Friday, July 1, 2016

Around the bend: Chapter 2, Clockwork River


Thanks everyone for your great feedback on the first chapter of Clockwork River. Here’s the second in what seems to be an evolving, semi-regular feature around here.

Enjoy!







Clockwork River
CHAPTER TWO

Excerpt


The next morning, Fen decided to be somewhere else as Uncle Monteriso supervised the lieutenant of the scout detail dressing down his troops for letting the bandits through. She didn’t need to be gifted to know that most men didn’t like a younger officer, especially her, to be present for that, but she also wanted to stay busy and not think about last night.

Try not to think about it, she thought. I swear it wasn’t my imagination, his voice sounded so weak, like he was fading away.

Fate answered her plea as she made morning rounds at the perimeter with Centurion Sedicatus, who had never stared at her once and he wasn’t much of talker either and that suited her fine — that meant he’d given himself fewer chances to say something to offend.

It was on her second circuit that she spotted the Royal Shan patrol trotting up the road and, even from a distance, their faces looked different from both her kinsmen, the Imperials and even the Outlands peoples.

I have lost count of how many shapes noses and eyes come in, she thought. They even hang their banners sideways, but I bet they want the same as everyone else, they protect what’s theirs, mercy is rare, and men value women for their hips instead of their minds.

Beyond their strange banners, their armor was unusual as it was a mix of woven mats and leathers instead of the imperial design of leather and metals. Fen made a mental note that arrows and thrusting swords would do better against that sort of armor than hacking and slashing weapons. “Corporal?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

Fen’s gaze never turned from the advancing patrol. “Have the Satellitium know that we have a welcoming committee.”

With complete sincerity and no hesitation, he curtly nodded. “As you command.”

She gave a small smile. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome as always, Half-Captain.”

Gods, true professionals are hard to find. She sat tall in her saddle as the patrol kept their distance and watched her. After a while, her Uncle passed by with his lieutenants and a translator, while Damianus spared her a smile that she wanted to slap off his face.

Fen put her hand on her sword. This is one of the few times I am happy to not be given my full due. She kept an eye out for sniping archers, but saw none. But that meant nothing. There were too many hiding places. Never mind if the archer was a Prodigal.

She and Sedicatus watched, ever ready.

Uncle Monteriso trotted back, his troops following. “Pass the word, we will break camp and follow our escort to a Governor’s domain. We are to stick to the roads and they say we have no need of our scouts. We promise full protection.”

Fen’s face was a calculated blank. “I do not like this, sir.”

Her Uncle’s grin stayed on his face though his voice could frost a lake. “And demanding the sun drop from the sky at noon does not make night. We stay alert, watch them and watch the tree line. Our scouts are being escorted back. That gives us extra eyes. Use them.”

“Yes, sir.”



#



The Ambassador’s convoy was a tight fit on the Royal roads, which were paved like Imperial roads but narrower. Fen didn’t spend much time thinking about it though, as she kept scanning the underbrush and the forest canopy for ambushers and archers. It didn’t matter to her that hundreds of other eyes were doing the same. It was a contagious mood that subdued the twittering in the grand ladies’ wagon into muted whispers, which made them now sound like scheming conspirators.

Arwin’s horse caught up to hers just as tall wooden town walls came into view. Without stopping, their escorts barked orders and the gates opened to let them in. Both siblings were silent as they passed through.

The town itself was as quiet as an open field. The flies buzzed, leaves rustled, and somewhere an out of sight chicken clucked. But not one resident was heard or seen. Unlike Imperial towns, there were no hanging picture signs, so even the creak of a sign swinging in the wind was absent.

Fen’s hand slid from her sword’s pommel to the grip. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. Arwin said nothing; it must have been the longest he’d ever gone without a word. The box sitting in the saddle with him was three feet tall and about two feet wide. A wisp of dark smoke drifted from a slot near the bottom. The astringent fumes belied that it was păcură because coal smelled like dirty earth to her. She saw that his thumb sat on a release switch.

