So, um, there’s not much I feel like talking about in chapters 23 and 24. They’re both pretty standard sci-fi space fillers for a plotline that I’ve already said I now find stupid. How much more can I say?
The one thing about chapter 23 is that I was trying to depict Anderson finally realizing he has no fucking clue what he’s doing and falling apart. On one level this is a key component to the process. On another level I don’t think I’ve really done the necessary work to have this make sense. One of the biggest problems, I have learned, is in the creation of internally consistent characters. Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Semmes suffer from this problem.
This is a byproduct of the problem I’ve talked about continually: I was paying way more attention to following a plot than actually developing the world and the characters who occupy said world. I have learned an interesting lesson through running the re-write concurrently with this critique of the original. The shorthand for the problem is this: the plots in the original version grew bloated and out of hand because I kept realizing I still needed to add more to pad the book out to actual novel length. So I rushed from place to place and jumped from character to character and end up with this weird mish-mash of random crap where I throw a mutiny plotline into the middle of the book because, hey, why the fuck not?
I feel this is probably the hardest lesson to learn as a writer, unless you’re Stephen King or someone like that. The characters and the world are central to everything and if you give them space to breathe they will fill out all the pages you need and more. This is, of course, if the characters are good and worthwhile. If the characters suck then you’d better have a really good central conceit to the whole thing and have something else you’re explaining the hell out of to your audience. This is one of those places where the fact that I really didn’t read fiction when I was writing the original draft hurt me and where having a lot of examples of how to do things well helps immensely.
So, um, let’s talk about that for a while. How ‘bout it?
My most important written influences for science fiction at the time I wrote the original draft were Arthur C Clarke, the Star Wars Extended Universe novels, and the BattleTech novels. This is a really weird combination of influences. It’s also not particularly helpful when it gets right down to it.
Arthur C Clarke never really created a memorable character. He left that job to Stanley Kubrick. What Clarke did was create ideas and places that just stay with you forever. Let’s take, for instance, his Rendezvous with Rama series. I remember nothing of the characters in those books. What I do remember is that those characters interacted with an amazing setting and I absolutely wanted Rama to show up and I wanted to go see it and be a part of the adventure. I also remember that as the first time I saw a reference to the Y2K problem, as one of the main characters had lost everything at the turn of the 21st Century because the computers were all fucked up and there was a major financial disaster.
Clarke loved technology above all when writing. His books and short stories were always thought experiments more than character-driven stories. He also had a key advantage that 19 year-old me didn’t: he’d been fascinated with space and technology and the implications of human interaction with both since before they were really a thing. He was ahead of his time and writing about things he thought would be really cool. I simply can’t do hard sci-fi like Arthur C Clarke could because I’m behind the curve and also I don’t really want to. I’m rather fond of the space opera.
The Star Wars Extended Universe and BattleTech novels, meanwhile, are a whole other can of worms. In both cases the universe was something that was already defined and the authors working in that space could shorthand the worldbuilding. If you open up a Star Wars novel you already know what hyperdrive is, you already know what an X-Wing and a Star Destroyer is, and you already have notion of the relative locations of Corsucant, Corellia, and Tatooine. You also don’t need an entire chapter developing the Force because you probably already watched the movies. Similarly, the BattleTech novels already offered a map of the Inner Sphere. They could assume that the reader knew what a JumpShip was and that it had DropShips and that the DropShips carried Battlemasters and Locusts to planets to try to blow up Marauders and Phoenix Hawks.
In both cases there was a built-in audience who was there for something. The Star Wars audience wanted to see badass fighter pilots in X-Wings blow up bizarrely overengineered weapons of mass destruction. The BattleTech audience wanted to see humongous mecha shoot PPCs and missiles at each other. They were TV shows or movies written on paper. The reader didn’t have to ask too many questions because “the remnants of the Empire found a new super weapon and Rogue Squadron has to blow it up” or “the Clans are invading Coventry and threatening to break the peace of Tukayyid” are all the reader needs. After that it was just mil-sf and heroic storytelling porn.
None of this is really meant to knock the books in question. Most of them were fun and the Michael Stackpole novels were genuinely good. They weren’t necessarily the best place to learn how to be a sci-fi author, though, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.
