Lessons Learned In The Crossover

I’m not going to continue the business theme Amanda started and Chris Nuttall’s guest post continued. To start with, I’m balls at it, and thanks to the day job demands, I’m not really in a position to move past “hobbyist” by Chris’s definition.

Of course, the day job throws some interesting serendipity into things as well: today I stumbled across a bug that’s been in the system for at least 5 years (probably more like 10). It’s kind of obvious when it happens, but… it only happens under very specific circumstances (you know, if you chant the alphabet backwards while hopping anticlockwise around a summoning circle, and you get q and p in the wrong order, you’ll get an incubus instead of the succubus you were trying to summon). And hasn’t happened since it was introduced or we’d have heard about it (believe me, we’d have heard about it. If our customers don’t kick up the mother of all fusses, the customer service folks will).

What does this have to do with writing?

For a start, it’s damn near license to do whatever you want as long as you establish it as outside normal operations. So when Manly Hero tries to use the Sword of Rectitude to cut down the Tree of Ignorance, and it breaks, well, that’s not what the thing is meant to do. It’s meant to slice people open, for values of people that don’t typically include trees. You use a chainsaw for that.

Or the pirate crew flying a ship stolen from the mighty Slow’n’Steady Empire have your hero’s battered spaceship in their sights and they’re blazing away. You’ve taken too much damage to escape but the fellow from Slow’n’Steady is muttering about how they’re firing much too quickly and the guns just can’t cool down and might even… This of course is when the impressive Kaboom! happens, followed by the explanation that Slow’n’Steady don’t ever engage on a single ship basis. They have multiple ships firing at their target with a slow rolling pattern that gives each gun its 5 second cool-down time.

Or something. What it is and how it works is totally up to you.

That’s one lesson from today’s bug.

Another is that things change and people forget about things that used to be important, so you get some odd bits of stuff left over as changes accrete to anything that’s been around for any length of time. Which leads to odd corners and rooms with windows looking out to hallways or even other rooms. And years (or decades, or centuries) later, Young Hero is exploring the place and avoiding his tutors when he feels a bit of a breeze in the narrow corridor that seems to have been forgotten. He follows the breeze to find that there’s a spot where ancient mortar has crumbled, and if he works at it a bit he opens up a doorway that was bricked over long ago. So long ago, that the door itself is long gone.

Where Young Hero’s explorations take him is up to you. The point is that anything (including a culture) that’s been around long enough is going to have odd incomprehensible bits in it that hide things forgotten for ages, things which just might matter to your protagonist… Or she could be the fourth generation cutting the end off the leg of lamb because great grandma’s roasting pan wasn’t big enough to hold the entire leg (which is long enough for cutting the end off to become a Tradition and therefore not something you stop without a damn good reason).

Little touches like this where they don’t strictly matter add richness to your world building. Where they do matter you can use them to give your plots and characters extra depth.

Lesson three, though, that’s the big one.

Namely that – even though this bug has been around for ages and never happened to a customer – it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. It doesn’t matter that it’s never happened to a customer. It could happen. The same thing applies to how we authors conduct ourselves. We may never have been famous, or even notable, but if we don’t do the right thing now when we’re nobodies, we won’t do it in the future when (hopefully) we’re making gajillions and we’re a household Name.

And on that note, I’m going to go mess with a tree stump in the name of getting used to using a practice sword.


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57 responses to “Lessons Learned In The Crossover

  1. paladin3001

    Social bugs/traditions can get rather interesting. There are many anecdotes that fit here. Like the two extra men that stood beside the artillery piece with no discernable function in the modern army. yet they served a purpose a long time ago (spoiler: they were to hold the horses to keep them from spooking). Stuff like this is good flavor if done right. 🙂

    • And the odd, leftover bits can make worlds real, because we all know of something like that IRL. Like the sign reminding folks that they cannot pasture livestock in public parks. It was only removed three or four years ago, and was in a park that was developed long after the trail-drive days. But the law is still on the books.

