Monday, July 30, 2012

A Whole New WOOOORLD

Hello Reader!  Welcome to the first of multiple blogposts on world-building.  What is world-building?  Click that link and you'll find out.  But a quick and dirty summary of the concept, is that sometimes in Syfy literature you've got such fantastical concepts that they wouldn't fit into the already present world around us.  So you have to build a whole new world around your concepts, justifying them, explaining them, giving them context so that the reader can feel immersed in your story.  And so you don't look like a damned fool for putting proton cannons in the 18th century.  Even if it's a really cool idea that the Revolutionary War was fought with laser guns.

George Washington vs Zombies, a movie I'd pay to see.

What's the essence of world-building?  In fantasy, there are certain rules to world-building that you can't really break.  Science and technology are scarce.  Men must have beards.  If they don't, they're either smarmy weasels or elves.  And swords have to be ubiquitous.  If you can, name them.  In science fiction, you've also got a set of rules.  Don't go outside the realm of science, otherwise you'll look really foolish.  You don't have to include aliens, but if you don't have them, have something scarier to take their place.  And set your story in the future, please.

These rules aren't followed all of the time, but if you pay attention you'll see them in full effect in almost every single Syfy story.  Why?  Who knows.  They'are archaic and extremely limiting.  I took a Screenplay class my last quarter in school, and it was very enlightening for several reasons.  But it was also extremely restrictive.  When going over my plot and my story - for that class I decided to adapt my novel into a screenplay - the TA of the class decided that I could not have the world that I had built.  It would simply be impossible to sell to an audience, much less producers who would be buying my work.

Sometimes I want to punch Syfy authors in the face.

In the year 3096, on Earth, you would expect a post-apocalyptic society that's torn apart by perpetual struggles for resources and plagued by disease.  Or a utopian civilization hellbent on keeping a lid on just how screwed up everything's become.  Neither idea is very appealing for a story, and not just because both are excruciatingly cliche.  They are also really unrealistic.  How many times did people like Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley warn us of our impending doom?  And it didn't happen.  Look at the Cold War.  Everyday, Americans were told that they could be blown off the face of the planet.  And it didn't happen.  Because it works, and it sells, Syfy authors give very little credit to humanity.

But look at us.  We've survived plagues, we've survived genocides, we've survived famine and wars and bloodshed and nuclear crises.  We are a hardy bunch, worse than cockroaches and more resilient than we expect.  So what if we did end up in a apocalyptic war against invading aliens who have superior technology, strength and numbers to us.  And instead of being utterly destroyed, we end up in a d├ętente.  The aliens, their plans and reasoning unknown to us, get a portion of humanity's land and in exchange they lay off the whole command and conquer bit.  So now, instead of a really droll and overdone plot about humanity FIGHTING BACK, you can have something far more nuanced and interesting: humanity struggling with peace.



I've basically revealed the bare bones of the world in my novel.  The wrathful Howlas invaded Earth around 2020, inciting a war that was only eventually stopped by the Decadent - the frightening use of a dozen well-placed H-bombs near the planets atmosphere, setting off a chain reaction that decimated the Howlas' forces.  Over the course of the next one thousand or so years, the Howlas and humanity's allies (Nymphs, and sometimes the Hyths) would clash with each other.  Halfway through that period, the Mags enter the fray, coming out of hiding to fight their ancient enemies the Howlas.  It all ends in the Fourth World War when the Howlas, the Mags, Humans and Nymphs all come to a stalemate.  From there on out it's an uneasy peace for 26 years, which is where the novel starts.

Now that's a world I'm interested in, and not just because I wrote it.  Seriously.  How does society function, when you've got a thousand years worth of cross-species intermingling going on?  Where do the basic functions of society like money, culture, holiday celebrations, education go from there?  How is segregation dealt with?  How is language dealt with?

Can humans and aliens fall in love?  Without the gross implications of alien sex?

