Building Reality.

Here’s a little known fact: I am better at world-building science fiction worlds than I am fantasy worlds. It’s a curious thing that always bugged me. Why was writing one easier than the other? Well, the other night, I sat down and started thinking about it and even made some comments about it online.

Now, I have come to my conclusion.

When you’re a writer like me, world-building is a slower and more fleshed out process than it is for some. I don’t just envision a story and tell it, I need to create the world around the story and its characters. I build charts that show each and every facet of a world that surrounds a story and its characters. I need to see its past, present, and possible futures.

In short: rather than just tell a story as it is, I need to see all the doors and what’s behind all of them. Having that knowledge helps me build a story that makes more sense than most ideas I get, and hopefully helps build characters that are more memorable than stereotypes.

How does this play into fantasy and science fiction? It’s actually remarkably simple.

When world-building science fiction, you are (normally, not always) drawing from this world. Our past, present, and possible futures all get poured into developing a world of the future. The rules of reality that you know of are still there, even if flexed a bit. You already know that Earth orbits the sun, that we breathe oxygen, that a bullet is fired by a pin striking a miniaturized explosive cap in a shell-casing which causes the gunpowder inside to detonate.

This world, along with all of its history and rules of reality, are known. When you delve into inventing an entirely new world, particularly in fantasy, that all changes.

When an entirely new, foreign world is required, the slate is wiped clean. All of the wars, famous and infamous people, cultural issues, and defining moments of history that we have no longer exist. You have to build your own history of the world, filled with it’s own conflicts and issues, and populate it with people who are shaped by that world.

Altering the rules of reality, on top of it, adds its own layers of challenges and difficulties. When you introduce something world-defining, take magical powers for example, you change the entire way that the world works and you alter the way people are shaped by it.

That isn’t to say that you can’t draw at all from our own history. If you are thinking of how people might perceive something, you can try and think of certain events in our own history, throw in some theoretical questions, and draw parallels. For example, if magic-wielders are meant to be feared and hunted, think about what something like the Salem Witch Trials might be like if the people who were burned actually had magical powers. Questions like that can help bring some insight to an otherwise unknown possibility.

When you’re like me and you decide to stir the pot, rather than just go with what’s been proven to work, you can create some interesting results. In the process, however, you wind up creating a slew of new problems and challenges.

I am currently world-building and mapping Under a Falling Sky, something that I take no shame in admitting has been one of (if not is) the hardest world I’ve had to craft. The reason why is because I have the very specific set of conditions that need to be met in regards to the world, while also blending together both fantasy and science fiction.

Yes, it’s a bloody Sci-Fi / Fantasy hybrid. Let that sink in for a moment.

Doing a hybrid like this is another challenge unto itself. Not only do you have to have boundaries for the power of magic and rationalize why it exists, you have to validate it in comparison to guns and armored vehicles. Where do you draw the line between magic and machinery? Divine powers and advanced gadgetry? Where does the fantasy end and the science fiction begin, or do they really have any clear boundaries?

Not only are you creating a new reality, where you’re trying to justify the news rules of existence, but now you’re trying to create a past that leads all the way into the age of steel and beyond. Do you decide to keep civilization somewhat primitive in mentality and theology, or do they evolve at the rate of their technological advances? What values did they hold dear when the ages were young, yet might have been cast off when futuristic items and tools came into their lives?

As you can see, it’s not about thinking that you have this one great story and you can just tell it. You need to build the world, build the rules, around it and provide a home for it to be told in. This is why, when I world-build, I try to create it so thoroughly that not just the one story, but possibly many others, might be told in it.

So, in what form does the payoff for all this world-building come in? At the end of it, when you look at your maps, codices, along with .doc files with character and faction text, you realize what you’ve built. You have built a world from it’s deepest roots to its tallest spires. You see all of the doors and what’s behind all of them, because it’s your world, built from the ground up by your own mind and populated by people that only you will truly know.

