Message from Poughkeepsie

This is how it happens.

I was driving my car to work, listening to podcasts, as I do every day. Today’s podcast happened to be one I’ve been putting off listening to because it’s lengthy. Over an hour and a half, and calls itself an interview with Jim Butcher. Butcher is, currently1, my favorite living author, creator of the fantastic urban fantasy series The Dresden Files.

The “podcast” turned out to be a recording of a radio show. The interview with Butcher started over an hour in, so I was doing a lot of fast-forwarding over a lot of inane babble.

When I finally got to the interview, only one of the three hosts of the show has read any of his books, but at least that one person is asking intelligent questions that indicate he did, indeed, read the books.

One of the questions was about vampires. In Butcher’s world, there are four “courts” of vampires, roughly divided into “Stoker-esque, Dracula-type” vampires (the Black Court), blood-sucking demon-types (the Red Court), psychic vampires who consume emotion and sexual energy (the White Court), and asian vampires (the Jade Court, which has not yet made an appearance in any of his books).

Now, when I designed my urban fantasy world, I decided up front that I wanted it to have a kind of scientific feel. No ghosts, fairies, demons, angels, gods, etc. And therefore no curses, which means no vampires or werewolves. Mostly, no sexy vampires or sexy werewolves. I’ve had my fill of those.

My one-line description of my series is, “It’s an urban fantasy set in modern Atlanta where magic works, but there are no sexy vampires or sexy werewolves.” People generally say, “Oh, thank God” at that, which seems to indicate to me that other people are getting tired of the whole ‘sexy cursed creature’ trend in fantasy, as well.

So, to re-iterate, my entire premise is based on how vampires and werewolves are simply not allowed. Just so we’re clear on that.

So, I’m listening to Jim talk . . . and my subconscious mind—which is generally free to wander indiscriminately while I’m doing something boring like driving, showering, or eating—looks up at me and grins. “Mutation,” it says, and then goes back to . . . I don’t know, playing jacks with Bigfoot or whatever it is that it does in there.

I, of course, knew immediately what this meant, because we share a brain. But for those of you out there who aren’t me, allow me to elaborate.

The way my magic system works is kind of complex and convoluted and I won’t go fully into it, here (because I might decide to change something later), but basically, you need energy to do work. Each person (animal, even plants) has energy. There are basically three types of magic users to draw on this energy: psionic, magic, and necromancers. Psionics draw on their own life energy, mages draw on their own and others’ life energy (slowly, as it’s naturally given off), and necromancers draw on their own energy, others’ energy, and can absorb the sum total of energy “released at the moment of death” as well.2 There’s a whole bunch of stuff about who can and can’t use what, how they access it, how the three mutations can all exist in the same person and what that means, etc. that I will probably never put in a story, but which I have to know for consistency.

What my subconscious was telling me is that there’s a fourth type who can draw energy forcefully, not all at once, but over a longer period of time than “at the moment of death,” but much higher rate than “as it is given off normally.”3

Yep. Vampires.

My subconscious is subverting the entire premise of my series.

But it does open certain very intriguing plot lines…No! No, no, no!

Talk me down, people. Talk. Me. Down. Before my subconscious whispers something that makes werewolves possible within my system.

  1. And by ‘currently,’ I mean currently in the sense of being my favorite, not currently living. He’s younger than I am. He should be around a while. :)
  2. The astute observers among you will no doubt be wondering what the “catch” is. With that much power out there for the use, what’s to stop magic-using people from taking over? And the answer is that there are serious physical consequences to using any type of magic, and there’s an addictive quality as well.
  3. Which implies, of course, that some people give off more, some less, and others can hoard energy like a battery.


This Is Why I Love Writers

"Reference Shelves"  © 2011 by Kevin Grocki


As you may be aware (because I keep telling you), NaNoWriMo rapidly approacheth.

I’ve been hanging out on the forums a little this year, hoping to participate a bit more than I did last year (which was not at all). I ran across a whole forum for asking questions. Otherwise known as “The Reference Desk.” These are questions where you’ve exhausted what you can find out yourself and are now hoping someone else participating in the forums is an expert—or is at least knowledgeable—in that area.

This is why I love writers. There’s a quote I’ve seen recently, but I could not find the source, no matter how I flogged Google, but Rick Castle on the awesome series Castle paraphrased it nicely.

There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better.

Here’s a sampling of some of the subject lines that I find particularly amusing.

