Category Archives: Reading

Free Space Opera / SF Novella

For a limited time, I’m giving away free copies of the first novella of my Renegades series. For the next five days, if you use the coupon code MG57A when you check out, you can get Renegades: Deserter’s Redemption for free from Smashwords (link).

Mike doesn’t want to be anyone’s friend. He doesn’t want to be a leader. He sure doesn’t want to be a hero. He’s tried all of that before; it didn’t work out then and he knows it wouldn’t work out now.

He doesn’t have a choice.

Caught by an invading alien race and shipped off to a prison station as (expendable) labor, Mike will have to become all of those things in order to escape. More, he’ll have to turn a band of misfits into a group that can not only survive… but escape from a place where survival is measured in hours. In the doing, he may have to do the one thing he knows will get him killed: learn how to trust.

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Writing habits and what I do in my off time

So, dear readers, the question arose in another setting as to what I do in my off time, and just how I recharge my mental capacitors in order to write more.  This in turn, came up as a result of an offhand comment that I wrote 5800 words in four hours last weekend.  It’s not uncommon for me to write a full novel in a couple weeks or a short story in a couple hours.  I typically hate writing about myself, it seems arrogant and all that.  Still, what works for me, as a writer, might help other people too, so I’ll give it a shot.  Also, it’s National Write a Novel Month, so this kind of thing might help someone to meet their writing goals.

First off, I’ll confess that I don’t have a lot of down-time.  Really, right now, I’ve got essentially zero.  I’m working twelve to fourteen hour days with the Army right now, so I do my writing during lunch or instead of sleep.  To make things more interesting, I’m getting married in December, so my fiance and I are doing all kinds of wedding planning and organization.  Then there’s this blog, self-publishing admin work, and a host of other fun things that keep me very, very busy.  All that aside, when I do get free time, how do I spend it?  Well, reading is probably one of my top things to do.  I own a lot of books.  Every time the Army moves me, the movers have no issues until they hit my study… then they freak out.  I’m slowly transitioning to ebooks, but some of my favorite authors are only available in paper format and every now and again I’ll make a nice discovery at a bookstore… and so the collection continues to grow.  I’ve already written a bit about my favorite authors, so I’ll just say that I love to read.  Mostly science fiction and fantasy, but also historical non-fiction, military non-fiction, some mysteries, a lot of the classics, and some random things that have caught my attention.

I’ve also got a lot of gaming hobbies.  I’ve played a number of roleplaying games to include D&D (3.5 is my personal favorite, though I’ve played since 2nd edition), Alternity, Rifts, L5R, and Pathfinder.  I love to play, but I often get roped into being the Gamemaster.  This, of course, leads to me having less available time.  I also play Warhammer 40k and Fantasy tabletop strategy games.  I’ve got an extensive collection and a lot of models to paint still.  I like games in general because they’re a good way to socialize with friends and to push the boundaries and explore possibilities.  I used to be more into computer/console games, to include shooters (Half Life, Counterstrike, CoD, MW3), MMORPGs (Eve, WoW, ToR), and strategy games (Homeworld, Civilization, Red Alert, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires) but I prefer to spend time with friends in person, without the electronic interface.  Also, I’m pretty short of time as I previously mentioned.  If you aren’t careful, computer games (especially MMO’s) are holes in which to dump time and money.

Outside activities are pretty important to me.  I grew up in Colorado and Texas, both great places to get out and do stuff.  I’m an avid skiier, I love hiking, camping, fishing, and shooting.  I have some favorite spots up in the mountains of Colorado, but I love the wilderness in general.  I also listen to music, everything from Puccini to Chevelle.  The right music at the write time is a great way to enjoy the moment or just to relax.  My favorite types of music are the ones that resonate with my current emotional state.  So yes, I’ll listen to opera if I’m in the mood.  I really enjoy classic rock, to include Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Foriegner, Charlie Daniels Band, Foghat, Pink Floyd and a few others.  I’ll also listen to a variety of modern bands, to include Cruxshadows, E Nomine, A Perfect Circle, Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Nickleback, Three Doors Down, Within Temptation, and a lot of other random stuff.  I really enjoy complexity, deep bass lines, and a variety.

