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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: In the Middle of the Pants

First off, I hope everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving had a wonderful one. I certainly did, and completely forgot to post anything as a result. Sorry…

Moving on. I’m continuing with the Pantser’s Guide posts, not least because I’m slowly crawling out of the hole made by the combination of that time of life and general work and other stress. I’m improving. Not quite back to my normal snark-tastic self yet, but getting there.

So without further ado, some advice on what to do when your find yourself lost in the middle of the pants.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: In the Middle of the Pants

Middles are often where pantsers have problems. There’s several reasons for this, but the big one is that we pantsers usually know the immediate future of the story, and have an idea how it ends, but what happens in between is pretty vague. With me the problem manifests in false starts — stories that I think have a novel, get anywhere from 10k words in up, then realize that there just isn’t enough there to sustain a novel. What tends to happen is that aspects of these false starts find their way into other books as subplots, or they get revived with extra material from a different false start.

So how to avoid getting stranded in the middle of the pants? It might be better than the damp crotch of the pants, but it’s still not a good place to be. Most of the legs have little ‘here be dragons’ signs, and it’s hard to find a viable way out. Sometimes you can’t even retrace your steps (we won’t talk about what happened to the pants in this case – you probably don’t want to know).

I can’t offer a definitive answer to this, and not just because I’m far from being without sin myself. The main reason I can’t say “do this, and it will work” is that every pantser is different, and extreme pantsers even more so. Everything from the mental exercises we use to switch on that precious flow of wordage from somewhere to the way the things we experience find their way into our writing is different.

That said, these are some of the things I’ve found helpful when stranded in the middle of the pants.

  • Writing exercises. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise, just something to get back into the mode of fingers on keyboard and words pouring out. I’ve personally found that the exercise of writing blog posts about writing helps to get my mind working the right way to write fiction.
  • Doing it anyway. Sometimes you’ve just got to struggle through even though it’s like pulling teeth. I’ve got more than one published short story that was done this way. This is where knowing the craft really saves your anatomy: you can produce something that might not be quite right, but it’s at least going in more or less the correct direction using craft alone.
    For pantsers, this isn’t easy, and it’s even less pleasant, but it can be done. If you’ve learned your craft well enough, you can find that ten years later not even you can tell which parts you had to fight and which ones flowed.
  • Reread and microplot. I mentioned a couple of sections back that I obsessively narrate the next part in my head, working through possible options that way. Sometimes rereading from the start of a stuck piece then mentally exploring where it goes from there is enough to unstuck.
  • Work on something else, and keep your fingers crossed. This is probably the most dangerous method of dealing with a story trapped in the middle of the pants. It’s why I have such a flourishing collection of starts. Sometimes you can mentally refresh by working elsewhere, and sometimes not.
  • Learn plotting, characterization, world-building and all the other techniques so you can recognize before you get stuck that the story isn’t novel length – then let it resolve in its own space. With the explosion of epublishing, you’re not held to the official lengths where anything that’s between 10K and 90K words is effectively unmarketable. That’s right. The novella is coming back.
  • Don’t start it unless you know where it’s ending. I know I’ve broken this one, but for less experienced pantsers, it really does help. By all means put it in your ideas file, however you handle that, but wait until the story give you some kind of resolution to the mess it’s handed you before you start to write. When I looked back over some of my old starts, recently, I found this was the problem with every single one. I had no idea what they were aimed at, so they got themselves lost in the desert of the pants legs.
  • On a related note, don’t start it if you don’t have at least some glimmerings of a story. It’s all very well to have a wonderful setting and fascinating characters, but if they’re just hanging around doing their normal thing, well, it’s fun to visit, but it’s not a story. Remember, “The King died then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. “The King died then the Queen died of grief” is a story (A pretty cruddy story, but a story nonetheless. The Queen did something because of what had happened, leading to an ending). Yes, I’ve done this, too. I’m not sure how many starts I’ve got where it’s basically interesting character having “adventures” in a neat location, but there’s nothing driving it and nowhere to go.
  • Look for the reasons and the motivations. This is possibly one of the scariest ways to get yourself out of the kudzu-infested middle of the pants, because you won’t actually know where you’re going or why. Here’s how it works for me: I know what got my character/characters into this mess. I know who they are and why they do things (mostly. I have a few who don’t think I need to know these things). So given where they are right now, what would they do next? Rinse and repeat until you get an idea of how to get out of the pants-kudzu.
  • Drop a mountain on them. By all means try to avoid this as a plot method, especially if the mountain is coming out of nowhere, but if you can go back over what you had and find some apparently innocuous act of your character(s) that could generate a really nasty blowback about now, use it. That mouthy peasant your knight smacked down is actually a spy for a rival, and he’s set up an ambush that your knight can walk into and barely survive. The magical oops your wizard made has done the butterfly effect and generated a massive storm targeted on him. The nonentity your space pilot killed in a bar brawl was the son of the space station owner, and when your pilot tries to land with low fuel and air reserves and a cargo of valuables, he’s nearly blown to pieces. The possibilities here are endless. If necessary, go back and insert the incident that triggers your mountain now. Just don’t go overboard – too much mountain dropping, and your readers will start getting suspicious each time the pace slows and be looking for the next one. Also, the words, “Yeah, right.” are the kiss of death. You get that response from anything, you need to insert extra foreshadowing or change what you did.
  • Above all, don’t be afraid to let it suck. Trust me, it’s better to have something that you finish and can fix than it is to have a lost start. Even if sometimes you can’t fix it just yet because it’s… well. The Epic with Everything comes to mind here. I can’t fix that yet, although despite its flaws it has pull. I just don’t have the skills to fix it, yet. On the plus side, it is finished.

This isn’t a complete listing, either. Anyone who’s run into other ways of dealing with the strange ways of the middle of the pants is welcome to add their suggestions for finding a good leg. I’d love to hear them – a new technique is always helpful.

Meanwhile, don’t despair. Strange as the pants are, there’s usually a trouser leg you can use.

But we LIKE Stays

So, why Regency romances?  Why on Earth does this, by far, dominate the historical romance field?  Other than Austen and Heyer that is?

Well, part of it is Austen and Heyer.  Giants tend to leave an outsized footprint in the fields they work in, even if the field (romance) was not exactly where Austen was working and even if the subgenre didn’t exist before Heyer.

But wait, there’s more!

