Monday, October 31, 2016

Writing "Hunters of the Dead"

"Hunters of the Dead" took a long road getting to where it is now, and to be honest it didn't have a glamorous beginning. A year or two out of college I was going to play a homebrew RPG with some friends; an RPG of the tabletop variety. I needed a character.

Jan was created out of leftover gameplay ideas for a different character who was originally created for a piece of fiction. But where that other character was a wizard, Jan was less into the magic and more into the gritty aspect of fighting undead with sword and shuriken. What passed between the other character to Jan was the use of shuriken as a weapon and a lot of necromancy spells (because this was a game and I needed something to do with my turns).

In the week or two downtime between character creation and the game getting started, I wrote a short story called "Hunter of Dead." It wasn't very good, but it my first outing with Jan, so I could get a feel for his personality.

I ended up doing four revisions to that story before leaving it to rest, and it was rejected many, many times.

I think a part of me knew that it wasn't very good, but true to Heinlein's rules, I intended to keep it out on the market until it sold.

Then I won Writers of the Future. It was my first pro sale, and suddenly I had friends and mentors in the writing community that I hadn't before. I couldn't put out crap. What would people think of me?

So I let all my submissions lapse and used a spreadsheet to tag which stories I wanted to take another look at, in case they were worthy of going out again, and which I would in all likelihood trunk for eternity.

While I'd tagged "Hunter of Dead" for a second look, I looked at it again sooner than expected since I was tipped off about a horror anthology and "Hunter of Dead" was the only thing I had that was remotely suitable. I printed out a copy to revise, thinking it would be quick work.

It wasn't.

As I revised I realized how much was wrong with the story, and it wasn't that the character or the concept of his world was bad. It was that there wasn't any plot. It was just a day in his life, and I realized I needed to show the reader why this day was important.

Out went the extended flashback. Out went the original ending. I threw out about half the story, and wrote in its place at least another 75%, which meant that less than 25% of "Hunters of the Dead" came from the original story.

This version benefited from not having been touched in years. I had written other stories set in the world, so there was more backstory to the history of the borderlands, and I knew more about Jan himself since I'd been planning a prequel story at one point.

I thought the story wasn't perfect, but still the best I could do, so I sent it off to a few more places that opened in the interim between when I retired it and when I did the revision. It still got kicked back, but tended to make second rounds. At the time though, it was the best I could do, so I wasn't expecting to go back and do yet another round revisions.

Time passed, and finally I got a rewrite request from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores to improve the pacing. By this time I had several professional sales under my belt, and Jan has been with me for fifteen years (no one ever said that it was fast becoming a professional writer). He's been my player character in two different pen and paper RPGs, my ranger in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, my Hawke in Dragon Age II, and more recently my avatar in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright.

I know Jan, and I still believed in his story. I took a hard look at my last revision and cut it down from 9000 to 7000 words, making it tighter, stronger. I was a better writer now. I knew I could do this.

Now Jan's story is finally out there, and it can be viewed by CR&ES subscribers here as a September 22, 2016 release.

Music listened to while editing: It's been so long I don't remember what I originally wrote it to, though I'll admit there was a period in my life where every other song I heard of the radio could make me think of Jan. LeAnn Rimes's "Life Goes On" was my go to song while RPing (I'm not sure why since I can't listen to it and see Jan anymore), but while doing the latest editing I was stuck on the English cover of "Renegade" performed by Aruvn with lyrics by Jefferz.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Revision and Outline Week Check-In

Part of the reason I made last week's post was for accountability. There was no way I could not work on the revisions and outline that I said I would, if I said I'd do it.

And so I did.

I completed revisions of two novelettes and one short story. I also did some brainstorming for a short story that really ought to be a novelette or novella due to the sheer amount of world building info that I want to use in it. The expansion was not something I expected to start work on this week, but if the stars align it's a potential December project after NaNoWriMo is over.

My main outlining project of the week was in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and that I definitely started. I didn't finish, nor did I expect to, but I have all the major characters and their motivations laid out as well as the opening segment of the novel. Now that I know what everyone's doing and what the tentpole events are going to be I can connect how the plot's going to get from point A to point B and so on.

