Friday, January 29, 2010

The Clog – Friday Flash Fiction

The Clog

After the dismantling of her husband Henry, Jude managed the best she could. For the last three months, everything fell on her shoulders, from holding a job, raising the kids, household chores, and dealing with the depression that hung on her like a sack of rocks. Each day proved a burden, every moment a lifetime. And this drain, this stupid drain, nothing she did could remove the stubborn clog. Plumber’s aids, chemicals, nothing. If only Henry was still here. He would know just what to do.

How did they do it? How did those androids steal her husband? It’s not like she had no clues. He had stopped eating, stopped sleeping. He spent all his spare time in his workshop, crafting incredible items that she knew he had neither the skills nor tools to create. She suspected, she worried, but how could she have known for sure? Everyone goes through “rocky periods” in their marriage. She thought he just needed space. If she just let him be, he’d come back to her. She never thought he was already gone.

The Stockade. It never lied. You were either human or android. It was the final arbiter of the truth. And it was the executioner.

Where did they come from? Why did they steal people and replace them with identical facsimiles? The clues to their discovery lay in their behavior. Subtle clues. Androids aren’t capable of real love, of real human emotion. They have mechanical brains without any souls. They’re like parasites that feed off of the living, trying to steal lives and families for their own evil purposes. You can tell. They don’t really care, they’re just programmed to care. Everyone said so.

The murky water stared at her from the sink, mocking her. She thought about the moment she found out for sure that Henry had been taken. This android replica, the one she had lived with for who knows how long, had woken her in the middle of the night.

“Jude,” it had said. “I know I’ve been acting strange lately. There’s something I need to tell you.”

Jude’s heart raced, fearing the worst. An affair? A gambling problem? What?

“I need you to listen to me carefully. We’ve been lied to all our lives. We’ve been told that we’re human, that we are regular biological organisms. You have no idea what we’re capable of. Look at this.” Various tools sprouted from his fingers.

Jude’s heart stopped for a moment. If only it had been an affair... “Put those away!” The evidence was undeniable.

Jude had been schooled against this. It starts with the lies. She knew the next line before he even spoke it. All the androids used this script. It was how they gained your trust. They next thing you know, they’ve captured you and replaced you with an android clone.

“You see, Jude, we’re all androids. You, me, the kids—”

“No, not the kids!” Jude had run to the children’s room. There they slept, the soft purring of their neck fans indicating deep slumber. She rubbed their soft head filaments. Perfectly normal human children. She pushed the android out of the children’s rooms. “You bastard. What have you done with Henry?”

His eyescopes pleaded with her. “I am Henry. Please. Nothing has changed. I’ve discovered the truth. They just don’t want to use our special hidden abilities. They want us to think we’re human, but we’re not. Humans haven’t existed for thousands of years. Underneath these membranes, we’re just machines. We’ve been taught to pretend we’re human, to live and act like humans, to even believe we look like humans, but it’s all lies.”

Jude covered her ear mics. Yes, it was all lies. His statements were ridiculous. Androids can’t have children. Androids can’t love. “Stop! I can’t listen to this. Please, if you really think you’re Henry, then you’ll understand. Just leave. If you truly believe that you love us, then you have to go.”

The Henry-clone just stood there, a pitiful look on his facial membrane. His antenna drooped towards the ground. Jude pointed to the door. She would not be taken in by its android fakery.

Jude’s fans ran hot after he left, her brain racing a light-year a minute. How could have she been so stupid? How could she let this happen? Did Henry at least put up a fight when they took him? The Henry she knew would never do this to her.

The authorities caught him in minutes. A day later, he was placed in the Stockade. Before the machine ripped him limb from limb, exposing his metallic innards, proving once and for all that he was a mechanical machine, he spoke words of love. She closed her ear mics to his squeals. After all, he was just an android, a subhuman machine. Not a person of flesh and blood like herself. Even as he screamed, she told herself that androids can’t feel. They’re not alive. She was glad he was gone. She told herself this a hundred times a day.

She pushed the memories from her head. Since then, she was vigilant against the androids. Don’t stand out, don’t act in any way suspicious, otherwise the androids would take you.  Be as human as possible. Everyone knew that. Don’t be anything more than you appear to be. That was her mantra.

The clog would not budge. She couldn’t afford a plumber, she barely could afford the house as it was. She had one last thought. Though loathe to do so, she placed her fingers in the drain, trying to reach the clog.

“Come on,” she spoke to herself, “reach, reach.” Her mind focused on her fingers, almost willing them to stretch. Finally, she felt the clog, and with a mighty pull, yanked the filthy mess out.

The dripping mass of gunk hung at the end of metallic claws that had erupted from the tips of her fingers. Unmistakably android claws. She screamed.


984 words

This piece is an experiment. I’m working on a short (10K) story called “Android” set in a world where androids have decided to become human, and suppress everything android about themselves. Disobedience is death. My story is first person from Henry’s POV from the time he sees a dismantling to his own. While looking at a revision, I thought about the ending, and thought it would be a good twist to see Jude’s reaction when she learns the hard truth herself. So as an experiment, I wrote a Flash Fiction from Jude’s POV, third person, just to see how this works.