That brought a sardonic smirk to her face. It’s his brass hawk. I want to see it fly again. Her mind’s eye picture it’s metal wings flapping with the sound of wire string and gears moving to a fast rhythmic beat. But I’d rather see in the skies from our old home. Oh, Arwin. You’ll need supplies soon. Without your machines and your substances, you’re only a smart boy with a big sister to protect you. If they had been alone, she would have hugged him. This trip has been hard. I miss the days they let us be children.

A shifting shadow in a window got Fen’s attention – it could have been a hiding villager or an assassin. One of the Shan men caught her stare and yelled something in their weird language, several guards responded by storming the house in two squads. One took the lead by rushing through the front door as the second waited by the back for any escapees.

Fen noted that the Shans’ non-metallic armor made so much less noise than metal-studded Imperial gear. In moments, one of them leaned out the window and shook his head.

Up front where Uncle was, the exit gates were already open, but it felt as if the walls were closing in seemed that the rest of the wagon train crawled by, even though she knew that wasn’t the truth. Fen fought the urge to spur her horse on. If everyone else can take their sweet time, I will endure.

Eventually, as her part of the train passed the gate’s threshold, the knot of unease in her chest loosened and she took a deep breath.

Awrin covered up the box with a black cloth. “That was unsettling.”

Fen’s sweaty hand went back to the pommel. “Have I ever told you about your gift for understatement?”

“Hmm. So back there, what did that tell you?”

She took in the town one more time. “The five kingdoms are always fighting on and off the battlefield. And that the Shan distrust their cousins more than any bandits or Imperial assassins.”

He nodded. “Could there be anything else they’d want to hide from us?”

Fen ruminated for a moment. “No. Why?”

Arwin shrugged. “There are uncommon times when the common answer is wrong.”

“Really, do you think this is one of them, He Who Breathes Ink and Smoke?” Fen said.

Arwin didn’t look back. “Not sure. But you never know, unless you ask.”

Fen would have hit him right there but she was afraid the box would have slipped out of his grip. So a glare had to do. “I don’t need to be jumping at shadows.” Especially me. If I cry wolf at every moving branch, they will think that I’ve gone timid and chuck me into the Ladies Wagon. That’s not true. I’ll end up giving mock duels as entertainment at the Ambassador’s dinners and be Arwin’s tag-along. She shuddered.

To read the rest of the chapter, check it out here.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Cruising the Clockwork River



That was a pleasant surprise.

I never thought that offhandedly saying that I was editing a “proto-Steampunk Celtic/Roman Han mashup” would get such a response. “When is it out?” You all asked.

I’d like to give a solid finish date, but I know how it feels I’m excited for something and then three months later there’s nothing after someone promised “soon.” Drives my impatient self crazy. Next thing I know, I'm in my backyard screaming, “Just give me something! Anything!”

Which might explain the regular visits by the cops. Well, it’s either that or the noises in the middle of the night when I’m working on my death-ray robot. It’s a coin toss, really.

So with the Golden Rule in mind, I’m going to stop working on robot – for now – and give you guys a taste of what’s to come with the first free Chapter of Clockwork River below followed by a link for the full chapter if you want even more.

Enjoy!


