Story Sale: Iron Out Of Vulcan

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Iron Out Of Vulcan” has been picked up by the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and would direct interested folks to its Kickstarter site.

“Iron Out Of Vulcan” tells the story of an Earth utterly defeated by incorporeal alien invaders. An Earth where the only survivors are the severely disabled…

More news to follow when the book is out. Until then, enjoy the anticipation with me!

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene ix.

It’s Scene IX!!

No word on when we get to scene Richese.

(The REAL Dune fans got that joke…)

Okay, so, I’m sorry I went silent there for awhile. I was honored to be selected as a guest mentor at the graduation breakfast by a student at my former school, a young man who is going to do great things, and who has earned his place at his second National Forensics Tournament. I can hardly wait to see how he does.

In this episode, Paul fights Jamis the Fremen, and earns the name Muad’Dib.

Act III, Scene ix.

Video Games Inspired By My Daughter: Our Town, The Reckoning

This post began when I informed my children that we would be leaving them with the grandparental units while we went out to see “Our Town.” My daughter, Wednesday* asked what it was. So I told her it was a famous play. And in great excitement she asked, “Is there a movie? If it’s famous, there should be a movie! And a video game!”

These are the kinds of things that get me thinking. Probably a bad thing.

I hadn’t ever seen “Our Town.” But when I watched it, I just couldn’t stop watching it with an eye to making it into a video game.

The opening screen: OUR TOWN: The Reckoning scrawled across the screen over the typical shapes of a small American town: two-story sided houses with a small factory in the background. The smiling face of the Stage Manager rises over Our Town. Something about his smile is just a little bit… wrong.

Your character materializes on the siding, just outside the Town Square. Walking into Grover’s Corners, pop. 2,493, you notice that the numbers are faded, and you think the 2 might once have been a 3.

As you walk into town you see a number of buildings you can venture into. The General Store, the Newspaper, and the Hospital. There are also a number of houses that you can get into that are locked, and a few more that are abandoned.

If you stay out in the Town Square long enough, you’ll see an energetic figure talking to and about people going about the more or less cheery routines of their daily lives. As he touches them, their shadows grow a bit darker, but you might not notice that.

Stay in the Town Square too long, and he’ll come over to you. He’ll be very friendly. Maybe too friendly. He’ll ask your name, and you’ll tell him. He’ll be very excited to learn that you might be thinking of settling into Grover’s Corners. He’ll start telling you about the prominent citizens: the milkman, the newspaper editor, Mr. Webb who lives alone with his wife now that their children are dead, and Old Doc Gibbs whose wife died and left him living with his son. They raise his grandchildren together since his daughter-in-law also died. You notice that that this Stage Manager seems to know a lot about the folks who have died, and you think he actually told you when one of them will die, but you take his directions to the Hotel.

As you pass the Methodist Church basement, you hear someone call out to you. That’s creepy, but the young lady who has called your name tells you that you’re in terrible danger if you don’t come with her.

She introduces you to a few people hiding in the Church basement. It’s the only place that the “Stage Manager” won’t come. The only safe place. The young woman won’t tell you her name, just that it’s changed since she got out, and she’s trying to rescue her brother, but he won’t come with her. No one but him must know that she is here. She asks for your help.

As you go through the game, you are at first confused and later horrified as your choices take you into contact with the relentlessly cheerful people of Grover’s Corners, living on as they always have, with their town dying around them, their children dying young but staying here nevertheless. You avoid the increasingly ubiquitous Stage Manager, and you realize that this is not his name, that his name is something far older.

In desperation you ascend to the Graveyard atop the hill, but only in the day, and encounter the unquiet dead resting there, concentrating desperately on the weather and the stars lest they think too much on their stolen lives: lives stolen by Satanas Mephistopheles, who remains, ever the same, nondescript middle-aged… man? Woman? You can’t recall. And it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it waits and is watching for you to return and challenge it for the lives and souls of every human left alive in Grover’s Corners.

Will you withstand its power? Will you free Our Town..?

*Not her real name. But it SHOULD have been.

Midday In The Garden Of Evil and More Evil

I consider it my duty as a husband to warn all my fellow married men that you should never under any circumstances go shopping for plants with your wife. It is a far better idea to huddle at home, or failing that, in the car, or ideally, Inner Mongolia (unless you and your wife LIVE in Inner Mongolia),

Okay, maybe under two circumstances it is a good idea to go shopping for plants with your wife:

1) When you are something like the chief arborist of a moderately-sized city and you know so much more about plants than she does because it is your job that she cannot possibly confuse you, or

b) She informs you that if you do not come plant shopping with you, you will devastate her soul because plant-shopping is a wonderful thing that Husbands and Wives can Do Together to Enrich Their Marriage.