    • Dan Z

      Two other examples of this sort of social tradition can be found in ancient warfare. One culture (the Assyrians, I believe) employed chariots with 3 man crews: a driver, an archer, and a guy holding a big shield to defend the other two against enemy archers. When they made the switch from chariots to cavalry you would think that would have essentially tripled their fighting power, but no. They deployed their cavalry in teams of three: a lead rider who held everyone’s reins in combat, an archer, and a guy with a big shield to defend the other two against enemy archers. The second example would be the Mycenaeans and neighboring cultures who seemed to employ their chariots more as battle taxis – elite warriors would driven into battle on chariots, the warriors would hop off the chariot, do their fighting, and then hop back on the chariot to be drive away when the fighting was done. Hundreds of years later, the Roman army had auxiliary units that were a mix of cavalry and infantry. Before engaging the enemy, each infantryman would take hold of a strap on a cavalryman’s saddle (some sources say the infantryman held the horse’s tail… I’m no expert on horses but that just seems like a horrible idea) and when the cavalry charged the infantry would just run alongside the horses until they made contact with enemy then the infantry would let go and get to fighting in sort of an echo of the chariot era combat.

      In both cases I imagine there was a time when people involved said “we do things this way because that’s how we used to do things with chariots” and eventually that evolved (or devolved, depending on how you look at it) into “we do things this way because… tradition!”

      • Kate Paulk

        Yep! The quasi-legendary space-shuttle transport needing to be designed to the width of two horse’s asses comes to mind.

      • Terry Sanders

        The *cohortes equitates* was a bit more sensible than that. I gather the idea was, the infantry could form a skirmish line and hold a position. The cavalry could hit the enemy, then fall back behind the shield wall and regroup to hit’em again.

        I read somewhere they had two men hanging off each saddle, so you could have, say, 200 horse and 400 light infantry suddenly show up more or less anywhere on the battlefield to exploit an opening. The footmen ran, so the horse wasn’t taking *all* the weight. It apparently worked, to some extent, at least.

        • Kate Paulk

          Most of these things start with something that worked really well. They just tend to hang on until the reason they started has been forgotten.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, yes. They really help to make the world feel real.

  2. “To start with, I’m balls at it,”

    BWAHAHAHA!!!!! Good one!

    As a fellow hobbyist (full time) I resemble that remark.

    • Kate Paulk

      Thanks 🙂 I do hope to eventually upgrade from hobbyist to professional, but it ain’t happening just yet.

  3. Terry Sanders

    Like the nova guns in *The Witches of Karres.* In the action scenes they were better than anything the pirates had; but Schmitz kept saying they were obsolete, unstable, and dangerous. Though Captain Pausert (portrayed as a sensible, cautious fellow for his age) never treated them that way.

    I finally decided they were like your Slow’n’steady weapons, only more so. Hell on wheels for the first ten or twenty shots. Then you either let them cool for an hour or two or started playing Russian roulette. Perfect for self-defense or pirate-chasing. Worse than useless in a fleet action.

    Since no sequels actually came out (one was rumored) I never knew. But it put *Venture 7333* on my short list of ships I wanted to own. Han was welcome to the *Millenium Falcon*…

    • There’s a story from WWII about a Japanese battleship that had amazing dangerous weaponry—but it couldn’t track low to the water, so they sent in tiny ships to plant mines on the sides. Sort of the reasoning used for the attack on the first Death Star.

      Could be true; could be apocryphal. Interesting idea, either way.

      • Draven

        Well, battleships are certainly vulnerable to fighters…

      • RCPete

        A variant on the Slow and Steady vs Hard and Fast is the comparison in aircraft and ship design in the Pacific in WW-II.

        Zeros were amazing fighters, with high power (both propulsion and fire) to weight, and the battleship Yamato had fearsome guns. On the other hand, (explained as a cultural thing), both were pretty low on armor. I read it as “No true samurai would spend weight on armor when he could use more weaponry”. The Zeros were devastating until folks figured that getting a round or three in the fuel tank did the trick. (Building planes that could swoop down on them and do the job took a bit of time; the first USA fighters were gawdawful.)