Clockwork River
By Christopher Robin Negelein


CHAPTER ONE
Excerpt


Fenella of Clan Ríagáin hated how the heavy aristocratic dress squeezed her like a giant snake. It barely gave her room to breathe — never mind move. The Imperial carriage's bumpy ride made it worse as it jostled her tailbone on top of every lump hidden in the seat. All of it felt entrapping, like manacles decorated in fine silks and embroidery.
If she had held still, though, she would have been the perfect picture of an Imperial citizen. One with mixed ancestry with her lighter skin of course, but still floating in circles where it would be overlooked in polite company.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her brother, Arwin, pulling at his tight shirt collar as he rolled his eyes and sighed. He sweated under a heavy jacket and the matching hat that kept slipping off his head.
He tried to hold onto an ornately engraved metal box, which occasionally released tiny puffs of smoke. A silent exchange of looks and the siblings shared their pure hate for these ridiculous clothes.
Fen wanted to say something but bit her tongue and focused terrain speeding by. Other young women her age might have noticed that the trees and grass grew taller this far out from the Kanhai desert, which had taken the Ambassadorial convoy a whole week to cross even at its shortest tip. Or that in this new landscape, natural stone columns rose up like gargantuan fingers poking out of the earth, which offered a bit of shelter from the sweltering heat. Fen, though, was a different type of lady and also noted that the stones proved far too many spots for those looking to ambush the caravan.
Even Uncle Monteriso was distracted, keeping his place in the book he always carried with a manicured finger as he watched the distant hills crawl by. His clothes were even more ostentatious, with gold sewn into the embroidery and rings flashing on his fingers as he tugged on a loose shoulder sleeve.
Somewhere, they heard the Ambassador's wife laughing in a carriage further behind them. Fen let out an exasperated sigh.
Monteriso shook his head. "I told her, and her hens, to keep their cackling to themselves. I —”
A screaming horse stopped her uncle's tirade. Fen grabbed the window sill so she could lean out and see the injured animal, a crossbow quarrel sticking in its side as it thrashed to the ground, pinning its rider underneath. Swinging her head, she saw a tree crashing down in front of their carriage.
"The rider behind us is down. I see a bolt sticking — “she said.
Monteriso sucked in a gasp as he reached for a long, fat dagger. "I heard a falling tree, yes?”
Fen nodded.
Monteriso grunted. “Bandits."
Arwin struck a match and slipped it into a hole in his prized metal box as the conveyance stopped. "A distraction? Sow confusion in the ranks and draw the guards away from —" The carriage door swung wide open to reveal a man with his head wrapped in a turban in the style famously worn in the city-states by honor-bound caliphs. A simple scarf covered all but the cold eyes. The bandit grabbed Fen and tossed her out.
"All of you out, now!" He growled.
Monteriso and Arwin gingerly stepped out. Monteriso had his hands in the air as Arwin grasped his box with only his fingertips.
Fen noticed that several bandits had gotten the drop on the caravan. She looked around for for back up but then she saw that two of the Ambassador's men were lying in the dirt, lifeless, and knew they were trapped.
One masked man, taller than the rest and resting a hand on his sword pommel, strutted towards them. "So this is the famous Ambassador and his beautiful family from the West." His accent was clipped but understandable. From a distance, his clean clothes draped in silks and fine linens with bright dyes would have made for good impression. If not for the mask, he could have been a wealthy merchant or official. Up closer, Fen made out the faded brown spots in the linen, blood stains that had been repeatedly washed out again and again.
Uncle had one hand on his chest as the other gestured to a loaded wagon. "We are just merchants — take our goods and go in peace. Let us bury our dead."
Arwin slowly tilted the box on its side as if he was going to put it under his arm.
The first bandit snatched it. "What is this?"
"Nothing," Arwin said. "It's not worth your trouble."
The bandit king laughed. "Well, we will see, young man. Have you ever thought about being a bandit?" The bandit king took off a glove and waved his man closer.
The other handed it over. "Careful, it seems warm."
"As does any metal box you set out in the sun," the bandit king said, but he still took it with his gloved hand before flipping the catch and opening the lid to get a face full of smoke and flickering metallic wings accompanied by a high-pitched buzzing noise. On cue, everyone in the Ambassador's party dropped or ducked.
Fen pulled out a throwing knife, with a glittering quartz handle, from the folds of her dress and threw it into the dead center of where the bandits were standing. The unnatural smoke, filled with tiny brass wasps, dived at the bandit king and spread out to the other robbers. Their flailing hands and swinging swords didn't stop the insects' razor-sharp bites or the needle-like stingers filled with virulent poison. Within moments, the injected toxins constricted throats, caused blindness as fire ran through the bandits' arteries, and stopped their hearts.
Fen then got up to fetch her dagger. Too many escaped last time, Fen thought. If we kill enough of them, it will become too expensive to send any more assassins.
She tumbled into the thick of them, stabbing and slicing. Using her natural grace, she kept low and avoided the mechanical swarm with a sublime ease. A ripping sound came with a sudden freedom for her legwork as her powerful legs and wide stance effortlessly popped the seams of her silly dress.
Her spirit sang as her power and grace made short work of the bandits. It was in these moments when Fen felt the most alive — fully embracing these gifts of being a martial prodigy, as "unlady-like" as it may be. This was who she was and as long as it lasted, she couldn't care less what others thought in this moment.
Hearing her dress tear put a wide grin on her face. Too late now, she thought. This will cost me later, but it’s totally worth it.
Her knee hit the dirt, grinding a smear in the silks, but it still no substitute for a padded greave. As another bandit fell, his blood splattering on the dress. None of them are escaping this time.
From her peripheral vision, she caught Uncle fighting on the edges of the swarm, sword and shield in hand. Jaw set, he stormed towards his targets like a trotting bull. Without slowing down, he shield bashed one bandit off their feet. Another was downed by his sword. Another one downed with sword stroke.
His motions were brutal — and economic. While hers were elegant and precise. Both methods produced quick and lethal results that no one could deny.
She kept spinning and diving under the swarm, taking out hamstrings and shins. The yells and screams confirmation of her accuracy.  One by one the little mechanical wasps drifted down around her. Their miniscule reserves of the mystical oil, păcură, exhausted.  She paid them no mind. She was the vengeful tidal wave claiming souls below a roiling cloud of mechanical death.
Distantly, she heard the other legionnaires of the Ambassador’s bodyguard making quick work of the stragglers along the edges of the fight. At a glance up, she saw the metallic cloud thinned out enough that she dared to pop up to give stab at an armpit or a throat. But otherwise she still stayed as low as she could. She reveled in the extra challenge.

