Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Magic, Hard and Soft

There is a distinction you will sometimes hear made by writers and readers of fantasy fiction between hard magic and soft magic.

Soft magic is magic that just does what the author wants it to do in every case, with no (or little) explained rules or logic.  Think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.  What exactly can Gandalf do, wizard that he is?  We don't really know.  He makes lights, he seems to be able to see and communicate at a distance, sometimes, but there isn't much precision around it.

Hard magic is more like the magic in a roleplaying game.  It's crunchy, it works according to specific rules, that both good and evil wizards have to live by all the time.  Think about Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle, or Jim Butcher's wizard P.I. Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files.  For them, magic works by rules that wizard and reader both know in advance, and that don't vary.  We know that Kvothe needs an energy source and a conduit to cast his spells; we know that Harry needs two ingredients for any potion; etc.

This is a spectrum, of course.  Harry Potter, for instance, lies somewhere in between.  Every year he learns two or three new spells, which have no real logic to how they work or their limitations, but once they exist, Rowling makes them pretty consistent in terms of their mechanics.  Expelliarmus!

Which kind of magic system is best?

I think that's the wrong question.  The right question is: what kind of magic system is best for the story I am telling?  Your choice of magic system should serve your story, just like all the other authorial choices you make.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1.  Do the specifics of the magic system matter at the climax, or for the resolution of any of the major conflicts in the story?

2.  Is your protagonist a magician?  (You don't want your good guys to have undefined and potentially imbalancing powers; it might work just fine for your bad guys to have those powers, though.)

3.  Is your story milieu-driven, and is the detail of an interesting magic system an important part of your milieu?

A yes answer to any of the above should probably incline you to include more hard elements in the design of your magic system.  The first question is really the key one.  Magic is not a way to cheat.  If you introduce magic so that your heroes can pull an unexpected rabbit out of their hat at the end of the story, you're doing it wrong.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Song for Phineas Pimiscule

Continuing in the vein of filk-blogging books I have read and characters I like, here's "Bully That".  It's about Phineas, the mentor character in E.J. Patten's about-to-be-published epic horror middle reader novel, Return to Exile.

*   *   *

Bully That (A Song for Phineas Pimiscule)
© 2011 David John Butler

I like the fifty-seven El Dorado
A frock coat always makes the ladies smile
The monocle doesn’t make the desperado
But you must admit it adds a little style

The stakes are just as high as you could ask for
I’m sorry I ever got the boys involved
It’s the kind of dance you’ve got to wear a mask for
But a mystery’s just a riddle I haven’t solved

I’m master of the house and I’m the gardener
I helped the folk of Whimple dress their feet
Death takes us all, according to the Pardoner
Bully that, sometimes you’ve got to cheat

   I’m looking over Exile, and what’s that there I see?
   All of Legend’s Hunters, coming after me
   Traps and riddles, traps and riddles, lies and botany
   Who’s my friend and who’s my enemy?

My shimmering blade’s for fighting, not for eating
Though it’s cut up many a pie of potted meat
Bedlam thinks I’m dead, or else retreating
Bully that, sometimes you’ve got to cheat

I’ve stuffed Barrow Weed up both my nostrils
There’s a burner in the valley down below
A Harrow Knight and twelve Harrow Wight apostles
There’s Foxglove in my gun, I gotta go

   I’m looking over Exile, and what’s that there I see?
   All of Legend’s Hunters, coming after me
   Traps and riddles, traps and riddles, lies and botany
   Who’s my friend and who’s my enemy?

   Yeah, who’s my friend and who?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Driven by the Connections

I just finished Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard, and it's awesome.

I bought it from Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications at WorldCon, and had a nice chat with Jacob about selling strategy and about what literary fantasy is.   The Tachyon edition is, frankly, beautiful, and if you're going to buy this book, which you should, buy their edition -- it's got the gothic font on the cover and the picture of the guy raising his arms to a Swiss alp (Mont Blanc? not sure...).

