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Playing In My Own Sandbox (part 1) April 6, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, fantasy, writing.
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Prior bloggy installments dealt with different ways of working with someone else’s property. I have done quite a few trilogies and short run series (the longest is the Swords of Raemllyn at nine titles) and decided to meander about with some ways I have developed them.

Most trilogies are structured similarly. There is one overarching plot that has to be resolved by the end of book 3. But each book has to stand on its own for a variety of reasons. In the legacy publishing days, it might be a year between books in a trilogy (Stephen Donaldson’s first Thomas Covenant trilogy was a groundbreaker–all three books were published simultaneously). In the publishing world this is an eternity. The second book will hit the stands and the first book might not be in print any more, or if it came out in hardcover, there was a boost with paperback publication concurrent with book 2 (in hc). If book 1 came out in mass market, finding it will be difficult. That third book stands the best chance of being the worst seller, both through interest attrition and inability to muster an audience since the first two titles are out of print. (I’ll get into e-books and how great they are for series in another installment)

Making each title a standalone helps keep the series interest high. A reader coming in on book 3 might know how the major plot is resolved but won’t be disappointed picking up the first two since those are different books, different plots but with the overarching plot being developed.

I do a synopsis for everything I wrote (even short stories). Doing one for the main plot and then a separate one for each book in the set helps keep action high and avoid the “marking time” complaint so common about #2 books in a trilogy. (That complaint will always be there, no matter what, because too many readers think it is the smart thing to say–it might be true, but planning keeps it from happening).

The classic plot structure for a trilogy was used by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his first Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars. A great value both for entertainment and to see how a longer series is done can be found here. This is where I learned how to do it.

ERB Mars series

ERB Mars series

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 6)(collaborations) March 23, 2014

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This isn’t strictly about playing in someone else’s sandbox as much as learning to share your toys. For someone who doesn’t like doing collaborations it seems I have done quite a few. 16? About that. Mostly I go with the dictum: coauthoring is where you do twice the work for half the money.

An early collab was with Victor Milan in the 6-title series War of Powers. This one had a strange journey going from Playboy books to Ace/Berkley, but the best of the covers were in the twin omnibus New English Library volumes–the covers were by Chris Achilleos and rank with the best on any heroic fantasy book, any time, ever. The migration came about as Playboy dropped out of genre publishing but sales were so good Berkley nee Ace continued them.

I was doing the Cenotaph Road series for Ace when the first 3 Swords of Raemllyn books with Geo. Proctor were sold there. Geo and I talked over where we wanted to go, I did the synopsis, we rewrote it, I did the first draft since I wrote faster, Geo did a rewrite and then I did a final rewrite with him doing the page proofs. The process went quite well and we were able to talk endlessly about it. Geo lived in Texas, I was in NM. We both had Apple ][e computers and bought super hi-speed modems (4800 baud!) We swapped work via the modem, though a book took as long as 20 minutes to transfer, whereupon we would talk for another 2 hours about how techno savvy we were and how we saved so much money on postage. No matter that the phone bills were higher!

The first 3 Raemllyn books did so well, we sold 3 more. Ace balked at a final 3, but those sold to New English Library and never saw American dead tree publication. Unlike the lovely NEL covers for the War of Powers omnibus volumes, I thought these were all subpar. But they did ok in sales and the third omnibus with book #9 in it completed the series we had started ten years earlier.

Working with Geo was trying, especially when our ideas diverged, but the books came out a great fusion of his characters and my plots. And somehow we remained best friends throughout and after.

My other collaboration came with Matt Stover under not so ideal conditions (see the earlier blog about God of War 1), through no fault on either of our parts. His medical problems aside, it went well enough but the merging wasn’t as seamless as with Geo and the Raemllyn books.

Alas, Geo died before the Raemllyn ebooks were put up. It would have been fun doing more titles, with some of the old characters but new situations. We had an sf collaboration in the works, Forge of the Stars, but this isn’t a project that will go anywhere now. Time and science have left it behind. And without Geo, it wouldn’t be the same.

Do I recommend a newer writer collaborate? No. Do your own stuff. Do I recommend 2 authors at similar places in their careers to collaborate? Maybe. For fun. Then get to your own stuff. Always focus on doing your own work. (Remember, a collaboration is doing twice the work for half the money.)

