Category Archives: bits

Black Mirror: Writing Stakes

If there’s anything cyberpunk nouveau Twilight Zone TV show Black Mirror is good for, it’s tension. I binged the first two seasons yesterday, having intended to just watch one episode. Edge of my seat, standing and shouting, creeped the hell out.

So how did they do it?

The first episode hits you with major life-and-death-and-the-crown stakes in the first minute and doesn’t let you go. Seriously tense. The conceit is so wild it’s almost gimmicky, so how to keep this going in future episodes? Raise them stakes.

[SPOILERS]

The Entire History of You: In a world where you can play back any memory, what happens when you suspect your wife of having feelings for an old friend? Higher – maybe they slept together when you stormed out for a week. Higher – And doesn’t the timing match the conception of your child?

Be Right Back: Your husband dies in a car accident. Higher – you just moved into his family’s old farmhouse, miles from anywhere. Higher – Oh, and you’re pregnant.

Brian Staveley lays out three kinds of literary tension as psychological, social, and environmental in this post (A LOVER, A PIGLET, AND A DEEP HOLE; OR, THREE TYPES OF TENSION), and they can certainly be applied to these episodes.

The Entire History of You:

Psychological: The main character has trust and jealousy issues. This has led his wife to be less than honest about her past relationships.

Environmental: And memories can be played back. Harder to lie now.

Social: Throw his wife’s rakish former lover in the mix.

Be Right Back:

Psychological: Martha is a social person. She prefers to be actually present in her life, rather than sinking into social media and her phone.

Environmental: She is utterly alone out in the countryside, and soon to be a single mum. A friendly voice in the dark sure helps….

Social: And now she can talk with an AI that talks just like her dead husband. She reminds herself he’s not real, and eventually hates “him” for it,.

These are episodes which mainly feature people sitting around and talking, and they shook the hell out of me. Every new layer of tension got a verbal “oh shit”. Good stuff.

My First Novel Sale: One Month In

80’s hackers, punk mages, &fey magic. Coder/wizard fights to get her bro back, finds dangerous secret. #PitMad 

In September, I posted this tweet without much expectation that anyone would take interest. But I had been diligently knocking my head against the querying process for six months by this point, and the Pitch Madness twitter event seemed like it would be worth a shot.

I received a manuscript request from, of all places, Harlequin. Turned out they had just started up a new digital program. and were in the market for some sci-fi and fantasy. And not just SFF romance, either. Regular old SFF.

Huh.

Five months later I received a call from the editor. She dug it. She wanted to send me a contract.

Huh!

And thus began the process. We’re through the first round of edits now, and there are a few items I want to remember, which I shall now list:

  • Working in a professional capacity with someone who both a) believes in the concept and b) has solid ideas on how to make this baby purr is magnificent.
  • I remembered maybe one in five words from that initial phone call.
  • All that cool stuff you came up with as you were writing the thing? Make sure it’s all in the first part of the book.
  • I really can’t believe I sent out a manuscript with that many “said”s in it.
  • Wendig is right: Track Changes is, indeed, your best friend.
  • Holding a launch party on Facebook is now a thing.
  • Finding a “Hold my Orange Crush, but don’t drink it” commercial online is a challenge.
  • I wrote the entire book without saying what the main character’s hair color is.

So far, it’s fun and terrifying and challenging. If you need me, I’ll be staring into space and scrawling notes on any scraps of paper nearby.

The Three Laws of Drones

First Law: A drone may not injure a government agency or designated corporation or, through inaction, allow a government agency or designated corporation to come to harm.

Second Law:  A drone must obey the orders given to it by a government agency or designated corporation, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A drone must protect its own ability to gather data and attack both aerial and ground targets as long as this does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

 

Brilliant writer Ken Liu pointed out a Guardian article, which prompted the drafting of these laws on Twitter. Look for them in a constitution near you.

A Quick Bit on Gaiman

I started reading the Sandman comics after visiting a very clever and mentor-worthy college friend who had gone on to grad school. His new girlfriend, complete with black tank-top and ankh necklace, had shown him the Midsummer one, which he then showed to me. Which I then went completely looney over.

This was my introduction to urban fantasy, and to the very idea what someone who nerds out about mythology can write something modern and awesome. I went all in, spending any spare change I could find on trade paperbacks. And T-shirts with Vess and Zulli art.

Years later, I read American Gods. The most important moment in this book for me seems a little small, almost throw-away: the plastic-on-the-windows part, in which the main character is instructed on how to winter-proof a place.