Okay, that last one isn’t so much a “good idea” as it is the absence of a “much worse idea.”

My theory is that plant shopping is how wives get revenge on their husbands for having hobbies or interests outside of marriage. And it is the ultimate revenge. Because no matter what your hobby, whether it be beer-making, or professional hockey, or role-playing games, or professional cryptography, I guarantee you that it does not have a tenth of the jargon and arcane knowledge as the simple act of shopping for houseplants. I’m a semi-professional fantasy writer who has read all of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books including The Silmarillion, which reads like a history professor decided to make up a fantasy World History textbook because he knew all of the real world’s history and had found it needlessly simple. And gardening puts Tolkien to shame. So for all the hours you have spent boring your wife about the offside rule, or oak-cask aging, or the Hand of Vecna, or one-time pads, your wife will now have her day:

Here is a sample of the kind of thing my wife says to me while shopping for plants: “We’re looking for a nightshade varietal, or it might be called Solanaceae, and I hope they have Ornamental Weatherington Hoopla. If we’re lucky, it’s a perennial, but we might have to stick with an annual. The English varieties are hardiest but they may be too sun-loving for the giardensis we have shading the back garden, in which case we’ll want a hibiscus turtleglove for the begonias.”

Every now and then, your wife will notice that your eyes are glazing over, which is the signal for her to Ask You A Question.

This is a trap.

“What do you think, should we get the Weatherington Hoopla Peppers or the Panfrunsicum Catalonia Peppers?”

This might lead to you asking what seems a perfectly reasonable question, such as “Which tastes better?”

If you are so foolish as to ask it, you will be informed, in tones so chilling that an employee may ask you to leave the greenhouse, that these plants are ornamental, which means that they produce food that is not meant to be eaten, similar to the way you have guest towels in your house that must not ever under any circumstances come into contact with water.

The experienced husbands are nodding sagely, or, in the case of very experienced husbands, reaching for their prescription medication.

The wives are already writing angry comments to inform me that there is no such thing as “giardensis.”

We Now Commence The Reading Of The Rules!

In response to my post on how to break the rules of writing, a reader asked for my top ten rules of writing. Those are difficult to quantify, and I puzzled over how to do it, but I came to two conclusions: firstly, that anyone who needs these rules really needs them, and they need them to be basic, and secondly, that no one including me should take them too seriously, so here, in no particular order are the Basic Rules Of Science-fiction and Fantasy Writing.

Rule 1: NO POOFTERS!

No, sorry, that’s just in honor of Monty Python Status Day. In all seriousness, write any sort of characters you want, within the bounds of reason. My primary rule is that my heroes have to be the kinds  of people I like. Otherwise, I can’t stand to be around them long enough to tell their story. The only caution is that if it gets really odd, people are going to ask questions. So if you really want, say, all your characters to be Japanese and your story is set in Oliver Cromwell’s England, you do need some reason for that.

Rule 2: No Accidental Time Traveling

It should go without saying that time-traveling is just fine, but for the gods’ sake pay attention to it, and don’t let it happen without a time machine or time spell. Stories told in past tense need to stay in past tense unless you have a well-thought out scheme for transitioning them, as I described in the above-linked post. And if your story flashbacks or flashforwards, you need to make sure that the sequence of events makes sense, and you don’t have a character traveling from Boston to SF by jumbo jet in two hours.

Rule 3: No Poofters Head-hopping

I hesitate to add this, because it’s more a recent convention than a rule. James Clavell wrote excellent if long novels in true 3rd-person omniscient POV, and head-hopped like no tomorrow. But if you want to sell fiction these days, you can’t do it. And if you come up with an explicit scheme to do it anyway, it needs to be balanced. Each POV character should get roughly equal time.

Rule 4: No One Is To Misuse The Jargon In Any Way At All… Because EVERYONE Is Watching

Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall faster than someone who obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Please understand your skiffy terms and what most people mean by them. And yet, one rather well-known writer who shall remain nameless managed to create a whole series in which he apparently thought that Fusion Drive meant Faster-Than-Light travel. Don’t do this.

Rule 5: No Poofters Idiots

The reader has to be able to sympathize with your protagonist to some degree, even if you’re writing an anti-hero. We can sympathize with Macbeth, for gods’ sakes. We can sympathize with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And that means that you can’t make him or her an idiot. Yes, we all do dumb things, nor should your character be immune to that tendency. You can even have your characters get themselves into a major conflict by being an idiot, see Bujold’s A Civil Campaign again for Miles doing exactly this, to hilarious effect. But then they have to be competent at getting themselves out. They can’t be impeded by “major challenges” that a non-idiot could solve in five minutes by simply calling someone up and asking a question.

