Archive for April, 2016

Haiku, Part II

Posted: April 27, 2016 in Uncategorized

Okay, here are the answers you’ve been waiting for:

 

Won the lottery?

Get your Gateway tickets here!

Beware the black holes

This one is GATEWAY, by Fredrik Pohl, one of the first hard science fiction novels I recall reading, and he got me hooked. The problem with most hard science fiction writing was that the authors focused so much on the science that they took a top-down view and failed to engage us on a “well, how does that effect me and why should I care?” level. Pohl was one of those who created three-dimensional, sympathetic characters who brought the ideas down to practical earth. In the case of Gateway, that character is Robinette Broadhead, a man (yes, a man, and his issues with his own feminine name come out in his therapy, which comprises the whole of the novel with the story told mostly in flashback with ‘Bob’ on the couch) with many, many troubles and definitely a hero that proves winning the lottery isn’t the answer to all of your problems, but only the beginning, and piercing the Schwarzschild Barrier to get close to a black hole ruins everyone’s day. Pohl, despite having been a communist*, wrote some of my favorite stories, and brought humanity to an otherwise sterile world of hard science fiction.

 

They must have children

Now my body is not mine own

But saints need their sins

I trusted my older siblings (at least the ones who read) to give me good recommendations. By far, my brother David influenced my reading preferences the most, but my sister Chris came through for me with this one, THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood. This is feminist dystopian literature, and may not appeal to many men (or the idea of the heavy patriarchal society portrayed may be too appealing to some). Atwood takes us to a future where hard right Christians have taken over the country, or at least part of it, renamed it “Gilead” and made all women subservient to men–no more jobs, no more money, no more owning property. If you were the first and only wife of one of the top dogs, you got to stay in your house, but if you were married before, or the second wife of a divorced man, and young enough to reproduce, well, you got ripped from your home, trained  to be subservient and passed around to the barren households as a potentially fertile handmaid. (The barrenness and defects she never explained in full, but alluded was the result of radiation/pollution/etc.) You even got renamed, as the narrator of the story is Offred, as in “Of Fred”, so you couldn’t even own an identity. But as Offred discovers when she enters the world of the Commander, even those held to the highest ideals have the same primal desires as those they conquered. Being a Christian woman, and a female who grew up in the 80’s, I didn’t find it as controversial as proclaimed, especially because it reaffirmed what I always knew–all of us are sinners no matter how much we try to behave or pretend otherwise.

 

Snakebitten, alone

Surviving, rebuild the world

Soon even that fades

The first post-apocalypse novel to make me cry was EARTH ABIDES by George Stewart.  Yes, cry. I walked with Ish all the way through, from his trip where he got bitten by a snake that ultimately saved him from the deadly measles that only made him sick where it killed most everyone else until… well, I won’t spoil the story. Written in 1949, the book still feels fresh–in that despite all of our technological advances, all of that will mean nothing when society winds down after such a biological disaster.

 

Hot food and good fights

Okay, maybe my mare too

Watch out for demons!

 I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of my own stories as a favorite–I wrote it, after all, and what kind of author would I be if I didn’t like what I wrote? This is for “The Belly of the Beast“, by T. R. Neff. Moi. Ennid is a character that I enjoy sharing gray cells with, despite his being male and geared toward food and fighting. I got a very good piece of advice in writing once that you don’t write a character who is you, you write a character you would want to spend time with, and I could hang out with Ennid for a while. For one, he’s only described himself a little but the man I am picturing when I write him is the kind of guy I think is sexy. I wouldn’t mind watching him fight (being that I love MMA, part of my inspiration) but I wouldn’t want to be around him when the powers sweep into his life and involve him in their cosmic drama. And a very special horse like K’zirra? I’m more than a little jealous.

 

*Oddly enough, when Pohl’s communism came through in his stories, he ended up approaching it in such a way that either it 1) would convince you that capitalism wasn’t so bad after all or 2)pointed out some of the aspects of capitalism that we can ALL hate, like rampant, constant, ubiquitous and obnoxious product shilling. Also, someone with a little situational awareness, when reading my novel Umbra, may see the nod in this author’s direction.

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I found out through the the grapevine that earlier this week (or was it last week?) we had National Haiku Day. So, I’m a little late to the game, but decided to write a fee in honour of some of my favourite stories.

