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The countdown has begun (at least my countdown).Just 31 days until November 1st and the official start of National Novel Writing Month. And since my NaNo entry will be a Dark Age Fantasy story, all the posts between now and October 31st will deal with Fantasy related tropes, themes, and ideas, specifically those involving my story.

So saddle up folks, it will be a wild and crazy ride!

And NaNo which stands for National Novel Writing Month. It starts on November 1st. But what exactly is it? I’ll let the folks over at their About page explain:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

A great way to kick start the inner author and put the inner editor on ice, at least for a month. Depending on your past writing experience (as well as daily time allotments) 50K words may seem to little or too much. But the idea is to write, just write.

This year’s entry will be a Dark (Age) Fantasy, although like many works in this sub-genre it flirts with historical accuracy (it actually pinches it in the bum and gives it the old bedroom eyes, but still).

So what are you waiting for? Gear up for NaNo ’09 and make this year the year of writing dangerously.

And now for a bit of Nostromo for your enjoyment:

NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) is just around the corner, well OK, three months away. Still not too early to start the preparations.

As you probably guessed from my last few posts, I’ve been knee deep in world building, title writing and research. All of that leading to the NaNo kickoff on November 1st. I enjoyed last year NaNo (my first) although the stress was unbearable. Cranking 50K words in 30 days is not easy, especially when you have never done anything like that before.

In fact this blog was born out of last years efforts and will served as the platform for this years enterprise.

So are you ready for your NaNo 09?

Mine will be Age of Iron (working title) and to inspire me (and all those NaNo overachievers out there) here is a video for you.  Enjoy:

What is a transitional scene?

A transitional scene is one that helps the reader with the process of suspension of disbelief. By that I mean it is a scene (or scenes) that moves the focus from the familiar to the fantastic.

It is easy for an author to believe that his audience will accept his words at face value, especially if he writes for an audience accustomed to dragons,spaceships and vampires. But that does not mean that the readers will accept anything that is thrown at them. The key is to earn their trust by easing them into the more implausible aspects of your work.

Therefore a transitional scene must have the following characteristics:

  1. The scene must be grounded in the familiar.
  2. It must offer a logical transition from the familiar to the absurd.
  3. Must show a principal character (although not the main character).
  4. It must occur early on, although it does not have to be the opening scene (I prefer to open with them, btw).

Lets look at a two examples, both taken from the Harry Potter series. All of the books in the series share two scenes (with some variations), one in the Dursley’s home and the other at King Cross station. Each one shows exactly what a transitional scene is all about.

Each story starts inside the Dursley’s suburban home in Little Wiggin, Surrey (UK). While you may never have seen a British suburban home (they look more like long apartment tracks than their more widely spaced North American counterparts) you will recognize the exterior of carefully manicured lawns (or gardens as they like to call it), an interior full of modern apliances, etc.

It is mundane, every day stuff. It is the realm of the familiar. Of course things don’t stay that way for long. Somebody (or something) sets things in motion that reveal that there is more to this little average home. A house elf might pop up, or owls carriying strange missive might fly through the window, even the fake electric fireplace might exploded all of the sudden.

The second scene starts off at King Crossing in London. Every year Harry takes the train from London to Hogwarts. Along the way chocolate frogs come alive, wizards walk out of their picture’s and spells are cast. By the time the scarlet train reaches the Hogsmeade station, the reader knows that they are not longer in Kansas (yep, that is another great transitional scene).

Both of these scenes place the reader in familiar territory, a place that does not require any effort by him (or her) to accept as it is. But as the scene develops the reader receives an introduction to more fantastical elements of the story.  The character or characters observe these changes along side the reader.

There are two ways of doing this. The first one may have the character(s) static while the scenery changes around them, as it often happens in the Dursley home or they can travel from Point A (the mundane location) to Point B (the fantastic location). Either way, once the reader accepts the premise of the mundane it is easy to then introduce the more fantastic elements. This can be done all at once, but a more careful aproach is prefered, as it allows the the reader to digest the changes and extend their supension of disbelief without snapping it.

The introduction of these fantastical elements must follow a sense of internal logic. In fact, one of the things that transitional scenes do is set up the rules for the narrative. Done well and the reader will have no problem accepting them.

