My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the tag “Writing”

Steampunk Worldbuilding – Lewis Mulligan

Or, How I Built A Steam-Powered Internet

When I set out to write Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine I started by laying down some ground rules. These would be the cornerstones of my world, and any setting I created had to have a way to fit them in.

  1. Nicola Tesla is alive and well. I don’t think it is uncommon among steampunk fans to think Nicola Tesla was slighted by history. Those pads you put your phone on to charge it wirelessly? Yeah, he was doing that a hundred years ago. Even though most common appliances and electronics run on DC power, AC is a lot easier to transmit over long distances. Who do you think invented it? Radio? This has always been a touchy one, even in his day, but it’s safe to say that he and Marconi should at least share credit for certain aspects of it.

    Obvious consequence: If the Nicola Tesla was to play a role in the story, then it must be set in our world’s past. That alone brings with it tons of other baggage: real countries, real cities, real people, real historical events, and real scientific achievements.

    Vindication: Tesla “won” the War of the Currents with Edison, and thus had the capital he needed to develop his Colorado Springs and Wardenclyffe Tower projects sooner and to completion. The handwavium of this setting is that his projects worked so well that they now account for much of the world’s electrical transmission, along with transatlantic communication. One thing I tried very hard to keep faithful to was Tesla’s focus on the future and improving humanity’s lot; I do my best to keep him from becoming a mad scientist, or exploiting his technological development for personal gain.

  2. Charles Babbage finished the Difference Engine. The entire premise of the Pandemonium Engine is that it is a next-generation calculating engine. That means if we’re set in the period of 1890-1910 (due to Mr. Tesla) then the world has experienced at least 60 years of development of calculating engines in business and industry. Also, in more than just a nod to Ms. Lovelace, she lived beyond her premature death and became the foremost authority on the mechanisms.

    Obvious Consequence: 60 years is a long time to have computers. That’s the period between ENIAC and the DotCom bust. Adjust that for: 1) Cost of manufacture, 2) Physical limitations of the devices, 3) Lower global population, and suddenly you have a completely different flavor of information revolution.

    Not so obvious consequence: Combine this with the twist from above, (computing engines + wireless, transatlantic electrical transmission and communication) and you now have the stage set for a proto-Internet. What would an 1890’s world do with the Internet? This was an age of robber barons and titans of industry where they now control the means of production and the means of communication. I don’t delve too deeply into dystopia with this book, but I think I laid the groundwork for it unintentionally. I may explore that in the future. Instead, I take a different angle on it and explore the backlash against such an eruption of technology from the church who finds artificial intelligence to be an abomination.

  3. Zeppelins are pretty damn cool. Does anything else need to be said? Rather than generic aerostat dirigibles, I bump Zeppelin’s work up by a few years in light of all the rest of the industrial development.

    What if? The major limitations of aerostats is power supply and lift gas. Helium is safe, but it is expensive and (for the time period) extremely rare. However, electrolysis of water can provide a great deal of hydrogen in flight if you have water on board. But electrolysis takes a lot of power for the amount of hydrogen that needs to be liberated for an airship. Where can we get near-limitless power, anywhere in the world, even in flight? Mr. Tesla, I’m looking at you.

  4. One of the main characters is a creation of Dr. Frankenstein. The concept of the golem has always fascinated me, whether we’re talking the historic Kabbalah or modern androids. Some time ago I was in a stage performance of Frankenstein by Marty Duhatschek. It was an original reinterpretation where the monster named himself Adam upon reading the Bible and learning that Adam was the name of the Creator’s first creation. Likewise, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein included a sapient “monster”. I couldn’t resist adding one of my own.

    Don’t cross the streams! I realize there’s some uncertainty about introducing fictional characters alongside fictionalized characters. Why care about the verisimilitude of the other elements of this list (such as the plausible technologies of Tesla) if I’m just going to introduce plainly fictional elements? Well, let’s think about this a little more closely. We can already revive people through defibrillators. Medical science has already achieved a head transplant (even though nervous system control is questionable). Cryonics. Part of the horror of Shelly’s story for modern audiences is that it has actually become more plausible since it’s initial publication.

    (Geek note: whenever I play D&D, I always play a class capable of creating constructs. It’s never about pets, its about creating.)

