Category Archives: Writing

Iron, Blood and Backstory

Unless we’re writing about the birth of time, our worlds always have a backstory. There are several different ways to deal with it.

The backstory is reality. For example in Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, a planet-sized space shape crosses hyperspace and emerges in orbit around Earth. The moon is ripped apart, tidal waves and earthquakes ravage the world and the characters struggle to survive. Plus, of course, there are aliens.

Up until the starship appeared, the world was normal. We don’t need to know what it was like before the start of the story because we were living in it (we do get some backstory later on the spaceship and its inhabitants). The backstory is irrelevant.

I come close to this with Atoms For Peace: even though the world is slightly off-kilter (recovering from a Martian invasion) it still seems like that was one crazy fluke. Then Gwen Montgomery discovers a mutated lizard man dead in her street …

The protagonist is a newbie. This is one specfic uses a lot: the POV character is thrust into a new situation knowing nothing about the backstory. This excuses them asking constant questions and sitting through infodumps in response. This is painful to read if the info dump isn’t interesting (it usually isn’t). One of the things I hated about Charles Stross’s The Family Trade was the constant stream of infodumping directed at the protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a problem, though, if it’s done well: Mur Lafferty introduced a newbie to the supernatural world in The Shambling Guide to New York City without leaving me feeling dumped on.

In media res. This is the one I tend toward in my own writing — the protagonists aren’t newbies and whatever’s going on has been going on a while.

I’m not so much talking about starting in the middle of the action (which I do sometimes) as much as establishing that the weirdness pre-existed the events of the book. In No One Can Slay Her, for instance, magic’s a part of every day life in the 1950s. Jennifer Armstrong has been dealing with supernatural threats since her teen years (her wyrd guarantees it); her Beatnik wife Kate has the gift of wild magic. When I wrote Brain From Outer Space (the as yet uncompleted novel that inspired the Atoms for Peace stories), alien invasions, pod people, mutants and mad science were just “Tuesday” for my cast.

It’s common in urban fantasy, which Gail Z. Martin writes, so it’s not surprising she and her husband went that route in their steampunk fantasy Iron & Blood (cover by Michael Kormarck, all rights remain with current holder). Jake and his partner Rick have been relic-hunting for a while (mostly stealing antiques from people whose ownership claim is dubious). Steampunk tech is taken as normal, magic is middling (not everyone believes). And the events that trigger the plot — Jake’s father acquired a rare item that someone wants enough to kill him (and they did) — have been accomplished before Page One. We get some exposition about the characters along the way, but not much about the setting.

I enjoy that approach. Like I said, it’s one I use a lot myself. Although I found having the two federal agents “Sturm and Drang” already hunting a Jack the Ripper type as the book starts made it a little overfull (perhaps it’s because the Martins are going to spin them off into their own adventures). I still really enjoyed the book (and that is my honest opinion, even though Gail’s a friend of mine).

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Reading, Southern Discomfort

I found her

So it was Valentine’s Day Wednesday. Which put me in mind of Kipling’s poem The Thousandth Man, albeit genderflipped:

“One woman in a thousand, Solomon says
Will stick more close than all others.
And it’s worthwhile seeking her half your days
If you find her before the other.”

It did take half my days (we met when I was fifty), but I did find her. And that’s made such a wonderful difference. For Valentine’s Day we went out to Ted Turner’s Montana Grill (it’s close, and we had a limited time window). TYG got me a new belt, which I’d asked for. I got her bath bombs and typhus (see left).

Now, as to this week’s writing:

First, the Space Invaders proposal for a movie book got thumbed down. The editor I’d been working with contacted me Monday to let me know. Apparently they’re having some internal upheaval and he’s no longer associated with them either. However even though it was his idea, he gave me the blessing to shop it around on my own. I intend to do so, possibly to McFarland, maybe to a different press that works with this topic. And there’s always self-publishing. Though my experience with editing and proofing my McFarland books makes me slightly dubious about the editing: even my relatively short Bond book took a lot of work (errors in fact are far more grievous than errors in self-published fiction, I think).

