Thursday, September 10, 2015

I Hate Rat Mazes

Hate 'em, no matter what kind of narrative they are in. What does this have to do with writing books? More than you might think. The one thing any story teller does not EVER want to do is become tedious. Forcing the player/audience/reader to wade through fluff simply in order to pad the product and make it look fatter is tedious in the extreme.

Computer RPG designers do it by making dungeons into rat mazes that have no narrative purpose for being there and/or have no logical justification for being laid out the way they are. In books the approach is a bit different, but the effect is the same. The purpose is to artificially lengthen and expand the narrative and try to fool the customer into believing that they are getting more for their money than they really are.

What provoked this particular rant was my recent spell of playing an RPG with a dungeon of surpassing annoyance. The rat maze syndrome is not uncommon in games by this particular company, but this one got under my hide for some reason. It was supposed to be a vast underground city, abandoned by its makers centuries ago, There were the obligatory primitive interlopers and relic mechanical defenses of course. But the main problem was the layout.

Several different zones exited into a vast central area at different elevations. Problem is, you were supposed to dutifully follow the trail of bread crumbs through the twisting passageways back and forth and around and up and down and back again, climbing ramps and stairs until you finally got dumped back at the central area again. Whereupon you would find yourself facing a broken bridge or a sunken walkway, which inevitably forced you to swim, jump, or otherwise strain yourself and risk life and limb in order to make it to the next doorway. Then you went into the next zone and picked up the trail of breadcrumbs again so you could continue onward in your intrepid quest for the cheese.

I hate that kind of layout. I hated it when the original Doom for DOS did it. I hated it when the original Hexen did it. And there is no reason on earth for any gaming company to still be doing it now. The hardware and software limitations of the early eighties simply do not apply anymore. This is intellectual laziness on the part of the game designer, pure and simple. It griped me to the point that I got maybe a third of the way through it before I gave up and used cheat codes to hurry up and find the cheese so I could get out of there.

Writers of books and short stories have their own version of the rat maze. One favored narrative tactic is so common that it has a technical term among writers. It's called the Idiot Plot. The name means that the plot only holds together because all of the characters are idiots. It's the romance story where, if the hero and heroine spent five minutes talking to each other and comparing notes, there wouldn't be a story. Or the mystery novel where none of the supposedly wise and experienced investigators have sense enough to consult a high school chemistry text book. Or the thriller where none of the campers have sense enough to consider that humans started living together in tribes because there is safety in numbers, and it is really dumbass to split up in the middle of the night when you KNOW that there is something out there with sharp teeth.

Back to my little RPG. There's nothing wrong with wanting to give the player/reader an expanded amount of content. That idea is laudable. But the way they went about it is simple laziness. Just like an idiot plot in a book is laziness. Instead of putting their minds to work, the designers cut and pasted a bunch of pre-designed graphics and slapped them onto what looks like a standard set of corridors. Then they tack a wad of them together in a semi-coherent mass, all wrapped around a central opening. Paint on some underground texures and there you go, instant underground city. Sprinkle in a few ugly NPCs for a modicum of challenge, and pour out the bread crumbs. Then proudly point and say, 'look, a challenging adventure'. Right.

Instead of wearing the player out from running back and forth through an endless series of identical hallways, the game designers could have added death traps, or an unstable ceiling that might cave in if the player hit the wrong spot, or leftover machines that might have unstable power supplies to blow up if they were messed with, or a hundred other things. But that would have required time and effort.

Just like it would take effort to throw in third party villain to deliberately misinform the bewildered lovers, or have a crooked lab tech give the clueless detectives false information, or maybe have the secret monster be smart enough to set the cabin on fire and force the silly teenagers out into the night. ANYTHING would be better than simply insulting the reader's intelligence and wearing out their patience with fluff.

Monday, August 17, 2015

It's OK To Make A Villain Human, But They Still Have To Be A Villain

There is a tv fantasy series that has been on for a few seasons. As is typical of network television in the US, the quality of the writing is embarrassingly bad. So it will probably stay on the air for a few more seasons. I won't name it. I don't want to make those poor staff writers feel worse than they already do, and I don't want to get sued or harassed.

The reason I mention it is that the producers cannot seem to force themselves to label anyone as being bad. The leading villain was an evil sorceress. The woman was, literally, a bloodthirsty mass murderer.  She kept an entire cellar full of her victim's body parts for souvenirs. Once, when asked about the people she had killed, she snapped that she had never bothered to keep track. Yet by the end of the second season she was apparently redeemed. You see, she had adopted a kid and decided that she was "really-very-sorry". Plus she came from a dysfunctional family. So that made everything all right.

