Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I Want to Write Like... (A Guest Post by Cas Webb)

As you may have noticed, there was no blog entry last week. While I'm gearing up for my trip to Odyssey Writing Workshop (and while I'm there toiling away), my schedule may be a little irregular. Posts will always go up on Wednesdays, but I may miss a week here or there.

And starting today, I've decided to open up the blog to guest posts so I can devote all of my energy to Odyssey. Writer and artist Cas Webb is kicking things off with today's entry. A big thanks to Cas for stopping by. Be sure and visit her site if you enjoy her post.

~ J.W.

I want to write like . . .

by Cas Webb

Last week I happened across a library flyer that announced Kate Forsyth was coming to town. After sitting up till midnight devouring her latest work I am still only a small chunk into ‘The Wild Girl’ and I can’t stop saying wow. I write fantasy, very often set in a medieval world where there needs to be some description of places readers have never been to, kings and queens and distant royal family. As I read passages from Kate’s work I am loving the way she is doing all of these things.

So who do you want to write like?

Now let’s get technical. I want to break down a passage of Kate’s work. Here she introduces a large family of 6 and gives them all personalities in a short paragraph. As a writer I can look up to her work, learn from it and grow. In my book via blog my protagonist befriends a family of 7 children.

From page 16-17 of ‘The Wild Girl’

In the glow of the lamp, she saw two young men, both thin and dark and shabbily dressed. The elder of the two had a straight face, with straight hair hanging past his ears. The younger was the more handsome with pale skin, hollow cheeks and wavy dark curls…
 … Ferdinand said. He was the fourth of the five Grimm sons, seventeen years old, with the families dark hair and thin, sensitive face.
‘I guess he’s changed his mind,’ Jakob replied drily.
 ‘Do they march against Austria?’ eighteen-year-old Karl demanded.
‘I suppose it was to be expected,’ nineteen-year-old Whilhelm said. 
…Ludwig asked. At fifteen, he was the youngest Grimm brother and three years older than Lotte.

As you can see I have edited out a bit. But essentially we’re given this over two half pages.

In contrast I’ve grabbed an extract from my current book via blog, NEW. Here’s how my readers are introduced to the Meadowsblade family.

“Kemla, these are my children. Laura and Remy yu’ve already met,” Sara explains pointing to the two youths that were in the yard grooming horses earlier. 
With a smile the two nod and take seats opposite Sara and I.
My gaze remains locked on the two men.
“The little one’s Alex.”  The baby giggles at the mention of his name and the twins also take seats on the opposite side of the table. “The twins names are Zara and Zoe.” 
“Don’t worry if y’ can’t tell them apart, they never leave each others side anyway,” Laura laughs. 
The twins give her angry stares, but offer warm smiles in my direction. 
“And I apologise for my over defensive boys,” Sara starts. 
“Hello, my name’s Wilf,” the younger boy smiles, letting his arm fall away from his sword. I examine his smile carefully - it doesn’t seem to harbor any malice or false pretences. Wilf walks around the table and extends his hand. 
...The last person, the eldest with striking dark eyes and he’s almost a head taller than I am. I’d have to use the table to my advantage. The room’s quite crowded now, would he risk drawing his sword? I’m at an advantage with my dagger. My racing heart doesn’t agree with me. 
He walks around the table. Kicking my pulse into a quicker rhythm. I’d step back, but backwards is a cowards direction, so I force my feet to stay put. 
“Orin,” he extends his hand.

The main difference is that Kate’s extract is in third person from the perspective of Dortchen. The extract from my work is in tight first person. And I realized only as I was thinking about writing this piece that the main flaw of a tight first person perspective is that EVERYTHING my reader discovers essentially must be told to my main character in some way if it is not existing knowledge for my main character. So I’ve discovered that after my first few chapters when my reader knows everything about my characters current situation and something dramatic has happened to change that situation I need to create a lot of opportunities for dialogue for my story to move forwards.

This insight only came to me as I was thinking critically about my work and consciously trying to learn from the achievements of others. What can you learn from your favorite writer? What can you learn from the excerpts above?

I guess another way we can view this is by saying, ‘I want my work to read like . . .’

When someone new reads our work what level of imagery or poetry or elegance do we want them to be elevated to?

I’d like to leave you with a writing prompt. Grab a character, your own or one you love, and introduce them to a family of six in less than a page.


Cas Webb
of and

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Deflector Shields

This post (and many this month) will be a little shorter than my usual fare, as I'm devoting an increasing amount of time to preparation for my trip to Odyssey Writing Workshop. Speaking of which, I still have a few spots left for guest bloggers while I'm gone, so take a look at that link if you're interested. Sadly, this will likely be the last Speculative Fiction Tropes entry until I get back.