Tim Powers has a great shtick.  He writes speculative fiction in the gaps around weird historical events.  In the case of this book, he's written a vampire(ish) story around the lives of Keats, Shelley, Byron, et al.  This approach makes the book more rewarding the more you know about and like the events and historical figures that are treated, and that probably makes a book like The Stress of Her Regard eminently literary fantasy (horror).

There's a cost.  Since Powers doesn't compromise on the known historical events, the plot has to bend to fit them.  In the case of this book, it means that the pacing is sometimes rambling.  An interesting barrage of events happen... and then years go by before the characters decide to do the next thing.

Still, five stars, two thumbs up, can't wait for the movie... ha!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bonnie Prince Billy

Yesterday, we had a little Welch and Rawlings, who are one kind of folk music.  Here's Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham), with another.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch (which is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) have just released a great new album, The Harrow & the Harvest, after a hiatus of several years.  Here's a little hat-tip to Welch's song-writing... this is not from the new album.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tom Waits Album Coming in October

I found this hilarious.

Though I'm pretty sure the possessive should be Waits's.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Google+ Writing Circle Project

Genre: Myth

The Guardian stared, intent.

For aeons he had not counted, the Guardian had trained his gaze on the Others.

He could not see them from where he stood.  From where he stood, he could only see the bridge stretching out under his feet.  He stood at its peak, its narrowest point, ensuring that the Others could not pass.  He could see countless leagues of the bridge before him.  Out there in the eternal darkness, beyond the point where even his fabled vision failed, he knew they lived.  They bred, they hated, they built their engines of war.

In the uncounted aeons, the Guardian had never turned his head to look back.  If he had, he would have seen his defended bridge disappear into invisibility in the other direction.  That way, beyond the exhaustion of his eagle's eye, lay Home.  At Home, they also bred, and they feared, and they prepared for the Others who would someday invade across the bridge.

The Guardian's people, the people of Home, had never sent to confirm that he was still at his post.  They didn't have to.  If he left his post, they would know it by the invasion that would surely follow.  And the Others had also never tested him; they would come but once, the Guardian knew, when their forces were fully prepared.

"Excuse me," piped a voice.

It took the Guardian a moment to realize that the voice came from near his feet.  He looked down and saw a tiny person, no taller than his ankle.

"None shall pass," the Guardian warned the little person.

"Why would I want to pass?" the small fellow asked.  He sat on a flying carpet that could have served the guardian as a handkerchief.

"To invade my Home," the Guardian told him.  He tilted his head back slightly, so that he could indicate the direction of Home without taking his eyes off the little person.

The little person flew higher in the air on his carpet, to draw up eye level with the Guardian.  He carried swords and rope and grappling hooks and the other tools of thieves since time immemorial.

"I've been there already," the thief said.  "There's nothing back there.  Just ruins."

Involuntarily, the Guardian's eyes jumped ahead, in the direction of the hated Others and their endless preparations for war.

"There's nothing over there, either," the little man said.  "Ruins, both places.  Giant skeletons everywhere."

It took time for this to sink in.  Eventually, the Guardian shed a single tear.  "What did they die of?" he finally asked.

The little thief on his flying carpet shrugged before he flew away.  "Nothing I could see," he called over his shoulder.  "Boredom, I guess!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Is Steampunk? (Restoration Hardware)

A significant part of Steampunk's signature and allure is a Victorian science fiction visual aesthetic.  Check out these offerings from Restoration Hardware:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Witchy Tesla

Not as much is known about the power that fuels gramarye as laypersons may believe.  Whatever one calls it—mana, essence, chi, spirit, energy, power—it appears to be tied to the phenomenon of life itself.  We will adopt herein the technical term essence-power, in order to avoid terms that have too much poetic resonance and for other reasons discussed elsewhere at length.

Furthermore, we can say that although it is not same thing as electricity, the famous fluid first bottled by Bishop Franklin, essence-power behaves like electricity in that it flows in circles or, to use a more technical term, circuits.  Also like electricity, essence-power is dangerous.  A wizard who overloads his own soul with essence-power may accidentally burn away forever his own ability to perform magic, or worse, may burn himself to death.

