Episode Four of Dinosaur Planet.

Notwithstanding my sincere elation last post at completing the first draft of Princess of Shadows, the last few days I have felt rather like a sprinter who, having crossed the finish line after a supreme effort, now lies gasping for air on the infield grass. I have just barely started working on the second draft. Instead, I’ve been playing Halo and doodling with Dinosaur Planet. The fourth episode is a bit short, but it seemed to break naturally where I left it.

The rumors that reading the following prose will cause hair loss and un-American activities have not yet been substantiated by scientific study, but caution is advised. As usual, copyrighted by me, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen. God be with you.

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Episode Four: Unpleasant Surprises

Paul knelt beside Mackemann. The commander’s breathing was ragged, but he was conscious. He met Paul’s eyes and tried to reach out with his right hand.

Paul caught it, gripped it tight.

“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I’m sorry, Mac, I didn’t see the trees….”

“Nothing…you could have done,” Mackemann wheezed. “You got…Jasper?”

“Barely,” the AI said. “I’m thinking of complaining to the management….”

Mackemann rolled his eyes in disgust; Paul said, “Shut-up, short-circuit. Mac, what can I do?”

Mackemann shook his head. “Nothing for me. I’m done. You need to leave me….”

“I can’t do that!” Paul said.

Mackemann gripped Paul’s hand harder. “Listen! I’m finished—you can’t lug me anywhere, and you have to get out of here. Now. The Weasels…know we’re here. And that smoke…ah!” Mackemann writhed in pain. “The smoke will draw them. You have to get Jasper out of here, to…someplace from which…you can transmit the intel. You’ve got to, you understand?“

Paul gulped, panting with the heat and the tight constriction of his throat. “All right, all right…I get it. What can I do for you?”

“Give me a…drink of water, and then get the hell out of here.”

Paul unzipped his suit and shrugged it off; the air was thick and humid, and he was already sweating from his exertions. His ship coverall was more than enough, it seemed, in this climate. There was a potable water canister attached to the survival kit he had pulled from the ship; he unclipped it and gave Mackemann a long drink. The commander seemed to breathe easier afterwards. “Save…the rest…for yourself,” Mackemann said.

Not saying anything, Paul reattached the canister to the kit. He snapped the kit’s locks and opened it. Every kit was equipped with a backpack and cargo belt, into which he could transfer the kit’s ration packs, weapons, shelter, and medicines. With that and Jasper’s carrying sling, he would be pretty much set.

The kit was empty.

Paul stared in surprise. Empty, or nearly so—there were no food packs, or medical supplies. There was no backpack or belt. There was just one pulse pistol, where there should have been four, as well as a pulse rifle. There were no spare energy packs. There was no tent.

“What…what the hell?” Paul whispered.

“What?” Jasper said. “What’s happened now?”

“I…must have grabbed the wrong pack,” Paul said. “This one’s got hardly anything in it.”

“Oh, that’s just typical!” Jasper said. “There are no supplies at all?”

“What do you care?” Paul snapped. “You don’t have to eat.”

You do, you moronic chunk of carbon, and if you die, I’m stuck with a moldering corpse out in the boonies somewhere, waiting for my energy pack to deplete. You grabbed the wrong pack! How could you grab the wrong pack? Of all the….”

Jasper shut up suddenly, so mid-stream that Paul looked up in alarm. “What is it?”

“We’ve got movement,” Jasper said, in a voice that utterly reminded Paul of someone cocking their ear to catch a sound. “To the southwest. “

“What, animals?” Paul asked.

“Not unless animals carry pulse weaponry,” Jasper said. “I’m picking up several energy signatures.”

“Weasels,” Paul said. His heart made a serious effort to climb up out of his throat and run for it.

“That would be my guess, too,” Jasper said.

Paul snatched the one pulse pistol out of the pack, snapped it to his belt. The only other items of use in the pack were a utility knife and a telescoping corner pole of the tent that should have been there. He grabbed them both.

He ran back to Mackemann. He wasn’t going to leave him here for the Weasels to find and torture. But as he knelt down Mackemann’s eyes were fixed, staring at nothing. Paul felt for a pulse at the commander’s neck; nothing.

