Second Star to the Right | Episode 2

The Olympus Mons space elevator. Source.
The Olympus Mons space elevator. Source.


Picking up where last we left off, Old Ronin, Marynia, Amara, and Titus return from the unexpectedly messy egohunting gig with a cortical stack and a freshly decapitated corpse.

There, the rest of Lockdown is introduced, and they quickly find themselves the recipients of a novel new job: a woman, calling herself only “Black Hilda,” needs an escort to the space elevator rooted in Olympus Mons. She offers generous payment for Lockdown’s services.

The reasons for her generosity, however, become evident as the journey to Olympus quickly becomes a life or death affair…

The Cast

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Throne of Glass

One of the headiest responsibilities that a writer has—especially a speculative fiction writer—is the responsibility to create a grounded, coherent, and believable world in which to set the story. Speaking just for myself, this is a huge fucking pain in the ass. And I have immense respect for people who can pull it off seamlessly.

I recently finished the audiobook of Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. For the most part, I enjoyed it. However, there was one major thing that drastically reduced my suspension of disbelief.

This is going to contain mild spoilers for Throne, so, you know. Caveat lector.

My beef stems from one of the fundamental aspects of the plot: there are mysterious murders taking place throughout the castle. The perpetrator is unknown, and the method is heinous. One corpse is described as having been torn to ribbons. Later, more detailed descriptions are offered: every corpse’s entrails have been removed. Same with the brain. The victims have been gutted as thoroughly as possible.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem like any cause for alarm for the characters. The murders remain a footnote—a footnote with its brains removed and its guts scooped out—for the majority of the novel. The characters instead invest their focus in the ongoing competition, in romantic banter, and in courtly intrigue.

I should think that the entire castle would be in raw panic after the second disemboweled corpse showed up in a low-traffic castle hallway.

This disconnect—between the brutal nature of the murders and the cavalier response of the protagonists—did horrible things to my capacity to buy into the world of the story. It really highlighted how important it is for characters to respond sensibly and realistically to other characters and events—it maintains that verisimilitude, that veneer of reality for the character. It’s that waking dream aspect of stories: as soon as you can detect that something is off, everything is boned. No matter how totally rad the rest of it is, there’s still that strike against reality itself.

So make sure your characters act like people. It’ll help things turn out for the best.

How about you lot? Is there anything that just completely removes you from a story when you see it? Share it in the comments!

New Year’s Resomolutions

A January calendar pageHappy New Year! I’m back! Things got a little nuts there around the holidays, and I had to let this blog fall by the wayside for a bit. What can I say? It was my first year regularly blogging and I didn’t have any idea that the merriment (and also the fracas at my day job) would have such an impact.

For this, I apologize.

However! I am back, and determined to return to regularly scheduled programming. I am also quietly amazed that Feral Wordmonger is now fully one year old. It doesn’t seem like it started off that long ago.

So far as I can tell, it’s basically traditional to discuss new year’s resolutions ‘round about the start of January, if for no other reason than it’s seasonally appropriate. But I’ve really only got one resolution for this year:

Do something writing-related every day.

I’m tracking this resolution by marking off each day I fulfill this goal on my brand new 2016 Taylor Swift calendar. You might think I’m joking about having purchased a Taylor Swift calendar. Those of you who have been around her for a while know that I’m not.

Or am I.

In some ways, I’m being pretty lenient about what is considered “writing related.” All I gotta do is one or two sentences—whether it’s an outline, a story, a novel, doesn’t matter. Or I can edit something I’ve already written. Or type something that I wrote longhand (during which I typically edit, anyway). Or I can help edit something one of my friends has written, or submit something for publication. Or, if the best thing on that day for my writing is to recharge the creative batteries by getting extra sleep or watching a movie or reading a book or spending time with the fam, that’s cool, too.

I’m hoping to have “rest days” be few and far between, though. I’ve heard enough times from enough people that inspiration isn’t exactly reliable. There are times when you just gotta put pen to paper or fingers to keys and hope it all works out.

