Author Archives: Kate Paulk

Overstuffed

When you stop to think about it, all of us are largely products of our history. We make decisions based to a large extent on our experiences up to that point, and our experiences are influenced by the choices of those close to us – who are making their choices based on their experiences. And so on, all the way back to the first sexually dimorphic organisms. Probably. Possibly further, since even asexually reproducing organisms can be affected by environment and then have that impact propagate through their clones.

The writerly term for this is backstory.

Most authors will figure out the backstory of their main characters, along with some key bits of their minor characters, but it go so wrong its either hilarious or horrible depending on your perspective. And by hilarious or horrible, I mean stuff like granddad who’s eighty or so and has vivid memories of the Napoleonic wars. And the US Civil War. Oh, and it’s late 20th century, and granddad isn’t immortal.

I believe the kindest way to describe this is “um”.

Now, okay, you’re probably not going to do that in a contemporary setting. But you can certainly cram that much living into a character backstory if you’re not careful. Partly it’s the convenience of having granddad able to tell your main characters cool stories about stuff they didn’t experience which turn out to be really useful even though they’ve been groaning to themselves every time granddad starts the whole “When I was a lad…” or “Back in the day…” But there’s only so much, “well… he gets a bit confused, you know,” you can push through. Overdo it, and instead of being pulled into your wonderful story, your readers will be wondering when granddad found time to have kids. And what grandma thought about him being off fighting monsters or wars or whatever all the time.

See, even in the most turbulent eras, there are usually bursts of “ohshitohshitohshitI’mgonnadie!” interspersed with a lot of relatively peaceful times. Even a really adventurous character probably doesn’t spend all his/her/its time battling monsters, slaying princesses and rescuing evil. Um. Or something. More likely there’s going to be a few months of high adventure with several years between times recovering, training for the next adventure, and investing the spoils of the last one (or just spending it and having way too much fun with the persons of negotiable virtue until said spoils run out and another adventure becomes a financial necessity).

Heck, even in the most war-torn areas, it’s not really battles all the time (World War 1 was something of an anomaly) in any single spot. Long sieges were rare enough to be noteworthy, and battles rarely lasted more than a few days. Even during World War 1, actually – as I understand it, the trenches were manned continuously, there’d be as close to constant artillery barrage as possible, but at the same time people were being rotated in and out all the time so an individual soldier would spend maybe a month on the front lines for every three months in the area (I’m dredging this from the stainless steel lint trap of my memory so the details might be fuzzy. If not completely wrong. But the general idea isn’t) – most individual combat engagements weren’t that long.

The point being that no matter how neat that character’s backstory is, if it involved almost non-stop adventure and said character is now elderly and relatively sane, they ain’t human. And that’s presuming you got the chronology right.

I’m not saying you need to write a biography of every named character in your books. You don’t. You do need to have some notes so you don’t accidentally regress someone’s age between novels or have Fred remember doing the thing that George did in book 1. You might not remember, but I promise you at least one fan will.

Now that I’ve managed 600 words or so of digression, I was going to say something about how character attitudes and reactions rise from their past experiences, but you know what? My recent past experiences include a cat with bowel issues, a major software release, and all the cleaning up – metaphorical and physical – both entail. I’m not sure I could manage to return to the topic and post anything sensible.

I guess that will be another post.

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Editing is and isn’t Editing

So I’m branching out a bit and doing some non-fiction writing for the Ministry of Testing’s Dojo, and in the process I’m getting to work with a truly wonderful editor. She’s not at all demonic, unlike her counterparts in the fiction industry, and she’s incredibly good at seeing past my often sarcastic turn of phrase to the meat behind it, and rephrasing in ways that won’t put people’s hackles up.

She’s also really good at the professional style, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. All the regulars here know the way I throw in parenthetical asides, sometimes nesting the bloody things multiple layers deep, well… For some reason that sort of thing is frowned upon in professional non-fiction circles. Whodathunkit?

When I started doing this, I figured I’d learn something from organizing my thoughts about software testing as a career and software testing as a discipline into a usable format. I didn’t expect to find myself learning some damn good things about editing along the way.

Reading Mel’s comments and suggestions is fantastic. She’s always getting to the meat of whatever topic I’m circling around and finding ways to improve my prose without ever losing my voice or my character. The end result is still recognizably my writing voice, but with a tone that falls somewhere between “we’re all in this together” and “I’m on your side”. Without that I tend to lean rather more to “Life sucks and everyone dies, but I’m still going to fight for what I care about because I’m just that pig-headed stubborn.” Which is arguably no different in substance, but doesn’t win nearly as many friends.