“He died forty-five seconds ago,” Jasper said. “Lucky bastard. He’s out of danger.”

“We’re not.” Paul reached down and closed Mackemann’s eyes. “Sorry, Mac.” He picked up Jasper’s sling, slung it over his shoulder. “Which way?”

“The opposite direction of the Weasels, stupid,” Jasper said. “Northeast. Twenty-five degrees to your right. Right, good. Now, run.”

Paul ran.

Next Episode: A Whole New World
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Later.

Te Deum laudamus

The first draft of Princess of Shadows is complete. It may be an exaggeration to say I hear victory bells ringing, but not by much. I was close to despair a few times, trying to get to this point. Thank God.

Having said that, the war is not over yet. This puppy came in at 167,598 words, probably the biggest single chunk of writing I have ever done. Obviously it needs serious cutting; more than that, there are structural, pacing and character issues that need to be addressed.

I define a first draft as the point at which a hypothetical reader could read the manuscript and comprehend (I hope) the story arc as a whole, without major disruptions or breaks in continuity. All the major pieces, in other words, should be in place. The reader, however, would probably be asking questions like, “Why is this town named X in the first part and Y in the second?” and “Why did you put all this stuff in about the macro-economics of the Imperial grain market when we want to know if Kathy is going to get away from the cannibals?” and “How in hell did Character Z start out male and end up female without anything in the narrative about major surgery?” and so on.

In this particular story, I’ve got entire sections that I am not sure I need; characters who need to be re-written or eliminated; other sections that are too thin and need to be fleshed out. That’s aside from grammar and spelling checks, and eliminating the “holy crap, I can’t believe I wrote that!” elements. There’s a lot of work still ahead.

My next step will be an online read-through, spell-checking and fixing obvious grammar issues. Then I will apply myself to fixing the major issues with the story. Once that is done, I’ll do a hard-copy red-pen edit, which is usually where I catch the kind of sneaky errors that spell-checker misses and that tend not to be noticed on the screen (missing definite articles, etc.). Then it will be time to hand the novel over to my two beta readers, who have been very patiently waiting (well, sorta) for the next installment.

Once that’s all done, I will contract for a cover with my favorite cover artist, format the whole thing to Kindle standard, and upload it. My best guess is that I have three or four months of work still ahead of me.

But I am now over the biggest psychological hurdle I have for any story– actually completing it, however imperfectly. Once that is done, everything else is mopping-up operations and pursuit of an enemy in flight.

Later.

An update, and what is that light?

Real quick, before I take my meds and crawl into bed (in a distinct departure from sanity this evening, I walked about 99 blocks home as my daily exercise, with a twenty-pound backpack. I expect I’m going to feel that in the morning). Princess of Shadows is now over 155,000 words, and I have the growing conviction that if I maintain a good pace, I can finish the first draft this coming week. Light, end of tunnel, the standard cliche. I am in the next to last major scene, and a large part of the last major scene is already written.

Even with the draft in hand, I will have weeks of work ahead of me to fix this puppy, but the psychological hump of getting the first draft done has always been the hardest for me to overcome– I have maybe a dozen novels (or more) that I never finished, that died somewhere between beginning and end. If Shadows had been a first novel, it probably would have suffered that fate, as well– the fact that two other novels already exist was a tremendous impetus to keep plugging away. That and the people threatening to hurt me if I didn’t finish the next part of Kathy’s story. I suppose that’s a compliment.

Later.

“Chronicle” – sort of a review, with a few thoughts on power.

Recently I took some time out from my life-and-death struggle with Princess of Shadows to watch the movie Chronicle. I have a specific reason for doing so, which I will share after I talk about the film.

*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS

If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, STOP READING. You have been warned.

Brief synopsis (did I mention there would be spoilers?)– three high-schoolers– a popular kid, a class-president type, and the local geek punching-bag with the obligatory dying mother and abusive father– discover a mysterious crystalline object in a sinkhole/cavern outside Seattle (mostly Cape Town, South Africa, in actuality. Probably too expensive to shoot in Seattle. Believe me, I understand that part). In some unexplained fashion contact with the object imparts telekinetic super-powers to the trio, who spend the next several weeks exercising their newfound abilities and growing more and more powerful. They eventually learn to fly and crush objects like cars.

