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HollowLands Posts

Worldbuilding you can live in…

Posted in Dustings of Blue, Fantasy, Research, Setting, and The Affinities of Magic

One of the foundational elements of a Science-Fiction or a Fantasy story is its setting. All stories have settings, but a contemporary novel can get away with skimming over things its readers already understand from their daily lives in a way than a lot of SFF can't.

If you don't describe the space ship and its limitations, you can't picture the characters in that environment. If you don't ground the Hero-with-a-Mission™ in a particular place and time and culture, you can't move him around in a realistic way that lets your readers identify with him.

The picture above is the background full cover for Structures of Earth, the first book in my new series The Affinities of Magic. [Reminder — I am finishing the first three books before releasing the first one, and I'm in the middle of book 3, Dustings of Blue, now…]

Most Fantasy authors feature their characters on their covers, and I am no exception. But just this once, for the first book of what I expect to be a long series, I wanted to feature the setting: a wizard guild hall that has fallen on very hard times, in a backwater of the capitol city of an empire that is just beginning to feel the impact of its Industrial Revolution. The hero will become one of the movers & shakers of an Industrial Revolution of Magic.

So far, so good. I certainly understood the real British Industrial revolution well enough as a model for a lot of what I had in mind, so I poured out the first two books with satisfying stories that worked for me. This was followed by a pause for life events (all better now), and then I started to put the third book together, eager to begin releases. And then I realized… my understanding of the Industrial Revolution was clear enough, but my understanding of living through it — dealing with urban life, transportation, servants, architecture, etc., was somewhat… inadequate for my purpose in my built-world.

Stories that never grow old

Posted in Heroes, Plot, and Villains

Never be afraid to revive the old tales (poor monstrous Polyphemus, about to be blinded by Odysseus after a hard day's work shepherding). They've survived this long for a reason.

How do we change from feral infants to moral men? By learning the stories of our culture, and we've had stories for as long as we've had language.

We tell each other stories of how cleverness can beat strength, of how strength can defeat evil, of how evil can seduce weakness, of how weakness can learn cleverness.

We learn the many ways that we can make wrong choices, at the peril of our lives or our souls, and how we can rescue ourselves and others from those choices. Or fail.

Humor, stoicism, endurance, discipline, sacrifice, kindness, temptation — stories give us a handle on all these things.

The foundational religious texts are just, after all, more stories teaching the same things. The existence of the actual deities are the excuse for the stories, but the stories themselves are what strike to the core of how to communicate the morality of the lessons.

Morality is essential to humans — we can't escape it. If we don't imprint on a worthwhile cultural template, then we'll imprint on a bad one. In terms of education, “reading, writing, and, ‘rithmetic” are secondary to language and morality. If we don't learn moral codes of behavior, moral ways of life, well… the rest matters very little.

And we learn how to behave by the stories we hear. Religious or philosphical or ethical justification for those behaviors comes later.

So tell good stories — stories we can learn from. Stories we need to hear.

Living in imaginary worlds

Posted in A Writer's Desk, and Setting

It's not enough, when writing about an historical or fictional world, to just imagine the physical differences (oil lamps, horses) or cultural differences (harems, rites of passage), and then explore how those differences play out in a character's life. It's the intellectual differences, the things that create the equivalence of “future shock”, that I find particularly compelling.

This cartoon resonated with me because I so clearly remember my (irrational but visceral) outrage when I first encountered the history of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which began life as a series of handwritten or typed scraps of paper shoved into pigeonholes in a repurposed greenhouse. This, for a dictionary containing hundreds of thousands of entries and citations. I suddenly flashed on an image of the labor involved in the simple clerical creation and moving about of all that data in the absence of computers.

Somehow, the thousands of man hours to build the pyramids or dig a canal was something I took for granted, something I couldn't really envisage doing myself, so I have a certain distance from it. But I'm a computer-native, and I felt, to my fingertips, what the labor would have been to wrangle all the data for the OED over multiple lifetimes. That was something that hit home to me.

Make things like that resonate with your characters. Make your readers feel that.

Protect your ability to keep working, no matter what happens: Part 2

Posted in Business

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

So, how do you support all the various business & production procedures you use to keep your small businesses, including your publishing business, alive? Seems doable at the moment, maybe, but what happens if you're out of commission for a while — sick, perhaps, or dealing with an emergency, or otherwise diverted from your normal processes. Let's pretend you can't think as clearly as usual, or can't give your business all your attention… maybe for months or longer.

Think your backups are current? Think you can restore your computer environment from scratch without a few notes? Maybe you have a service taking care of some of that, but do they cover everything?

Think you're going to remember the whole series of intricate procedures you learned as you became an indie, the ones you take to start a newsletter campaign, publish a new book, track all the bookkeeping details? All those miserable little steps, all those integrated bits of automation, just waiting to go out of synch?

There are things you can do to help you insure against complete misery relearning how everything works, when you're not really up to recreating complicated things.

But you need to actually take some organized and methodical steps to get there.

Protect your ability to keep working, no matter what happens: Part 1

Posted in Business

What I need is staff. Young, responsible staff. (Not to mention heirs…) Sigh.

Let me muse a bit about how lives change, and what that can do to our one-man businesses.

I've been retired for a few years, but I'm still in my 60s and healthy. I spent my career building and running small tech companies, and I've spent my life with computers. My indie publishing business, Perkunas Press, is just the latest (about 10 years old) of my various tiny businesses and similar pro-bono activities.

So, naturally, I feel both seasoned and competent to set up and maintain bookkeeping and tracking systems for all my various activities. The only professional services I pay for the businesses themselves (as opposed to, say, buying book covers) is a tax accountant to take my final numbers and put them in the right places on the forms.

I run everything from my primary computer (a laptop), back most things up online on Dropbox (rural bandwidth prevents me backing up everything across a network), and run full system backups weekly locally, with a secondary PC.

What could go wrong? 🙂

4-Act Structure, Ballad-style

Posted in Plot

There are several ways to structure a novel, and I won't be going into them all.

The structure I use is called the 4-Act Structure (you can see more about it here (scroll down at the link — there's a helpful diagram). In essence, there are 2 acts of about the same length, followed by a mid-point crisis, followed by 2 more acts. Different stories and different authors use different structures, but this is what works for me.

I don't think of this for shorter works, since I don't write many, but other people do. It's just a good way to tell a story.

For a good example, take a look at this popular Child Ballad (#269) called “Lady Diamond”.

How espousing a cause can cripple a novel

Posted in Characters, Science Fiction, and Setting

Ann Leckie's award-winning trilogy (2014-2015) (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) are well-written and interesting classic Science Fiction.

With one caveat — she is so concerned about making a modern cultural point (“what if there were no real differences between men and women”) that she undermines one of the tropes of her world.

While I don't agree with her premise (“what if there were no differences…”), I don't object to her use of it — these sorts of “what-ifs” have always been part of SFF. But let's look at how she instantiates it.

To begin with, the primary language uses only an ungendered pronoun, so everyone is referred to as “her”. This may seem, um, “brave and stunning”, but actually English is already headed there with the use of “they” as a genderless singular (e.g., “If anyone comes early, give them a drink.”) So, while the gimmick is a bit irritating, it doesn't really matter.

Here's what matters…