Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Plot Questions

Posted by midiguru on February 4, 2016

When I start working on a novel, I always outline the plot. By the time I’m halfway through writing the first draft, I may have to toss out the outline and do a new outline for the second half, because so much has changed. Nonetheless, I like having a map that shows me where I’m headed. I trust the adage, “Well begun is half done.”

The book I started working on last month is a bear to outline for several reasons, not least of which is that there are too many characters. It’s the third volume in a four-volume fantasy epic, and by this point in the story my main character has attracted quite a sizable band of followers, among them a thief, an ogre, and a concert pianist. Each of them needs something to do that will move the story forward — they’re not just furniture!

I dashed off a brief, sketchy outline, but I could see it wasn’t going to do the job. So I created a new word processor file called Twenty Questions. In no particular order, I started writing down detailed questions about the story. By now the file contains more like forty questions. After working on the answers for a week or so, I was ready to start incorporating them into a more detailed plot outline.

I commend this technique to the attention of aspiring writers because I suspect some people are prone to skate past the difficult questions rather than trying to nail down answers. If you dodge the hard questions, you’ll almost certainly end up with a dodgy book.

What sorts of questions might one ask? The questions will be different for every book. Below are some actual items from my Twenty Questions document. A couple of these may be minor spoilers, but the book won’t be out for at least a year, and by then you probably won’t remember.

25. At what point does water begin to flow again in the Heartsong Fountain? What causes it to begin flowing?

7. How extensive are the powers of the ecclesiastical court with respect to land ownership?

16. Romance subplots, C. How heavily involved do Kyura and Robner get? What causes her to break it off?

22b. Does Tornibrac manage to retrieve the Great Book from the luggage?

24. What is the most eerie, creepy, supernatural special effect that could spring up during this part of the story?

21b. How can the good guys destroy a railroad bridge without endangering the train passengers?

You get the idea. Working through the answers is not outlining. In some cases, the answer may turn out to be, “No, let’s skip that story element. It doesn’t fit.” But that’s useful information too.

Keep an eye on this space. Within a few months, I hope to have more information on the availability of the series. Maybe even a teaser chapter you can download and read. We’ll see.

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A World of Values

Posted by midiguru on January 29, 2016

I’ve been reading a fascinating book (non-fiction) called The Invention of Science. It’s a scholarly tome that explores the intellectual revolution that took place in Europe between 1483 (or thereabouts) and 1750 (or thereabouts).

In 1483, the word “discovery” literally did not exist. The dominant culture held that the ancients (principally Aristotle and the Bible) had set forth the entirety of human knowledge. To be sure, there had been a few significant innovations prior to that time — the printing press, for one. But an important purpose of the printing press, in those early days, was to make the ancient wisdom more widely available.

And then Columbus stumbled upon two new continents that had been entirely unknown to the ancient authors. Suddenly, those sacrosanct authorities were revealed as not wearing trousers.

Our cultural values today are very different from the cultural values in 1500. Discoveries excite us. We expect (most of us do, anyhow) that the assertions of supposed authorities, ancient or modern, will be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other idea. Put under the microscope.

Seeing this cultural shift laid out so plainly led me to wonder: What are the dominant values of the cultures depicted in fantasy novels?

Sad to say, one of the dominant values in period fantasy (under which umbrella term I would include pretty much any book with swords in it) seems to be victory in combat. It’s not difficult to see why this might be the case. Plotted fiction demands conflict, and there is no more direct conflict you could put in a book than two guys with swords battling it out. If the culture in the novel placed a high value on, say, personal honor and caring for the weak, or on respect for tradition, or on the ability to sing and dance remarkably well, the conflict in the story (whatever it was) would lack the dramatic punch of a sword fight.