Finally, we know that not all material substances, nor all spiritual substances, conduct essence-power equally well.  This is manifest in the varying magical capabilities of individuals—at one end of the spectrum are the vast majority of Eve’s children, who are unable to cast a single spell or can manage one or two small hexes at the most, and at the other end are the great thaumaturges among the children of Adam, who are able to effect great works of gramarye both out of their own essences and drawing upon other essence-power sources.

This is also manifest in the case of substances that are magically inert, the most well-known being silver.  A small piece of silver will terminate a small spell, banish a small spirit or devil or irritate the flesh of a magically sensitive creature (such as an Ophidian).  Larger pieces of silver are required to disrupt more powerful magic or flows of essence-power—one hesitates to calculate the amount of silver that would be required to be thrown into the Mississippi River to disrupt that circuit, and one positively trembles to think what might be the result.

– Nikola Tesla, First Principles of Power

Monday, August 22, 2011

Witchy Propaganda

!! ~ Men of the Ohio ~ !!

Do not believe FILTHY LIES that are told by seditioneers and regicides lurking in dark corners.  HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY, THE EMPEROR THOMAS PENN is your Friend.  His Heart is full of Love for the bleeding people of the Ohio, and he wants nothing better than Peace for ALL Ohioans.

The rebels and troublemakers are the Enemies of Peace.  They murdered the King of Cahokia, and they plot against His Family!  Help the King’s Brother, THE EMPEROR THOMAS PENN, bring Peace.  Show your Love for Your Emperor.  Report troublemakers.  Obey the Law.  Assist Imperial officers.  Pay all requested exactions.  Bring Peace to the Ohio at last.

– Pamphlet distributed throughout the Ohio by
   Imperial forced engaged in the Pacification

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Road Songs IV: Fred Eaglesmith

Fred Eaglesmith's Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline is one of my favorite albums.  It's half Hank Williams, half Tom Waits and all fantastic.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Road Songs III: The Cure

The Cure's album Disintegration makes an amazing, and maybe counterintuitive, soundtrack for the deserts of the American west.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Witchy Crowley

The first prerequisite for any practicing magician is arrogance.  This is because the magician presumes to join the Creator in His great and ongoing work as co-Creator or sub-Creator, and what mortal man or woman could aspire to such heights without some degree of hubris?

The second prerequisite is humility.  This is because magic must always remain, in the end, a little bit beyond our ability to predict and a little bit beyond our ability to control.  If it were not, we would not call it magic.

– His Grace Aleister Crowley, Bishop of New Amsterdam,
   “The Thelematic Lectures: Lecture the First”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Song for Owen Zastava Pitt

I meant to post this a few weeks ago, to celebrate the publication of Monster Hunter Alpha.  A day late, and sloppy, that's me.

Anyway, congrats, Larry!  Here are the lyrics:

Monster Hunter Blues

Riding hummers ’round in rural counties
You burn a lot of diesel chasing bounties
You want to ride a horse?  Go join the Mounties
At MHI, a Hunter’s gotta drive

There’s an elf queen eating ho-hos in this trailer
She’s got a gift of sight that doesn’t fail her
Better keep your wits about you, sailor
Safety off, if you want out alive

I’ve got the vampire’s daughter here beside me
She sings a song of slaughter in her soul
The dogs of war are baying deep inside me
They’re saying that it’s time to rock and roll

Those uglies from the Church of the Condition
Come after me with monsters and magicians
I’m ready for ’em, muscle and munitions
I just don’t have the patience to be bait

I accidentally cheesed off some crustacean
I nuked him, ha!, he felt some irritation
Now I’m itching to pull out Abomination
’Round here it’s always hurry up and wait

Agent Franks, my minder, he’s a cold one
Sometimes I wonder if he’s got a soul
My brother got attacked, ogres and old ones
And I gotta watch my back, we’ve got a mole

Holly’s cut off three lanes of this highway
Skippy and his boys burn down the skyway
You’ll hit the road if you can’t play it my way
Yeah, Newbie, it’s alright to feel afraid

Grant’s up on the hill, I set the claymore
There’s really nothing left that I should stay for
But I kinda want to stick around and play more
I’m doing what I love and I get paid

This time you’re aiming higher than you ought to
The lines are down, there’s fire in the hole
I beat down that conquistador Machado
Yeah, I’m your matador…

But I’ve got the vampire’s daughter here beside me
She sings a song of slaughter in her soul
The dogs of war are baying deep inside me
They’re saying that it’s time to rock and roll

Short Pitching

I'll be at the show this week, and hopefully around lots of book professionals.  I'm thinking today about quick elevator-pitch type explanations to hook an editor into being interested in Witchy Eye.  So far, I've got a high concept and a log line I'm whittling on.