I guess a really immediate way to relate to this kind of world is to look at Mass Effect.  Yes, the video game does have some elements of the whole "aliens are way better than humans and we're all just shitty shitheads who can't do shit", but overall it's a great portrayal of a society that has fully integrated - to the best of its ability - humans and aliens.  They have wars and they have drinks together.  They don't all speak the same languages, but they've all got the same problems - more or less.  So keep that in mind when you read the bit of world-building I try for here.  Let me know what you think in the comments!
            Residents of The Cliffs gathered along the enormous stone staircases and balconies, children flitting in and out of open apartment doors chasing each other with water pistols and handfuls of sand.  Each apartment was connected to the other through a complex web of tunnels that had been blasted into the stone.  Navigating them could take a lifetime, since very little technology was integrated into the city. 
            Laughter filled the air, one of the few times that the atmosphere was ever festive.  The Cliffs had been designed long ago as a welfare city for Atlantia, but the project had never been quite successful.  A din of music and various quartets vying for a simple coin or two to pay rent or worse mixed in with the general hustle and bustle.  Cars upon cars kept pulling up to the sandy sidewalks, dropping off families as the driver went off, looking for a half-decent spot to park, some of them yelling into cell phones, others yelling at the dog to stay in the car.
Branching off from the Speedway that ran throughout the country, a road led straight into a gorge bound by two cliff faces.  Etched into these monoliths were apartments and shops, an entire cityscape bustling with life.  The Cliffs, as the gorge was called, opened up onto a gorgeous harbor that was normally filled with small ships, rafts and surfers. 
            But today, the sandy shoreline was bursting with families rowdy teenagers who had come to see the Annual Water Exhibition held between Atlantia Upper School and its vicious rival Magna Boulevard Magnate.  The atmosphere was ferocious.  It was always warm in the Cliffs, as if the harbor was a trap for heat from the sun.  This seemed to elevate the tension that was already high between the rival teams, with even their mascots – a shark for Atlantia and a lion for Magna Boulevard – coming to blows.
Is the length too long?  I'm trying out this new thing where I end each blogpost with an excerpt.  Let me know in the comments!  Until Next Time Then!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Darth Vader is Your Daddy

Hello Reader!  As many of you have also done, I watched The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) this past Friday.  No, it isn't better than The Dark Knight (TDK).  And that has nothing to do with the merits of the stories themselves.  It has everything to do with the fact that Bane wasn't as good as the Joker.

Get it?  He's a dog that's chasing cars, so he sticks his head out of the window.

Now it's impossible to resurrect Heath Ledger's performance, and not because his acting prowess is untouchable.  It's just too hard to change everyone's minds about the caliber of his acting.  We've developed this sort of mythic idea about his performance, and Tom Hardy as Bane is just not capable of tearing down four years worth of mythmaking.  That being said, Bane is well-acted and Tom Hardy can emote with his eyes better than a lot of actors can with their whole face.

But Bane is still a one-note villain.  It's a really, really good note.  But he doesn't develop at all.  He starts off as this legend, and ends up as...well, that would be spoiling it.  Suffice to say, that his motivations never change throughout the movie.  All that changes are his origins.  Which isn't really developing a character, so much as fleshing him out.  And no, that doesn't count as a character arc.



The Joker had a character arc.  He began as a mad-man who was filling the mob's power vacuum, and transformed into a very literal agent of chaos.  Goals at the beginning of the film like robbing the mob, getting rid of Batman, morphed into a singular vendetta against everything that Batman personified.  He began with a yearning to kill the Bat, and instead ended up with a yearning to spiritually break him.  That's a wonderful antagonist, and a powerful character arc.  It speaks to the themes of the movie as a whole, and to a wider message.

Basically, the lesson from TDK is that your movie, your story is only as good as your villain.  That's why people remember Star Wars for Darth Vader and not just Luke Skywalker.  People remember the Godfather, because the hero became the villain.  When the villains themselves have an arc, when they change and grow, that's what really draws people in.  Gollum from LOTR is a riveting character because he changes and grows and learns.  His personality doesn't so much progress as regress, but that's still an arc.

What were all those buttons for anyways?

