31 August 2009

First Page Game #8

The Stars Below

‘..........happy birthday to you. Go on, Lucianne, blow the candles out.’
The room had been a sea of children’s faces, flickeringly lit by reflected light from the ten candles sputtering on the pink candy cake, when the phone had rung, drawing him away from the celebrations.

‘Cameron? We need you out on the New Kingston Exploration platform. There’s a helicopter waiting in Aberdeen and a car will be with you in fifteen minutes’

That had been it.

A manic drive through dark roads and dimly lit watery suburbs to the airport where a sleek, private helicopter was already warmed up. Someone thrust a package of paperwork onto him as he suited up – ‘This’ll help explain the rush’ – and then it was in and away into the black night.

New Kingston was operating way beyond established platforms in the North Sea. Initial deep seismic investigation had looked promising but the reports and printouts for the current test bore were crazy – huge pressure differentials within the bore column, magnetic anomalies, distorted and fractured heads, power outages, equipment failures – what was going on?

Suddenly his stomach fell away. The turbine roar was replaced by silence, by a cacophony of alarms, by, a matter of fact - ‘Brace –we’re going in’ – and then it was like hitting a wall.

The writing is good and carries me along nicely, but I'm afraid I have little idea what's going on. And if I don't know what's going on, it makes it tough for me to care. Obscurity starts with the line "That had been it." Yes, the elusive, secretive "it" has reared its (no pun intended) ugly head again. I think we've been pretty clear that we're not crazy about this device. I'd rather see a story problem right there in that line, something to explain what "it" is. "They'd discovered the aliens." "The sea floor had gulped down several hundred oil-rig workers like they were minnows." See how even those bad examples are more interesting than "it"? Mechanical and technical malfunctions are only mildly interesting without some major impact on people or situation. IMO, not knowing the situation hurts this opening.

And yeah, I realize your POV character might not know yet either, but you've pretty well ruined that with "That had been it."

But that's only one strike in the midst of what appears to be some competent writing. I'd read on to see if the story problem manifests itself quickly, within a page or two.

28 August 2009

Spec Fic Tools I: World-building

We're going to take a tiny break from the first page contest to talk about one of the tools in the speculative fiction author's arsenal: world-building.

Perdido Street Station (PSS) by China Mieville was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award, the 2002 Hugo Award, and won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Society's August Derleth Award, as well as other awards. How did he do it? I believe one outstanding aspect of Mieville's novel is its complex many-layered world.

Of course, one component of world-building is the physical world, Bas-Lag, with its geology and geography, also referred to as its setting. While we don't know when the events take place, in PSS the physical realm and its descriptions are very important. Mieville explicitly tells the reader this via the Philip K. Dick quote which states losing contact with "the city" is a "form of dying". Right from the beginning, Mieville shows he has done his world-building homework with the New Crobuzon map, with its rivers, hills, woods, and various city neighborhoods. The city itself is "Perched where two rivers strive to become the sea, where mountains become a plateau, where the clumps of trees coagulate to the south and ...are suddenly a forest."

Mieville's imagery is ubiquitous and utilized very effectively throughout PSS to describe the physical setting. The first words we read "Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark." evoke sensory stimulation. The author also often effectively evokes olfactory 'images' with his many references to "rotting stew of detritus", "the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot", "pungent smoke", and especially sewage.

Mieville makes excellent use of similes (as above) and metaphors, e.g. "I ...step into the vastness of New Crobuzon, this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god." to describe this physical world.

A world also includes its denizens. PSS contains such a large variety of species, Mieville refers to A Bestiary Of The Potentially Wise: The Sentient Races Of Bas-Lag. The characters include humans, Khepri (human bodies with beetle heads), garuda (bird people), Remade (re-constructed people), intelligent constructs, slake moths (giant brain sucking moths), the Weaver (a giant scissor-handed spider that lives in multiple dimensions), and many, many others. The characters interact with one another in human ways, which include having sex, cheating, betraying, and killing one another. The author also utilizes dialog in an interesting way. Most of the creatures speak or sign in typical human ways with the exception of an interesting few, such as the Hell-Daemon with his echoes from hell, and the Weaver--this effectively singles them out as more alien. For example, the Weaver says things like "...FOUND THE REAVER TEARING WORLDWEAVE OVER THE BLISTERING GLASS AND WE DANCED A BLOODTHIRSTY DUET EACH SAVAGE MOMENT MORE VIOLENT I CANNOT WIN WHEN THESE FOUR DASTARDLY CORNERS SQUARE UP TO ME..."