I guess I’m just not very interested in writing about sword fights. I find the whole subject of martial “arts” both tedious and degrading. What’s especially problematical is when the hero kills a bunch of bad guys, wipes the blood off of his sword, and goes on his merry way without a moment’s pause. Does he reflect on the grief he has caused to his victims’ families? No. Does he ask himself whether there might be some better solution to his problems than killing people? No. Does he suffer post-traumatic stress from seeing blood spurting from hideous wounds? Again, no. In far too much period fantasy, killing is, at least implicitly, an admirable activity.

We can do better. We can create a literature in which killing is not honored or glorified — a literature in which bloodshed is deplored, in which other values are held in higher esteem.

Yeah, once in a while your hero is going to have to kill somebody. But at least have the common decency to fill a page or two with his or her remorse and self-doubt.

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Text and Pretext

Posted by midiguru on January 24, 2016

What makes a fantasy novel a compelling read? Many people will have their own answers to this eternal question, and the answer may differ from one reader to the next. But isn’t the answer a kind of Holy Grail that writers seek?

Today I offer what may be a modest clue or two. I usually avoid making pejorative remarks about the work of my fellow writers, but since I may want to indulge in a brief quotation or two by way of illustration, I’ll name names. From the library I picked up a novel called A Turn of Light, by Julie Czerneda. I’ve managed to slog my way through to page 75 (of 840 — this is a fat book). I may keep going; there’s something going on in the story, and what it is isn’t yet clear. But reading it requires patience.

Today the library sent me an email saying that another novel, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, is due in two days. It had gotten buried in the stack. I hadn’t looked at it, didn’t even remember the title. So after lunch I picked it up to give it a try. I’m now 75 pages in (of only 330), and I’m riveted. I’m eager to find out what happens next!

What factors separate the two books? If I say Three Parts Dead is more realistic, that may give the wrong impression. Its fantasy premise is slightly beyond weird. Magic, a tangle of legalisms relating to the actions of the gods (one of whom has just died unexpectedly, that being the mainspring of the plot), people who can fall from two miles up and not die, gargoyles who shapeshift into human form, necromancy, tattoos that suck the sunlight out of the air — no, it’s not realism in any simple sense.

One difference is that the world in Three Parts Dead is more complex than the world in A Turn of Light. In the former book there are cities with skyscrapers and taxis. In the latter, the author tries to fill in a geopolitical back-story, but the back-story is just a jumble of place-names, border skirmishes, and banishments; it doesn’t jell. What’s onstage is a Disney-style fairy tale. The charming rustic village in which our heroine, Jenn Nalynn, lives has exactly eight families, and everybody gets along like happy baby ducks. Consider this description — Jenn is returning home from a visit to her favorite meadow, where she has been picking the petals off of daisies (and hanging out with an invisible being whom she doesn’t suspect is a dragon):

Jenn climbed the far gate, more mindful of her skirt within the village proper [than she had been in the meadow]. Cynd Treff looked up from berry picking and smiled, her big hat tilted so the sun caught her freckles. From the clanging, her husband Davi was busy at his forge. Off to milk the cows, Hettie Ropp and her stepmother, Covie, waved a cheerful greeting. Cheffy and his sister Alyssa went ahead, arms wrapped around empty milk jugs almost as tall as they were, laughing as they tried to bump into one another. Birds chirped in the apple trees, laden with fruit, that filled the heart of the village; Zehr Emms whistled as he worked on his house. Supper smells filled the air. Everyone was busy. Everyone content.

I mean, doesn’t that just curdle the milk in the jugs? Be honest, now. Berry picking, smiling, freckles, milking cows, cheerful greeting, laughing, birds chirping, apple trees laden with fruit, a guy whistling, and supper smells, all in one freaking paragraph. And this is not an isolated example; the whole beginning of the book is much the same.

