Cyborgs, Soldiers, And Gunslingers: A Year In The Word Mines

amy Whale, breaching, Stellwagen Bank National...

This is what it’s going to look like when I go back to the gym tomorrow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, I always find myself doing a little thinking. Maybe it’s the scrolling down of the Gregorian calendar. Maybe it’s because I’m stranded on the couch like a beached whale until that last holiday meal digests.* Whatever the reason, this is the time of year for taking stock.

Those of you who are long-term readers probably remember my goal for this year: thirteen rejection letters. Well, that goal was accomplished, just barely. There was also an acceptance in there, so bonus.

Writing-wise, this was a fucking busy year**. I started rewriting a novel, cranked out a half a dozen new short stories, laid down the foundations for another novel, and posted three days a week here. Blogging alone, that works out to….*does quick math*…around 80,000 new words. Plus maybe another 25,000 words of short stories. And another 50,000 from the Sandbox and World-Building files. I have no idea how much is new on the novel because that’s the nature of rewrites: too much cutting and backfilling and general re-jiggering. But, however you slice it, this was a productive year.

Now the question becomes: what next?

Honestly? I’m not sure. This year—the year of the short story—was fun. Gave me a chance to try some new ideas and new places, at least one of which is on its way to developing into a full-blown world. But, at the same time, my energy felt scattered. I was jumping from project to project, one step ahead of the deadlines, and every story was different. Cyborg magic. Military horror. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Alternate world fantasy. Storybook horror. I ran the fucking genre mash-up gauntlet this year, and came up with some really interesting stuff. But, because I was focusing on all those, my novel rewrite isn’t even close to bloody finished and I didn’t start the other novel that I was planning on writing.

So, here’s the question for 2014: focus on the novels exclusively, or try to do both again***?

I’m going to mull this over while eating my way through the rest of the Christmas candy between now and New Year’s. In the meantime, keep me in the loop, word monkeys: how do you feel about your writing year in review, and what are your plans for 2014?

*Fasting sounds like a better and better idea this time of year.

**You know, for me. For some of you this output might be slack; for others it might seem unattainable. Your mileage may vary.

***Better this time, obviously.

My Brain Wears A Black Hat

Cowboy

And she that sat him’s name was Imagination. (Photo credit: Kevin Zollman)

My head is full of frontiers.

I put this down to the countless hours I spent watching science fiction and western movies with my dad back when I was a much smaller terror than I am now. All those towns with a single dusty street, all those galaxies beyond the edge of known space.* And all the characters that are made by those settings: the hard ones, the daring ones, the abject cowards and the morally questionable.**

This comes out in my writing, I think. Looking back at a lot of my stories, I notice a trend. The ones I love best tend to take place on borders of some kind. Occasionally they occur within the confines of a larger setting—a modern city, for example—but the main action always happens somewhere outside of the light, like the lawless confines of a hidden underground dog fighting ring. Places where normal morality has been suspended.

And now that I’ve recognized this, I’ve taken a fresh look at some of the stories I’ve been stuck on. You know the ones: they just didn’t work out and you’ve got no fucking clue why. They died of Story SIDS. But now I’m thinking that maybe a few tweaks of setting might breathe new and terrifying life into them.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has a place inside their head. All writers do. Maybe yours is an ancient city, steeped in history and corruption, layered in beauty and horror and fabulous inventions and terrible crimes. Maybe it’s the cozy confines of a small town, its casual simplicity overlaid with a Byzantine tracery of friends and neighbours and obligations and old secrets. Maybe it’s the clinical sterility of a spaceship or a lab or an institution. Or the broken post-apocalyptic landscape. Somewhere, there’s a place where your imagination feels at home.

So, what would we see if we cracked open your mind? Where does your imagination put its clawed feet up and relax?

Mine’s riding into some wild dead-end town right now, magic and horror following behind.

*Not hard to see why I love Firefly, is it?
**I’m aware that variants of these appear in almost all settings, but in the frontier, there’s much less accountability. There might be a token of the law, sometimes embodied by the character themselves, but ultimately they have to make choices based on what they can live with at the end of the day. It makes for strong protagonists, if often damaged ones.

Monday Challenge: Pushing Your Boundaries

Barrier

Barrier doesn’t look so insurmountable from this angle, does it? (Photo credit: BinaryApe)

Boundaries are over-rated.