The transitional should be centered around a principal character, if not the main character, for no other reason that readers care about people (or their equivalents) not things. It also creates a connection in the readers mind with the character. If the character reacts in a way that the readers expects to the situation, then it makes it easier to create that bond.

Finally the transitional scene has to happen in the first act (if you follow the three act structure that is). It doesn’t have to be the FIRST scene, although I try to start off with it, but it must come early enough that allows the reader to create the bridge between the world they know and the world the writer has created for them. At some point the writer must “ground” his story in the familiar before sailing off to lands unknown.

Here is an example of a great transitional scene, this time from The Matrix:

Nancy Hightower over at her blog asked her readers about their definitions of  urban fantasy. Since SuD  fits the genre I decided to reprint my answer(s) here.

Urban fantasy (I prefer the term contemporary fantasy) is  a fantasy themed story (magic, monsters, quests, etc.) in a contemporary setting. BTW, a lot of the non-fluff Mall/Valley Girl YA stuff falls into this category. All Urban fantasy that I have read (and I’m writing right now) has several of the following elements:

1)World in the Shadows: Magic and monsters co-exists with technology but it resides in the dark places, such as alleyways, basements, backrooms, abandoned buildings.

2)Hidden in Plain Sight: This world co-exist with ours but either because it’s denizens (or the government or some other organization) work hard to hide it or we are blinded by our disbelief it is hard to see it for what it is.

3) The Hero Has a Gift: From the simple gift of Sight (the  ability to see the Shadow World) to wielding reality altering powers, he or she has the POWER. BTW, the POWER happens to be the source of all of the MCs problems. Hey vamp princess, not so sexy now with that stake stuck between your…well you know….eveil twins! 😀

4)The Setting: Urban really means “contemporary”, guns, computers, the police, modern communications. Chicago’s only listed Wizard packs a staff and a .38 caliber.

5)Black & White with a lot of Grey in between: You have your Good guys, your Bad guys and your Innocents. Except that the Good guys bend and break the rules, the Bad guys are not entirely nihilistic and the Innocent, how Innocent is the Hooker with the Heart of Gold, really? It is also a grimy environment and most of the dirt is moral.

6)Whatever the season Red is always in style: And by Red I mean blood, gore, and the like. Border-line horror story, except that the MC gets to kick back even harder.

7) Language and Sex: These are the elements that separate Urban Fantasy from their creepy crawly YA counterparts. People use the word fuck (shit too, as in “Ah shit!” or “Holy Shit!” or “The Shit Hit the Fan!”) a lot, and they mean it. Strip bars, prostitution, and a good roll in the hay (or three) with the local Vampire Prince are not out of the question.

That’s all I can come up with right now.

OK we tackled the general forms of fight scene description, now it is time to see the a fight scene from the point of the fighters. It is very important to understand who the opponents are, their training/experience and capabilities.  A fight between two characters looks very different if one is a trained martial artist and the other one hasn’t thrown a punch in his life.

So lets look at the typical match ups in fiction:

  1. Henchmen/Minions vs. Hero: Redshirts, stormtroopers,goons, mooks, etc. face down mighty hero. A single swing of his sword will bring them down by the score. Nothing says “I GOT THE POWER” like mowing down twenty or thirty of these before breakfast. Let the Battle Royal begin!
  2. Stalker vs. Victim: The Stalker is a hunter by trade, be he a serial killer, a supernatural horror or an assassin. He is good at capturing, maiming and killing. She (most of the time is a she) is a hapless bystander whose life hangs by a thread.
  3. The Warriors: These kids knows how to fight. Put up your dukes!
  4. The Hero vs. The Big Boss: Whether a recurring villain or the hero’s target in the climatic battle at the end of the book, the Big Boss is the ultimate (and many times the only) threat.

The first one (Minion vs. Hero) is pretty easy although it can be tricky. Its very easy to fall into Superman vs. Bank Robbers scenario where the bad guys. Unless your setting up the scene for another type of confrontation, like the introduction of super villain avoid this iteration of the scenario. Your reader is going to read that and go “Oh, he is super…great” and then put the book down.