I confess I don’t read much present-day romance.  I browse them sometimes, and they seem to start and end in bed, with often most of the middle being in bed also.

Look, I really am not a prude, as anyone who’s sat around with me at a con or other informal gathering can attest.  I might be the opposite of a prude.  I’ve proof-read friends’ erotica, for the love of bob, and my highest payment for a short story was for an erotica magazine (alas, short lived, but 2k for 6k words?  I’d do that again.)

It’s just that if I want to buy erotica, I buy erotica (rarely.  My imagination is better than theirs).  I don’t buy romance.  Romance should be relationships which are mostly missing from these so called romances.

So, yeah, I don’t read much of them.  (There are exceptions, as in romances that are more thriller or WIP or whatever.  In my book Rebecca is a mystery (I first read it in a mystery anthology) and apparently a lot of people agree with me.)

I — now — also don’t read much in traditionally published regencies, but I used to — always skipping past the inappropriately placed and jarring sex scenes — but I do read a ton on line, that are more like Heyer than the traditionally published ones.  They seem to do pretty well, too.

So why would they do well?  Why read them?

1- Romance benefits from restraints.  I think the reason contemporary romances go tumbling straight into erotica (at least absent the other structure like thriller or WIP) is that there are very few restraints to marriage these days.  “You love her?  Get married.”  “You want him?  Sleep with him.”  “You’re divorced? Have kids? No problem.  You can always start a new relationship.”
Absent those restraints, people have to invent the world’s dumbest things to bring conflict to the novel.  For a while I read a bunch of contemporary because someone had given me a box of them.  (Okay, the secret is out.  No, I can’t keep my mitts off books in this house.)  I got really tired of the “you lied to me” because the guy had forgotten to, or hadn’t disclosed his entire history the minute they met.  I got tired of willful misunderstandings (no, Pride and Prejudice wasn’t one) etc.

The Regency has manners and modes of doing things, and barriers on what you can do.  Regencies seem to succeed or fail depending on how close to the original manners and restraints they are.  No, you can’t be exactly right.  Look, if you read Austen, you come across situations where a character is being mocked, and you have no CLUE why.  You know they did something wrong, but their manners and ours are so different, you can only guess.

Heyer soft-pedals that more.  There might be some allusion to its being sinful to travel on Sunday, say, but she doesn’t go fully into the past, which, as we know, is a foreign country.

Most of the traditionally published regencies are more dress-up farces with thoroughly modern characters.  These leaves them two options: haranguing the past, with main characters who are suffragettes or run shelters for abused women and generally show how informed they are by rebelling against the past they’re supposed to live in; and sex.

Yes, really good writers can make this work, but really good writers can make anything work.  For the rest Regency is still slightly easier.

Even in dress up farces there are barriers they can invoke to happy ever after: previous marriages, being dishonored, etc.  It keeps us from having the conflict descend to the level of kindergarten spats.

2- Women like me.

Okay, here’s the thing, sure, partly because of my older brother, but partly because I was a serious, over-thinking kind of woman (a blue-stocking in Regency terms) I didn’t read romance till my late thirties.

Sure there are tons of reasons for that, including that skimming my older cousins’ books put me off it.  BUT the more important one is that romance seemed… senseless to me.

Sure, it’s a very important personal decision.  And yeah, even when we’re dragged kicking and screaming into it, we too fall in love.  BUT reading about it?  Over and over again?  When we know it ends in happily ever after?  What is the point?

Regencies have the advantage of us knowing that in that time and in that place romance was as much a business arrangement as anything else.  Who you married, certainly for a woman but to an extent for a man too, could make or break your entire life.  Sure, it still can but it’s less obvious now, and these aspects are certainly not brought up in contemporary romances.

So you can read it and evaluate the love interest as “she’ll be the making of him” or “he’ll ruin her” and it raises the stakes on the whole thing.

There are other reasons for Regency to be popular too.  The Regency era was very much a time when men were men and women were women.  The class about whom these romances are (no, it wasn’t the majority of people) is comfortable enough that if you don’t dwell into matters of plumbing or lack of antibiotics, you can make it a “glitz romance” a place where people can spend time in their minds and enjoy being “rich” in fantasy.  It was also, while still incredibly stifling by our standards, a time when restraint wasn’t as strictly enforced as in the preceding and succeeding era, so you can have saucy misses who do not pay the price for their sauciness.

There is kind of a structure that goes with them.  These are told mostly in the woman’s POV (though Heyer, and some modern practitioners — Madeleine Hunter is a good one — interject the male POV too.)

Usually the idea is to start with the woman in her normal life, having some kind of problem that she can’t solve and might not be aware of.  (In Venetia, for instance, it is obvious she is incredibly lonely.  But she doesn’t know it.)

There are rumors/accidental meeting with a man.  Almost always the man has a dangerous reputation — the field is littered with Dangerous Dukes and Rakish Rogues — which makes the woman distrust him.

Meetings continue happening and for a while she interprets everything he does as meaning he’s despicably rakish or a loose fish, or too proud (Really read Heyer’s Sylvester) but at the same time she feels inexplicably attracted to him.  The writer needs to call attention to his acts of kindness to her, etc, which is harder if you don’t have his POV, but perfectly possible.  If you also have his POV you need to show the same from his side.  This is where a lot of modern regency writers have sex happen and the two be smitten by the glittery hoo ha and the man with the golden gun.  But that’s not NEEDED.  (All I can say is that after regencies started putting in sex, there was a brief uptick, because people who normally didn’t read them read them for the erotica, but then print runs headed straight down.  Part of this is the net, yah.  If we want erotica there are easier and cheaper ways.)

At some point, usually associated with a crisis in the woman’s life (in Pride and Prejudice it is Lydia’s elopement) the man comes through brilliantly, and for the first time she sees him in his true colors, and realizes either his character was maligned or, if you’re a really good writer, and Heyer does this a lot, his character really has these issues, but there is a reason to them, and he’s either realized and he’s trying to improve, or she can live with them.

And then it remains only to clear the debris of the plot: his fixing his mistakes; her deciding she can live with them and overcoming all opposition, etc, in order to reach the happily ever after.

Some of the traditionally published regencies bolster their back bone with mysteries or thriller elements.  The best of the modern romances do too.

Upcoming: There’s a mystery in my romance!