I’m not talking about that thing where your roommate keeps coming into your room and stealing your underwear while you sleep so she can sell it on Japanese fetish websites.* You should probably address that, maybe with a taser. I’m referring to the boundaries we place on our own skills and abilities.

For example:

“I only write fan-fiction.”

“I can’t write short stories.”

“Romance is beyond me.”**

God damn it, we’re writers, aren’t we? Which means we’re supposed to be fucking creative. When did it become the norm to put so many restraints on our creativity that we might as well be Fifty Shades of Grey cosplayers?*** We should be trying new stuff, moving things around, taking in all the new possibilities. But instead, we find a niche and stick to it. Steampunk. Character-driven slice-of-life screenplays. Robot erotica. That’s all.

That is fucking stifling.

And I’m as guilty of it as anyone. For a long time, I was strictly a fantasy novel writer. But then I started writing short stories. And horror. And superhero stuff. And science fiction. And, while I found that I fucked it up a fair bit at first, I still found that I liked it.

One of my goals this year is to branch out even further: I’m going to write a graphic novel script. And, hell, if I feel like it, I might even draw it. Because creativity needs to be prodded sometimes.

So this is my Monday Challenge to you: find something you’ve never written before. Then come up with a way you’d be interested in writing it.

Don’t like romance? How about the dating life of one of your characters? Hate horror? How about nightmares that can make cameos? Worried about short fiction? Try writing a stand alone scene, or an earlier moment in someone’s life. The point is to find a way around those boundaries.

It should be simple enough. After all, we were the ones that made them.

*People do this, as I discovered in residence.
**Talking about writing again. Your relationship problems are your own.
***Is this a thing? I don’t want it to be a thing. I’m afraid to check the internet to find out.

On Being The Lord of All Creation

Shasta Dam under construction, California

“God, I hate building foundations. Let’s skip this shit and go straight to picking out paint colours.”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s talk world building.

Most of what I write is speculative fiction, specifically fantasy and horror, or some mash-up of the two. I dabble a bit in science fiction as well. An important aspect of these genres is the world in which they are set. It’s different than ours in some notable way: magic, aliens, magical aliens, magical alien ghosts that come out of the walls and eat your face. Something.

So world building is necessary, in varying amounts of detail. An urban fantasy can be very close to our world; it just has a twist. Ditto for most horror. Science fiction and other world fantasy, on the other hand, often require more work.

And, man, is it fucking surprising how many authors don’t put in that work. I read more fantasy than sci-fi, and if I read about one more poorly developed pseudo-medieval England, I think I’ll develop a rage tumour.* There’s nothing wrong with those settings when they’re done well. But so often they’re not. They’re just the default setting for fantasy, and, frankly, lazy.

The problem is that too many writers look upon world building—that is, creating a solid foundation and setting in the midst of which your story takes place—as a fucking drag. Too much work, when what they really want to be doing is developing characters and refining the plot. And those things are important. But I invite those complainers to consider this question: what person, real or imagined, is so divorced from their world that it has no affect on them? No one, that’s who. Even a character who has made an effort to cut themselves off from their world must have a pretty goddamn compelling reason for it. Consider what that is, and you might just have yourself a whole new subplot.

See, that’s the key. If you really love your characters, and want to make them as real as possible, then you have to consider how they were shaped by their world. Did they grow up poor or wealthy? What does that mean in the context of this world? Born in the country? What country? Is it mountains, or forests, or desert? What kind of education did they receive out there? What’s the most dominant influence on a person’s status: family, religion, caste, ability, geography, or something else altogether?

And this is just the tip. Questions are like cockroaches: get one, and you know there’s a dozen others hiding somewhere, waiting for the lights to go off. But answering them will give your characters life, and new adventures.

Now, you can go too far. That’s when you get World Builder’s Disease, in which an author spends so much time on the world that they forget to make characters that don’t suck, or plots that aren’t crappy. But that’s a post for another day.

So stop looking on world building as a chore, and treat it like another form of character and plot development. Those people you’re making grew up there. They love it, or hate it, or treat it with a vague indifference for a reason. Their world view was shaped by the intricacies of their societies and their environments.

Just like yours.

(PS: for speculative writers, there’s an interesting resource called 30 Days To A World. It’s a series of exercises that helps you develop a world from the ground up**, no matter how far you are in the plot process. Try it. If nothing else, it’ll give you some new questions to ask.)

*Treatable these days, but the treatment involves a lot of cotton candy and kittens. And bourbon.

**You’re on your own for the ground down. I’ve yet to see a development plan for lava and mineral strata.