        The Yamato would have been deadly in a “fair fight”, ie, battleship to battleship. Somehow, nobody was willing to play by those rules. It (she?) was sunk on a mission to beach itself at Okinawa; lost to naval bombers and torpedo bombers. US battleships were used for the island invasions; shore facilities weren’t a good match to a 16″ shell.

        • Ben Yalow

          I’ll let others comment about the Zero’s armor.

          But Yamato was not only the battleship with the biggest guns (18.1″/45 vs Iowa’s 16″/50), she was also the best armored battleship ever. Belt 16.1″ vs Iowa’s 12.2″, deck 9.1″ vs Iowa’s 6″, turret face 25.6″ vs Iowa’s 19.7″. But, since the US STS steel made better armor than the Yamato’s, the advantage isn’t as big as it would seem. Parshall’s analysis at http://www.combinedfleet.com/f_armor.htm gives a slight advantage to the Yamato (better deck armor for Yamato vs better belt for Iowa).

          While the Kongo’s were underarmored, remember that their design was a pre-WWI British battlecruiser design, and those were designed underarmored. The rebuild between the wars added enough armor that they could sort-of be considered battleship-armored, nothing could fix their initial design.

        • aacid14

          In addition the Japanese didn’t do nearly as much continuing refinement of their arms. The zero was the stereotypical glass cannon but other American designs outclassed it in many of the Important characteristics. But yeah, Japanese armor was a major recurring Achilles’s heel. Iirc was also part of the vulnerability (no deck armor allowing penetration to hangers) of the Shoho (the carrier in “Scratch one flattop” )

          • RCPete

            As I recall, there were key operational differences; US carriers would drain the av-gas lines after refueling, while the Japanese didn’t, at least through Midway. Between that and chance, when they got caught refueling/rearming during Midway, they were in trouble. This cost them their cadre of experienced pilots and crew, to they were in a very deep hole after that battle.

            • aacid14

              Oh yes. But my understanding was at least some of the munitions penetrated flight deck into hangers.

          • snelson134

            Actually, no one built carriers with armored flight decks until the British started doing it in response to kamikazes. One big reason is that all that weight high up made the ship unstable in rough seas.

            • aacid14

              Alright. Must be mistaking with another issue. I remember a deck penetration issue but must be conflating it.

            • Ben Yalow

              The armored flight decks on the British aircraft carriers long predated the kamikaze. They really began with the Illustrious class, which were first ordered in 1937 and commissioned in 1940, and predated the US’s Essex class, which were first ordered in 1940 and commissioned in 1942.

              The armored flight deck had the advantage of small bombs not being able to penetrate, so some of the sort of hits that would break the wooden flight deck of an Essex wouldn’t impair the operations of an Illustrious.

              But there were several downsides, as well. Because there was so much weight topside, there were stability issues. And, because aircraft elevators broke the armored box, there were fewer of them, so bringing aircraft up from the hanger deck was more complicated (and British doctrine used hangar stowage, unlike US doctrine which used a lot more deck park). The hangar was also shorter, so the larger aircraft from later couldn’t be used.

              And the structural damage issues didn’t favor the British as much as it would appear. In an Essex, the hangar deck was the strength deck; the flight deck was superstructure, and hits that penetrated the flight deck didn’t affect the overall structure of the ship. But, if an Illustrious was hit, then the overall structure of the ship was deformed (particularly since there was a huge void inside the main hull, which made deformation of the hull much easier — the void of the hangar deck was outside the main hull of an Essex).

              There’s a reasonably good essay which discusses a lot of these kinds of issues in a lot more detail than a short post like this can go into at http://www.navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-030.htm

        • Terry Sanders

          A lot of it was also resources. No armor meant they could get incredible performance out of a light airframe and a small engine. The P40 and the F4F were, at best, barely a match for it. But we kept building planes with bigger engines, etc. Eventually we could build something with their power-to-weight rario, etc., AND the armor, etc. And they couldn’t.