Rule 6: There is NO…!

Rule 6.

Rule 7: No Poofters Pocket Anti-Tank Guns

You cannot introduce a major or plot-altering power, for either hero or villain, late in the story. The reader feels cheated if you do. You have to explicitly and early allow your reader to know that this power exists. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this. For example, Professor McGonagall teaches Harry and friends about the Animagus Transfiguration in their 3rd year, long before any of them would be able to attempt such a thing. Why? Because it establishes then what the rules are for it. They’re highly restrictive. So when it turns out that Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew are secret Animagi, we as the readers neither find it incredibly coincidental that they happen to have that power, nor that they are not suspected of it until now.

Rule 8: I Don’t Want To Catch Anyone Living On A Planet Of Idiots:

Aaaaand this was something J.K. Rowling was incredibly bad at. Just to take one observation not completely at random, Hagrid declaims early on that every evil wizard was in Slytherin house. And this appears to be pretty nearly true (although at that time, he should have remembered that Sirius Black the Gryffindor was an exception).
So why is there still a Slytherin House? They could pretty much solve the problem by disbanding the house, unless there is some, never-really explained mystical reason they can’t, and in lieu of that, watching the hell out of it. Or, you know the fact that Time-Turners would be invaluable for a lot of things besides doing double-lectures. Such as, you know, going back to see who was opening the Chamber Of Secrets or something.
And that’s the thing. Even in magic, you can’t just establish that you can do something by magic and then pretend you can’t.

Rule 9: No Poofters Coincidences.

Like the Pocket Anti-tank Guns, the problem with coincidence is that it feels incredibly contrived. Bizarre coincidence (like a comet hitting the Earth) can START a conflict, because it’s a given. But it would be extremely unworkable to SOLVE, say, an alien invasion by having a random meteor wipe out the invader’s beachhead.

Rule 10: No Distractions

And I’ve just spent all the time I can on this list. I have books to write. So do you. Go write them.

 

 

Luke Skywalker, Rookie Cop

Have you ever imagined what Star Wars would be like if it were remade as a gritty cop drama? Like, in the real world, where the closest analogue to the way we see Jedi behave is, well, a police force, out to protect the weak and bring the bad guys to justice. And now, the mafia has effectively taken over the city, after hunting down the cops. So, here we have one of the last surviving policemen in the city, a crazy dude who lives in a slum under a partly-assumed name who the Empire leaves alone because basically he’s too much trouble to bother with. And his solution is: train some other poor young schmuck to be a cop. Completely unsupported by other cops. Imagine…

“I was once a policeman, like your father.”

“I wish I’d known him.”

“He was the best driver in Gotham, and an excellent shot. Which reminds me: your father wanted you to have this, when you were old enough.”

“What is it?”

“Your father’s Glock. This is the weapon of a LEO. Not as clumsy or random as a Saturday Night Special. An elegant  weapon for a more…”

“Let me stop you right there before you embarrass yourself further.”

“All right, a mass-produced weapon for a more bureaucratic, but still more civilized age. For over a century, the police were the guardians of peace and justice in this city. Before the Mafia.”

“How did my father die?”

“A young policeman named Darth Vader, who was pupil of mine at the Academy, helped the Don hunt down the police. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the police are all but extinct. Vader took the power that comes from breaking the Law.”

“Um, what’s the Law?”

“The Law is what gives the police his power. It’s a social contract created by all the people. It surrounds and penetrates us. It binds society together. You must learn the ways of the Law, if you are to come with me.”

“Um, yeah, and do what with that? The Mafia pretty much makes the Law these days. And then they kill you if you disobey them.”

“Um, yes, that would be ‘illegitimate’ Law. Law created by force. The dark side of the Law.”

“The ‘dark side’ of the Law. Which is still just as powerful as actual, legitimate law. Stronger, even.”

“No, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

“Uh, and stronger, because they make the rules and kill anyone who breaks them and have most of the guns. And killed all the police. You literally just said that. And all that’s left is one tiny Neighborhood Watch association that’s hiding in their own houses from the Mob. So what am I supposed to do with my father’s Glock? Join the Neighborhood Watch and kill them all?”

“No, a policeman uses the Law for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.”

“That does not seem to have a history of success around here.”