 

Something to think about

I had this morning’s topic all picked out and ready to go. I really did. It was an article from Author’s Guild about why author’s can’t make a living writing any more. But something about it bothered me. The article was several months old for one thing. For another, it didn’t say anything new. It was the same “evil Amazon”, “bad indie authors” and “worse, information shouldn’t be free” argument we have seen so much of coming from them. Deciding I needed a new topic, I did something I haven’t done in quite awhile: I wandered over to the Romance Writers of America website and found some information that is not only interesting but of the sort I wish other professional organizations made easily available to everyone, not just their membership.

If you scroll partially down the page, you will see a link to “Who’s Reading Romance?” Curious, I followed the link. Then I looked around a little bit more and found another link to genre statistics. I’m surprised by the information they give, not only by the detail of that information but because they make it available to anyone who visits the site instead of hiding it behind their membership log-in. That act alone is enough to make me consider renewing my membership with them. But that is for another time.

I won’t go over all the information they supply, but I do urge each of you to go take a look. Whether you identify as a romance writer or have romance as an element in your writing, it is good to keep this information in mind. (Caveat: the stats aren’t as up-to-date as those provided by Author Solutions but they still tell an interesting story.)

in 2015, e-books accounted for 61% of romance genre purchases (refers to traditionally published titles). Mass market paperbacks held a 26% share and publishers’ favorite hard covers held only a 1.4% share. Consider that and then consider how publishers are still trying to convince themselves that e-books aren’t a major part of the market and that demand, assuming publishers figure out reasonable pricing, won’t continue to grow their share of the market.

The typical romance buyer is female (duh), between 30 – 54 years old and from the South. Note this because it is something we don’t often see when looking at this sort of information. The average romance readers makes $55,000/year. Also — and this is very important — 61% read as much romance as they did the year before this study was done and 23% are reading more. That means the field is not suffering the loss of readership other genres are but it is continuing to expand — and this is for traditional publishing. I guarantee you, it is expanding on the indie front as well.

Some other interesting information:

  • Top romance subgenres by format read primarily:
    • Print: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); erotic romance (33%); New Adult (26%); paranormal romance (19%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (17%).
    • E-book: romantic suspense (48%); contemporary romance (44%); erotic romance (42%); historical romance (33%); paranormal romance (30%); New Adult (26%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (14%).
  • Top 10 popular romance tropes: (1) friends to lovers; (2) soul mate/fate; (3) second chance at love; (4) secret romance; (5) first love; (6) strong hero/heroine; (7) reunited lovers; (8) love triangle; (9) sexy billionaire/millionaire; (10) sassy heroine

I’ll admit, I like this information since, when I wander into the romance genre, I write romantic suspense. It means I’ve been reading the market right, always a concern for an author and especially an indie author.

Keep in mind this does refer to traditionally published books. Even so, there is some important information here:

Top 10 ways romance buyers are most likely to discover new romance authors or titles to read (ranked from most likely to least):

(1) Browsing in a bookstore
(2) In person recommendation from people you know
(3) Browsing online book sites
(4) Best-seller lists
(5) From books I’ve sampled
(6) Following favorite authors on social media
(7) From book recommendation lists
(8) Library or library staff recommendations
(9) Book review blogs and sites
(10) From online retail sites that recommend based on what I’ve bought/read before

Looking over this list, I find I do each of the above except browsing in a bookstore. Now the question becomes “How do we, as writers, utilize this information and especially this last list?” That’s the million dollar question and it is one that applies to all genres. Part of it is networking. We need to be better about not only doing our own blogging but recommending books and authors we know and like. We need to open our blogs to them and they to us. We need to use our social media sites like FB, Twitter and Google + better. Finding that happy medium where we keep our name and our work out there but without over-saturating our feeds. I’m trying to learn to do a better job but I’m still working on it.

Kudos to RWA for remembering that the best way to get new members is to give them something free — in this case, information — to hook them. Sort of like the Baen Free Library. Or, also borrowing from Baen, snippets from something you’ve written. Since I need to follow my own advice, here’s a short snippet from Slay Bells Ring:

“What’s wrong?”

I sat at the kitchen table and looked longingly at the coffeemaker. I had pressed the brew button as the phone rang. I’d reached for the receiver instinctively, even before my brain registered what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I had finished a three week long capital murder trial the previous Friday and had the day off. If one of Austin’s movers and shakers – or, more likely, one of their kids – had managed to run afoul of the capital’s finest, there was always the chance I’d be called out to make sure the little darling did not get out of jail. My boss loved trotting his top prosecutors out in front of the media to prove he didn’t play favorites when it came to the rich and politically powerful of Austin.

“Gran?” I prompted when she didn’t immediately respond.

“It’s your mother.”

What started as a general sense of dread flared and I fought down the panic that replaced it. “Is she all right?”

“Oh God, Annie, I don’t know.”

I relaxed a little. If she was back to calling me Annie, things couldn’t be too bad. Could they?

“Just tell me what’s happened, Gran.”

“Annie, she’s been arrested.”

I swear I moved the receiver away from my ear and stared at it, halfway expecting to find it had changed into a banana or something. It certainly couldn’t be a telephone and I most definitely couldn’t have heard correctly. There was no way, absolutely no way in the world, that my oh-so-proper mother could have been arrested.

“Say again.”

“Your mother’s been arrested.”

“Why?”

I couldn’t fathom it. My mother’s no saint, but she certainly isn’t the sort who goes around getting into trouble with the law. Man trouble? You bet. Butt heads with the family? Absolutely. She’d make that into an Olympic event if she could. But she had never done anything more serious than get a speeding ticket. The only possible explanation I could think of was that she’d had too much to drink and had been picked up for DWI. That wouldn’t surprise me, not with Mama’s love for a good cabernet and even better bourbon and the current push across the state to get drunk drivers off the road. But even that didn’t feel right.

“Annie, it’s bad.” Gran choked back a sob and I waited, doing my best not to snap and tell her to get to the point. “Drew just called to tell me.”

Drew? Why hadn’t my twin called me?

I stood and, taking the receiver with me, hurried to my bedroom. I had to do something. I’m never my best in the morning, but dropping something like this on me before coffee and then not getting to the point . . . .

“Annie, they’re saying your mama killed Spud Buchanan.”

“What?”