It’s working with someone like Mel that shows what the fiction industry has lost in their relentless drive to ideological uniformity and editing only to remove hints of wrongthinking taint. Real developmental editors do this kind of thing. Real structural editors do too. But judging by what appears on bookshelves, the fiction publishers have largely eliminated any structural or developmental editors in their ranks and are relying on copy editors and the author’s beta readers to generate decent results.

The less said about the likelihood of that succeeding, the better.

Look, each type of editor serves a purpose. Beta readers serve a different purpose (namely, does it fly and are there any gross errors of continuity or screamingly obvious problems). You might get lucky enough to have a beta who can do the structural editor thing, or the copy editor thing (I’m a crappy copy editor because I see what my mind tells me should be there, not what actually is there). Mostly, though, you’re going to get a smattering of typo reports, some of the really gross errors (“Fred has red hair at the start and he’s blond by the end. What happened? Did you bleach him or something?”) and continuity glitches (“Waitaminute, where did the extra enemy spaceship come from?”), and a general sense of whether you’ve got a story or a lead balloon (or a fish, given Sarah’s fondness for carping her detractors).

It’s just… having encountered a good one, I really wish there were more of them in the fiction area. Granted structural editing in fiction also needs the ability to recognize plot and characterization issues and suggest possible solutions, where non-fiction the challenge is more along the lines of presenting the point or the data in a way that’s logical and not going to put your audience to sleep – at least for the short pieces I’m writing.

As indie continues to grow, I can see the good editors picking up a clientele by word of mouth, with writers of similar kinds of works gravitating towards people who are good with that style or that subgenre. It’s going to take a while, though, and in the meantime there’s going to be some flailing.

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s going to be like Cthulhu in a giant fryer splattering gobs of super-heated adverbial froth in all directions… oh, wait. That’s my fiction style if I’m overtired. Nevermind. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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Poor, Poor Kitteh

It’s another not exactly with-it post this week: the Bugger-Cat spent a good chunk of time this afternoon at the vet. Again.

The poor little imp has chronic diarrhea (those of a sensitive disposition may wish to go elsewhere now) and since he’s a bit over 10, thoughts of cancer rear their ugly head when all the usual culprits test clean but the sloppy deposits continue to land in places they shouldn’t be – especially when the cat himself has trouble making said sloppy deposits and is clearly straining and at times in enough pain that he’s crying.

In addition, he’s been having issues at the other end, with some truly spectacular power pukes. Since we got some cat grass he’s chewing that then puking, but it’s nothing like as nasty as what was coming out that end before we got him the grass.

Hence, vet.

At this point the primary suspect is inflammatory bowel disease, possibly causing thickening of the intestines (leading to partial blockage which in turn means things aren’t moving through properly, hence… you get the idea), so he’s got treatment for that in the form of a steroid shot before he left, plus a vitamin B shot to help with the nutrients he’s probably not absorbing too well what with the sloppy deposits and power pukes. We start him on a course of steroids tomorrow, along with a short antibiotics course.

If there’s no improvement, we get to take him to get an ultrasound so they can see what’s going on inside. That’s not exactly cheap, but if it will get his Buggerness a better quality of life the Husband and I are all for it.

And just to top things off, it turns out that the other call of nature came through while we were taking the Bugger-Cat home after his veterinary indignities, because there was a remarkable amount of piddle in the cat carrier when we let him out. Cue one fast cleanup and a cat carrier outside drying after liberal use of the hose.

I may eventually have brain, but it ain’t going to be today (aka Wednesday night, when I write these things).

Sorry.

 

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The Day With No Brain

It’s been a Day. Yes, the kind you describe with the capital.

The day job has the big deployment happening today at Oh God AM (it will be mostly done by the time this post goes live), which means that I’m writing this after all the last minute scrambly stuff before something major. Naturally, Murphy being the bastard he is, this was when a few overlooked bugs chose to make themselves known.

End result, the Kate is out of spoons and is rambling at you.

So, yes. It’s a Day.

There are positives to be had in all of this. I’ve been spurred (or possibly merely gently nudged) into starting the long, painful process of rehabbing my website. This means on weekends I do the harder stuff like last weekend reactivating my Amazon Associate account and redoing a chunk of the links on the page listing my stuff. I’ll be getting more of that done this weekend, and hopefully bringing the thing up to date. I’ve also got it automagically posting to the Book of Faces, Twitter, and G+, and I’m trying (and so far mostly succeeding) to post something every day.

My biggest issue with “post something every day, and people will come to read the stuff” is that I find it really hard to believe that I’m interesting enough for that. We’ll see, I guess.