 

Won the lottery?

Get your Gateway tickets here!

Beware the black holes

 

They must have children

Now my body is not mine own

But saints need their sins

 

Snakebitten, alone

Surviving, rebuild the world

Soon even that fades

 

Hot food and good fights

Okay, maybe my mare too

Watch out for demons!

 

Think you can guess them? (Not that my poems do them justice)–I’ll have the answers next week.

Quite recently, a writer friend who comes to me for advice told me that he is glad I have standards. I laughed, but denied that the standards were necessarily mine. They’re not, in fact, but the culmination of millennia of oral tradition and tales of heroes. Good stories hit on touchpoints, on lows and highs as they run their characters through the wringers of conflict, and games of emotional tug-of-war.

Stories that are stories have a basic skeleton, or hangar upon which they hang. I can liken this to fashion design. At the minimum, stories consist of words strung into sentences, piled into paragraphs. Think of the words/paragraphs as the fabric. If you are making a dress, for example, you have to follow a certain format—essentially a long garment that covers some fraction of the torso with some type of bodice or halter, of varying lengths of beyond-the-ankles to just covering the crotch.1 That statement itself implies that even though there is a basic structure, the format can encompass many shapes subject only to the designer’s imagination.2 Fashion designers learn the basics of dress construction and then learn how to play with the rules and create bizarre monstrosities only appealing to Lady Gaga… but it’s still a dress. irisvanherpencapriole-0780-682x1024[1].jpg

The writer is no different. He must know the rules and know them well before he can break them.

What is the framework, or hangar, for a story? Well, they have to have beginnings, middles and ends. All good stories have them. But just having these does not a story make. I can tell you about my day, which begins with me waking up, brushing my teeth, continues to the middle where I have lunch (sometimes by myself and sometimes I go out with my co-workers), or the end where I brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that a story? Not really. Nothing exciting happens, nothing that would make anyone feel that their time wasn’t wasted by me relating nothing more than a series of events.

So what else does it need? I hinted at it already—something exciting. Let’s say that instead of waking up and continuing my routine as normal, I had to stop at the bank and on that very day, the bank was robbed while I was in it. That’s exciting, sure (not that I ever want that to happen while I am at the bank, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I was actually in one). But okay, there was a bank robbery and I was there.

The story needs something else. It needs something unexpected to happen. That element, if nothing else, can become the whole reason the story exists, the single point on which the whole story hangs. Let’s keep the above scenario and set it up. Say I am someone of strict routine, who is never late and never varies from that safe, comfortable routine. Only this morning I realized I forgot to deposit the paycheck in the bank and I wrote a check for the mortgage and mailed it yesterday, so if I don’t get funds in the account it will mess everything up. So I am irritated, because I’ve got to stop at the bank (which further messes up my routine and ticks me off even more), and then the customer in front of me is taking a while and leaning in to talk to a distraught-looking teller, and I just have to get moving, and when I vent my frustration uncharacteristically, the customer in front of me turns around just enough to show me his gun, and instead of running or screaming like a frightened little social justice snowflake at the sight of a firearm, I pick up the teller’s ten pound marble nameplate, whack the guy on the head and step over his unconscious body so I can deposit my check with the flabbergasted teller and get on my way.

Where does a story like that get started? It could start with the routine, to establish that I am a creature of habit who is likely to fly off the handle and do odd things when I experience disruptions, reiterating that the routine is tantamount to my happiness, and therefore the desire is to remain in it.3 It could start with my discovery of that item that changes the direction of my day. It has a middle where the tension builds as I come across the bank robber, which also lends itself to a hint at what the twist will be like—something going on with the money in the bank. It ends when I’ve dealt with him and taken steps to repair the normalcy I crave.