  5. This is still for young adults. One of the advantages of setting this in the real world is that I can take advantage of the narrative to introduce younger audiences to some of the really cool stuff history missed out on by taking a different course: Gurney cars, Tesla’s world electrical grid, Babbage’s engines, and so on. I do my best to keep faithful to the original design and intent of these things so as to minimize any misunderstanding between the real thing and my fictionalized account.

What can you take away from all this

  1. Each setting choice has a consequence.
  2. Self-consistency is crucial to making things believable. If the world has readily available electricity without the need to plug in to a grid, all kinds of free standing devices become possible.
  3. Steampunk is alternate history, or an alternate world altogether. Things don’t need 100% historical accuracy.
  4. Technology brings social change, even if it is subtle. Without the need to run cables, home electricity in rural areas becomes feasible decades earlier. What kind of change would that cause?
  5. Things are allowed to be different, just remember 1-3. If you introduce the luminiferous aether, then Einstein’s theory falls apart and you’re dealing with a variable speed of light. That is bound to introduce some very, very strange things, so consider the consequences carefully (If your sky isn’t rainbow colored, why?), but don’t be afraid of it.
  6. Just remember the Rule of Cool. (Warning: Contains a link to TV Tropes. Do not click unless you have an abundance of time on your hands.)

How To Write Better Dialog 2: Premises

When people come together to discuss a topic, they bring with them all kinds of assumptions and biases about the topic. If I say the words “labor union,” it instantly conjures up all of your feelings on the matter. Some of you will be predisposed to be hostile toward any discussion that does not involve dismantling them. Some of you will be equally biased in favor of them. And at no point can a constructive discussion take place unless we have some common ground or room to negotiate.

Our characters have the same kinds of predispositions and biases. If you are writing a fantasy story that involves magic and monsters, then it’s a sure bet that every single person in that world has an opinion about magicians, or a personal story. Even if they are as rare as a two-toothed narwhal, people have probably at least heard of them. If they haven’t heard of them, then they probably are disinclined to believe magicians even exist!

However, more often than not, I come across dialogue in novels and movies where a topic is introduced (about which characters of different backgrounds would likely have divergent views) yet everyone is on the same page about it. You end up with a group of people who stand around agreeing with each other, or even when they disagree, they are bickering over the details.

This happens when everyone in a discussion accepts the premise of the conversation.

Premises

Premises are the assumptions that are built into a conversation. They are based upon word choice, which is informed by biases. We are not always conscious of these built in assumptions, even when we are the ones asking the questions.

For example, if a character asks the question “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” then there are certain assumptions buried in the question:

  1. The belief that rescinding collective bargaining rights is a legitimate option. Without this premise, any answer given would be irrelevant.
  2. By raising the question at all, it implies that the person asking it believes it should be done. Otherwise, they’d have never raised the issue.
  3. Use of the word “deserve” implies that it is a privilege that must be earned.

How does this relate to dialogue in fiction?

I picked something politically charged and divisive on purpose. The confrontational nature of the question makes us want to respond to it. Whether we agree or disagree, it is demanding a reaction. When we write, it is easy to slip into the trap of making characters respond to provocation because we would respond to provocation.

But let’s say you wanted to show that your character is not just some author avatar spouting your personal morality, so you put them on the opposite side of the debate. You dislike unions, so you write a character that defends them.

Now, the trap is that even if the character answers the question by saying workers deserve protection, they have still accepted the premises of the question. In other words, if the character says: “Unions deserve legal protection because without it, management’s right to take legal action would be an unfair advantage because management has the financial means that individual workers do not,” then they have still unintentionally agreed that it is a valid topic for debate, and that workers must prove they deserve the additional protection.

The character’s act of disagreeing is unimportant because they have already validated the central premise, and revealed an underlying bias on the part of the author that has crept into the work. Whatever heated debate is taking place on the page is no longer drama, but sock puppet theatre.

Some other situations:

  • If your characters are building a wood shed and get into a protracted debate about what color the shed is, they have already agreed to the premise that the shed ought to be built in the first place.
  • If your characters are arguing about the morality of using demonic magic to stop an even more powerful demon, they have already agreed to the premise that demons are evil and the use of magic must be justified.
  • If your characters are sailing a ship and they argue about whether three point sails are better in a storm than four point sails, they have already forgotten the obvious advice to bring the sails down during a storm.