Interestingly, I don’t think reading, of itself, will count towards a check mark for a day. I read plenty of my own accord—mostly in audiobook format, so it’s more listening, but at that point we’re getting into semantics. I am consuming bookstuff every day, sure, but I feel that reading books is to writing like breathing is to living: if you’re not doing the first regularly, you’re going to kinda suck at the second.

The whole idea stemmed from an episode of Game Grumps (as many things in my life do). Specifically, it comes from episode 94 of their Pokemon FireRed playthrough, where they talk about an idea that Danny called “not breaking the chain.” It’s a simple concept, and it just means doing something each day, maintaining a chain of days where you have worked toward your goal. And you do your absolute damndest to not break that chain.

So that’s my resolution for 2016: to do something writing-related every day and not break the chain.

How about you guys? Any resomolutions? PUT ‘EM IN THE COMMENTS.

Series, Spies, and Dirigibles

The Waistcoats & Weaponry audiobook cover

I can’t say that it was by accident that I purchased the audiobook of Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger. It wasn’t like I was under the influence of anything aside from sheer booklust inflamed by an Audible two-for-one sale. But I will admit that I didn’t look too terribly closely. If I had, I would have noticed one very important fact.

Waistcoats & Weaponry is not, in point of fact, the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series.

It is the third.

I am positively loath to jump in right in the middle of a series, but I was fresh off listening to an audiobook of the collected works of HP Lovecraft and found myself in dire need of something a bit… Lighter. Both in tone and vocabulary.

I adore Lovecraft, but I can only really remember what “gibbous” means about half the time.

So I went and downloaded Waistcoats & Weaponry, preparing myself for the distinct possibility that I would be completely and utterly lost within moments of beginning the book.

But something really quite remarkable happened. Not only was I not lost, but I absolutely fell in love with W&W. And just a tiny bit, by extension, with its author. But not in a creepy way! More in a “wow I really really want to write like you” way. Which I feel is the highest possible compliment that a writer can pay anyone, so I tend to employ it sparingly.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out how exactly I was able to move so smoothly into the dead center of a book series like that. And all I can reckon is that I was able to follow along because the narrative moved forward just as confidently as the heroine herself. It did not take long to become familiar with Sophronia and her friends Dimity, Sidheag, and Soap. Viscount Mersey, when he arrived, quickly became a comfortable presence, and becoming accustomed to the quirky inhabitants of the dirigible-borne finishing school on which the story begins felt effortless.

Part of this, I expect, is due to the fact that Sophronia—the heroine and point of view character—is in the midst of being specifically trained to be an intelligencer, which may now be my absolute favorite word for “spy.” As a consequence, she’s permitted, in-universe, to be very good at reading people and handling information. Sophronia freely shares with the reader everything she knows and learns, and the initial scenes are full of a great deal of humor and wit. On top of being entertaining, those initial scenes take their time, demonstrating all the little useful details the reader needs to know about the main characters (such as Sophronia’s stunning capacity to dissemble, or Sidheag’s stoicism, or Dimity’s tendency to faint at the first sign of blood). The “supernaturals,” “mechanicals,” and “Picklemen” are all introduced in due time, and never before they become necessary to the story.

Add to the above that mentions of adventures from previous books are kept brief and are always couched within the context of what’s happening in the world of the story, and I never found myself feeling lost, rudely exposited at, or otherwise out of place.

So, those are my thoughts on why W&W managed to read so well for me despite being right smack dab in the middle of a series. How about you lot? Have any of you ever accidentally stumbled into the middle of a series and found yourself pleasantly surprised at not being lost? What did the author do that kept you from feeling lost, do you think? Share in the comments! And in the meantime, watch this totally awesome music video made for the Finishing School series because holy crap a book series got a music video how did that happen.