Why is this stuff important?  I do that kind of thing to refresh my brain and help me put things into perspective so I can write.  I’ll be honest, I get the most productivity from writing if I’m in a windowless room without distractions.  No internet, no TV, no people, just me and a notebook or a computer.  I do most of my preparation to write while I’m in my down time.  And yes, I have had moments where I’ll be in the middle of a movie or out on a hike and suddenly something will click in my brain and I know exactly how I’m going to write that scene that has bothered me for the past three years.

Something I’ve found very true is that writing is a lot of work.  It is a constant thought process.  My fiance can tell when I’m thinking about writing, because I get a thousand yard stare and I’m only half paying attention to anything.  I’ve driven home during rush hour traffic, got lost in thought, and literally couldn’t remember the entire drive.  Recharging that capacity for thought is very necessary.  It prevents burn-out and it helps refresh ideas.  You can’t write if your brain hasn’t had time to process material.

When I do get writing, what habits to I utilize to maximize my output?  When I have time to really focus on writing, I typically set myself a schedule.  It goes a long way to forcing yourself to write, whether you feel like it or not.  And trust me, at a certain point, a schedule makes it so that you are ready for that time when it comes.  What I put on my schedule may not work for you, but some of the ideas of why I put them on there may help you out.  First off, I get up early and do something active.  Normally this is a workout, but it might just be a long walk.  Afterwards I’ll find something that gets my brain engaged and active, this could be work, a game, a puzzle, whatever.  Time-wise, I’d suggest at least an hour for each.  This makes me alert, but also gives me more energy for the day.  As an aside, don’t forget to eat, and eat healthy.  I’ve covered a lot of this in my “Finding Time to Write” post, and I realize I’m rehashing a bit, but it bears repeating.  In the afternoon I’ll work out again and then read through my notes and see what I need to accomplish.  Here’s the fun part for me: I’ll take a nap.  Maybe only forty minutes or so, but that gives my brain time to reset and think things through.

After that, I write.  Earphones in, internet unplugged, and in a comfortable position.  I’ll write everything that comes to me, it doesn’t matter if I scrap every word I write, later, for now, it is all about putting it on the page.  At this point, I’ve spent most of the morning thinking about what I was going to write, and it should come out easily.  If not, well, then I focus on getting things written anyway.  The most important writing habit is, well, writing.

How does this work, if, like me, you don’t have a lot of free time?  Well, again, a schedule helps.  Time management is the key, as is self discipline.  If you have ten hours of time when you’re not at work, well, you have my sympathies.  Allocate some time for sleep and and rest and all the fun stuff.  Put the rest towards writing.  I’ve functioned before on four hours of sleep or less each night for a four months.  It was miserable, but I managed to write not just one but two full length novels.  Why do that to myself?  Honestly, I had to.  I needed some outlet for all the stuff in my brain and I wanted to do something productive with it.  As my favorite writing joke goes: “What’s hell?  Spending all eternity hunched over a keyboard made out of razorblades.  What’s heaven?  You’re published.”  I write because I must, it is part of who I am.

So, my dear reader, if you wanted to know more about me, or if you just wanted my perspective on how to churn out some words, hopefully that helps.  If you didn’t, well, why’d you bother to read all this?

 

Plots, Plot Twists, and Subplots

Or as one might say… that’s a lot of plots.  From a couple questions I got back, I’m not sure that I broke things down well enough on my earlier discussion of plots, The Conniving Plotters.  So I thought I’d clear things up and set some ground definitions regarding story elements.

The plot, sometimes called the narrative, is the sequence of events or character interactions that makes up a story.  To put it simply, the ‘stuff’ that happens to characters and the ‘stuff’ characters do in return.  Plot and Characterization together make the story.  Unless you have a large readership that likes navel-gazing, you have to have some kind of plot, or sequence of events and scenes.  The other part of this, of course, is that you typically want a coherent plot.  The sequence of events has to make sense, most times, and this is called building a narrative.  To build a narrative, the plot elements all work towards an overall goal and build the story into a cohesive whole.  Often there is mention of plot structure, which often takes the form of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.  To break it down, Exposition is the introduction, this establishes what characters are involved and the circumstances.  Rising action establishes the problem and the consequences, this could be as simple as a disagreement between two characters or as complex as the potential destruction of the world.  Climax involves the turning point, where the characters decisions or actions change the course of the story or event.  Falling action is the immediate aftereffects of the climax.  Lastly, Resolution is the consequences and the story or event concludes.  Many writers build the overall plot around this form, while other writers build every scene to this pattern.  There are exceptions to this rule, such as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the point was that the universe and plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense (although one could argue in that series that the plot as a whole was built very well and it was just difficult to see from the begining) .  Most books, generally, have a plot which can be summed up in either a sentence or at least a few lines.  Sometimes the plot can be very complex, which leads me to the next topic.