So what has changed since then? It all starts with John Scalzi.
I don’t really remember why I decided to read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I know that I first came across Scalzi as I was leaving Christianity because of his amazing write-up of his visit to the Creation Museum. At the time I had no idea he was a sci-fi author. Hell, I had no idea that he’d written more than one blog post in his entire life.
Old Man’s War is mil-sf through-and-through, as it its sequel, The Ghost Brigades. The cool thing about Scalzi’s worldbuilding in the Old Man’s War books, though, is the way that he moves away from mil-sf and book 3 is pretty much old-school sci-fi and then he just keeps moving on to characters existing in a vast, pre-built universe where everything is changing around them. Scalzi’s influence on me is less important for his books than it is for his blog, though, specifically The Big Idea.
The Big Idea is a series he does where he allows authors to write about their books and what lead them to write said books. I, as someone who loves writing about writing as much as, if not more than, I love writing, can’t help but pay attention to such a series. I’m always draw to authors who can explain why their books are cool. Most of my influences have come from there.
The most important is probably The Expanse. James Holden is interesting. Ish. Detective Miller is definitely interesting. The world in which we met Holden and Miller is amazing. You feel like you can walk on Ceres with Detective Miller and travel the solar system aboard the Rocinante with Holden.
After that we get to Mira Grant/Seanan Maguire. I first met Seanan through her sci-fi writing alter-ego Mira and the Newsflesh trilogy. It’s pretty much the only zombie property I actually enjoy, since it’s totally about how the world has changed since the zombie apocalypse came and went and people got back to their normal lives while having to acknowledge that zombie outbreaks can still happen. After that I started reading Seanan’s InCryptid series, a fairly silly series about a family of cryptid hunters who have to survive in a world that doesn’t and shouldn’t know that fantasy creatures totally exist. In both cases Maguire’s skill shines through in creating interesting characters and really cool worlds and having the characters just kind of live in those worlds.
Cat Valente is easily both an influence and a terrifyingly amazing writer who makes me feel bad about my own abilities. I actually can’t recall if it was Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed or one of “Mira Grant’s” books that convinced me to pay attention to Scalzi’s Big Idea. I do know that when I learned someone was writing books based on the Prester John myth I had to read them. They were not at all what I expected but, seriously, Cat Valente is a once-in-a-lifetime writer. Her use of the English language is masterful and beyond beautiful. Every page had a section that just leapt out and demanded to be re-read and savored.
There are others, too. Wesley Chu’s Lives of Tao is great stuff. Ernest Clyne’s Ready Player One is a fun novel that was being turned into a movie last I heard but I’m afraid that Adam Sandler’s atrocious Pixels might have hurt that one.
All of these books have taught me how to build a world. They’ve taught me that I, as the reader, need to feel like I can live in that world. The Nightwind universe really doesn’t feel that way, at least in the original incarnation. But I have spent nearly two decades living in that world off and on and I know what it feels like to walk in the hallways and talk to the people. I hope that I am finally beginning to be able to communicate that experience to others.
Tomorrow I shall be introducing a brand new character. The alternate version re-write of Nightwind is now a much tighter, more focused book and I needed a character who could walk the corridors of the ship. That was when Corporal Katherine Silas introduced herself to the world.
Tomorrow’s excerpt won’t be the first time we meet Kat, as her decidedly uncreative friends call her. It will be the first time she meets the Nightwind, though. It’s my hope that you see the ship through her eyes.
Michael Stackpole wrote most of the universe defining books in the BattleTech series. He always did it really well and I looked forward to getting new Stackpole books. He also wrote the X-Wing novels for the Star Wars Extended Universe, which were definitely the most fun books in that world. They focused on Wedge Antilles leading Rogue Squadron to all kinds of heroics after Luke Skywalker went off to be all Jedi-y. I actually consider him one of my favorite sci-fi authors. One of these days I should seriously consider reading his non-other-people’s-universe novels.
Definitely. There’s no probably about it.
One of these days I have to write a post or twelve about The Expanse adaptation on SyFy. I was on record as saying I assumed it was going to suck. It, um, it didn’t. It was amazing. The two best shows on TV right now, without question, are Black Sails and The Expanse. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.