Fiction Writing

Week in Review: Project Balancing

It’s time for the first check-in since I talked about my new project last week. Long story short, I fell short of my goal of 1750 words on the new project, writing only 1250. That said, my weekly article was 2600 words, at least 1100 words longer than average…that means I exceeded my pre-project writing target of 1500 words a week by a whopping 2300 words. So I’m fine with how I did. Not writing enough of one thing because you’re writing a lot of something else is totally OK.

The project is off to a good start, I have an idea of the basic conflicts and I’m starting to find a voice for the story, something I’ve had difficulty with before. I have a feeling the intro may need to be reworked…I dumped the names of six different characters in at the beginning while only introducing half of them and using a bunch of other names of supporting characters that may come up later…it’s a confusing way to start a story. I’ll file that away for later, though, because worrying about what I’ve already done wrong will make it impossible to get a first draft done.

Reflecting on an earlier still post, I  am resolute in running D&D for my online group when the time comes. Waiting until November to start prep is making my mind wander a bit, but I’ve stayed committed. I did drop the low-quorum game because of prep issues, but that has given me a potential outlet for all my Cyberpunk twitching. I’m also resolute in my desire to run Burning Wheel in person, but finding the necessary people and getting them together is, as I thought, taking a while.

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Fiction Writing

Writing tracking, or, more meta-writing

I’ve had a new writing project floating around in my head since it came to me while flying back from San Diego over a month ago. Now, I really need to execute on it before it completely evaporates. Additionally, I’ve started getting distracting gaming ideas, so I need to direct my energies elsewhere while I’m waiting for the last D&D sourcebook to come out so I can write the game I actually intend to run.

My schedule has been a little too inconsistent to support daily writing, so instead of trying to fit that square peg into the round hole of my life, I’m going to switch to weekly goals and reviews. I’ll be posting these Thursdays, so next week we’ll see how I do with my word count. I decided on a fairly conservative pace, 250 words per day, which translates to 1750 words per week.

I found when I was doing the RPG a Day updates, my weekly recap encouraged me to go back and cover days I had missed, rather than get discouraged as I fell behind (which is what happened in the past with daily writing schedules). My hope is this way I’ll still write consistently a few times a week, and get my allotted words in with no problem. Between this and Cannibal Halfling I’ll be writing about 3000 words a week, not too shabby for a hobby I don’t get paid for.

Next week I’ll have my first check-in, and some reflections about this new story I’m going to hopefully start creating.

Fiction Writing, roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Aliens

In perhaps a sign that my gaming ideas have gone even further off the reservation than usual, I have begun thinking about ideas that would let me set a future RPG campaign on an alien planet. The most significant of these ideas is of a native and sapient alien species the characters would interact with. Aliens are something that shows up in science fiction all the time, but most of the legacy of popular depictions of aliens is rather poor, ranging from exaggerated cultural stereotypes (Star Trek) to under-considered biology (Star Trek) to a lack of consideration of external elements (also Star Trek). In writing something new I want to avoid this, while also bringing something to my game that would not exist if the inhabitants were just humans.

Perhaps one of the best depictions of alien life in my own recent memory comes from the PC game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The two dominant forms of life on the planet are a red fungus and psionic worms. While the aliens are not thought to be sapient at first, you discover through the game that these flora and fauna form a planet-wide neural net, taking the Gaia hypothesis to its logical extreme. Why Alpha Centauri succeeds so well with this is that these aliens are both believable and also utterly, truly alien. This also made the introduction of a more run of the mill bipedal species in the game’s expansion somewhat underwhelming.

The Alpha Centauri example shows that you can make truly new and weird aliens, but you have to remember that the sort of interactions that your characters will have with these aliens will not represent communication or diplomacy in the conventional sense. If you want to create alien life that organizes itself like humans do (and are not, say, a fungus), you run into more limitations. The key is to slot in somewhere between “psionic fungus” and “humans with latex head ridges.”.

Let’s assume that you want to include intelligent aliens. Intelligence evolves in a set of narrow circumstances, so while “humans with latex head ridges” is an unrealistic paradigm, giant insects or lizard people are not necessarily better. This is the one failing in the Alpha Centauri example…it’s not clear why the worms and fungus evolved psionic abilities. The worms make a bit of sense, as they produce terror in their prey…but it’s still odd. The focus on these more interesting flora and fauna also left the planet devoid of an ecosystem that let you understand exactly what the worms were either eating or defending themselves against.

Ecosystems imply the setting against which intelligence develops, so thinking about set and setting of your alien world helps establish what your species will look like. Human evolutionary biology, likewise, provides some key examples of what circumstances make intelligence beneficial, and therefore will help a species evolve to become sapient. Now, humans evolved from an ape-like species that were opportunistic feeders. Tool use came from many theorized places, including the ability to break the bones of kills picked clean and eat bone marrow. This kind of scattershot diet helps explain why intelligence was a favored trait, because advanced memory and the capacity for logic would help pre-humans find food that they couldn’t compete for with either predators (who were larger and stronger) or scavengers (who were faster and sometimes could fly). Feeding isn’t the only reason intelligence would be a favored trait, but it’s a strong one in a relatively short list. When you consider the number of behaviors that do not require sapience, the only things likely to make it an evolutionary benefit require actual thinking about a large number of discrete scenarios, specifically ones which instincts are unlikely to prepare you for. In general, situations of stress (food or water scarcity, intelligent and/or large predators, rapidly shifting or dangerous weather) are more likely to favor intelligence. Once again, though, it’s important that the threat is a dynamic one…if the main threat is and always will be a lion, evolving the ability to run really fast is more likely than evolving intelligence.