Plot twists are events that change the course of the plot.  This is often in the form of a sudden and radical shift in the story that changes the reader’s expectations.  Examples of plot twists are common in books and movies.  Often a sudden revelation or unexpected event can heighten the experience for a reader.  Plot twists are an essential element of storytelling.  Some books and movies use plot twists to increase the suspense.  In others, plot twists are meant to provide humor or to cause another emotional reaction.  Plot twists can be overdone, however.  At a certain point, a reader may become burned out, after having their expectations shattered again and again and simply cease to care.  Another hazard with a plot twist is to fail to foreshadow.  When a reader feels that a plot twist came out of nowhere, they can be frustrated with the results.  Foreshadowing, or laying some other groundwork and hints for a reader, is one way to cushion the fall when a plot twist jerks the rug out from under them.  An example of a plot twist is when the magic artifact turns out to be a dud or the main character finds out his nemesis is actually his father.

Subplots are often non-essential to the main plot, but involve secondary characters or even main character’s goals and stories within the main story.  A subplot often serves the purposes of building characterization and character development.  Subplots also are methods in which an overall story among a series is built.  This is a way to tell additional stories within the main story itself.  Examples of a subplot is the romance between two secondary characters or a search for the long lost family member.

These are all things that help to build a story.  They’re tools to a writer.  If you want to succeed as a writer, understanding plot, plot twists, and subplots will go a long way.

My National Write a Novel Month Writing Goals

Just a quick update on my National Write a Novel Month Writing Goals, or since the whole endeavor seems rather enamored of acronyms: NaNoWriMoWriGo.  And if you can say that out loud without giggling, you might have something wrong with you.

My goals for this coming month are to complete four stories.  The first is a novella in the Renegades series, Out of the Cold.  It covers the arrival of the crew to inhabited human space… and some of their misadventures.  The next one is Renegades: Assassin.  The one after that is an as-yet untitled Renegades story from Pixel’s perspective.  Last, I want to complete Renegades: Privateer.  All told, the writing goal for November is around 130k words.

On top of this, I’m continuing to edit several novels and novellas for self-publishing.  Next one to come is another Renegades novella, with (hopefully) The Fallen Race, my first full length self-published novel, to come before December.  We shall see.  I’ll also have a bit more free fiction available, to include a background short story of one of the more interesting characters from Renegades: Run the Chxor.  That one will be out in the next few days.

Thanks for reading!

Urban Fantasy

It's easy to imagine the extraordinary when superimposed on the ordinary...
It’s easy to imagine the extraordinary when superimposed on the ordinary…

Urban fantasy is, at its root, a mishmash of a variety of genres.  The typical urban fantasy author often combines one or more genres of fiction with fantasy in their story.  The fun of urban fantasy stories often lies in the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Wizards duke it out with magic and bullets, Police investigate supernatural crimes, and elves drink Miller Lite and watch Nascar.   The possibilites are limitless, especially when the stories can be told in so many ways.  Supernatural Romance, Paranormal Investigation, Zombie Apocalpyse, even Superpower Crime Noir novels are all under the broad catagory of Urban Fantasy.  As a market, the genre has been extremely successful, from the Harry Potter series to Twilight, there has been far more mainstream appeal to Urban Fantasy than other aspects of Science Fiction or Fantasy.

Why is that?  Well, there’s a number of reasons.  Honestly, one of the big ones is that it’s easier for the average person to get into.  They don’t have to try to memorize funny names for people or places, they don’t have to figure out some other world.  The setting is someplace they’ve heard of, maybe even lived in.  The events and history, while different in the particulars, are the same history that they learned in school.  Sure, magic might be a smaller or greater effect in that history, but these little changes often are part of the charm.  What if the Kaiser used necromancers in World War I to raise zombie hordes such as in Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles?  What if the Red Vampires secretly seduce and abduct thousands of people across the country as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files?  It doesn’t change how the main course of history went, and society, places, and events are still the same.  This makes it easy for the average person to pick up a book for casual reading.