Best way to do it using the Stormtrooper rule: the minions go down easy, but once in awhile they score a flesh wound. A reminder that while the opposition is crappy, they can get lucky and really hurt the hero.  That injects enough tension into the scene while still showcasing how much of a bad ass your MC really is. Speed is crucial. For that reason the Killing Blow or Snapshots techniques work better here.

In the Stalker vs. Victim scenario the attacker has all the advantages. Here tension is key. The stalker is usually a criminal with a well practiced method of attack (ambush is the preferred method) or a supernatural horror impervious to most attacks. The Victim (usually young and female) is not trained in combat and its clearly outmatched by the attacker. Many time the victims act like minions in that they fall easily to the Stalker attacks.

This scenario puts emphasis on the fear of the victim. Her emotions are paramount in creating and maintaining the high level of tension critical to this scenario. Only by a clever ploy, herculean effort or rescue by a third party can the Victim survive this encounter. The Blow by Blow method may work best, in as much as you space the action to build the suspense.

A fight between Warriors features at least two opponents that are evenly matched. They need not be exact duplicates. In fact, the tension comes from highlighting their differences in strength, agility, speed, accuracy, and weapons. It is easy to fall into the Blow by Blow description of these battles  but what makes these fights interesting is who their strengths and weakness compliment each other.

The Hero facing the Big Boss comes in two forms: the introductory appearance and the climatic battle. The first meeting between these two the Hero can be defeated, it can be a draw, the Big Boss is present but does not fight (the Hero fights another Warrior or Minions). Think of the three (of four times) that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker share the screen in the Star Wars saga. The first time they do not fight, Luke fights of Minions (Stormtropers) and then escapes. He then has a second encounter where he is defeated and finally he overcomes Vader in the climatic battle aboard the Death Star.

The key to this fight is that the Hero is outmatched by the Big Boss strength and/or resources. He must find a way to stop the villain, but he is not ready yet. Through training and defeating of lesser threats he gains the means to confront his nemesis.

In the climatic battle scene if the Hero and the Big Boss have no met before, the Big Boss then appears unbeatable. The Hero must either show greater strength than his enemy or find a clever way of defeating the Big Boss. Not to be confused with the Stalker vs. Victim scenario. The Hero knows how to fight and will be in the very least powerful enough to worry the Big Boss who while he may not want to admit it, knows that he is in trouble.  You can use all the descriptive methods mentioned in Part 1. The key here is that while over matched, the Hero is not defenseless and his attacks will show that.

Of course during the course of the story and even one fight scene you can mix the pairings. A Warrior or Big Boss may have a cadre of Minions at his disposal. A Minion may turn out to be more of a Warrior and of course the Victim can always turn the tables on the Stalker.

Now that you know who your combatants are it is time to see how tactics and terrain influence a battle in Part 3.

Until then…

Dwarfs, Elves,  Vampires, oh my! On a recent post (and many more after that) on the NaNo forums the subject of “cuddly” vampires (a la Twilight) came up. The poster said that he didn’t like the recent fad of turning vampires from monstrous blood suckers to tortured goth heroes. I responded that the vampires in my NaNo project were anything but “cuddly”.  If anything they are conniving, manipulative, psychopaths driven by a demonic urge to rape, murder and destroy.  As far from the romantic (in the modern sense of the word,  one which would cause the likes of  Lord Byron, Tennyson or Blake to spit if they heard what passes for romantic these days) vision of the tortured yet irresistibly attractive vampire heroically fighting the urge to drink virgin blood while dating the only virgin left in town as you can get.

This got me thinking about the endless parade of writers that from the beginning of time felt compelled to take familiar character types (the stoic Dwarf, the ethereal Elf or the Vampiric blood sucking terrors of the night) and change them in some way. Of course these archetypes are variations on earlier forms defined by modern writers such as Stoker and Tolkien. The idea behind the manipulation is to take the familiar and turn into something new (if not unique). Problem is that you can only make so many changes before you end up with something unrecognizable and lose whatever advantage the use of the original gave you in the first place.

