Thursday, February 23, 2017

Work In Progress: The Sword & Planet Story

I'm still chipping away at this Lost Colony Sword & Planet story. Following my own advice, I've decided that parts of the story that won't make it into the final manuscript will be posted here. Furthermore, I will do this for every story I write going forward. These will be scenes, fragments, notes, and other "behind the scenes" material that will get posted here as it gets chopped from the manuscript.

And so, here's one:

Four men sat in the cockpit of the cruiser Gale Wolf

"Your Grace, we've arrived." the pilot said, and the co-pilot brought the ship out of hyperspace and before them lay a vast asteroid field.

An old man, his hair tied into a top-knot and his beard fully gray, turned to the younger man beside him. "Direct us to your master, scout."

"Comms." the young man said, "Send: 'Pell With Guests'."

The pilot looked at the older man, who nodded. Moments later, a response: "Hold position, Gale Wolf. We'll escort you in."

The old man turned to the pilot. "Acknowledge, Captain." he said, and the pilot did as his master bade him. The ship held in place, watching two contacts from within the field appear on their scopes. They were Hornet-class fighters, giving pause to three of the four men.

"They dare not attack." the co-pilot said, "Not that the war is over."

"Unthinkable." the scout said, and the old man followed that thought: "Our guest's master young, but yet honorable, as was his father. Such treachery is foolish, and he knows it."

"I mean no offense, Your Grace." the co-pilot said, and the old man smiled. "None taken, not with all this treachery since the war's end."

The fighters closed and called the cruiser: "Gale Wolf, stay within visual range."

The old man nodded. "Acknowledged." the captain said, and the cruiser kept close to their escorts through the asteroid field. Despite being significantly larger than the fighters, the ship navigated the field deftly and after a while they saw the place that they came for: Pell's Cottage.

"This was your discovery?" the old man said to the scout, and the scout smiled. "Yes."

The "cottage" was a massive asteroid over a mile in diameter, dug into and transformed into a well-concealed outpost with significant--but not full--spaceport facilities. As they approached, the main hanger--easily large enough for several cruisers or frigates--rolled into view. The cruiser rotated on its axis as it banked inside to land and dock, while the escorting pair of fighters broke off to resume their patrol.

"Impressive." the old man said, "Several lanes are within a short jump from here, and there's a gas giant a short realspace run from here. No wonder we had such a problem with privateers. Well done."

The ship shuddered as its drives powered down, letting the mass settle on the landing gears. The old man and the scout got up and left the cockpit, making their way through the passenger lounge and took the lift outside. There awaiting them stood a young man in the full dress uniform of the now-defeated League of Independent Worlds. Behind him stood a honor guard of the man's homeworld militia, the Radu Guard.

"Welcome Sir Narrada Gahm, Duke Far, Emissary of the Court of the Stars." the man said, and he clasped his hand over his breast in the formal salute of his house.

"We thank you for your hospitality, Senator Radu." Duke Far said, bowing slightly as is his house's custom, "Your man, Lacann Pell, did well in his duty. He is to be commended."

"Come, Your Grace. We have much to discuss regarding our common enemy, and not much time."

"Agreed." Duke Far walked forward to go beside his host, and Lacann walked a step behind them both, heading into the interior of Pell's Cottage.

So, why did I decide to cut this this?

The story is about Lacann's mission to the planet. This? This I wrote so I could start getting into Lacann's head, setting up his stakes and the circumstances he's in; this story is about him--he's the Protagonist--so I did this to get to know him and get a sense for his character. There's more to this (it leads up to him setting sail for the planet, arrival, and subsequent crashing thereupon), but it's not interesting given what I'm out to do. It's like watching the scenes of Luke Skywalker before he leaves Tattoine; you want just enough to establish him as a character, but more than that becomes counter-productive, and I don't like slow starts to stories.