Speaking of language and words, Dr. Albert W. Wendland of Seton Hill has said "One easy method of world building is simply the transformation of creation of new words that produces an aura of otherness."(personal communication) Mieville is quite adept at transforming and creating new words; some already mentioned in this document include "Bas-Lag" and "Remade".

The culture of the Bas-Lag creatures is very complex. The physical aspects of culture includes architecture which in New Crobuzon "...moves from the industrial to the residential to the opulent to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren..." In my opinion, the culture of Bas-Lag is perhaps its most interesting aspect with its mix of "science" aka chymistry, magic aka thaumaturgy, sociology and art (e.g. Lin's spit art). The steam-punk technology e.g. difference engines and crisis, A.I. clockwork constructs, dirigibles is particularly intriguing.

I could probably go on and on describing the world of PSS because it is so rich. For example, New Crozbuzon has an interesting government and a flourishing criminal society. All the aspects of Mieville's world-building work well because the multiple layers reinforce the each other. Clearly, Mieville is a master world-builder.

What do you all think? Has anyone else read PSS? Can you think of other good examples of world-building?

23 August 2009

First Page Game #8


You can’t even trust the scenery in Alexandria. Shyla checked her exit route from the top of the city gate. She watched the edges of the streets and the corners of the buildings, even the spindly trunk of the solitary palm to the left of the gatehouse, for movement. Any kind of crate or bin, any space created by walls or fences, could hide a spy, someone watching the gate just as she was.

The sun was directly overhead and the stream of people coming from the spacedocks had dried up. It was time to go. Alex is quietest at noon when the brutal heat and light drive everyone indoors. The crenellations of the gatehouse roof hid her from eyesight but not from the weather.

She stretched her legs out, circling her feet at the ankles, getting ready to scramble down the wall, trying not to make too much noise. Then she took one last look at the gate and saw them. Two men were dressed as local merchants in long layers of white and yellow silk. Yet their bearing did not say merchant. They were too alert, too strong looking, too something. Too bearded. The fashion for men on Liberty Colony is to shave.

There are good details that put me in place: we're in a SF story (spacedocks) in a town called Alexandria. We've got a character trying to jump the gate and a couple of goons in disguise, so we're getting hints of a conflict.

This will sound contradictory, but here goes. There aren't enough details and specifics.

First, character motivation. We've touched on the ineffectiveness of keeping secrets from readers during this game. Right now I'm wondering: Why is she trying to get out? Why are people after her? What are the stakes?
Why are there spies? This seems to be a merchant town, so what's its underbelly look like and why does it matter to your character? Good, writers think. I have you wondering. Yeah, but unfortunately, I'm also wondering why I should care.

I think this sometimes happens accidentally. A lot of writers are pantzers and they don't know why something is happening when they put the words on the page. But it's important to go back and fill in those blanks. Sometimes it's intentional, though. So take a look at your character's motivation. Will revealing it up the tension in your scene? If it won't, then the reveal will only be that much more disappointing when we finally get it. Details and stakes help readers invest in the story and my distinct preference is to see all that as close to the first page as possible. Right now I don't feel a ton of tension in this scene. I'm guessing knowing what the stakes are would help that.

My second issue is choreography and scene setting.
Despite the description, I don't have a good sense of characters moving within this scene, how far up she is, what the ground below looks like, what the true nature of the danger is. Also, the men appear out of nowhere when she's been studying the scene intently. Again, I think some specifics would help here. I don't mean a list, but instead of Any kind of crate or bin, any space created by walls or fences, could hide a spy, someone watching the gate just as she was try having her look at a specific crate with a brief description. Is there movement behind it? Is it a common hiding place? Or even hark back to the time SHE hid behind a crate and how it had given her a perfect view of the gate. And what kind of crate is it? Does it transport plants, drugs, bombs, illegal slaves? That drops a clue to the underbelly of the town. Invoke the senses. All we have are visual clues. Can she smell the illegal spice on secret trade? The reek of the alien slaves? What does the heat feel like as it pounds her back? Is sweat rolling down her sides? Can she hear ships taking off and are they near or far? Do her joints ache as she prepares to jump? A few vivid, key details go further than a broad picture to aiding a reader to paint their own picture of the scene (as readers are supposed to--again, it's part of their investment in the story).