Rejecting the Premise

It is a time honored tradition in public relations, advertising, and politics to attempt to establish a premise ahead of time. It’s also referred to as “framing the debate.” Less experienced rhetoriticians often fall into the trap outlined above where they react to the provocative statements of the other side without questioning the assumptions inherent in the statement or question. Over time, however, people learn to reject the premise before responding.

To use the prior example, “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” some responses might be:

  • “Why are we discussing hard working citizens when it is a corrupt political structure that is causing the problem?”
  • “How many jobs should a person have to work in order to support their family?”
  • “No one in management is having trouble making ends meet, so why is this a problem?”

All of these responses share one thing in common: they brush aside the premises of the original question before dropping in a new set of premises of their own.

Rejecting the Premise for comedic and dramatic effect

Let’s face it. Tit-for-tat arguing can get the blood flowing but we only watch it as a spectator sport to either root for our side, or to listen to what nonsense the other side spouts. As writers, we are aiming to craft characters and scenes with greater depth than a Facebook argument.

Rejecting the premise can be the source of immense drama, and it tells us much more about a character than an argument does. Let’s re-examine the scene from the previous article, and this time we will examine the premises rather than the status transactions.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

When Seth calls out Julie for being late, he is trying to establish a dominant position. His choice of words and his defiant act of shoving the report across the table rather than handing it to her indicates he is operating from a particular set of assumptions:

  1. Julie’s tardiness deserves commenting on.
  2. He expects her to justify her tardiness.
  3. His time is more valuable than hers.

Julie doesn’t take the bait. In effect, she refutes Seth’s premise by not responding to a deliberate attempt to provoke her. She is saying, “Your comments on my behavior are not legitimate enough to merit justification.” That reaction (or non-reaction) creates more dramatic tension than if they had broken down into bickering.

Tit-for-tat bickering is a way to release dramatic tension, not build it! When characters argue, they are laying their cards on the table. To build tension in the scene and in the reader, you want to do the opposite: hold things in reserve until the last possible moment.

We see her put this into practice in the following sentence when she cuts off Seth before he can press matters. She has now established new boundaries for the discussion: they will be discussing what is important to her, and on her time.

Now, we have conflict. Seth wants one thing, Julie wants another. More importantly, they are doing all of this in front of an audience. The implicit conflict becomes explicit when Julie makes the statement that they will not be going with Seth’s plan, but with David’s.

Seth lays out that David has never been to Denver. Implied in his statement is the underlying assumption that: “Unless David has seen Denver, he does not have the expertise or the authority to speak about the plan.”

Now we have an example where a character unintentionally accepts the premise. David directly responds to Seth’s statement, hoping to convince Julie that Seth is wrong, and that he knows what he is talking about. But, in accepting the premise, he has already slipped into Seth’s trap: any justification he makes will be weaker than Seth’s statement.

Julie rescues him (and the scene) by cutting off the bickering before it goes too far. In effect, she rejects Seth’s premise that David must have seen Denver in order to have sufficient knowledge. Once again, we build dramatic tension because the characters do not accept one anothers’ premises. That dramatic tension is resolved with Seth conceding.

Comedy

We can use the same technique for comedic effect. I won’t break it down as much here because the structure of refuting the premise is the same for comedy as it is for drama. The only difference is the tone of the scene. Any dramatic event can be played for laughs by changing the tone.

Joss Wheadon is a master of building comedic scenes upon characters holding divergent assumptions about the world. Any scene between Mal Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly would serve.

As a simple example, think back to any of the old Looney Toons cartoons where a character runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall. The dramatic tension is built on challenging the audience’s assumptions, namely the assumption that gravity works. The character holds a mistaken belief that they are immune to gravity (or a mistaken belief that there is still ground underneath them). The longer the character defies gravity, the more tension is built on the part of the audience because they are having their belief directly challenged by the fact that the character is not yet falling. To resolve the tension, the character falls, complete with the stoic “Uh oh” face. (Then, once audiences started to accept the premise that characters could defy gravity, they played with it further by having the characters sometimes scurry back to the cliff successfully only to throw some other sort of reversal at them.)

Conclusion

Give your characters the ability to reject the premise of discussions. It builds greater dramatic tension and reveals more about the character’s own beliefs and biases. In short, it gives them greater depth.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve received?

Amid all this advice I’m giving on how to write dialogue, I am mindful that not all advice is helpful or well received.

For example, I once received this unsolicited gem from someone who learned in passing that I was a writer and was trying to be helpful (in the most assholeish way possible):

It will be taken as a sign of maturity when you accept that your book will never be published.