“Only a fully-trained policeman, with the Law as his ally, will overthrow Vader and his Mafia Don.”

“What? You just admitted that there was once a whole Academy-trained police force, not that long ago, who enforced the Law, and the Mafia Don slaughtered all of them and imposed gang rule. And you, by yourself…”

“And Commissioner Yoda.”

“Commissioner Yoda? Who’s he?”

“The Police Chief who taught me.”

“So you, and the only other policeman older than you are going to train me, by yourselves to without violence take down this Mafia Don who took over the entire city after murdering an entire functional police force?”

“Yes.”

“How does this Glock work?”

“With your finger away from the trigger, take the weapon off safety.”

“Here?”

“Yes.”

<BANG!>

Protagonists: A Spotter’s Guide

Works of fiction are almost always centered around protagonists. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell who the protagonist is. It is possible to have multiple protagonists. One of my favorite novels, which provides a fascinating study of different kinds of protagonists, is A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I highly recommend to everyone. Although to get full enjoyment out of it, you really should read The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers In Arms, Memory, and Komarr  first. Do it: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and if you don’t like them, you have no soul.

Finished? Good.

Now, we could cheat, looking at this book, and say “anyone whose point of view we see the action through is a protagonist,” but that’s no fun, and not always accurate. For example, we see through Quentyn Martell’s POV in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it’s hard to argue that he rises to the level of protagonist of anything but his own story, and by that definition, every character in any book, including, say, Greedo, is a protagonist. So that’s a useless definition. However in this case it does give us our five protagonists: Miles, Ekaterin, Mark, Kareen, and Ivan.

The two pairs of lovers, Miles/Ekaterin and Kareen/Mark can give us a wonderful lesson in how to give two protagonists the same, or nearly the same, goals. Bujold does a wonderful job setting this up so that the males of the pairs have essentially the same goal: win the fair damsel. The females of the pairs also have, really the same goal, which is, become a fully-capable person. Yet the flavors of the goals are highly individual: Kareen’s is a coming-of-age story. She is a child becoming an adult. Ekaterin’s is a story of recovery: she is an adult who was scarred by emotional abuse. Both struggle to escape emotional and financial dependence.
On the male side, Miles’s drive to succeed, usually a great asset, becomes his tragic flaw: his determination to win Ekaterin leads him to deceive her dishonorably, and begin a long road to redemption. Mark, on the other hand, must overcome his self-doubt in order to take any action toward helping Kareen, so he can solve his own problem.

(And I just realized that put this way, it sounds like I am describing the most boring piece of romantic, navel-gazing lit-fic in the world, rather than the sharp, funny, action-packed novel it really is. A later blog will explain how Bujold pulled this off.)

However, in the end, Bujold creates four living, breathing protagonists, each of whom have their own unique conflict that means the world to them, and each of them solves that conflict. That’s vitally important: not only does the protagonist HAVE his or her own conflict, s/he SOLVES it by making his/her OWN vital decision. BUT, each of the protagonists does have an important role to play in helping to solve the others’ problems. This creates the complex interplay that makes the book succeed so well.

But lastly, we have Ivan. Is he a protagonist, or not? At first glance, he is not. Unlike the pairs of lovers, Ivan is played purely for laughs. His romantic goals are pursued half-heartedly at best, and his pursuits fail as soon as he begins them. How then, is he a protagonist?

And the answer is this: Ivan’s goal is to help his ex-lover, Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) win his goal of being appointed Count Vorrutyer. A close examination of the text reveals that while Lord Dono is quite capable of running his District, he is utterly incapable of acquiring it through political maneuvering. And from inception to climax of that plot, Ivan is the key to turning Dono’s campaign from an utter failure to a triumphant victory. This gives us an important lesson: a protagonist’s goal need not be solely his own. It can be carried out in the name of another, provided that the protagonist achieves that goal in the pivotal moments.

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene vii (Part 1)

Transcriber’s Note: Unfortunately, what with catching up on life and the visit of my good friend, this scene is not yet finished, though it should be by Wednesday at latest: it’s a long scene. So I have decided to post what I have now, for my followers’ enjoyment. I’ll post a quick announcement when the scene is complete.

I was also humbled and gratified to be contacted by a troupe of actors who want to perform this play when it is completed. Although I am of course honored, I have no idea where that might fall under Fair Use law. I personally would consider this a parody, but it is always possible that the owners of Dune might take issue with that. This has always been a labor of love. But who knows? Anything might be possible.

And now, Scene vii, in which Paul and Jessica encounter the Fremen Stilgar, in a place and manner unlooked for.

Act III, Scene vii