        • snelson134

          The thing to remember about that armor is the additional weight cuts range, too. The Japanese were designing for long overwater flights. Once American planes got reliable drop tanks to increase the range, they could match that without giving up the armor.

    • Technically, there were two sequels, The Wizards of Karres and The Sorceress of Karres, both released by Baen, one in 2004 and the other in 2010. Of course, James Schmidt had had been dead for over two decades by then. Lackey and Flint wrote Wizards, while Flint and some guy named Freer wrote Sorceress. I’ve only read the original, so can’t really comment on the quality of the sequels.

      • I am sure they meant well and I am sure they are fun fanfic. But if I read them, it will be like admitting Schmitz is dead. Can’t do it.

        The netizen Gharlane of Eddore, may he rest in peace, did read the sequel as a beta reader. Unfortunately he was too trustworthy to make a copy.

      • Terry Sanders

        I read them. Not bad. But not Karres.

    • Kate Paulk

      It’s a valid design if you’re assuming that you’re not going to NEED sustained heavy fire – a strategy of “cripple the enemy and run like hell” tends to encourage that kind of design.

      • Terry Sanders

        Thus my affection for the *Venture.* “If you can’t solve it with six rounds of .44 Magnum you probably can’t solve it” doesn’t work for for a soldier or a cop, but it makes sense for many values of self defense. Especially when you can also run like hell.

        • Kate Paulk

          Exactly. A heavy umbrella with a good solid spike can serve the same purpose in an emergency, as can the Handbag of Holding (which usually carries enough weight to qualify as a cosh). I’d prefer the carry piece to have made those options unnecessary, though.

    • On a completely unrelated sidenote. I went and got a wordpress account the other day, in the hopes of making things easier. Now I see what that was a bad idea, as everything I post now goes immediately into ‘awaiting moderation’. That never happened before. *sigh*.
      Guess I shouldn’t have done that.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        That can be normal for wordpress whenever one’s handle is changed.

      • Kate Paulk

        You should be fine now – the system just kicks what it sees as “first time posters” into moderation purgatory until one of the mods lets your post through. And according to the computer, the John Van Stry with a WordPress account is not the same person as the John Van Stry without one (this is why computers are not going to replace human testers any time in the near future).

  4. The internet is forever. If you do something wrong, it CAN become known. All kinds of stuff is now stored on video, and some people have a LOT of time on their hands to scan through video of, say, presidential candidates.

    Just remember not to record things in tangible media if you wouldn’t say them in person, and you’re good to go.

    Love stories about software bugs, btw. When I was in grad school, back in the 1970s and the days of the Univac (whatever number it was), I had the bad habit of using computer programs as their manuals said they could be used – and finding things that no one had ever bumped into before. Programmers would point that out, as if it would make me not want to use their software, and I would counter with ‘it says I can do that, right there in the documentation!’ I forget how many of these I won and how many I lost, but I remember quite a few of them.

    • Kate Paulk

      Programmers tend to have an orthogonal relationship with documentation at the best of times, anyway. When documentation isn’t updated along with the software and users insist on following the manuals exactly instead of doing what the programmers expect them to do, well… You’re probably fortunate you didn’t open a portal to some eldritch realm.

      Oh wait. Of course you did. You’re posting here.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Once upon a time, I was the “on-call programmer” for a series of programs/jobs.

        The Operator Instructions included “what to do when this job fails”.

        Some times the “what to do” basically said put this aside until the programming staff comes in.

        However, the first thing those operators actually did was to call the “on-call programmer” instead of reading the instructions. 😦

        To make matters worse, the supervisors of these operators hadn’t told them to “read the instructions” but told them “call the on-call programmer”. 😦 😦

        Oh, funny story about this habit.

        The company that I was working for also did “telephone sales” so one of my co-workers was at a party and following her instructions had told the operations staff where to reach her.