I must have heard wrong. For one thing, if my mother ever decided she wanted anyone dead, she’d find someone to do the deed for her. She’d never risk getting her hands, or her designer clothes, dirty. For another, she was smart enough not to get caught, at least not by the local cops. Okay, my brother might be a member of the Harkin County Sheriff’s Department, but murder wasn’t something they saw very often. In fact, there was little serious crime in the county. So, unless they caught someone standing over the body with the smoking gun or dripping knife in her hands, they’d be hard-pressed to make a case without help from an outside agency.

“They’ve charged your mama with Spud Buchanan’s murder,” Gran repeated. “From what Drew told me, they found her dressed in her nightie, standing over his body.”

The world came to a screeching halt. There could be only one explanation for what was happening. I had fallen down the rabbit hole into some warped alternate reality. It wouldn’t be long before the Cheshire Cat showed up, followed shortly by the Queen of Hearts demanding my head.

 

Recovery Time

Now, it is true that I am tough as a junket sandwich. Anyone telling you otherwise has never met ‘real’ tough. None-the-less I do some fairly hard and energetic things, somewhat erratically. I wouldn’t know a gym if it jumped up and bit me on the leg, and I always wonder how the energetic people who do get to regular gym sessions find the time. I admire them for their dedication, but between writing, failing to grow my garden (well, for certain values of ‘fail’) and harvesting our own seafood and wildlife, and processing them same, Ambos, trying to get the new farm sorted, not to mention the wasted time on such essentials as facebook…

Yes. Well I really have to cut back on the last one. But what I was talking about was the dive-trip I left for at around 5 AM on Saturday. I ended up spending around 5 hours down at 40 feet, swimming against the current, which is pushing my body and 29 pounds of lead around, into caves, cracks and crannies. I’m a fat old man, but I can still do this…

I used to be able to spend 8 hours in the water, clean the boat and catch, and still have energy left, and do the same the next day. Or to go rock-climbing. I must have been a nightmare to live with.

I probably still am, the only difference being if you asked me to go to and dive or climb or do anything more energetic (even mentally) than stare at facebook the next day… the spirit is willing, but the flesh ought go to the gym more regularly. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know how much that would help. Despite not following a planned and regular regimen – which would be good – the sheer amount of physical labor I do keeps my pulse rate somewhat below 60. It’s not just needing to be fitter and less fat.

It’s just the grim fact that the older you get, the longer your recovery time is.

It’s kind of like why raising infants at 25 is physiologically easier than at 45 – although your maturity and experience may make the task easier – the interrupted sleep, or straight lack of sleep is easier to cope with when you’re 25, to say nothing of the hyper-awareness and constant running, carrying, soothing etc. that energetic toddlers add to your life.

So what does this all have to do with writing?

Well, especially if you want to write for a living… it’s honestly a young mug’s game. Success definitely comes at the cost of a huge amount of hours and work (unless of course you happen to be a favored darling getting an easy ride) plus a lot of stress.

Not that older writers can’t work, or can’t produce – but look at the lag phase between books. There is a clear linear relationship with how long and how much a writer has produced. It affects different people differently, obviously. Some are harder and slower to break down than others – we’ve seen that here on MGC – where several authors have come… and gone – at very different rates. And the old warhorses plod on. But it is harder yakka than it was all those years back when we started.

Look, we speak of an inevitable reality here – whether I speak in terms of diving, or writing. It’s going to happen.

What cannot be cured… must be coped with as effectively as possible. I’ve been going through a very rough patch, with writing myself – a lot of stress with Barbs being sick (and, um, she’s sick again. I am in fear of starting this all again. Fear of worse.) and my old dog… well, the vet and I not sure what the hell is going on there – but she’s waking me 2-3 times a night. She doesn’t appear in any major distress, or have any real reason. She just barks or cries until I come. just… I don’t know. Maybe she just wants dad. She likes attention and she sleeps most of the day. She’s old, loyal and… well, what else can I do? I sit with her, pet her and she goes back to sleep. Or she wants me to go out with her – the door is open the night is mild. She’s 18 and labby. That’s old and deserving of my care, and she’ll have it as long as she is comfortable and still enjoying her food and life, regardless of me losing sleep. But the broken sleep isn’t a help with writing – as most young parents with kids will tell you.

When I add Australia’s ridiculous-for-remote-rural-bureaucratic nonsense that I am wresting through with trying to build (almost entirely expensive and worthless rent-seeking) and the usual other joys of publishing (the endless waiting, the late payments etc etc.)… well, I’m fairly frazzled. Serious escapism has been very occasional. I’ve actually taken a day fishing and a day diving in the last 3 months – the freezer is getting low.

And my writing has slowed to glacial crawl. It’s good… when it happens. But it’s blood from a stone. And yes, I need to write – because that at least helps the finances, which add stress.

So: it’s what to do to try and get the writing going and flowing?

I can’t really alter the stress factors. Taking a major break, with lots of sleep and no worries – well, Hell might freeze over regularly first. I can’t relax while these things hang over me.

The best I can do is occasionally indulge in counter-stress (diving or climbing are both good. I don’t think about writing, or Barbs, or the dog, or the #$@ing bureaucrats then.)

But I have decided on three other steps.

  • I’m going to take a week’s break from the internet.
  • I’m going to try and read a few novels, and not in snatches.
  • I’m working on a disciplined ‘writing time’ again.

I’m up for any other ideas.

Ah holidays

If you haven’t figured it out, the Mad Geniuses have been enjoying time with their families this week. Okay, I’m sure a few of us even ventured out to shop on Black Friday (shudder). I know I speak for all of us when I say we hope everyone had a fun and safe Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday and whatever the catch word is for today.

I will even admit to having just rolled out of bed and realizing it’s my day to blog. Since I haven’t had coffee, cogent blogging isn’t going to happen. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to throw the floor open for you guys to talk about whatever you want to when it comes to books and publishing. If you have any questions, ask them. We’ll be checking in throughout the day to answer.

There is something else I want you to consider. There are five Fridays next month. That means we have one day without someone scheduled to post. Tell us what you would like to see. Do you want a guest post — and, if so, would you be willing to write one and on what. Or would you rather see one or more of the bloggers here put together a silly tale of entering the New Year?

Now I’m off to find coffee and see if my brain won’t wake up. The floor is now yours.