There are other characters that are equally screwed up. The thing they all have in common is that ultimately, nobody ever does anything unforgivable. Except failing to forgive, which is a paradox. One guy, for example, had a wife that ran off to see the world and left him to raise their child alone. He didn't forgive her, which made him a bad guy. The guy she ran off with, a murdering thief, is a nice guy because he's "really-very-sorry". At least for a few episodes.

The eldest prince in Kulhn is not sorry about anything. He believes his actions are fully justified. That's not to say that he is completely bad. Throughout the course of the trilogy I have tried to show him as being ruthless, selfish, and opportunistic. But he's still human. He has good points, he has people who care about him. He has things that he believes in. Ultimately, however, he is ruthless, selfish, and opportunistic.

That's the whole point of being a villain. The difference between a hero and a villain is sometimes razor thin. One of the central conflicts of my trilogy is the rivalry of two royal brothers to take their father's throne. They are full brothers. Same parents and same siblings. Raised in the same palace and taught the same ethical code. They both want the same thing, and for similar though not completely identical reasons.Both of them are willing to kill to get it. Both of them are willing to kill their own blood kin to get it.

So what's the difference? The youngest prince has an arrogant streak, and he has been guilty of behavior that is disturbingly merciless. He is also a bit judgmental toward those who disappoint him. The elder prince loves and worries about his mother, feels a deep sense of responsibility toward the men under his command and is emotionally touched by their expressions of loyalty.

The difference is where the lines get drawn. There are things that the younger prince will not do. There are lines that he will not cross. Sometimes he will push all the way up to the lines. But he will not step over them. The youngest prince acknowledges that there is a higher standard of behavior than simply his own desire, or even his own personal conscience.

The younger prince says that is is always wrong to kill the innocent, it is always wrong to rob, it is always wrong to kidnap and rape. It doesn't matter why you want to do it. The youngest prince says that there are standards which a ruler may not transgress, He is committed to the principle that a king cannot and must not rule vengefully. The law must always be applied in cold blood, no matter how heinous a crime might be. Nor can a king spare his friends because he loves them, not if they have crossed the lines. If you do something that breaks one of the absolute wrongs, then you must be called to account. Even if you are really-very-sorry.

That cannot be said of the elder prince. To the elder brother, the end justifies the means. He has never heard of situational ethics, but if he had the term would suit him perfectly. He unleashes roaming bands to scour the countryside of his own kingdom, looting his people's homes to provide supplies for his soldiers. He doesn't wish harm to the peasantry, or the weaker nobles. He just doesn't think they matter. His agents have no hesitation about torturing and killing the innocent for information with casual disregard, and the elder prince is indifferent. Again, he has nothing against the lowborn who die. He just doesn't think they matter. Any method, any tactic, is justified if it achieves the goal of getting him what he wants.

And THAT is the short definition of evil.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

New Snippet

Excerpt from Recompense, Estimated release date late 2015:

Telesa stopped just outside the ragged opening, looking at the shattered stone pillars where the main gate had stood an hour before. Dust and smoke hung heavy in the air, blocking her view of the main temple. But the bodies sprawled across the cobblestones were plain to see. Their pooling blood was no more red than the neophyte robes they wore. Boys, on the verge of becoming men, that the priests had sent out to fight and die for them while they cowered inside. Just boys. Like Dall had been when they murdered him. 

Her pulse was a steady drum in her ears. She stepped through the broken wall. Ildara and Setka followed her through, leading a mixed group of witches and warriors. The old woman paid no attention to anyone or anything except moving forward. Her feet still remembered the path. All these years, decades, and her feet had not been able to forget the path. 

The temple’s main entrance was in front of her. The huge pair of bronze and iron doors were closed tightly. No doubt they were barred on the other side. 

Her athame started glowing red, then orange, then golden, then blue-white, then pure white, and finally something too bright for the human eye to look at. 

The spell tore at her vocal cords. She had not used it in more than twenty years. The last time had been in open battle against one of the highest of the Sidhe. Her challenger had perished swiftly. Since that day no fay, light or dark, had raised their hand against her or her children. 

The ornamental bronze bubbled and ran like brown water. It flowed down like melting ice while the iron framework sagged. The entire twelve foot pair of metal doors fell slowly forward onto the stone porch. The gap behind them was dim and looked empty. 

“Ran for it,” Setka muttered. “Surprise, surprise.”