Another reason that Urban Fantasy novels tend to be so popular is that they’ve gotten their hooks into this generation.  Many kids grew up with Harry Potter, and now that they’re adults, urban fantasy seems relatively mainstream.  They read these types of books, they’ve seen the movies, they are ready to suspend their disbelief that magic exists in secret.  The resurgence of general media such as Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, and others has also encouraged this.  These are shows that amplify the paranormal, and put out logical reasons for the existance of the supernatural.  These shows are also extremely popular because they encourage such imagination and questions of ‘what if.’

Another reason for the popularity, urban fantasy stories often provide characters that the readers can easily identify with.  A soccer mom makes an easy person to relate to, she drives a minivan, picks her kids up from school, films her daughter’s softball game, and happens to channel the powers of light to slay demons such as in John Ringo’s Princess of Wands.  It is an easy buy-in for a reader.  A private investigator who helps out the police now and again could be the character in almost any standard fiction story.  When that story’s character happens to be best friends with a twenty thousand year old vampire who is the lone survivor of Atlantis such as Ryk Spoor’s Digital Knight, the story becomes interesting to say the least.  Yet everyone has the odd friend or two, so this isn’t something that would totally confuse a new reader.

Of interest to me, both as an author and a reader, urban fantasy often acts as a gateway genre to more traditional fantasy books.  Readers sometimes really like the ideas and concepts and so they’ll dive a little deeper into the overall broader fantasy genre.  Also, writers who have made their break in urban fantasy often branch out into other areas, such as Jim Butcher with his Codex Alera series.  Sometimes it works the otherway, such as with John Ringo, who wrote Princess of Wands after he established an extensive science fiction bibliography.

Overall, there are a number of excellent books that I’d recommend.  Urban Fantasy is an exciting and fun genre of books to read, and there are plenty of books to check out.  Off hand, I recommend: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series, John Ringo’s Princess of Wands, and a few others in the Books I’d Recommend section.

  

Characterization Case Study: Gravity

originalThe best way to study characterization and plot is to look at examples, both good and bad, and to note what worked and what didn’t.  I’m going to do a quick case study of the recent movie Gravity.  It’s an interesting movie that (due to a very small cast and a rather linear plot) can be analyzed with relative ease.  As a quick disclaimer: this is not a movie review and it will hold some spoilers.  As a secondary disclaimer: I enjoyed the movie, the music, special effects, science and plot were all relatively well grounded and a lot of fun… but I’m going to dissect the characters in the movie as examples of good and bad characterization. 

First things first, a look at characterization.  There are really only two characters in the movie: Stone and Kowalski.  The movie does an excellent job right away to establish Kowalski as a cowboy, right down to his music selection as he bounces around the hubble telescope on his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit).  He’s excited to be where he is, cocky, and clearly knows what he’s doing.  Throughout the rest of his (brief) stint in opening part of the movie, this is all we really see of Kowalski.  Stone on the other hand, is more difficult to characterize.  At first, she is totally focused on her work.  Later when things begin to go wrong, she panics.  We learn that she doesn’t want to die, that she is afraid, and that she really doesn’t seem to like space.

This last was the part that broke characterization for me.  The way things are now, if someone isn’t totally dedicated and driven to become an astronaut, they won’t even stand a chance.  It doesn’t matter what your background is or how important your mission, you can always train someone else.  There are millions of applicants and countless intelligent people willing to learn whatever skills it takes to go to space, they won’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But then Kowalski shows up to save Stone.  The two learn that they are the only survivors from the shuttle and both deal with it in their own ways.  Kowalski becomes professional and reverts to an almost military mode.  From the perspective of characterization, this is excellent.  We see the other side of a character, and we see that his cowboy persona is just one facet of a more complex person.  Stone just sort of shuts down.  She says that she’s low on oxygen, she doesn’t volunteer any information, and at several points, tells Kowalski that he should leave her, that she’s slowing him down.  This, frankly, makes her character seem rather dull.  In the initial panic and worry of the disaster, we are immediately sympathetic to her character.  She is adrift and struggles to survive, we want to root for her.  Her giving up after being found and rescued by Kowalski gives away a lot of that initial viewer sympathy.  No one likes a quitter, and the apathy that she begins to show about her own death makes her character seem very bland and hard to identify with.

