Four Muses of Summer

Summer is a season of imaginative recharge for me. A time when the muses grow strong and the furies of duty fall away.  It is a time of family, hiking, hammocking, playgoing, and geekery.

My beloved family at Gasworks Park

 

Historically, it’s also been a time of hardcore writing binges. And this summer would have been the same, except for two things: 1) broke my ankle; 2) I’ve been waiting for my last beta readers; 3) I am a cinder.

1) BROKEN ANKLE

“So what?” I hear someone say.  “Broken ankle is a perfect excuse to sit and write.” I myself thought that, at first. Then I learned what a time-sucking, buzz-pinching frustration fest it is to perform even the smallest tasks.

Normally effortless things like rising to pee, fetch ice for my leg, return the ice pack to the freezer, or search for one of the myriad things I set down or misplaced on one of these interruptions becomes a sweaty and awkward epic crap wagon.

And it was depressing. The one time I optimistically sat in a cafe for my usual six hour stint, my foot swelled up like a throbbing red meat balloon.


2) YOU CAN’T RUSH THE BETA READERS

But that didn’t stop me from trying. I’ve been waiting for the last of my beta readers, including the Closer (though maybe I should call him the Cleaner?), my blood brother in writing, Craig Holt–aka Ivuk Ivukson, whose kickass “jungle noir” novel, Hard Dog to Kill comes out this fall. Craig delivered his notes last week. I had begged him to make his comments on paper so I could revise on paper, a task much easier to do than on computer when one one’s leg is elevated above the heart. I await only one more beta reader.

COULDN’T I START REVISIONS BASED ON CRAIG’S COMMENTS?

Yes. I am now walking on my ankle boot. Things are much easier. But…

3) HONESTLY, I’M BURNT OUT

Too much Knave for too long, and my imagination feels like a wrung-out sponge. My body too, is a shambles, and not just the ankle. I sacrificed exercise time to writing time. Very. Bad. Idea.

THE POINT IS

I haven’t written much this summer, and that’s going to have to be okay. Instead, I have made it a Summer of Imaginative & Salubrious Recharge. While I wait for betas and healing, I’ve let my Four Muses have rein–the four muses of FamilyNature, Shakespeare, and Dreaming. Plus, I have returned to exercise.

THE KNAVE OF SOULS – Progress Update

SORRY FOR THE LONG GAP IN POSTINGS

I posted like mad over my November retreat, but stopped during winter break, and though I’be been writing since, I haven’t posted. I was in France for some of that. Here is a terrifying picture of my family and I at 13,000 feet in a glass box over an icy crag of the Alps. 

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SO! ENOUGH FOOLSHNESS! AN UPDATE! 

I’m sending Chapter 52 (The End) for peer crit this Saturday! Feels great, too. I’m pretty happy with it. PLUS, for those of you who agree with me that 2.5 years to write a book is too long, it’s coming in at about 160K words, which is 30K words more than the first book, so, hopefully that 20% more Harric, Caris, Sir Willard, Ambassador Brolli, and Father Kogan will make up for some of the wait.

Below, some of the crit notes from the Chapter 51 peer crit session. I love scribbles. I find beauty in these artifacts. Hope I don’t become a hoarder.

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Special Midnight Free Book Offer!

Buy a copy of this year’s Writers of the Future before Midnight tonight and I’ll joyfully ship you a first-edition paper, hardback,* eBook or audiobook of The Jack of Souls!

BUY BY MIDNIGHT

*First come first served on the paper and hardbacks (I think I have a dozen of each). No limit (except midnight) on The Jack of Souls eBooks and audio.
How Does This Work? 
Simple! Just send me a receipt/photo of you and your WOTF to stephenmerlino@hotmail.com, along with your preference of paper, hard, ebook or audio, plus your address, and I’ll put it in the mail.  Thank you!
 
Buy at a local book store or online. Here are the links:
Amazon US (paperback | Kindle)         < $11.52 paperback, $6.99 Kindle
Barnes & Noble (paperback | Nook)    < $ 11.63 paperback, $6.49 Nook
Kobo
Books-A-Million
IndieBound
Walmart
Target

 

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Awesome Analog Story Catcher

Powered by dice!