Another thing that’s not happening, at least yet: I received an email from the new owners of And Magazine, asking if I wanted to take up column-writing again. I’m interested, but I haven’t heard back since I said “Let’s talk.” Whether they lost interest or something fell through I don’t know, yet.

Other news was more upbeat. I reviewed the last draft of my Undead Sexist Cliches book at the start of the week rather than leaving it to the end. I was pleasantly surprised that it went much smoother that way. By the end of the week I had a much clearer idea of what will go in which chapter (some chapters will be substantially larger than others, but I think that’s okay). And I went through a ton of articles I’d bookmarked around the web and mined them for more stuff. I’ll start the next draft in March.

Despite my pessimism last week, I also figured out how to fix No One Can Slay Her and completed the latest draft (number fifteen, sheesh!). I feel much more optimistic I’ll have it polished and finished by the end of March. I also did a lot of work on The Impossible Takes a Little Longer and Questionable Minds.

I didn’t get a Screen Rant done. I pitched several ideas but I only got a green light on one, with instructions to wait a couple of weeks (it’s close to another we did recently). A couple of others are still maybes.

And I got my quota of Leaf articles done.

I also dealt with a couple of different contractors and got the state car inspection taken care of Monday. So a good, productive week.

I shall attempt to make the weekend as unproductive and leisurely as possible.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder (it’s a very good book by the way, i read it some years back).

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Screen Rant, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Short Stories, Story Problems, Writing

Rewriting old stuff: The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

I really like my novel The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Enough that I’m rewriting it for probably the fourth time.

When I wrote the original version back in the 1990s, I was intrigued by the idea of cabal of people possessing metahuman powers, manipulating the rest of us behind the scenes. Then I wondered, given the level  of power they wielded, why they’d be behind the scenes. Wouldn’t they be more likely to flaunt their powers? Not necessarily by conquering the world. Some paranormals would be happy using their powers as wizards or wonder-working preachers. Or getting elected mayor or senator as often as they want the job. Or using their healing powers as an EMT. Or believing themselves to be the Second Coming, Thor incarnate, the Antichrist, etc. As the nature of paranormal power baffles science, everyone interprets their abilities differently.

My protagonist, KC, is a comics nerd, so she became Nighthawk, one of the few superheroes in the world. In contrast to most superhero novels, KC doesn’t have all the cool stuff — awesome adversaries, amazing adventures — and settles for bodyguarding abortion doctors, getting battered women to shelters (she’s bulletproof, so if the husband objects she doesn’t have to use lethal force), fighting the occasional paranormal. And wishing she could have foes as cool as in comics. As you can probably guess, KC gets a real A-list supervillain and finds herself in over her head.

Part of her backstory was sex abuse, which wasn’t too overused back in the 1990s. I think I handled it well, and it did figure into the novel thematically (the bad guy’s fatal mistake is assuming abuse defines her — it doesn’t). But since then, abuse has become a cliche (and one I hate), so that aspect of the story has bothered me more and more. I read one chapter for my writing group and they weren’t keen on that aspect either.

I’m also uncomfortable with my handling of the Comanches. They’ve been manipulated by a powerful paranormal with a yen for Westerns into keeping part of Texas as Indian Country, where they ride and raid just like characters in an old movie. Even though it’s been forced on them, it still feels uncomfortably stereotypical.

But I really like the book. I enjoy writing a superhero novel, I like some of what I do with genre tropes, and I like playing with the idea of how paranormal abilities have changed history. Europe between the English Channel and the Russian front is now “Germanic Europa,” ruled by the Third Reich. Silicon Valley seceded. King Arthur returned and now rules England. So I’m working to see if I can fix the problematic parts.

KC’s past is easy enough to fix, but since it does play into her character arc and the villain’s goals I have to rework them. The character arc I think I have a handle on. The villain’s role? I think so, but I’m less sure. The Comanche? Still working on that.

So I’ll use this draft to solve the problems and get it into a workable rough draft. Then once I’m satisfied with the bad guy’s agenda, I’ll rewrite the earlier chapters to take into account the changes. And hopefully I’ll finish it up and make it good.

Of course I’ve rewritten other things, gotten to the end and discovered they didn’t hold up. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

Wish me luck … Like Mr. Miracle, let no trap hold me!

