Monday, July 18, 2011

Creativity vs. Continuity

So I've been working on a writing assignment for five of the last seven days. Even at a very modest five hundred words a day that means I should have 2500 words in the can. Right?

Zero words later I have run smack dab into the steel cage death match of creativity vs. continuity.

As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons that I love writing is the ability to make stuff up. Being able to create a character, a plot, a new technology, even an entire universe , words can't describe. And getting to read your words in print is both humbling and completely ego satisfying.

Now if I were writing a short story, in a made up universe, that bore no connection to modern reality at all, I could do whatever I wanted to do with that creativity. Need a wormhole from Houston 1945 to Alpha Centauri 5012? No problem, just insert an interphasal flux wave form engine and I'm done.

Only when you start playing in a sandbox that is connected to something bigger, then you start to have issues. If I'm going to use a flintlock pistol, then I can't kill a person at a 1000 yards with it. Everyone knows what a flintlock is and that it can't do that. When you start playing in an entire universe you really start to run into constraints. Imagine if a writer tried to put transporters into Star Wars? That would go over about as well as symbiotic life forms that channel energy (Okay, so important note. When you invented the universe, you get to change the rules.) If you want to write in the Star Wars universe, you have to play by the Star Wars rules. Jedi don't use red light sabers, Wookies don't speak English and no one says "Beam me up."

So five days into my writing assignment and I'm at zero word count. Welcome to research and note taking. I've not written a single usable word, but I've researched the technology I'll be using, the backgrounds and names of the characters and the time period for the project. I have to admit, some of it has been a royal pain in the seated portion of my anatomy. It would be so easy to use no-name references, run of the mill technology and a time period with no relation to any major event in the universe. I could do that, but I also know the readers of BattleTech love the intricate details and when something new slides into the existing history like a hand into a glove, we have happy fans.

So for this project continuity wins over creativity. If you want to play in someone else's universe, you gotta play by the rules.

I do have this great idea for a completely unconventional knight in shining armor in a no name fantasy universe. Maybe next week.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Welcome to the future- Writing now, inventing then.

BattleTech Art- 2010
BattleTech Art- 1988


Why be a writer?

I've been asked this question more than once and goodness knows I've asked it my to myself many times. In my three part blog, on being a freelance game designer , I touched on this same question.  More recently I had a chance to revisit this question and have it lead to another interesting question that just has me wondering.

Being a fan of BattleTech and a father of boys it is a moral responsibility to introduce them to the game. I'm currently reading the original Warrior's Trilogy, by Michael Stackpole  to my oldest son (For those unfamiliar with BattleTech, this trilogy introduces the entire BT universe through the eyes of the major powers as an interstellar war unfolds) . Perfect bedtime story material (with some minor edits to remove some words). While reading the first book, Warrior: En Garde I had an absolute "welcome to the future moment."

One of the lead characters books an interstellar voyage. Her profile is loaded into the cruise lines computers and a series of automatic actions takes place. Her medical file is reviewed and the computer automatically adjusts the pharmacy's inventory for items she might need. Flight Engineering reviews her physical statistics to ensure she can handle the travel and any other special medical needs she might have. Her food purchase and restaurant ordering history is then dissected and the data is compiled with all the other passengers to shape the menu for the cruise.

Then things get really fun. Her age, social status and other factors (interests, clubs, education, etc) are reviewed. First the housing computer decides she gets an active deck, with other younger passengers (no screaming babies in her future).  Her dining partners for the first few meals are then determined. She is automatically booked for several activities that match her personality. After all this, the review by the intelligence agency computers is almost tame. In the matter of a few seconds her entire life is analyzed and her entire trip is laid out to best match what is expected she will want. 

This book was written in 1988.

In 1988 the Internet hadn't even become mainstream. Email was something scientists and college students had. You still used floppy disk to save data. Intel's premiere computer chip was the 386SX and had a blinding clock speed of 16MHz! Just to bring this back to reality, Intel chips today run in the 3.0 GHz range. That's GigaHertz! One Gigahertz is equal to 1000 Megahertz.