Let’s contrast that with what happens to Tara Abernathy near the beginning of Three Parts Dead. She has just fallen out of someplace very high in the air (a consequence of being kicked out of some sort of college of wizards) into a desert, where she had to wring a buzzard’s neck to have something to eat. And now she has made it back to her village:

Four weeks later she arrived on the outskirts of Edgemont, gaunt and sun-blasted, seeing things that did not precisely exist. Her mother found her collapsed near their cattle fence. A lot of crying followed her discovery, and a lot of shouting, and more crying after the shouting, and then a lot of soup. Edgemont mothers were renowned for their practicality, and Ma Abernathy in particular had iron faith in the restorative powers of chicken broth.

Tara’s father was understanding, considering the circumstances.

“Well, you’re back,” he said, a concerned expression on his broad face. He did not ask where she had been for the last eight years, or what happened there, or how she earned her scars….

Here we find: gaunt and sun-blasted, hallucinations, collapsed, crying, shouting, and scars. We find a father who is accepting, but determined not to be curious. In two sentences, the father has become a real person to us, unlike Hettie Ropp or Zehr Emms.

But it’s not just a difference in the content. There are plenty of fantasy writers who write about scars, but do it badly. The difference is inĀ how Max Gladstone does it. He makes it real. If I had to put the difference in a nutshell, I’d say that Czerneda set out to tell a story. Gladstone set out to tell you about some things that happened to real people who happen to live in a magical world.

One book is text, the other is pretext.

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Reinventing the Wheel (Not)

Posted by midiguru on January 15, 2016

Here’s a quick list of some of the more useful how-to-write books on my shelf. One of the first things I learned about writing fiction (back in the late ’70s) was that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of writers have written helpful books! All of the out-of-print books in the list seem to be available used from Amazon.

Scott Meredith, Writing to Sell (out of print). Meredith is a terrible Philistine. He doesn’t give a crap about art. But if you want to sell books, this is a great resource.

Jean Z. Owen, Professional Fiction Writing (out of print). A fine all-around introduction to basic techniques.

Hallie & Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer’s Handbook.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages.

Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint.

Ansen Dibell, Plot.

Robert C. Meredith, Structuring Your Novel (out of print). I don’t see any underlining in my copy of this, but it certainly gives you lots of things to think about!

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction.

And of course, less about technique than about whatever he feels like saying about writing, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block.

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Haiuw 2 Ryt Gud

Posted by midiguru on January 12, 2016

The Internet is a wonderful thing, for a lot of reasons. But sometimes it’s a mixed blessing. Today’s topic is self-published fiction. In the old days, if you had written a novel and found that agents and publishers weren’t interested, your options were limited. You could order 500 copies of your book, and then those heavy cartons of books would sit in your closet until you figured out how to distribute them (or more likely, figured out that there was no practical way to distribute them).

Today authors can avail themselves of such options as Kindle (no paper at all) and print-on-demand websites with their own digital marketplace. No cartons! The shipping to customers taken care of automagically! A paradise!

On the other side of the ledger, the physical bookstore is in decline. Competition for shelf space on the remaining retail outlets is fierce.

Welcome to the brave new world of self-publishing.

The reason I bring this up is because there’s a real danger in self-publishing. Well, not a real danger, except to your ego and to the tender sensibilities of your prospective readers. The danger is that it’s quite easy to crank out very, very bad fiction without realizing that that’s what you’re doing.

In the old days, if no publisher could be enticed to put your book on their spring or fall list, your best bet was to try harder. To learn, that is, how to write better — how to produce manuscripts that would compete successfully with those of other professionals. These days, the default response to rejection (if indeed an aspiring writer bothers to try getting into the mainstream market at all) is to say, “Fuck all that. I’ll publish it myself!”

This is a dangerous decision, because it bypasses quality control.

I’m sure there are a few wonderful self-published novels out there. I haven’t found any yet, but I haven’t yet put a lot of energy into looking. A survey of self-published fantasy is on my to-do list. But I’m pretty sure I know what I’ll find. I can confidently predict that 98% of the self-published fiction out there is dreck.