100 Pages of Hand-Made Story Elements

The way this works is that she has created 100 lists of 10 possible story elements. First she rolls the percentile dice to select the page, then she rolls one for the list of ten.

Closeup Story Catcher

I told her she should make it an app…then i realized how charming the little book was

When I tried it out, I rolled up: Student, Hotel, Time Travel. Pretty good bones for a story, no?

Story Catcher Ryan Stuart Nina

Nina sharing withtwo of this year’s winners: Ryan & Stewart

First Morning of Writers of the Future week!

Woke to a lovely day in LA. Our hotel is right on the walk of stars, and wouldn’t you know it, certain members of my family are into American Idol and the American Idol contestants are staying here too?

IBut I saw the Hollywood sign: if you look closely in the picture below, you can see it on the hill behind the palms. This place reminds me of Vegas.

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Ready thy snickersnee!

snickersnee

The commander of the sloop was hurrying about and giving a world of orders,which were not very strictly attended to, one man being busy in lighting his pipe,and another in sharpening his snicker-snee.

               – Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall, 1882

 

Oh never shall I

Forget the cry,

Or the shriek that shriekèd he,

As I gnashed my teeth,

When from its sheath

drew my snickersnee !

                 – W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, 1885

 

From Dictionary.com

And You Think Sagging Pants are Ridiculous…

Weirder than Fiction

Fops Together

Building Believable (and Fantastic!) Fantasy Worlds

Reality is often truly stranger than anything you could make up, so it pays to research.

Take this picture from a late 17th century fashion mag displayed in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. Look close.

Look how hard these guys are working! That hair! Those stockings! Those accessories! They look like 80s glam rockers!

Accessory Detail 4

Accessor Detail 1

 

 

 

Accessor Detail 2
Accessory Detail 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inredibles

Turns out, there was a name for this Captain Jack Sparrow style of dress back then. Here is what the Rijks Musuem had to say about them in their Fashion Magazines exhibit: They were called, “The Incredibles.” Not kidding.

Fop Explanation

 So This was Actually Satire of the High Fashions of the Rich!

Still, I am not sure they succeeded in making it more ridiculous than the actual fashions. How could they? Here is one of the men they mocked, also from a fashion mag of the time:

Noble Absurdity 2

Dude. You’re wearing pink and white candy-cane-striped tails with yellow pantaloons. Nailed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extremities of Female High Fashion

I wish I had more pictures of ridiculous wealthy men’s attire from the time, but most of the extreme examples are of women’s fashion.

Like these insane hairstyles for women.

Retouched Fashion Hair

 

 

 

The Ship one is my favorite:

Hairstyles 2

 

 

Here is the Timeless Message of High Fashion:

1)  Since no one could possibly do work in such attire, I am clearly wealthy.

2) Since the time it takes to design and execute such confections of hair/clothing makes it impossible to do any actual work during the day, I am clearly wealthy.

3) Since the cost of my fashion–not just in time but in money–is astronomical, I am clearly wealthy.

Building This Principle Into Fantasy A World

A good illustration of this in fantasy is in Martin’s A Game of Thrones (the books, anyway) where the fashion of the noble women of the slave city of Meereen is a dress that is essentially a mummy wrap from neck to ankles, making it impossible for the women to walk in anything but tiny little steps. Clearly, those women are NOT doing any work!

Here’s a dress from modern day high fashion that might have been from Meereen:

Meereen Dress

I apologize I don’t know where this image came from originally, or I would cite it. I found it via google on a Pinterest page. Anna D made a comment connecting it to Daenerys in Meereen.

Finally, a Note on the Timelessness of Junk Grabbing

Okay, pant-sagging may not have been around in the old days, but the Incredibles did, apparently, grab junk. They were straight up Gs.

Junk

Leper Life

Leper Party Sleigh

Leper Party Sleigh

You might think lepers had it rough in the old days.

But you would be wrong. If you were a leper, most of the time you were forbidden to enter the city, but once a year they put you in a wooden sled and dragged it through the city.

Leper Party Sled

You got to hold out a plate for donations and they gave you these wooden party clappers to make noise with!

