BORN TO THE BLADE: “Fault Lines”

This week I enter the field of combat with the second episode of BORN TO THE BLADE: “Fault Lines”!

BORN TO THE BLADE horizontal banner

If you haven’t already checked out the pilot episode, “Arrivals,” that’s free to read or listen to. In “Fault Lines,” Michiko deals with the fallout from the Golden Lord, someone new comes to Twaa-Fei, Penelope has some momentous news, and Bellona seeks to drive a wedge between Quloo and Rumika in advance of the Gauntlet.

Last week I discussed collaboration at Book View Cafe, because 2017 really was the year of me jumping into it feet-first, between my work for Legend of the Five Rings and Born to the Blade. I also have a piece up at All Things Urban Fantasy on “post-cynical optimism,” which was our mission statement for this series: telling a story in which people face hard choices and sometimes bad things happen, but things like honor and friendship and trust are more than traps for the guillble. Our lead writer Michael Underwood wrote about fight scenes (of which we have more than a few) at Barnes and Noble. And if you’d like to check out some reviews, Primm Life has covered “Fault Lines,” and Paul Weimer at Skiffy and Fanty has reviewed the whole serial.

You can find “Fault Lines” (as well as “Arrivals”) here!

BORN TO THE BLADE has begun to air!

I should have posted about this yesterday, but, er, I was playing hooky from work. >_> (A friend of a friend was in town and had access to a sailboat. Of course I wasn’t going to pass up that chance.)

Born to the Blade has begun to air*!

cover art for BORN TO THE BLADE, Season 1

For centuries the Warders’ Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the countries of the sky a way to avoid war, settling their disputes through formal, magical duels. But the Circle’s ability to maintain peace is fading: the Mertikan Empire is preparing for conquest and the trade nation of Quloo is sinking, stripped of the aerstone that keeps both ships and island a-sky. When upstart Kris Denn tries to win their island a seat in the Warder’s Circle and colonial subject Oda no Michiko discovers that her conquered nation’s past is not what she’s been told, they upset the balance of power. The storm they bring will bind all the peoples of the sky together…or tear them apart.

You can check out the pilot for free right now. Next Wednesday my first episode will debut!

* If that’s the right verb to use. Obviously this isn’t a broadcast situation, but on the other hand, Serial Box’s projects are structured enough like TV shows that I default to the language of that medium.

Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack

I can’t say a lot about the work I do for Legend of the Five Rings because I signed an NDA. But the most recent round of brainstorming for a fiction has me reflecting on what this job is teaching me about making sure that the material I write pulls as much weight per word as possible, and I want to discuss that a little. So let’s see what balance I can strike between specificity and deliberately vague generalities!

The context here is that I have a fairly strict word count for each of my fictions: 3000 words max if they’re going into a pack, and 3000 with some wiggle room if they’re being published on the website. That is . . . not a whole lot. And the story of L5R is so sprawling that even with a bunch of writers producing a bunch of fictions, making sure that everything gets mentioned and explored and moved forward means we can’t afford to waste words. It isn’t enough for a given fiction to do one thing; it needs to do at least two, more like three or four, as many as we can stuff in there at once. Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack.

Take the one I’ve got on my plate right now. The original query from the person I work with Fantasy Flight Games was, “Are you willing to write a story about Character and Group? Something to flesh them out.”

Me: “Sure! What do you think of Scenario?”

FFG: “Sounds good. Maybe you could work in how Character feels about Key Theme, and also expand a bit on Group’s Main Focus.”

Me: “I lean toward having Character feel this way about Key Theme, because that lets me make a contrast with Previously Mentioned Backstory Character. And for Group, maybe Side Character says XYZ — that adds depth to their personality because of Probable Reader Interpretation. Heck, I could even put in Callback to Other Plot A, in a way that layers in some ambiguity.”

FFG: “Great!”

Me: “OOOH. And — just spitballing here — but given the timing, what if we say that Side Character also has Information about Other Plot B, which of course they interpret in Particular Way?”

FFG: “Go for it. But maybe spin it a bit more to the left to emphasize Aspect.”