... 

And you can find the full chapter of Clockwork River here





Thursday, March 31, 2016

World Building 3.0 … for me.

Small reminder up front. My writing columns are about my experiences with the writing process so they offer more depth, but less breadth, than other writing blogs. Simply put, they’re less about generic advice and what did, or didn’t work for someone. YMMV.
So how does word building begin for a story?
With my previous works  I was very much a pants-er, both in my story and my world building. The advantage is that I only create as much of a world as I need for the story.  
But that was sort of a mess for novel one, which is why it’s hidden in trunk. It worked great for my Weird Western, but then again not so much for my proto-Steampunk Celtic/Roman Han mashup (that’s in editing right now).
To sum up, when the conflict* and the world is straightforward, being a pants-er is pretty doable. Add plot twists with evolving world building on the fly as the story develops  and suddenly the story is in at a dead stop as I noodle out the details I need before I continue. Sometimes I realize the detail may never hit the page, but I until I chase that bit down the rabbit hole, I don’t know for sure.
That dead stop, though, drags down a process that’s already slow for a part-time writer. One bit I’ve picked up from writers like Chuck Wendig, Adam-Troy Castro, and Matt Forbeck is that outlines can help -- if you’re not a slave to them. And these guys are like word machines, both quantity and quality.
As I’m getting  ready to do the legwork for my fourth novel. The biggest change to my method is a dedication to Outlining with a capital “O.”
And one way to outline a story is to start with an idea of who your heroes are, what they might need, and then dive into the villain.
No really, the bad guys maybe your most important characters in the story. Without them, there’s no conflict. But straight up baddies are no fun. So giving them motivations adds a little umph.  So it goes something like this.
The hero interferes with the villain's plan by rescuing an innocent. But why did the bad guy need the innocent in the first place? Said innocent has a talent that’s in high demand? That kidnapping still makes him a cardboard villain, though.
But what if this bad guy, say a crime lord, was playing two sides of the fence, as they often do. Sure, he’s making a profit, but that profit helps others or sticks it some assholes. Now the dimmer switch in me brain is starting to turn past the “On” position.
So talented innocent is a sculptor which is great when you need printing plates for counterfeit money to either fund the resistance or destabilize the real bad guys, right?. That’s promising, but why isn’t my hero already working for said resistance. Is she part of the problem? Neutral in said conflict?
I’m not excited by that track, time to spin up the old gray matter again. Maybe it’s a more low-key occupation? Puppet government maybe? I feel like I’m getting warmer.  
Now I’ve noodled out that a background situation that’s simmering, but not ready to boil, has potential. A fantasy Casablanca or Morroco starts percolating.
If there’s more than one occupier, which makes it harder for the resistance to pick effective targets? If you give one a black eye, you’ve only really done the heavy lifting for other jerks and kept their hands clean in the process.
Then history comes to my rescue.
The Ottoman Empire and Poland were both were nations that had Prussia, Austria and Russia screwing with them for centuries. Neither country thought that was a picnic.
So now I have four countries to invent in the short term. Three superpowers and the beleaguered land they all fight over. And their capitals, and probably a lot more stuff I’m not even thinking of right now.
The key, I think will be to touch briefly on these at first. A sentence or paragraph that gets me going, but doesn’t mire me in a history paper for a fictional country.
Even though it’s going to be a fictional world, I now have a LOT of inspiration to draw from. I’m still debating if I should be very happy or very scared.
Whew. I need a break. I’m thinking that taking ten will be good. That’ll give me a chance to flesh out the airship crew.