Deflector shields are not only one of the oldest tropes in sci-fi, but they've become synonymous with space opera. The use of energy-based shielding can get a story around a number of problems that arise in a setting with lots of space travel, from the danger of micrometeoroids penetrating the hull of the ship to the harsh radiation of space that might otherwise cook the crew. In addition, if your ship's combat defense systems are primarily dependent on these shields, you have a dramatic element already built-in when it comes time for a little ship to ship warfare. This is something that every incarnation of Star Trek has taken great advantage of over the years. Everyone say it with me now: "Raise shields!"

Now, this is the part of the article where I usually look as far back into history and mythology as I can to find the roots and early examples of the trope under discussion. And I know what you're thinking. "You'd have to be stretching on this one, Alden. This trope is about as pure a product of modern genre fiction as you can possibly get. There couldn't have been any deflector shields in the epics of yore."

And if that is what you're thinking, I find your lack of faith disturbing. Clearly, you've underestimated my nerdry. And more importantly, you've clearly never heard of Svalinn. In Norse mythology, Svalinn was the magical shield that stood between Sol and the nine worlds, protecting them from the destructive rays of the sun. According to Grímnismál, of the Poetic Edda, were it not for Svalinn, "mountains and sea would be set in flames." Of course, it's hard to read those ancient descriptions of Svalinn without drawing a connection to Earth's magnetic field and ozone layer, which protect us from solar wind and ultraviolet radiation, respectively. In many ways, these components of the atmosphere are Earth's personal deflector shield, and we'd all be toast without them. So thanks, Svalinn. 

It's difficult to point out the earliest use of the trope in modern fiction, however. Many early authors of science fiction used concepts similar to the deflector shield, from Isaac Asimov to E.E. "Doc" Smith. But the first use may have been a novel called The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. In this classic sci-fi/horror tale about a future in which the sun has gone dark (written at a time when we knew far less about the lifespan of stars), Hodgson describes a great pyramid called The Last Redoubt. The enormous city is surrounded by an "air clog"—a circle of energy that protects it from the unspeakable creatures lurking in the darkness outside.

Regardless of who made it there first, deflector shields have become one of the most common tropes at work in science fiction. And considering we're doing our damnedest to make this trope a reality, I don't think we've heard the last of it anytime soon.

Recommended Reading:
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Recommended Viewing:
Star Trek
Star Wars
Independence Day

Recommended Gaming:
FTL: Faster Than Light
Mass Effect

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

IWSG: Relax

This post (and many this month) will be a little shorter than my usual fare, as I'm devoting an increasing amount of time to preparation for my trip to Odyssey Writing Workshop. Speaking of which, I'm still looking for guest bloggers to avoid taking a blog hiatus while I'm gone, so take a look at that link if you're interested.

Meanwhile, it's the first Wednesday of May, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote comes from an author who's work has won or been nominated for practically every major industry award in speculative fiction, from the Hugo to the Bram Stoker to the World Fantasy Award. His most well known work is undoubtedly The Hyperion Cantos, which is currently being adapted to film by Warner Bros. I'm talking about American author Dan Simmons, who observed the following about the odd flavor of burnout that writers tend to experience:

"It's one of the strangest attributes of this profession that when we writers get exhausted writing one thing, we relax by writing another."

As the reality of my Odyssey acceptance begins to sink in, burnout is something I've been thinking a lot about. By all reports from past graduates, I've got an enormous amount of work ahead of me. By the end of that six weeks, I'll probably be exhausted. But I'll mostly be pumping out new material while I'm there, so as tiring as it might be, that exhilarating feeling of creating something new will most likely never leave, and I imagine I'll be very grateful for that.

Of course, I'm no stranger to that feeling of exhaustion that long ventures into the written word can bring. It most likely played a part in the failed novels of my early writing exploits. Most of us experience this from time to time, especially when it comes to longer works. And though part of me is glad I never finished those novels because I've improved by leaps and bounds as a writer since then, another large part of me wonders what might have happened if I'd just taken a little break to work on something else for a while. I wonder if I'd have two completed novels to my name?

I'll never know the answer to that question, but having since experienced the rejuvenation that Dan Simmons is referring to in this quote with other projects, I know it's something I'll be trying the next time burnout rears its ugly head. And if you find yourself in a similar situation (and considering the A to Z Challenge just ended, some of you probably are), why not give it a try? Instead of giving up on that novel because of an exhausting "block," try relaxing for a change. Take a break and work on a short story, or perhaps a flash piece. Experiment a little. One short trip into another world might be all the cure you need for the burnout blues.