Help with a new fictional element or molecular compound
Scars – from accidents, in non-obvious places
Anyone born in the forties
Things that knock together
Why would a married couple cook two different meals simultaneously?
Decomposition of Human Bodies?
How Does One Sustain Optic Nerve Damage?
Werecat Myths
Pregnancy – Funny Moments
Poison Which Doesn’t Quite Kill You
Tourism in Egypt
Slit Veins – How Long Do You Have Until You Die?
Killing Someone to Drive Down Stock Prices

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that extremely funny. And this goes on for more than 32 pages of threads, where each page displays 20 threads.

I honestly hope that I’m never suspected of committing a murder, because if the authorities were to obtain my search history from Google, it would be all over. I’ve searched many topics similar to the ones above, such as “What chemicals are used in lethal injection?” “How long does it take pentobarbital to kill an adult male?” “How long does a person live if shot in the lung?” And that old standard, “Where to dispose of a body.”

That kind of thing. This forum and those thread topics tells me that these are mah peepz, yo.

I have a feeling I will be using the forums a lot this year. :)

As it turns out, H is not for Hive, as I thought it would be. H Is for Haunting. The whole story popped into my head last night while I was dropping off to sleep, and I managed to retain a good bit of it, and am writing down ideas in my Moleskine notebook (of awesomeness) as the day goes. I was stuck on H for days. Maybe the remaining 17 letters will come faster.

Hear that, Muse? I’m talkin’ to you.

"Moleskine Brand" © 2005 by boy avianto


<This is where you all say, “Hi, Gary!” at the same time.>

<No, go on and do it.>

<I’m not going to continue until you do it.>

<I’m waaaaiiiiitiiiiiing.>

<Thank you.>

Some people collect unicorns. Some collect turtles. Some collect mementos1 from a favorite movie or TV show, or autographs.

Others collect everything, and we call these people “hoarders.”

I have always been a fan of notebooks, notepads, clipboards, different types of paper . . . as far back as I can remember. I have a whole closet in my office at home replete with this kind of thing. It is with some degree of difficulty that I’m able to stop myself from buying more even though I have enough to last me many, many years.

Of course, when I buy really cool notebooks or notepads, I don’t want to use them because . . . well, they’re really cool. Somewhere in my house I have a notebook where the covers are made of computer circuit boards sanded smooth. No one has ever seen this because it’s really cool and using it would reduce the really coolness.

You see how this could become a type of trap, I’ll bet.

The other night, I went to a special Thursday night session of my Tuesday night writers group. I thought I might need to take notes, but alas! alack! I had no notebook. At all. (Because all of my really cool notebooks are locked in a closet in my office at home.)

The book store didn’t, of course, carry simple legal pads, which is all I wanted, really.

But what they did have were Moleskine notebooks. A lot of them. I neeeeeeded something to write on. Really. So I bought a three-pack of dark red Moleskine notebooks. But this time, I was determined to actually use them even though they are really cool.

Of course, I needed to take no notes at all. So at the end of a more-than-two-hour meeting, my Moleskine was unsullied by ink or graphite.

I wanted it sullied. I wanted it sullied in the worst possible way.2 But every moment of unsullied . . . ness was one moment closer to these three really cool Moleskine notebooks finding their way into my closet.

I brought them to work with me on Friday morning, thinking surely I’d find a way to sully them. Or at least one of them. Surely.

But . . . I didn’t want to use them for work. (There. You see how this starts? A really cool notebook shouldn’t have mundane things written in it, like notes from a silly meeting or phone conference. A really cool notebook needs to have really cool things written in it.)

When I went to lunch, I took one of them with me. The intent was to use the notebook to work through some ideas for my alphabet series of short stories I talked about the other day. I was stuck at the time on the letter F.

I took along my favorite pen. (Which, incidentally, I also seldom use because it’s really cool and I might lose it or chip it or damage it in some way. See how this goes?)

Well . . . I did it. I wrote “F Is for Fangs” at the top of the first page and . . . and . . . took notes! In my really cool Moleskine notebook using my really cool ACME Writing Instrument. And then put “D Is for Dragon” on the next page. And “H Is for Hive” on the one after that. And “G Is for Gravesite” on the one after that.

Sullied! I have sullied my Moleskine notebooks! I even crossed some stuff out so it’s not perfect.

If you knew how big a step this is, you would not now be making that face and thinking about rotating one hand at your temple in the international symbol for “one ring short of a binder” or making that “cuckoo” sound. Yes, I know what you were thinking. I mean, come on . . . it was obvious.