You know its beginning, its end, and everything in between. You may not be a god of that world, but you know if there is one and what they’re like.

That’s what world-building is really about for someone like me. You’re not just building the setting for a story, but you’re creating an entire world or universe for that story, and many more, to be told in. It is empowering, chaotic, terrifying, and inspiring all at the same time, and there’s nothing else like it.

So, time for me to get back to creating a new reality and polishing it off. The tales of those that shall never be born demand to be told, after all.

~ James.

Salvaging “Salvaging Life”

Here we are, at the mid-point of another month in another year. So, what has been happening this month?

Well, I can tell you for a fact that it hasn’t been much.

Work on Salvaging Life had gone quite swimmingly, though by the time that the first big monkey-wrench needed to be thrown in the works, I hit a snag. No matter how much I thought about how to twist it and make it work, that plot-twist just wouldn’t jive. The characters are good, the setting seemed right, but the story just wouldn’t budge naturally.

Thus, I revisited the old debate I had about whether to include it in the Dark Stars universe (still thinking of a better name for it). The more I think about it in the way of a story told in that setting, the more it works. The reasons for that are…

1: With a minor twist, the story that takes place in Salvaging Life could easily be a story set about thirty years before the main series’ in that universe. The reason I know this is because I have written down all the history between now and the time that the main stories take place, so I know exactly where this would fit.

2: The characters and such from the story as they are now could easily transition over with basically no alterations. Their pasts, their personalities, even their allegiances could all remain exactly as they are now. That’s actually kinda a big deal and rather nice to imagine.

3: It would help build an idea about some of the relationships and tensions that would come out in the later works, providing a source of historical context.

Now, when I break it all down like this, it seems like it would almost be a no-brainer about placing this story in the Dark Stars setting. In truth, I want to think that these reasons alone make it justifiable. There are a couple reasons I keep telling myself for why it might not be a wise move.

A: Dark Stars is more than just a sandbox, it’s a web of stories and tie-ins with itself. Series A leads into and ties in with Series B, while both have a supporting character who has their own stand-alone story with Story C, tying back into Story D, etc. As you might imagine, this takes a decent chunk of planning to connect and make work. Building these kinds of mapped out character relationships, event timelines, and other things, has been trying. At the same time, it’s already been done, so now I’ve waited on pulling the trigger because I wanted to make sure my skills were enough to pull it off well.

B: This story has historical precedence in the Dark Stars universe, but it’s not a “current” story. It takes place roughly thirty years before the first actual book, so while it is an important event, it isn’t something that a character in the main series will see as breaking news. For the readers, I question if such a jump might make it feel like this story is an overly long prologue or just horribly out of place.

C: Admittedly, this is the weakest of excuses. I keep thinking the since this story is a bit darker and serious than the Dark Stars‘s rather genre-filled tone, that it would seem out of place in the setting. The truth is, really, that the Dark Stars setting covers a number of different tones. One series covers a military campaign with a select team, another follows a couple of slightly odd mercenaries trying to make it big, while one spin-off deals with an intelligence agency, etc. So, as you might imagine, there isn’t a concrete tone for the setting, but more of different series’ of stories that explore the various facets of the universe they take place in.

So, what do I intend to do about it? Well, rather than hold some vote or sit around on my ass (like I’ve been doing (bad writer, I know)), I’m going to write a version of this story that takes place in the Dark Stars setting. After that, I’m going to compare each version to the other and see which one feels like stronger and more inspired material than the other.

Let the work decide which is better, rather than daydreaming about the what-ifs.

If the version that is independent of the Dark Stars universe stands out as a better work, it will be the next big project. If the one that is integrated into the history of that setting is the stronger piece, it will make the cut and I’ll go ahead with it despite my earlier plans.

After either version is released, I’ll move back into working on Under a Falling Sky, since that is something I really want to work on. At the same time, Salvaging Life is the largest priority for me right now, so it takes precedence.