Why am I so sure? Because over the years I’ve read quite a lot of manuscripts by aspiring authors who were in need of serious help. The mistakes you can fall into, as an aspiring author, are many and varied. Trying to list even the most common of them would be a labor worthy of Hercules. Also, illustrative examples would be needed, and I wouldn’t want to subject any aspiring writer to a public dissection of his or her shortcomings.

Instead, I’ll limit myself to one basic observation. When you read a fine novel by a professional author whose work you admire, the craft of writing is invisible. It’s right there on the page, but you can’t see it. The prose seems effortless — it just flows! But that’s the illusion, the quicksand, the bear trap. A good writer has mastered the craft. A first page that seems entirely natural and straightforward to you as a reader may be the tenth draft. The plot may have been torn apart and put back together several times.

Aspiring writers don’t recognize this. The novels they admire seem to flow effortlessly, so they tend, I think, to assume that they can sit back and let their own story flow out effortlessly. They feel inspired! They write! They’re pleased with what they’ve written! They’re sure readers will be just as pleased!

Wrong. Dead wrong.

For most of us, learning to write well takes years of patient effort. This is a good reason to start by writing short stories, by the way. A short story that falls apart, or that when completed is a dismal failure, takes a week or two to write, rather than a year. You can learn the craft far more quickly by writing stories.

Trust me on this. Of the first fifteen science fiction/fantasy stories that I wrote, back in the early ’80s, fourteen were unpublishable. They were rejected by the SF magazines, and rightly so. One of them I sold. And at that point I had already been a full-time professional writer and editor of nonfiction for more than five years! I had mastered the mechanics of English prose (an area where some aspiring writers of fiction fall flat on their faces). I just didn’t know how to tell a good story, except by accident.

The world is full of good books on how to write fiction. Buy a few. Buy a few more. Read them from cover to cover. Underline salient passages.

There are, I’m aware, aspiring writers — perhaps more than a few of them — who don’t want to read how-to-write books because they’re afraid that their native inspiration and artistic uniqueness will be spoiled. If you’re tempted by that theory, it’s safe to say you’re doomed. No more than one aspiring writer in ten thousand has an instinctive grasp of the principles of fiction writing so sure that he or she will be able to produce high-quality work without an extended study of the craft.

Naturally, you think you’re that one writer in ten thousand.

You’re not.

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Not Just an Ordinary Palace

Posted by midiguru on January 2, 2016

Lately I’ve been surveying fantasy novels. By “surveying,” I mean I read at least the first 100 pages, on the basis that I need to give the author at least that much space to lay out the scenario, introduce the characters, and provide some indication of where the plot is headed. I won’t call this a marketing survey, because I rather obstinately don’t care all that much about marketing. Call it a genre survey. I feel a need to understand the fantasy genre in the form in which it’s found on the shelves of a bookstore in 2016, so that I won’t inadvertently tumble down a rabbit hole by devising a story that’s hopelessly hackneyed or unworkably dull.

Rare is the novel that carries me past the first 100 pages. Okay, I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora unabashedly. The sequel I made it all the way through, though it was heavy going. I ran out of steam in the middle of Book III, and haven’t gone back to it.

Once in a while I stumble upon a gem. If you’re looking for a good read (in fact, there’s a whole website called goodreads, though the amateur reviews there tend to be rather fannish), you may want to try The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. I was up until after midnight the first night reading it.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way quickly: The names of the characters typically run to four or five syllables, and they tend to be more alike than different. I never did get the difference between Beshelar and Berenar straight in my head. The honorifics are also a tangle. “Mer” seems to be the elf equivalent of “Mr.,” “Min” the equivalent of “Mrs.” But then we get Osmer and Osmin, Osmerrem, Dach’osmer and Dach’osmin — and for the first hundred pages, the reader is likely to think those are first names.

The publisher has cleverly hidden the keys to the meanings of these tongue-twisters in the back of the book, where the reader will most likely miss them until the very end. Phooey.