The important parts--why he's there, and who he's doing it for--gets told to the man Lacann meets with on that planet who becomes his ally against a common enemy. This? This is exploratory writing, which helps me get to the end goal but won't be a part of that final product; that's why it got cut and therefore why it's here. Usual "work in progress" disclaimers apply.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Managing Expectations: How You Win, Keep, and Grow Your Audience

While reading this guest post by Karl Gallagher at the Castalia House blog, this comment by Monalisa Foster caught my eye. Specifically, this part right here:

While I don’t disagree, especially about the New Wave, which I hold responsible for the “death” of sci-fi (at the same time that sci-fi books died because of the trick/unexpected ending, sci-fi movies and games took off because they maintained, for the most part, the positive endings), I submit for your consideration, that genre is about setting and endings/expectations.

She hits the core point again here: Fantasy outsells sci-fi and I think that’s because readers know what to expect.

And bookended here:

To illustrate how important reader expectations are, I point out Romance. This is big “R” romance, where the ending is prescribed. That ending is HEA (Happily Ever After) or HEAFN (HEA for now). Readers want to know what they’re getting.

I submit that readers want positive endings, heroic characters, the good guys winning, the bad guys losing. No whiny, depressed losers emoting all over the page. I want to see sci-fi get back to that.

This is not the first time I've heard such observations. Many years ago, Mike Pondsmith wrote this into the Game Master advice section of his Mekton Zeta tabltop role-playing game. He cited (then) well-known examples of fulfilling audience expectations, but not necessarily in the straight-forward manner initially put to the audience. He wrote similar advice for his Cyberpunk 2020 supplement, Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads.

The point here is expectation management. People group things they find to be alike and label them for ease of reference; that's what genres are- groups of stories that deliver similar experiences to an audience. People like familiarity because it's reliable; you know what you're going to get. So, if you want to succeed, you need to deliver on the expectations of that audience. Danielle Steel didn't goat-fuck her readers into a multi-media empire of romance, and neither will you. (You'd think the Big 5's current regime would know this, but we know better; they don't.)

However, fulfilling those expectations need not--and some say should not--be as straight-forward as a drag race. Going back to Pondsmith, his example of making good on expectations in an unexpected manner was the original Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross; the promise was that we Earthlings would defeat this hostile alien invader and preserve Mankind thereafter. The swerve was that a good chunk of Earth got blasted and we ended up having to integrate with their remnants after the war. Sure, Mankind won, but not without sacrifice and not without complication after the fact.

See what I'm after here? There's your liminal space, where you can work your magic and define yourself as a writer. Scott Lynch broke out as strong as he did because his debut novel did just that, on multiple levels; as the protagonist Locke Lamora schemed and scammed his way towards fulfilling your expectations of the fantasy caper he set up early on, so did he pull a swerve on you and got you looking away while he pulled a con on those expectations so that what he delivered when he delivered turned out to be not how you got what you wanted, but you got it nonetheless.

Robert Howard's Conan went on adventures, or had them thrust upon him, that fit a general plot profile; it was how Howard executed it that made him stand out as a writer, and in seeing the difference between two different characters in the same scenario (Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword; Kull: By This Axe I Rule) you can observe how Howard's choices differed even when he adapted the latter into the former.

Now, accomplished authors already know this; they can tell you how they made this happen once they put this knowledge to practical use. But you? You're new, or you're struggling and looking for insight, or otherwise dealing with issues in developing your craft or story (or both). Yes, knowing the structure of narrative is important, but being lazy or incompetent about it means becoming like the folks I rant about over at my main blog and that's no good for you personally, professionally, or artistically. You need to master the tools, not to be a tool.

There is no shortcut to be had here. You have to get it before you can make it. Then you have to get it right, and in time you'll become so good that you can't get it wrong. There's no other way to mastery than to make the work, so go on and get on with making your 10,000 pots; the sooner you develop-by-doing, the sooner you will become wise and skilled enough to translate what your mind imagines into stories that your audience cannot wait to pay you for.

So learn what your audience expects from the story you're writing. Then learn how to deliver on those expectations. Then learn how to make use of the room you have to satisfy without failing that fulfillment promise. Remember: Anakin Skywalker did bring balance to The Force. It's how he did it that makes George Lucas rightly revered, not that he did it at all.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Story Development: Playing The Questions Game

The same premise often results in very different stories when you give it to different authors at different times. The idea I'd been posting about previously, about a scout contacting a lost colony world, could easily go in very different directions depending upon what specific story you want to tell and how you want to execute the telling.