Watching Anime: A Study in Story

This holiday I managed to find myself with one kid at home. Two of my daughters are up at college – one in her dorm, the other visiting – one is with her grandmothers, and my son is at home. He’s blissfully pretending that he’s an only kid for four days, and for the baby, that’s a big deal. One of the things he asked me to do with him was binge-watch a movie series, which we eventually bargained down to an anime series, because I refuse to admit there are more than three Star Wars movies, and he prefers the newer ones to the one I know and love. So he went through the various anime that are on Netflix, asking me what genre I like, and when I pointed out I will not watch a chick-flick (his words, not mine!) and he’s not allowed to watch an MA rated one, we wound up settling on one that is sort of fantasy but the situation is precipitated in a science fiction way.

Silica, Kirito, Asuna, and Liz

I’ve been finding it… interesting. I’m very aware that the story is targeted more at my 12-yo son than it is at the 40-yo me, much less the me that is also a professional teller of tales. I’m still trying to convince my son that he doesn’t need to pause the show every so often and explain the plotline to me. I don’t know if he thinks I can’t follow it because anime, or if he just wants to show off that he knows it. The storytelling is very broad, which makes sense. You have a whole over-arching story plot, but in each twenty-minute episode there’s a sub-plot. I’m very much not a film geek, so I’m finding it a good exercise in study. The tropes are certainly tropey, and even though it is ostensibly a Japanese anime that has been redubbed in English, there are a lot of American or at very least Western tropes, like Santa Claus appearing in one episode (called Nicholas the Renegade, which amused me a lot and I liked the concept of that). The dubbing is amusing- you have a variety of options, to turn on the audio in Japanese, or English, to turn on closed captions in either of those languages, and most of yesterday we had it on in English with English subtitles running, and I noted that often the dialogue in print was not the same dialogue spoken. Curiously, this actually makes a difference. For instance, there’s a scene where the female character tells the male ‘I think I’m falling in love with you’ out loud in English, but the subtitle reads ‘I like you.’ Translation is tricky, culture is more so, the English dialogue is often much more detailed than the direct translation, like they think we need a bit more words to get the message without the tone of the spoken words in Japanese.

I’m going to bet a bit spoilery, but I don’t think any of my readers will mind. However, if you plan to watch Sword Art Online and haven’t yet you might want to stop reading now. The pilot opens with a long intro bit about this super-popular MMO game that is a virtual reality, and we see a montage of people waiting in line to buy it, and one guy (kid? hard to tell with anime art how old) who was a beta tester alreay going into the game. The game is, as the name implies, centered around the art of the sword. But once these new excited players are in the game, they figure out there is no way to log out, and then the player characters are all told that the game designer booby-trapped the VR helmets so they can’t leave the game, if someone takes off the headset it will microwave their brain and kill them. If they die in the game the headset will microwave their brain and kill them. The only way out is to clear the game.

I have so many questions at this point: how do they know this guy is on the level? If a player leaves the game, there’s no way to know if he’s dead or alive IRL, it could just all be a mindgame. And how is the player’s body being kept alive IRL? How are they going to cope if, after months (yes, the shows I’ve seen so far imply months if not years passing) of becoming a super-swordsman they win the game and come back to a body that has no muscle mass and must re-learn how to walk? Anyway…. this is what suspension of disbelief is for, right? I’ve hung mine pretty high and occasionally hit it with a cudgel to keep it quiet so my son can enjoy watching TV with mom, a rare treat for him.

And the show has it’s moments, don’t get me wrong. The mini-romances are handled sweetly and very lightly, as befitting a juvenile show. The scene I referenced earlier led to a lot of blushing but nothing more. The violence, such as it is, is very computer-graphics and looks like something out of a computer game. There was one scene my son felt he needed to warn me about where a character is shown in bra and panties – you know the bikini sets from about 1950? yeah, they looked a bit like that. It was cute. The whole thing is cute. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to use for my writing, but it’s an interesting study in building a character in thumbnail sketches. The main character starts out a shy loner, and sort of stays that way, but along the path to beat the game we see him do things like diverting the building anger against beta players who the new players are trying to blame for the disaster, by telling a big group that he knew more than the betas, and they should hate him, instead. They stop frothing up a riot against the betas and turn their anger on him, which was his point, taking away the division.

I can’t say I recommend it, exactly. But I do think that there are things we can learn and pull from the visual that can add to the textual of writing, especially if you are writing for a younger crowd that is used to things like anime. 

No Mo NaNo

No Mo NaNo–A blast from the past since this is the second day of nothing new . . .

It’s the twenty fourth of November and my novel is [pick one]

(A) Finished. And it’s only X words!
(B) Boring. I just can’t make myself do more.
(C) Chaotic. It doesn’t make any sense.
(D) Other.
(E) I haven’t a clue!

Welcome to the last week of NaNoWriMo, where we all despair! Let me throw out some ideas that might help you get going again.

Finished? Ha! Go back a make a searchable mark (I use ///) everyplace where you told us about something instead of showing us, instead of pulling us into the situation.

Then go back to the start and search those out. Rewrite them. Use lots of dialog. Don’t be stiff and terse. Have some fun. Have your hero call something pink. Have your heroine disagree. “Don’t be silly! It’s obviously a soft dusty salmon.” “It’s a fish?” Or flip the genders on it. He’s an artist, he sees these colors. Make the reader laugh. Or cry. Or get mad.

Then go to the next mark and rewrite that bit. Do them all.

Boring? Tell me, what is the story problem and why does it really, really matter to the main character(s)?

Oh, it doesn’t really matter? Make it matter. Or pick a different MC to whom it does. No, you don’t have to start over. _Add_ the POV of the formerly secondary character. Go to the start and see if you can insert chapters from the new POV. Give us a new angle on the problem.

How many try/fail sequences have you written? What do you mean the MC never failed? No wonder it’s boring. Make the solution harder, have him or her try and fail at least two times. Or three or four. Then have a black introspective moment. Have the MC realize he’s using the wrong technique and going about it all wrong/afraid to get hurt/afraid of the consequences of success/too damned stubborn to admit he’s part of the problem. Or whatever is appropriate to your story. Then grit his or her teeth and commit to the fight.

Chaotic? Hey it’s a first draft, coherency is not a requirement. You might think about where you want this story to wind up at. If the story has grown beyond—or sideways to—your first goal, think up a new one. It may change again, but for now it’ll give you something to aim at. If you never had a goal, now’s the time.

