in case of injury.
  • Loss of rationality. Your frontal lobe gets over-ruled by the emotions -- which are rooted in the mid-brain. Emotions, which include your animal instincts, are older than rational thought (biologically speaking) and in a sense "know more" about keeping you alive than rationality does. This doesn't always work out, of course...
  • If there's something in your bladder or your lower intestine, ditch it. Nobody likes to talk about this, of course. Everyone thinks it indicates cowardice, but it has nothing to do with that. What we're actually laughing at, when someone pisses his pants in fear, is that he is panicking "too much" for what is considered appropriate in the situation. As if there is a master list, somewhere, of what the "appropriate" level of panic is for every possible situation. If someone knows where this list is, please let me know.

Admittedly, you do see these in the better war movies (Saving Private Ryan, etc.) On television, not so much.

Grossman notes that the range between losing your fine motor skills and losing your complex motor skills (115-145 beats per minute) is considered the optimal alertness state for fighters -- with a little training on how to manage the adrenaline. With extensive training, people can continue to function as they get into ranges where most people have frozen up or run away. People may not be able to do anything they haven't been trained on, which is why soldiers learn so many drills, but it's a valid way to keep them alive.

After the danger's passed, there's the after-effects to deal with. If it was a short crisis (while chasing a suspect, say) the adrenaline rush is going to keep the person jacked up for some time yet. If it was a long day of fighting (such as soldiers face) then the adrenaline crash will plunge the person into exhaustion.

Certain of my characters will be experiencing a full range of heartbeat levels (evil grin.) What have you subjected yours to, recently?

I also blogged about Grossman's excellent On Killing here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing hell: the query

Cram, cram, cram. It will fit.
A query letter is even shorter than a synopsis -- 250 words for the whole thing, preferably shorter. First, a recap of the four questions I ask myself before writing a synopsis:

1. Whose story is this? What is the story?
2. What is your inciting incident?
3. What is your climax?
4. What are the major events that got us from the inciting incident to the climax?

You will need #1, #2 and #4 for writing your query. Maybe #3, maybe not. The goal of a query letter is to intrigue the reader enough to want to see more. To do that, you need to write something that communicates the following:

This is an INTERESTING CHARACTER (see #1) with a SERIOUS PROBLEM (#1 and #2) that he or she is DOING SOMETHING ABOUT despite the danger (#4)

Apply Occam's Razor liberally. Ignore the blood for now. Don't worry about voice, even, just get this on the page. Various sources have pointed out that the above information will probably cover about the first third of your novel -- which is true because in the first third we meet your characters, get through the inciting incident, and make some progress toward the goal despite dangers and set-backs.

Then give the BOOK'S NAME, WORD COUNT, GENRE, and list any publishing credits you may have, awards you WON (nobody cares how close you got if you didn't win), and/or prestigious writing programs you've graduated from. 

Then thank the reader for their time and sign your name. 

Bam, done. Now put it away for an absolute minimum of 24 hours and get something done on your current project -- because you've got something new in the works, yes? 

When you come back to your query, re-write it to add voice if you can. You'll probably notice other problems. And once you've made it as clear as you can, you're going to need to show it to your fellow Writing Hell sufferers. Preferably ones who know nothing about your story. They will explain how you have failed to do any of the things listed above even though you really tried to.

That's okay. Revise and repeat. Going through six or eight drafts is not unusual and does not mean you suck.

You will question the clarity of your story at some point, though, and that is not a bad thing. Maybe a little trimming in some places, expansion in others, would make it easier to answer question #1 above. Maybe some scenes need more focus so it's clear how they fit into question #4. Did the inciting incident (for #2) need to be more dramatic? More traumatic?

These are all vague questions, I know, and only you and your gut can answer them. Writing a query during the revision process helps me think about them, I've found.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Worldbuilding: Siege conditions

Laying a siege is so complex that I can't possibly fit even a brief sketch into one blog post. Since Part III of my fantasy monstrosity involves a siege, expect to hear more on this.

These are three factors that are going to play a major role in any siege -- for both sides.

1. Disease

Armies and cities have always been popular breeding grounds for microbes. Both armies and cities bring together diverse groups of people who haven't met before -- somebody is bound to bring a new virus or bacteria to the party. Then the disease has a field day infecting all these bodies whose immune systems haven't seen it before.

Diseases spread by airborne particles, insects or mobile parasites like fleas and lice, and excrement (depending on sanitary conditions) can spread easily in these conditions.

Historically "popular" parasite/insect-related diseases: malaria, typhus, plague

Airborne diseases: smallpox, pneumonia, measles

Sanitation-related diseases: dysentery, typhoid, cholera

2. Starvation

I've heard it said that even a modern city only has enough food on hand to feed itself for a few days. And that's with the conveniences of modern canning and freezing.

Even if a city saw this siege coming with enough advance notice to lay in stores, feeding thousands of people for weeks and months is going to rapidly become difficult. More than one description of a siege in the Hundred Years' War described the besieged city expelling parts of its population (elderly, disabled, children, sometimes women too) because they could not afford to feed them. Since the attacking army didn't need extra mouths to feed, either, these refugees generally ended up huddling against the city wall starving and dying of exposure.

The army outside must feed itself either by receiving regular shipments of supplies or by scrounging around the surrounding territory. Supply lines are natural targets for attack, of course. Scrounging in a hostile countryside for ten thousand hungry men isn't easy, either.

3. Treason

Among the defenders, this is obvious enough -- someone opens the city gates, kills commanding officers, poisons the wells, or otherwise gets the attackers the help they need to take the city. 

Traitors among the attacking army could spread misinformation, could inform on where and when supply caravans are expected, and could also kill commanding officers. Historically, armies have been known to fall apart when nobles of significant power withdrew their men and support. This can happen for any number of reasons, from personal conflicts with other ranking nobles to sympathy for the enemy.

All these things to worry about before we've even fired the first arrow over the battlements.  Which one would have the most impact on your fantasy siege?
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