And here Mike Stackpole was writing about technology that we are just now seeing come into its own with the explosion of Social Media. Over twenty years ago, when the Internet was likely something he'd never heard of, he was creating technology we have today.

So that brings me back to my questions.

Why do I like to write fiction?
Because you get to make **** up! When I wrote the Castle Brian rules for BattleTech's Jihad Hot Spot Terra I was treading brand new ground. I was writing rules that had never existed in the BT universe. It was a complete rush to make up new things that people would be reading and incorporating into their games. I'd become part of the fabric of the BattleTech universe.

So I've only been writing for a few years now. In that time real world technology has surged ahead but I've not had any moments of "Hey I thought of that." Which brings me to my next question.

I wonder if Mike Stackpole ever looks around him and says "Wow, twenty years ago I wrote about just this."?

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE… (It's a great song, even if you don't like country)

Stackpole is not the first, of course. Heinlein, Asimov, Clark and the other fathers of modern Science Fiction were making predictions about the future decades before it came to pass. Heck, what robotics scientist doesn't have the three laws of robotics memorized?

Why be a writer? Why not? Even if it never makes me a fortune, there is something about playing with the reality. Whether you're writing a 20's era detective mystery - with magic swords and dwarves, or a 31st century interstellar war - with great big stompy robots, the sky is the limit. And you just might end up predicting something that happens in the future.


Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Phoenix Rising

Secret agents, explosives, strong drinks - not shaken not stirred, gallant British gentlemen and beautiful - and deadly women. Ah the good old British Intelligence, God save Queen… Victoria?

No, this is not a review of the latest James Bond book. It is a tale of everything else I just mentioned. Toss onto that clockwork technology and a whiff of the supernatural and you have all the makings of a Steampunk era British spy thriller in the tradition of the Avengers, with the old "new" tech of Artemis Gordon.

Phoenix Rising (A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel) is the collaborative work of Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Tee Morris has written both fiction and non-fiction, being the man who literally wrote the book on audio book podcasting and has given us the sarcastic wit of a dwarven detective in Capone's Chicago and the high seas swashbuckling thrill to remind us of the era of Errol Flynn. PJ Ballantine has a knack for fantasy and weaving it into a completely realistic setting, be that Elizabethan England or a future may be Cyberpunk world.

So the first worry I always have when reading a collaborative work, is if it will flow. Having been one of many writers in single product, I know how easily it is for the different styles to become very jarring. This wasn't an issue. I'm familiar with both Tee's and Pip's writing styles and I found it hard to tell the two styles apart. They clearly took time to blend their work together.

The story itself starts off like any good action movie. In a scene that would give James Bond a run for its money we get a taste of the era, the steampunk technology and the decidedly opposite personalities of the two main characters. And much like Mulder and Scully, it's antagonism at first sight. If the heroes are to save the British Empire, it looks like it will be in spite of themselves, given how little they get along. After all, how smart is it to call the person you just saved a lunatic. Especially when laying in the open door of an airship a couple thousand meters over the frozen expanse of Antarctica.

And that's just the first chapter - which you can read for free from Amazon.

I have to agree with other reviewers who've noted how well Phoenix Rising exists with in the setting of Steampunk. Goggles and gears are not some decorative icing tossed on the top of some pulp fiction thriller. Instead, Morris and Ballantine have woven a complete tapestry where the technology is part of the world and history has adjusted ever so slightly to reflect this technologically advanced British Empire. Any doubt on the richness of the universe they have created can be dispelled by listening to any of the eight podcast short stories set in the MoPO universe.

I don't get to read much these days and it takes something pretty special for me to buy an actual paper copy of a book. Phoenix Rising is just such a book and I am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

PS- Congrats to Tee Morris who has just proposed to his writing partner. May Tee and Pip have many happy years of marital and authorial bliss together.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.