Me: “Awesome. I’ll have an outline for you shortly.”

It could have just been a story about Character and Group. It probably would have been a perfectly fine story. But the more we can build up these elements, expanding on some things and contrasting with others, making callbacks to previous material and introducing points of linkage in all directions, the richer the fiction becomes.

Not all of this will stand out, of course. Sometimes the work the fiction is doing is fairly subterranean, and only somebody who’s digging into the craft of it will notice that, for example, we’re spinning that last bit to heighten a particular flavor. The overall effect is there, though, and in the long run it pays off: you can poll the readership and they’ll agree that Character Q would never do a particular thing, without you ever saying that outright, because you’ve put enough data points on the table that they can extrapolate as needed. Things become three-dimensional; they feel interconnected. The world feels real.

In my novels I have a lot more room to work with, but it’s still a good lesson to bear in mind. Why just have two characters converse with each other, when their conversation could also be making metaphorical allusions to something from earlier and enriching the reader’s understanding of someone else not present for that scene? Why solve conflicts one at a time, when the solution could be taking out two problems, creating a third, and sending a fourth in an unexpected new direction? This is pretty standard advice for writing, but I feel like the level to which I’m doing it here is higher than usual, and rewardingly so.

Sustaining that over the long run is tough, of course. On the other hand, this is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it will get. So I’ll keep pumping narrative iron.

Spark of Life: Bryan Camp on THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES

Gods are hard to write about in a convincing manner. Too often they seem like plot devices, or else like ordinary characters who happen to have a lot of power. But some authors manage to strike the right balance of personality and numina . . . and sometimes the route to that balance goes off the expected map. Here’s Bryan Camp’s account of how Baron Samedi came to life for him in The City of Lost Fortunes — and hey, maybe if we make pleading puppy-dog eyes, he’ll tell us the rest of the story!

***

Bryan says:

cover art for THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES by Bryan CampEven though I wrote and rewrote this novel for a decade, I didn’t truly know what I was trying to write, or how I should go about doing it, for years. To learn those two details, I had to travel to a sleepy little town in central Mexico. It was there that Baron Samedi, one of the loa of the voodoo faith, sparked to life for me, and through him, the whole novel.

It might seem strange that I came to understand the voodoo guardian of the cemetery by leaving New Orleans, a city filled with cemeteries and a place where voodoo looms large in both the popular imagination and in actual practice. It’s certainly not why I went there. I was just trying to get a degree. At the time, I was earning an MFA from the University of New Orleans, through their Low Residency program. It was a pretty sweet deal: Spring and Fall semesters, all my classes were online (which meant I could keep my job as a high school teacher) and for a month during the Summer semester, I fulfilled all of my residency requirements abroad. That summer, I was taking a New Orleans Literature class with Dr. Nancy Dixon (who literally wrote the book on Nola Lit) and a Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop led by the brilliant Jim Grimsley. It was in that workshop where I met Rachel E. Pollock, a good friend of mine who is one of those people who just unfairly brim over with creativity and talent. She’s not just an amazing writer, but she’s also an artist and an artisan who sews costumes for plays and . . . look, she’s awesome, all right?

Anyway, we were talking about what we were writing, and I told her that I had this novel I wanted to rewrite for my thesis, full of deities from all kinds of myths and faiths, among them Papa Legba and Baron Samedi. Rachel, being as awesome as she is, had a friend who practiced voodoo. When I named the different gods I wanted to write about, I saw a flicker of something sly move across my friend’s face. “Oh,” she said, with a fierce, conspiratorial grin, “I’ve got a story about Samedi.”

I have to pause here and tell you something about voodoo that you may not know. The loa don’t manifest physically in our world; they come here as spirits and inhabit the bodies of their devotees. If you are ridden by one of the loa, they aren’t merely inspiring you in a way that you translate and interpret. They’re not along for the ride; they’re in the driver’s seat. They don’t, in short, communicate through you. If they’ve got something to say, they speak with your mouth.
So when Rachel said she had a story about Samedi, she didn’t mean it was something she’d come across in a book. This was not a matter of folklore scholarship. She knew someone who, within the boundaries of her faith, had spoken to Samedi. This was more of a “friend of a friend” situation. Just three degrees of separation between me and the spirit world. For want of time and space I won’t go into the whole narrative, but suffice it to say that the punchline was Samedi promising that he “had the biggest Spock of all the loa.” He uh, he used a word other than the name of a beloved sci-fi character, but I’m trying to keep this PG here.