If you guys have some thoughts on the subject, feel free to chime in. I’d like to hear your ideas on the subject. For now, however, it’s back to work.

May the best story version win!

~ James.

State of the Mind: February, 2014.

Well, this has certainly been an interesting month. Be that as it may, it’s time for the monthly State of the Mind address. So, let’s kick it off.

1) Work! I’ve been pounding out progress on a rewrite of Salvaging Life (WIP title, not final). You might now be saying, “Wait, I thought you said you were going to be working on Echoes!” In which case, you’re rather observant and correct all at once. I did say that I was going to be working on Echoes at first, but that plan has since changed.

I sat down and started to reread Echoes so I could get a feel for what I had again. Keep in mind, this story is about a year and a half old by now, so it feels ancient. Upon reading it, however, I saw how bad it seemed to be. Upon looking at it, the story felt like it needed a complete and total rewrite to bring it up to snuff. Needing that extensive amount of work ultimately placed it in the same spot as a number of other stories.

At the same time, I’d wanted to revisit Salvaging Life. Originally a short-story that was around four thousand words that I had submitted to Clarkesworld Magazine, I decided that with the recent commercial release of Blood in the Machine, maybe I could go back and check it out.

When I looked over Salvaging Life and read what I had, I could easily see why it had been rejected. It wasn’t the majority of the story, it wasn’t the characters, and it wasn’t the quality of writing. What set it back was the story I tried to tell was too confined at the length I had, and the ending felt at odds with the tone of the story.

The thing was, I already knew both of those things a month ago when I started thinking about it then. Reading it now felt like confirmation bias, but I also had some ideas of how to fix it. So, this last weekend, I began enacting those fixes by rewriting the story from the ground up.

I’m now three thousand words in and the story is feeling stronger than ever before. The characters felt good in the first version, but feel much stronger now. The pacing feels about right, though some of the tricky parts will rear their ugly heads in the later sections. At the same time, I have to do some research and treat a certain topic with some delicate attention, but it’s integral to one of the characters.

At the same time, I’ve also been working on the codex and mapping of a rewrite for Under a Falling Sky, which I am also eager to tackle soon. Who knows, maybe if Salvaging Life goes well, that might be the next project I tackle.

2) Resting! I’ve actually been rather bored recently. I’m stuck in a spot earlier on in Final Fantasy XIII-2 at a boss fight, so I have to go back and grind fights to get ahead. Not exactly my idea of fun. Instead, I played the Titanfall PC beta last night, and I have to admit that I am massively impressed with what I see.

Oh, and I have Kelly Sweet’s version of In the Air Tonight stuck in my head since hearing it in an ad for a TV show. Somebody, please help me, I’ve been listening to it on repeat in effort to try and get it dislodged, but to no avail!

At the same time, Game of Thrones Season 3 comes out tomorrow, so I know what I’ll be watching. It’ll also help tide me over while I wait for Gravity to come out on the 25th, alongside Thor: The Dark World.

Meanwhile, I’ve finished reading How to Archer, based on the TV cartoon (Cobra!). Times like these make me wonder who exactly dreams up the notion that it would be a good idea to write a book in the perspective of Sterling Archer. However, it lets me get on to reading Ender’s Game for the first time. No, I’ve never read it before, but I wanted to read it before I saw the movie which is sitting on my shelf.

3) Mental Health! … Improving, slightly optimistic. Might be in need of a good sit-down and ass-kicking soon if it doesn’t clear up.

So yeah, there we have it. Things seem to be looking up and I am slipping back into my groove with some ease, which helps make things a bit easier to work with.

~ James.

State of the Mind: January, 2014.

Take a breath, would you? Breathe in that new 2014 air, let it sink in that we’ve already pissed away another year. Done? Good, because it’s time for the new State of the Mind address.