Good times.

SQUEEEEE! Quoth the Ringwraiths

My kids are finally old enough to watch Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring! Naturally, I excavated the extended version ( I ‘d carefully sheltered it from the family DVD bin that accelerates the laws of entropy), and we had a family movie night.

Watching it, however, I relived my initial disappointment with its world building at the level of sound. Specifically, I found myself rolling my eyes when the Black Riders showed up. Why? Because the sound engineers had an opportunity to imply worlds of weirdness with the sounds emanating from the ringwraiths, but instead used what has become the clip art of scary monster sounds — the high-pitched squeal of pigs.

PIGRIDERS

Clip-Audio

It’s everywhere. Think about it. The sound of velociraptors in Jurassic Park? Pig screams. The six-armed invaders from Cowboys and Aliens? Pig screams. The weird proto-alien-squid monster aborted from the heroine of Prometheus? Pig screams! The mile-high Kaiju of Pacific Rim? Freaking pig screams! It doesn’t seem to matter if the creature is as big as the Empire State Building or as small as a terrier, it’s going sound like a psycho pig.

It’s as if the last time anyone put any effort into world building on the level of sound was when William Friedkin recorded the screams of pigs herded for slaughter for use in The Exorcist. Back then, this sound was original and brilliant and effective. Now it is the clip-audio of monster sounds. It’s as if Friedkin’s feat of sound imagination was so awe-inspiring that even Peter Jackson could find nothing more appropriate for the ghosts of the ancient kings of Middle Earth than the sound of shrieking swine.bigpigRoadside (To be clear, I don’t know if he actually recorded pigs, per se–chances are a synthesizer could create it from scratch–but the two are virtually indistinguishable.)

I wish I could dub Teletubby tracks over it; I swear that would be scarier. (Or imagine a velociraptor making Teletubby sounds… Gives me a shiver!)

Visual Trumps Audio

I have to assume that Hollywood is so “visually” focused that it undervalues the value of sound in world building. But when I refer to sound as an element of world building, I think of it as a visual component. For example, when Legolas draws his funky elvish blade, and it goes schwing! in a perfect C major, I visualize clean, honed, shining steel. When the orc draw’s its blade it better not sound the same. For that we’ll need a gritty, metal-on metal scrape, so we visualize a rusted, blood-caked machete of a blade, which implies as much of orc culture as the schwing does of elves. (Wait…Okay, you know what I mean.) My point is this: sound choice can economically imply layers of visual detail, just as word choice can in prose.

What if the Audio had been as Brilliant as the Visuals?

Consider the layers of eerieness one could imply about the bizarre half-life of the ringwraiths if their sounds had instead been alluring or musical, like mournful pipe organs? Or flatly metallic? Or distant whispers like urgent messages heard through a long pipe? Or if they’d been utterly soundless/sound devouring as in Joss Whedon’s wonderful Buffy episode, “Hush?”Velociwraiths-2

But no one does that any more. Even Cameron and his visually resplendent bioluminescent Avatar forests used the pig-scream clip-audio for the calls of his four-eyed flying mounts.  (Look out! Flying pigs!) The aliens in Whedon’s Avengers were apparently from a pig planet, too. Those aliens, along with the invaders in Aliens and Cowboys, are obviously of highly intelligent, technologically advanced species, yet they had no discernible language or patterned vocalizations other than pig screams. And while I’m thinking of it, the advanced race of squid-headed aliens in Independence Day? Pig screams.

Bright Spots in Hollywood Monster Audio?

1) District 9’s aliens!  Huzzah!

2) … ( Anyone…?  Anyone…?)

Turn it Upside Down

Instead of striving for something “scary” sounding (sounds that are harsh, threatening, violent), I humbly suggest we do the opposite. Try giving the monster a voice that is lovely, or even ridiculous. Ever hear the voice of America’s favorite bad ass raptor, the American Bald Eagle? It’s not the haunting Kii! Kii! dubbed in for its appearance in Hollywood films or Colbert’s title sequence (that cool sound is actually the sound of a red-tailed hawk). The bald eagle’s voice is the fruity piping of a seagull on crack: “Keetle- KEETLE-keetle!  Keetle-KEETLE-keetle!”