I thought I had lost said sullied notebook, but today I found it and made some more story notes, including a snippet of dialogue for “D Is for Dragon,” which I’m going to have a lot of fun writing.

One page for each letter of the alphabet will use 26 whole pages.

Oh, and Z? It’s for Zombie, and these are the stories that keep sleep from me. “Zombie” and “from me” kind of rhyme . . .

Disclaimer: This post may not be used to establish or confirm any lack of sanity that may be hinted at by the contents thereof.

  1. Every time I see this word, my mind says, “The Fresh-Maker!”
  2. Well, that’s not true. The worst possible way would be to give them to Snooki and have her pen her next best-seller on them. Oog. I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. But I digress.


Linear Thinking

"Linear" © 2006 by Martin P. Szymczak


Golly! Two posts in one day? Will wonders never cease?

My posts here are automatically cross-posted to my LiveJournal account. Over there, one of my long-time friends very casually gave me “F Is for Fangs. I got bit in the leg” to give my subconscious a little help on the stanza currently troubling me.

Now, I had already thought of “Fangs” and rejected it. “There are way too many stories about vampires,” I thought to myself, then told my subconscious to just ignore “vampires and fangs” and go on.

I said as much to my commenter. She then said, “Oh, I never thought of vampires. I was just thinking Dragon → Egg → (baby dragon) Fangs . . .”

Well, duh. Even though that’s not something I can use because the Egg story that I want to write has nothing to do with the Dragon story that comes before it, I never saw the progression. It was staring me right in the face, too. Either me or my subconscious should have seen this.

Then, just as I was getting over that, she added one more comment. “You know what else has fangs? Snakes. :)”

Again, duh. You know, I’ve been a snake online for so long that you would think that would have been the first thing that occurred to me. But no, “fangs” to me implied only vampires.

This comes back to something Holly Lisle recently said in one of her excellent writing newsletters. She was talking about a technique for generating story ideas that she calls “Calling Down Lightning.” It’s when your conscious (left brain) says, “I need to write a story about <topic> of about <word count> words, and I need it by <deadline>.” The subconscious (right brain) hears this, cogitates on it, and starts tossing out concepts.

The conscious then either says, “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe . . .”, and the subconscious goes back to refine the idea or provide new ones.

It’s a pretty good personification of the process creative types go through when trying to generate ideas.

In that newsletter where she introduces the process to her readers, she tells a story of how it broke down for her. She needed a “paranormal romance” idea, but told her subconscious to avoid a certain topic because she already had a couple of other stories about that. Her subconscious went into a four-day sulk, refusing to give her anything at all to work with.

Because her conscious tried to limit her subconscious. Exactly what I did when I said, “F, but not ‘fangs’ because I don’t want to write a vampire story.” So my subconscious mind may have gone off in a huff and worked on something else just to spite me.

Or I’m overanalyzing and my shipment of ideas from Poughkeepsie simply hasn’t arrived this week.

I don’t know how I got so locked into “fangs = vampires,” but it clearly has caused me to miss a couple of good ideas. Which my commenter helped me see.

Thanks, Molly. :)


The Mind Is a Terrible Thing

"Brain Vocab Sketch" © 2009 by Zachary Veach


I hate my brain, sometimes. Really.

See, NaNoWriMo is coming up soon, and I have 26 short stories to plan out. I am flogging my brain on what to do with ‘e’ and ‘f’ (the story I want to tell could go with either letter, but I can’t come up with a suitable rhyme for the other one, no matter which one I assign the story to). I was at lunch, reading a book on writing horror, and hoping that my subconscious mind was hard at work on the ‘e’ & ‘f’ problem. Oh, it was hard at work, all right. But I digress.

The book I’m reading is On Writing Horror: a Handbook by The Horror Writers Association edited by Mort Castle. The particular essay is “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” by Ramsey Campbell.

The passage I read is as follows and is reproduced without any sort of permission whatsoever, but I think it’s covered by fair use.

But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.

I got to the end of that and was interrupted by my subconscious. It tapped me on the shoulder, metaphorically speaking, and very quietly handed me a memo, then went back into its (dank, dark) lair.

It wasn’t about ‘e’ and ‘f’. Not at all. In fact, what it was was a completely reworked motivation for my antagonist character in the novel Perdition’s Flames on which I’m currently working, and am about 60,000 words into.