1: Work is progressing on The Veil and we’re actually nearing completion. There’s only a few more chapters left at the most, which I am actually quite grateful for. I’m desperately wanting to get my hands into something new, something not as flawed and broken as The Veil.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not that I hate the story, but that I know its pacing, characters, and overall condition is not good. After a few chapters, I knew it was flawed but was already too invested into it to go back and fix it. There might be hope for a good story buried in there, but it’s just a mess in its current form.

With that all said, I’ve become confident that I will likely host the story for a few months after the last piece goes up, but will then take it down. As I’m sure anyone who’s read Blood in the Machine and The Veil can attest to, there’s an almost night-and-day difference in terms of quality. So, if it’s not a proper demonstration of my quality or even a well put together story, why leave it up for people to read and pass judgment on?

So yes, once The Veil is done, I’ll set up a tear-down date on the top of that page so people know when they need to finish reading it by before I mothball it. I’ll not delete it in entirety, but more shove it in a proverbial shoebox. There may come a day I decide to return to it and tell that story right, but it isn’t now.

2: What happens after The Veil is done? I’m thinking that the first priority will be to go back and rewrite Salvaging Life, as I mentioned before. There are a couple loose ends I need to tie up before I consider the premise solid and golden, but I think it is something that might produce something worth investing time and effort into.

Its characters will also be something a bit darker than my normal form, so I want to give them a shot as well. Right now, however, I need to explore options as to what “the threat” is and why it makes the main protagonist respond like she does (yes, I said “she”).

3: I managed to get myself sick again! Yay! Not really. It seems to be a minor cold that has gotten hold over me, laying me out from work for a couple days so far. It seems to be only a minor one however, more sapping any energy I have instead of the normal nasal and respiratory hell that a normal cold represents. Not how I wanted to spend my time, to be sure, but such is the way of things.

4: This last Sunday, I had my 24th birthday. Spent most of the day disconnected from the computer, or at least the online portion of it, but something struck me when I came back to it. Birthday notifications filled my bar, mostly all from Google+. This isn’t an unknown thing for me, having got notifs like this before (not nearly as many, mind you).

When I examined the notifs in detail, I was struck by a variable from each and every person that sent them. That detail? The countries they all came from. The USA (obviously), but also the UK, Germany (had to Google the translation and how to say “thank you” in German), Canada, South America, and more.

I think it struck me right then and there about how massive this thing is. Sure, this readership is quite small in comparison, but it’s built from people that aren’t even bound by a single country.

For the record, the single largest reason I write is because I love the ability to form and create a story, then pour it out and onto a page. To hell with money, this is the second biggest reason I had ever written stories. Maybe not even the idea of having a large readership, but having a diverse one.

Even this website’s statistics show where its views come from, and let me tell you, it’s from everywhere. France, Australia, Japan, Russia, Iceland, etc. To see that, to know that people from around the world are even offering a split-second glance, is an astounding thing that I am extremely grateful for.

5: So, what is the current battle-plan as far as commercial releases go? Well, novels are on a bit of a back-burner right now. The number one piece of praise I have gotten when it comes to Blood in the Machine was how the pacing seems to have felt solid and that it didn’t drag. Hearing that, and seeing that a novelette is capable of actually catching people’s attention, has lessened my desire to produce an overly long work.

Instead, I aim to focus more on some smaller works and have them as polished as I can. How I see this playing out is actually rather simplistic, start small and gradually grow bigger from there. I started this whole thing off with short stories, then I solo published a novelette. I know Salvaging Life is a bigger project, though I’m not sure if it is a full novel. After I spend some time with full novels, however, then I will break out the Dark Stars universe.

It’s a simple plan, but one that – I believe – should help pay out as far as experience and skills are concerned. After all, length of content isn’t something I am terribly concerned with, but more the quality of the work. I’d rather be known for producing higher-tier works, rather than just having a shelf full of half-baked projects.

That’s where we’re at, and I gotta say, it’s pretty exciting. We’re on the cusp of ending something old and poisoned, replacing it with something new and exciting. Always a good time to be had there, though it will definitely require a bit more planning before I sit down and start penning it. After all, with how I work, I need to know how it ends before I can even begin.