Lesson of the day? Projecting your own inadequacies is not advice. However, that comment is now forever burned into my memory and will be the crux of any inspirational words I have for anyone else.

Addendum: I did not piss in his cornflakes, before or after. Though I maybe should have.

So what was the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Edit: I just remembered another one:

I have a family member who was burned by a vanity press (if you don’t know what it is, read up on it here) back in the 80’s and none of my extended family has forgotten about it. However, they aren’t writers and aren’t involved in the industry in any way, so they have been disconnected from the rise of self publishing. With eBooks and print-on-demand services, self-publishing is not the same as the vanity press scam (although the vanity press scam is still alive and well).

I’ve been working on a series of short stories for the past few months and the intent is to shop them around to online magazine publications first in order to qualify for joining the SFWA. Three qualifying sales and you are eligible. However, should that fail, my intent is to target the eBooks marketplaces. I do feel the work is professional quality, and I don’t consider self-publishing to be a failure. At all. But going that route first for the time being precludes qualification for SFWA membership.

The moment I opened my mouth about self-publishing a series of short stories, the floodgates opened. It wasn’t enough that I had to first endure a family member breathlessly recounting the horror my great uncle suffered, and their dire warning: “Don’t do it!” only to have to explain to them that “No, this isn’t the same situation. The market has changed. No, I do not pay up front out of pocket.” No, I needed to endure this gauntlet over and over and over with each of my half a dozen aunts and uncles in town for my uncle’s wedding. And then their spouses. And my parents. It would have been simple if I could just get all of them in one place just give a speech. But, that would be too simple.

But every single time it was: “Oh. Well, ok then. Be careful.”

/facepalm.

How To Write Better Dialog 1.5: Additional Example

I posted yesterday’s article over at the AbsoluteWrite forums and got some questions about the three tips I laid out at the start. Specifically, I addressed this:

Douglass

I’m curious about your number one rule:

“Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.”

It seems in conflict with two trend of novels: 1) more and more dialogue with each passing generation. 2) the more popular the novel, the more dialogue it contains.

I touched on that in the paragraph that followed:

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

I got my start in screenwriting and I had gone to school for theatrical and film direction. That’s a guideline that exists for visual media.

That said, it’s easy to fall into the exposition trap, even when writing novels:

“Did you hear? Jacob, your brother, will be coming up from his home in Kansas to lecture at our son Chris’s college. I’d like to offer the guest bedroom to him while he’s here, but I don’t want to hear you two playing Madden 2012 until 4AM like last time he came, at Christmas,” Alice said.

It’s clunky, and unnecessary. Most importantly, it doesn’t flow. That text is going to be on the page either way, but compare it to this:

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said. Brad held his tongue. The last thing he needed was a lecture about staying up until 4AM playing Madden 2012 with his brother at Christmas. “Chris is looking forward to his lecture.”

“Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” Brad asked.

“‘Because it’s his uncle and he never sees him’ isn’t good enough?” Alice poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Brad.

Brad sipped his coffee. “I’ll clean the guest room,” Brad said. Alice looked at Brad sharply. “And we won’t play Madden. Not much. At least not past 2.”

The word count is a little higher, but this is just off the top of my head (so, in the strictest sense I am breaking my own rule, but the spirit of the rule remains in that I’m not using the dialogue to convey everything). The dialogue communicates more about their relationship and how they relate to one another, rather than conveys the raw facts. The dialogue is pulling double duty in parts like: “Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” We learn that Brad is attentive enough to know what his son is studying but doesn’t understand why he would be interested. In fact, the facts learned (Chris studies math, Jacob is a paleontologist) are actually the least interesting parts of that comment.

When Brad jumps to “I’ll clean the guest room” without explicit prompting, we understand that the subtext of Alice’s entire half of the exchange was: “I want Jacob to stay here.” When we look back at the things she says, they all lean in that direction without her coming out and saying it, which is another clue about what kind of relationship Alice has with Brad.

If it’s crucial to cut word counts, the important bits of the conversation can be boiled down to: “Jacob is coming to town.” followed by, “I’ll clean the guest room.”

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said.

Brad sipped his coffee. The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he and his brother had played Madden 2012 until 4AM at Christmas, so he decided to nip the discussion in the bud. “I’ll get the guest room cleaned.”