So, you know, now is just the perfect time to inform me that my motivation for this character has been all wrong, and that I need to introduce yet another character . . . in chapter 4 or so.

I’m writing chapter 21.

To be fair, my subconscious knows that I needed to introduce this character in this book to establish her so that my main character and she could have a relationship in the second novel. But still, really, subconscious? Really?

So I wrote all that down in my ever-handy notebook. And now I really need Mr. Subconscious-guy to go ahead and work on this stanza:

D Is for Dragon,
E Is for Egg;
F Is for [Something], [a phrase ending with a rhyme for ‘egg’].

Or, alternatively

D Is for Dragon,
E Is for [I don’t even know];
F Is for Fertile, [some phrase ending in a word that rhymes with the E-word]

So, get right on that, Mr. Subconscious. I know you’re listening. You always listen.

Even when I don’t want you to.


MICE: The Milieu

Stage, © 2011 by George Foster


In my last post about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, I talked about The Idea. As I said in that first post, MICE represents the four elements every story must have at least one (but preferably more) of: Milieu (Setting), Idea, Character, and Event.

The next one of the four items I want to talk about is Milieu, or Setting. As I said before, Card only chose “milieu” instead of “setting” because SICE doesn’t make a word.

There are a lot of stories I can think of that are inextricably rooted in the setting. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring immediately to mind. These stories were as much about Middle Earth as they were about the characters and the events and ideas that they involve. Mirkwood, The Shire, Tom Bombadil’s wood, Smaug’s lair, Khazad Dûm, the Ents’ forest, Mordor…such riches of setting, and so beautifully described by Tolkien. Chances are, if you’ve read them—and if you’re reading this and you haven’t read them, then stop reading this right now and go read them—as soon as you read the words “Mirkwood” or “Smaug’s lair,” you knew exactly what I was talking about, right down to the creep factor. Because they were so vividly described.

Another that fits in this category is Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky trilogy. Again, if you haven’t read these wonderful books, go do so. The world of Green Sky is vividly described, and is as integral to the story as any of the characters. The characters are of Green Sky and the stories evolve from Green Sky.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I mean . . . come on. I’d still go to Narnia as readily today—as a 46-year-old with a mortgage and several thousand dollars in credit card debt—as I would have as a 12-year-old suffering through the Chicken Pox first reading them. Because Lewis made the world of Narnia come alive for me. It is a real place to me, every bit as three-dimensional as my own hometown. And I think I’d recognize Cair Paravel, the Beaver’s Lodge, the Lamp Post, or The Stone Table if I saw them today . . . off on the horizon . . . beckoning.

I think therein lies the key. To matter, the setting of the story must be at least as integral to the story as any of the other aspects. The characters must exist in the world described by the setting, and the events and ideas must interweave with it. Unless you have this, your story could literally happen anywhere.

Would Dune have been as good if it had been set on a lush, forest world like Yoda’s Dagobah? Perhaps. But it would not have been Dune; it would have been some other work. Because the desert planet with its Fremen and its worms and its place in the empire were the solid foundation upon which the story we know—again, go read it if you haven’t—was built.

If Idea is the framework of a story, then surely Milieu must be the foundation. And without a strong foundation, it doesn’t matter how sturdy the framework is.

As much as the stories I mentioned above depend on their settings to be the stories we know and love, there are those for which the setting is more of a convenience, and it’s fairly easy to tell when that is the case.

Take, for instance, The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings. I thoroughly enjoyed all ten books and can’t recommend them highly enough . . . but they did have a certain sense to them. A sense of, “I drew this map, and I spent a lot of time on it, and by god I’m going to make you read about every square centimeter of it!”

I was going to mention some settings from the books to see if they’d immediately put as much of a picture in your head as “Mirkwood” or “Narnia” did. But the only ones I could think of were “the farm where Garion grew up with ‘Aunt Pol,'” “Belgarath’s tower,” and “the forest of the dryads.” I can’t even remember the names of these places. Ten books. I read all ten book—multiple times, I admit—and I can’t recall one single place name that is more than a suggestion. But I remember the events, the ideas, and mostly the characters. As far as Milieu goes, these two series could have been set in Cleveland and it would probably have been just as entertaining.

Well, OK, maybe not Cleveland.