They say, don’t data dump, but do you have enough world building? For a first draft, large chucks of background aren’t all bad. In December, when you start editing, you can spread the info out and present it in more tasteful morsels, where needed. Sometimes in different forms, several times if the information is crucial. Then it becomes clever foreshadowing. _Don’t_ dwell on it if it isn’t majorly important. A book I just read by one of my favorite authors mentioned the city being built on the side of an active volcano over and over. Darn thing never erupted! I felt cheated by a lack of volcanic violence.

Other techniques that could help?

Add a romantic interest? Already got one? How about a rival? Maybe an old flame shows up at an awkward time?

Mess up your character’s time table with weather problems? Traffic accident? Sick child?

Speaking of accidents, if your hero is just too formidable, a leg in a cast or a summer cold with a horrible hack-up-a-lung cough dragging on . . .

Add a minor annoyance who causes just enough of a complication to mess up something.

Add a dog or cat. A parrot with a foul mouth.

Add a second (or third or forth) POV character. _If_ that would help. Is the villain of the story a POV character? If not, think about adding him or her, or perhaps his or her evil step daughter.

Add more internal thoughts, to pull the reader into the POV character’s head, it could explain a few things that would be awkward in dialog. You can give your POV character’s opinion of a person or place, or orders, while they smile on the outside and take it.

Did you give your MC some interesting quirks or hobbies? Make sure he think about them, gets interrupted while doing them and so forth.

Speaking of interruptions, what was you character doing just before the scene started? Does she hastily abandon something? Does he carefully put away all his tools, save perhaps the crowbar before he heads for the latest fight? Make them human with exasperating delays and irritations. Bad habits and good. A nagging spouse or parent.

If all you need is a relatively minor number of words, try more scene description. Do you have sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch cues in every scene? Try adding some over-done descriptions just for the practice. But don’t go back and do this until the whole story is written.

So. If you’re stuck, tell us about it. You have a ready made resource, right here, of people who can throw you twice as many suggestions as you could possibly want.

Oh, and no mater how badly the story is going, don’t kill your main character. No matter how much he or she deserves it. Humiliate him, and make him realize what a jerk he’s been to not follow your plot. Then put him back to work solving the problem. Think tough love.

And get your butt in the chair, the fingers on the keyboard, and the internet OFF!

Jane Austen, Mother of Romance

There were romances before Jane Austen.  By which I don’t mean what was called Romance in her day, but what is called Romance now: a plot circling around romantic love.

Heck, Romeo and Juliet is a romance, and for Portugal it has a very Happy Ever After.  Never mind.  Cultural differences.

But the romances of her time tended to the overblown and a little crazy, more “soap opera” like than even our current ones.  (BTW there must be something to the human mind that likes characters coming back to life, convoluted ah… genetic situations, etc. because they show up so often in the Greek Myths which were the first fan-written soap opera.  Well, fan told.  Whatever.  That’s a side spur.)

I find it interesting that in modern romances, even the regencies, even retellings of Price and Prejudice (Amazon is full of them, fanfic, and fetching pretty good prices, too. Look up Price and Prejudice Variations or Sequels. No, I won’t promise NOT to write them) in which anyone who stands between the lovers must be an awful guy, like murder awful.

For Jane Austen, villains were more… familial villains.  People so selfish and self-centered or so immoral and vengeful that they destroy the lives of those they touch, which has nothing to do with actual crime.

But hey, I enjoy those too, just not as much as Pride and Prejudice, which is arguably Jane Austen’s best known/appreciated work.

I actually like Persuasion better, because it’s the sort of thing I might have fallen into when I was young.

However, all of Jane Austen’s novels are precisely “characters realize their flaws that are preventing them from happiness and get over them.”

They’re also, weirdly, not particularly romantic in the sense of pink covers and flutter-perfume.  Every time I hear a guy — or a girl, but it’s usually a guy — talk about how they don’t read “that trash” referring to Austen I know they’ve either watched the REALLY BAD movie where P & P was set in Texas and was all about “Lurve” or the even more attrocious recent movie.  Let’s just say the “we’re all fools in love” final line would make Miss Austen twirl in her grave fast enough to generate electricity.

What you have to remember about Austen’s romances is that at the time of the regency marriage was SERIOUS business.  All classes, really.  There is a reason merchants usually married merchant daughters, and Lady Catherine wasn’t actually wrong in telling Elizabeth Bennett that she shouldn’t wish to quit the sphere in which she was raised.  Knowing a bit more about Regency England, she was more or less setup to be eaten alive by Fashionable London TM after her marriage.

But all her heroines have some incentive to get married that have nothing to do with “lurv”.  In P & P it’s the fact that they’ll be broke if at least one of the five daughters doesn’t marry very well indeed.  In Persuasion it’s getting away from her horrible relatives.  In Emma it’s that she’ll never grow up otherwise, and end up like her father (which becomes obvious.)

These are real world problems and to escape them, the protagonists need to be rational and act within strict rules.  Not our rules, but strict rules nonetheless.

Heyer, btw, does much the same as Austen, but more in the fashionable world, and a higher class.  It’s the people and their interaction that matter, and though some of the books — groan  Cousin Kate — tend to the Gothic Romance, most just deal with ordinary people and ordinary problems, and yes, love, but love in the context of the rest of life, and of someone who will be a “help meet” and a friend, as well as a lover.

In a way, Jane Austen started the romance, because she shifted the focus from “out and doing” to the interior “connecting and being.”  (IMHO you need both for a decent book, and even her books have some action.)  Heyer, writing for a more modern audience, added more action (and in The Toll Gate a bit of mystery.)

New York publishers don’t seem to understand this.  At some point one or more of them heard about “porn for women” and took it literally, so there is a strong emphasis on graphically described sex, and less on the emotions.  And since at one point every one of their heroines was either a suffragette or ran a shelter for abused women, and people got tired of that, they added more sex to bring people in.

It does bring people in, just IMHO again, a fraction of the ones that could come in if the focus (sex or not, though 0 to anal in three pages in a regency is a bit much) were more on emotions and relationships and less on sex.

I don’t precisely have anything against sex in books.  I mean, I don’t seek it out, but I also don’t think it should never ever ever be there.  I just think if it’s there it should advance the plot and mean something for the characters and their future development.

I’m as capable as the next woman of imagining breasts being fondled or other stuff, and my imagination is better, thank you.  Reading it just mostly bores me.

