Workshop: Build a Space Battle

Workshop: Build a Space Battle While I was at Capclave 2016 this past October, I was asked by Cathy Green, the Vice Chair for Capclave 2017, to contribute a workshop to next year’s convention. As always, I’m gratified to be asked to do these types of things, and even more gratified that people seem to enjoy them.

I’ve done workshops for Capclave before, and each time I try to do something different. Past topics have included:

  • Public Speaking for Writers (2014)
  • Creating an Adaptive Setting (2015)

Capclave is run by the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). At the WSFA meeting last Friday, I kicked a few workshop ideas past Elizabeth Twitchell, the con Chair for next year. The one we finally settled on was: “Build a Space Battle.”

The concept is that I’m going to provide a basic science fiction scenario. The tasks for the workshop attendees will be to fill in the details until we’ve collectively created a consistent background and timeline for a significant-sized SF space battle (hence the space battle pic at the top of this entry).

I’m looking forward to this. I think it will be a lot of fun for everybody involved.

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Inspiration: Solar System Necklace

Solar System Necklace

Our inspiration this week is the “Solar System Necklace,” a real piece of jewelry that can bought for around 40 bucks. The Sun is on the left, followed by all of the planets. Even the Asteroid Belt is represented. I understand, although it’s not pictured, that there’s also an optional dangling comet that can be added to the necklace.

Now THIS is what I call fashion.

(Yes, yes, I know, Pluto isn’t officially a planet anymore…but the jewelry folks haven’t caught on yet, so let’s not burst their bubble).

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Mad Scientist Contest?

Mad Scientist ContestI am going to take a run at this contest: The US Army Training and Doctrine Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest. The contest started on November 15 and runs until February 15, 2017.

They’re looking for near future military SF that highlights innovative uses of military forces in the 2030 – 2050 timeframe. They’re particularly interested in not just military technologies and tactics, but also how these aspects of war fighting are impacted by ongoing trends such as global warming, etc.

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A Series of Pilots

Tell Your StorySome people have asked me why I’m writing novelettes and novellas and not novels. My response: I am. Sort of.

So, I will explain in the following five points…

1. I like the Format

I like novelettes and novellas. Some of my favorite stories are too short to be considered novels, and thus fall into this category. For example, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” is a novella. And let us not forget Robert Silverberg, an award-winning SF writer who has excelled at these lengths with stories like “Sailing to Byzantium” and many others.

The Hugo Awards define a novelette as a story of greater than 7500 and less than 17,500 words; and a novella as greater than 17,500 and less than 40,000 words. Since most non-writers don’t think in terms of word count, a novelette is roughly 30-70 pages, while a novella is roughly 71-160 pages. Back in the sixties and seventies, lots of books were published that would now count as novellas. Then came the the rise of “The Big Book,” which led to the bestseller-driven approach followed by today’s traditional publishers, and the smaller books just disappeared.

2. Viability

Ebooks and print-on-demand services have made novelettes and novellas viable again. For busy people, like me and many others, it’s easier to carve out the time to read a shorter-length works than some massive tome. There are other advantages to these shorter-length works, as well. The stories tend to be the length they need to be, so there’s no padding and no extraneous subplots. They’re long enough for complex story lines, but not so long that readers get bogged down.

3. Multi-Tasking

I have so many ideas for stories in my head, ideas that have been bottled up for so long that they’re all clamoring to get out. If I worked on a mammoth project like a novel, I’d have to concentrate for an extended period of time on just the novel. Since my day job is all about multi-tasking, it just feels more normal for me to round-robin across my various projects.

By multi-tasking, I mean that I tend to work on up to eight projects at the same time. There’s a cost, of course, because each project takes longer in terms of calendar time. But, then again, there’s always new work coming out of my “story pipeline.” And my writing groups have gotten used to me bringing chapters from different stories to be critiqued in successive weeks.

Um, note that I don’t recommend this approach for most people, but it works for me.

4. Marketing

My pipeline of shorter works fits into the marketing approach I’ve chosen for indie publishing. Assuming a quality product as a baseline, then to some extent the amount of money that a writer can make is predicated on the number of products that they have. New products (and sales) tend to boost the sales of older, related products. This is the approach used by well-known indie writers Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith.