I don’t frown on the practice as I have done a bit of archetype twisting in my day (about a month or so back). Yet it pains me when I see author after author fail so miserably at it. While the author might think that his improvements are “cool” the end results are trite, cosmetic and downright disappointing. The reader is left wondering why the author engaged in the exercise in the first place. So I came up with a few tips that will (hopefully) help my fellow nascent writers to avoid the obstacles on the road from the familiar to the memorable.

First a few questions. Honest answers to these questions will yield the best results:

  1. Why did you choose a particular archetype?
  2. Do you know/understand the history behind the archetype?
  3. Are you changing the archetype for purely arbitrary reasons,  that is, you think it would be cool to have rhinos on submarines?
  4. Or have you always hated the archetype in question and think you can do better?
  5. Is there more to the these changes than simply creating a anti-archetype? Are you doing this because you’re in a contrarian  mood?
  6. What is the role of the archetype in the story; accidental, background, or central to the narrative?
  7. Would your narrative goals be better served by abandoning the archetype all together?

Like I said before, familiarity is what drives many an author to choose a given archetype. This is especially true of modern fantasy and science fiction books, in all their variations. Both the author and the reader know the archetype and feel comfortable with it.  No need to create an entire elven language (unless you’re Tolkien) or describe how a vampire’s gaze overwhelms it’s victims senses. Just drop the dwarfs down the nearest mine shaft and concentrate on writing that exciting battle scene where the stalwart defenders of the underground realm battle the incoming goblinoid hordes. But we already read Lord of the Rings (OK, I saw the movies, tried reading the Hobbit and fell asleep on the their page)  so we want something more than the fall of  Moria. So the author introduces a few changes into the dwarf archetype. His dwarfs are not the dour hammer swingers of Tolkien’s lore but singing sensations to rival he likes of Elvis (Costello or Crespo). The attacking goblins go from an unorganized rabble to a disciplined army that fights for duty and honor.

But in order for these changes to stick an understanding of the archetypes in question is a must. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of western European mythology, but understanding the history behind the myth will help you preserve enough of the archetype so that it remains recognizable to the reader.

Questions 3-5 deal with the particular reasons for the changes in a given archetype. Many a writer makes cosmetic changes based on what their DMs allowed on the gaming table while playing D&D. They go for what they think would be “cool”.  But just reversing the archetype role or characteristics is not good enough. Doing things just to be contrarian or different is  a waste of time. Might as well slap a goatee on the character’s chin and call it a day.

Which brings us to question #6, the role of the archetype in your story. Cosmetic changes are great, if you are coding a video game. A player will notice something out of the ordinary, gawk at it for a second or two and be on his way to kill the boss monster. Same thing in your book if its something that lies at the bottom of page 267 where a secondary character explains why the main character should never go to beyond the Impassable Peaks of Doom (which we know that the MC will, in fact pass with some difficulty). Things change as the archetype(s) inch their way to center stage. Without a solid explanation the reader is apt to question why is the handsome yet ravenous vampire zipping from frozen packets of goat’s blood instead of dinning on warm blood of his seventeen year old date with the body of a SI swimsuit edition cover girl. Solid answers to questions 1-5 will (hopefully) prevent the local bookstore from shipping back boxes of your latest offering to the publisher.  You need reasons why the character does not fit the mold, answers that go beyond “Well I think vampires are seriously misunderstood creatures”. These reasons should have a direct connection to the story so that it lends depth to the character and through him to the narrative.

Last but not least, could you do better without relying on the archetype? Creating a new alien race that does not read like a Vulcan on steroids is hard, yet if the changes are drastic enough as to erase the fundamentals of an archetype, I suggest you abandon it all together. Go with something else. Something that fits your vision and the needs of the story. A knight that uses a gun is not really a knight, he is a gunfighter. Go with that instead.

I hope that the above helps you in some way. I can’t wait to read how the goblins barely won the battle against the singing dwarfs yet earned their respect by their honorable behavior in battle.

Until then….

The NaNo Winner is ME!

The NaNo Winner is ME!

That’s right! I just crossed the finished line with 50,019 words. I have to confess that I did cheat a bit (just a bit!). I did the old “pad the manuscript with song lyrics” trick. Underhanded I know. But these where not random lyrics. Mine fit the story. Of course this is my first time and the story is heavy on action, shallow on character development. Its also supposed to be the first of a trilogy (of novellas, why not). Maybe I’ll go back and hack the hell out of it and hope it reaches a decent agent/publisher. Will see. But for now, allow me to savor the moment!