It really helps me to have a quick outline I can check during the throes of NaNoWriMo, because I'm generally writing too fast to spend brain power on figuring out plot. I usually write somewhere between 2000-3000 words each day, which is a fair bit above the NaNoWriMo daily minimum to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The reason for that is 2000-3000 matches my natural chapter length, and I've found my work comes out more coherent if I think of a day's work in terms of chapters. I have a beginning, middle, and end, and then I'm done for the day. I start fresh with each sunrise.

There's still a week left until November begins, but I should finish the outline by then!

Monday, October 17, 2016

It's Revision (and Outline) Week

I'm fortunate enough to have a job with paid vacation time, and a boss that doesn't mind me taking off to write. My novel work (drafting and editing) tends to get planned out in advance, and because NaNoWriMo is coming up next month with Loscon taking up the majority of the Thanksgiving weekend, I know that my writing time (and writerly activity time) is going to be jammed.

I plan on drafting a new novel during NaNoWriMo, which I've done for the past three years. I find I work well with that kind of schedule, because it lets me keep the whole story relatively fresh in my head, resulting in less continuity errors. There's nothing like realizing you've lost a character for a whole afternoon in a story with a compressed timeline to make you wonder if there might be a better work process to avoid to that. (Better note-taking probably would have helped too.)

Anyway, my November is going to be packed and I have a number of shorter works that I've been meaning to revise. They're stories that were drafted without a specific market in mind so I never finished the revision process, or stories that may have not have turned out as well as I wanted.

Most of them are complicated multi-scene novelettes that require a deeper assessment on whether not all those scenes are necessary. Whatever the reason, I've been hesitant to send them out, but they're doing me zero good sitting on my hard drive.

So I'm taking this week off and devoting at least three days to improve three stories.

Any time remaining will go into working on my outline for my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel, which is still in the throwing things at the wall to see what subplots I'm going to have phase. Thankfully the main plot is pretty set.

Monday, October 10, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 6: Lupin

After a brief break, we are back for the conclusion of my Code: Realize story breakdown.

Lupin ending up being my final playthrough not because I was saving him for last (if all routes had been open from the start I think Lupin would have been third, pushing Impey to fourth, and Saint-Germain last), but because he's gate-locked, I didn't have much choice in the matter.

While it's not uncommon to have a gate-locked romance, it's often the villain or the anti-hero; a sort of reward allow the player to see the story from a new perspective after having gone the proper way through. However, with Code: Realize it's very clear from the opening video and promo art that Lupin is considered the lead romantic option, the closest thing to a canon playthrough, and it's not possible to play his route without having gone through the game four previous times to see Van Helsing, Frankenstein, Saint-Germain, and Impey Barbicane's routes.

While there are players who will do this, not everyone will, particularly if there is a character they just can't stand. To be honest, Impey's route was slow enough that I almost put down the game a couple times and I pushed my way through mostly because I knew Saint-Germain and Lupin's routes would be better. (This is why I put Impey in the middle, because otherwise there was a good chance I wouldn't finish.)

I understand why Lupin's route is locked, after having played it. His story brings everything together for a grand finale that includes elements of everyone else's stories as well as the true reason for Cardia's creation, but it seems needlessly tedious for someone who buys the game because she wants to have a fluffy romance with the gentleman thief on the cover.

I thought Lupin might be a harder love interest to get to know, since he's typically portrayed as the consummate gentleman thief who never loses his cool. But because of that, he's a lot of fun. Sure, he can't fight worth beans and his idea of a dramatic rescue is appearing in a puff of smoke and then running away, but it was hard to play his route without a stupid grin on my face.

Seriously, one of the times he shows up, he says "It was never my intention to fight! This dashing thief's specialty is... dashing!" And then he does, dash that is, while the triumphant romance theme plays. (It helps that he's running away while carrying the woman he loves in his arms, but he's also running away from the "last boss" which is typically a heroic no-no.)