Missives from the Word Mines – Rise of the Beta Reader

If I’m going to be honest, this NaNoWriMo has been a bit of a bust. Not a total failure, by any means—I have an additional seven thousand words that I would not have otherwise written—but it was certainly not the glorious return to my fighting fit from March and April that I was hoping for.

One terrifically intriguing thing has arisen from this NaNoWriMo, however. Two of my friends have completed novels, as of relatively recently. Being of the generally attentive sort, I have been invited to give both novels a read and provide any input I may have regarding… Well, basically anything. Structure, characterization, worldbuilding, whether using that much lube is wasteful, etc.

Historically, beta reading has been a difficult task for me. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. It’s mostly a reluctance to level the full, scorching force of my critical gaze—a merciless thing, much like the Eye of Sauron, or like Nyarlathotep’s manifestation as the Three-Lobed Burning Eye—on something written by someone who I know and rather like. And believe me, I do have to rather like a person to agree to beta read for them. It’s simply not worth the effort, otherwise.

I feel like it’s becoming easier, though, as time goes on. I’ve been making decent headway on one of the two novels that I mentioned, and I like to imagine, in the wee hours of the morning, that I am helping that manuscript evolve in some small (or perhaps not so small) way. This may be due to the fact that a significant portion of my day job is copyediting official documents that damned well better be Goddamn slick when they go out to the customer, otherwise I have not fully earned my forthcoming pay packet. A few years of that will start to make a dent in even the most reticent of editors, once it becomes evident that people and relationships don’t simply self-destruct from something as relatively benign as commentary and copyediting.

So! That is the state of things for me. How about you lot? Anybody done beta reading before? How did you approach it? Were you The Wolf (my default setting), or did you find yourself being somewhat more merciful? Let me know in the comments! I’m dreadfully curious.

Missives from the Word Mines – NaNoWriMo Interrupted

Some of you may have noticed that there was no post last week! Sharp eye. I commend you. As it turns out, having a hernia repaired can throw a colossal spanner into the workings of your average week. Basically, I was knocked out with anesthesia right at 7:30 AM last Tuesday, the repair was done less than an hour later, and I was conscious/cognizant/freely urinating by about 11 AM, at which point the folks at the hospital let my dad drive me home.

And home was where I remained for the vast majority of the next week.

You’d think, with all that time just sitting around waiting for my flesh to knit back together, that I’d have gotten some kind of writing done. But nope, not really. Turns out that getting cut on really siphons out the creative juices. Also, painkillers aren’t exactly conducive to snappy, creative thinking. In point of fact, today is the most writing I’ve gotten done in the past week and a half, and it wasn’t even on my novel. It was on some random flash fic I got a false start on last Saturday before I had to take a very serious nap.

I always have at least one false start when I begin a flash fic. It seems to be a requirement.

Instead of writing, I’ve been engaged in a wide variety of bizarre, fiddly, often unnecessary and unproductive activities, such as:

Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos W poster
Nyarlathotep is a Japanese schoolgirl. That is not a joke. That is this anime. Source.
  • Reorganizing my Force of Will trading card collection by element and rarity
  • Watching the last seven or so episodes of Outlaw Star1
  • Organizing my backlog of unread comic books
  • Starting, completely unnecessarily, a new save game for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
  • Cataloging said comic book backlog to identify missing issues
  • Watching the entire season of Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos W
  • Sleeping like a man on a mission
  • Wondering where the hell the other episodes of God Eater are at
  • Forgetting to crouch instead of bend at the waist
  • Listening to/watching the Game Grumps

Any one of these could probably have been replaced with “writing a couple hundred words here and there,” but I was completely unprepared for how creatively bankrupt I’d be during my convalescence. I couldn’t summon a damned word. Even Saturday, when I finally tried, I gave up a couple hundred words in because I was about to fall asleep in the middle of Whataburger, which is probably a really horrible place to fall asleep in. Not that Whataburgers are particularly sketchy, it just seems ill-advised to fall asleep in fast food establishments in general.

