Authorguy's Blog

It’s been a bit busy around here, ever since I discovered a Facebook group that lets publishers and editors post opportunities for writers to submit stories. Part of that is due to me having quite a few stories lying around, in need of a good home. I have nothing against self-publishing them, but someone’s magazine is a much better placement if I can get it.

So it was the best of both worlds when I was able to place one of my existing stories with a new magazine. The pay wasn’t great, but the story was already there, and the magazine posted a number of stories by some fairly heavy hitters in the SF field, like Harry Harrison and Clifford Simak. Hopefully my story will be considered worthy of that company.

Black Infinity is a magazine harking back the good old days, when every alien wasn’t a beautiful humanoid female bent on seducing the captain. New planets were dangerous places, and explorers were risking everything to test them out. My story, ‘Noisemaker’, is about an agent for the Solar System’s de facto government, sent to a newly-discovered world, where all the animal life makes no sound, to find out why the research station there has suddenly gone as silent as everything else. The hero of this story, and others in this vein, is Robert Marquand, son of Joseph, which makes this series a sequel of sorts to my novel St. Martin’s Moon, which also has a creepy, outer-space-is-out-to-get-us vibe.

Dreamtime Dragons is a product of another Facebook group, called the Dreamtime Dragons. We decided to put together an anthology of our own work, almost all stories about dragons in some way or another. Rather than try to divide the sale price several different ways, all proceeds go to charity. My contribution to the work is an excerpt from my latest as-yet-unpublished novel, the third book in my Flame in the Bowl trilogy. The book is called Tales of Uncle, the story is called ‘A Soft Spot for Dragons’. Tarkas’ nephew Jasec has become the local teller of tales, and when his sister gets sick he tells her the tale of their heroic uncle’s adventure against the mightiest of monsters, the dirkins!

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My son James got married yesterday, which is great, but not what this post is all about. When the ceremony was over and they were preparing to walk away from the altar, they played a song I’d never heard before, which isn’t surprising, as I stopped listening to popular music a long time ago.  But it was a nice sounding song, cheerful, and bouncy, with a very appropriate refrain, “Good to be alive, right about now.”

I got the name of the song and sat down this morning to see it on youtube. I was very unhappy with the video, and I said so in the comments. The lyrics to the song are as bland and banal as might be expected. My life sucks but now something’s changed. I kept trying to do anything that would get something going. I was a little bit put off with the use of a word like ‘deserve’, since nothing in the lyrics indicates that he deserves anything.

Then came the pictures. The official video has the singer and his back-up as valets for some hotel. The receive a fancy car from some rich guy with a big cigar and a trophy girlfriend. The proceed to drive around town in the car, then recklessly abuse it driving like idiots. Finally they return it to the hotel as if nothing was wrong and the stupid rich guy drives off, unaware that his vehicle has just been abused. The singer and his backup celebrate.

To me the video, the story of the video, was saying, you should be happy your pathetic tiny dreams got satisfied with a tiny crumb that fell from the High Table where only Big People sit. And apparently that’s all the hero feels he deserves.

There’s one thing that frightens me more than the thought that people can be so clueless, so lacking in awareness, that these are visual images that they think capture the power of the story. It’s the thought that the people who make these videos know exactly what they are doing. They create videos that take the power of the song and attach it to wholly unsuitable visuals.

There’s a reason musicals were so popular for so long. Music + Visuals = message, and the message appears to be this: “Be a peasant, a servant, and be so very happy with the little we allow you to have.”

Having just come from a wedding where this song was the endnote of the ceremony, clearly I have a much better idea of what a proper video for this song would be. Unfortunately happy married life and contentment don’t sell products, and I’m cynical enough to look for the profit motive over all others. At the very least I’m saddened that this guy’s life is so lacking that driving and mishandling someone else’s car fills him with such joy.

On a similar note, the video for Closing Time also strikes a totally false note compared to the song itself. The song is about a child being born. The video has two people kicked out of two bars running into each other on the street. While it’s unpleasant to see maternal love displaced in favor of a casual hook-up, it’s harder to see a malicious motive for doing so. Which is depressing enough. The power of the stories in these videos deserves more respect.