Monday, August 10, 2015

Realism In Fantasy (again)

I flog this tired old nag periodically. It's a recurrent irritation to me. My own fault of course. I started off writing science fiction, which usually requires slightly more rigorous attention to natural laws. So the habit of trying to write in terms that make a story as believable as possible followed me over to fantasy writing like a starving puppy.

This is a relatively new thing, and many people don't share my opinion about this. In the old days of fantasy writing, say anything prior to the twentieth century, fantasy stories were fables, lessons, parables, and the important thing was the message that they were trying to teach. So everyone apparently assumed magic could do anything, and divine power had no limits.Apparently they also assumed that most characters in magical worlds were idiots, too. But who am I to judge? A lot of people today still don't give a care. Or don't give much of a care.

Then there are those of us who strain at gnats. We are the ones who are bothered by the fact that a world where summer and winter are decades long implies an orbit so wildly oblique that it most likely wouldn't develop life at all. And if it did, the odds of anything like a human developing seem slim to the point of ludicrous.

We get antsy, wondering why nobody, not one single member of the Hogwarts faculty, or the magical government, ever considered the advantages of loading up a few shotguns. Or buying some computers. Maybe setting out some usb cameras and microphones. Or a walkie-talkie? If that was too hi-tech for them to figure out, since a rubber duck seemed to floor them, would it confound them to work out the intricacies of cocking and loading a crossbow?

It just bugs me, that's all. One of the reasons that my third book is taking so long to complete is related to this issue. I know what is going to happen. In fact, all but one of the main conflict scenes are already written. But I need to make it the plot develop and work within the context of the magical system that I already have in place, while at the same time not insulting the reader's intelligence. I also need to avoid making it look like the main characters have suddenly been beaten senseless with a stupid stick.

Kulhn is not the land of Oz. People bleed in my world, and they go hungry, and they get cold, and stuck in the mud. Nor do characters in Kulhn get the privilege of 'traveling at the speed of plot', to quote an online writing acquaintance of mine. Horseback and cargo wagons take time. Magic can supplement speed, but there is a cost. If you run, it drains you because you are pushing your body beyond its natural limits. If you cast it on your horse, it kills the horse. There is always a price.

Maybe I'm just weird for caring about those kind of details. But that's me.  Oh, well.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Health Status

Got back from the hospital Thursday after some more testing. The old carcass is a train wreck, but it's not quite dead yet. I am feeling better, at least well enough to put in some more hours on Recompense. All of the major confrontation scenes that cause pivots in the plot are written. All but one of the fights are written. Almost all of the character development is done, including supporting and incidental characters.

All I have to do is glue them together and edit them. And not a drop of booze in the house.

Friday, July 3, 2015


I just finished a critical scene, and second guessed myself with every word.

One of the primary dangers of my world are the ghaunts (ghastly haunts) that infest Kulhn's southern forest. They are a breed of undead totally unlike anything seen before. I introduced them in book one, and added some more background along with a few hints in book two. Now, late in book three, I finally revealed not only their ultimate origin, but exactly what the protagonists needs to do to defeat and eliminate them.

My issue is that I am worried it all may have come together too neatly. But every bit of foreshadowing has led up to this moment, and I can't think of any other way to move things forward. From here, the reader will know why the ghaunts exist, why the protagonist is honor bound to deal with them, the only method that will work, what it will cost the protagonist, and why his family is having a fit over him being willing to pay it.

It also explains several mysterious items that have been in the background over the past three books. I'm just iffy about it.

But then, it's the first draft. I will let it cool a while and then do some critical re-reading before I make a final decision. I just wish I could dig up another beta reader.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Fermi Paradox - A Philosophical Straw Man

We who write speculative fiction have to deal with esoteric philosophical concepts all the time. It’s part of the job description But some of them just make me tired. 

A couple of days ago I was reading a news article, that had a link, that mentioned a reference, that had another link, that led to yet another article, that lured me into a story wherein was mentioned one of my least favorite debating points. Namely, the Fermi Paradox. A topic which invariably provokes indigestion for me. 

The Fermi paradox is almost certainly familiar to anyone reading this. But just in case some innocent traveler got lost in the woods and stumbled into this If you have any sense, RUN. Otherwise, here’s the gist of it. Enrico Fermi was a nuclear physicist who, back around 1950 or so, was sitting around having a bull session with some of his colleagues. ‘Bull’ session is the perfect description for it, in my opinion. 

In fairness, old Enrico was a number cruncher, which means a left brain thinker by definition. It’s not his fault that he stumbled over some basic common sense issues. But people are still poking at it after all this time, which I take as evidence that some people really need a new hobby. 

