Writing Update, November edition

Sadly, I have very little update to give. With one thing or another, October has passed without me making much progress on any of my current projects. Spending a week in the hospital was merely the lame icing on an unproductive cake.

About the only news I have to report is that Ships of My Fathers is no longer in the KDP Select program at Amazon which means it should be rolling out to Barnes and Noble as well as Kobo sometime this month.

So, back to editing Debts of My Fathers

Review: Rule of Evidence, by John G. Hemry

This is the third of Hemry’s (aka Jack Campbell’s) “JAG in Space” series, following the legal complications in Paul Sinclair’s career in the United States’ space navy. He is still serving aboard the USS Michaelson, and now he has risen up to the rank of Lieutenant. He is still the ship’s legal officer which is how he is usually dragged into the legal matters in the first place.

This time the legal drama hits closer to home for young Sinclair as someone close to him ends up in the crosshairs of a serious investigation. Instead of being a nominally neutral player in the legal games, this time he is hard over in the camp of the defense counsel, going up against the toughest prosecutor he knows. It’s not just personal. It’s desperate.

Overall I liked the book, but a couple of anachronisms bothered me. First, there was more of this notion of “US-controlled space” vs. “SAA-controlled space”. That bugged me in the first book, and it was back in full force here. Yes, I get the on-Earth naval parallels, but they did not translate well into space where the borders in deep space seemed to have no correlation to any planetary asset. Then there was a defense contractor conspiracy that seemed to be lifted right out of the Pentagon Papers. That translated into the future somewhat better – greed and ambition will always be with us – but I still found myself annoyed by it.

Still, the courtroom drama was good, and I liked the more personal stakes this time. I didn’t like it as much as the second book, but I will likely look for book #4 in due time.

Health Update: I am home from the hospital

Some of you already know this, but I was in the hospital for most of the week. It started with abdominal pain Saturday, and I went into the ER Sunday. Tests confirmed that it was a small bowel obstruction, a not-quite-literal knot in my small intestine.

I had the same thing happen five and a half years ago as a post-surgical complication, so I knew what I was in for: a few painful days with an tube up my nose and down into my stomach, like a personal Roto-Rooter truck trying to empty out my body’s septic system from the wrong end. The only alternative treatment is to simply cut out the offending section of intestine, which comes with its own laundry list of risks.

Anyway, I made it through with the support of my family of choice, and I thank all of you who did what you could to support them. I’ll probably talk more about this in the future, but for now, I am so weak that sitting up at the computer is pretty tiring.

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City, by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is a legend in the podcasting community, from her award winning “I Should Be Writing” show back to her early years of “Geek Fu Action Grip” show. She has been publishing in small and indie press for a while, but this is something of a breakout novel for her. She recently won the Campbell Award for best new writer, and she has more books in the pipeline.

This is the story of Zoe, a down-on-her-luck travel writer in the big city. It’s not actually new to her, since much of childhood was actually in New York, but now she is on her own, unemployed, and feeling pretty low. But then she stumbles upon the city’s underworld of coterie, the polite term for monsters of every stripe from dragons to zombies. She is just desperate enough for work to get over her squeamishness and take a job writing a travel guide for New York monsters, pointing out the best hotels, entertainment, and *gulp* feeding grounds.

I liked it. It was a good exploration of the coterie culture and how it interacted with our world, both in secret and somewhat in public. The conflict managed to tie in with Zoe’s personal story, and it all came together nicely at the end. I suppose my only complaint was that the ending kept building battle up on battle. After a certain point through that escalation, I started feeling detached from the tale and the fates of the characters. Still, I’m looking forward to the next book where she attempts to do a similar guide for New Orleans.

NaNoWriMo: Why I love it, why I hate it, and why I’m not doing it this year…

As October winds down, new writers across the globe are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month of November. The challenge is to start with a blank page and write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. It boils down to 1667 blood-soaked words every day, and at last count, more than 125,000 wordsmiths are gearing up for it this year.

squirrel-winner-100I love NaNoWriMo! After piddling around for twenty years with outlines, back-stories, and world-building – and barely three chapters of actual novel – NaNoWriMo got my butt into the chair for some serious work. In 2004, I put in 51,000 words on a novel that was something like Pinocchio’s tale but with androids. I never did actually finish off the plot for that story, but by the time I finally gave up, I had more than 65,000 words of a novel. The story has its problems, and it was on target to be a bloated 150,000 words, but damn it, it was more than I had written in any single tale I had ever attempted. It felt good, and it made me the dedicated pantser that I am today.