Once upon a time, there was a story called Off the Map, about a nice lady named Sandi who liked to take care of things. One day some of the things she took care of decided to show their gratitude, but the gratitude of dragons can be a little…harrowing.
Now, through the magic of Amazon KDP, the tale of Sandi’s frolics on the set of Interdimensional Survivor is once again available for your amusement and edification. But if you do manage to learn something from it, please don’t tell me what it is. Just leave a review and tell everyone else.

 

By far the most difficult and complicated story structure I’ve managed to develop so far is the VbP. Like a Hero by Proxy structure, the other characters play a significant role, lending their individual plotlines to the resolution of the story as a whole. There is also the same two-tier structure, which I called the inner and outer stories. The inner story is the actual plot of the book, while the outer is the overall setup of the world that makes the inner story possible.

The difference between the two is simple, but the effects of it are huge. In a HbP story, the outer story, such as the werewolf curse in the case of St. Martin’s Moon, doesn’t play an actual role in the story. Although it is affected by the actions taken by the proxies in the inner story, it’s not an actor. In a VbP story it is. In an HbP story, the characters know they’re in a situation, in a VbP story they don’t. The outer story is the proxy, and it’s only when the proxy acts in the story, that any of the other characters realize that they’re in a situation at all.

The example I came up with for this type of story, other than Ghostkiller, that is, is the Lord of the Rings, only an alternate version where Sauron doesn’t exist. The ring is the proxy, acting subtly on all the other characters to do its evil work, trying to get back to a Master that doesn’t exist. No one has thought about Sauron for 3000 years. Gandalf is a weird fireworks maker, and Frodo is busy dealing with all sorts of unpleasantness cropping up all over the Shire. Only when the Ring finally acts does anyone realize that there’s a subtle causation to all the stuff they’ve been dealing with, and then they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is, so they can put an end to it.

The problem with this structure is that all of the characters, including the hero, are reacting to the situation. In LOTR Frodo may have delayed, but he took action before the Nazgul came looking. In a VbP situation, he is at best dealing with symptoms while unaware of the disease. This makes it very difficult to write a query, since there is no goal being pursued by the hero that carries him to the end of the story. I was never able to come up such a hook, and that’s one of the reasons why Ghostkiller has been self-published. The best I could come up with was to get my hero right to the top of that slippery slope, that moment just before the proxy struck, and just…let it go.

This being the second story structure I created, in this case for my novel St. Martin’s Moon. Again, it wasn’t planned or anything. None of my books ever are, but this one less so than most. I came up with the idea for St. Martin’s Moon while browsing the shelves of a used book store, where I saw a book titled Blood Moon. My immediate thought was, “Wow! A werewolf novel set on a lunar colony, great idea!” It wasn’t such a book, but the idea stayed with me.

The main problem with the story was that I had no idea how to write a mystery of a horror novel. By the time I discovered this, I was two chapters into the book. To keep going, I followed the characters around, and let them make the story, which resulted in the story structure named above. Much of what I’ll say about HbP is based on the one story that I know of. I haven’t really developed the theory of it. I do know that trying to summarize a story like this is next to impossible.

There are at least two situations (states of affairs, whatever you want to call it), one inside the other, and the plots of the story are contained by the inner situation. For SMM, the outer situation was the curse of lycanthropy itself, and the inner was a werewolf attack that took place on a lunar colony.

In a HbP story, the hero catalyses a number of other characters (the proxies) into motion of their own (another name for an HbP story is a catalyst story), motion which is otherwise independent of the hero. No one story line, not even the hero’s, is sufficient to bring about the resolution of the whole story, but all are necessary.

The one character who does not play a direct role in the resolution of the plots is the hero himself (or herself, if the hero is female, but being male my default pronoun is male too). The role of the proxies is to do what the hero would normally do in a more linear story. The role of the hero is to get all the proxies in the same place to do that.

Which doesn’t sound very heroic on the face of it, but remember there are two situations at play here. Not only is the hero at ground zero of a whole bunch of equal and opposite reactions all centered around him (ouch!), his character development throughout the book is what allows him to become the link which unites the inner and outer situations (double ouch!), allowing them both to be resolved, preferably  at the same time, in the same set of actions.

He might even live.