I'm not saying that one-note villains automatically make a movie bad.  The Lion King had Scar, and is considered a modern classic.  A lot of Disney movies are classics and they have one-note villains.  The Dark Knight Rises is an incredible film, a true achievement, and Bane is very one-note.  But for a film to be transcendant - of its genre, of Hollywood rules, of pop culture - then you have to have a villain who grows.  I truly believe that Star Wars, the Godfather, The Dark Knight, LOTR occupy their respective roles in our collective culture only because their villains grew and changed.

What does this have to do with my novel?  I think it's kind of obvious.  I want to create a villain that grows and changes.  If I talked about it, that would be spoiling the whole effect though, wouldn't it?  So how about a tease?  Check out this short segment and let me know what you think.  Yes, the character Tory Cross is the villain of the novel.  And yes, both of the characters here are Howlas, those bi-pedal wolves I talked about in my last post.
“I know someone from Howard’s family came here last night,” Tory sat down on a barstool, his huge frame crushing its cushion.
            “Who?” Jack asked innocently, as he turned on a spigot from the wall nearest him.  Steaming hot coffee poured out as Jack held a pot underneath.  He walked back to Tory, took one of the largest mugs and poured coffee for him. 
            “Crim.  Howard Crim, Jack.  My mentor?  My rabbi?  The one who brought me up from the streets, and is now deciding to stab me in the back.”  Tory reached to his hip and unclipped his gun. 
            Jack backed away immediately, his hands up in the air.  “Tory!  What are you doing?  Put your gun away, I won’t tolerate this in my shop!”
            Tory’s eyes flashed upwards, writhing flames of anger licking at his temples.  “Today is not the day to lie to me, Jack.”  He lazily brought out his gun from its holster.  “I’m a little groggy.  I might not kill you quickly.”
Now I want to watch the movie again.

It's not much, but then again why would you want to read an entire chapter here on a blog?  Hit up the comments section with any critiques.  Until next time then.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What's Your Novel About?

Hello Reader!  Every time I tell someone that I'm writing a novel, their very first question is "What's your novel about?"  And while this is a completely logical question to ask someone like me, a 21 year-old know-it-all with a hard science degree, it is also unsettlingly annoying.

They look just like this guy!!

I say unsettlingly because every person that asks me that question looks to me with this half-condescending, half-curious stare of pseudo-interest.  It's honestly very uncomfortable.  I usually stutter and spurt out a few trite words about the novel being science fiction, about a boy who learns that his father dies, etc.  And I never get the reaction every author hopes for, the indelible, "Oh my God, that's so interesting!"

Of course, the real reason why I'm so uncomfortable with the question may be that I can't explain the damn thing in one sentence.  This is a definite detriment to any and all of my attempts to market the novel.  I really need to get that down.

Proud parents can sometimes translate into embarrassed teenagers

But my own inequities do not negate the uncomfortable nature of explaining my novel to someone.  Especially when my novel includes magic powers, yellow, furry cat like aliens fighting a holy war against aliens who look like bi-pedal wolves, and tons of teenage angst.  All surrounded by really angry, ultra-violent gangsters (who just so happen to be some of those bi-pedal wolves) who are embroiled in class warfare against other, fellow bi-pedal wolves.

It's sort of like trying to sell your kid.  You know what I mean.  What exactly would your parents say about you?  I know my parents would stumble over my litany of extra-curriculars.  Heck, in the beginning of my collegiate career my major shifted from biology to chemistry and back on a weekly basis with them.  My point is that it's not easy to dilute into one sentence something that you put a lot of care and time into - more than nine years worth in my case.

Oof, my worst fear realized.

I'm not sure if my discomfort is shared by everyone.  It probably isn't shared by some of the true greats, or people who have "made it" as authors.  But since I refuse to be a whiny bitch, here's a crack at diluting The Proxy Wars: Dramatis Personae into one sentence:
A kid is given enormous powers and responsibilities but gets in over his head trying to use them to discover the origins of the laser gun, and why the group of gangsters who have been attacking him possess the new technology.
It's way more complicated than that one, somewhat run-on sentence lets on, but who am I to refuse agents and publishers what they want?  Let me know what you think.  Until Next Time Then.