Anyway, the gist of the Fermi Paradox is this. Our star is pretty boring and typical. There are lots of other stars like ours out there. So there should logically be lots of other planets with people on them. So where are they and why haven’t we heard from them? After all, the universe is billions of years old. There’s been plenty of time for the neighbors to come calling. But they haven’t. 

Hence, the paradox. 



Okay. Without staining my underwear, I can reel off a library full of different explanations for the known data, or lack of data. It all ultimately comes down to the fact that We Don’t Know Crap About What’s Going On because we haven’t gone out there yet. So sitting around with our thumbs in our randomly selected orifices is a bit useless. But here’s a few reasons why the Fermi Paradox is a waste of mind space, in my opinion. Just a few reasons off the top of my head. 

1) Earth has had life for billions of years. Earth has had intelligent life for maybe one million years, plus or minus. Intelligent life on Earth has had the capacity to make its presence known to any other planet for less than a century. Basic math here: 100 years / approx 4,000,000,000 = a teeny weeny fraction of a percentage of time during Earth’s life bearing existence that we have been even faintly detectable. And even then, we would only be detectable to someone within a hundred light years. By the time our radio signals get a thousand light years out, they will be so weak and garbled that background radiation will effectively destroy them. Even if the galaxy is chock full of other worlds like us, how could we possibly hear them? 

2) Intelligent life is not necessarily a desirable survival trait. The shark is a fish so ancient that it doesn’t even use bone. It predates bone. It uses cartilage. It predates modern fishes, it predates the dinosaurs. But it still rules the oceans as king predator. The scorpion was the first animal to crawl up on land, according to my training. Scorpions are still pretty much the way they were hundreds of millions of years ago and going strong. Ditto for spiders. And ants. And mosquitoes. Crocodiles were here with the dinosaurs. So were ferns. Every other life form that ever lived on Earth (countless numbers of species, literally countless) never bothered to develop intelligence, yet they seem to keep trucking right along. In many cases still going strong after hundreds of millions of years. 

An intelligent brain is quite expensive to feed. Which means that an intelligent life form would just about have to spend most of its time looking for food, even if it is an omnivore. Our ancestors did. Many of us still do. A big brain also has a dismal tendency to go off-kilter sometimes. Plus, a big brain means a big head, which causes issues with reproduction. So even if life is ubiquitous, there is plenty of evidence right here that intelligence is a highly unlikely direction for life to follow. Our ancestors only went there because they had no other real option. 

If we knew how many species of life ever developed on Earth, we could calculate a realistic probability of intelligence developing. But we don’t have that information. All we CAN say with confidence is that even on a biotic world, the odds of developing an intelligent life form are several million to one, and that it is not likely to happen in less than four billion years..

3) Even if the galaxy is teeming with life, and even if I am wrong and every living world develops an intelligent race sooner or later, what are the odds that they all develop at the same time? Billions of years, remember? There is no inherent reason that an intelligent life form could not have developed just a few million years ago in Mesozoic times, if it had not been for the random element of that asteroid strike. Even a spacing of one million years, which is proportionately an eyeblink in the scale of galactic time, could result in two races never meeting each other.

4) Which leads into the conviction that some people hold, about interstellar colonization being inevitable. One of the recurring points that people bring up about the Fermi paradox is that after all this time, why haven’t we been colonized? Someone even went to the trouble of calculating how many thousands or millions of years it would take for a race to colonize the whole galaxy. 

Horseshit. There have been numerous human cultures that weren’t big on colonization, not even of their neighbor’s island. If we have that much variation within a single species, why does it necessarily follow that IF a world develops intelligent life, and IF that life happens to develop anywhere near the same time period that we do, and IF they happen to use tools, and IF they happen to be interested in learning how to fly, and IF they happen to decide that space looks kewl and want to go see what’s out there, and IF they decide that it’s worth the trouble to develop interstellar spaceships.... 

I got side tracked. Where was I? Oh, yeah. With all of that, it still doesn’t necessarily follow that they would be the kind of people that like to horn in and steal other people’s land. And IF they are the kind of aggressive, expansionist race that tends to spread out and glom onto anything they happen to think looks attractive, what are the odds that they are also belligerent and quarrelsome? Which means, warriors. Which means, they would probably fight each other, and any other warriors they come across. Which reminds me of the Biblical adage, "...they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." In other words, an aggressive race that sets out to colonize the galaxy would most likely self-destruct. Which I suppose is sufficient to answer the question as to why they aren’t here. 

Now if I could just answer the question as to why I bothered to spend time and energy pondering this, and give myself indigestion again. .