The essentials are still there, and we keep the big clue about their relationship: Brad understands Alice enough to know why she is bringing up Jacob’s visit without her needing to say it.

How To Write Better Dialog 1: High and Low Status Players

Raise your hand if you’ve never struggled with dialogue. First, you’re lying, and second, if you’re not lying then you aren’t pushing yourself to improve as a writer.

Well, there are a few pieces of advice I picked up from my screenwriting and acting days:

  1. Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.
  2. People are always pursuing objectives; understand what your characters want from one another and you’ll know why they are saying what they do.
  3. You can only have two people sitting on a park bench talking about the nature of art if one of them knows there is a bomb underneath the bench. (This last one is paraphrased from another source but it’s been a long time since I heard it; I no longer remember where it was.)

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

There’s a perennial piece of advice for writers which states: Show, don’t tell. Put simply (actually, how can it be put simpler than that?) your objective should be to have your characters take actions that demonstrate their desires and personality, rather than describing them on the page. You may have also heard this as Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization. We should know that the villain loves dogs by the fact that he has a bronze statue cast of every dog he’s owned on display in the front hall of his downtown Metropolis office tower, and that their pedigree is lovingly etched into their plaques. In addition to being a unique quirk, it reveals more about the character than just: “he liked dogs.”

It is the second two that I will be focusing on in this series of articles. Number 2 relates primarily to Status Transactions and Premises, while number 3 can be summed up as Subtext.

Status Transactions

Keith Johnstone introduced the world to the concept of “status transactions” in his book on improvisational acting, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre I was introduced to Keith Johnstone’s work during my screenwriting class with Doug Heil while at UW-Oshkosh. (You can find Doug’s own book on screenwriting, Prime-Time Authorship, at Amazon.com) Impro is a book for actors and directors, but in it he posits that human interaction can be described in terms of relative social status. The way we interact with one another on a status level says more about who we are than the actual content of our speech or actions.

In other words, the difference in relative social status of two characters and how they react to that difference is more important than what they say or do.

I’ll break down the part that’s most important for writers concerned with dialogue:

  1. High status roles and low status roles are determined relative to one another. A parent has higher status than a child in that a child is expected to defer to an adult’s authority, and outsiders will most likely think the child is being disobedient rather than that the parent is being unreasonable. An older child has higher status than a younger. A well-respected grad student may have more recognized status than a tenured professor due to past circumstances. (Already you can see how status can drive dramatic tension!)
  2. When interacting with others, people will attempt to raise and lower their perceived status, either to achieve an objective or to return to their comfort zone. In Johnstone’s own words:

    A person who plays high status is saying, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” In either case the status played is a defense and it’ll usually work.

  3. People have a status they are most comfortable with. Some people are not comfortable being deferred to. Some people reject any efforts to overrule their opinions. We all have a preferred state we wish to be in, and sometimes circumstances force us outside that state.

    [When a status play works] It’s very likely that you will be increasingly conditioned into playing the status . . . You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other.

  4. Drama comes from either a disagreement over relative status, a reversal of expected status, or characters forced outside of their preferred status. Just think of how much character drama is based upon conflict between lovers or coworkers who cannot get along, or the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where a character is suddenly invested with a great deal of authority, or has an empire they have built taken away from them. (Brewster’s Millions is a brilliant example of this.)

Example

Let’s play with this a bit. We will be using Julie, Seth, and David as our sample characters.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing that happens: Julie walks into a meeting already in progress. We aren’t certain of Julie’s actual status relative to these people yet, and Seth immediately takes her to task for being late. He is deliberately trying to lower her status and raise his own. With that one sentence he is saying, “You are late and deserve less respect,” and, “I should be the respected authority here because I am allowed to pass judgment upon you.”

Next, Julie ignores his criticism. She could dispute him, but that would involve accepting the premise of his statements. If she argued with him at all, she would be acknowledging that he has the right to pass judgment upon her. (More on premises next time!) As soon as she does that, she is demonstrating that he was correct that his status was higher than hers. By ignoring him completely, she rejects his status claim as being beneath notice.

Then she silences him with a gesture. She has now turned the tables entirely: she no longer needs to speak to make him respect her authority. By his silence we know that Julie is the real authority here, and that Seth’s power play has failed.

When she announces her decision, it rekindle’s Seth’s desire to spar with her for control. Now he has not just his prestige among the board at risk, but his position in the company: if David’s idea is chosen, David’s status rises and he misses an opportunity. So he needs to reassert himself and make Julie back down.