To Demons Bound

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 5)(mosaic series) March 16, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in e-books, ideas, outlaws, westerns, Wild West, writing.
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Imagine a stained glass window, only every piece is cut and installed by a different artist. That’s the way a mosaic novel is done. Each author writes a chapter or two in an overarching plot, then the pieces are strung together like a pearl necklace. (A single author can also do a mosaic novel, loosely interconnected short stories telling a greater story. My favorites in this technique include Edward Bryant’s Cinnabar and Joe Landsale’s The Magic Wagon.)

But that loose congregation of stories isn’t exactly what happens in the Western Fictioneers’ series, Wolf Creek. Editor Troy Smith, a Spur Award winner, comes up with a plot and then each author takes his own special character and stirs it up in a chapter or two to advance the story.

Each novel stands on its own but the entire series progresses well in developing not only the town of Wolf Creek, Kansas, but also the major characters. That each book stands on its own allows change in the characters but readers choosing “out of sequence” won’t be too shocked by differences. My character is a lowlife named Wilson “Wil” Marsh, the town photographer always on the outlook for the quick (and shady) buck. He takes blue pictures of the town’s most prominent women because he knows their secrets. He sells lurid photos of dead outlaws and slain Indians to magazines back East hungry for such notoriety. And he even manages to get photos of bank robbers, not to use as evidence in court but to blackmail them. He’s not a nice guy, but he drops money in the poor box at a church he hates and has some empathy for the downtrodden. Why is slowly coming out as I work in my miniature stories within the mosaic novels.

To date I’ve done chapters about Wil in The Quick and the Dying
and Kiowa Vengeance with a new story about a Sand Creek-like massacre on tap. And yes, Wil has a new way to profit off his photographs not involving blackmail but still fraudulent as hell.

What is strange about this for me, at least, is that my Jackson Lowry pen name, has a pen name (Ford Fargo). Others taking part include some of the finest writers working today in the western field. Frank Roderus, Robert Randisi, James Reasoner, Matthew Mayo, LJ Washburn, Cheryl Pierson, Jory Sherman, Meg Mims, Bill Crider, LJ Martin, Jacquie Rogers and a whole lot more.

What you get in every book is a spectrum of top writers and a complete novel-length plot. And an exciting read.

Wolf Creek #2

Wolf Creek #2

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 4)(series books) March 9, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, ideas, sense of wonder, serial fiction, Wild West, writing.
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There can’t be any character development in the main character. That puts a damper on a lot of things, but it shouldn’t be a killer for a series. I’ve done more than 125 titles in a series I’m not at liberty to name, but I can recommend a new book or two (ahem).

The series bible is set up so that independent authors can write without needing to read every other title to keep details straight. With the one/month publication schedule such attention to details (or changes to the canon) by other writers would be impossible, especially if there are a half dozen in the pipeline. So, no mention is ever made of any other book in the series and only what is in the bible counts as canon. This isn’t as onerous as it seems. The main character might end the book the same as when he started, but there are a lot of other possibilities.

In spite of what the reviewer (who didn’t seem to have read the book rather than getting it as a gift) said, the plots are where the fun can come in. I haven’t duplicated a situation in all the books I’ve done, though some of my favorite settings have been reused in different ways. My very first title was set in San Francisco amid a tong war. A “giant” had to do with returning bones for burial to China and most recently among the published books I used the same setting for a prison break (or unbreak, actually). What might well be the last of my titles has to do with a huge silver theft from a San Francisco-based railroad. More than different plots and locales to explore and history to unveil, the other characters can get story arcs where they change motivation and alliances/allegiances. They can grow or devolve. After all, only the protagonist has to emerge unscathed emotionally and with his motivations the same at the end as when he started (so the next author doesn’t have to explain why the hero suddenly likes to drown puppies or no longer drinks trade whiskey).