And as a lot indies are proving, you don’t need sex, particularly in a regency.  You need what Austen had, to sell.  You need interpersonal relationships and people to flawed to reach for the brass ring.  You need the process by which they become worthy of each other, and functional adults.  And even people who have atrocious grammar are doing pretty well at that.

So, next up: Regency Romances.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving a few days early

Between the knee (torn MCL, medial meniscus and more) and the fact the first of the Thanksgiving company arrives later this morning, writing a post was the last thing on my mind. I considered putting up an open floor but decided to do something I’m not great at — promoting my own work. Below is a snippet from Sword of Arelion, the first book in my Sword of the Gods series.

The second book of the series, Dagger of Elanna, is also available for purchase. The third book, tentatively titled Foil of the Gods, will be published Spring 2018.

The snippet below is not the opening scene but comes near the beginning of the book.

*   *   *

She stared at her hands where they rested in her lap, fingers clasped so tightly together it hurt. But that was nothing compared to the pain lancing her ribs with every breath she took or that where the tavernmaster’s belt had broken the skin of her back. Not that pain was anything new to her. It had been her almost constant companion for so long she now expected it.

What she wasn’t used to was being the center of attention. Her master had told her to never bring attention to herself. Having so many eyes watching her, so many people discussing her as if she wasn’t even there unsettled her. If she could, she would flee the room but something told her that would not be allowed.

So she sat as still as she could, praying they would soon leave her be. Her master would be so angry when they did. She hurt now but it would be nothing compared to what he would do to her once they were alone. Blessed Elanna, why hadn’t she tried to give Master Longbow her mid-day meal sooner? If she had, her master would have been none the wiser.

“What is your name, child?”

She lifted her head slightly and studied the young man kneeling in front of her. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looked like so many who frequented the tavern. But he wasn’t one of those she had served. She would have remembered his fancy clothes. Then she remembered the others had called him duke. What did he want with her?

Unsure, afraid of what Giaros might do should she answer, she glanced to her left. Longbow sat at her side, his expression concerned and yet oddly reassuring. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and nodded. He wanted her to answer the young man. The duke, she reminded herself. She had trusted Longbow before but could she now?

“H-he calls me Sparrow.” She spoke softly, so softly the words were barely audible. Still, they sounded almost like a shout in the silence of the common room.

“And your age?”

“H-he told me eighteen winters.” Without taking her eyes from the duke’s face, she nodded to where the troopers held Giaros in place.

“Child, don’t you know how old you are?”

She heard Longbow’s concern and tears pricked at her eyes as she shook her head. There was so much she didn’t know, but how could she tell them that?

“No.” If possible, she spoke even softer than before. Why couldn’t they leave her alone?

“Child, look at me.”

Something about the voice made her comply. She looked up from her hands as someone knelt next to the duke. The stranger, the one who had tried to protect her from her master, knelt there, his expression troubled. He reached out and she started nervously. He paused and then gently brushed a lock of hair back, revealing more of her face than she had let anyone see in so very long.

“Child, my name is Fallon Mevarel. I am a knight of the Order of Arelion. I swear you have nothing more to fear. I will make sure nothing else happens to you.” He spoke softly, almost as softly as she had, yet there was such confidence in his words and the way he looked at her that she wanted to believe him. But how could she? She had learned the hard way how foolish it was to trust anyone but herself. “Will you answer a question for me?”

She nodded almost reluctantly.

“You said the tavernmaster calls you Sparrow. Is that your name? Is it what you call yourself?”

She closed her eyes as a single tear tracked down her cheek. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? She didn’t want to think about what he asked and what she knew he would ask after that.

“N-no.” She licked her lips, struggling to find the courage to continue.

“What is it then?” The knight’s hand cupped her cheek so lightly she could barely feel it. Never could she remember anyone treating with such care.

“I don’t know.” Once again, she ducked her head and stared at her hands.

“Child, are you telling us that you don’t know your name or how old you are?” the duke asked.

She nodded, too ashamed to look at him or at anyone else. She was a nobody, not worthy of having a name. That was what her master had told her. She was property to be used and discarded at his whim. Would these people feel the same?

“How did you come to be called Sparrow?” the knight wanted to know.

“My master named me. Said I was his caged bird with no more sense or beauty than a common sparrow.”

She glanced up and, through the mask of her hair, saw Fallon’s expression harden as he glanced at Giaros. A spark of hope, faint but real, seemed to come alive at the very core of her being. Maybe she could trust him, this stranger who saw more in the span of a few hours than others had in so very long.

“What do you call yourself?”

Call herself?

A slight, bitter smile touched her lips. She could tell him, just as she could tell him how much she had hated being called Sparrow, hated all it had stood for. But that would reveal much, perhaps too much, about what she thought and felt. After so long of hiding that part of her from everyone, and most especially from her master, did she dare trust this stranger?

But what did she have to lose?

“Please, child. We need to know what to call you and it would be best if it was a name you prefer.” Longbow’s hand closed over hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

She drew a deep breath, wincing as her ribs screamed in pain. She could do this. She had to do this if she was to ever break away from her master.

“Call me Cait.”

*   *   *

Here’s hoping everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

From the bare earth

I’m slowly building a home and a farm. It’s slow because of the famous equation – “You can have: fast, cheap, good – pick any TWO. “ Of course because I’m special I only got to pick one, and that was ‘cheap’ as I spent most of my money on the land. Unfortunately, nobody told the parasites and rent-seekers (AKA government and their clients) that was an option, so they’re still expensive, and make things even slower, for no visible benefit. I bought a piece of land with – as total assets, some fence-posts. Every other thing I have to either make, scavenge or buy and bring in. Now, I’m a former rufty-tufty fish farmer so I can do anything*. If you need to know how to make fire with two sticks, I’m your man**. If you dropped me butt-naked on desert Island I am sure that when you returned a year later I would be in some kind of shelter, with sunburn and a hat and with fish to eat. More, if I was getting all my work done by Friday. My knowledge breaks down a bit above the certainty of ‘fish that you are trying to keep alive, die’, but that’s never stopped me giving it a go.

But it has re-enforced two things I already knew:

1)The pioneer who trekked into the wildness, much maligned and sneered at today, was tough and resourceful, and a hundred times the man that any urban latte-sipper is. It’s HARD. It would simply kill 9 out of ten modern folk – those that didn’t run as fast as possible back to the shelter of pre-existing infrastructure. The only reason I can see for not respecting that is you don’t want to admit he was your physical, intellectual and probably moral superior.