Witchy Eye is A Game of Thrones meets The Last of the Mohicans.

Spellcasting monks.  Blackpowder rifles.  And a necromancer who wants to save the human race from its Creator.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Witchy Lincoln-Douglas

Lincoln: But Your Honor speaks very harshly of Wisdom, even, some might say, to the point of defaming Her.  Was She not the serpent that Moses raised on a pole in the desert and healed the children of Israel?

Douglas: No, sir, I have not heard that She was.  I have always understood, however, that there was a serpent in the garden, and that our first parents—or should I say rather, my first parents—took great harm therefrom.

Lincoln: Oh, that is an old chestnut.  Even Paul knew to warn the Corinthians that Old Scratch may appear as an angel of light.

– Archwizard Abraham Lincoln and the Right Honorable
   Stephen Douglas, Magico-Theological Disputations,
   Disputation the Third

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Road Songs II: John Hiatt

You've heard a lot of John Hiatt songs covered by other people.  He's another great one to listen to as wide American vistas roll by the windows.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Road Songs I: James McMurtry

James McMurtry is Larry McMurtry's son, and is a great songwriter.  I love his stuff especially on the road.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tall Tales

If you see me coming at WorldCon, you better run.  I'll be giving away free CDs.

Link to liner notes is at the upper right.  Here are the disc and sleeve images.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Plane: Dystopian

Google+ Writing Circle

Plane: Dystopian

Crookshanks Harry leaned into his tool, urging his whole body softly against the knot in the wood.  “Wot’s it gonna be, then?” he asked.
He had imagined the Lord Protector as a towering, imposing figure.  Instead, Cromwell looked like a farmer, and not a very handsome one.  And his voice sounded like shattering glass and twisting wire.  “The prototipos, as the Greeks would say.  The first of my New Model Army.”
Harry hawked and spat into the sawdust.  “Wot’s that?  I’ve seen a model building afore.  It was tiny.  That Wren bugger wanted to patch up St. Paul’s, dinne?”
“He did,” Cromwell agreed.
“Only this thing ain’t tiny.  It’s… it’s huge.  Well, it’s a man, innit?”  Harry spat again and looked at the thing he was working on.  It was like a marionette, but the size of an adult man.  He’d finished his work, but for this last knot.  At least the thing didn’t have a face, Harry decided.  That would have made him feel decidedly uncomfortable.  “Bloody ’Ell.”
“It isn’t quite a man,” Cromwell corrected him.  “Think of it as a house.”
“An ’ouse the size and shape of a man.  God’s wounds, that’s a new one.”  Harry worked the knot down a little more.  “Almost done, ’ere.”
“Or a suit of clothes,” the Lord Protector continued.  “For a being from another plane.”
“Another plane?  Like wot, like a demon?”  Harry crossed himself before he spat this time.  “That’s wrong, that is.  That’s cock-eyed.”
“No, it isn’t,” Cromwell said.  His smile was gentle.  “It’s perfect.  God is the great dystopian, not I.  He wishes his creatures to hop and flap and hobble about on crutches—” he gestures at Harry’s own crutch in the corner, “and suffer.  I will redeem the world.  I will rid it of its imperfections.”
Harry laughed nervously.  “With this ’ouse for a demon, shaped like a man?  God’s hooks, I almost believe you.”  He didn’t, though, not quite.  He thought the Lord Protector was mad.
“Almost.”  Cromwell smiled again, reassuring.  “John Churchhill and his cavaliers want to hold on to the world as it is, but they are profoundly mistaken.  I will redeem this flawed creation with my New Model Army.  I come not to send peace, but a sword.”
Harry spat.  The knot was almost gone now.  “’Ow’s it work, then?”
“A sacrifice is always necessary.”
Harry worked the knot.  “Wot, to summon the… the demon?”
“To perfect the world.”
Harry eased over the knot one final time and it was gone.  As the knot disappeared, he thought he heard the faint rasp of metal behind him.
“There she is.”  He set the plane down.  “Perfect.”
Harry turned back to Cromwell.  His eyes caught the flash of steel as the Lord Protector sank his dagger into the carpenter’s belly.
Cromwell eased Crookshanks Harry backward.  The crafter tried to speak, tried to object, but blood gurgled in his throat.  Blood poured down his chest and belly, soaked his tunic, stained the wood of the perfect mannequin.
Incredibly, as his life seeped out of him, Harry thought he felt the dummy twitch.  “Thank you,” Cromwell’s voice was gentle.  “I will remember that you were the first.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Daughter Writes a Short Story

