Friday, October 31, 2014

Saturday Scenes

It's already Saturday going by GMT, so I might as well post this. I finally got around to updating the latest installment of my work in progress, "Recompense". The link is HERE. Or you can click the tab at the top of the page. All posted material is subject to revision before publication. It has not been edited.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Supporting Characters As Part Of The World Building Process

This is a follow-up of sorts to the last post, where I mentioned a glitched quest in an RPG I was playing a few days ago. The problem was reconciling the nature of the character, with the type and circumstances of the quest he gave me.

This is something that I have seen in novels. Especially in fantasy novels. And it is a real weak point in a book in my opinion, because the supporting characters of a book are just as much a part of the world that the protagonist inhabits as the landscape, and the monsters, and the magic system. Perhaps even more so.

I have read books where a simple village shopkeeper speaks like a university professor. Not just in using proper grammar. I mean, he knows about esoteric subjects, and he speaks with authority on obscure matters of philosophy. This is bad world building. An author needs to think about the context.

If you need to have the protagonist, for whatever reason, get some critical information revealed through exposition like that it isn't that much more work to introduce a wandering holy man, or a university expedition, that stops for the night at the village inn and gets into a conversation with the hero. Filling a simple, rural peasant's head full of information that he wouldn't need or want makes no sense. Even if you postulate that the typical fantasy society produces universal literacy.

Which is another issue. How many fantasy books are there out there where everyone, I mean *everyone* in a (relatively primitive) society can read? Even in the US, with a fairly decent public school system, well up into the 19th century many people were still illiterate. When I encounter a scene with some herald posting a proclamation in the town square, and all of the commoners crowding around to read it, I snort in derision.

There is a reason that they were called proclamations. Because they were proclaimed. In other words, they were read out loud. Because originally, nobody but the priesthood and a few of the upper end nobles could read at all. And even the nobles weren't very good at it. At least in Europe. This wasn't necessarily the case in the Middle East or the Far East, but most of the fantasy published in the US is set in quasi-European worlds.

It just doesn't make any sense, and it hampers immersion, when the supporting characters and the background characters act and think and know things that they should never do. Like a local lord calling up his sturdy peasant tenants to repel an evil invasion of orcs, or whatever. And every man shows up wearing leather armor and a sword.

Please. They would show up wearing their toughest working clothes, maybe a leather apron if they had one, and they would be carrying longbows, knives, meat cleavers, a few falchions among the more well-to-do yeomen, woodcutting axes, and hunting spears. Nary a sword to be seen among the lowlifes.

Them suckers were expensive as hell. They took forever to make, required the skill of a master weapon smith, and also required a distressing amount of high-quality steel. In a medieval environment, mining was conducted by the straightforward process of digging a hole and sending men down into it on their hands and knees with sacks. They filled the sack and dragged it back out. Rinse and repeat. High quality ore was at a premium.

Movie scenes of men working in a wide open quarry are misleading. That might have happened in an area where they were mining limestone, or digging out building stones, or some other mineral that was present in the form of a massive unit. But a mineral that consisted of a relatively thin layer, overlain by an entire hill, before the invention of gunpowder or pneumatic drills, was a different story.

It doesn't take much. A few minutes of careful thought and a quick google search would cover most of these. That's not too much trouble, is it?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Covering All The Bases

"Recompense" is well over 70k words now, even after I went back and excised a fair chunk. Things are smoothing out, so I decided to relax and do some gaming. The idea was to unwind and let my brain rest. Get it off writing for a while and just kick back. Naturally, since I usually play either RPGs or shooters with strong RPG elements, I got involved in analyzing the story line of a quest that my character was given.

How does this relate-connect-apply to novel writing? Bear with me.

Nothing wrong with the game's quest on the face of it. A priest had lost something while exploring an old ruin, and wanted my character to go fetch it. About as standard and routine as a quest could possibly get. But...

There's a problem. This is one of those games with multiple dungeons, and you never know which dungeon is going to be randomly chosen for the mission. As soon as he got the assignment, the hole in this approach became clear. And there is no excuse for this kind of thing, given the abilities of modern hardware. Back in the days of 8 bit or 16 bit processors, it might have been understandable. But games are sophisticated enough now that it shouldn't happen. This was simple sloppiness and getting a product out the door before it was properly finished.