2) EVERYTHING rests on other things – equipment, knowledge, and things others have made. Mr Butt-Naked – has a huge hill to climb just to survive, let alone build up and progress. It’s fashionable to praise primitive tribes who have little material structure or goods, and to sneer at the people (particularly the Europeans) who built all this ‘stuff’. The evidence, of course, is that most of ‘wonderful’ primitive people run towards the ‘stuff’ just as fast as possible. The smart ones keep the goods bits of their cultures and traditions, and appropriate the good bits of Western technology. The dumb ones keep the bad bits of both. You live better, and work less hard to live – when you have a steel knife instead of a knapped stone – especially if you don’t have to make the knife. Try not to misinterpret me on this. I’m the guy who has actually bothered to learn and has –as a result—a lot of respect for these ‘primitive’ skills. I just don’t romanticize and gloss over the little details like child mortality and short lifespans… and just how much hard work digging is when you have a piece of stick, as opposed to steel spade or a JCB.

So: what does this have to do with writing? Well, I particularly wanted to dwell on the second aspect. If you turn your back on all the wicked, evil patriarchal cis-gender patriarchal Western ‘stuff’ and start again, metaphorically butt-naked on your desert isle… Well, good luck with that. Maybe you can scratch out your new language and whatever you invent for symbols thereof with a piece of driftwood (from a naturally fallen tree, of course) in the wet sand. I am sure happiness, fame and wealth (oh wait. You wouldn’t use something as tainted by evil Western Capitalism as ‘money’)… ah. And droogal (which is like money, but is absolutely un-similar, and can’t buy anything) will rush to your door… uh. Your sand. You don’t have doors.

For the rest of us, we build on the ruins of yesterday, cheerfully re-using their stones. But aside from mocking the conceit of the twits who don’t grasp this, what I was thinking specifically about was the ‘world’ or ‘universe’ that writers build for works of fiction.

One can buy a ready-made structure and piece of property. Let’s face it, that’s the easy way. Quite the sensible path, too, and can have brilliant results. BUT… it’s someone else’s design, with the shape and constraints they put on it. The best you can do is with characters (and, if like me writing in James H. Schmitz’s Karres series, not even too much of that). It can still work exceptionally well IF the initial building was sound and allowed for extension.

Or you ‘buy off plan’ – that is to say, write in the real world. That too can work really well. The only down side is that a lot of other people seem to know this too. With a bit of ingenuity you can ‘put your mark on it’

Then, of course, you get to ‘the real fixer-upper, the renovators dream’ the area in which we find almost all sf/fantasy. Whether you’re talking about DUNE or CHANUR or my DRAGON’S RING… or any one of ten thousand high fantasy novels (which are, as often as not, built on a ‘framework’ of LORD OF THE RINGS (which itself draws heavily from Germanic and Scandinavian sources, to name some)) many, many stories take their basic structure from known real historical (or biological) parallels. The one great thing about this is you know they work. There probably is still functioning plumbing and maybe a roof that needs work… but a lot of the basics are done. That doesn’t mean that many authors haven’t managed to turn a habitable universe into a disaster area, transposing horses, and knights and all the bits they fancied into a fantasy world without a vestige of the practicalities that fed those horses or the relentless looting and warfare that existed to create and nurture a hierarchy topped by a knighthood. I’m a practical sort of guy and I have to admit that a lot of high fantasy takes my willing suspension of disbelief, throttles it, shoots it through the head, dismembers it and buries the remains in quicklime. But that hasn’t stopped millions of people reading and enjoying it.

Of course the ‘renovation’ required varies a lot. Some authors settle for roughly filing off the serial numbers and adding a few bits of gratuitous sex and violence, or a few tack-ons of magic that has no basis in logic and lacks internal consistency… and still sell well. Plainly that is what their audience are happy with. Good for them, they got it right. It’s not to my taste and so I neither buy it nor write it, but it works.

At another level entirely come the great renovators. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe spring to mind. They used a few stones (often from several older ‘buildings’) added a huge amount of their own and the structures they built were so superb – and with such attention to detail, and solid construction, that they far eclipsed the structure/s they were built on and from. They were so good that others used them to build on. But… well… yeah. Start young and construct your own languages and complex mythology… and you still have to be the writer with the skills and knowledge of JRR Tolkien. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you think that’s you. The one thing I am sure of is it isn’t me.

And finally there’s the bare bit of land with, at most a few fence posts. Man, this is HARD. Hal Clement’s A MISSION OF GRAVITY – but that suffered a little in that the aliens thought rather like humans. Robert L Forward’s DRAGON’S EGG is truly brilliant in this respect. I’d rate Niven as a first rate creator of ‘new’ aliens which have little material from other ‘buildings’. I hope you can do this. I’ve enjoyed the results enormously… but it’s a MOUNTAIN to climb. Mount Lookithat. It’s how many things depend on and inter-relate with other things to make an internally consistent universe that is terrifyingly hard. It’s not a whole lot easier on my little farm, and I am grateful I can import material from elsewhere. I’ve just put in about a quarter mile of poly-pipe which has meant I can have water at my orchard. If I had to do that by drilling the knots out of bamboo-stems… or by digging a ditch with a sharp stick… yeah well. I’d be carrying water, and making something to carry it in. There is clay there…. About 4 foot down.

So: I find myself in the writing world at least working mostly on ‘fixer-uppers’. The key here is looking for good underlying structure (and, er, ‘location’ – in a genre that has appeal and growth potential. Not something overstocked and under-popular. The writing suburb ‘Likelytowinnahugo’ may be undergoing gentrification, but it is overpriced and not a growth area). Choose a location you like, and remember you can gather materials from diverse prior ‘buildings’ – as long as they fit together or at least don’t conflict. For instance, I took the aliens of RATS, BATS & VATS – for the Khorozhet, biology from starfish and sea-urchins, and of course the rigid hierarchy from Byzantium. The politics I cobbled in from pure communism – the ‘magh, to Shavian Socialism for HAR’s two tier society, to the utter libertarianism of the ‘Rats’… It’s a question of looking at what you have and working out how you can possibly fit it all together, and make it work.  A bit like my building – where I have the remains of three houses and a chook shed for materials.

I might manage to rebuild the chook shed…

*Just not well, or successfully.

** Make sure one is a lit match.