Then, in typical survival mode, Kowalski asks Stone about where she is from, if she has anyone who waits for her back home, if she likes her job and what she does after work.  This is the perfect moment in a book for the viewer to identify with a character.  You learn about the details of their life, the things that guided them and shaped them.  The scene could not have been framed better, with only the two characters, tethered by a single cable and with the entire Earth as a backdrop.  Literally, they’re the only two people who exist, with no other distractions… and Stone takes a right turn to depression.  Stone doesn’t have a family, she had a daughter who died in an accident.  She apparently doesn’t have parents, siblings, or any romantic interest at all either.  In fact she seems to have no reason to go on living.  She concludes her brief explanation with a statement that she ‘just drives.’  She seems to be a woman with no reason left to live… so why exactly is she in space?  Please, tell me that her device would prevent future falling accidents such as the one that killed her daughter or cure cancer or at least give her some goal or drive to base her life upon.  Give me something, I want to root for these characters.  They’re in a disaster with miniscule odds of survival, I want to think that their lives mean something.

The two characters reach their destination, but in true movie fashion, the EMU (rather like a jetpack) runs out of fuel in the last seconds.  The two tumble and scramble for a hold, and in the end, Stone is tangled in some line attached to the station and Kowalski is attached to Stone by the tether.  Of course, the cables are slipping and there is too much mass for the friction of the cables to overcome.  Kowalski says that he’s going to cut himself loose, and explains to Stone what she’ll have to do to survive.  This is a pivotal moment in both character’s story arcs.  The cowboy/professional mission commander sacrifices himself (showing yet another side of himself) while the frightened and confused Doctor Stone has to come out and shine, to find her internal strength and succeed despite the odds.  Frankly, I think it was a bit heavy-handed.  The scene could have played out more true to Kowalski’s character if done in a split-second decision, rather than as it played out… a long and agonizing moment for Stone.  They did it more for plot reasons than characterization, I think.  They set up Stone without the tools to survive so they wanted Kowalski to give her those.  Given the amount of time they had, and the way they established Kowalski’s character, I think it more likely he would have attempted something dramatic to save them both.  However, clearly the story they wanted to explore was Stone’s growth, even if Kowalski was the more interesting character.

Stone then follows Kowalski’s guidance.  As an added threat, besides the debris that moves faster than any Earth-bound bullet, the station catches fire.  Because, really, Stone needed something to get her to get moving again.  Stone begins step two of three towards her return to earth and then discovers that her ride to the next stop is out of fuel.  This would be a perfect time for her to show her internal strength and that drive to survive.  Instead, she tries to reach someone, anyone, for help.  In the end, after a tearful conversation with some chinese guy with a dog and a baby, she decides that she doesn’t want to wait another ninety minutes for the debris to hit her yet again, she’ll just turn down the air and go to sleep.

Okay, I’m sorry, but while the plot of the movie had me hooked, at this point I just stopped caring about the character of Doctor Stone.  She has no family, no goals, no dreams, no ambition… she’s survived to this point because she doesn’t want to die and because someone we did care about sacrificed himself so that she would have a chance.  Honestly, I come back to the whole question: why is Doctor Ryan Stone here in space and who chose the hardest person in the world to identify with to be the survivor?

Cue the return of Mission Commander Kowalski.  His snarky comments and upbeat words breathe some life into Stone just before the obvious reveal that he was a figment of her subconscious as her brain shut down from lack of oxygen.  Luckily, she realizes she does have a way to survive after all, and goes about it.  She seems to have decided to live because Kowalski wanted her to, which in itself is something, at least.  Do it for the dead guy, it works in sports movies for a reason, and it at least gives us a reason why the lone survivor doesn’t just die.

As far as characterization, that concludes the entire movie.  We get a brief moment at the end where Stone stands up on the beach, somewhere on Earth and walks away.  This seems more a statement of survival than anything more profound.  In fact, the character of Doctor Stone doesn’t really seem to draw any closure.  She survives, which closes out the plot, but we don’t have any way to see what she has become, or even if she has changed at all.  What will drive her, after her survival, what will she do and who will she become afterwards?  These question remain unanswered, which, as a viewer I would find supremely irritating… except I really didn’t care at that point.  Stone was just the point of view for the ride, and I could walk away without any of those questions being answered.

Hopefully my fellow writers can take away some lessons from this.  I know I did, the biggest being that if you create a character that doesn’t care about themselves… your audience wont either.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a disaster, but the rest of your product, book, movie or game, will have to make up for that in other areas.