Not only was it far too high level for my little character, but there was no valid reason for a feeble old priest, who was doddering along on his last legs, to be down at the bottom of a hellhole like that in the first place. He never would have made it down there to lose his whatchamacallit to begin with. Plus, the priest didn't offer any advice, didn't offer any protective amulets, or anything else. Just instructions to, "Fetch it."

Now we get to where this ties in with novel writing. I have read more than one novel where the protagonist, or some other major character, was jammed into a position because the plot called for them to be in a certain place at a certain time, and the author plainly didn't bother to think it though. They just yanked some excuse out of their backside and stuck the character in the right location, then went back to the main plot line. This. I. Not. A. Good. Idea.

A storyteller has to think through ALL of the details. Small things matter, most definitely You might be astonished at how anal retentive some readers can get about even the most minute points. But in the process of polishing and straining at gnats, we can't let the camels wander through the tent unobstructed.

Everyone looks at a story through the lens of their own life experiences, and everyone notices the details that they have been trained to look for. An editor or a teacher focuses in on the typography, sometimes even to the point of glossing over serious plot holes. A free spirited artist reads a story and criticizes it for not being avant-garde. Someone who likes "literary" works will complain if a character is not introspective enough.

But *everybody* notices if your protagonist marches off to battle without his rifle.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Behind Schedule

I am running behind my originally intended publication date for Recompense. People have been inquiring, so I wanted to let everyone know that one of the reasons I haven't been posting online much is because I have been writing my book.

Progress is still being made, but health issues are slowing me down. I wanted to have it out the door a couple of months ago. Good intentions, road to hell, etc.

I am plugging away. On the good side, I think and hope that it will be the best of the three. I am going to do my best to see that it is.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mark Twain Was Absolutely RIght

To a novelist, that man's advice is worth its  weight in diamonds. Over the years I have read a lot of things that Twain wrote about the art of telling a readable story. But nothing has ever been more useful to me than his advice about what to do when a story stalls out on you, and you just don't know where to go next with it.

He said to do nothing. Literally nothing. Put it away for awhile and forget it exists. Some of his books sat in pigeonholes for years while he waited for the writing to break loose again. I had recently hit that point with "Recompense" I know exactly how the final third of the book is going to go. I have the first third written. But the middle third refused to shape itself into a configuration that would join them up.

I was about to shove my head through the drywall. Then I remembered what Twain said and I quit cold turkey. Started doing anything and everything. Different stories, moving furniture, yard work, organizing my office. I started game modding (which I plan to continue, this is starting to get interesting). I did just about everything there is to do around here except write on my third book.

This morning I woke up and the movies were playing in my head. The plot inconsistency was fixed. The rough patches were smooth. Progress has resumed. Proves once more, if you need advice go to the voice of experience.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Modding A Game To Tell A Story

Lately I have started trying to teach myself how to mod Skyrim. I picked that game because I already own it, the toolkit has been out long enough to have most of the bugs either worked out or worked around, and there is an encyclopedia of information floating around about how to do things with it.

The reason why I am doing it is a bit more complicated. I used to do a little game modding back in the days when Doom and Heretic first came out for DOS. In those days it was a lot simpler, because you couldn't really do much besides make a small level and drop in a few items. Scripting was a non-starter back then. Modern game systems are a bit more complex and flexible.

For one thing, I want to continue learning for as long as I continue breathing. Just as a matter of principle. For another, I suspect that the next level of storytelling will eventually include the integration of text and visual art. Much like paper books routinely include illustrations, I anticipate that ebooks might someday start to incorporate video supplements. I have seen things like that attempted before, but in the past the available tech was simply too crude to make it look good. That is changing, rapidly. People are already posting YouTube trailers for their ebooks. How far is it to go from that to embedding video in the book itself?

For another thing, it stimulates my muse. Looking at a story in my mind is different than looking at it in 3D. Framing a series of "what if?" questions when developing a plot line in a book becomes a different order of business when the book has an AI and starts to answer you back, independently of your own subconscious. And modern scripting languages are not really that much more complicated that the Basic or DOS batch files that I first learned to use back in the dawn of electronic civilization.

I may never get good enough to let the public see any of it. But I really think it will be an excellent exercise for stretching my ability to think in four dimensions while tracking multiple plot lines simultaneously. At least I hope so. Keeping my fingers crossed.