Saturday, April 11, 2020

Anatomy of an Idea: Waterways

My story Waterways was recently published in Storyhack, Issue 6, available here.  The catalyst of the story is a sacred pool that bestows upon the people the skills of ancestors.  When the city is conquered, the youngest of those who were immersed in the pool have no opportunity to train and hone their abilities.  The result?  A truly random skill set.

In the brainstorming phases for the story, I decided to choose the skills quite literally at random, so I went for an old resource:  GURPS Compendium.  GURPS is the Generic Universal RolePlaying System, a detail-heavy roleplaying system that is designed to encompass everything from space cowboys to time travelers to high fantasy.  It has its flaws, but having that exhaustive skill list was perfect purposes.  I rolled randomly to pick a page, then a column, then a specific entry.  I had to discard some results, of course, as I couldn't really work Starship Navigation into my story ...

So I ended up with a list of skills for each of the secondary characters that were a deliberate mismatch.  I then had the fun of working these skills into the plot without shoehorning the characters into far-fetched situations.  It was particularly fun because my narrator was the new girl in this group, so some of those skills came out of nowhere.

This is not the first place where I've used deliberate randomness to generate a character, but I really enjoyed using the conceit of the pool to justify the strange combinations.  It let me range more widely.  Who knows, maybe I'll return to this city and setting with another skillset gone wrong.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Goodreads Review: Shades of Milk and Honey - by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a setting that pays homage to Jane Austen, young women of quality weave glamour, the delicate powers of illusion. This is the gift of the plain narrator, her only hope at finding a husband ... though she often finds herself in the shadow of her beautiful sister Melody. This is a beautiful book, deliberately written and both intricate and sparse. The lean prose carries the atmosphere perfectly, while leaving enough room for the reader to picture even those things not described. For instance, there's never any indication what Mr. Dunkirk, the love interest, even looks like. (I thought this was a particularly odd omission, but let that pass.)

The plot is strong and well paced, though I felt some of the antagonist's actions came unraveled near the end, and a few ends were left loose - such as the fate of Beth - that I would have rather seen tied up. Sometimes, the plot twists were predictable because of the faithfulness to the specific style of story, but to be honest, I'm not sure whether that detracts or adds to the appeal. Overall, it's a delightful read.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Wednesday Wanderings

So I've just started submissions on a story entitled "Different Drummer," and I know - I just know - that this one is going to give me trouble with editors.  It was written for a challenge to write about a character who isn't a hero, which I interpreted as someone who has neither the talent nor the inclination for adventure ... but since he's well-meaning, with a good heart, his actions end up having consequences that propel the story along.  It was a fine balance to walk, to make him resistant to heroics without making him passive.  

I think I achieved that, and I'm very satisfied with the story overall, but it's not a popular way to shape a narrative.  Editors have little patience for characters who don't know what they want.  To me, though, that's sometimes the appeal of a short story:  it's possible to encapsulate that discovery of self, that flash of understanding, of realizing what path one needs to take, within those few pages - in a way that would be tired and overly drawn out in a novel.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Wednesday Wanderings

Like many others, I've been sucked into the phenomenon that is Stranger Things.  Not everyone is a fan, and I've heard complaints both from people who find the horror elements dull and would rather just watch the kids interact, and people who are sick of the budding young love and want the plot to get a move on.  For me, it is the intersection of the two that makes the show tick ...

(It's been over a month since S3 aired, so possible spoilers implicit, certainly for the first two seasons.)

The setting certainly isn't particularly unique, a mashup of familiar horror and urban fantasy tropes.  (The psionic children imprisoned and experimented upon is a prime example of the latter.)  The broad strokes are well-worn enough that even I, who doesn't read or even watch horror, recognize them.  Some of the small details are rather clever and intriguing, especially in the visual design arena.  I was charmed by the life cycle of the baby demogorgon in S2.

I'm not even that charmed by the '80s setting.  I think I'm just a bit too young to really remember much of it, and since I was homeschooled, I didn't have a lot of the context the central characters do, anyhow.  (Though there are a few things that I recognize here and there.)  What I do appreciate as a worldbuilder, however, is how immersive this setting is.  It bolsters and strengthens the supernatural aspects. 