Since he already accepted the lowering of himself a moment earlier, he then tries to drag David down to his level by calling him ignorant.

David, not as disciplined as Julie, disputes his claim by observing that he has all the knowledge he needs. It is a weak claim, and Seth has successfully dragged David down with him. As we see in the next moment, Julie separates them like bickering children: she now sees both of them as being so far beneath her that she can address them in an infantilizing manner.

Her final question to him, “You understand why, right?” is a direct challenge. But it is also a trap, because if he disagrees he is saying he does not understand. (Again, more on premises later) Instead, he lowers himself further by allowing her to speak to him in a parent-and-child manner reminiscent of “You understand why it’s wrong to steal from the cookie jar, right?” The poor treatment may leave lasting damage to their relationship going forward, but it may also stave off future status struggles long enough for them to put their “plan” into action in Denver.

Conclusion

Next time, I will be examining conversational premises in greater detail and addressing how accepting and rejecting premises plays into dramatic dialogue.

Sometimes An Idea Strikes

Sometimes this happens:

monkey_steals_the_peach

When an idea strikes, will you be ready?

An idea just grabs you and won’t let go. Sometimes you are just struck by an idea and you need to write it down (or else a ninja will rip your balls off). It burns its way out of your skull and there’s nothing you can do about it except close your eyes and let your fingers be guided by the inspiration alone.

And then sometimes inspiration takes a break before crossing the finish line.

A few weeks ago I was hit by an awesome idea for a short story. Miraculously, I got it finished over the course of a long weekend. “My Brother’s Keeper” is a sci-fi story about relativistic weaponry and interstellar war, except it’s not really about that, those are just the parts that make it sci-fi.

Then on Valentine’s Day I was hit by an idea that had absolutely nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, except that it is a love story. It’s about 93% coincidence that it was Valentine’s Day. I’ll grant 7% for the fact that the last puzzle piece for the idea fell into place while on a movie date.

Here’s what I should be doing:

  • Editing Root of the First‘s first 50 pages again.
  • Editing “My Brother’s Keeper” and “The Last Warband.”
  • Preparing for another round of agent submissions.
  • Preparing for WisCon35
  • Revising Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine*
*Note, I’m intentionally letting Lewis Mulligan wait until March before I begin editing.

Here’s what I am doing:

  • Working on a yet-untitled new paranormal literary fiction novel.

The idea for it hit me, and it’s still a little underdeveloped. I know where I want to start, and where I want to end. The paranormal aspects of it were just too cool not to build a story around because it flows so perfectly with the driving theme of the story. It’s incredibly rare that life gives you a high-concept, easy-to-interpret metaphor that is attached at the hip to the plot, all wrapped up in a neat little box.

All that’s missing right now is the big, empty middle. There’s a whole “middle” to this story that just isn’t there yet. And I have no idea what to put there. I haven’t even settled on a time period that this is set in. As I’ve worked on it this week, I have become increasingly enamored of the idea of leaving it deliberately vague. But I don’t know how long that will last.

Creativity Without Discipline

There’s a notion I’ve encountered in my time as  both a gamer, a writer, and even as an actor that states that any rules or discipline or direction “stifle creativity.” The reasoning goes something like: “Maximum creativity is achieved when you are allowed to express any idea, no matter what. Anything that constrains that amounts to censorship.” And usually, the use of the word censorship, with all its Big Brother connotations ends the debate almost as quickly as calling the other person a Nazi results in an invocation of Godwin’s Law.

But censorship is an integral part of the creative process. For example, last night, I had a dream about being an FBI agent tracking a child sex trafficking ring. We had traced it to a warehouse, and we were undercover, but the cover was blown when I refused to have sex with an underage kidnapping victim. So the sting gets foiled, and we need to escape, so we pile into the cars and drive off. While trying to get away, we go off the road and the only path to take is through a marina. Rows and rows of boat trailers were in our path, so the guy driving the car drove right over the top of them, and by the magic of Dream Logic, this worked. Around that time, the cat woke me up.

Now, be honest: How many skipped to this paragraph the moment you read the words “Last night, I had a dream. . .?” And how many went back to read it when they noticed the word sex? (And how many just went back to read it because they missed the word sex the first time?)