5. The Pilot Approach

In my stories I’ve tried to emulate some of the television shows that I like. Shows where a season is really a novel, composed of individual episodes. One of the most famous indie-published books, Wool by Hugh Howey, was originally published in five parts.

In some sense, you can look at most of my novelettes and novellas as pilot episodes for different TV series. Right now, the series are:

  • Belters: In the 24th century, Jonas Kastle is a troubleshooter for the Outer Planets League (OPL) in the run-up to what may become the first interplanetary war.
     
  • Big Sky Country: Brant Halvar is a skyracer on the dangerous skyracing circuit. He and his crew overcome adversity as he advances through the ranks in his effort to be accepted into the elite Big Sky League.
     
  • Pageeda and Scuffee: Pageeda, a young homeless girl living in a gritty port city, struggles to find out what happened to her older sister. She is befriended by Scuffee, a strangely intelligent, oversized cat who has escaped from the local Arena.
     
  • Roadwerks Limited: Rocco Fitch, a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan, inadvertently buys a magic road…and gets far more than he bargained for.
     
  • The Royal Bodyguard: Lydio Malik is the Royal Bodyguard for Princess Analisa, the heir to the throne of Salasia. He and a team of others defend her from powerful forces trying to topple the ruling dynasty.
     

Three of these series, Big Sky country, Pageeda and Scuffee, and The Royal Bodyguard are all part of a larger canvas known as The Thousand Kingdoms.

Now, each of these series has a story arc for the “first season,” an arc that I expect to be able to fit into a reasonably-sized book, much the same way that Wool slotted together nicely as novel. Generally, what I’ve envisioned is a five-part arc for each season. And, thus, in way, what I have is a whole bunch of pilots.

So, I’m actually working on a bunch of novels at the same time. Part-time (since I still have a day job). And it all stays fresh for me, because I’m working on multiple projects at a time.

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Inspiration: A Ruin in the Forest

Forest Fantasy This is a great picture from PublicDomainPictures.net. As a writer, I look at a picture like this and I wonder…

What heinous crime happened in this crumbling ruin in the forest?

Or, perhaps, taking advantage of the shelter of this convenient ruin:

What danger lurks in the forest just out of view?

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Going to Chessiecon 2016

Chessiecon 2016 at the Radisson North Baltimore I’ll be attending Chessiecon for the first time ever this weekend and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard about the con for years, but this is the first chance I’ve had to go. It’s being held at the Radisson North Baltimore in Timonium, MD. Seemed like a cool thing to do on my Thanksgiving semi-stay-cation.

My friend, Martin Wilsey, will be there as a panelist. Some of my other friends will be there as well. I suspect I’ll have a bit of a chance to transact some business. Plus, in general, I find cons to be really enervating.

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Inspiration: Galaxy’s Edge

From the Edge of the Galaxy This is a photo of a large mural that I saw displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. It imagines what it would be like if Earth were actually outside the galaxy. It shows a couple of people leaning against what looks like a Model-T Ford, contemplating the awe-inspiring night-time view of the galaxy in the sky above them.

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Writing Tips: Tech Levels

The concept of Tech Levels is a useful one for both science fiction and fantasy stories. Let’s put it this way: Is it feasible for a caveman to have a rifle? No, because the creation of that rifle requires other technologies that a caveman doesn’t have.

Any technology exists within an ecosystem of other technologies that are necessary to support it. Thus technologies can be thought of as existing in levels. Here’s an example model of Tech Levels:

  • Hunter/Gatherer: flint weapons, bow/arrows, animal domestication.
  • Bronze Age: agriculture, swords, shields, infantry, cavalry, rowed ships.
  • Iron Age: metal weapons, horse shoes, stirrup, sailing.
  • Steam Age: steam engines, trains, early guns, fireworks.
  • Industrial Age: factories, tall buildings, cars, planes, radio, radar.
  • Early Space Age: space ships, satellites, nuclear power, jets, computers.
  • Cyber Age: internet, automation, first AIs, cloning.

