A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.

 

NOT QUITE FREE FANTASY STORY!

So, I’m excited to report that with the contract novel delivered to Digital Fiction Publishing League, I’m back on track working on the continuing adventures of James and Harriet, the daring veterinarian (and his lovely assistant witch) of the Evil Dark Lord who rules the world.

Superversive Press, my publisher for this series, has agreed to allow me to post chapters as they are completed, and this will continue until the work is done. And as an incentive to back me on Patreon, I am offering to my patrons the next chapter in James and Harriet’s saga: “The Exanimation Room.”

Now, go patronize me!

The Adopt A Bottle Of Scotch Charity Birthday Drive.

Dear friends. I am writing to inform you that thousands of bottles of scotch languish daily on liquor store shelves waiting to be adopted. To address this issue, I am selflessly dedicating my birthday to their cause. Won’t you please follow the link and donate to this noble goal? Should I gather sufficient funds, a picture and review will be posted of the “rescued” bottle.

Perhaps you feel that buying writers scotch is not really “supporting” them, because they might end up “drunk.” Well, you are right! In that case, you could buy one of my fine books on my Amazon Page.

Or, perhaps you do not feel like contributing money. Excellent! You could spare a moment to write a quick review of one of the fine books on my Amazon Page!

We’re just grateful for whatever you can do.

The Post-Apocalyptic To Do List For Non-Preppers

What I have learned from a study of post-apocalyptic literature and film.

  1. First and most obviously, you really need lots of guns. LOTS of fucking guns. Get those as quick as possible. If you already have them, you’re ahead of the game, but if you have time we recommend duct-taping a bunch of jaggedy things on them, in case that makes them look more intimidating than, I don’t know, having a GUN! Remember, ammo will be scarce, so ideally you want a gun that makes those motherfuckers wet themselves and faint just by displaying them in a holster. Try one of those chainsaw bayonets the media warned us about last year. There have to be some around.
  2. Keep lots of alcohol on hand. You should be able to do this now: you have guns. Alcohol keeps practically forever, is good for trade and purifying water, and when bottled or pressurized can make a dandy flamethrower or bomb. And, given the shit that’s coming down, you might just want to stay drunk. Except when you’re familiarizing yourself with how the guns work, of course.
  3. Next, acquire a silver nose, eyepatch, or gauntlet that looks like you’ve replaced your hand. That scares the fuck out of people.
  4. Of course, if you’re REALLY feeling hardcore, or are among those of us who are unmuscularly slender or grossly overweight, and who look about as intimidating scantily clad (and you will be scantily clad. Clothes are at a premium, and NICE clothes are now a sign saying “Kill Me For Food”*) as an eight year-old boy flexing in Underoos, go ahead and amputate a limb and replace it with car parts. That scares the ever-living fuck out of people. This is painful, but quick and easy, especially if you aren’t very familiar with your new guns.
  5. Q.E.D. Swear a fuckload more than you do in real life. Otherwise, you’re pretty much volunteering for fucking slavery by virtue of not being intimidating enough.
  6. Really I can’t emphasize this point enough: kill and subjugate those Society For Creative Anachronism motherfuckers as fast as you can with those bullets before you run out. Partly because with their preindustrial knowledge, they’re going  to be your greatest long-term threat, but ALSO because it’s going to be funnier than shit to watch “Duke” Edward, “King” Jason and “Queen” Alicia realize that their twenty years of learning blacksmithing and weaving has uniquely fitted them to be the most valuable and closely-watched slaves in your new Empire Of Terror. And it’s the apocalypse, so you need the laughs.
  7. Don’t worry too much about medicine except for disinfectants (which you’re set for, because you have all that alcohol) and of course, The Plague that is creeping over the countryside, and doesn’t have a cure anyway. No one ever seems to get ordinarily sick after the apocalypse.
  8. Finally, make sure to take the mufflers off your car and install afterburners and as many jagged rusty metal bits as you can. This pretty much guarantees you’ll always find a supply of gas.
  9. Oh, yes, and the films especially suggest that you probably don’t want to make the mistake of being female unless you own Thunderdome.

Happy Hunting!

 

How To Tell If You’re In A Dystopian YA Novel.

“So,” said President Maximum Leaderking. “You come highly…” he paused to look at the notes in front of him. “Recommended.”

You’ve been on your own for seven years now. Seven years since the Derpvirus swept the globe and turned all the adults stupid. Well, stupider. Now, you’re more intelligent than any adult human simply by virtue of being sixteen. President Leaderking used to be a Nobel Laureate. Now, he might be qualified to manage a McDonalds. Only problem is, all the adults remember how to use guns, and President Leaderking’s goontroopers each carry an AH&SKS-757 Magnum Assault Rifle.

Seeing as there are six of them behind you, you say, “Yes, sir.”

“But you were not unaffected by the virus, were you?” President Leaderking continued.

How had he found out? You’d been so careful! But he knew. He obviously knew.

“No.”

“Smile for me, please?”

Alone in the room with him, you withdraw your luscious, full lips, revealing your vampire fangs.