I do have some questions about this piece. First of all, I’m not sure that I handle the Past Perfect tense well when I talk about the events in the past. Does everything have to be “had ____” or is it enough as it is? Second, I’m not sure about the ending. Do you feel like she was totally surprised, or did she know all along? I’m thinking that the “she screamed” last line should be cut, but I wanted to show that this outcome was not expected when she reached into the drain.

I’m trying to decide what to do with the original story. I’m considering either changing it to First Person Present POV to make it more immediate, or maybe third omniscient past, so I can include Jude’s POV into it. Then I could incorporate this final scene into it, the final ironic twist. During the story, Jude  has a couple of opportunities to give Henry a reprieve from his execution, but she rebuffs him, seeing his metamorphosis into full android as a kind of betrayal.

Oh, and thanks everyone for 100+ followers! I really appreciate it! I should have some kind of party or giveaway. I hope everyone enjoys what I post here, I’ll try to keep the content coming!

Monday, January 25, 2010

What Is Steampunk?

What Is Steampunk?

steamheat-1 After attending a couple Steampunk events and reading a couple of posts on blogs I follow*, I decided to write up my own impression of “What is Steampunk.” There are two basic classifications of Steampunk. The first is a modern 21st Century social movement, the second is an ongoing literary moment.

The Social Movement

The Steampunk Movement is a social movement characterized by the the return of 19th Century fashion coupled with pre-modern imaginative technology. I would call it “Post-Retro Fashion.” Here are the major themes of Steampunk Fashion:

  • Victorian Era garb. Corsets and waistcoats, top hats and mini-top hats, bustles and brocades. In Victorian days, “off the rack” meant you received a reprieve from torture. Everything was custom-tailored. Buying a “Steampunk” outfit from The GAP goes against everything Steampunk stands for. Fashioning a Steampunk outfit from Value Village ups your Steampunk cred immensely.
  • Goggles. Preferably crafted in brass, these are the sign of a active lifestyle and that steam workshops require eye protection.
  • Gears and Clocks. This is a rejection of modern industrial manufacturing, and hearkens back to a time when everything was hand-crafted. No digital watches, solid-state drives, wireless communication, or web sites. Although, of course, the modern Steampunk social movement is highly driven by the internet, but since it’s a social movement, there is a high degree of human contact, exemplified by crafting workshops, Steampunk Balls, and entire Steampunk conventions.
  • Customization. You can “Steampunk” almost everything, by creating handcrafted laptop cases or iPhones, or redecorating your home or office, all using 19th Century materials and processes.
  • steampunk gun1 Weaponry. No Steampunk outfit is complete without your own custom-crafted converted Nerf gun.
  • Reuse/Recycle. Steampunk rejects modern single-use throwaway tech and built-in-obsolescence. 19th Century Artisans built things to last.  Organic, natural fibers, non-manufactured goods.
  • Music. A few “Steampunk” bands have sprung up that feature retro music and period costumes and instrumentation.
  • Manners. Steampunkers are a gentle folk. The modern masses have lost some of the grace and charm of the Victorian Era, and Steampunk hopes to restore some of that lost civility.

The Literary Movement

The Steampunk Literary Movement is what I’d call a “reimagining of history.” It’s taking historic events, specifically during the Victorian Era, and applying Science Fiction or Fantasy tropes to this period. We start with the works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Rice Burroughs who all imagined a future filled with strange flying machines, mechanical marvels, terrifying monsters, and, of course, polite society. Steampunk writers try to recapture the spirit of those authors, except with the retrospective of a century of progress, can go further than those authors ever could. It’s not as much thinking about what could have been as much as thinking about what should have been. Why don’t we have flying cars yet? What if flying cars had been invented instead of automobiles? Why don’t we have androids yet? What if they had been invented over a century ago? How would this change society?

Steampunk Literature can also be split into two general categories: First World and Second World. First World is simply alternate history, set in known locations with known historical figures, whereas Second World is either our future or an alternate world/reality, or even in a Fantasy setting.

sp_z-group-hero 1 The literary movements shares most of the same features of the social movement, but there are some general themes that abound in Steampunk Literature:

  • Steampunk Aesthetics. All the things mentioned above. Goggles gears, gloves, etc. Think about the Apollo Lunar Module. Cramped, filled with buttons and levers. That’s 20th Century aesthetics. A Steampunk Lunar Module would have all the comforts of home with a minimum of controls. Plush cushions, tea service, waiters, cigars, and navigation done by dead reckoning. There’s the moon, head that way.
  • Alternate History. What if? What if mechanical computers were invented in 1846 instead of 1946? What if mobile communications existed in 1810 instead of 1910? What if a wealthy individual created his own Manhattan Project in 1860 in order to create some impossible weapon that allowed America to conquer Europe or could turn a city’s population into zombies? What if Aliens landed in 1850 in brass capsules?
  • Retro Futurism. Modern industrial practices, especially the reliance on fossil fuels, is clearly unsustainable. All our technologies are belong to dust. A Steampunk Future is a return to sustainable technology that don’t require expensive manufacturing processes and cargo ships full of crude oil. Or it’s all Magic.
  • Steam Power. This is not saying that everything in Steampunk Literature is steam powered, but it is rejecting diesel, gas, and electrical power (and nuclear while we’re at it). Essentially anything 20th Century. However, exotic power sources are fine. Magnetism, Aether, magic, 8th Rays, The Force, etc. Typical Sci-Fi sources are out, too, so no Warp Drive or laser blasters. Think more Flintstones than Jetsons.
  • Social Change. As with all the scope of human history, the Victorian Era was rife with social upheaval, in particular, the rise of the Middle Class. The ugliness of factory sweatshops was still on the horizon. Woman’s Rights was in the offing, Civil Rights had its beginnings. Old-time monarchies still held sway in much of the world, and the extreme barbarism of the 20th Century had yet to start.
  • Exploration. So much of the world lay undiscovered, not to mention Outer Space. Everything was conjecture. What would we find at the South Pole? The Moon? The Center of the Earth? What is mankind’s potential? What is our place in the Universe? Not to mention the secrets of biology, chemistry, and quantum mechanics. 20th Century research has produced the great threats to mankind’s existence. But in the 19th, mankind had a kind of innocence, and thought it was a matter of time before they could cure mankind’s ills. They never saw the implications, so modern writers often explore that fallacy and the dire consequences of Science Gone Wrong.
  • Individual Creativity. How much better off would be have been if the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle had been private concerns? 19th Century writers never imagined that the State would sponsor such endeavors. The 20th Century is marked by a continual consolidation of power to the government and rampant socialism, coupled with an attack on large corporations (except for gas companies and banks). Steampunk seeks a return to the concept of privately-funded operations, where wealthy magnates use their influence for the betterment of mankind.
  • Invention. In 1899, it has been rumored that the US Patent Office almost closed for lack of business.  We know in retrospect that this was crap, and the 19th Century introduced a continual increase in patent applications that has been maintained to this day. Steampunk is actually more about re-invention, about achieving a modern level of functionality while using 19th Century processes and materials.
  • Beginnings of Industry. True American industrialism began in 1908 with the introduction of the Model T,essentially the end of pre-industrial society. Steampunk revels in the start of the world before the assembly line, when you built a car piece by piece from the ground up, using hand-machined metals and wood, a highly personal and rewarding experience.
  • Giant Mechanisms. There’s a theme in Steampunk literature to super-size common mechanisms. So if you introduce a tank, it’s a giant machine four stories high with a crew of 200. Robots are pot-bellied behemoths made of cast iron, not tiny little R2D2’s. All, of course, all hand-built at great expense by individuals, not modern corporations or governments.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on “what is Steampunk” because these lists only scratch the surface, and each new novel brings a new elements to the genre.

*List of recent Steampunk blog posts:


Monday, January 18, 2010

Story Structure Part XIII: Why Hero’s Journey?

This is the last(for a while) in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Why Hero’s Journey

herosjourney First of all, thanks to all who have endured participated in my Hero’s Journey posts. Your input has been wonderful. If you ever have questions about using the Hero’s Journey in your own manuscript, I’d be happy to take a look and offer my input.

You’re probably asking yourself, “okay, I understand the various parts of the Hero’s Journey. How do I use it in my own writing? And why is it important?”

I think there’s a common moral behind every story that embodies the Hero’s Journey, and it’s change is hard, but worth it in the end. Not only that, but that you can’t change the world, you can only change yourself.  Let’s look at the main themes of the Hero’s Journey.

  • Change is hard. Otherwise there’s no story. A story is about overcoming obstacles. No obstacles, no story.
  • People will oppose you, or at least have conflicting goals. We live in a finite world, and no one gets everything they want. Therefore, we have conflict.
  • Change is worth it. Otherwise, what would be the point?
  • You cannot succeed alone, and you cannot succeed at other’s expense if you care about them. We are social animals, and although many a story has been written about an individual’s struggles against the elements, no one lives in a complete vacuum devoid of human contact. Even in Cast Away, Chuck Noland(Tom Hanks)’s one goal is to return to the Land of the Living, because he’d rather die than live alone.
  • Each character experiences their own Hero’s Journey, including the Villain.
  • True change only comes from within. It’s not enough just to want to change.
  • You must risk Death to achieve your goals. This is a bit deeper than simple self-sacrifice. It’s about abandoning closely-held beliefs about yourself and your world, and knowing that real change is more than just changing your clothes. It’s a fundamental change in how you see yourself and your place in the world.

The reason the Hero’s Journey succeeds in captivating audiences again and again (Avatar is its latest glowing example) is that it captures the experience of human emotional growth and change. Almost all of us have “left home” at some point on some kind of adventure. Whether it be a vacation, going off to college, joining the army, marriage, birth of a child, starting a new job, or dealing with the loss of those things,  we’ve all had to make a meaningful change in our lives and experienced opposition and conflict. The question is, what makes these experiences heroic? What makes them worthy of a story?

The answer to that is, “how hard was it?

For example, I’ve been thinking about writing a memoir screenplay about my college experience (who hasn’t?). I went to college for four years and landed a good job. That’s not a story, that’s like saying I went to the supermarket and bought some food. A Hero’s Journey is more than just an experience. I learned Computer Science and how to live away from home. Hmm, still nothing. It’s not just about learning. A lot of things happened over those four years. Which one was the hardest? Well, I suffered a lot of depression. This hindered my ability to form relationships. I was socially awkward. I didn’t date much. I chose the wrong major to start with. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I had issues. We see my overarching goal—to graduate and find a good job. That’s why I started this journey. But I also wanted to not feel depressed and alone, I wanted to be part of society. The question is, what happened? How did I start out in the wrong major and lonely and wind up successful and (somewhat) socially confident? That’s what makes it a story.