And NaNoWriMo has done more than clutter my closet with unfinished drafts. My first published book, Beneath the Sky, started with my 2005 NaNoWriMo win. I finished it off in the summer of 2007. My upcoming entry into urban fantasy, Hell Bent, started with my 2010 NaNoWriMo win and was finished off the next September. And Ships of My Fathers, the start of the Father Chessman Saga, was my 2011 NaNoWriMo book, actually completed in December immediately after the rush of my fourth NaNoWriMo win!

2005_nanowrimo_winner_largeI love the camaraderie, the constant updating of my word-count spreadsheet, and even the crazy rush as the week of Thanksgiving rolls around. It takes one of the loneliest tasks in the world and turns it into a party. The success and failures of those around you gives you both inspiration and cautionary tales. So, if you have ever thought about writing a novel, I encourage you dive on in and make NaNoWriMo 2013 your path to wordsmithing glory!

But I also hate NaNoWriMo! Yes, I know… it’s great for getting you moving, for getting a lot of those glumpy words out of the noodle factory between our ears, and for daring you to even make the attempt. It’s not quite Steal Fire From The Gods Month, but sure, it taps into stuff only the immortals can handle. Yep, great stuff… in November.

The real problems show up on December 1.

First of all, you very likely don’t have a novel on December 1. I know that e-books and the liberty of self-publishing are shattering the preconceived notions of proper book length, but the reality is that readers are used to books of certain lengths in different genres. Light romances and quick mysteries might squeeze down to 50,000 words, but most start at 60,000. Sci-fi and urban fantasies like to play in the range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. And then there are a number of weighty tomes across those genres that flop down on the beach with 150,000 to 250,000 words.

nano_10_winner_120x240-6Even apart from word-count, did you actually get to the end of the story? Have Bilbo and the dwarves defeated Smaug, or are they just now leaving Rivendale? When I bailed on my 2004 effort (the unnamed Pinocchio tale), I was barely past the 40% mark of where that story was going. On December 1, 2005, Beneath the Sky had just dealt with the pirate attack. That pattern carried through on both Hell Bent and Ships of My Fathers. I was proceeding at the right plot-pace to get to 80-100,000 words, but I simply hadn’t gotten there yet. No one wants to read a book that ends in Act II.

But even once you finish a novel-sized draft – truly, an accomplishment even greater than a NaNoWriMo victory – you’ve only just begun. If your first drafts are anything like mine, what you have is a bucket of words. I say bucket because if this is your first NaNoWriMo, then you will be vomiting forth a fair number of those words, and it shows. I don’t merely mean typos and sloppy grammar. No, I mean that there are fundamental problems with your plot, your characters, your… your… well, your everything. But that’s what editing is for, and NaNoWriMo at least gave you something to edit.

But it is not a ready-to-publish novel. In recent years, I have often heard that most terrible claim, “All right – just need to run the thing through spell-check and then format it for Kindle!” No. No, NO, NO!

So that’s the main thing I hate about NaNoWriMo. It suggests that you have won the race when in truth, you have only gotten off the starting blocks. The race is long, and it’s going to take a lot longer than a month – even one of the ones with thirty-one days.

Winner_120_200_whiteSo, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but not because of the reasons I hate it. Nor am I dead set on never doing NaNoWriMo again in the future. It’s just that I’ve gotten past the point where I need it to be November for me to pile on in and write a new novel. Since 2011 I’ve written two other novels, neither of which were in November. I plugged away with NaNoWriMo intensity – typically shooting for 2500 words per day, not a mere 1667. I think I’ve mastered the process of getting that first draft out of my brain and onto the page.

But what I’m still struggling with is the process of turning that bilious bucket of draft into a publishable novel. Right now I have three novels grinding their way through the editing gears. The furthest along is Hell Bent, but the highest priority is Debts of My Fathers. Shattered, my attempt at a mystery, is going to wait for a while.

And here it is, the closing days of October, and believe me, the adrenaline rush of NaNoWriMo is calling to me, but I’m not going to do it. I certainly don’t need an unfinished draft distracting me in December, and even if I finished it off in November, I don’t need to have a fourth novel cluttering up my editing queue. No, what I need is the month of November to work on the novels that are already written and fighting their way towards publication. I know this sounds lame, but I’ve got to make the grown-up decision and work on edits this November, and that means I don’t have the hours in the day to do NaNoWriMo.

But somewhere down the line, I will find myself gearing up for another draft in late October, and when I do, I will almost certainly put on my NaNo hat again and ride off to do battle with the 1667.  In the meantime, I salute those of you heading into the fray this year.