        Well, her host answered the phone and thought it was a “sales call” as the idiot said “This is company name…” not “I’m trying to reach Mary Programmer”. So the host hang up on that “sales call”.

        Fortunately, the second time it happened “Mary Programmer” told the host that it might be for her. 👿 👿 👿 👿

      • My programming days were lots of fun – and a long time ago.

        I did try to document my own programs – I always ended up going back to them needing to change something. Documentation is a neverending task.

        I visit this eldritch realm daily, comment occasionally. Thanks for penning/typing the interesting posts.

      • *snickerfits at ‘documentation’, remembering a scene a few years ago*

        Housemate: I hate past me. I want to travel back in time, and punch younger me in the face.

        Me: Why?

        Housemate points to screen. I look. Apparently he was doing some minor update on some (now long defunct and no longer used) forum script related to giving everyone their timezone’s correct clock (?), and the documentation note next to the eldritch runes said “If you don’t know what this does, fuck you, you’re probably not supposed to be here anyway.”

        “I don’t suppose you know what this does, do you?” Housemate asks, in hopeful tones.

        “When did you write this?” I ask, just in case I was around while he was grumbling away, over whatever voice chat we were using at the time, writing this.

        “Uh… maaaybe 2000?”

        “I hadn’t met you yet.”


        *I poke tongue out at him in reply, since a ridiculous question deserves an equally undignified response*

        Other responses of documentation also involved insulting future self for forgetting what other lines of script did, suggesting going to see the doctor for Alzheimer’s – and other diseases, just in case.

        • snelson134

          And this is why you document. 😎

          Oh, and also put a note of why you did something. Because it’s a guarantee that the developer who looks at it has never heard of Chesterton’s Fence, and can’t conceive of looking before leaping. 😉

          • He was in his teens and in fairness, probably would’ve remembered if he hadn’t had to deal with the traumatic events that were an unfortunate side effect of choosing to live with disaster magnet me.

            On the other hand, I get greeted some mornings with ‘I coded up something while drunk and apparently it is awesome because the customer gave me a hundred dollars extra. Help me pick out something nice to hang on my wall on ebay and you can have 20 bucks to spend on there. I’ll make you coffee.”

            “Do you remember what it does at all?” (Says me with somewhat worried expression)

            “Nope! By the way we need more vodka. We will do groceries after ebay. The guy paid me more than the hundred. That was on top of the fee.”

            (Half the day later he remembers what it does and tells me.)

      • Draven

        Being someone who has written documentation i can say that programmers are also known to change how something is implemented after said documentation was turned in.

        • snelson134

          Which is why the project manager should demand documentation before counting the implementation as complete.

          Key word: should

          • Kate Paulk

            It’s rather like the world of Theory – wonderful place. Everything does what it’s supposed to do.

  5. Yes. Perfect, infallible, the right thing for every occasion . . . nope, not in real world, and as such, should not exist in the fiction world either.

    Of course an antagonist who thinks he is perfect and that his plan or weapon is infallible is always fun.

    • Kate Paulk

      You have to play that carefully, though. If you do it too often it gets old. “Waa? My unstoppable superweapon FAILED? Impossible!”

      “Dude, that’s the fifth unstoppable superweapon this month. You ever think the guys selling this stuff might not be quite on the level?”

      • Terry Sanders

        Somebody described THE FORCE AWAKENS as “What? ANOTHER one? Oka-a-a-y, where’s the shield generator, where’s the exhaust port, YOU GOT THOSE X-WINGS OUT OF THE SHOP YET, RALPH?”

  6. Mary

    You still gotta plant enough clues to ensure it doesn’t come out as a deus ex machina. Or not only plant it in the middle but ensure that complications ensue.

    We readers are more forgiving of things going bad — the sword breaks — than good — the pirates kill themselves — but our tolerance for either is limited.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, quite. You have to seed enough foreshadowing that when it happens it *fits*. If a reader walls the book, you’re not making any more sales to that reader.

  7. That’s a really cool idea. I’ll have to keep that in mind for some of my more made up worlds.