Hard not to giggle, the first time you hear it. But give that sound to a monster as it tugs the guts out of someone’s family dog, and the discordance would be quite chilling.

What’s Next? High Pig of Anmar

In less than a week we get to see The Desolation of Smaug and find out what the spiders in Mirkwood sound like! …Anyone want to make a guess?

Please let it be Teletubbies.

Re-imagine the Familiar

Tolkein’s Legacy

The reason you don’t see lots of new Tolkeinesque stories of halflings and dwarves and elves in the book stores is that those things have been done. Most people want something new. It isn’t that dwarves and elves and halfllings can’t be used in stories any more, it’s just that if you use them, you probably need to re-invent them in some unexpected–even iconoclastic–way in order to make them fresh again for the reader.

One could argue that the genre of urban fantasy is largely the result of just such a need for newness and rethinking.  Black Blade Blues comes to mind, with its investment-banker dragons–what a wonderful re-imagining that is! (Who are the hoarders of gold today–the symbols of greed–if not the Gordon Geckos?)

I recently took my kids to the wonderful Crest Cinema to see the animated film, Rise of the Guardians, in which the artists reimagined the all too familiar figures of Santa and his elves. How did they reinvent them?

Santa became a burly, tattooed Russian with a rolling Russian accent, a huge rough laugh, and the words Naughty and Nice tattooed on his massive forearms.

His “elves” were replaced with teams of huge and hairy yeti, who were responsible for all the toy making (as well as any fistfights that needed staffing).

Okay, there were elves present–the standard cliche elves with tiny bodies, cute faces and pointy ears and hats–who laid about (drunk, in my memory) and idle, as a kind of window dressing, but even that was a reinvention of elves.  

As a result, the old tropes were again fresh and entertaining, and in some cases can even cause us to question our assumptions about the familiar (do Russians have a different idea of Santa?).

 

 

The Joys of Verisimilitude in World Building

The Muse of Invention

One of the best things about speculative fiction is the joy of pure invention, riffing off of  patterns we see in the Nature. The florescent flora of Miranda, in Avatar, comes to mind–stunningly beautiful, inspired perhaps by some of the bio-luminescence of the sea.

    

(Image of flora in Avatar)                                (Image of florescent sea anemone)

Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide

Here is a passage from Stations of the Tide that I thought beautiful, inspired perhaps by the symbioses we see among sea creatures–from whales to crabs–like barnacles, remoras, and whale lice.

The orchid crabs were migrating to the sea. They scuttled across the sand road, swamping it under their numbers. Bright parasitic flowers waved gently on their armor, making the forest floor ripple under a carpet of multicolored petals, like a submarine garden seen through clear fathoms of Ocean brine.

 

World Building Primer: THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND, by Diana Wynne Jones

One of the best primers on fantasy world building I have seen is Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Wikipedia describes it as a loving sendup of common fantasy tropes, which it is, but it can also beread as a cautionary primer for writers against unexamined fantasy clichés. 

Years ago the book was recommended to me by the leader of Seattle Writer’s Cramp, Steve Gurr, when he pointed out some arbitrary apostrophes I’d inserted into place names or secondary character names in the novel I was submitting for critique at the time.  (His point about the apostrophes wasn’t that one ought not use apostrophes in imaginary place names, but that if I am not a linguist, like Tolkien was, I might consider doing that sparingly.  (And yes, Jones does have a humorous entry on Apostrophes in the book.)

I read all of Tough Guide to Fantasyland and found numerous inspirations to reconsider elements of my worldbuilding which I had not before examined.