World-Building in Public

I’m considering a blogging experiment. I have a number of things to flesh out in my Hudson Confederacy universe, and I think I might just start publishing them as blog entries here. They won’t be spoilers, and they won’t really be canon either – I figure until this stuff shows up in an actual book, it’s just rumor. Still, it might make for some interesting reading while other books in that universe work their way through edits.

It started when I found myself daydreaming a little about the Navy of the Hudson Confederacy, and after listening to a podcast on building a space navy, I realized I need to back up and look at the history. After all, a Navy is there to perform missions in support of strategic goals, and those strategic goals come from both the surrounding environment and how the nation perceives itself. So, I had to ask myself, how does the Hudson Confederacy see itself?  That, in turn, took me even further back to seeing where it came from.

Why dig so far back? Well, any student of US politics today can’t help but see that many of the forces date all the way back to religious persecution that drove some of the early colonists to cross the Atlantic in the first place. For that, of course, you then need to go further back to the Anglican church of King Henry VIII, then back to the Reformation of Martin Luther, and ultimately back to the politics of the Catholic church in the 1400s.

So… how far back am I going? Well, in the brief back-story of the universe given in Beneath the Sky, humanity shot out to colonize rapidly once they finally got FTL. This led to a vast union called The Republic of Man, usually referred to now as the Old Republic. Sorry, no Jedi Knights. Anyway, that eventually shattered, leaving the original core as the Solarian Union and giving birth to dozens of smaller nations The largest two of those were the League of Catai and the Hudson Confederacy, where the bulk of my space opera will occur. While the League has done well for itself, the Hudson Confederacy has suffered through two civil wars since establishing its independence.

My intent is to look at the forces that eventually broke up the Old Republic, how that breakup occurred, and what that meant for the various nations that resulted, specifically the Confederacy. Then, I’m going to look at the two civil wars that rocked the Confederacy. I’m thinking of the first one as mostly a rocky transition from a loose gathering of colonies into something with stronger central control – a bit like if the US’s transition from the Articles of Confederation to the 1789 Constitution had resulted in a civil war where the 13 colonies were reduced to 9 states and some foreign neighbors.

But it’s the most recent civil war that is both drawing my attention and completely stymieing my imagination. A fair amount what is going into the Father Chessman saga (Ships of My Fathers, Debts of My Fathers, etc) is the fallout from that civil war. It left a lot of bad blood, but while I know a fair amount about how the war was fought, I haven’t really figured out what led to it. That seems, well… important.

So, I’ll be making history here, literally. Well, make-believe, future history, but you get the idea. Tune in and see how it develops.

Review: Captain’s Share by Nathan Lowell

This is the fifth in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, following the life of Ishmael Wang as he rises through the ranks of merchantmen. As the title suggests, this is the book where Ishmael finally becomes a captain, but that’s not all that happens.

It’s been a long gap since we left Ishmael in Double Share where he had gotten his first posting as an officer. In fact, it’s been over ten years, and while some things have remained the same, quite a few others have changed. While Ishmael is still on the same ship, now he’s first mate, and back on station, he has a wife. Pride and Prejudice fans should enjoy the opening homage.

Like all of the Solar Clipper series, this is not a tale of gripping adventure or thrilling crisis. This is the work-a-day world of a guy making the system function, day after day. Strangely, Lowell turns what some would call a detraction into an asset. If you’ve ever wished you could live on a starship, then this series is pure wish-fulfillment. If you’re that kind of reader, then even the routine things will fascinate you.

For this particular book, there are some rather dicey moments before Ishmael makes captain where he has to do a salvage operation on a dead ship. What is particularly chilling is that had Ishmael not made the choices he made back in Double Share, this was precisely the kind of fate that awaited him and his crewmates. Sloppiness kills in space, and this was a gruesome object lesson.

Once he becomes a Captain, of course, he had all new troubles. He was given the runt of the fleet, complete with all the problems you can imagine: rebellious crew, lazy and crazy officers, crappy ship performance, and poor profits. As always, he tackled them straight on. He made a few missteps along the way, but as always, Ishmael found his way. I had expected a bit more pushback from the crew and officers on this, but it seems they were desperate for any improvement.

So, if you’ve already been reading the Solar Clipper series, you probably already have this. If not, check it out.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

This is the tale of those poor schmucks in red who always seem to die just to prove how serious things are for Captain Twerk and Mr. Smock. Their situation is exactly as ridiculous and lethal as you would think. These poor blokes beam down with the landing party, and the killer robots announce their presence by shoving a jagged spike through some poor bastard’s red-shirted back. Or maybe it’s the subterranean sand sharks, or the exploding instrument panel. Whatever the threat, stage-left of Captain Twerk is probably the most dangerous place in the universe.