And a final, minor point, this tense switch really threw me: Alex is quietest at noon when the brutal heat and light drive everyone indoors.

In general though, the scene would lead me to read on while watching for these issues to pop back up in the writing. Thanks for playing! I really appreciate showing these to our readers because they help everyone become more effective writers, which makes Electric Spec more fun for our readers!

19 August 2009

First Page Game #7

Axis of Garg

Admiral Fleegle stormed about the command center and bellowed, “Qwuk! I’m not in the mood for waiting!” Fleegle was never in the mood for waiting, but that wasn’t the point. The point was he liked how his soldiers writhed with pain at his sonic blasts. “QWUUUK!”

“Here, Admiral,” said Qwuk, who had been at Fleegle’s side.

"Don't sneak, you imbecile. Now, what is that offensive noise?” Fleegle barked. If humans were present they might mistake Fleegle for a soiled, tormented mop, except that mops are not inclined to scream “Qwuuuuk!” or snack on their own soldiers whenever the mood strikes; in Fleegle’s case, the mood struck approximately all the time.

“Monitoring surface broadcasts, Admiral.” Qwuk, not quite a mop, more a soggy feather-duster with mop-ish dreams, flopped an appendage toward the viewport.

Admiral Fleegle took in the light spectrum reflecting off the blue-and-white dappled globe hanging in space. Here it was at last! He shivered with ecstasy. After searching through millennia, his kind could finally behold the Axis and bask in its perfection. How odd that the most sacred site in the universe should reside upon such a foul little hovel. It would have to go, of course.

“Nothing but a trivial conquest, Qwuk, between us and ultimate power.”

Disclaimer: This writer is an acquaintance of mine, but I read without bias. Trust me, I'd reject my best friend if he sent me a crappy story.

That said, I like it. It made me laugh, and I think it's actually supposed to. Score one for the away team. Now, onto Issues.

The silly names strike me as gimmicky. Plus, I get a little defensive, as a spec fic writer, against making fun of the genre. I'm not saying Don't Make Fun. I'm saying that your brand of making fun might not always be my brand. Nothing like humor to bring out the Subjective Hammer of Doom.

With that in mind, I'll be blunt. Most humor I reject suffers from too much telling and authorial intrusion. My brand of storytelling humor relies more on situation and reaction and less on clever clever comments in the narrative. I'm a showing fanatic, but still, I don't think I'm alone in this. Consider a TV sit-com with a narrator who's not as funny as the characters. Just the thought of it makes me squirm.

Mostly, I'm guessing this piece could use cutting. Pick out the funniest bits and cut the rest. I'd trim these lines:

Fleegle was never in the mood for waiting, but that wasn’t the point. The point was he liked how his soldiers writhed with pain at his sonic blasts.

Show that with a reaction from the soldiers on deck and Fleegle's glee. You can even keep "sonic blast" in the description. That kills two birds: more scene setting and showing rather than telling.

except that mops are not inclined to scream “Qwuuuuk!” or snack on their own soldiers whenever the mood strikes; in Fleegle’s case, the mood struck approximately all the time.

Your reader knows mops don't scream and we gather clearly from characterization and action that Fleegle screams and smacks all the time. Again, I think humor and characterization carry a lot more weight by sticking to showing Fleegle in action. Just let the image of the screaming, smacking mop ride without telling the reader "that was the funny bit, in case you missed it." In humor, more than any other genre, I think we must trust our readers to catch on.

This has great potential though. Kudos for landing the story problem front and center and for making me giggle. I'd definitely read on, but I'd keep my laser cutter handy.

Thanks for participating! Keep them coming. We do have a few more entries, and I'll play as long as they come in. :)

16 August 2009

First Page Critique Game # 6

Sorry for the delay in posting more these. Life and writing has interfered. I'll try not to let so long go between posts in the future. We've got several more and are still accepting vict...er, pages.

So. Lets get on with it.


The Guitar

“Dude, please, you gotta take me with you this time.”

Kalek perched on a low branch of a Platinum Oak, his Elven ears poking through a massive mound of ragged curls. I cringed at the way his onyx eyes gleamed. He’d convince me, I was sure, but I wouldn’t go down without a fight.

“No way,” I said, “I’m going camping. Alone. That means without you, so forget it.”