~ James.

In the aftermath…

It’s been just over a week since Blood in the Machine launched. I think now is a good time to sit back for a second and look at how things have cracked up.

It’s been borderline chaos, what with having to set things up and reorganize things in the wake of it all. Having to get in touch with Goodreads and get my account enrolled in the author program, contact M.S. Fowle (who did the cover work) and request an Author’s Spotlight (of which I am quite thankful for and can be found here), learning the Kindle portals and tools, etc. There’s been a lot of figuring things out.

At the same time, this website has also undergone a bit of a change. The Veil‘s release announcements are gone, a section of the article pages have been trimmed down, things a bit more organized on the menu to the left, and other changes.

It’s almost like cleaning up your house, which is normally a pig-pen, when you learn your distant family is coming over. Everything’s awkward, nobody really knows each other, and the host is trying to impress everyone he can while shoving old trash under the rug.

So, how has the launch gone? Outside of being chaotic, it’s been rather interesting.

The number of copies that have been sold has been above expectations. Then again, when you set you expectations for your debut solo piece to be 2 (one for each living parent), it’s easy to be pleasantly surprised.

We aren’t breaking big numbers here, but when you factor in how I’ve joined this race (an almost non-existent following, a completely unknown name, not much knowledge to draw from, etc), it’s quite surprising. There’s even our first review on GoodReads, something that made me smile both when I saw the sign that it was there, and also when I read it.

I think, however, what I’ve learned will definitely help expedite the process in the future. I know more about how and who to approach for artwork, edits, and so forth. The only thing that should be holding me back should be my own pace.

This doesn’t mean that I will suddenly break out and start shoveling half-baked stories out into the Kindle marketplace, don’t worry. I’m someone who gets incredibly paranoid about whether a story is good enough to stand on its own.

As for what’s next on the writing list, we’ve got the continued chapters with The Veil, and I am making headway on Beyond the Rift, though I hold some doubts on it.

With The Veil, we’re getting closer to the end, something for which I am thankful for. It’s not that I hate the story as a whole, it’s more that I see an insane amount of ways that it should have been designed differently. This version of it will definitely not be the final form of it, a re-write will be on the list of things to do.

Given how broken and fractured it feels, hiding it on the website for some time after it ends is a tempting prospect. I’m not entirely sure if I will or not, so if you want to voice your thoughts on it, go ahead.

As for Beyond the Rift, it’s definitely a first draft. There’s some fluff that needs to be cut out from what I’ve written, of that I’m sure. However, I think the foundation for a decent story is there, so it’s just a matter of trying to pry a good story out of it. It’s definitely not in nearly as bad of shape as The Veil is in.

For other stuff besides those two, I am actually looking at Salvaging Life, my former submission to Clarkesworld. Since it’s free of any word limit, I have some ideas of what I want to do to it. I’m going to start jotting down some notes to remind me, but I’m curious to see what I could do with it.

Firs thing I could do would be finding a better name. After that, expanding it drastically so I could make the plot grow and feel more natural. Maybe it’s just me coming down from the release last week, but it feels like the kind of story that Blood in the Machine started out as. That in mind, it makes me wonder if I can grow it into something more, something akin to how BotM came out.

Before that, however, a friend of mine has pointed out a couple continuity errors with Blood in the Machine that I will see about getting rectified with his help. After they are dealt with, I’ll upload the new version of the story as a soft-update on Amazon.

Once that is all said and done with, it will be back to the grind. I had let my writing schedule slack just a bit due to the release week and relaxing from it, but I’ve gotten back on track. 500 words a night at a minimum is a fairly easy goal to hit, yet it keeps me productive with time on my hands.

We’ll see how it all shapes out, but I’ve definitely got my hands full for a while. Then again, given how my mind spins things and how I work, I’ll have my hands full for another twenty years. Until the next time, however, enjoy the show.

~ James.