So, naturally, I’m drastically behind on NaNoWriMo, and my creative faculties are still slow to spin up despite all the crazy media I ingested last week. But I’m hoping that I can make at least a bit more progress on my novel before the end of the month. Maybe the stuff I spent last week watching/reading will compost into rich, mulchy goodness whence more words for my novel (or the flash fic, I’m not picky) can spring.

How about you lot? How’s NaNoWriMo going? Anybody else run up against a big ol’ hiccup (surgical or otherwise)? Talk about it in the comments!

1 If you ever want to really, truly, definitively understand me as a creative person, you have to watch Outlaw Star. This is something that I realized in a painkiller-induced haze as I neared the conclusion of the series, which I have watched many, many times.

Missives from the Word Mines – NaNoWriMo Day 5

Posts this month are going to be on the short end of things. Almost all of my faculties are bent to the savage contest that is National Novel Writing Month. At the moment, I’ve got a Smith and Wesson aimed at my inner editor, and that’s got the bastard quiet. There’s no telling how long that’ll last, or whether my reserves of creative energy will hold up. But I’ll take what I can get while I can get it, god dammit.

At the moment, I’m lagging a bit behind. Not by much, and not without good reason. Wednesday evening was occupied, as my Wednesday evenings typically are, with D&D. I feel like this is part of feeding the beast, as it were.

I talked a bit earlier this year about all the media that I voraciously consumed during my two months of 1K-a-day writing, and I think that’s something that I’m going to need to realign on. I’m pulling a lot out of the creative reservoir, and a similar amount is gonna need to be poured back in. Which means music and podcasts and movies and video games and TV and all that good shit whenever I’m not writing or working or sleeping.

Pornography, as it turns out, only inspires certain types of creativity, none of which are useful for my purposes.

So, in brief? I’ve gotten a few lungfuls of bracing November air and my brain is sparking with the sprint of the first few days of the month. Feeling pretty good so far. Maybe I’ll win, maybe I won’t. But I’m gonna get a shitload of words.

How about all you other NaNos out there? How’s this first week working for you so far?

Eye of the Editor

A binder and notebook

As part of the warmup for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been going back over my efforts from previous years. I say “efforts,” but several years of non-winning NaNoWriMos have all coalesced into a single novel that I have discussed at great length in previous posts.

So what I’m actually trying to express is that I’ve been reviewing the novel that was born of those NaNoWriMos with an eye toward what I’m going to revise when I get a chance.

My first step was printing the whole beast of a novel out, hole-punching it, and stuffing it in a binder. This is because I have a damnable time reading stuff on a computer screen if I really want to dedicate significant amounts of processing time to it. My brain has been so thoroughly programmed by low-consequence, mass-produced Internet material that it has difficulty associating things on a fluorescent screen with stuff worthy of profound consideration.

That’s why I have to print things out to edit them.

And since I’ve printed the whole shebang out, it means that my scribbled thoughts on re-reading the novel takes place by hand in a notebook that I keep with the bound manuscript. The content of this notebook is divided into two sections: “Characters” and “Things That Need To Happen.”

“Characters” is pretty straightforward but is desperately necessary for this manuscript. I have a horrible habit of inventing whole human beings for one-shot purposes just to get me past The Most Recent Hurdle while I’m writing first drafts. This means that, during rewrites, I have to gather all these characters and figure out which ones I can combine or discard. This section of my notes has already been exceedingly helpful.

“Things That Need To Happen” is also dreadfully necessary, but for very different reasons. The first sixty percent or so of this novel will have to be rewritten altogether, because character relationships have changed drastically since the story was started back in, like, 2011. So “Things That Need To Happen” records events from the original draft that are absolutely necessary for the story to proceed the way it needs to. Despite the extremely neonatal nature of the novel, it already has some points akin to Stations of the Canon that need to be included in the future rewrite, otherwise everything from the 61% point forward falls apart.