He jumped down from the tree, lithe as a panther, and stood in front of me. “C’mon. I’ve never been off the island. Just this once.”

“You’re father will be furious.”

“I know, dude, all the more reason.”

I should have known he’d say that. He’d never admitted it, not outright anyway, but that was pretty much the reason he’d befriended me. There wasn’t a person on the island his old man hated more than me. Why he’d stayed friends with me, I’ll never know. Tattooed Elven rockers and homebody farm boys generally have little in common, but somehow we’d become brothers. My camping trips were the only times I insisted he stay away.

“Uh-uh. Nope. Not a chance,” I said, shaking my head and turning to leave the clearing. As I walked across the carpet of grass and leaves, the forest trees surrounding us began to sway like sentinels.

I suddenly felt trapped by my own will to stay.

Intriguing bit here. I like me some angsty elves and it's feeling urban fantasyish, something we're not seeing a ton of. Nice, easy voice, too. It doesn't get in the way of the story.

I do have a couple of issues that mostly could be revised away. First of all, who's who? The author mentions a rocker elf and a farmboy, but I can't really tell from this piece which is which. A little more specific language would help. Are they both elves? Is one of them human? (I never assume a character is human in spec fic. That's part of the fun.)

We also have the common problem of an unnamed first person protag; that's an easy fix and doesn't have to be immediate. I recently sold a first person story with an accidentally unnamed protag. I didn't realize until after it was sold. My bad. Actually, it could matter less to some stories, but a writer should omit things intentionally.

"He'd convince me, I was sure, but I wasn't going down with out a fight." Okay line, but that sort of summary could be better shown, especially so early on. Show him protesting and then giving in. Let the reader take the measure of your character rather than a character spitting it all out for us. If you feel the conflict isn't strong enough on the first page without that statement, then tighten up the scene to better show it.

There is some conflicting info in the narrative that confuses me. Kalek wants to go off the island and camp with the protag; the protag is trapped by his own will to stay. Our protag is not staying if he's going camping off the island, right? So why is he trapped by his will to stay?

Also, Kalek befriends him because his father hates him. Nice conflict, but I'm confused by their being like brothers and the protag wondering why Kalek remains friends with him. All that doesn't quite link up in my mind.

I like the foreshadowing of the swaying trees. It feels all elfy and dangerous to me. Cool.

I don't see an utterly clear conflict on this page, but I do see hints of one, so I'd probably continue reading to find out what happens. Good work on this and thanks for playing! More to come.

12 August 2009

Writing on Reading: I Am Legend

Many people are familiar with the movie "I am Legend," but fewer are familiar with Richard Matheson's novel of the same name. Even though the movie came out fairly recently, the novel has been around since 1953. In some ways, the novel was before its time because it predated the fascination with vampires that is rampant in fiction today and the also (less) popular post-apocalyptic setting. The first 2/3 of the novel is very good, despite showing its age a little. The last 1/3 or so of the book is strange--and not, in my opinion, a good way. It is basically a series of short stories only tangentially related to the rest of the novel.

One interesting aspect of the novel was comparing it to the screenplay for I Am Legend. (This is actually the third film based on the novel--bonus points for those who can name with other two WITHOUT doing a web search). This was one of those rare instances where the screenplay was better than the novel. (Another note: I'd give credit to the screenplay's author, but it appears several authors worked on it as it was developed and I'm unclear on who did the version that finally got filmed). Not only was the ending better in the screenplay, but I thought the screenplay did a better job of playing up the drama of the situation, making the protagonist more sympathetic and believable, and making the vampires scarier.

11 August 2009

Baens Universe Closing

Jim Baens Universe Magazine is closing its doors next April. It's a fine ezine run by denizens of the SF community who made every effort to reach out to readers and writers via their Baens Bar Slush and other forums. I read Baen's early on and was encouraged by their efforts to publish newbies. I nearly had my first pro sale there, picked up off their Bar Slush. It was set for publication until the murders at Virginia Tech happened. Eric Flint wrote me his personal regrets, telling me how much he loved the story but couldn't in good conscience publish it due to the violent nature.

But in the end, Baen's just didn't make the money. Paying pro rates is tough; making money on magazines is tougher. Frankly, I think the real problem is that most people equate Internet with Free. There's simply too much free content out there, like Electric Spec, to compete with. Baen's tried to do everything right, tried to tackle the Internet Age from a publishing standpoint, but has ultimately failed.

