Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sfera con Sfera

The image I used in my last post is from a series of sculptures done by the Italian artist, Arnaldo Pomodoro. I'd never heard of them before but I find something really appealing about them.

I'm off sailing for two weeks, so no updates for a while.

Monday, July 25, 2011


I love exploring new worlds as I read. It's one of my favourite reading experiences. However I often find books which introduce me to an entirely original setting that fall completely flat because the constructed world is inherently unbelievable. Which is why I've created a few guidelines for use in my own writing to keep myself honest and my creations believable.

1) Things must have rules. I remember the first time I encountered a world where magic had rules, The Belgariad series by David Eddings. His system of magic obeys the first law of thermodynamics, you cannot create or destroy energy/matter. Before casting a spell, Garion had to learn to draw in energy from his surroundings. It was a simple rule, that had no real impact on the story, but it made the world feel far more alive to me. The rule that a sorcerer cannot destroy matter actually did have an impact on the plot of course.

2) Inventions must be more effective than the things they replace. Whether it's Science Fiction or Steampunk, I see it all the time. I suppose it's partly my military background, but when I watch a show like Star Wars or Star Trek (especially DS9) it bugs the hell out of me that their weapons are inferior to what we field today. Think about it, how often are they stuck in a corridor, shooting single shots back and forth >pew< >pew<, most of which serve only to throw some sparks from a wall. Haven't these people heard of automatic weapons? Or, better yet, hand grenades?

3) The world must have internal consistency. Obviously many things will not be 'realistic' in a made up world. Magic will always disobey fundamental laws of physics, that's the nature of magic. However, I believe it detracts from the world when the author tells, or shows the audience how magic works and then breaks those rules because they weren't paying attention, or because it was an easy way out of a plot-hole they'd written themselves into. Likewise, don't tell me one minute that an airship has static buoyancy so the weight on-board must be balanced perfectly and then later have it flying at 8,000 feet. The atmosphere is at 75% of its sea-level density at 8,000 feet, so on a static buoyancy craft you'd need an incredible amount of lift from engines or you'd have to drop 25% of your weight to fly that high. And don't get me started on how much impact 200 Kg of mass would impart on a vehicle much larger than the Hindenburg (which had a gross lift of 242 tons).

4) As much as possible, the society should reflect any changes you've made. If magic is freely available, and practitioners can cast spells with lasting effects then most households would probably have a few magical conveniences like refrigerators or fire-starters for instance. If your story is steampunkish, takes place in pre-civil-war America and you decide it's easy to build robotic constructs, then that would have a significant impact on slavery, which might mean the civil-war never happened, or the war might have been fought for entirely different reasons.

The more you apply rules and logical extrapolations upon your world the more of those satisfying worldbuilding details will come out in the end product. Even if all the details don't make it into your book, just having them in your head can't help but enrich your world. So get out there and build a cool new world that feels so real readers get lost in it. When you do, drop me a line, I'd love to read it.

First 200 words

This is my first 200 words for Blogger extrordinaire Daena Barnhart. I only found out her page through this contest, but I'll certainly be visiting her often in the future.

Title: Aetherstorm
Genre: Steampunk, 80k words
Finished, and edited, and edited, and edited. Then edited some more.

Konrad Adler wormed his lanky frame up the steam conduit, and tried to ignore the burning in his shoulders. The duct had been shut down for maintenance moments earlier and the heat was enough to suck the air straight out of his lungs. In five minutes it would be cool enough for the cleaning crew; he had that much time to sneak into Otto Dragomir's laboratory, steal a couple of vials and escape.

Sweat ran in a steady stream down his face, heat and nerves drew moisture from him like a wrung sponge. Normally Konrad avoided anything that whiffed of criminal enterprise, he picked through refuse to sell, or ran errands for half-pennies to help his father out. That would not cover it this time though, they needed some serious coin, or he and his father would be finished.

He squirmed past the sixth access hatch. The brass wheel that opened the seventh hatch, the one leading to Dragomir's laboratory, was just a floor above. Another minute of squirming through the thick, oily air brought him abreast of his destination. Konrad reached out to turn the wheel, but the metal seared his hands. He choked back a gasp of pain and rolled his sleeves over his hands to try again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


It's an old metaphor. A story is a tapestry of threads woven together. Useful to help visualise plot elements, but not completely accurate.

Threads in a novel come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are master threads, they begin at the start, and run through to the end, like the main character, an overarching theme, or the central conflict. These should run thick and strong through the entire manuscript, because they bear the bulk of the story's weight. If they fade in a portion of the book it normally means that section will be weaker, more likely to bore readers or cause them to lose interest entirely.