*My plotting comes from the school of characters in need, and then offer them a conflict that leads them to their need. It’s a little more complicated than that, but it avoids the temptation of creating a plot that may or may not mesh with your characters.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Shannara and Shakespeare


Shannara and Shakespeare
More of this, less of Middle Earth Lite

SG-1 was a show that I never watched until it was repeating on a daily basis with the then Properly-Spelled-SciFi-Channel. If you just double-checked the title of this article, hang with me here. Besides I needed more space before we hit spoiler alert territory.
You’d think this would have been something going a has-been show limping along on its second network (SG-1 started on Showtime.) I was surprised it was still on with a new episode every week..
Eventually the original SG-1 lasted 10 years as a single show, something that even a single Star Trek series pulled off on American TV. And while ST had much better success with its spin-offs, the Stargate franchise still had an astounding run of 15 years. It was based on a one-off movie. How much content could you have? Turns out quite a bit if you’re not shy with your mythology.
In comparison, the source material for Shannara is over 20 novels and counting. 
The first season of wasn’t great TV, a double sin while we are in a golden age of TV and Geekery, but over several episodes it became more watchable. Though it still has a ways to go to put “I don’t think your elf princess is going to want a human’s sloppy seconds,” in the rear view mirror.
But now we have an in-universe reason for why everyone sounds more “modern,” this is our world after some sort of hand wavy genetic apocalypse*. But Manu Bennett, you can still keep up the old Druid-speak in your growly voice. You’ve got that down pat.
And the more TSC embraced its Science Fantasy premise, the more intrigued I became. I haven’t read anything from the series in decades, but I fear that Brooks probably didn’t put that much thought into his mythology beyond using it to prop up his fantasy world. But just in production values alone, it looks like Millar and Gough have fleshed the Science Fantasy mythology more — something that also worked for SG-1 as the years rolled by.
But now we go into spoiler country and why my interest has peaked after the final episode.
Last chance. Spoiler Alert.
More than half of the cast is dead, including the very first main character we met in the pilot. It’s like Shakespearean bloodbath, only with the bad guys doing most of the killing strokes. And it was so total that I wondered if the show was only a miniseries until I saw the “To Be Continued” caption before the End Credits. There was one dude, not the bad guy, who had to be killed twice. That’s taking one for the team.
Every long-standing genre show needs to find a way to evolve and change over time. Some were more subtle about it, like the Doctor Who, X-files and SG-1 as they expanded their mythology while others played the obvious is obvious card like ST’s and Fringe’s regular reboots. (And for anyone keeping up with the Expanse books, you know that’s already in the works for the TV show.)
But with final episode already setting up a villain and clearing the house of all the dead wood (Magic Soul Eating Tree pun intended), it shows a commitment to keeping the show fluid and adaptable over the long haul. Right now, I think the series is on the bubble.
But if it makes to Season 2, it just might be around longer than anyone expects.
*The books go for more of a 1970s hand wavy atomic armageddon.