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Story Problems, Writing

Dark rebooting: HERO: Powers and abilities

DC’s 2003-5 series H-E-R-O is an interesting example of doing a darker, grittier, grimmer reboot that actually works.

The series was based on Dial H for HERO, a Silver Age series about “Robby Reed — the Boy Who Can Change Into a Thousand Superheroes!” Created by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney, this has teenage science whiz Robbie Reed discover an alien dial. Translating the instructions, he learns that by dialing the equivalent of the letters H-E-R-O, he transforms into a superhero. To return to normal, he transforms back (other letters allow someone to dial VILLAIN).

I loved this series as a kid. In the first place, it was the only series besides Spider-Man that had a non-sidekick fteen protagonist. And where Spider-Man had powers, Robby was ordinary. If I’d found the dial, hey, I could be just as super! Plus the appeal of a series that offered more superheroes even than the Justice League of Avengers books was irresistible.

Rereading recently, I can see the flaws in it. The stories and villains are bland, and got sloppy near the end of the run (Wood forgets his own ground rules, like Robby having to dial back to normal before becoming another hero). Robby lives with his grandfather, but we never learn why, or where his parents went. Being a science whiz is his only personality trait.

When Joe Orlando took over as House of Mystery editor at the end of the Silver Age, he saw that the superhero strips sold poorly compared to the supernatural anthology approach of times past. He switched House of Mystery and House of Secrets to anthology books hosted by Cain and Abel, a format which made them steady sellers on into the 1980s. I was baffled and disappointed to discover Robby Reed and backup the Martian Manhunter had suddenly disappeared, and I never became a fan of the anthology approach (with rare exceptions such as the first Swamp Thing story, they were mostly mediocre).

Robby popped up occasionally after that, including a 1980s Dial H series with different protagonists (it was a lot less fun). Most of these stories followed the premise of the original faithfully but H-E-R-O (by Will  Pfeifer and Jose Angel Cano Lopez) took it in a different direction.

While Robby eventually shows up, the hook is that the H-Dial passes from hand to hand in the course of the series. A guy who feels like a nothing becomes a superhero — now he’s a somebody, right? A stressed-out businessman uses the dial to give himself some fun. A little girl makes herself cool at school by offering to share the H-Dial. A group of slackers film themselves using their powers, then stream it to YouTube. Trouble is, the dial eventually falls into the hands of a psycho who hits the jackpot — Superman-class powers. Robby saw this future back in one of his super-identities and now that it’s arrived, he’s taking steps to prevent it …

This was definitely on the grim-and-gritty side of comics. Suicide, death, heroes dealing out gratuitous violence, extremely flawed protagonists and then more death. I think the reason it worked for me is because it’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of the original series — what if someone less heroic found the H-Dial? It’s not violating the original canon at all. That’s a vast improvement over the many, many reboots that go with Everything You Know Is Wrong! DC’s 1980sreboot of Silver Age space adventurer Adam Strange, for instance, assumes that Rann (the planet he adventures on) despises him and his presence there is just to provide breeding stock (Rannian men are sterile). It was grim and gritty at its worst, undercutting everything fun in the original series (when I read the classic Adam, I just ignore the reboot exists).

Pfeifer and Lopez, by contrast, got it right.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and John van Fleet, all rights remain with current holders.

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Filed under Comics, Reading, Writing

New Screen Rant out

About terrible fantasy shows you forgot ever aired.  G vs. E below is probably the most obscure — even my editor didn’t know it existed.

I will admit to watching Secrets of Isis as a teen purely because I crushed on Joanna Cameron (I got crushes like I breathed). But I found the show as boring as Shazam!

And then there’s Heath Ledger’s Roar, which other than bringing the Spear of Destiny to TV has nothing to recommend it.

All rights to all images remain with current holders. #SFWApro

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Filed under Screen Rant, TV

Crazy dog parent week

So Tuesday I discovered we’d lost Plush Dog’s tags. They were hooked to his collar, the metal loop was loose and he was wandering through brambles. Or it could have been one of his roll-in-the-dirt moments. No way to tell now. But as a result we’ve been doing most of their walkies in the back yard. Yes, he’s microchipped, but we still don’t want him running off without an easily identifiable phone number on his harness (I’ve ordered new holders and tags, but they ain’t here yet).