As an aside, I was pretty shocked by the newspaper office in S3.  Wait, are you sure this isn't the '50s?

The strength of Stranger Things is the characters, taking familiar stereotypes - the king of high school, the prim older sister, the obnoxious journalist - and turning them on their ear.  Each of these stereotypes has a stereotypical arc, an expected direction, and it's very satisfying to see them turn over, revealing another side.  The reveal about Robin near the end of the season is another great example.

It's that subversion of the expected character which makes the standard setting so effective.  Introduce an unfamiliar or unexpected setting, character and plot all at once, and the viewer / reader becomes unmoored.  There is no context, nothing to compare and contrast.  We all need some grounding in the familiar to appreciate the unfamiliar.

I also appreciate that the series has been able to build genuine suspense without knocking off main characters.  (Game of Thrones, I'm looking at you.)  This is probably much to account for by the decisions in the first season:  if you watched it without any spoilers, you spent most of the season guessing about Will, and they made the good choice *not* to let Barbara off the hook.  If she had come back, we wouldn't have trusted any death.  Not even a certain one in this most recent season ...

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Idea Anatomy

I've had two stories published lately, Traveling By Starlight:  A Journey of Two Ways, and Before Their Time, and I wanted to talk about where the ideas came from.  Since the respective magazines are both for-purchase, and Outposts of Beyond - where the latter story can be found - is in print and it would take a few days to get to you, I'll keep this post spoiler-free.

So Traveling By Starlight:  A Journey of Two Ways was originally written for a fantasy-writers.org monthly challenge.  The prompt was one I suggested, to write a story with alternate endings, so of course I felt obliged to jump in.  Just because I'm me, I always feel obliged to add an additional challenge.  In this case, I wanted to design the endings so they changed elements of the preceding story.  That meant including details which could be interpreted in two different ways ... and led to me Googling "foods aliens eat."  Which wasn't terribly helpful.

Before Their Time was also written from a prompt on a different site, though I no longer remember what it was.  I'm sure, though, that I interpreted it in the most convoluted way possible.  The story follows a time mage and her bodyguard who travel back in time to find the cure for a plague and end up in the wrong era.  I took a bit to mull over what kind of magic her companion specialized in, settling on fire and light.  Flame is perhaps a cliche choice for a battle mage, but the possibilities of light gave me some more unusual options.

I had so much fun with these characters, I went on to write other stories about them.  In grand tradition of time travel, I wrote them out of sequence, everything from the moment they met to later adventures.  I made a point of establishing the two as firm friends with no sexual tension; one or the other is usually in a relationship.  I also set up some of the rules of time travel, including the fact that any time spent in the past is "lost" - a week in the past becomes a week in the future - and that the future can't be changed, or the consequences could unmake the world ... or is that true?

Hopefully, more of these tales will see print.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Wednesday Wanderings

So I've been working on the query and synopsis for Unnatural Causes, which I've asked a few folks to read and critique, and that's made me realize that one of my natural tendencies as a person causes problems when it comes to my writing.

I've mentioned before on this blog that, while some people label with words or visuals - for instance, "my house" or visualizing that building - I tend to store and access information by feel.  My memory hooks are visceral.

How that plays into my writing is that I often have a clear sense of character behavior, plot arc, or story mood, and can maintain it consistently throughout.  This serves me in good stead when I'm editing, too, as even if I can't put my finger on why I should change something, I can feel that it's necessary and it works. 

Ask me to describe what I've created, though, and I dissolve into gibbering.  It's not a matter of distilling thousands of words into a few; it's a matter of translating a physical murmur into a completely different language.  It's one of the things, I think, that makes me particularly frustrated by the querying process.  Many of the tools I use for writing stories are useless for queries.  So why should one depend on the other?

Familiar complaints for any writer, of course.  I can take some consolation in knowing a source of difficulty for me personally, though.  ... some.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Traveling By Starlight: A Journey of Two Ways ... now available!

It's out!  The Summer issue of The Colored Lens is now available, containing my "Traveling By Starlight:  A Journey of Two Ways."  Check it out.

This story involves alternate endings.  Watch closely ...