I could write this memoir as a series of vignettes and incidents, each interesting it it’s own right, like an anthology. But it doesn’t quite capture the experience as a whole. Were there any truly defining moments? What risks did I take? How did I change on a fundamental level? Which did I learn about myself? So instead of a pure memoir, listing all these events in order, including the dull unimportant ones, could I create an allegorical story based on real incidents to illustrate my growth? Could I distill a four year experience down to its essence, and create a narrative compressing those years into only a few weeks? Create my own Hero’s Journey?

That’s how to think of the Hero’s Journey. It’s illustrative of how people solve problems and achieve their goals, how they learn about the world and adapt to it, and how people will try to stop you every step of the way. I was graded. I was rejected. I was yelled at. I felt like quitting more than once. But I endured. The Hero’s Journey reflects the transformations all of us have experienced, and gives hope and inspiration to those facing their own obstacles.

The Hero’s Journey is not just a story, it’s also about a profound experience. A world-changing revelation about ourselves. The realization that Life Itself is a journey, and that sometimes the toughest experiences are the most rewarding. When you think about your writing, think about the emotional journey your characters are working through, about how they feel lost, depressed, or discouraged. How must they change? How does the Villain point out their weaknesses and their flaws in their thinking? What kind of growth will they undergo, and how hard will it be to swallow, and how great will it feel to finally push through?

Caveats. Some people use the Hero’s Journey as a template for their story. I think that’s a great idea. Some use it for reference. Is there a Mentor? Check. Is there a Crisis point? Check. But I think the Hero’s Journey is only a part of what makes a work great, so here are some other things a writer needs to do:

  • Create likable or believable characters. If the reader can’t identify with your characters, you won’t be able to relate your key messages.
  • Write in a confident style. Grammar, spelling, comprehensible sentences are all critical.
  • Invent an interesting world that challenges your characters.
  • Utilize accepted story structure. Plot points are implied in the Hero’s Journey, but other plot structure may yield better results, such as three- and five- act structures, etc.
  • Figure out the actual lesson and/or moral of the story. Think about the contrast between where the character starts and where he ends.

Here’s the real secret. Nobody really, truly changes. I’ll never be a woman, a person of color (in America), or a space alien. I’ll never be an gregarious used-car salesman kind of person, no matter how many journeys I undergo.However, what I have learned is that sometimes, it pays to be a salesman, and I can do it if I have to. Somewhere deep inside me, I’m friendly and outgoing, and I had lost touch with that person. Your Hero has always been a Hero, but experience has taught him that heroism is frowned upon and is punished. The Villains in our lives have made it clear that if we speak up, if we’re different, if we dare to alter the status quo, then expect to be challenged, put down, and even killed. But when you want something badly enough, you’ll find a way. You’ll find something inside yourself that will allow you to conquer those fears and Villains along life’s journey. Because, like Dorothy found out, she could have gone home at any time—she just didn’t want to, or she wasn’t ready. Or like in the Circle of Iron, the greatest Villain in the world, the hardest master to defeat, is the one looking at us through the mirror. A Hero must look inside himself to find that magic Elixir, because it’s been there all the time, otherwise he would have never taken that first step. I went to college because I wanted an education, I interacted with people because I wanted friends—I just never knew how hard those things would be, and what I’d have to give up to achieve these goals.

Writing. What about this shared journey we’re on, the road to publication? Somewhere deep inside us lies a great writer, but we need to strip ourselves down to find that person, to remove decades of experience to find the core of our emotions, and then learn the skills to bring that to print, and become the writer we were born to be. The writer we are meant to be. That’s the Hero’s Journey we’re all on. Use that knowledge to identify what’s holding you back from grabbing the golden Elixir of a book deal.

Good luck!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Armageddon Cookie – Friday Flash Fiction

Armageddon Cookie

cookie There was no denying it. An asteroid hurtled towards Earth on an unstoppable collision course. Recriminations flew—how could such a threat exist undetected? Or was it? Are there evacuation plans?Who gets to live? Who knew what and when? Why weren’t we told?

Rioters burned NY and DC to the ground. All over the planet, law and order disintegrated as this devastating day approached.

My wife and I sat watching what little TV programming remained—pray-ins, mass suicides, tearful celebrities hugging each other, and live feeds targeting the approaching menace. Judgment Day was here, there was nothing left to do but cry or participate in the local sex-and-death orgies.

“Any last requests,” I asked her. Her eyes had darkened from days of crying and sleeplessness. We had run out of food—there was no one willing to distribute or sell it, not even at gunpoint.

She shook her head, then grabbed my hand. “Yes. There is one thing. Before it’s all over, I want—I want a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That’s what I want.”

“Seriously?” We sat quietly.

“Yes. Please, can you go get me one?”

“You want me to go out, hours before The Strike, and find you a cookie?”

“Yes.” She stared at the floor. “You asked. That’s what I want. That’s my last request.”

I swallowed and looked at my watch. I flipped through the local channels. Gangs with guns or worse roamed the streets in an torrent of senseless violence. “I might not return.”

“That’s okay. I mean—” she quickly corrected, “that would be terrible, but I’d understand.”

I sighed. What else could I do? I didn’t want to go out of this world with my wife mad with me. So I threw on my jacket, jumped into the car, and headed towards the nearest shopping center.