Witchy Lovecraft

The gods of this New World are very real.  Our priests, and some of the Firstborn, will tell you that they are but the angels and devils of our own Bible.  I have heard the Pueblo, though, and old secret keepers among the Algonks, say that they are divine and demonic powers in their own right and unbeholden to our Maker.  What the truth is, I know not, but I know enough to be wary.  

– Reverend Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Sermon on the
   Fragility of the Kingdoms of the Children of Adam”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Adults Problem

Plot is a character fighting obstacles to achieve a goal.

The Adults Problem (I am making up my own technical term here) is a problem in writing middle grade / middle reader fiction (herafter, MG).  In MG, you want your protagonist to be a kid.  And you want your protagonist to face and solve his own problems.

Which means that your kid either has to have no adults around (he's an orphan, he's lost, he's at boarding school), or the adults are the badguys or the adults are neutralized in some other way (they are prisoners, they can only help sporadically, they don't know about the problem).

Below is an excerpt from my current project.  The kid protagonist travels with a couple of adults, but in particular with a Troll, Grim Grumblesson.  This is the Adults Problem, exacerbated; Grim is a big, powerful adult.  I deal with the Adults Problem in various ways, including this snippet, in which I make Grim Grumblesson a liability.

The heroes are exiting a burning hat factory via a rooftop window.

*   *   *

“Come on!” he yelled to Grim.
Grim nodded, but he held his head stiff and he looked like he was chewing his lower lip with his big tusks.  Something was wrong.
Grim didn’t move.  He looked frightened.  He didn’t look down.
He was afraid of heights.
There was noise inside the building.  Grim turned and pointed his gun back inside the window and pulled the trigger.
The hammer of his gun was so big, Charlie could hear the gun misfire from forty feet away. 
“Now!” Nathaniel de Minimis shouted.  He spun through the air around and behind Grim Grumblesson and poked him in the backside with his spear.
Grim jumped forward.  He hit the roof hard and shingles scattered beneath him as he started to slide. 
Charlie saw faces at the window, but he had no attention to focus on them.
Grim Grumblesson was sliding towards the abyss, and his eyes were closed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Martin Silenus on Writing

"Dislinear plotting and non-contiguous prose have their adherents, not the least of which am I, but in the end, my friends, it is the character which wins or loses immortality upon the vellum.  Haven't you ever harbored the secret thought that somewhere Huck and Jim are -- at this instant -- poling their raft down some river just beyond our reach, so much more real are they than the shoe clerk who fitted us just a forgotten day ago?"

(Martin Silenus in Dan Simmons's Hyperion, introducing his Tale)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Amelia Earhart

And in a similar musico-lyrical vein, the Handsome Family, with "Amelia Earhart".

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sixteen Military Wives

In tribute to Colin Meloy, author of Wildwood, who is also songwriter of the Decemberists, here is one of their videos.

Friday, August 5, 2011


"Sounds like a country song," Prue McKeel observes 60 pages into Wildwood.  "If country songs were really, really weird."