So after self-awareness comes language. Once again, while many animals have the ability to communicate, language is, whether written, spoken, or something else entirely, a construct that can expand to fit emergent concepts as they come up. As such, I honestly believe it goes hand in hand with sapience, along with other interpretive media like visual and sculptural art. Of course, how this actually works is likely to change a lot in differing environments. You want to make things really weird, look at ancient sculpture and note what parts are exaggerated. Think of what an alien would look like and think about what they’d exaggerate in their sculpture. This is the point where we start to leave evolution and get into anthropology, and this is where it gets interesting.

So form follows function when talking about the body. Humans developed cooking as their primary way to prepare food because it saved a lot of time…prior to the presence of fire as a common technology, humans chewed. A lot. This constant chewing made eating a much more involved and significant activity than it is now. That said, cooking doesn’t have to be the primary mode of food preparation. Imagine a species who prepared their food with acid…basically an entire culinary framework built on ceviche, if that helps make it more logical. They’d likely be from a biome where fire is less important (i.e. where it’s warmer), and they’d likely have significantly more gut bacteria, as acid-denaturing food doesn’t kill as much bacteria as cooking it. This would be truly odd from a human perspective, but based on what cooking actually got us (less time chewing), it could have happened and may happen on another planet.

Then, let’s mess with a few other things. Let’s say the two eyes are arranged vertically on the species’ head, and that sexual attraction is based on scent instead of sight. In both of these cases, the changes would result in something quite alien, but they don’t stray too far from normal biology for good reasons. In the case of eyes, there’s likely not that much of an advantage for more than two eyes, and interesting organs like insectoid segmented eyes would be very difficult in a human-sized form (and the aliens would likely be a similar size if they’re also evolving from opportunistic predecessors…too small and they’d be vulnerable and have small brains, too large and the square-cube law makes it hard to get enough blood to a proportionally necessary brain). Similarly, sexual reproduction can nearly be assumed, as sporing or other asexual means are unlikely to produce the genetic variation necessary for sapience to arise. Also, despite the number of times it shows up in science fiction novels, more than two biological sexes are highly unlikely simply because each additional sex reduces the probability of a successful mating significantly.

So there are constraints. An alien race is likely to be a similar size as us, reproduce sexually and have a varied diet. That said, they may not be symmetrical in the same way we are, their physical manipulators could be quite different, and the presence and attitude towards hair or even chitin could be varied. And it’s worth noting these assumptions all stem from a planet which humans could colonize… there may be intelligent aliens on a world with an atmosphere that’s 15% ammonia, but if humans can never go there it makes this exercise a tad less necessary.

Ultimately, alien species introduce interesting story opportunities when they get to clash with humans. On a planet that can support both, another species could be competitor or collaborator. And knowing how humans have treated each other in the past, it could get quite nasty. But all of this makes for some great story potential.

Fiction Writing

Fiction difficulties

So my rewrite of Fratricide got caught in its own lack of internal logic, and I couldn’t bring myself back to rewrite the rewrite. As it was, I wasn’t spending any time writing what I liked best about that story, nor did I think the plot did it any favors.

I like the idea of writing around a topic and maybe getting somewhere. I’ve done it in the past, maybe even on this site, and it has helped me poke at specific topics in a couple thousand words or so. It’s not a strategy that works for fiction. If I’m writing fiction that explores a topic, it needs to be planned a bit. That’s at least one reason allegory is so popular.

And then on the other hand, I’ve been continually entranced by magical realism and new approaches to fantasy. I mentioned offhand a while ago how taken I was with the games Oxenfree and Kentucky Route Zero, which are both grounded in this sort of genre: magical realism is, from a literary perspective, grounded or realistic fiction taking place in a world with fantastical or otherworldly elements. Both of these games fit the description: Oxenfree is about a group of teenagers on an overnight trip to a coastal island beach…and then things from beyond get involved. Kentucky Route Zero is about rural decline and an old truck driver’s last delivery…along an otherworldly underground highway.

If this sounds like I’m getting an idea…well, you’d be right. That said, man, is this thing tough. One of the things that drove me away from fantasy after my initial voracious consumption in middle school was that there was always something about it that was hard to take seriously. Usually, grandiosity was at least part of it…thanks to Tolkien (and yes, to D&D), modern fantasy has often been stuck on saving the world. While Harry Potter is tightly written and clearly very popular, it still does beg the question: why does it have to spiral up to saving the world from a tyrant? The series takes place in a school for wizards…I could list plot hooks and world beats in that setting until I retired, if I wanted to.