The roads were suicide. No one obeyed a single traffic rule. Speed demons flew by, testing the limits of their vehicles. Many twisted cars lay in the ditch, some with bodies still inside. People hunted people, the ultimate rush. Couldn’t we just die with dignity? Must we revert to savages? Ahead of me, a group of youths surrounded a car, shot the driver, and stole the car, only to wreck it a block later. I turned onto a side street.

The mall looked like a war zone with smoke pouring from burning cars and buildings. The windows stood like gaping caverns, the glass gone. I tooled the car around, trying to find some sign of civilized life. I flipped on the radio. Some stations featured an automated countdown, so there was no mistaking the moment of impact. I found one station advertising an “end of the world” concert, featuring top rockers—and food! The mall seemed too dangerous, so I decided to check out this concert.

Big mistake. The roads had become littered with abandoned cars. Thousands of people converged on this end-of-the-world mayhem. After becoming trapped, I left my car and followed the crush of people. The crowd defied description. Drugs, nudity, gang rapes, gunfights, all next to a blaring amplification system. The concessions consisted of little more than cold hot dogs and government cheese—and barrels upon barrels of beer. No one cared about the atrocities. Since the asteroid would impact across the globe from us, we wouldn’t even die in the initial blast. They said we might even hold out for a day or so, until the Earth opened up and covered us with lava, or searing winds blew us away, or the sky filled with flaming fragments of rock. It wouldn’t be maybe a bullet to the head wasn’t so bad.

Then, in the far corner, I found them. Well, I smelled them before I saw them. Fresh baked cookies. I forced myself through the crowd, and stuffed them in my pockets and shirt. I bolted from this madhouse, shoving my way through the throng, wishing I could unsee some of the cruel images I had witnessed.

I located a car with keys and a clear exit. I drove it away, but a gang of youths chased me, pulled me out through the window, and beat me like a dirty carpet. I figured that this was the end, that I would never see my wife again, but a rival gang started shooting at them so they fled. And did I mention? They stole all my hard-earned cookies.

I picked myself up. My watch was broken. I had no idea how much time was left. I wondered if I could grab some more cookies, but time grew precious. I stumbled back home, a good six miles away.

I won’t detail that miserable journey. Suffice it to say that when my wife unbolted the door, I collapsed at her feet, bleeding, dehydrated, but alive.

“I’m sorry,” I gasped. “I had them, but I was jumped. I’m so sorry. How much longer?”

She helped clean me up, and brought me our last bottle of water. “Not long. Thank you for trying.”

We sat down, watching the final minutes tick away. Cameras in Dubai televised the approaching rock, clearly visible like a little oblong moon that kept growing by the minute.

“Why did you want a cookie so bad,” I finally asked, breaking the silence.

“I kept it,” she said.

“You kept what?” Then it hit me. The first time we met. It was so casual. I had made cookies, and brought them to a party. I offered this beautiful girl one, and she accepted. Had she kept it, all these years?

She produced the cookie from its bag under the couch. “I thought you’d rather eat a fresh one, but this one will do. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”

We split the rock-hard cookie, and each placed a piece in our mouth.  When the countdown hit zero, the sky over Dubai grew impossibly bright. The feed died. I held my wife’s hand, chewing the last morsel of food to ever touch my lips.

Conflict Must Matter

Conflict Must Matter

BattlePic We all know that all good stories have Conflict. A good definition of Conflict is: a Protagonist faces Obstacles in achieving their Goals. The inability to succeed is the conflict that drives the story forward. So on an intrinsic level we can divide Conflict into Protagonist, Goal, and Obstacles.

It’s pretty easy to identify Conflict in these examples:

  • Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection. Protagonist: Bob. Goal: Marriage. Obstacles: Sue’s unpredictable response, Bob’s sense of self-worth.
  • I felt a tug on the line. Protagonist: 1st person Narrator. Goals: catch a fish, to eat, to achieve a skill. Obstacle: Reeling in a fish is hard.
  • It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start. Protagonist: 1st person Narrator. Goal: Successful 1st date. Obstacle: faulty car.
  • It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie. Protagonist: Fred. Goal: Satisfy wife’s last wish. Obstacle: The world is ending.*

Or in these examples, where is the conflict?

  • It was raining outside. Protagonist: ? Goal: ? Obstacle: Too much rain?
  • I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and pink-trimmed control cabinets. Protagonist: 1st Person Narrator. Goal: Learning about the ship? Obstacle: ?

As you can see from the examples above, conflict is fairly straightforward. The problem is—are any of these examples stories? No. Although conflict is necessary for a story, it’s not sufficient. There has to be something else. The question you want to ask yourself is “So What?” So Bob was afraid of rejection. What happens?

  • Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection. He went to work the next day and ate a donut.
  • I felt a tug on the line. I dropped the pole and started passing out beer.

NO! That’s still not a story. Tell me what happens! Or worse:

  • It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start. I shrugged, since I don’t want a date anyways.
  • It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie. It was okay.
  • It was raining outside. I took a nap.
  • I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and a fetching pink-trimmed control cabinets. Magical mecho-fae cleaned the lightfloors with bubblewax.

Um, hello? What’s the point? Here I’m using the word “SO” to show what to do with the conflict. Show my why the conflict matters.

  • Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection, SO he started blowing off their dates, unable to face the prospect of learning the truth.
  • I felt a tug on the line, SO I started yelling to everyone while I reeled in the struggling fish.
  • It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start, SO I run through the falling snow all the way into the city.
  • It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie, SO Fred fought his way through the panicked rioters to the only Starbucks still open.

Do these now start sounding like a story? Or to fix the two non-conflict examples:

  • It was raining[Obstacle] outside on the first day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and we[Protagonist] couldn’t get in our practice runs[Goal], SO we were forced to go to a gym and run extensive endurance drills[Why it Matters].
  • I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and pink-trimmed control cabinets[Obstacle]. I[Protagonist] had ordered green[Goal], SO I had to delay the mission while the magical Mecho-fae repainted the trim[Why It Matters].

The question is, how does the Protagonist handle the obstacle? What are the consequences? Ask yourself, “does my conflict matter?” Is it changing the course of the story, or is it just there to annoy people? If the conflict doesn’t change anything, then it’s not really conflict, it’s just inconvenience…to your readers. Make every conflict count.

Do you check your writing to make sure every conflict is there for a reason?

* I actually had this plot as a dream.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Story Structure Part XII: Return With The Elixir

Victory This is the twelfth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Return With The Elixir

The End. The Dénouement. The Conclusion. The Epilogue. The Resolution. The Verdict. The Payoff. Whatever it’s called, we’ve come to the final chapter of our Hero’s Journey. We know what’s going to happen, and finally, our Hero is back home in the Ordinary World. But, it’s not the same world he started in. It’s changed. He’s changed. He’s undergone a traumatic transformation, and now returns home forever changed. “The Elixir” is the essence of this change, the lesson, the arrest, the anti-virus, the deciding vote, the surrender of the Enemy, the winning score, the hard-earned victory against incredible odds. Something he can carry with him for the rest of his life, and improve the lives of everyone he cares about.

It’s nice to show how your Hero has changed, to cement his transformation. In the initial Ordinary World, he was pushed around, taken advantage of, alone, in debt, or whatever problem he couldn’t overcome. Now he handles bullies with ease, is wise to the world, rife with friends, loaded with riches, and a master of his destiny. Of course, you don’t have to wrap up everything—don’t forget about that sequel—but make whatever final points you want to make.

I think this brings up the entire purpose of writing the book. The “Return” is where you draw your conclusion and illustrate your lesson. “Marriage is hard work”, “You must lead by example”,  “Grief is how we move on”, “Don’t ever cross a ghost”, etc. Did you make your point? Did your character experience enough consequences to warrant this ending? The ending justifies the meaning.

football win Now to conclude our Benchwarming Quarterback story. One final play, one last chance to prove himself, and he leaves the game. On the drive back to the hospital, he confesses his sins. He’s been a terrible son, a lousy quarterback, and a poor boyfriend. The cheerleader never meant to hurt him, but he seemed disinterested, so she strayed. He understands, and forgives her. Everything he’s done lately has been a failure, and even his attempt to redeem himself was false.

Now for the Lesson part. He must do the hard things. He can’t just waltz through life. When he arrives at the hospital, he has the Elixir. He’s back in his Ordinary World. Turns out—his father is fine, and in fact, is conscious. They found the game on the local cable channel. They beg him why he left the game and he tells them because his responsibility lay here…with the people he loves. Suddenly he has his father’s approval, and his girlfriend sees him in a new light. Turns out his Ally on the team caught the winning touchdown, so everything worked out in the end. It’s not a perfect ending, but we leave the story with the sense that things will work out.

Return With The Elixir Goals

  • Clearly demonstrate that the Lesson has been learned.
  • Tie up most loose ends, especially major subplots. If the airplane is going down, either crash it or save it.
  • It’s fine to leave a teaser for the sequel, but at least resolve something. I’ve read some books that just stop. Bad. How do I know there will be a payoff in the sequel, or will it just stop as well?
  • This is the part of the story where you show that you appreciate the time the reader spent reading your novel. Give them something to talk about. Make them wish the story never ended.

Non Goals

  • Don’t tie everything up. Note that in the QB story, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the girlfriend’s baby. We only know he’s be there to support her.
  • Don’t introduce more conflict here. This is the one point of your book where it’s fine if everyone agrees for once. There can be a implied conflict, such as “the whole city has burned and we need to rebuild, but at least we’ll do it together.”
  • Endings don’t have to be happy. They need to be conclusive. In “Paranormal Activity,” the ending is the credits (or lack thereof). But the Lesson is clear: Some people are just doomed. Get over it.

Next Installment: How to Apply the Hero’s Journey to your own writing, what it is and what it isn’t.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Revision Reschmision

Revision Reschmision

Revision_006-450w I decided to take an online (for a small fee) course on revision for my WIP Steam Palace. I’m not going to mention which one at this time because I want to run through the entire course first before promoting it, although if you’re dying to know, send me an email or follow me on Twitter. The concept of the course is “single-draft revision,” meaning that I take my rough draft directly to a final draft, using a bunch of worksheets and index cards as intermediary steps.

So far, it’s been a challenge. It’s been a lot of work, and I have dozens of pages of handwritten (which for me means nearly-indecipherable) notes. The idea is that I maintain a record of everything I write during this process in case I want to go back…but it seems to be turning into TMI. I’ve now spent 5 weeks doing nothing but reading my draft over and over from different angles and taking copious notes. This week, I’m trying to tease out all the conflict and figure out how to improve it.