Sometimes it works for other reasons. Take The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever and the sequel series both by Stephen R. Donaldson. He spends a good amount of time describing how wonderful The Land is in the first book because his character, Thomas Covenant, is a leper in the real world, but in The Land, he’s not. So everything there is new and fresh and he experiences it all in a rush of heady abandon. And in the second trilogy, The Land has been destroyed and it is only in the ugly contrast to the first books’ descriptions of The Land that we are led to despair as much as Covenant does to see how it has changed. He uses his Milieu as a tool to show us, the reader, how everything has changed, and to make us feel the change as badly as his character.

C. S. Lewis does this in The Last Battle, as well. We all know how wonderful Narnia is, but in the last book, the wonderful Narnia of old is . . . diminished. The dryads are dying because their trees are being chopped down. Aslan is believed to be a myth because He hasn’t visited in so long. The horrible creature Tashlan has been gathering followers, and as readers, we are as upset as the characters living there because our Narnia has been blighted.

Sometimes the Milieu can take on a life of its own. For instance, in Star Trek, the Milieu is a utopian future wherein all mankind is happy and fulfilled. Aliens live and work side-by-side with humans on Earth and other planets. Transporter technology, replicator technology, holodeck technology, and a myriad of other technologies have made everything perfect for everyone everywhere. No one wants for anything they can’t get instantly.

So what stories can we possibly tell? There can’t be a story about a regular guy living on a regular planet with a regular job because he can’t want for anything. He can push a button and get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. So the only stories that can be told are the ones on the fringes of the utopia. The frontier. During conflicts with alien races who—for whatever reason—want to destroy the Federation Way of Life™.

Superman would be bored in the Federation. He’d have to become a Q to have any fun whatsoever.

This is why every episode of every Star Trek series was an exercise in how to subvert the utopia to get to a problem. We have infinite power . . . but what if the dilithium crystal submatrix decrystalized because of an isolinear ovolithic radiation discharge that destabilized the anamorphic subspace field? Chaos, that’s what! Or so we were led to believe, until the end of the 45-minute episode, at which point the problem was solved by the application of good old-fashioned human—or alien—ingenuity and technology.

Or, you know . . . Wesley.

I lay most of this on the utopian society in which the Star Trek shows and novels were set. (Which, incidentally, is what was intended. It was literally Gunsmoke In Space™, so the whole ‘frontier’ thing wasn’t an accident.) Where there is no conflict, there simply is no story. The biblical story of Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby could not have happened in the world of Star Trek. Solomon could simply use the transporter to create an exact replica/clone of the baby. Then both women could have the baby. Problem solved. No wisdom required.

I could (continue to) expound at length on Star Trek, and drag in the three Stargate series and Babylon 5 as well. My point is this: when the world—the Setting, the Milieu—is well-developed, it and the characters, events, and ideas will be inextricable from one another.

I seem to have stumbled into writing urban fantasy. You can’t talk about urban fantasy without Milieu. That’s the ‘urban’ part. The city in which the stories are set is an inextricable part of the lives of the characters. The events take place in that city.

True Blood, The Dresden Files, the Greywalker Series, the Anita Blake series, the Kate Daniels series, the Kitty Norville series . . . all of these take place in a known city or one very similar to one we know. The authors weave the stories into the real cities, overlaying them with magic and fantastical creatures, but they are still Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Denver. True Blood takes place in a fictional small town in Louisiana called Bon Temps, but anyone from the south will recognize the town as being like every other small town in the south. With very few name changes, it could be set in my hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. (Population: 1800! SaaaaaaLUTE!)

The difference between Milieu and Idea is, I believe, that while Idea can ‘carry’ a story by itself, Milieu can’t.

Not entirely. Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward is set on the surface of a neutron star. I mean wow! But he had to have characters, ideas, and events to make me want to keep reading past the first few pages. Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is almost entirely Milieu, but to carry it, he has to develop equally interesting characters and events and ideas (mostly ideas). Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books depend deeply on his Milieu, but again, without interesting characters, ideas, and events, it wouldn’t be readable.

Imagine a novel written like a travelogue. Travelogues are fun if you’re, say, in Greece, and you want to know more about the place. But then, you are the character having your own ideas and making your own events. You wouldn’t read the travelogue of Greece if you weren’t either in Greece or going soon.

Unless someone comes up with a really interesting second-person-POV Choose Your Own Adventure book in which exploring a place is the only goal, I don’t really see Milieu as being capable of carrying a story. Not a very long one, anyway.

So, to sum up: Milieu = foundation. Idea = framework. We still have Character and Event to go. Stay tuned!

  • Calendar

    October 2011
    M T W T F S S
    « Aug   Nov »