The same dictum worked when I did eight titles in the 1980’s Nick Carter: Killmaster series. These were told first person, which further limited the changes, but wildly strange bad guys were the mark of this techno-oriented spy series. They weren’t likely to change as much they were to be killed. Hence the series name: killmaster. (This reimagined series had a completely different character from his earliest origins in the nineteenth century–that changed but in the incarnations of the series, the Nick Carter character remained static)

This unchanging main character worked in other series books I’ve done. I ghosted an Executioner book and only had a short time to pick up details on the series (only a few additions rather than changes from ones I had read years earlier). But what you get out of these series are nonstop action, great supporting characters and the feeling you’re one of the gang taking part since you know the protagonist so well.

I also did a title in the ’70’s Baroness series that never saw the light of day. But I love the feel of those old series and started something similar with new characters, as much at the behest of others in the yahoo Baroness group as because they are fun to write. I did this one almost 3 years ago and the Navy is just now getting around to deploying some of the gadgets mentioned. Love the techno speculation! One of these days I’ll get back to these characters, so it won’t merely be the first in the series.

Hot Rail to Hell Deluxe

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 3)(game tie-ins) March 2, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, fantasy, sci-fi, science fiction, sense of wonder, space, writing.
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Worlds don’t need to be created when writing stories in well-developed properties like Magic: The Gathering, MechWarrior and other RPGs since the history for such is already extensive. The trick becomes fitting a new story into an established world.

With Magic, the cards call the stories. I did a short story, “Festival of Sorrow,” for the anthology Distant Planes. The idea was to develop a story with characters that fit into the universe that, excuse the pun, played on the card. At the time I played Magic and loved the look of the Festival card. The story built around not a celebration but a warrior’s need for revenge–only to have the revenge stolen away by his foe’s untimely death. All this made for a story I still like a lot.

I also did a Magic novel, Dark Legacy,and this was more open-ended. Fantasy, exploration and the main character wondering why she lacked the charisma of a lesser rover. It turned out to be as much a story of fame and what this means as it did derring-do.

One of the more curious things that somehow happens and is beyond my explaining came to the fore with a MechWarrior book, Ruins of Power. Nothing went right with it, I put in 20 hour days to meet the deadline because of constant changes, and one day out the editor wanted a different ending. On schedule, I delivered a book well over the 90,000 words contacted–and got it edited down for length through such things as losing my dedication and buildup material. Still, the book wasn’t bad and fit into the BattleTech universe. However, it is my worst reviewed book on Amazon and, strangely, one of my best selling. This comes down to fame or fortune. I suppose fortune wins out since that pays the bills.

Finding the right characters that fit into an established universe makes these books sing and dance. I’ve done stories for Warhammer, Pathfinder, Vor: The Maelstrom and Crimson Skies and the trick is, as in any story, putting the character into a dangerous position. The difference is doing it in context with a wide and detailed background established by not only the game developers but the fans. It can be tricky. It is also a lot of fun.

Here is the most recent of such travels into an RPG/gaming universe.

Fate of the Kinunir, a Traveller tie-in novel

Fate of the Kinunir, a Traveller tie-in novel

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 2)(God of War) February 23, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in fantasy, iPad, movies & TV, writing.
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Last time I told some of my experience with a movie novelization. Doing novelizations of video games might seem the same but I found distinct differences.

Matthew Stover was originally signed to do the novelization of the Sony video game God of War. Matt had medical problems and wasn’t able to work full-time on it. Deadlines loomed. The book was slated to get out near the release of the second video game. I was asked to ghost write the book but ended up doing a large enough portion that I got front cover credit.

I had Matt’s outline and a couple dozen pages of the “cut scenes” from the game. This was new territory for me and I built a story around those scenes. Oops, not right. It had to follow the actual video game more closely. The problem with this is a video game is almost entirely action. Fight, solve a mystery, use a clue and fight some more until the conclusion. This makes for a dull book although it makes for a great video game.

I had just gotten an iPad and found that any number of people had put their entire solved games onto YouTube. Running a few seconds gave me the look of the scene, not to mention solutions to the hidden clues and deciphered codes. I am a terrible gamer and would still be on the first screen if I had to play the game before writing the book. The video solutions were exactly what I needed.

But simply describing action is boring. I had to throw in some connecting material and did this through the interaction of the gods and goddesses that wasn’t in the game itself–but was implied. But adhering too much to the action and not enough to this background story gave GoW1 a stilted feel.