What made this line equally hilarious and illuminating was that the body he was inhabiting when he said it was female. That told me a whole lot about Samedi. It told me that he was 100 percent, grade A bro, with all the self-aggrandizing, genital-obsessed swagger that went with it. It told me he had a pretty high opinion of himself. It told me that his own reality was more significant to him than the circumstantial factors of his presence in ours. More crucial than just giving me all these insights into his personality, though, was the fact that this line made it explicitly clear to me that he had a distinct personality to begin with.

I’d been thinking about the figures in myth as archetypes, as symbols, perfect abstractions that merely represented some universal fear or yearning or blessing shared by all humanity. That made it difficult to write about them in ways that weren’t stilted or insincere. It’s hard to get Fear of Death to have a meaningful conversation; hard to predict what Filial Piety’s favorite movie might be. To be clear, myths are archetypes and symbols, but that’s not all they are. They’re also characters, with their own flaws and hungers and strengths. Their own friends and foes. Their own voices.

Once I had that voice in my ear (in a manner of speaking) I was able to see the whole character, how he would act and react. Not just how he would dress and the kind of alcohol he would drink, which I knew from the literature that recorded oral traditions, but why he always wore a suit and preferred rum. And that, for me, was the moment when this figure of myth made the shift from an idea into a character. Through these kinds of thoughts, I was able to really imagine the rest of my immortal beings as people, and thus, The City of Lost Fortunes really started to open up and breathe.

All because Baron Samedi couldn’t stop talking about his eggplant emoji.

***

From the cover copy:

In 2011, Post-Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be a god. When the debt Jude owes to a fortune deity gets called in, he finds himself sitting in on a poker game with the gods of New Orleans, who are playing for the heart and soul of the city itself.

Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero. You can find him on Twitter (@bryancamp), Facebook (@BryanCampNovelist), or Instagram (@bryanlcamp81).

New Worlds: The Tools of Writing

Normally when authors talk about “writing tools,” they mean things like software for word processing or blocking out distractions. But in this case I mean the physical paraphernalia of recording words: paper and clay, pen and brush and stylus, all the different media we’ve put words on and the devices we’ve used to do it. That’s right, folks, it’s Friday, which means it’s time for another installment of the New Worlds Patreon! Comment over at Book View Cafe . . .

(And don’t forget that the book is on sale now!)

NEW WORLDS, YEAR ONE is out now!

The Patreon tree has delivered its first crop of fruit!

(All the fruit trees in my backyard are currently in flower. I have agricultural metaphors on the brain.)

The New Worlds Patreon has been trucking along for more than a year now, building up a huge pile of material. I’ve gathered the initial mass of it into New Worlds, Year One: A Writer’s Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding: all the posts from that first year, edited and reorganized for your convenience. That’s on sale now, and other installments will follow in due course! If you are a writer, or an artist, or a game designer, or a GM — anybody with a need to invent worlds, or heck, just anybody who likes thinking about different ways of living in real or imaginary worlds — this book is for you.

NEW WORLDS, YEAR ONE: A Writer's Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding

New Worlds: Writing Systems

In hindsight, writing systems are such an obvious topic for a series on worldbuilding for writers that I’m surprised I didn’t get around to them sooner! But I’m there now, with the latest New Worlds Patreon essay, in which we discuss everything from pictographs to featural scripts, along with some of the practical implications of each approach.

Comment over there!

Hugo FAQ

People have been asking various questions about the Memoirs and the Hugo Awards, so here’s a quick set of answers to share around (so I don’t have to type them over and over again — which, I just recalled, is Isabella’s in-story reason for writing her memoirs, so this is rather meta):

1) Is the series complete?