Oh and see you all next year!

That’s right. Only 8 days left and I haven’t even reached 30,000 words. It is still possible that I could reach 50,000 by Sunday at midnight , if I write about 4,000 words a day for the next 7 days straight. That is a big if. I have the story, long enough for at least 60k to 70k words and the first part of a trilogy (or one 150k to 250k book).  Even if I don’t make it, I enjoyed the neurosis that is NaNo and will certainly finish this book and try to do it next year. Count on it!

Gifu Prefecture, Japan, March 28, 21:09 hrs

Ethan knelled before the altar in the shrine’s inner sanctum.  Smoke coiled upwards from burning incense sticks. He tried to meditate, to clear his mind of all distractions but the events of the last week intruded into his thoughts. The visit by his old time school friend Sanjuro, intense practice sessions with his grandfather, the antics of Mariko’s cat chasing after empty boxes of soda. Peace, something he had not known in years, perhaps this was the answer to his grandfather’s question. The reason why he had come here in the first place.

His body also remembered the recent days. The bruises where his granfather’s bokuto scored hits. Ethan tried to push all these thoughts away when the hairs in the back of his neck rose. A stench in the air. The faint smell of something that lives and dies among human refuse.  Instinct took over. In one swift move Ethan grabbed hold of Tasumaki took a battle stance facing the door.  It slid open. A shadow leapt toward Ethan. Ethan took one, two, three steps and slashed from the scabbard. A claw came within inches of his left cheek. The attacker fell to the floor with a dull thud.  Ethan glanced back and saw what looked like a giant rat dead on the floor. Dark ichor spread from the wound. More sounds from beyond the door. Rushing to the inner garden saw two more attackers one on each side of the garden. Ethan ran to the right, his opponent reacted by lounging at him.  Reversing his grip, Ethan thrust forward impaling the beast. To his left the other rat fiend jumped clear across the sand garden. He reacted by slashing in a semi-circle from front to back, cutting the monster open from groin to neck. A river of dark blood poured from the gash as the creature tumbled backwards.  As soon as it hit the ground it began to dissolved into a smoking pool of dark ichor.

The wind carried a series of distant sounds to Ethan’s ears. A scream, a hiss, a broken vase. Ethan ran down outside toward the house. Everything passed by in a blur. Without barely noticing Ethan’s feet seem to jump from one staircase landing to the next without touching any steps in between.  A distance that would have taken a dozen or more minutes to travel took less than a minute.  With one last step, Ethan jumped from the road to the wooden deck overlooking the pond. The lights where out inside, but he could smell the stench of the enemy within. Suddenly a figure stumbled backwards from the kitchen. Without thinking, Ethan thrust the sword through the glass door.  It exploded into shards that sped forward the enemy. The slashed and stabbed it, pinning it to a wall. One, two, three steps, a downward slash from neck to sternum.  Another creature fell backwards from Ichijo’s room, over the second floor banister to the living room floor below. Before it could react Tasumaki decapitated the enemy with a single stroke. For a second Ethan and Mariko stared at each other. Mariko held a large kitchen knife with a reverse grip in a defensive stance. Sounds from the second floor attracted Ethan’s attention. It was Linda, Mariko’s cat, jaws clamp on an intruder. It flayed wildly, trying to pry of the cat, but Linda would not let go. Ethan ended the uneven fight when he cut the fiend’s right leg from under it. A single thrust to the neck finished it.

The door to Ichijo’s room was open. Cautiously, Ethan stepped in to investigate. He gasped at the sight. His grandfather laid in a corner barely breathing. Turning on the lights Ethan saw why. The old man clutched at his bloody chest.

“Onnichan!”

“I’m alright Ethan, just a scratch” his grandfather gasped.

“We have to take you to a hospital.”

Ichijo lifted a finger and pointed at box inside the closet. “My papers, you need them. Use them–“His breathing stopped, his pupils dialated. Ethan didn’t bother checking for a pulse. He had seen this to many times. Toru Ichijo was dead.