So I still want to write something small, but in a different sort of universe. I do have a few thoughts, but they’re all over the place. I also have some established characters, a few wacko ideas, and a little bit of speculative nonsense. So maybe it’s time to write, instead of write about writing or think about writing or all these other things that aren’t writing. I know the parts I have fun with, so let’s start with those and shake out the rest from there.

Fiction Writing

Free time writer

Words written/total: 838/4382

I’ve noticed that my first couple days of pounding out 1500 words in one sitting are remarkably difficult to replicate. Now, 700-800 words is still what I’d call a good writing night, so realistically my momentum has not faltered, merely slowed. And I need to keep telling myself this…even when I have the occasional flame-out or 200-300 word day where I can’t slog through whatever I’m working on, it isn’t the end of the world. Inspiration comes and goes.

This has been a formative bit of writing for me, for a few reasons. First of all, it requires going back to my old drafts and notes, reading through a lot of things multiple times, and thinking about how things are changing. Second, I’m still going by my old watermark for progress: the first 10,000 words are the real trial. Once you have 10,000 words of a single project, expository groundwork is essentially over and the writing should be easier to continue.

While I kind of flailed about while trying to do it, I can now look back and say that outlining is a fantastic idea. I was taught outlining for many different kinds of projects when in school, and promptly forgot about it for all but the most research-intensive and technical projects I wrote for both school and work (though a grading rubric usually doubles as an outline for anything resembling a paper in an engineering program, so I still avoided actually writing many outlines). Now that I’ve actually done one for a fictional project, I can see how immensely helpful it is. That said, I started to stray from the outline in my writing last night, and latter sections of the book are just blank spots in the outline. Outlines are more useful when you realize they aren’t set in stone, and in fact changing them helps you organize your thoughts and see what’s missing even as you alter the story.

Anyways. While the initial furor has worn off, and post-vacation inertia has set in, I’m still writing. I have a mild goal to reach that 10,000 word mark by the end of August, but I have no idea if real life will cooperate. Nothing wrong with taking everything a day at a time.

Fiction Writing

Back on the wagon

Words written/total: 737/3544

I have managed to get back into writing after my vacation, despite both post-trip fatigue and the looming of yet another story idea that I came up with while down at Pennsic. That one I’ll outline later, but for now the focus is on what I’m currently working on.

There are two problems I’m noticing in writing this first part of the rewrite. First is the issue of author versus reader knowledge. Now that I’ve been working on this story, I need to remember that this slate is completely blank, and as such the readers don’t know anything unless I write it. Ultimately this won’t be entirely resolved until an editing pass, but it’s a little annoying while writing exposition.

The second issue is also tied to exposition, and it’s the difference between exposition and infodump. I’m introducing the characters early, at this point there have been four characters introduced over about the first 5% of the book or so. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean I need to take care to differentiate the characters and make it clear what’s going on. At the same time, stopping and just spitting out a bunch of information tends to be, for lack of a better term, bad writing. Some writers can get away with it (some, like Neal Stephenson, are even good at it), but generally it should be avoided. In a story like this one which doesn’t take place in a fantastic setting of any sort, it’s also highly unnecessary, and can be replaced with more nuanced description. Showing and not telling, as it were.

This bit introducing Melissa will likely need some attention later, even without seeing the word count it feels a little thin. That said, until I write more of her future appearances, I’m not entirely sure what else I’m going to need to add. Even the next scene where she shows up, one or two scenes after the one I just wrote, may provide more anchoring context.

Over the next few days I’m going to hopefully push out some more word count, though I’ll have to see how my schedule works with that goal. Once I’m back at the office, though, I’ll probably be much closer to a productive mindset.

Fiction Writing

Pre-vacation work

Words written/total: 1444/2813

One thing that is difficult to do, and that I may need to work on, is writing your characters lying to each other. There are major things in the story that are revealed later, but until they are revealed there is at least one character directly lying about them. When you the author know, it’s a challenge to write the character who doesn’t know…but also to write the character who does, and figure out how they’d cover it up.

The other big challenge I had in this bit of exposition was introducing the iconoclastic Lance Deckard. In the first draft, Lance comes to Scott’s door and puts a gun to his head. On one hand, it’s the best way to introduce Lance: uncharacteristically sure of himself, risk-seeking, and loving to make a scene. On the other hand, the entire set-up there is suspect at best and utterly ridiculous at worst. I’ve changed things around, and now you meet Lance at the first day of his new job. Is Lance going to be sociopathic ol’ Lance when he’s meeting his boss for the first time? Well, no. So Scott is meeting a more buttoned-up version of Lance who lets his hair down (or up, as it were) more slowly. I’ve started to peel back the layers, and it is starting to feel like Lance…but at the same time I don’t feel like it’s as strong a first impression. After this draft I’m going to need to figure out where the balance between the realistic and the ludicrous lies.

In addition to this writing, I’m going to continue outlining before leaving this evening. My hope is that I push through a Pennsic-shaped writing break by having tons of ideas, and doing some sketching and writing long-hand while I’m there. The middle of the story is still a little sparse, outline-wise, but I’ve been making a lot of progress compared to where I was even on Wednesday. I’ve also spent some time writing a bit of content so the blog doesn’t go completely fallow while I’m gone.