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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

Posted by bobv451 in business, writing.
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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.

Analysis Paralysis January 19, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, ideas, money, VIPub.
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“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Lord Kelvin’s statement works for things technological. If you can’t measure it, what do you really have, anyway? When it comes to matters like psychology, mathematical analysis gets chancy. (Mike Stackpole tweeted on this article earlier today) Can you mathematically define happiness? Considering that they used chaos theory ought to give a clue to that. The starting point (boundary conditions) affect the outcome. Begin a wee bit differently and you get, possibly, a hugely different result.

VIPub (Vertically Integrated Publishing) authors have to choose not only where we start but what our desired outcome is. That decided, how do we measure it?

For years I have followed investment newsletters. The more I look at them, the more contradictory the advice becomes. The recommendations turn into Johnson-Nyquist background noise. For every one saying “buy” another says “sell.” It comes down to my gut feeling and how I see the future. The best that can be done to avoid the analysis paralysis is to choose an advisor who produces the best result, however imperfect, and ignore the rest. It all averages out to average mush otherwise.

The big question in VIPub is how to get eyes onto your book. I’ve tried lots of schemes and will try many more to find better ones. But the analysis of how to say one is better than the other technique shouldn’t be too hard. It shouldn’t be just what sells books. You can rack up impressive numbers by giving your book away for damned little. A different metric is to my liking. The money in the bank is the counter, the measurement, the end result of various experiments. The Laffer Curve might well pertain here. How much should we spend on promotion/advertising for the biggest monetary return? (I won’t entertain political argument on this–I think the Laffer Curve is a model of reality and don’t care about your opinion). If pricing low and selling huge numbers works better than higher prices and fewer sales, go for it. But it could well be the other way around. The measurement: total money in your pocket.

The trouble comes in analysis paralysis, having too much data. Reading other blogs on this gives me the impression nothing works–and everything works. David Morrell once said at a WWA panel, 10% of your time ought to go for promotion. And no more. Your time is better spent writing (and I agree). But what kind of promo? Another bit of advice was to make a list of all the possible promotional gimmicks you can do–then pick 3 to pursue. A new wrinkle is introduced with paid advertising. Do FB or Google ads work? Maybe not if an ad has to be seen 7 times to be effective. They can sell more ads than you can afford. Again, what return do you get for your money? The maximum bang for the buck?

You as a VIPub author have to decide, but if you read too much and think about what you can actually do too little, you are going to end up in a sea of despair. Analysis paralysis. Pick and choose. What works for you won’t necessarily work for others. But do choose. Then do it. (And if it doesn’t give you the money (not sales) you expected, try something else.)

analysis paralysis cartoon photo Fin16s.jpg

Of Alien Worlds…and Adjectives and Nouns January 12, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in e-books, history, iPhone, movies & TV, sci-fi, science fiction, steampunk, Wild West, writing.
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I have mentioned before that writing westerns is now equivalent to writing sf. Science fiction envisions new and different worlds filled with characters unknown or unimagined by the reader. The traditional western set in the post Civil War era through 1890 and the closing of the frontier is now the same. Growing up, my oldest relatives lived at the edge of that time. Now that the WWII generation is shuffling off its mortal coil, firsthand stories are lost. With iPhones, 3D printers and wifi our everyday reality, the 1880s is completely unknown to modern readers through personal experience of family story. That means the same techniques we use to bring sf alien worlds alive are now necessary for westerns. We need to take the reader to a time and place completely beyond their ken with vivid description–and explanation of why the world is as we write it with “alien” elements like horses and cattle drives.

The style of writing has changed immensely in the last 25 years, where idea driven stories have fallen out of favor to ones with character driven plots. Westerns need to gear up, too, but a lot of writers already understand this and are working to give depth and motive (other than “revenge”) to their characters.

Along with this change is the broadening (I hesitate to say diluting, but that is part of it) with so many cross-genre stories. The noun is always the dictating form. For instance, ranch romance is a romance with all those conventions set in the west. If you happen to come across a romance western, you will have found a rare entry. Most all “…” romance is above all a romance. Paranormal romance. That’s romance with creepy happenings. Historical romance. A romance set in some other time period. And so on.

One interesting backwater is the western steampunk story. It can as easily be steampunk western. Adjective defining the type of western. Or the weird western. There aren’t many other sub genres that let us do a western with different overtones (there might be western mysteries like Longmire but check the adjective and the noun) but to maintain the structure, the very world of western lore requires us to understand what we are writing.

I love traditional westerns, but they were/too-often-are action driven with little regard to the characters. The best in the field like Elmer Kelton either consciously or unconsciously realized a western becomes more vital with living, breathing characters doing things the reader can identify with. With this additional writing technique, we now have to describe a world so far removed in time and space that it has become science fictional.

For your perusal, check out this Western Fictioneers series centered on individuals in the Old West. My Jackson Lowry title The Artist is an example of what I have been rattling on about. It is set in the Old West with a real character with a history, motivation and depth to bring him alive to today’s readers. It’s on sale right now, so you won’t be out that much to see what I mean. You won’t go wrong with the other novels in the West of the Big River series, either.

Happy trails, buckaroos.

A story of Charles Russell

A story of Charles Russell

Tied-in, Not Tied Down April 28, 2013

Posted by bobv451 in awards, business, Star Trek, writing.
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I’ve done a lot of books in a lot of genres and all have their special claim to my writing pleasure. Doing tie-in books is a skill that requires more honing than is immediately obvious. Mostly, tie-in writers “can’t get no respect” as Rodney Dangerfield might have said. This is the reason the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers was formed several years ago.

Tie-ins are more of a committee effort than you might think. The property is owned by some megacorp (usually) wanting to protect not only the written word but the entire franchise, whether it be gaming or TV or movies. As such, everything has to pass through the hands and red pencils of someone charged with maintaining continuity. Even when you are a big fan, writing such novels can be an exercise in banging your head against the wall over (to you) trivial details. When I wrote the Star Trek books I used the word ”chair” and was told in no uncertain terms that there are no chairs aboard the Enterprise, only seats. How I wanted to have a meeting with the “seatperson” presiding!

Those books were tie-ins, but not the kind demanding even more research and head banging. Original novels set in someone else’s universe are one thing (think: Star Trek, Star Wars) but tie-ins also include adaptations. Pleasing everyone (or anyone!) is difficult when something like a video game becomes so popular that every nuance is etched in the players’ minds. Deviate from this in a book and trouble boils up. You have violated a tenet, but the truth is that 100% adherence to what happens in a game would give 100% boring book. They are different and need different treatments. God of War is a thrilling game to play but it is entirely about fighting, solving puzzles and moving on. This isn’t the stuff of a novel. Putting in material not in the game but *implied* to form a background is necessary to build the world, shape the characters and give new dimensions to the story. I think I have done that in both God of War 1 and the recently published God of War 2.

New characters otherwise in the shadows, political intrigue, motivations brought into the spotlight, these are the things a novel can do that a game doesn’t–and shouldn’t. They’re different beasts. Each has its strengths and both are enjoyable.

If you think tie-in writing is somehow inferior, I recommend to you any of the IAMTW Scribe nominees. This is a first rate slate of books for about every genre taste.

The 2013 field will be just as strong.