I was asked to do God of War 2 and more successfully balanced a backstory of godly (and goddessly) conniving and backstabbing politics with swordplay. Again I used the YouTube videos (thank you, “Raven van Helsing”) and saw how to give less action and more story. This melding of the two made for a book that kept interest for diehard fans of the game as well as showing them a bigger fantasy world to explain what’s going on.

Raven Van Helsong

Raven Van Helsing!

One of the unforseen benefits to doing the books was that I got to meet “Kratos” (or the actor who modeled for Kratos). I thought the cover/video artists had come up with a character out of whole cloth. Nope. Joseph Gatt *is* Kratos. (And don’t miss him in the upcoming Games of Thrones as Thenn Warg.)

A picture taken at the 2013 Albuquerque Comic Expo – Joe Gatt is the one on the left, if you needed such info.

Joseph Gatt as Kratos

Joseph Gatt as Kratos

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 1)(The Stink of Flesh) February 16, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, End of the World, fantasy, movies, New Mexico, sci-fi, science fiction, VIPub, writing.
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Tie-in work comes in a lot of varieties and most readers don’t appreciate the problems inherent. This is why the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers was formed.

Too many readers dismiss such work as hack work. Might be, but expectations enter in that aren’t brought to other sub-genres. If the reader hates the original game/movie/comic/tv show, then any novelization is going to be awful. Similarly, if the reader loves the original source so much it is part of his life, his very soul, it’s doubtful any novelization will live up to those lofty expectations (those intensely *personal* expectations).

The challenges of adapting a work can be daunting, especially moving from a movie to a novel. In the next few weeks I’ll go over the tie-in work I’ve done for video games, card-based games, series tie-ins and some other stuff. This time I want to hit the movie tie-in I did for Scott Phillips’ The Stink of Flesh. This had some extra thrill for me since I was in the movie (even if my son gets better billing ) so could enjoy killing myself off all over again in the novelization.

I had a copy of the script but had to remember from the time spent on the set what everything around me looked like. Playing the VHS copy I had, stopping it and making notes, helped, too, but with tape this is a tedious process. When I had my notes for every scene, I looked them over and saw this wasn’t a full-fledged book. In a movie characters can, well, act. A major character never says a word. They show emotions without words. Things happen in the background that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the movie There has to be extra material in a book to communicate this. More than this, a script comes up short in terms of page count in a novel. I put in extra scenes to bridge ones in the movie and introduced new characters that fit into the strange world Scott had built so well in the movie. The “Vegetable Man” scene in the book is an example. We know what the zombies want. How do the regular, still-human people live?

The movie is on its way to becoming a cult classic. A 30-copy limited edition is just now for sale.

As Joe Bob Briggs would say, check it out. Also the novelization.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Stink-Flesh-Robert-Vardeman/dp/0976943409/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392574144&sr=8-1&keywords=stink+of+flesh+vardeman

A: The Clone Ranger February 9, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, death, ideas, sci-fi, science, science fiction, sense of wonder, serial fiction, writing.
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Q: What goes hi ho, Silver, Silver, Silver?

My dreams tend to be pretty worthless for thinking up plots or characters. A while back when I had trouble sleeping, I tried melatonin. This worked wonderfully well getting me to sleep but it gave me the most vivid–and boring–dreams ever. The vibrant colors came through unmatched by any other dream, but the sequence itself tended to be unthrilling, boring stuff like waiting in line at the supermarket. That was it. Just standing in line.

Recently I had a bout of dreams about clones. Who knows why? Something about the dream theme set my conscious brain to thinking in terms of sf stories (none of this was in the dream itself–that all came later). The variants on Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” are obvious but the moral considerations (and legal ramifications) are what boiled up in my head.

If you have sex with your own clone, is this masturbation? If you kill your own clone, is that suicide? (The truly scary ending on The Prestige is a take on this) If clones are considered separate entities, what does this do to DNA solutions for crimes? How do you prove it wasn’t you but your clone that did the crime? Could a clever criminal use his clone as an alibi for actually committing a crime? If you create your own clone for the express purpose of a sex crime (on the clone), who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Is this even a crime? Could therapy for a serial killer be killing his own clones rather than other people? What are the ethics involved of trying risky medical treatments on clones to find the proper one for the “original?”