A little while ago a lady on the Writer Unboxed Facebook group asked about stories with multiple protagonists, without any particular lead. This is not the standard model, which calls for a single lead, or a group all possessing the same ultimate goal, usually following a single lead. Books that do not follow the single-lead model are harder to categorize, and therefore to sell.

But there are other story structures, for more complex stories. Ensemble stories, for example, have no central lead, but follow several characters, whose individual plot lines are only tangentially connected, if at all. I know of several films like this (Love Actually and American Graffiti, for example), but no books come to mind (a cursory search on Goodreads turns up a list of such books, none of which I have read or would categorize in this way), and so obviously I haven’t written any either.

Another story model is one I call the Braided Story, also fairly common and one I have seen elsewhere. Jurassic Park is such a story, to some extent, with a group of characters brought together, then when disaster strikes, split up into smaller groups to pursue their own paths until they regroup, and complete their objective to escape the park.

The characters in a braided story do not all have to come from the same place, in fact it’s better if they don’t. (In that respect JP is not exactly a braided story.) I created a braided story in my novel A Warrior Made, although I did not think of it as such or plan it that way.

As one might expect, the basic idea behind a braided story is separation and reconnection. The story starts with the separation, of course, a group of people who already have some degree of connection, sundered by some unexpected and perhaps inexplicable event. The sundering should continue until there are at least three groups, since that’s how many you need to make a decent braid.

The story from there will be more about the reconnection, and that’s where the character growth takes place. Since the normal and expected methods of connection have been severed, some of the people involved must discover and develop some other means of connecting with some of the others.

In A Warrior Made, I handled the braiding by having all the separate plots run in parallel in each chapter. In a couple of places I even characters from one strand shift into a different strand. The reconnection was shown as each section impinged somehow on the section that came after it, even though no one knew the connection was taking place. Janosec would tell a story about Tarkas in one section, and in the next Tarkas would find himself thinking about the subject of that story for no obvious reason.

Like a braid, the separate strands of the story must eventually come together for the resolution of the plot, not necessarily all at once. The rejoining of sundered groups should also be due to some of the changes that have taken place while they were sundered, not simply timing, luck, or coincidence. The group that comes together at the end should not be the same group that was separated. If it is, you’ve done something wrong.

 

A lot of people have been making a lot of noise lately about the “need for diversity” in stories, which confuses me. I don’t see that the story needs it so much as some portion of the reading public might want it, to the point of seeking out stories that have it over stories that don’t. The publishing industry might therefore want to see more diverse books, either authors or characters, in an effort to sell more copies to more people, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a need for diversity in the story, or an indicator of the quality of the story itself.

This is not to say that a story should not be affected if the lead detective in the case was black instead of white. Of course it would be. The cause of diversity would not be well served if the author simply stuck the word ‘black’ in there. Characters don’t ‘just happen to be’ black, or female, or gay, etc. People have history, experience, knowledge, and if they’re lucky, evolution. Taping the word ‘death’ over ‘stun’ in ‘stun ray’ doesn’t make it a death ray. The actions and words of that character would have to be very different. The reactions of those around him would be very different.

My claim is that the difference in behavior would and should be enough to tell the reader that this is a black guy without the author having to throw in an extra word like ‘black’. There needs to a reason for each extra word, and the fact that the character is black isn’t it. The stun ray has to be a death ray and at some point it has to act as one, in which case adding the label does serve a purpose to the plot, by indicating the change in its nature (and the nature of its maker). In Phule’s Company, one character attacked anyone who used words like ‘short’ in her presence. Guess why. But if action and dialog aren’t enough, if the death ray never gets fired, then the diverse nature of the character is so irrelevant that again, the extra word should be edited out.

On the other hand, the reader who goes looking for diverse stories probably isn’t looking for them for the fun of it. The search for diversity is at base a search for realism (of a specific sort), and an unrealistic portrayal won’t serve that goal. But what counts as ‘realism’ in this context?

What counts as realism in any context? My only real resource, as an author, is my own life and my own observations, but even those observations are all understood in terms of my own life. At bottom, then, the only thing I can realistically portray is me, and only to the extent that I was paying attention at the time. Can I portray another white male realistically? Only to the extent that he is like me. Which is the same extent to which I can realistically portray anyone, including space aliens, dogs, and elm trees (assuming they were sentient).

Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I’m allowed to fail. I’m not allowed to not try.

Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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