The other big positive is that I’ve finally started trying to get my lazy arse fit. I’ve got issues with this – some are really common to writers: when your job and your hobby mostly involve parking backside in front of a computer and making heavy use of a keyboard, you tend to have difficulty getting and staying in shape.

Yes, the peanut gallery is correct. I am in shape. The shape in question is “amorphous blob”. I would prefer something a little more defined.

I’ve also got the thoroughly cocked up metabolism courtesy narcolepsy and all the fun and interesting medications that follow (which impact my digestive system, since sleep regulation and appetite/fullness regulation are managed by the same chemical. Go figure). And a sway back that means I tend to have trouble standing or walking for any length of time. Then there’s the rack which means that running is not an option. There’s way too much mass there to keep bouncing when I stop, and I’ve yet to encounter the bra that’s capable of taming said mass (Yes, authors, take note. Your Amazonian warrior with her metal bikini and improbable endowments is going to be really sore if she has to run or bounce around a lot. She will visit your dreams and curse you in interesting ways that you will not like – this is in part why Amazonian warriors were reputed to remove the rack. The other reason will be familiar to any woman who has clipped a boob with the bowstring. It hurts. And this is from the woman who drove a thousand miles with an untreated broken ankle. If I say it hurts, it effing hurts).

The upshot of all this is that I dislike most physical activity. But I don’t mind walking in pleasant environments (the local park works. And one day we’ll get back to hiking), and I used to like cycling. So now I’m cycling or walking for at least 20 minutes most days. I’m still in the beginners shock phase, but I’m actually enjoying the exercise so despite losing more time I don’t have to this, I’m good with it. I’m kind of hoping I get to the “you will have more energy” phase soon, though.

The Bugger-Cat has gone puke-o-matic on us, which, while still digestive distress, is an improvement on the automatic evacuation of the other end we were having. I think I’ve cleaned up more cat mess in the last week than I usually do in a month.

Such is life, I guess. You do what you can with what you’ve got, enjoy what you can, and keep slogging on. It beats the alternatives.

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Fun With History and Language

The collision of history and language is a whole lot of fun for a writer (it’s fun for other folk too, but damn does it ever make good world-building fodder). I got reminded of that this week when I stumbled over one of Eric Raymond’s posts  talking about how creoles form. Of course I immediately jumped on the classic Torpenhow meaning Hill Hill Hill (with each syllable meaning hill in a different language) (with the optional extra of Torpenhow Hill to make the place hill hill hill hill just for fun) and promptly ran into a whole list of tautological place names.

Then there are the place names that sound tautological and aren’t, like Townsville in Australia (named in honor of a gentleman by the name of Towns) and many of the place names derived from native languages (Wagga Wagga and friends) because many of the tribal languages don’t have intensifiers like ‘very’ and so on: instead the usual manner of indicating that something is important is to say it twice. So the most important person is the big big man. The local language translates the name as “many crows” with “wagga” for crow being repeated to indicate that there are a whole lot of them.

This of course can lead to more interesting place names and richer backstory embedded in one’s fiction, as well as the option of some Pratchett-esque scenes in which the representatives of the invaders, doing their survey for the equivalent of the Domesday book, head over to the village and ask one of the locals (speaking slowly and loudly, of course) what the name of that hill over there is. While pointing at it.

Local probably says “hill” in whatever his language is. We’ll say he says ‘tor’, which is one of the Celtic family of languages. Invader (for the sake of argument, Cumbric because that’s the language of origin for ‘pen’ meaning hill) duly notes the feature as ‘tor pen’.

Fast forward a few generations, or a few dozen, and the invaders have married in, the dialect spoken by the locals has shifted to something that’s not really either of the origin language (a creole, in other words) and everyone thinks of their hill as ‘torpen’. To many of them, it’s not really something they think about, it’s just what the place is called.

Then the next set of invaders, this lot Norse, come by to survey their new territory. So we go through the point and ask in a slow, loud voice, and the local says the invader is pointing at ‘torpen’. So our Norse invaders inform their leader that this is the village at Torpen Howe. There’s our three hills.

The other interesting aspect of this is that apparently when multiple language merge into a creole because these people are living effectively next door to each other and need to communicate, the result tends to be simpler than either of the origin languages, and the pattern of simplification is to ditch specialized grammar and use the position of the word in the sentence to indicate its role (otherwise known as subject-verb-object).