Which is where I'm at right now. I have a protagonist (see previous post), a deuteragonist (see next post), and a few supporting characters. I'm lacking an antagonist, and an immediate conflict. Answering those questions will depend on the what and how of the story I want to tell.

So, what sort of story are we going for? Well, I'm aiming for something in the "Sword & Planet" vein. That means something needs to go wrong for our scout right off the bat, because otherwise his starship and other such technologies can short-circuit the plot. How to deal with this? That's where a habit I picked up from decades in tabletop role-playing games comes up: Villian-driven plotting. Which means it's time to deal with that antagonist question.

Who would want to prevent contact from off-world, and why? Given the premise--the scout's patron believes this to be a colony formed by distant relations--it would be someone hostile to said relations reconnecting to the interstellar community. Also given that the scout's mission comes as part of a larger plan by his patron, this world is not founded as a dumping ground for undesirables. In short, we're not looking at a prison planet.

So, what sort of colonial operation would be launched at considerable distance? Commercial exploitation is well-known, but this premise implies long-term settlement; commercial colonial administrations are known for being short-sighted and short-lived (plenty of personnel turnover). That, I think, can be ruled out. No, I think we're going to think of something more like lesser sons going into the frontier to get lands of their own- a thing often involving religious or philosophical movements.

There's our conflict source: the colony arose from some need to find open land for a religious community. The patron's family would remain a part of that tradition if it still sought it all these years, and some other incident had to occur to lose it originally. I could go with some malevolence native to the world, but just as likely is someone in the colony seizing power and the cut-off is a consequence of that usurpation.

That's our antagonist: the current leader of that usurpation clique. They fear off-world contact because they tried to take control of the colony and lost; they fear contact because they believe contact brings their enemies reinforcements that would finish them off, so they use what they've got to maintain their isolation.

The deuteragonist has immediate ties to the colonial regime, as a soldier in its military, and has faced the antagonist's minions in a recent war, which gives him a reason to be looking out for things like falling stars (crashing ships) and dealing with strangers. So our start is: scout arrives in-system, antagonist detects scout and forces him down, deuteragonist rescues protagonist from minions, protagonist and deuteragonist swap briefs to escape full stakes on table. Proceed accordingly.

I'd thought I'd do this as a short, but I'm thinking that may not be enough. We'll see.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Developing That Protagonist: Lacann Pell

I'd been tinkering here and there with that story fragment I posted two weeks ago. Here's a bit I did about the character I featured:

Lacann Pell is a man from a frontier world with mandatory military service for all men. He's 38 years old at of this story, and spent most of the last 25 years as a solider specialized as a scout and infiltrator. He has some experience in covert operations and diplomatic missions, mostly to support or suppress insurrections. Most of the men he entered service with died in the last war, a galaxy-wide conflict that's resulted in the known galaxy falling under the rule of a usurper tyrant, and his world backed the losing side.

He's on this mission because elements within the winning side already plot rebellion against the usurper, so this is meant to be a mission to garner assistance to that end. Some of his countrymen, seeking to curry favor with the usurper, have already disavowed Lacann and his surviving brothers-in-arms (now scattered and dispossessed). This disavowal threatens his family, especially his wife, and he lacks the means to protect them on his own; in return for his part in this mission, the senator he's working with will aid him in saving his family from his enemies at home.

He's a fit adult man, standing about six feet tall and classically Greek in his mien: think black hair, shoulder-length and tied back in the field; eyes black as his hair. He speaks laconically, preferring to keep silent unless necessary, and efficient when he does speak- this is the sole tell of his education. His long years in military service and martial training forged in him a degree of emotional control that's kept him alive when others died, a fact not lost on those familiar with him.

His skills include one traditional boyhood sport: slinging. He keeps a homemade sling wrapped around his body somewhere whenever dressed, and when he's home he teaches slinging to the boys in his village.

Quote: If.

I have a habit of naming characters in a manner that reminds me of the core traits, a shorthand, and this is no exception. Lacann's now got a motivation for doing this thing and seeing it through. Complicating this? Not hard, but "Hostiles intercept Lacann's scouting mission." is a bit on the nose, and so I think we can do better than that.

That's what the deuteragonist can do: complicate this good and proper. Next week.