One can continue extrapolating in order to build a plausible background for stories. So, here are eight principles to help you in crafting Tech Levels for your stories.

Eight Basic Principles

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    – First coined by Arthur C. Clarke
  2. “Tech Levels” are a useful model for understanding species advancement.
    – The technologies grouped within a tech level can be somewhat arbitrary.
    – Useful models exist in roleplaying games such as Traveller and GURPS Space.
  3. It is possible for a technology to be inexplicably pushed into a later tech level, but the inverse is considerably less likely.
    – The stirrup was invented considerably later than it could have been.
  4. The pace of technological advancement has been increasing steadily over the course of human history.
    – Despite setbacks like the Black Plague, which wiped out 60% of the population of Europe.
    – The Black Plague actually sped up technological advancement by creating a need for less
       labor-intensive farming techniques.
  5. 90% of the technologies in a tech level can be extrapolated from the tech level below it.
    – From John Barnes
  6. 10% of the technologies in a tech level are either unimagined previously or based on newly discovered principles.
  7. A technology has a lifespan, i.e. – it starts out in an experimental form, advances incrementally over time, becomes mature and then is eventually supplanted by a different technology.
    – The horse was the most effective form of human transport from a few thousand years B.C.
       until about 1900 A.D. when it was supplanted by automobiles.
    – A supplanted technology may still hang around later for hobbyists, e.g. – horse riders,
       sailors, balloonists, etc.
  8. The primary problem of SF stories is to slow down technological advancement so that the technologies in stories remain familiar and comprehensible to a 21st century audience.

Common Problems

  1. An obviously mature technology is used in a story, where no experimental or earlier versions of the technology were ever possible in the timeline.
    Dollhouse: Personality implantation with skills and memories
  2. A technology is inserted into a story without accounting for its ramifications.
    Star Trek: The transporter and its capability for matter duplication.
  3. The story is set in the future, but key technologies are inexplicably archaic or the overall tech level just isn’t as high as it should be.
    Starship Troopers (the movie): In the future but using WWII-era military weapons.
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Inspiration: Sunset on Mars

Sunset on Mars, 2005

This is sunset on Mars in 2005, compliments of a very cool photo from Nasa. It doesn’t get better than this, as long as you have a spacesuit on.

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Writing Tips: The Logline

Welcome to the inaugural installment of my Writing Tips series of blog posts. No, I’m not a New York Times best-selling writer, but I’m not shy enough for that to stop me. I’ve been working on my craft for years, and I’m finally producing stories that I’m reasonably happy with (although you never, never, never stop learning).

I’ve also been in a couple writing groups since 2014, which is more than than enough time to see a bunch of writers just simply fail. I’ve read submissions in which it was clear the author had no idea what their plot was, no conception of character goals and, often, no clue where or when to even start their story.

A lot of the issues that I’ve seen boil down to the author not knowing what their story is. If you don’t know what your story is, you have no way to reliably decide what scenes should be in it and what scenes don’t make sense. You have no basis for evaluating a scene. You may not even know where to start the story.

I recommend creating a logline, which is a sentence or phrase that summarizes your story. It’s useful, regardless of whether your preferred writing mode is pantser or planner. In fact, I think of it as the Exacto-Knife of the writing world, an awesome tool for cutting away the extraneous bits that don’t really fit into your story.

For example, my fantasy novella, “Bitter Days,” is about a ten-year-old homeless girl living on the mean streets of a gritty fantasy port city with her older sister. When her sister is kidnapped by men working for one of the most secretive and dangerous organizations in existence, she’ll do anything to get her sister back…or avenge her if that’s not possible.

My logline is: “She needed a hero, so she became one.”

That tells me a lot about my story. I already know that my heroine lives in poverty, has no education, owns no real weapons, has no training as a fighter and, finally, is a young girl in man’s world. My logline tells me that she’s got to figure out how to overcome these weaknesses herself. She doesn’t have to do all the work alone, but she’s got to be the one calling the shots.

Try it. Create a one-sentence description of the story you’re currently working on. Or the one you set aside because it was giving you too many problems. If you can create a realistic log line for your story, you may well discover that it allows you to focus your story in a way that that you couldn’t achieve before.

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