Cloning certainly eliminates the need for estate planning. Just will your clone your fortune. Skip a few hundred years into the future. Would all the wealth be consolidated in the hands of a few clones?

I need to get to work on a science fiction book. Not dealing with clones, not exactly (could a clone be used as a surrogate to serve a prison sentence?)

How Long Is It? February 2, 2014

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The second most asked question after “where do you get your ideas?” has to be “how long did it take to write that book?”

A seemingly simple question but one that has no real answer for me. The time spent at the keyboard is short compared to the time spent getting ready to pound away on the keys (after pushing the cat off the qwerty row, of course). An idea pops up, like Minerva from the forehead of Jupiter and takes form. Only it is ghostly. Some details might be sharp but most are seen through a gauzy curtain that has to be pushed and pulled until a good gust of creative wind blows it away. Then more of the story is apparent.

Even then this might not be much of a story. A character? Where does the character come from? Go in terms of plot? Research? What surrounds and further erases the impediment to actually seeing the details? All this gets turned over. Maybe a first line or a final one comes to me. From this more is built, scenes, other characters, plot, complications. More reading and research. Or maybe not in that order. All is chaotic.

And still utterly perfect. Things become more defined and less perfect when I get the ideas put down into a synopsis. The plot takes shape and the characters fit in better than before–or not at all. Some get lost and others discovered hitchhiking along mental back roads. The synopsis might be written in an afternoon or a month.

More thinking, more fiddling, more rearranging and invention. When the synopsis says “now!” the time is right to write. And then, of course, the writing reveals fatal flaws that must be remedied. And a second draft. More thinking. More tinkering and research, as needed (and it always is).

A month actually tapping out the book? Probably. That much more to redo, rethink, polish it up. If I’m lucky.

From idea to “The End” might be a month or, as in the case of the book I am still working on to get a decent synopsis, years. By my count, five years. If everything clicks, and it doesn’t seem to be at the moment, I’ll have the synopsis done in a few days. It’ll be a long book. Easily a month to write. But what do I answer when asked “how long did it take?” With research and ideation and writing and redoing? The answer has to be “as long as it took to produce an entertaining book.”

The Times They Are A’Changin’ January 26, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in history, ideas, sci-fi, science fiction, web & computers, writing.
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As they always do. We have lived through a unique span in history where we can watch (and know) major upheavals in the world. The Internet is as big as the Gutenberg printing press. The new Industrial Revolution is happening with 3D printing. A house in 2 days. No problem. An iPhone? I’ll print it for you today. Replacement organs? Feed in the DNA template and that kidney will be yours next week. What a chance to see and understand major influences driving our world.

To a lesser extent, there has been a change in writing, or rather in writing technique. In sf the late ’60s and early ’70s saw the New Wave. Story became less important than the characters, much as literary fiction was almost 100% angst and no idea. SF didn’t go that far but ideas took a backseat to the more literary emphasis on drilling down into the character. Somewhere in the early ’90s another change came about. This one hasn’t been touted or given a name, but it is there.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thesis=pure idea sf of the ’40s. Anthesis=New Wave. Synthesis=now. SF has always been interested in the “what if?” playing with ideas–and still is. Social commentary or hard science extrapolation, doesn’t matter. SF is an idea fiction. But in the early ’90s what the readers expected changed. The “now” is a equal merging of the idea with the character.

I’ve had some sf stories from the 1980s reprinted and I cringed when I saw how little characterization there was in favor of the sweeping idea, the grand space opera adventure. But that was ok then. Readers expect more now with background on who is engaging in that grand adventure–and what drives them. Flaws? Better have them since this is more realistic, even in a superhero story (or maybe especially in a superhero story). Villains have to be more than bad because they’re bad or they turn into parodies as in Despicable Me.

I stand by what I did in, say, Alien Death Fleet because that was right for the times. But I much prefer putting in characters to go with the derring-do, as in Fate of the Kinunir

Not only do I enjoy writing the more complete package of idea married with characterization, I prefer reading it now.

You can still enjoy the galaxy smashing style of earlier space opera but today’s work has to be more complete, a synthesis of space opera and New Wave to stand out. And that’s not a bad thing.