Yeah. This is why English has near-synonyms for everything (usually with different class connotations, generally following the rule that the fancy, upper-class one is of French origin and the lower-class version is the Old English version), and why English has managed to drop the idea of gendered nouns as a formal part of speech (although we haven’t simplified to the point of not having grammatical gender in pronouns – yet) as well as the notion of changing the spelling of the word depending on whether it’s the subject or object.

Some languages do that to people’s names. The Manx Gaelic form of my name is spelled Katreeny if it’s the subject of a sentence, and Chatreeny if it’s the object. This English speaker would have hell’s own time with that. Mix that in with the languages that have formal address and intimate address (English dropped that one 400 years or so back: thee/thou/thy etc was the intimate address, you/your the formal), or worse multiple layers of address that draw distinctions most USAians wouldn’t consider worth making (like hell I’m going to address my lead with a more formal pronoun just because he’s my lead) and you’ve got something that’s going to sound and feel very different, and will give the impression of a much deeper culture.

I’ll leave it to you to work out how to convey that in English, which has largely discarded all of that in favor of becoming what’s probably the world’s most advanced trading language.

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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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The Kate At Lunacon 2017 Edition

There’s not really time for the full faux-epique after action report, alas, so you’ll all have to make do without the Lo! And the trusty steed Toyota Camry. And all that.

Suffice to say, I have attended this year’s Lunacon and returned more or less in one piece. I can report that the Westchester Marriott is a nice hotel, and that despite the venue lacking the Escher Hilton’s trans-dimensional charms, there was no shortage of lost souls wandering the halls.

Some of the oddities of the event (it wouldn’t be a Lunacon without at least one oddity) were the last-minute shift of the green room from a standard conference room to a suite several floors away. Somehow the signposting for the new location got eaten by a grue or something because I only found out where it was because I was looking lost at the door which had the sign on it and someone noticed and took pity on me.

There was a certain quirkiness to the room assignments, too. All my panels were in one room, which had tables. Round tables. This is not the most efficient layout for a panel, and when there’s one that’s likely to pull a lot of people, probably not the best place to put it (I’m not even going near the way the programming venue was quite literally across the hall from people’s hotel rooms. I can understand why they called that section the “active” room block).

The less said about the author autograph station the better. An unlabeled table in one of the least trafficked parts of the convention? The only people likely to get anything were the guests of honor (I trotted off to my autograph session in the full expectation that I wouldn’t need to sign anything. I was right).

Okay, that’s the bigger oopses.

Some of the pluses: my reading (bizarrely, at 10:30pm Friday night) actually had people there (waves at both of them). They liked the Prussian Knights, too, so my beta readers need to pull fingers out and get back to me at least to the level of “yes it works/no it sucks” so I can get it edited then nag my publisher (Hi, Sarah!) to publish it.

My panels were fun, too.

The Plausible Impossible – which was my suggestion and for which I confessed my sins to my fellow panelists – turned into a fun discussion about ways to make things that are either totally impossible or really unlikely work in the context of a story. The audience seemed to have as much fun as we panelists did, although I feel for the lady with hearing issues who had trouble with some of the softer-spoken speakers (I spoke loud). No microphones = project your voice, lots.

The other topic I suggested, My Character is not Me, also turned into a fun discussion about characterization tricks and how to make it work especially when you don’t have much/anything in common with your character.

The Monster’s Perspective panel was another interesting one, with everyone agreeing that whatever the monster is, it’s probably not getting up in the morning and saying “What evil shall I do today?” There was a lot of discussion, punning, and all around fun that more or less spoke to the topic.

And yet again, whatever magic at Lunacons that turns topics which could easily turn into uber-extremist whining grievance sessions into productive discussions sprinkled its fairy dust (or non-PC-dust, or whatever) on the Strong Female Characters and the rather large panel (6 + moderator, who did a really good job herding cats) and standing room only audience to bring out a lot of good discussion about different kinds of strength. It helped, I think, that the ages of the panelists ranged from what looked like not far out of college through to old enough to have been advised that college was a waste of time for a female because she’d just get married. I was somewhere in the middle, age-wise.

We all agreed that your stereotypical “strong woman” who kicks ass and takes names despite being half the size of the males whose asses she kicks (which is physically impossible without serious genetic trickery and heavy training) is totally unrealistic, and we had a bunch of examples of non-stereotype strong characters including stubborn as hell grandmothers, Greek goddesses, and various other interesting people – which of course was the point. It’s all about the person, not this trait or that trait.

So now I’m in recovery and hoping that con crud won’t make an appearance. Perhaps one day there’ll be a miracle and I won’t get back from a con more tired than I was when I arrived.

p.s. No, I didn’t get the day wrong. Sarah couldn’t post today so we swapped. Look for her post tomorrow.

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