Some of My Favorite Examples

COLOR CODING: is very important in Fantasyland. Always pay close attention to the color of the CLOTHING, hair and eyes of anyone you meet.  It will tell you a great deal. Complexion is also important: in many cases it will be color coded too.
1. Clothing. Black garments normally mean EVIL, but in rare cases it may mean sobriety, in which cases a white ruffled collar will be added to the ensemble.  Gray and red clothing mean that the person is neutral but ending to EVIL in most cases. Any other color is GOOD, unless too many bright colors are worn at once, in which instance the person will be unreliable. Drab color means the person will take little part in the action, unless the drab is also torn or disreputable, when the person will be a loveable rogue.
2. Hair. Black hair is EVIL, particularly if combined with a corpse-white complexion. Red hair always entails magical POWERS, even if these are only latent. Brown hair has to be viewed in combination with eyes whose color are the real giveaway (see below), but generally implies niceness. Fair hair, especially if it is silver-blonde, always means goodness.
3. Eyes. Black eyes are invariably EVIL; brown eyes mean boldness and humor, but not necessarily goodness; green eyes always entail talent, usually for magic but sometimes for music; hazel eyes are rare and seen generally to imply niceness; gray eyes mean niceness and healing abilities (see HEALERS) and will be reassuring unless they look silver (silver-eyed people are likely to enchant or hypnotize you for their own ends, although they are not always EVIL); white eyes usually blind ones, are for wisdom (never ignore anything a white-eyed person says); blue eyes are always GOOD, the bluer, the more good present; and then there are violet and golden eyes. People with violet eyes are often of Royal, and, if not, always live uncomfortably interesting lives. People with golden eyes just live uncomfortably interesting lives, and are usually rather fey in the bargain. Both these types should be avoided by anyone who wishes for a quiet life. Luckily it seldom occurs to those with undesirable eye colors to disguise them with ILLUSION, and they can generally be detected very readily. Red eyes can never be disguised. They are EVIL and are surprisingly common.
4. Complexion. Corpse-white is evil, and it grades from there. Pink-faced folk are generally midway and pathetic. The best face-color is brown, preferably tanned, but it can be inborn. Other colors such as black, yellow, blue and mauve barely exist.
So, if a character is wearing green, is blue-eyes and brown-faced, you will probably be okay. CAUTION: do not apply these standards to our own world. You are likely to be disappointed.

CLOTHING:  Although this varies from place to place, there are two absolute rules:

1. Apart from ROBES, no garment thicker than a SHIRT ever has sleeves.

2. No one ever wears socks.

COATS: do not exist in Fantasyland–CLOAKS being universally preferred–but TURNCOATS do.

CLOAKS:  are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in the front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. … etc.

Amazon Link

Consider reading this aloud to like-minded geek friends.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Tough-Guide-Fantasyland-Essential/dp/0142407224/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338079191&sr=8-1

 

Light Brushstrokes in STATIONS OF THE TIDES

I take a lot of inspiration and instruction from Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide. The book is full of fantastic inventions that he limns with only in the lightest brushstrokes.  I referred to his “surrogate” technology in the post on “Filtering Setting Through Character POV”.  In this post I want to share two other examples: one of the “jug” dwellings in the riverbanks on Miranda; the other of a drug/toxin derived from a bacterium or micro organism.

First, the jugs.

This far east, the farmland was too rich to squander, and save for the plantation buildings, most dwellings hugged the river. Unpainted clapboard houses teetered precariously on the lip of a high earth bluff. Halfway down to the water, a walk had been cut into the earth and planked over to serve a warren of jugs and storerooms dug into the banks itself (176).

He doesn’t tell us what a jug is. He just refers to them, because his POV character, the bureaucrat, knows what they are, and would not pay them any particular notice, so we don’ t get to either.  It isn’t until eight paragraphs later when the bureaucrat is inside a cafe that we learn.

…In a niche by the table a television was showing a documentary on the firing of the jugs. There was antique footage of workers sealing up the new-dug clay. Narrow openings were left at the bottom of what would be the doors, and to the top rear of the tunnels.  Then the wood packed inside was fired.  Pillars of smoke rose up like the ghosts of trees and became a forest whose canopy blotted out the sun. The show had been playing over and over ever since its original broadcast on one of the government channels.  Nobody noticed it any more.

“The heat required to glaze the walls was—”  The bureaucrat reached over and changed the channel  (176-177).

What I love about this is that he trusts me as a reader enough to let me hang for eight paragraphs before I find out what it means.  Yes, I had to read the first description twice, because I didn’t know what a “jug” was, but there was enough context for me to assume it was some kind of dug-out dwelling space, and that was enough for me to go on till I got some more description.