In fact, I would argue that any thread, once introduced, should not be ignored for too long. Either cut it and tie it off, or it must appear occasionally. For instance a character who is essential to the finale and is introduced early, cannot simply fade into the background for several chapters. Plot-threads and conflicts are the same.

All this seems obvious enough, but now that I think about it in these terms, I can see holes in my manuscript and in most of those I've read, even in many published novels. It's a surprisingly common problem. The next time you're reading a novel and you begin to lose interest part-way through, think about the threads. Most of the time they're the culprit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

YAtopia contest

YAtopia is holding another contest for YA writers. Enter soon, it's almost full.

Monday, July 4, 2011


I've been thinking a lot lately about my personal history. What brought me here? I remember I wanted to be a writer in High School, but I don't remember why. I suppose it's because I was such an avid reader. Anyhow, I had no clue how to put a novel together. I wanted to write fantasy, and I'd spend all day drawing maps, and imagining places, but I never got so far as to create characters, never mind an actual story for my novel.

I did create stories and characters, just not in a way that I saw as a step towards writing at the time. I created RPG campaigns for my friends and at night, before I fell asleep I scripted stories in my head, one instalment a night in my ongoing adventures. In fact I still do that sort of pre-sleep daydreaming, but these days I try to focus it on whatever I'm writing at the time.

Anyhow, after High School I didn't know what to do. I had no clue how to step towards becoming a writer, all I knew was that most of the writers I read had fascinating backgrounds. They'd travelled, done a wide variety of work and just seemed like they'd been around.

So, with the naiveté of youth propelling me forward, I joined the Canadian Army. I wanted to sign up for the infantry but, after a battery of tests they thought I'd be better used as an electronics and optical technician. Anyhow, you've seen the movie, you know what training was like, more or less. One of the guys in my basic training platoon was an ex-US Marine. After five years in the Marines he said Canadian basic was the toughest thing he'd done.

Fast forward through three years of training, exercises, boredom on base, more training etc. By this time I'd entirely forgotten my dream of writing a novel, but I still wanted to DO something. I'd arrived with my regiment while they were all off peacekeeping in Cyprus and they weren't deployed again the entire time I was there. I knew the Army was not the right place for me, but I didn't want to give up the dream of actually getting involved in something bigger than firing blanks at an 'enemy force' who was firing blanks back at me. So I transferred to the reserves, and a year later the call came for volunteers to go peacekeeping in Croatia.

Here is where the history part comes in. During my tour there was a small, but significant engagement in a place called the Medak Pocket. At the time I had no idea it would be later deemed a historically significant event. I wasn't actually there, only a few dozen of the Second PPCLI can claim that, but I was in the radio room that night, I heard it all in short bursts. The Croats were moving in on the poorly armed Serb defenders (the opposite of the dynamic in most of the rest of the former Yugoslavia). A few platoons of our boys were sent in. They drove right up in their APCs, right in between the opposing forces and began to dig entrenchments. Our orders were not to fire, unless fired upon but, being in the middle meant that when the Croats started shooting at the Serbs, they fired right over the heads of the soldiers in the middle. Close enough!

Afterwards the officer reporting the engagement was audibly shaky on the radio. The Sergeant manning the radio had to guide him through the report. Officially the Croatian forces opened fire on Canadian peacekeepers. The Canadian troops returned fire with assault rifles and light machine guns. Sixteen Croatians died and none of our guys were injured. The Croatians left, tails firmly tucked behind, and they never came back.

Why was this historically significant? Because two years later the Serbs massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in a nearly identical scenario. Only those peacekeepers stepped aside, and let the Serbian troops in. The Battle of the Medak Pocket became the big argument for peacemaking rather than peacekeeping.

So I was part of a historically significant event, if just as an observer on one end of the radio. Imagine that.

All these experiences and many more, in some way I can't really explain, brought me back, full circle, to the guy who dreamed about writing novels. Only this time I think I actually have a story to tell, and hopefully the maturity to do it well.

Friday, July 1, 2011

High Concept

A couple of trailers I saw recently really brought home the message of a good, clear high concept. The first is for NBC's upcoming TV series Awake. Yes, after watching it, read that again, it's a network TV series. It looks absolutely fantastic and I guarantee I'll be there to watch, and I suspect once you've seen the trailer you'll be there too, the high concept is just that good.

The second is for the upcoming film Another Earth. The high concept here blows my mind as well. Both of these trailers have fantastic ideas with characters so deeply intertwined in the concept it seems almost impossible to separate them. Both concepts, when taken alone might seem a bit goofy and far-fetched, but with the character involvement they become a fantastic hook.