Just like I do every year.

This is nothing. This is a quirk of setting.

But for me, this is evidence that stuff I do in my regular life is foreign, almost exotic, to somebody else. Normal life doesn’t exist, or is at best an illusion (why do sitcom living rooms have staircases, anyway?) and mundane, quotidian acts of simply living can be as fascinating as the most intricate world-building to someone who doesn’t live that way.

This one detail choice, reflected upon long after I read it, prompted me to take my writing somewhere new: back home. There are people out there who have no idea what is was like to replace the needle on a record player. To write a program in BASIC. To go to a New Hampshire park. To sit at a Ms. Pac-Man table.

And maybe they’d be interested to know.

Bits on Pattern Recognition

A few notes on writing stuff I gleaned from reading Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.

Place, place, place. Gibson’s descriptions of locations are always excellent, but in PR I noticed just how much of that comes from characterization. The settings are described with details that only Cayce Pollard would notice.

Emails as denouement. Now this was cool. All the loose ends were neatly tied by showing a series of pertinent emails from various characters to the MC. Neat and easy.

Girl stuff. Really? A makeover scene AND the MC finally becoming happy once she’s found a man? Come on now. This is the sort of thing people mean when they talk about strong female characters. Here’s a great woman, and the last scene is her comfortably in bed with a man. Because god forbid she be happy on her own. Boo.

Writing Dreams

I like to write about dreams. My first text-based game, indeed the whole Waking Cassandra project is about dreams. So when I saw that Kat Howard (with whom I just finished a great class at Litreactor) had a story up at Apex about dreams, I had to check it out.

The best dream scenes are written in the language of symbol. In this story, we see this in three different ways.

Personal symbol: The things we see in dreams often have meaning to us alone. An oven mitt might mean nothing to you, but it might remind the dreamer of her grandmother’s house, representing safety and happiness. A frog could bring back frightening emotions from the time you fell in the ravine. Kora chooses a particular mask “for the desire for wings”. They symbolize something to her, something she wants.

Shared symbol: Stop signs. An S with a vertical line through it. Or, in this case, Tarot cards. The dreamer brings these symbols from the external world in with her – and they make recognizable signposts for the reader.

Archetypal symbol: The Horned Man. The Pomegranate. The Serpent. Whether you want to go all Jungian dreamcloudy or just consider these part of our cultural, literary, and folkloric heritage, some symbols have old, powerful meanings. They speak to the great forces of human life, of the life of every person in every time and each place. Poorly handled, they can seem trite. Read this story for an example of how to use them well.

So, yeah. Go read Murdered Sleep. There’s a lot going on in the story, only a small bit of which was covered here. And pay attention to those dreams of yours – sleep isn’t always a restful state.

Doing It Right: His Majesty’s Dragon Chapter One

Ya gotta grab ’em. That’s what everybody says. Hook that reader right away. Make her care what happens. But how?

Hello. My name is Naomi Novik, and I just kicked Alex Livingston in the brain.

If you want a good example, go check out the opening of His Majesty’s Dragon. Novik was generous enough to include much of the first chapter as an excerpt on her site — I’m going to go ahead and give her credit for knowing it’s because she frickin’ nailed the hook.

 

Firstly, dragons in the Napoleonic Wars? Did the author write this for me? Enter my dreamspace and say “you know what Alex wants? This.” So maybe I’m a little partial already.

Secondly, by the time I reached “The end came abruptly”, I was fully invested. I wanted things for the characters and was nervous for what would happen at the end of that paragraph. All that by word number 4,500. Awesome. If I can get that reaction by word number 45,000, I’ll be happy.

Now, part of the success here comes from using a world that we already know about. The reader is familiar in general at least with concepts of duty and honor in the western military tradition, and certainly with the archetype of the noble British seacaptain. And we know what dragons are. So, we’re not thrown into watching a Atreides child face the Bene Gesserit gom jabbar (for example). We’ve got some footing already.

But still. How the hell did she make me care about this plot in under 5,000 words?

She presented good, capable people, and then added something which would change someone’s life irreparably. Instant stakes. These are fine folks who act admirably, the sort of people one respects if not outright aspires towards being like. And someone’s going to have all their life’s plans thrown out the window.

Or maybe a dragon’s gonna eat somebody. Something like that.