I’m not quite halfway through the manuscript, at this juncture. I have no idea whether this two-pronged method I’ve described is actually going to pay off, or if the copious notes I’ve scribbled in my Yoobi notebook will just languish until I decide to torch the whole thing and take some other tack. My fondest hope is that I’ll be able to take the notes that I’ve written and the material I’ve already got, load it all into some service like Novlr, and fix everything up in such a way that it all makes some semblance of coherent sense from start to finish.

I suppose that, at that point, I’ll have a whole new horror to face: the inescapable necessity of peer review. Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m going to hand out copies to all my trusted writerly friends and find out what they think.

That, however, is a bridge that I will cross when I come to it. AND, if you have any advice for how to handle the first major round of revisions to a novel draft, leave it in the comments! God only knows I could use some.

NaNoWriMo is Coming

One of my cats delivered a message to me yesterday.

TK (AKA The Kid AKA Chubs AKA Chubby Goofums) heaved her considerable tabby bulk on to my couch as I reclined last night, watching the Game Grumps on my tablet. Upon accomplishing this incredible feat, she looked me square in the eye and said, in the voice of Peter S. Beagle cats everywhere:

“I am hungry. …Oh, and also NaNoWriMo is coming.”

And so the furious preparations for the golden November writing sprint have begun. I have already determined the novel that I will be working on—a ridiculously over-the-top fantasy tale that is equal parts anime and Tolkien (because basically everything novel-length that I write is equal parts anime and something else). I’ve had the outline for this one for quite a while. It’s a longer outline than the last one I took into the fray of the past few NaNoWriMos, and hopefully it will help me wander slightly less. It is not, however, the longest outline I’ve ever produced.

That honor belongs to a different project altogether, one that has squirmed and struggled betwixt different formats for longer than I care to remember. But that’s not important right now.

I have the project. I’m already about 16K in, but I won’t be counting those stumbling initial words toward my November total.

What about tools? Well, I’ve got Claudia, my trusty Chromebook, who saw me through two solid months of 1K a day writing earlier this year. And beyond that, I’ve also determined that I’m going to try out a new online writing application: Novlr. It’s in beta (so very beta that it doesn’t have a mechanism for creating character profiles yet, but here’s to hoping that shows up soon), but the experience on my Chromebook is very smooth, and the ability to chunk chapters means that there won’t be any late-game lag due to Google Docs suffocating under the heaps and heaps of words I have laid upon it.

If I’m feeling particularly industrious, and if Novlr smooths the way through November like I think it will, I may have to throw some money in the development team’s general direction. Because let’s face it: writing is hard. Making things up and writing them down is sweaty, gross, psyche-straining work. Anything that can lubricate that process, even a bit, is a welcome visitor.

So, I’ve got Clauda, and Novlr, and an outline for a project. The last thing I need for this to be a really productive November is some good writing music.

Luckily, I’ve got a pretty good selection for whatever tickles my fancy, and I can play it all using Enjoy Music Player on Claudia, which is a surprisingly robust music playing app for ChromeOS. I’ll probably be listening to the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children a great deal, along with music from the first season of Sword Art Online. There is also, of course, the soundtrack to The Last Story, which is one of the finest video game experiences that I have ever had the pleasure to experience. If all else fails, I have a collection of J-pop and movie soundtracks that I can default to. Some moments may call for music from Pacific Rim, for instance.

Now, if I wanted to be really good, I’d take a crack at completing the novel that I began earlier this year, in March and April. But I’d like to see how much headway can be made on this other project, first. It’s been languishing for a while, and it’s about time to play at being a literary Herbert West, seeing if I can resurrect the old beastie. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to do for a well, and I’m quite excited to actually put my hand to it.

So! Anyone else getting reading for NaNoWriMo? Whatcha doing to prepare? Let me know in the comments!

Fruit and Schisms

A cantaloupe
This image will make sense in context. Mostly.