The punching-bag (Andrew) obsessively videos everything, which is the main excuse for presenting the movie as “found footage”. I’m ambivalent about the found footage form– it always seems at least a little contrived (in Cloverfield, is the goofy camera-gumbah really going to lug the camera around right up to the moment he’s (spoiler!) eaten by the monster? Come on). Inevitably, Andrew, his mother in her last days, his father a complete thug, and high-school still a living hell, begins to go off the rails and use his powers in Ways That Can Only End In Tears– he accidentally kills the token black kid in the trio (Steve), pays back some of the school bullies, and then tries to steal enough money to buy his mother medicine. This attempt fails and puts him in the hospital. Despite his wounds, he’s still able to blow out the exterior wall of his hospital room and nearly kill his abusive father. This sets up the climatic battle between Andrew and his cousin Matt, the third member of the trio, which lays waste to a significant portion of downtown (faux-)Seattle, before Matt kills Andrew to save innocent lives. Matt then goes off to (really?) Tibet to find harmony with his powers (or something).

It was hard for me to watch this film, for several reasons. One is the fact that the three kids spend about the first third of the film being giggling dicks, as they explore their new powers. They never seem to question how they got them (indeed, the movie never explains how, or what the crystalline object was), or if there’s a downside to the powers, until Andrew begins to hurt people. Another reason was that Andrew’s story had some painful parallels to my own time in high-school. The movie as a whole seemed to have serious plot-holes and I thought it short-changed Matt’s character development, as he becomes less of a dick and more concerned with other people. I suspect some footage was left on the cutting room floor that might round out that aspect of the film in a director’s cut. Either way, personally I would give the film an “okay, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price” score.

The chief reason I watched the movie, though, was not fondness for the form or the genre (teenage superhero angst?). It’s because the film addresses something that has been percolating in the back of my brain for a while, trying to coalesce into a story.

How do people deal with power? Especially, how would a human being deal with the sudden acquisition of tremendous power? This is something of a recurring theme in sci-fi, from Star Trek (Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before), the X-Men (the Dark Phoenix storyline), and Stephen King’s Carrie. Obviously this is a way of talking about power and the corruption of power in the real, everyday world, a topic painfully acute nowadays, and thoroughly familiar to any student of history (what’s one of the prime prerequisites for a historian, imo? A strong stomach).

Different stories answer this question of power in different ways. Many take the position that, one way or another, love and connection to other people (or, more broadly, sentient beings), can inoculate the recipient of power from its misuse. Superman traditionally avoided using his powers for evil chiefly because he was grounded in the love of his adoptive parents, who give this alien the framework to be willing to serve and sacrifice for the people of Earth (and, yes, for Lois Lane, but then we all have mixed motives). Spiderman starts out possibly headed toward a amoral and uncaring future, but the shock of his Uncle Ben’s death brings him to his senses.

Chronicle seems to lean toward this concept– disaffected and outcast Andrew fails to maintain his humanity, while the more popular Matt stops being a prick and starts to exert himself on behalf of other people. Unfortunately Andrew’s character arc is perfectly predictable– the kid most likely to spiral in and crater does so. Matt emerges as the character most concerned with moral imperatives, and part of his character growth appears to be linked to his reconnection to a girlfriend. This disappointed me; I would have liked the story better if the kid I was rooting for the most had overcome his demons.

I suspect that this will be my approach to this question– call it “the Dark Phoenix Problem”– if I ever write a story around it. So far, it’s very vague, but that’s how most of my stories start. There’s three or four people involved, male and female, and one of them is the social outcast/nerd. There’s also a kid sister involved somehow. I think I will find it far more interesting to see how the nerd (the person I would most identify with) overcomes the temptation to power, or to its misuse. To me this would provide a much more satisfying twist, especially if the other people imbued with power were the sort of people (a youth minister? hmmm) you’d expect to use the power for good, and fail.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a really good starting place yet for the tale, and my creative pipeline is currently clogged with other projects. Maybe, someday, I’ll find the time to write it. In the meantime, I might study other tales on this theme– for example, Carrie, which obviously takes a different view of this question entirely. But only when I’m ready to lose a few nights sleep….