That said … it’s a wonderful story. Maia is the fourth and least regarded son of the Emperor Varenechibel IV. He’s a half-goblin on his mother’s side, which means his skin is gray rather than pure elf white. His mother was sent into exile when he was a baby, and after she died Maia was sent off to be cared for (speaking loosely) by a cruel and habitually drunken ex-official. But suddenly, when Maia is 18, his father and also his three elder brothers (pure elves, all) are killed in the crash of an airship. Maia, who is not only a despised half-goblin but also entirely unacquainted with the ritual intricacies of life in a very rich and very intricate Imperial court, finds that he is the new emperor.

Smothered not only by the fine garments and elaborate jewelry but by his own sense of confusion and embarrassment, Maia struggles to learn what he needs to know. He soon survives two assassination attempts (neither of them, be it noted, by a paid assassin), chooses an arranged marriage for himself, and eventually learns to dance and ride a horse. He gradually learns that the emperor is not supposed to apologize. He meets his boisterous back-slapping goblin grandfather. He finally starts to figure out who his friends are.

It’s a little like growing up in any dysfunctional household, if you look at it that way.

There’s not a trace of swashbuckling. There are no wizards, no telepathy, and no shapeshifters. Though a couple of tiny bits of magic are employed, The Goblin Emperor is basically a gentle steampunk tale. And at the end of the novel, Maia is still a virgin. The nearest thing to romance is when he daringly starts using “I” rather than “we” when speaking to his future wife, and she reciprocates. It appears they may become friends.

That observation brings me to another linguistic wrinkle. Unlike English, the elf language (whatever it is) has polite and familiar forms not only for second-person pronouns (in English, thou vs. you) but also for first-person pronouns. Addison uses “we” for the polite first person singular, and occasionally has to mention that a character used “we” in the simple plural rather than in the polite first-person singular. This is the first time I can think of offhand that the English language simply failed to provide what an author needed.

If you can make it through the slightly stilted dialog and the bewilderment of names, you’ll almost certainly end up charmed by Maia as he transforms from a gawky and baffled teenager into a young emperor. I certainly was.

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The Sword of Something-or-Other

Posted by midiguru on December 31, 2015

As the year draws to a close, I find myself with a new literary agent and a YA fantasy series that she’s keen to try to sell. This is unusual territory for me. For years now I’ve been characterizing myself, tongue only slightly in cheek, as one of the West Coast’s least known and least active science fiction writers.

I’m starting to think maybe I ought to take this turn of events more seriously. Thirty years ago I thought I might have a real career as a fiction writer, but the notion gradually faded. The thing is, I know how to write, but it’s not always clear to me what to write. After blundering around not entirely at random, I seem to have arrived at a solid, exciting premise for this particular series. The first volume in the saga is finished and on the agent’s desk; the second is about 2/3 done (and it’s gonna be evenĀ more exciting); for the third I have a mass of notes and an outline; book four is, at present, only a title and a fairly clear idea.

Whether this series sells, or doesn’t, I’m asking myself, “What’s next?” Rather than throw darts at a wall full of taped-up 3×5 cards (joke — I don’t even own a dart), I figured I should roll up my metaphorical sleeves and do some serious market research.

Before we get to that, though … the first volume is called The Leafstone Shield. Think of it as Lord of the Rings meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except, no vampires. I promise faithfully, there will not be a single vampire. Teenage girls kicking some serious butt, yes. Vampires, no. Look for it at your favorite retail outlet sometime in 2017, maybe.

Reading online lists of “best of 2014” fantasy titles is useful, up to a point, and I’ve made a long list, but you can’t tell much from reading a short review, and most of the interesting-looking items are not to be found on the shelves at my local library. So this afternoon I hied my very self down the freeway to Barnes & Noble, an actual physical bookstore. This trek brought into focus a couple of market trends that I had sensed earlier but had not quite seen in all their fulsome glory.