We all know about the classic dichotomy identified by some fiction sommelier from ages past: there is Literary Fiction, and then there is Genre Fiction. One of them is brilliant and insightful and worthy of consideration as art, and the other one is the bookbinder’s equivalent of Two-Buck Chuck.

This is something that has always smelled like bullshit to me, so I largely ignore it. If I want plucky space lesbians and magical spears in my stories, that’s my own business, and anyone who tries to tell me that I’m wrong deserves an impromptu testicular exam from a torque wrench. Similarly, anyone who tries to tell you, for instance, that you’re wrong for wanting profound, real-world tragedy in your stories can also feel free to book an appointment with Torque Wrench, M.D.

Recently, though, I’ve seen deeper down the rabbit hole. It turns out that this shit is fractal, all the way to the bottom, with schisms from hell to breakfast. The one that has really come to my attention is a divide within the very fabric of the tenuous, ill-defined netherhell of Genre Fiction, where I pass my time quite happily with the aforementioned plucky space lesbians and magical spears.

This division is between Message Fiction and everything else.

I do have to say that this was only something I learned of due to the shenanigans of Certain Individuals regarding a Certain Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, neither of which I’m going to name here because if this blog gets fucking famous I want it to be because I’m a brilliant sonofabitch with incisive commentary, a scintillating turn of phrase, and a brilliant sense of humor, not because it gets legendarily shat on by said Certain Individuals.

So let’s start with a definition of terms. Message Fiction, as it turns out, is any kind of speculative fiction that has, at its heart, some kind of societal, political, or moral commentary—a message, whence it gets its name.

The flip side of the coin is what I’m going to refer to as Ray Gun Fiction, mostly because I can’t find a better or more convenient way to refer to it, and I’m using enough capital letters writing this as it is, so “All Other Genre Fiction Ever” is out of the question. Anyway, Ray Gun Fiction is all the speculative fiction that has, at its heart, only good, wholesome adventure to impart to its readers. None of that messy moral or political nonsense.

I said before that this shit is fractal. By which I mean that it repeats the established pattern at a lower level of organization. It’s drawing battle lines where there are no battle lines, just like with the Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction kerfuffle. The only perceptible difference is that the people drawing the line are from the Ray Gun Fiction side, which is a complete reversal of the typical Genre/Literary standoff (in that the people from the “entertainment” side are the ones being douchebags about it re: Message Fiction).

So here’s the thing. We’ve all eaten the fucking Fruit of Knowledge of Genre and Literature, right? It was probably a cantaloupe, or something. You get to college (undergrad, grad, doctoral, whatever) or you get an agent or you mail a story to a magazine and out of nowhere somebody shoves this goddamn cantaloupe in front of your face and they’re like “EAT IT OR I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL END YOUR FAMILY”

So you eat the cantaloupe, and suddenly you have the Knowledge contained within, and, like Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time, you behold the stark line between Genre and Literature, between escapism and profound thought. At that moment, the world is no longer full of Stories. You’re not in Eden anymore. You’re out on your ass, a fig leaf trying desperately and in vain to cover your crotch luggage, and you’re watching eldritch abominations with flaming swords close the gates behind you with a horrible, final CLANG, and in the whole world you know only that there is Literature and there is Genre, and never the twain shall meet.

That is bullshit. So you know what I say?

Fuck that cantaloupe.

Not literally. But if you’re into that sort of thing, I have an excellent Japanese comic I can recommend.

What I mean is, how about we sit back and put down our pitchforks and see that the world is full of just Stories, and that the only real distinction that exists is between Good Stories and Bad Stories. Because anything else is standing before Solomon going “HOKAY” and chopping the goddamn baby in half, leaving the beardy guy on the throne to go “holy shit you guys I wasn’t for serious.”

I don’t know about you lot, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have Conan the Barbarian in it, and I wouldn’t want a world that doesn’t have One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I sure as shit wouldn’t have anything to do with a world where Ender’s Game and Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr novels weren’t allowed to coexist.

So how about this: let’s all just love Stories and strive to tell good ones.

Deal? Deal.