Point is, dreams are uncensored, undisciplined creativity. Lots of writers (and non-writers) keep a dream journal for all those ideas, but as anyone who has ever experienced someone else telling you their dreams knows: 95% of the time they are boring, uninteresting crap that doesn’t make sense, is not a coherent narrative, and at best can hope to be mildly humorous. (Yet, most people would never share the genuinely funny ones because they’re embarrassing. ) Therefore, we’ve learned to tune it out as soon as someone starts talking about them.

Granted, it can be useful to journal dreams for idea fragments that can later be developed into full-fledged ideas and stories. For instance, the car chase I experienced could make for some pretty interesting cinema if it were ever attempted,  and the “commit statutory rape or your cover is blown” creates a pretty fantastic dramatic intensifier for a real plot, but it isn’t a plot by itself.

Creating a film, a video game, a novel, or anything, really, requires artistic discipline. It requires working on it even on days when you don’t feel inspiration, and it requires self-censorship of some genuinely good ideas that just don’t work for this project. If you’re a dungeon master running a D&D game in a fantasy world, the crazy awesome idea you had for a spaceship encounter modeled after the movie Alien just doesn’t fit no matter how cool it is. I used to run into this a lot with DMs in our Neverwinter Nights server. They’d have a great idea, but refused to accept the flaws in using that idea unaltered in a setting that it was not appropriate for. It was probably the #1 conflict on staff: “Cool idea, but not appropriate,” vs “You’re stifling my creativity.”

Now, for NaNo I’m facing the same conundrum: lots of great ideas that just won’t fit into 50000 words. But they’re all near misses; I’d need to create a setting that is similar but not quite the same in order to use them since they couldn’t be used for a completely different setting. And that’s just not going to happen. I’m keeping a  record of them in my story binder, but I have a feeling some of them just won’t see the light of day.

Steam Engines GO!

A few days ago, I was debating which of two ideas I wanted to pursue for NaNoWriMo. Well, I have decided:

Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine

One day, Lewis Mulligan was a scrapper in a textile mill, and the next day he was the cabin boy and apprentice navigator on the TRA Nevermore, a second-hand airship just leeward of ruin. But while transporting a clockwork contraption known as the “Pandemonium Engine,” the crew runs afoul of Church inquisitors, a secret society of alchemists, and a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Now, it’s up to Lewis to steer the Nevermore to freedom, or at least go down with style!

My goal for the crew of the Nevermore is a steampunk Firefly. Granted: different medium, one story arc vs 14 episode arcs + 1 movie, and I’m not Joss Whedon. But still, if I can get halfway there, I’ve achieved all I wanted for NaNo.

I’ll be posting Crew Profiles for the ship in the next few days.

Fallout: New Vegas comes out a week from tomorrow. Now, if I had done it right, I’d have made my planning schedule end on October 18th, and reserved the 19th-31st for Fallout, and called it “story research.” Instead, I still have benchmarks and milestones sprinkled throughout the rest of October.

The Impasse – Steampunk vs Contemporary Lit

I have reached an impasse on my NaNoWriMo novel planning, and, as of today, I have no useful advice to offer anyone going through a similar struggle.

I now have two ideas to pursue.

Idea 1: This was my primary idea going into NaNoWriMo this year. It’s a lighthearted, probably YA adventure in a semi-historical alternate history sci-fi setting. Unabashedly steampunk but with its roots in mostly legitimate science.

Idea 2: This one was a 3AM idea that forced me from my bed last night to write it down so I didn’t forget. It’s a near-future contemporary literature piece that asks the question, “Why can’t we dream big things, anymore?” Possibly dark comedy satire.

Idea 1 has the strong merit going for it that I have been burning to write a steampunk piece for a long time and needed an excuse.

Idea 2 is just such a high concept piece that I feel it says more important things to a modern audience. It’s topical, which means there’s a shelf-life for the idea that will exist until China lands on the Moon and America collectively craps its pants in realizing how far behind we’ve fallen.

Three Steps to a Better Plot

  1. What is the worst thing that can happen to your main character?  Make the villain do that to your MC personally.
  2. What is the best thing that can happen to your main character?  Have that great thing happen to the villain in full view of the MC.
  3. Write down 15 news headlines or gossip topics for your setting.  At least 3 of these will, with modification, be able to be dropped into your story to add setting flavor, connect your characters to the world they live in, and serve as minor obstacles along the way. I call this Headline Plotting (read more here).

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