First, series novels are taking over. The days of a single free-standing title with no raft of sequels anywhere on the horizon appear to be numbered, if not gone forever. Even trilogies are getting scarce. Fantasy series with Book VII or Book IX on the spine are not hard to find.

There are even trilogies of trilogies. A couple of days ago I picked up Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Errand at the library. It’s billed on the cover as Book I of the Tawny Man trilogy, so I figured it would be something new, something where I could start at the beginning and get involved. Silly me! The first hundred pages of Fool’s Errand are so heavily devoted to reminiscences of events in the previous trilogies that I gave up. Nothing against Hobb, who is a fine writer and not afraid to be slow-paced (a trait I admire), but when the story still hasn’t started after 100 pages, it’s clear that she’s writing for a fan base that has devoured the first six books and is champing at the bit for more of the same. Fool’s Errand is no more Book I of anything than I’m an elf.

The second trend is Medieval warfare. With innumerable variations, of course, but swords and men in armor (or women in armor) are arrayed on dozens of book covers. I’m not quite sure who goes in for this type of story — it’s just not my cup of brimstone. My suspicion is that the runaway success of Game of Thrones has convinced publishers that Medieval warfare is where it’s at, fantasy-wise.

The third trend is what we might delicately refer to as moral ambiguity. There seem to be a lot of bad heroes. Like, really bad heroes. As in, slice you open for no particular reason and leave you bleeding to death on the cobblestones heroes. If you’re old enough, you might remember the phrase “hooker with a heart of gold.” That was a sort of archetype at one time. Today we have the assassin with a heart of gold. Or at least a heart of tinsel. Whatever. The glut of books about vampires and zombies is at the core of this trend. They’re nasty, and that’s why we love ’em! (Well, not “we.” Maybe you. Me, I wouldn’t touch a vampire novel with a flagon of holy water.)

This probably reflects a change in the zeitgeist. I suspect there are a lot of people in the world who know they’re doing bad things (driving an SUV, for instance, or cheating on their spouse or their income tax, or maybe smoking a little crack now and then) but would nevertheless like to feel that they’re good people. A story in which the hero does really nasty things and yet suffers momentary pangs of compassion or doubt is probably something readers can relate to.

I learned some other stuff this week too, but I’m keeping it under wraps because I might actually use it to give my next series a shape. You can’t give away all of your trade secrets.

A footnote: I did pick up a couple of fat paperbacks at the bookstore, which I’m looking forward to digging into. First up, Cold Magic by Kate Elliott. Kate, whose real name is Alis Rasmussen, used to have a desk about ten feet from mine in the Keyboard magazine office on Stevens Creek Blvd. in Cupertino. Lost track of her years ago — I hope she’s doing well!

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Off the Edge

Posted by midiguru on December 27, 2015

When I’m writing a novel, I start with an outline. As someone once said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” For a 100,000 word book, the outline can easily be 5,000 words. It can contain scraps of dialog, alternative ideas that I haven’t decided on yet — anything, really.

As the writing proceeds, the outline becomes less and less relevant. Quite often, while drafting a scene or a chapter, I’ll think of something better than what’s in the outline. When I’m halfway through the first draft, I may have to scrap the outline and write an entirely new outline for the second half, because so much has changed.

I write fast. 2,000 words of draft per day is a comfortable target for me. You’d think that would produce a 120,000 word novel in two months, but the process is not quite that fast, because sometimes you have to stop and devote a couple of days to planning.

This morning the outline says, in essence, “She makes friends with the dragon and convinces him to help them.” That’s exactly what has to happen, in one brush-stroke … but it’s a tall order! The outline doesn’t have a word to say about how it’s going to happen. I’ve written myself off the edge of the outline. Time to pause and plan.

One technique that I’ve found useful is to make a list of questions that will need to be answered, phrasing the questions as precisely as possible. Questions like, “Why exactly would the dragon want to help them? What would motivate him?”