Plenty of writers and those who teach creative writing will tell me I am wrong, or I haven’t covered all of the criteria. That’s okay, we all have different ways of seeing the same thing. I will recommend several of these learned individuals who have published good frameworks for stories. They are:

  • Joseph Campbell’s works. Must-reads, all of them, for any writer.campbell-joseph-the-hero-with-a-thousand-faces[1].jpg
  • Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. Not so much for the characters, but the priceless section in the second half of the book on the Masculine (based heavily on Campbell) and Feminine Journeys.thN6LAS0EA.jpg
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Yes, it’s a book on screenwriting, but a quick, fun and informative read.save-the-cat[1].jpg

The last two especially have been priceless tools for me. I don’t necessarily write to their format, but when I’ve hit a slump or something feels like it’s missing in my story, I will hold up the scenes to their framework and I usually see that they are skewed to one end or the other (or both!) and ask myself if the “stages” they spell out lend any ideas to new scenes that would help tie the bookends together. I’ve never come away not having a new scene or two that move the story more coherently. Next time you write or read a story (or watch a movie) that seems to drag, or be too talky, or seems incoherent, it could be because it’s missing something from the framework that helps to make it a true story and not just a series of loosely-related or random events.

(By the way, years ago I ran my tied-for-first favorite movie of all time,4 The Road Warrior, through Schmidt’s/Campbell’s Masculine Journey and the story rocks it, dead on. Can’t get any better than that.)

1Originally I wanted to say that reached to the thighs but modern fashions have shortened the dress to some fairly revealing lengths… or not to length, as the case would be.

2I have to wonder from where some of their imaginations spring…

3For the record, I am not OCD. At least not most of the time. My closet is about the only place where I have standards. No wire hangers. Nothing but black hangers, all the same shape and size. Call me ‘hangerist’ if you like.

4What’s the other? Fury Road, of course. George Miller is a master director, and a lot can be learned about storytelling from him.

I’ve been far too long away from my entries, but my recent experiences with muzzleloaders merits a mention or two.

Among my myriad projects is the series I am planning and outlining based on the late American Colonial period, from the French and Indian War all the way up to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to write from experience–granted, I am NOT hoping that the world will collapse in an apocalypse so I can work through all of the situations I have and am putting Vera, Shaw and the rest of the Umbra crew through, but I’ve put plenty of r0unds through the firearms or similar arms that I mention in the novel.

So… working on Light of Liberty impressed upon me to fill a void. If I’m going to have Emory, Lucas and Seth setting the British Regulars in their (primitive) sights, I’m going to have to try this myself.

Luckily for me, I live very close to a few black powder enthusiasts, some willing to part with a little time and expertise with an author eager to listen and absorb.

The black powder beauty I got to fire was a 54 caliber double trigger model, similar to the one in the photograph:

Hawken54Cal

With proper instruction in the safety measures and steps to load and fire, I have to say I’ve got a much deeper appreciation for our Founding Fathers going through the steps to do so. All the accoutrement needed, like a full “possibles bag”, powder horns or flasks, cartridge boxes, the heft of the rifle itself could take a toll on men marching through the woods (not to mention their subsistence gear!). After all that, it was a bear to load up and fire.

Anyone who has fired modern weapons may not understand that loading and firing is a relatively simple set of actions. For flintlock, not so much. Some may say they’re simple, but there are a lot of them, and messing up a step is easy to do! For example, there is a tool for removing the ball just in case you forget to add the powder[1]. Adding too much/too little powder isn’t catastrophic, but wasteful, especially when you consider the value and difficulty in obtaining quantities of black powder.

And… it’s messy and stinky. VERY stinky. Along with any proper firearms instruction, there is a session on cleaning. Black powder firearms seem to get filthy quickly. By my fifth shot, ramming the ball and wadding home took a lot of shoulder-power to get it through the yuck that was filling up the lands and grooves[2]. Lit black powder is also quite corrosive, and a good firearm can be rendered wonky (that’s MY term) by even a short period of neglect. So cleaning is essentially. Those who couldn’t stop and clean their weapons often, such as Continental soldiers, might use smaller balls and slightly thicker wadding to compensate.

As my instructor put it, “One has to wonder how the Indians lost, considering how long it took for the militia and British regulars to reload.”

So again, I reiterate how much more respect I have for those who relied on these weapons, especially those who could load and fire 3-4 times a minute!

(In case you were wondering, I made a few decent shots at 100 yards, including on the line between the 10 and the X. Not bad for someone who never shot a black powder rifle before.)

[1] Shockingly enough, I did NOT do this, although I fully expected to do so after my instructor warned me that this could happen. Because, you know, that’s what happens.

[2] Lands and grooves make up the rifling that gives the rifle their names. If they don’t have rifling, they are smoothbores.