Possibly that’s why the pups have been so wired this week. I don’t recall them being quite so frantic and excited in the mornings. Thursday (doggy day care day this week) they were so needy and lively I wound up playing with them for an hour so TYG could get some stuff done. Not the best use of my day off, but such is dog-owner life.

Oh, and Plush chewed through one of their balls Wednesday, and had licked some of the stuffing out. Fortunately I caught him before he could swallow.

Then this morning Trixie came downstairs with me for the first time in a while. This slightly disrupted my schedule as I always wind up snuggling on the couch with her. Still, she’s worth it.

So, all that said, how did the work go? Not too bad.

I think I completed about fourteen articles for Leaf, which will help pay for — well I’m not sure yet, but it’ll certainly help pay for something.

I continued working on the rewrites of Questionable Minds and Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I also read a couple of heavy-exposition scenes from Southern Discomfort to the writing group and got (as usual) great feedback.

I got next to nothing done on No One Can Slay Her. The last half of the story needs heavier restructuring than I’d thought and while I’ve diagnosed the problems, I don’t have the solution yet. I’ll blame that partly on the dogs — it’s really hard to do thinky/planny stuff when they’re piled on my lap. And Thursday was devoted to Screen Rant work (not out yet) and the Leaf stuff. Regrettably I wasn’t able to make my 1,000 words of fiction a day on Thursday. I was hoping I’d keep it going the whole year, but I could be happy with “every day of 2018 but one.”

And I worked out my transportation and hotel for Mysticon later this month — I’m a guest. Actually credit goes to Carla at Mysticon for finding a room at the con hotel when I wasn’t able to do it.

Plus I squeezed in a dentist visit. Teeth are in good shape, yay.

And now I crash. Slept poorly last night and I’m done in. But the weekend is here.

 

#SFWApro Photos are mine, please credit me and source blog if you use ’em.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

More fun with journals

A recent blog post on the Wicked Cozy Authors group blog spoke enthusiastically about the Plot Your Work planner for writers. So as I still have some Christmas money left, I splurged and bought one.

The concept is pretty simple. I have five project sections. In each I can break down the month-by-month activity to get it completed — or as close as I expect to come — for the year. I don’t expect to complete Impossible Takes a Little Longer for instance, just to rework it so I’ve resolved the problems the manuscript has now.

The five projects? Glad you asked.

  • Reworking Impossible Takes a Little Longer
  • Finishing Southern Discomfort.
  • Finishing four short stories (I may be ambitious on that one).
  • Finishing Undead Sexist Cliches.
  • Publishing the hard copy of Atlas Shagged and the hard and ebook versions of Atoms for Peace.

Which looks like a lot (and it’s not like that’s all I want to do) but I don’t think it’s unattainable. There’s a lot of year left. The big challenges will be finishing the short stories — I don’t write those fast — and making the hard decisions for the final draft of Southern Discomfort. And of course, there’s always the challenge of added assignments turning up. The Leaf articles are currently keeping me very busy, and there are a couple of nonfiction projects that will keep me busy if they actually get the go-ahead.

Still, I suffer absolutely no penalty if I fall short of my goals, so I’ll shoot for it. I’m writing the workbook in pencil so I can adapt if anything falls through.

Of course I already knew I wanted to do all five of those projects. And I had a rough idea of the time frame. It’s not like I absolutely needed the book. But actually writing it in rather than just typing it in Scrivener really pushes me to break the five goals down into incremental steps. Then consider whether I can actually do that much stuff in the time allotted, then rewrite if I can’t (pencil!).

I’ve written the outline for the five projects. This weekend I’ll transfer the incremental steps to the month-by-month section of the planner. If I see it all together, freak out and cry No Way, I’ll go back and erase and rewrite.

I think this may prove a wise purchase.

All rights to the journal images remain with current holder (I don’t know it’s unique enough for that to be an issue, but just in case). #SFWApro

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Filed under Time management and goals