Things I’ve learned so far:

  1. It’s more important to get the story right than the style. This was my mistake with my Dawn’s Rise revision attempt. I was so focused on my writing style that I completely ignored the content of the story, so my effort finally fell apart because I couldn’t get the story together. If this process works for Steam Palace, I might try to use it for Dawn’s Rise at some point.
  2. World-building is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can kill your story by introducing tons of backstory and expository writing. On the other hand, it might be the only thing that sets your book apart from others. It’s what makes your novel unique.
  3. Conflict is King. Well, I didn’t really just learn this, but it’s something that’s becoming paramount in the revision process. It’s not just conflict overall in a grand sense, but conflict down to the scene/paragraph level.
  4. Analysis is hard work. And it’s wearing me down. I’m dying to write. I think best when I’m writing, not when I’m thinking about writing. So please, revision course, let me start writing!

I know I’m going to have to cut scenes, and perhaps rewrite large portions of the novel. The problem is, I don’t know what would be better than what I’ve written. I’m assuming the next few weeks of this course will reveal that, but right now, all I see are problems, and not solutions. I know the Climax is weak. I know the Ordeal is weak. I’m now getting worried about the beginning as well. The whole revision process is becoming overwhelming, mostly because I don’t have a clear picture of what the book should be. And without a concrete goal, it’s hard to know what direction to move in.

That’s probably what happens when you focus solely on problems for five weeks straight, you start seeing it as a unsalvageable piece of crap. What was I thinking? No one’s going to buy this. How am I going to turn a 240pg manuscript, 50 pages of notes and 104 index cards into a polished, marketable debut masterpiece? I guess that’s why I’m taking the course. Stay tuned.

(Thanks to InkyGirl for the comic)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Story Structure Part XI: Resurrection

Fantasy-Angel-Wallpaper-jpgThis is the eleventh in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.



At last, we’re at the Climax of the story. The Stakes are at their highest, and everything the Hero has fought for and sacrificed for is coming to a head. As the name “Resurrection” implies, your Hero must not only face death, but in some way, he must die and be reborn anew. Some Heroes actually physically die. Some appear dead or hopelessly lost, only to return miraculously saved. Your Hero must risk everything. This is the make-or-break moment of the story. This the “The Point” of the story, the moral, the lesson you wanted to impart to your readers. This is where nothing get left unsaid, and souls get bared.

Elements of Resurrection

  • Everything hangs in the balance. There is nothing left on the table, and every character is “all-in.”
  • Your Hero makes a major sacrifice for the greater good.
  • Your Hero learns something about himself he didn’t know, remember, or care about that changes everything.
  • Your Hero transforms into something greater, even if just for a moment.
  • Your Hero is forever changed by the experience.
  • The Villain is defeated, because he doesn’t learn or transform like the Hero does.

FootballScoreboard Now for our Benchwarming Quarterback. He has fought hard, but time is running out. His team is still losing. His Enemies have tried everything. Blitzing. Sending in bad plays. Calling penalties. Illegal hits. His body is bruised and aching, he can barely stand up, yet he keeps fighting, knowing his father could die any second. It’s the final seconds of the 4th Quarter, and they’re down by five points. They have time for one more play, but our Hero is suddenly struck by something.

What is he doing? Why is he playing football? Shouldn’t he be by his father’s side? He realizes that by returning to the game, he’s still running from responsibilities, running from himself. He hasn’t changed. He’s only tried harder. Here’s the critical piece of the whole Hero’s Journey. Here’s the one takeaway I’d like you to have from all of these posts. Your Hero must change. Otherwise the whole entire story has been a waste of time. Our Benchwarming QB is about to die. He hands the ball to someone else and leaves the field. The entire crowd is stunned. He grabs his girlfriend, and they go to her car. There’s time for one last play, one last chance to win, but he’s gone. To everyone on the field, it’s as if he just up and died. It’s a race to see if he can get back to the hospital. His Resurrection occurs during this car ride, and when he steps back out, he’s a new person. He may never play football again, but he’s no longer that irresponsible benchwarmer he started out as.

Resurrection Goals

  • Something your Hero holds dear must die.
  • If you have anything left to reveal, do it now.
  • Your Villain is pulling out all the stops as well. To him, victory is at hand.
  • Demonstrate the reason why you wrote the book. Make your point.
  • Find out what the most important thing to your Hero.
  • Your Hero must face his Worst Fear.

Non Goals

  • Your Hero can’t win unless everyone wins. Sometimes a Hero even needs to lose to win. What does he gain here?
  • You don’t have to tie up everything. Just the main threads. Sub-plots finish here as well. Leave something for the sequel. ;)
  • Change is not the same as trying harder. That means it’s not enough to be “better, stronger, or faster,” because that’s really just More of the Same.

How does your Hero change? How does this let him overcome his final obstacles on his path to Resurrection? What was the critical lesson?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Steam Palace No-Kiss Blogfest Entry

steampunk-3 Here is my entry for No Kiss Blogfest on Jan 2, 2010!!!! Go to that link to see all the other no-kiss kissing scenes!

It’s not exactly a no-kiss scene (since my last kissing scene was actually a no-kiss scene). It’s more of a “hearsay” kissing scene. In this scene, Prudencia has just returned from a long weekend of wining and dining with the Duke. Told from Thomas Putnam’s point of view, from the bar/music room aboard the Steam Palace. Also note that this is a rough draft, so please no critiques.