“Well,” said President Leaderking. “That, combined with your top scores in archery and unarmed combat make you especially useful for our Outcast Squadron. It’s a group of ultracompetent freaks like you that we train to be terrors in combat and then unleash on the unsuspecting Borderlands totally unsupervised so that you can clear any survivors from our territory.”

Curse them for sending you out with nothing but natural talent and military training into a whole populace of poor people that the Government ruthlessly oppresses. What hope have you?

“It’s time for you to meet your new comrades.” And Leaderking mashes a button that activates the trapdoor you’ve been standing on, sending you down a ten-story chute.

A rough hand helps you up. It’s bigger than any hand you’ve ever encountered. “Hi,” said the boy. He must have been at least nineteen, and built like a really sexy tree, with dark brown hair and a beard that was at once full enough to make him look manly, and scraggly enough not to be gross. “I’m Logan Darkblade. You must be our vampire. Sorry about the ride.”

“What are you?” you stammer.

“He’s our shifter,” says another voice behind you. You turn and see a slender, olive-skinned boy with long, blond hair coiffed in a neat ponytail.

“What’s a shifter?”

“It’s like a werewolf. Except for not being gross or a curse. I can turn into a wolf that looks like an enormous, well-groomed dog at will.”

“Wow. And what do you do?”

“I’m Gareth Longthorne. I’m the Hunter.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m very good at every martial art and form of weapon known to man. I’m just good enough that you almost can’t show me up because you’re a girl. You’ll find that makes me devastatingly attractive. Now I should introduce you to our siren.”

“Why do we need a..?”

“No, her name’s Lydia Gravesend. She’s almost as beautiful as you, and you can tell by her red hair and snotty manner that she’s so freakishly outcast that she would never betray us to President Leaderking if we should give our allegiance to the oppressed of the Borderlands and lead an insurrection.”

“How do you know?” you ask.

“She’s wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Not A Spy For The Office Of The President.”

“Oh, good.”

 

As You Know, Bob, You’re In A Hard Science-Fiction Novel.

“I am? I’m in a hard science-fiction novel? How do you know that?”

“Well, Bob, look at it this way. What do you do?”

“I’m a scientist.”

“And what sort of scientist are you?”

“Well, I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“Right. And do you have any mad and overly-complicated schemes to take over the world?”

“Um. No?”

“How about make tons of money by dumping nuclear waste illegally all over women and children in some underdeveloped nation?”

“What? NO! Why would anyone DO that? Thorium reactors don’t even…”

“Please, Bob. We’ll let you have your exposition later. That’s how you know you’re in a Hard SF novel. In any other setting, a nuclear physicist would by definition be the villain. And who are all your co-workers here on this ship?”

“Well, there’s Dave the astronomer, and Karen the biogeneticist, and Shu-Ling the botanist, and Raymundo the geologist.”

“Okay, so two things to notice. First of all, everyone on this ship is a scientist, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“So, no one is here just to pilot the ship?”

“Dave does that.”

“Or fix the ship?”

“Raymundo in an expert mech…”

“Or cook meals?”

“Karen is a professional chef at…”

“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing us all. Not only are the women all in the life sciences, one of them is actually your cook?”

“She’s a professional chef. That makes it not sexist.”

“Of course it does. And she, not to mention all of you, can have completely different full-time careers as well as being world-class, practically-Nobel laureates because scientists are just that smart, right?”

“Well… yeah? But I don’t do any of that stuff!”

“And what do you do for fun?”

“I play the violin.”

“And you did what with that back on Earth?”

“I was the concertmaster for the Boston Orchestra.”

“Of course you were. Why scientists should probably be running the planet Earth rather than running around in spaceships.”

“Well, we’re saving the planet from climate change and overpopulation and corporate greed actually, but I think your suggestion has merit…”

“I am just shocked to hear that. Bob, Karen had a question about nuclear physics she asked me to pass along: How much radiation should we expect to take traveling near the corona of that M-class star we’re approaching?”

“Well, that depends very much whether we’re talking about alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. As you know, alpha radiation consists of the nuclei of helium atoms, about which the electrons orbit…”

“Why are you answering the question of a double Ph.D as if she’s a high-school student? And using the Bohr model, which hasn’t been current for like fifty years?”

“Um, because… well, um…”

“Is it because your readers’ last contact with nuclear physics was in their junior year of high school? In Mr. Kramer’s class? That he went over once? For thirty minutes? While they were asleep?”

“Dammit.”

I Cast Missile Magicis

It occurred to me today that so much  would be explained if Dungeons and Dragons was actually supplying the Potterverse with its stuff. I just picture some Harry Potter wizards accidentally Apparating into a D&D plane and turning it into a gold mine. For example, this is a gelatinous cube:

Image result for gelatinous cube

As you can deduce, it’s a big monster that dissolves things. Swords aren’t much help, but maybe a couple of wizards stumble on it:

“What the hell is that, Nigel?”

“Our meal ticket this month, Rupert. Wands out. And Freezing Charm on three: One… two…”

And a few heavy blows with a hammer later, you’ve got the Acid Pops that they kept selling to the students in Hogsmeade.

Image result for Acid Pops

 

 

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.”

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!>