Lord of Light, the missed opportunity in Gods of Egypt


Lord of Light, the missed opportunity in Gods of Egypt

So evidently some people watch this clip and think that Ra is piloting a space ship. (It might be chairot-ish/boat-ish thing, maybe?)
But for me, it just reinforced what I was thinking already. That all of that money and effort could have given us a Lord of Light movie.
Roger Zelazny’s third book and a Hugo winner, the twisty tale covers the downfall of tyrants who used mind transfer techn and religion to rule a planet. As a bit of trivia, this is the SF book documented in Ben Affleck’s Argo as the book-to-movie project that the CIA used for their cover in the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Adopting Hinduism for both its use of reincarnation and a caste system, the original colony ship crew judge who is worthy of a better body and who is to be punished by living like a literal animal. Posing as gods, the crew’s definition of karma is a bit more self-serving. The native aliens are called “demons.”
But several lesser “gods,” the colonist own children, have had enough and bring the last rebel back from his prison in the ionosphere . But how does one being, even an immortal one, fight a religion with very real gods.
Ironically, I think the special effects budget might have actually been smaller than GoE. If I remember right, the colony ship in Light landed a long time ago and there’s no need for a space scene.
So as you shake your head of the whitewashing over Gods of Egypt, lift your hand and pull Lord of Light off the shelf and have a good read.

Magic is the tool, not the theme, in Magicians

I’m getting into the Magicians quite a bit, but for while it was hard to pin down why.
First off, maybe I’m reading into it too much, but let’s see. While the literanazies usually comment that much of genre fiction is “adolescent” especially for it's love of the Chosen One trope, the Magicians is more of the collegiate version.
I'll skip over the two obvious spins of that angle, the post-Harry Potter commentary and the addiction allegory, though the undertone I was having trouble articulating about seemed akin to both.
It seemed more like the addition to being a "Chosen One" ... among thousands of other “Chosen Ones” and the sacrifices you make only validate your alleged uniqueness.
Harvard? Yale? Being in the 10% of special people in country? Bah. That pales in comparison to magic school. Suck on that valedictorians!
And yet the show is already hinting that every one of these special snow flakes are all headed towards a crash of realism out in the adult magic world. Just as every wizard graduate from Brakebills will learn that  high scores only puts more expectations to deliver in a world they are outclassed for, so goes it for mundane lawyers, doctors and academia.
You see that some are already finding justifications to avoid dealing with that realization. I.E. at least they are not hedge witches, or worse yet not one of the little people who have no magic. And the hope that if they are willing to keep pushing and sacrificing, they can prove they at least belong if not stand out among peers who are already standing above everyone else. And how those older and more cunning than them are manipulating their insecurity and ambition.
So I knew it's definitely a hubris of some sort,  sometimes, but then some characters use the magic as facade to remake themselves into what they want to be. "I am own greatest creation." Just as others had used magic as something to bury themselves into to hide from their personal pains
Then I realized where I had gone wrong. 
I had assumed the writing room had only picked one theme or one trope. A lot of shows and stories do that. In the past, that was a pretty solid way to go, but I think audiences are more savvy to that now. A show has to keep moving forward now a days.
 Example? Twenty years ago, the old "Hero is stuck in a fake insanity ward" episode would have been in season four of a genre film. 
The Magicians did it as their fourth episode, season one. 
And I think that this show has taken that a step further with magic. Instead of sticking to one metaphor and running it into the ground, on fumes, with a shovel, they've embraced that magic can be many things to many people. It can be a way to power, a place to hide and even a salvation of sorts. 
It could also be a one-way ticket to a personal hell. 
So I tip my hat off to the crew of show. Keep making magic. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Crossing the (Creative) streams

It used to be that not only every genre, but also every industry had a wall around it. If you video game writing, that was about all you did. Now creatives are jumping from fiction to tabletop RPGs to comic books, etc.

Let me introduce you to workaholic, Shanna Germain. Part owner of Monte Cook Games and full on writer/editor of ficiton and RPGs. A talented profession who knows no bounds.

Shanna Germain