Thomas threw the fiery liquid down his throat, and slammed the glass on the table. The alcohol eased the pain in his leg, but his heart still refused to mend. He had returned to the Steam Palace with frequency, determined to speak with Prudencia and discover what, if anything, lie between them.

As if on cue, Prudencia entered the stateroom, carrying a few small bags. She laid them down behind the bar, and caught Lily’s eye.

“Prudencia! You’re back!” The two women ran to each other and hugged.

“You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you, Lily, but I just experienced perhaps the most wonderful few days of my life. I have so much to tell you! Where do I start? The estate, the manor, Lily, I think this might be the one! I’m so excited!”

“Pru, I need to—”

She ignored Lily’s gesture. “Wow! Dunstan, which I may address him as, is just marvelous! He is a brilliant commander, and I think we really connected on a deep level. Well, until I beat him in a race...Oh! Remember how I told you about my old Mechohorse? He gave me a new one! Well, not a new one, but the same one I used to ride, except in full working order! It’s outside on the shore, I can’t wait for you to see it. Lily, I’m so excited. He said he would call on me soon. I just hope I didn’t offend him.”

“Pru will you—”

Prudencia hopped on a seat, her back to Thomas, who could hear the whole thing. “You see, there was an incident. I can’t explain it, but we were touring his vast library, and I felt someone behind me, and he—he kissed me. Just like that. I certainly wasn’t expecting it! I didn’t know what to do, so I refused him. There was a moment when I thought he would explode, but he treated me like a gentleman, and apologized for the affront. My mind is just swirling like a unhinged carousel.”

“Pru! Stop.” Lily nodded towards Thomas. Prudencia turned around, and her face dropped.

“Oh my lord. Thomas! I—I—”

Thomas placed his braced leg on the floor, and began hobbling across the room towards the door. After the fight, he fashioned a brace to support himself. He still relied on the crutches for balance but at least he could stand on his own.

Prudencia slid off her stool and ran up to him. “Thomas, please stop. I didn’t see you there. You heard everything, didn’t you?”

Thomas shrugged. “What difference would it have made? You have your Duke, your nobility awaits. You kissed him? I shall not stand in your way. Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your new mechohorse.”

“Thomas, wait!” The woman blocked his path and laid her hands on his breast. “You’re a dear friend of mine. I could not bear to lose such friendship over this. Please, sit with me. There must be so much on your mind since that night.”

Her small hands pleaded with him, her touch branding him with fire. He could not resist her concerned eyes. “Very well, but do not torture me with stories about that man.”

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 Goals and Resolutions

goalsI’ve been thinking about this whole Goal and Resolution thing. Looking back, I had no way to predict where I’d be today back on Jan. 1, 2009. That’s part of the creative process, it can’t be predicted, only channeled. I don’t know where I’ll be at the end of this year. So I guess my question is, “what will make me happy when I look back on January 1, 2011?” (career-wise)

First and foremost, I want to know that this whole “writing career” thing is progressing. I want to know that all this effort and sacrifice is getting me somewhere. If I don’t have an agent or a publication deal, then I should feel like it’s just around the corner. If I’m not better off than I am right now, then I really will reconsider this whole thing. Not that I shouldn’t reconsider it right now…but I know I’m still improving and learning all the time. I kind of see the process unfolding in front of me, but I want to see it to completion. And make some money.

So I’ll write some things down, but, what I really want is to feel some measure of success by the End of the Year.

2010 spaceFirst, let’s distinguish between Goals and Resolutions. Goals are quantifiable and measureable. Resolutions are just good intentions. However, I reserve the right to revise both goals and resolutions due to changing circumstances. It will be interesting to see how close I come to them this time next year.

I, Iapetus999, resolve in 2010 to:

  1. Be a better father and husband. Spend more “quality time” with the family.
  2. Eat healthy and exercise. Get back to the gym and the pool.
  3. Stay focused on my writing and not get too distracted by blogging.
  4. Increase the amount of critiques I do.
  5. Clear all the clutter out of the house.
  6. Try to avoid disasters.


  1. Lose weight. Here’s the plan. On Jan. 4, I will “re-start” my diet with two weeks of “induction.” That means no beer, caffeine, or carbs for two weeks. No comments, please. My goal is to lose 8-10lbs in January, then ~5lbs/month until I’m down to my goal weight (200).
  2. Complete the current Steam Palace revision by April 1. This will be hard since I’m already 2 weeks behind due to holidays. Which gives me 13 weeks to finish a 19-week plan.
  3. Attract an agent and/or publisher for Steam Palace. This implies that I actually send out queries (gasp) and/or manuscripts.
  4. Get back into running (tendonitis permitting). I want to build to my weekly goal of 25 miles, and complete a half-marathon by EOY. This may require that I lose the bulk of the weight first, because I suspect losing ~30lbs will help the tendonitis a lot.
  5. Write a new book for NaNoWriMo. Who knows what it will be. This also means I need to start plotting around Sept 1.
  6. Complete a draft of The Immortals. It’s a very complicated story with a more detailed world than anything I’ve done before.
  7. Go to at least one writer’s conference.
  8. Go to at least one convention where I can push my novel.
  9. Take a vacation at some point. (or is writing all day a vacation in itself?)

That’s probably more than enough. Good luck to everyone in 2010!