He could have explained it right away:  …a warren of storerooms and jugs, ceramic-walled rooms carved from the clay and baked in place with massive internal bonfires or something, but that would have bogged down the action at hand.

In the end, was this neat invention relevant to the action at hand?  No. in that regard it’s a throwaway detail.  But in terms of sustaining the protagonist’s sense of alien landscape and people, a kind of stranger-in-a-strange land vulnerability and therefore tension—it was.

Here’s how he introduces the drug/toxin.

Pouffe sat opposite the two of them, his back to the land. His face was puffy and unhealthy in the window light. His eyes were two dim stars, unblinking…

Gregorian walked over to Pouffe, and crouched. He cut a long sliver of flesh from the old shopkeeper’s forehead. It bled hardly at all. The flesh was faintly luminous, not with the bright light of Undine’s iridobacteria but with a softer, greenish quality. It glowed in the magician’s fingers, lit up the inside of his mouth, and disappeared. He chewed noisily.

“The feverdancers are at their peak now. Ten minutes earlier and they’d still be infectious. An hour later and their toxins will begin to break down.’ He spat out the sliver into his palm, and cut it in two with his knife. “Here.” He held one half to the bureaucrat’s lips. “Take. Eat.”

The bureaucrat turned away in disgust.

“Eat!” The flesh had no strong smell; or else the woodsmoke drowned it out…He obeyed (232).

(The bureaucrat then experiences hallucinations, out-of-body experience, into-Gregorian’s memory experience, like the pensieve in Harry Potter, and that’s all we get.)  He could have had Gregorian explain what the toxins do, and how they work—he could have had the bureaucrat muse on what he knew of feverdancers, but he doesn’t. We are left to assume all that from these few clues, and it is enough.

Light brush strokes, carefully limited by the POV character’s POV.

 

World Building: Gods and Humans – Through a Glass, Darkly

ICE

In the late 90s I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I did some contract writing for the guys at Iron Crown Enterprises, the creators of the wonderful Role Master fantasy role-playing system.

At the time they were designing a game world for a new series of modules, and the game designer, John Curtis III, mentioned something that struck me as odd at the time and so it sticks with me today.  After explaining to me the intricacies of the world’s cosmology–how his world and it’s peoples were created by what gods and for what purposes–he said, “but that’s just half of it. Now I have to figure out how each of those peoples think the world was created and by whom for what purpose. None of the mortals would know the real story, only nuggets of truth here and there.”

I think of that as the “Through a glass, darkly” principle in worldbuilding. Even Christianity, which claims to be the sole true religion in this world, doesn’t claim that humans are capable of full understanding of the divine in this life. Of this world and the next Saint Paul wrote, “We see now through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” Likewise the mortals of ICE’s game world were granted only a dim and muddled view of its cosmological reality.

If you go with that metaphor for your world, the people’s mythologies will  be only a shadow of what is actually going on, warped by human passions and frailties and limitations.

Playing with the Glass

Those warpings can be lots of fun.  They’ll show up in contradictory scriptural passages like “God is a jealous god”, “God is love,” and “Love is never jealous.”   (Wait, what?)  It will show up in confabulations of folklore and scripture, like some of the Jewish golem stories, and in outright imaginative superstition, like imbedding nails in the shape of a cross in the heel of your left boot to keep the devil off your trail, as Pap does in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Making up your own versions of that is plain fun.

The Curse of Chalion

One of my favorite examples of a secondary world designed upon the “through the glass darkly” principle is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion universe.  The gods in that world are very present but so inscrutable as to seem arbitrary at times, remote beyond human understanding. In books like that, I feel I’m being made to examine life and spirituality from a new angle, and I value that. But just as important is the simple verisimilitude of such crafting; it resonates with the way humans experience the divine in –through a glass, darkly–and thus brings credibility to the world.

Of course, you might well decide to create a world in which the gods live in the temples among their priests, and if there is any dispute in doctrine the priests simply ask the god, who settles it definitively.  (Such a world presents an entirely different set of challenges.)