Another technique is to throw away any preconceptions that I may be harboring about how the narrative ought to unfold. Maybe the dragon doesn’t help them. Or maybe he helps them unwillingly, because they’re threatening to break his (her?) unhatched eggs. Anything might happen. One of the dangers, for a writer, is that you become so enamored of your original vision that you’re unwilling to set it aside. So you keep trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

I’ve written a couple of novels that were published, back in the day. I’ve also written several that haven’t been published, and probably shouldn’t be. I’ve had some practice at this stuff. Maybe I’m getting better at it. Maybe. We’ll see. Now, about that dragon….

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In Fact It’s a Gas!

Posted by midiguru on November 12, 2015

The other day I started thinking it might be fun to write a steampunk novel. Steampunk, for those who are standing out on the sidewalk with their noses pressed against the glass, is a sub-genre of science fiction. The typical setting for steampunk is Victorian England, and typically a story is tricked out with fantastic clockwork gadgets and gigantic machinery. Electronics are strictly forbidden. There’s not much punk in steampunk, but there’s a lot of steam.

The collection of steampunk at my local library is spotty, but not too bad. I grabbed a stack of books and started doing a little market research. A persistent thread running through many of these books, I discovered, is the airship. It’s not hard to see why. The airship is charmingly retro, it’s impressively large, and it moves in a slow, dreamy, dignified way. The dirigible is a perfect icon for steampunk.

So I started doing a little research on lighter-than-air flying craft.

My curse as a writer is that I like things to make sense. I don’t care much for ideas that defy the laws of physics. I’ve written stories about elves, and unicorns, and ghosts, but those are just magic premises suitable for fantasy. Once you have a race of elves, they’re subject to the laws of physics just like everything else.

What I quickly discovered is that there’s a reason why, in our own world, blimps and dirigibles are not widely used as aircraft. They’re just not very practical.

For a lifting agent, you have three choices — hydrogen, helium, or hot air. Hydrogen provides the best lift, and it’s cheap and readily available, but it’s also very dangerous, because it’s highly flammable. Given the slightest provocation, a big bag of hydrogen has a tendency to burst into flame.

Helium is not quite as good a lifting agent, but it’s pretty good. It’s also scarce and expensive. Those party balloons you just bought at the store really ought to be illegal, because helium is useful stuff, and we have no way to manufacture any more. When the Earth’s supply of helium is gone, it’s gone.

Hot air is cheap and safe, but it’s a less efficient lifting agent. Because it’s less efficient, your gondola (the thing hanging under the gas bag) can’t carry as much. The gondola has to carry fuel for the burner that provides the hot air, of course. If you also want some kind of propeller, so as to control what direction you’re flying, that’s going to take fuel too. And then there’s the crew, the weight of the gondola itself, and the sandbags that you’re carrying for ballast so you can cut them loose if you need more altitude in a hurry. In the end, you won’t be able to carry much in the way of freight or passengers. Hot air balloons are fine for a spectacular ride at the state fair, but they’re just not a good method of transportation.

As a writer of steampunk, you’re faced with a few stark choices. You can ignore all this nitpicking — just go ahead and write about ironclad airships with mounted cannon, and trust that your readers will be so thrilled they won’t know or won’t care. You can invent a new type of safe hydrogen, though that violates the laws of physics. Or you can dispense with airships altogether and make do with steamships and railroad trains.

Personally, I lean toward option 3. The trouble is, readers of steampunk want to be thrilled. They want to discover visionary wonders of Victorian technology! A steampunk novel with no mechanical marvels is certainly possible in a literary sense, but it would be at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble book publishing market.

Still chewin’ on this dilemma. Not sure what I’ll end up with.

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More About Learning More

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

I dropped out of college in the Sixties. Long story, and not likely to interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to college to finally get a degree or two. Trying to find an option that actually makes sense turns out to be a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because I’m a musician, it’s natural to think majoring in music would be the right move. Specifically, as I’m an expert in synthesizers and music software, maybe a music degree with a specialization in electronic music.