Lupin comes alive in his route in a way he doesn't in most of the others (save Saint-Germain's) and I think that's partially because he's very fond of grand gestures and the writing team might have been afraid he would overshadow the other men if allowed to grandstand. And that's too bad, since the result is that Lupin doesn't really come into his own until the player is almost done with the game.

Because Lupin's route is going to be the player's last, the writers throw in an awful lot of references to the other routes without bothering to explain them. The player will already be familiar with them at this point. Nemo and his Nautilus return from Impey's route, we see the deployment of the Zicterium Twilight had hidden in Victor's route, Idea from Saint-Germain's route shows up to help/hinder the heroes, and Van Helsing learns the true killer of his family and faces off against Aleister.

This the only route that closes off everyone's storyline completely with no further battles to be fought, and everyone has an epilogue that shows them moving on with their lives.

I'm pretty sure that if the announced Code: Realize anime happens, Lupin's route will be used and the final confrontation involving everyone's storyline has the potential to awesome when rendered in animation.

Lupin's route is blast, and everything I could have wanted from a romance with a gentleman thief who is very much both a gentleman and a thief. But there are just two things that nag at me about his storyline.

One is that Cardia is more helpless in his route. It's not because Lupin is a jerk about it like Impey, but she gets discombobulated in ways she doesn't in others. Normally she's good about keeping herself calm under duress. Yet for some reason, Cardia can't keep her head on straight when faced with the various dangers on Lupin's route.

Yes, they are unnervingly more personal in many ways, but she ends up being a helpless damsel a lot. This does come with the side benefit of giving Lupin frequent opportunities for a daring rescue. In fact Lupin has a boatload of scenes depicting him being dashing towards Cardia compared to any other love interest, but I can't help wanting more considering how awesome she is elsewhere.

My other complaint is that Lupin's motivation, once it comes out, is pretty weak. We know Impey is in London to steal back his anti-gravity device, Victor is there to destroy the remaining Zicterium stockpiles, Saint-Germain is there to stop Isaac's plan and destroy his creations, and Van Helsing wants to kill Finis (and later Aleister once he knows the truth).

Lupin's story should be the linchpin, since he's the only one at the start of the game who is specifically there to stop Isaac's plan, but his reason for doing so is because his mentor was a former Twilight operative who didn't like what Isaac was doing and ran away. While this allows Lupin to be aware of what Code: Realize (Isaac's secret plan) is ahead of everyone else, it feels very odd he would feel driven to thwart it.

It might have been different if his mentor had been an honestly good person, but he had betrayed Lupin's trust and fled from Twilight, making no attempt to stop Isaac himself because he was too scared to stay. Though Lupin still has fond memories of the man he thought his mentor had been, he doesn't delude himself about his betrayal, so it seems odd that Lupin considers it an obligation to destroy Code: Realize in honor of his mentor's memory.

I can understand wanting to stop an attack of mass terrorism for its own sake after learning about it, but Lupin's frames his involvement as specifically because of his mentor, and that's enough to make him pack up and move from France to Britain. It's really hard to buy into.

Lupin's story and involvement with Cardia is fun, but doesn't come out as intrinsically tied to her story as with Victor, which is really what stops Lupin's from being my favorite. Perhaps it's his nature as an interloper to not be tied with or to anything (save in marriage to Cardia in the ending), but I thought the romance wasn't as strong because of that. Dashing, yes, but not as deep.

Monday, October 3, 2016

#My5: My Five Writing Influences

My friend Mike Ripplinger invited me to be a part of K. M. Alexander's #My5 project, and I figured, hey, this could be fun! Most of us started writing because we enjoyed someone else's work so much that we wanted to try our hands at it too.

So... "Where do you get your ideas?" The short answer is all over the place. I don't have a novel like K.M. or Mike, but I have short stories enough, and I've been asked the question more than once. A writer tends to be a combination of their interests and life experiences, and that in turn informs what they chose to write about.