Okay, back to Shadows. Later.

A correction, or why science fiction is hard.

Princess of Shadows is now over 150,000 words. I’ve connected up the Bleak sequence with the next major segment, not in any particularly satisfying way, but enough to keep going on. I think I have two major segments and two minor left to do. Perhaps another 20,000 words or so, but I’ve been guessing at my word count through this whole project, so that may be off.

I should have gotten several thousand more words down, but for a good portion of the last two weeks I actually suspended writing the novel because I needed to make some notes on some details of the world of Jauthur, especially its calendar. With five moons and a day and a year noticeably longer than Earth’s, I realized I needed to outline the way the Val keep time, or there was going to be trouble.

And that’s when I discovered I was in trouble. With two novels already published I am committed to certain facts about Jauthur I can’t get around. One of these is that Jauthur has five moons– the Mother Moon, the Daughter Moon, the Son Moon, Wanderer, and Rock (a captured asteroid, in case anybody needs that explained to them). Another fact is that the Daughter Moon has a 14 day orbital period (this relates to a story detail that literally takes one character out of harm’s way and puts another in her place). The third fact is that the Mother Moon is the largest moon.

The trouble was, when I composed the first novel, Princess of Wonders, Kathy arrives on Jauthur and is confronted by the multiplicity of moons right away. In the narrative she notes that the apparent size of the Mother Moon is “ten times the apparent size of the full Moon on Earth”. I originally put that detail in to create an other-worldly vibe, just the same as when you see multiple moons or suns in science-fiction films and you know at once you’re not in Poughkeepsie any more. Well and good enough on its own.

But when I went to reconcile the moons’ orbits with the Val calendar (with two seperate months of 14 and 63 days, another story detail I was stuck with), I realized, with a kind of Hitchcockian frisson of horror, that I had made the Mother Moon way, way too big. If the moon was the same distance from Jauthur as the Moon is from Earth, then it would have been 10 times the size of the moon, or about 20,000 miles in diameter. Eek. In that case, Jauthur, a close twin of Earth at about 7800 miles in diameter, would be orbiting the Mother Moon, not vice-versa. Pushing the Mother Moon out would only make things worse, as that would make it larger– angular diameter is a pretty straightforward calculation (yes, this involved math). I could bring it closer, and so reduce its actual size, but I had committed myself in the story to having the Daughter Moon on an inner orbit versus the Mother Moon (that 14 day orbital period thingie). I could not therefore plausibly have a very large moon in a very close orbit with a lesser moon without risking possible cosmic catastrophe.

After some head-scratching and fumbling around with calculating orbital periods the old fashioned way (confession– my scientific notation skills are way rusty) before locating orbital period calculators on the Web, I decided that the simplest thing to do would be to make the one correction to the text that would restore a degree of plausibility to the story– I changed the apparent size of the Mother Moon from ten times the Earth’s Moon to two, with the Mother Moon at about 250,000 miles and with a 30 day period. This made the whole arrangement of moons a lot easier to swallow– but it meant altering the text of a novel that’s been published for almost two years, something I find galling, even if it was just correcting one detail. But it was necessary because I didn’t stop to think about the world I was building when I first wrote the story.

At this point you may be asking why this matters in a piece of fiction. I wrote a story, after all, not a treatise on lunar orbital systems. My answer is that this is a piece of science fiction, which operates (when done right) by a different set of rules. I’m firmly of the opinion that anybody who seriously tackles sci-fi should at least attempt to get the basic science right, however many warp drives you have, or however much cavorite you coat your spaceship with. Otherwise you should stick to fantasy, where you can do what you please (though even fantasy should have internally consistent rules for its worlds). I’m not writing hard science-fiction– the Divine Lotus series is more about the sociology of modernization and imperialism– but it would make me ill to leave something obviously wrong in the narrative when I can correct it.

So be warned– science-fiction is hard. Do your homework first. Think about your world. And practice your scientific notation. It’ll come in handy.

Later.