Wildwood is like American Gods for kids, in the forest.  We're back in the Old, Weird America with two kids having an adventure in a magical wilderness.  The wilderness is one part Uncle Remus, one part Narnia and one part Neverland, all of it deeply American and quirky.  We get talking animals, mailmen with rifles, conscript armies of coyotes, fox constables and a bereaved Dowager Governess bent on evening the score by human sacrifice.  It's like an epitome of alt-country in story form.

Like American Gods, Wildwood is completely driven by its milieu.  There are main characters, but they are broadly drawn.  There is a plot, but it's straightforward.  The two older kids wander around the forest looking for a kidnapped baby.  They go from one avenue of help to the next very linearly and without surprises.

To paraphrase another famous writer of genre fiction, the place is the thing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Air: Oblivion

Google+ Writing Circle Project
Air: Oblivion

Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Middle Reader

Heaven Bound Bob squeezed, once, experimentally. The big wings flapped, slamming the burning platform with a gust of warm air.

"Hit works, Charlie!" Bob yelped with glee.

Charlie struggled with his harness.  Ollie was to have been the co-pilot, so he knew very well how to strap himself in.  It was new to Charlie, but the clockwork boy was figuring it out.  Good thing old Pondicherry made his unnatural son a quick study.

"Hold on!"  Ollie yelled.  He muttered some of his mumbo jumbo.  Bamf!  Bob smelled the sulphurous stink, and then Ollie was gone and in his place was a long brown snake.  Charlie snapped shut the last buckle and bent to scoop up the Herpetomancer.  Ollie, the snake, wrapped himself around Charlie's coppery neck and shoulders like a scarf.

"'Ere we go!" Bob yelled.

Whitehall yawned at Bob's feet.  The top of the Halls of Parliament looked like a jagged saw blade, and Big Ben looked like a bayonet or a Zulu spear.  Bob hesitated.  The wings'll work, Bob thought, they'll work.

Bob crouched to jump, but stalled.

Now it was more than just Bob's life at stake.  Bob squinted through the shreds of fog and smoke below and spotted the Queen's steam-carriage.  It puffed across Waterloo Bridge, placid beneath the rotors and wings and hot air balloons of the Progress Flotilla.  The Queen must see the fire that engulfed the London Eye, and the men mobilizing to fight it, but she couldn't know of the wicked plans of the Iron Cog.  She couldn't know anything about Gearsmith the Kobold, or the loup garou, or her own mechanical doppelganger, en route to replace her.

Smoke wrapped around the wings.  Bob coughed.  They had to save the Queen, but Bob hesitated.

Charlie twisted in his harness and looked back.  "Are you afraid the Articulated Gyroscopes won't work?"

In answer, Bob grinned and flapped the wings again.  "No such fing."  Bob was worried, though.  Bob didn't want to be a hero, didn't want the publicity.

Bob inched forward.  Charlie nearly dangled off into space.  They hit the apex of their rotation and smoke engulfed them.  Bob squinted through the smoke and tried to judge the timing.  The Queen drove surrounded by cavalrymen.  If I get there too soon, Bob thought, those lads'll take me for the threat and shoot me dead on sight.

The soles of Bob's boots were hot.  Flames licked up and around the platform.  Any longer, and the Flyer would combust.

Now or never.

Bob jumped, and threw the invention into gear.

In the rush of air and the speeding of earth below, Bob became free.  The aeronaut forgot the threat to Crown and Country, forgot all the peril and the shooting and the injured shoulder.  Bob became a bird.

One thing Bob didn't forget, never forgot, couldn't forget even in mid-air.  One thing Bob wasn't ready to reveal to anyone, including the Queen.  The secret was so important, Bob would almost prefer not to save the Queen if it meant revelation and discovery.

Bob's real name was Roberta.  Roberta Alice Micklemuch.  Heaven Bound Bob was a girl.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

God's Blog

Very funny.  And reminiscent of some Story Monkeys calls.  Holmes is the one that wants the wildebeest bossed around by the duck.


Allow me to recommend a TV show: Bramwell.  A woman doctor starts the "Thrift", a health clinic and surgery for the poor, in London's East End in 1895.

It does the Victorian setting like no one but the BBC really can.  It has complex relationships, both continuing and contained within episodes.  And it does a wonderful job of giving its characters complex moral choices.  They act as best they can, but they choose among imperfect alternatives, and every gain comes at a real cost, every benefit with a serious risk.