I found a school back east that has a terrific program in that area — Bard College. I know I’d love being a student at Bard, but there are several not-so-delightful factors to weigh. First, it’s fearfully expensive. We’re talking $50,000 per year, and I’m still a lowly sophomore. That works out to about $6,000 per undergraduate class per semester. Ouch! Then there are the East Coast winters. I’m an old guy, and it’s not clear how well I would handle blizzards. On top of which, it’s a one-way ticket. If I sell my house in California, move back to upstate New York, and buy a house there, I’ll get enough cash out of the deal to pay the tuition — but I’ll be priced out of the California real estate market, so if the winters prove too severe for me, I’m stuck.

How about a music degree from a school near where I live? Well, there’s UC Berkeley. I’m pretty sure they would have to readmit me, because I left in good standing in 1968. But they have no undergraduate electronic music specialization — their music department is entirely performance-oriented. So I’d have to play cello in their orchestra. The orchestra rehearses two nights every week, for 2-1/2 hours a night, and get this — it’s a one-unit class. Five hours of rehearsal, plus all of the hours of practice needed to learn the parts, and you get one lousy unit of credit. Factor in the grotesque process of commuting from Livermore to Berkeley — can’t take BART, because it’s too long a walk uphill from the Berkeley BART station to the music building if you’re over 65 and carrying a cello. So I’d have to drive and deal with the inadequate parking facilities. Not a swell idea.

San Jose State has a nice electronic music curriculum, but here we hit another snag. I was a full-time student at Cal State East Bay for one quarter in 2004, but I’m still a sophomore, and SJ State is not currently accepting lower-division transfer students from the other state universities. I’d have to go back to CSEB for a semester or two and then apply for a transfer. The commute to CSEB is merely bad, not horrendous, and they have capacious parking lots! But no electronic music, of course. Parking at SJSU sucks, and it’s at least as long a commute as Berkeley — a full hour each way on the freeway, basically. For years. Makes me want to drop out, just thinking about it.

How about an online degree program, then? Getting an undergraduate music degree online is all but impossible, because of the performance requirements — a senior recital and all that. I did find one school, Valley City State in North Dakota, that offers an accredited online-only music degree. You take lessons and play in an ensemble in your local area and document it for their faculty to evaluate. But, whoops! They have no string faculty, so you can’t do their online degree if your major instrument is cello.

So maybe a degree in music is a bad idea. Maybe I should major in English, with an emphasis in writing fiction. No performance requirements to sweat over, no lugging a cello around on campus, this could work. Or how about an online degree in English? Could be a winner!

Judging by their own website, Southern New Hampshire University looks good. It’s accredited, affordable, and has an online-only fiction writing degree. But after a quick trip to Yelp, I had to cross SNHU off my list. Although it’s a non-profit, not a for-profit diploma mill like some other online schools, it appears their sales force is very aggressive, their teachers underpaid and forced to adhere to a cookie-cutter curriculum, and their responsiveness to administrative foul-ups deplorable. Some people seem to like SNHU, but it got a lot of one-star reviews.

Right now I’m thinking, maybe an English degree from UC. I could take BART to campus, the cost would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to sell my house and move to a new town where I know nobody in order to enroll. The English Department seems to have a creative writing specialization, but the course offerings in fiction writing may be a bit skimpy. A cursory reading of the degree requirements suggests that I might have to take a couple of courses in either poetry (ugh) or script-writing (yawn).

Maybe I could troll the poetry-writing class by turning in some of my refrigerator magnet poems. Here’s my latest:

She will shake two easy dreams

and smile at every velvet hand.

In the rain you must trust a window,

but do not lust after the ferocious breeze;

the weak black picture is essential.

She will stop the clouds of time

and voice the power of true honey

as we blaze together,

lick the rhythms of yesterday,

and whisper about our feet.

Do you think they’d believe me if I told them that’s a love poem?

Posted in fiction, society & culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


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