Yes! The book I’m writing right now is a related sequel, but it concerns Isabella’s grand-daughter Audrey; the Memoirs of Lady Trent themselves are finished. There are five books: A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and Within the Sanctuary of Wings. There is also a short story, “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review.”

2) I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to read everything. Where should I start with the Memoirs?

If you need a quick taster, “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” is probably the easiest way to get that. It’s somewhat different from the Memoirs, being told in the form of letters rather than, y’know, a memoir — but it will give you a decent sense of Isabella’s personality and some of the series’ core concerns, in only 2100 words, and you can read it for free on Tor.com or get it in ebook. It takes place between the third and fourth book, but neither contains any significant spoilers nor requires you to have read the series to understand it.

Where the novels themselves are concerned, well, the traditional place to start is at the beginning. 🙂 But the challenge of the Best Series Hugo, of course, is that it isn’t the Best First Book of a Series Hugo. A Natural History of Dragons is a fine introduction, but if you’re pressed for time and want to jump in deeper, I recommend either The Tropic of Serpents or Voyage of the Basilisk. (Labyrinth and Sanctuary are distinctly dependent on the preceding books for their full effect.) I think Voyage does the best job of being both comprehensible on its own and a showcase for many of the series’ aesthetic and thematic concerns, but it also does so in the context of a story that’s a little more decentralized, because (as the title suggests) it’s Isabella’s Darwin-esque trip around the world. If you’d rather a more focused milieu, Tropic is the one to look at.

3) How does one go about voting for the Hugos?

The Hugo Awards are bestowed by the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention, so if you want to vote, become a member! A supporting membership gets you the right to vote on the 2018 award, the right to nominate for the 2019 award, and (in all likelihood) access to the Hugo Voter Packet, which assembles ebook copies of as many of the nominated works as publishers are willing to provide — usually quite a lot of them. An attending membership gets you all that and access to the convention itself, which will be August 16th-20th in San Jose, California.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent are up for a Hugo!

Fortunately the Hugo people are kind; they don’t make you sit for very long on the news that you’ve been nominated. 😀

That’s right, ladies and gentlebeings: the Memoirs of Lady Trent have made the Hugo Award ballot for Best Series! (This was announced on Saturday, but I didn’t post about it here because I was incredibly busy that day, and then Sunday was, y’know, April Fool’s. Not a good day to announce real and major news.) And of course here we say the usual modest things about being so pleased and excited, but —

— look, can you keep a secret? Just between us.

I am beside myself over this. Because while I am proud of all the individual books, it is as a series that I think they truly shine. I did everything I hoped to with them and more — because while I planned a lot of things about the character arc and the exploration of the world and the discoveries Isabella would make along the way, the story also sprouted all kinds of thematic depth, above and beyond what I intended to include. I wound up saying things about women, and science, and women in science, motherhood, social class, romance, grief, being an outsider in a foreign land, the price of technological development, and and and. What I originally thought of as just kind of some fun pulpy adventure about studying dragons instead of killing them and taking their stuff — well, it’s still that, but it grew so much richer along the way.

And now it’s nominated for a Hugo.

I owe thanks to everybody who helped make this series what it is: Paul Stevens, the editor for the first three books, and Miriam Weinberg, the editor for the last two (herself nominated for Best Editor – Long Form!); Rachel Vater, who suggested I make Isabella an artist, and Eddie Schneider, who has championed these books the whole way through, and all my foreign agents who have brought them into French and German and Polish and Russian and Romanian; Todd Lockwood, whose art helped inspire the series and has graced its covers and interior pages throughout; Alyc Helms, who helped bail me out of plot tangles on all five of these books and more besides; and all the women, past, present, and future, whose determination and ingenuity and intelligence inspired the character of Lady Trent. Every year when I invite people to send her letters, I get missives from women working in various scientific fields, telling me about their dreams and their discoveries, and every year I have to sniffle back tears because the ink I use for Lady Trent’s replies isn’t waterproof.

It has been an honor and a privilege. And now, as the saying goes: before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. I’ve been nominated for a Hugo; now it’s time to go back to what I was doing before that happened, which is polishing up the tale of Isabella’s granddaughter and carrying it through to the end.