We're streaming it on Netflix -- I don't know know how generally available the show is otherwise.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Steampunk Hits the Smithsonian

Steampunk is in its quintessence Victorian, and so is usually set in England or in pseudo-Englands.

But America had a Victorian Age, too.  What might American Steampunk look like?  The Smithsonian is now running an exhibit that might give us some hints.

Sympathy (2)

            “Charlie Pondicherry ain’t got no mum!”
            Charlie ducked, trying not to get hit by the rock this time.  There would be a rock.  There was always a rock.
            “What are you talking about, Skip?  Charlie Pondicherry ain’t even got a dad!  Charlie Pondicherry’s a toenail fungus, that’s why he’s always got that goop smeared on him!  Who ever heard of a fungus with a mum and dad?”
            Skip, Mickey and the Bruiser were their names.  Or maybe not their names, but that’s how Charlie knew them, anyway.  They followed Charlie down the Gullet like a bad smell.  Charlie was sure the three boys just hung around the alley, waiting for him to pass so they could get him.  At least that meant that the fact that he didn’t get out into the Gullet very much had a plus side to it.
            He hunched down lower over the basket of dirty laundry he was carrying.  Sooner or later, there would be a rock.
            “A fungus… ha, ha!  A fungus!”
            Ouch.  There was the rock.

*   *   *

The answer to yesterday's question is: as much as I can squeeze in.

Charlie suffers a big loss in chapter three of the book, and sets about actively trying to recover his loss (he's active).  He's a good kid, who chafes at being good and is a little bit naughty at the edges.  He doesn't show particular specialness in early chapters (he will in later chapters -- soon, but not before the inciting incident).  He's in danger early and often.  The story is told in the third person, but it's limited omniscient, and 100% close on Charlie at all times.  And, as we see in the new chapter one, Charlie's life is rough in some ways before the adventure even begins.

Above is the current draft page 1.  Charlie gets picked on.  To forecast the subject of future blogs, this scene (only part of which is excerpted above) is built around several uses of the Rule of Three.

Monday, August 1, 2011


It's important in writing almost any story that readers care about the protagonist.  You want readers to root for the protagonist as he sets about trying to achieve his objective, which they will only do if they care.

This is an issue I am wrestling with on my current (middle reader-oriented) project.  The Story Monkeys are having a hard time relating to my protagonist, whose name is Charlie.  Today I am going to write a new first chapter, to go in front of the old first chapter, the sole real purpose of which is to make the Story Monkeys (and other eventual readers) like Charlie.

What is my menu of options?  To make people like Charlie, I can:

  • Make Charlie suffer.  We like the underdog, especially when his problem is one we can relate to.  He's unpopular, people pick on him, he's lonely, he's poor, his life's in danger.  Is he an orphan, hated by his step-parents?  Is he always in trouble at school?
  • Make Charlie really skillful.  We admire people who are good at something that they do.  People will like Charlie more if he is an awesome ninja or a super-talented, say, Quidditch seeker.  
  • Make Charlie funny.  We like funny people, like the kid who wants to be the school cartoonist.
  • Get deep into Charlie's POV.  The better we understand what people are thinking, the more we care about them.  Focus on Charlie's hopes and his suffering.  It's no coincidence that so much middle reader fiction is written in first person, or sticks very closely to a very limited number of characters.
  • Show Charlie being active.  You can't root for a couch potato.  A protagonist who gets out and after his objectives, or his Quest, early gets sympathy.
  • Make Charlie nice.  Parents (and hopefully some kids) like nice guys, and want them to win.
  • Make Charlie bad.  Many kids see themselves in naughty characters, and root for the naughty (not evil; naughty, i.e., mouthy, disrespectful, troubled kid, the kid with ants on his pants, not the future psychopath) character to succeed.  Combined with the preceding bullet, this may mean that there is a sweet spot to aim for, where your protagonist is a basically nice kid, with a frisson of bad attitude.
What will I do in this chapter?  You'll have to wait to read it and see.