 

Traveling in Style: Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘The Book of Locked Doors’

If I were to perform some sort of masochistic analysis of my writing, I am sure I would find far too many scenes where the protagonist is traveling. Coming from something interesting, heading towards something interesting, but pictured sitting in some sort of craft waiting. I think the term ‘bleargh’ describes this well.

Unless you’re Yoon Ha Lee. Go and check out The Book of Locked Doors, published recently by Beyond Ceaseless Skies.

The main character goes through nearly the entire story without interacting with anyone. What’s she up to? Riding the subway.Grabbing lunch. Walking around.

And it’s awesome.

How? Lee uses description masterfully, showing us the details which pass through Vayag’s line of sight and telling us her reaction as a way of delineating her character, building stakes, attaching us emotionally. You know, all that writery stuff.

Sure, there’s plenty of running, chasing, and being talked at by a creepy spirit book, but using travel time to build the world and the main character is a superior use of column space. Next time I want to write about someone taking a cloudskipper up to an orbital, I;ll be sure to go back to this kickin’ story first.

The One About Skyrim

Be warned, fair traveler. I am about to do what is commonly described as “hating on”.

Skyrim (or, as I like to call it, Wrong Side of the Mountain) is Warcraft without the people. It successfully translates all of the hyperaddictive qualities of an MMO to the console. You craft. You explore. You play dress up. All that good stuff.

It’s massive. Multiple main plotlines, a seemingly limitless number of sidequests and errands. Just walking from one end of the worlds to the other would take a few hours, even if you ignored all the random stuff happening along the way. Cool secrets to be found only by wandering. And the occasional bitchin’ dragon fight. It really is quite fun.

But.

Get used to this.

Gripe Primus: In Red Dead Redemption, you can six-shooter your way from snow-covered mountains to desert plains without a single load screen, even if you go inside. Huge.  A typical mission in Skyrim consists of the following:

  • Get a quest.
  • Go outside.
  • LOAD SCREEN
  • Fast travel to a city across the world.
  • LOAD SCREEN
  • Go inside something.
  • LOAD SCREEN again.
  • Go deeper inside something.
  • Another LOAD SCREEN
  • Do something.
  • Start to leave.
  • What’s the deal with these LOAD SCREENs?
  • Go outside.
  • LOAD SCREEN? Really?
  • Fast travel back.
  • Play a quick round of Hero Academy during this LOAD SCREEN
  • Go inside something.
  • BY THE LIVING CHRIST! ANOTHER LOAD SCREEN!
  • Turn in your quest.

Unconscionable.

Gripe Secundus: travel. This game is built for exploration, for coming upon beautiful and wonderful things as you walk through the varied environments. Walk up the northern coast and see the towering edifice of the Mage’s College come into view, aloof and imperious. Gorgeous.

But if that quest you’re on points you to some cave on top of a mountain, get ready to run around the craggy terrain for half an hour trying to find a way up and wishing there was a “just climb over that damn rock” button.

Gripe Thirdiary: Maybe I’ve been playing too much Assassin’s Creed, but the game is kinda… ugly. Crumbling tower in the distance? Pretty. Crumbling tower close-up, with repeating textures and colorless environments? Not as pretty.

Yes.

Complexity and beauty = good


Dull gray = less good.

Gripe the IV. You need to go read Genevieve Valentine’s essay on dragons. Seriously. But here’s a bit:

The dragon, a legendary beast more chameleonic than most, embodies the world and the time of those who would honor it, or slay it. The modern dragon is aware of its parentage, but as humanity’s struggles have changed from merely surviving in the world to conquering it, so has the dragon become a steed (as are the dragons of Pern), a helpmeet (The Dragon and the George’s Smrgol), an irascible employer of brave young women (as Cimorene soon discovers).

Dragon as helpmeet, as wise counselor, as aloof eccentric. I refer you to the dragon in the Thames from The Magicians. The dragons of Skyrim are essentially a medieval fantasy rat problem.

Disclaimer: It is important to note that I have spent as much of my free time as possible playing this game. Too many hours, and still many yet to come until I get the Platinum trophy. It’s fun. It’s deep and wide and engaging. If you play it, you will enjoy it. But, again, be warned.

 

Bits On ‘On The Acquisition of Phoenix Eggs (Variant)’

Let me tell you why I dig this story.  Great idea, well-presented — sure, sure. But the hook for me was the relationship between the stuck-up protagonist and her even stucker-up compatriots. They’re very clever and not evil in any way, so they’re likeable enough, but just getting them in a room together is enough to get the crinkling of conflict going. People who get along just aren’t as much fun to watch.