In short, it’s a hellish life filled with random brutality, and there is no way to transfer off this ship unless you’re fated to be killed in the exiting shuttle. There’s nothing they can do about it, and they can see the statistics on the wall just like anyone else – anyone except the dashing officers, of course. But then, one day, the find out why this is happening to them.

The why, of course, is the big reveal of the novel, and if you haven’t already heard it, it’s worth letting the book reveal it in its own way. But that’s not the end of it. Nope. The real tale is what these unlucky corpses-to-be decide to do about it, and I have to admit that even though I saw where it might be going, I was impressed by how they pulled it off.

Now, this novel also has three “codas”, and it gets a lot of grief over that. These are basically three short stories that follow the natural consequences of what happens in the main novel. They’re not properly part of the same conflict and climax, but they are necessary collateral storylines that would have normally been left hanging. Instead, Scalzi wraps them up and does a good job with them. My only complaint was that he got a little too artsy in his choice of POV. That the first and third stories were in first person and third person respectively was just fine. But telling the second one in second person was a contrivance too far. I got what he was doing, but I felt it was unnecessarily awkward.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s Scalzi’s best work by far, but I won’t begrudge it the Hugo award.

FenCon 2013

I was at FenCon over the weekend. No, I’m not posting as in-depth a recap as I did for WorldCon, but here are a few highlights.

On the interstellar wars that populate so much space opera, there are two extremes to think about. At one end of the spectrum is when you only want to exterminate the enemy. In that case, planets can be fixed, vulnerable targets. Just send in enough high-speed asteroids, and even with a good planetary defense, a reasonable number of them are going to get through and wipe out the biosphere. But at the other end, you ultimately want to capture planets intact. Even if you intend to exterminate the population, you want that biosphere mostly intact for your own people. In that case, no matter how many ships in your armada, there is no substitute for boots on the ground. So, with all deference to the space navies, you’re often looking at either asteroids or infantry as your ultimate solution.

On all the dystopias we’ve seen lately, perhaps it’s not quite so gloomy as you might think. In many of the dystopia’s of old, like 1984, the oppressors were able to crush the human spirit. Even with love and intelligence and the need to be free, Winston could not withstand the might of the state. “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In short, society was so badly broken that there was no escape from it. However, many of the more modern dystopia tales are actually stories of dystopias being overthrown or otherwise resisted. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. In that sense, perhaps we should not be too depressed, since in some ways at least, these are uplifting tales.

And a little Babylon 5 tidbit… I had completely missed this when it came out in May, but Joe Straczynski revealed why Michael O’Hare (the actor playing Sinclair) really left Babylon 5 after only one season. From Slice of Sci-Fi:

According to JMS, O’Hare suffered from delusions and paranoia due to mental illness.

That was the real reason he left the show after only one season. Straczynski explained how O’Hare struggled, how he was barely able to come back for a two-parter to close his character’s story, but above all, that O’Hare wanted people to know the truth after his death.

And the most important truth of O’Hare’s struggle with mental illness is that he loved the fans, that they were what sustained him during the difficult times in his life.

The article also links to some video of that conference.

It was a lot less intense than WorldCon, but I still had an excellent time. Cory Doctorow said a lot of interesting things around copyright and DRM, and it was fun seeing all the usuals from Texas fandom. I’m already signed up for next year, but this pretty much closes my con season. There will be an Austin ComicCon most likely later in the year, but I’ve never managed to go to one yet, and I see no reason this year will be suddenly different.

Review: Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

This is the second Mercy Thompson book, and it built nicely on top of the first one. In fact, I recall what seemed like an unnecessary vampire diversion in the first book, and this book is where that pays off. Here, Mercy gets called upon by her tie-dye loving hippy vampire friend to do one little favor, except nothing can ever be that simple for poor Mercy.

It turns out there’s another vampire feeding in town, and he doesn’t want to pay homage to the local vampires like a polite bloodsucker. Instead, he’s daring them to stop him, and when they try, it turns out he’s more than he appears. This leads to a full-on hunt including both other vampires and some of Mercy’s werewolf friends. For a while, Mercy gets sidelined since this particular hunt is way above her pay-grade, but when the hunt goes bad, it’s time for her to take matters into her own hands again.

The book was well-paced – even the portion where Mercy was sidelined had its share of conflict – and Mercy’s talents gave her a role even when no one else believed in her. About the only thing that threw me was… well, this is treading into spoiler territory, but the story wasn’t really over when I thought it was. There was still action yet to come.

All in all, a good tale, and book #3 is working its way through my in-pile.