We've been in this little venture for 3 1/2 years, paying not nearly enough for our stories, good stories. Even so, we have an active slush and readership and we like to think we publish great stories here in our little corner of the Internet. At every production meeting we discuss how we could pay better rates. We know, and Baen's confirms this, that subscriptions are not likely to pay the bills. Still, we are always looking into creative ways to continue bringing you great, free fiction while paying our authors rates they deserve. We believe writers deserve more. The folks at Jim Baen's Universe did, too, and I'm sorry to see them go.

10 August 2009

2009 Hugos!

You knew they were coming...The 2009 Hugo Awards were given out this weekend at Anticipation. And (some of) the winners are:
  • Best Novel: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)
  • Best Novella: “The Erdmann Nexus”, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
  • Best Novelette: “Shoggoths in Bloom”, Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)
  • Best Short Story: “Exhalation”, Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners. Read more about the 2009 Hugos.

08 August 2009

2009 Sideways Award Winners

The 2009 Sidewise Awards for Alternate History were awarded at the annual World Science Fiction Convention this weekend: The winner for Best Short Form is: "Sacrifice" by Mary Rosenblum (Sideways in Crime, Solaris) and The winner for Best Long Form is: The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson (Solaris)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners! :)

Of course, Anticipation, the 67th Worldcon is happening right now!

Some random facts from the Saturday morning newsletter:

The con had 3120 warm bodies at the close of registration yesterday.

The Con hotel closed down four parties last night because of overcrowding and the lifts were briefly closed to slow the rush to the parties.

And the funniest: Important Notice (Water) We couldn't help but notice that some of the parties last night were, well, a bit niffy. If you are one of the people who hasn't had a shower yet this weekend, Now Is The Time. Deodorant is also good.

03 August 2009

First Page Game #5

Paper Soldier

I run my fingers over the paper face on the recruiting poster. The army’s human weapon, shot then cast aside. How do soldiers – trained, ordered, paid to kill – come home and never kill again? Would my thirst for blood, power, violence be slaked by being that weapon, a pawn in someone else’s dangerous game? I think not. But I will meet with this Sgt. Masterson on the morrow. Perhaps become this man’s first female recruit.

My fingers glide across the poster. One claw rips through the soldier’s neck exposing the red brick underneath. My gaze lingers on the words under his feet. Serve the country that has rejected me, relegated me to this half-life, this lonely, nocturnal existence? Why do I torture myself with dreams of acceptance? Anger rises, my flesh radiates the heat. The edges of the poster curl and blacken. I draw away before it can become a flame.

Leaving the decapitated soldier behind, I venture out of the darker alley onto the main street of shops dimly lit by the flickering gas lamps. Time for a little window shopping.

The speculative elements intrigue me, and the story obviously depends on them, which is a Good Thing. The author isn't making me wait either, thereby bypassing a common slush issue. I like the heat radiating flesh, the thirst for violence, the claws. Also, the bitterness and anger indicates conflict even though the character is alone.

I'd probably keep reading, but--and its a big one--I'd be wondering what this little display (all she really does is tear up a poster) has to do with the story. I'm already wondering if this is where the story begins. We have a vague problem with the right degree of complication--she wants to get recruited and go to war to ease her thirst for violence, but she's a creature, and a female one at that. (If she felt a bit torn over her violent tendencies, it might add something--or not. I like me some dark characters so I'm cool with it.) But is it enough? We'd have to see how it plays out. "Going to war" doesn't seem as exciting and conflict-ridden as "being at war " or even "returning home from war." Just a thought.

I'm also seeing a lot of internal narrative--especially questions--substituted for concrete action. I'm wondering if her bitterness and thirst for violence could be better shown. I greatly prefer action over internal narrative, especially in short stories, because I feel internal narrative can do a lot of the fun work for readers. I've mentioned this before, and my fellow editors don't always agree with me, but I rank internal narrative right up there with telling: a little goes a long way. I'd be asking this author what can she do to show this creature's thirst for violence and seeming internal conflict over it via action?

There's enough hints at scene setting:the brick wall, the gas lamps, recruiting a first female, the poster, to satisfy me for a first page, but I'd want it nailed down pretty quick. Generally good work here, though. Thanks so much for playing!!

I've got lots more so keep reading and commenting. The participation in the comment thread has been the most fun, especially when folks kindly disagree. :)