So here are the five biggest influences on my work as a whole:

1) Shin Megami Tensei

This RPG series is a gold mine for mythology buffs, as long as one doesn't mind urban fantasy with varying levels of darkness. I think one of my friends got a little destroyed by what he called a "BS" ending when he got to the end of Shin Megami Tensei IV. The series and its various spin-offs frequently have multiple endings and not all of them as nice, but it's the only series where I've restored the world at the end of the game and wondered if preventing the apocalypse was really the right thing to do.

Depending on the game, the answer could be yes, it could be no. But I like that moral ambiguity. It makes me think harder when my protagonist is forced to make a choice.

And the demons! The demons are demons by East Asian definition, which means, "demon" includes any supernatural creature. This is a series where gods, heroes, and monsters of all mythologies, including extant religions, exist simultaneously, and if you've ever wanted the chance to discover new myths you've never heard of, whether they're Inuit, Sumerian, or what have you, there's a good chance you'll stumble across something new in Shin Megami Tensei.

This series was an influence on my stories: "Unfilial Child" and "The World That You Want"

2) Stage Magic

I've enjoyed magic tricks for as long as I could remember. When I was a kid, I had a book on how to do (really crummy) magic tricks. But for most of my life, I was more of an audience member than a magician. I watched TV specials, lined up to get David Copperfield's autograph (I got to see him live while in middle school), and if I got the chance in Vegas I liked to catch a magic show.

But there are a lot of good things in storytelling to learn from stage magic. The best magicians tell a story while they perform, and the reason for that is they want a certain reaction from the audience, and the story preps them for what the magician is looking for. Patter, the words the magician is saying, may also serve the purpose of misdirecting the audience so they are busy thinking about one thing while the magician is doing something else.

This isn't so different from writing. I know I've read more than enough books where I thought "This was pretty good, so good I'll forgive it for not doing X, Y, or Z," which is an excellent bit of stagecraft.

While the magician's audience might come away knowing that magic didn't actually happen, and they might even have an idea of how it happened, if they enjoyed the performance it won't matter. As an author you're directing the reader where you want them to go and leading their expectations. Writing is just like giving a good performance. If it's well done, everyone walks away satisfied.

And these days, if you catch me at a con and ask nicely, I might have a trick ready to show you. I did go back eventually and learn some real sleight of hand.

Stage magic was most obviously an influence on: "Confidence Game"

3) Erich Maria Remarque

When I was in high school, I was assigned All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque for mandatory reading. This turned out to be a life-changing experience, and he was the first author whose work I tried to emulate. While still in high school I tried recreating All Quiet's under attack while making pancakes scene when writing a space opera.

All Quiet on the Western Front left me with a profound interest in WWI-era Germany and an appreciation for the period language of the time. Remarque was the first author I'd ever been assigned in school whose work I would later pick up on my own. I don't know if it's the manner of All Quiet having been my first or that it's the most notable of Remarque's work, but it's the one I always return to, though I also highly recommend The Way Back, which is a sequel of sorts, following different men of the same company when they return home from the war.

His work was an influence on: "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart"

4) Being Chinese American

I debated whether to put this down here, but when I thought about it, I realized that being Chinese, specifically American-born Chinese, is directly responsible for a fair portion of my work. While I've written Chinese-themed stories that have nothing to do with my life, there are a three in particular that draw heavily on my experience as a third generation Chinese American and cultural tidbits dropped by my dad.

I dislike the thought of only writing Chinese stories, as goodness knows I don't want to be pigeon-holed into being a Chinese writer, but sometimes I feel motivated to write because Chinese in the United States are often written as immigrants or the children of immigrants.

As a third generation Chinese American whose Chinese vocabulary is limited to single digits once you exclude food items, I'm about as American as my ethnicity is going to get, so much of my contemporary fantasy features Chinese characters who pretty much suck at being Chinese. They know the traditions, they know the food, but they can't speak for beans.

It's a type of character that I don't see often enough, so if I'm writing contemporary fantasy (or near future science fiction) I usually make them a third or fourth generation Chinese American that I can relate to.

Influence on: "Mooncakes," "The Ancestors," and "Unfilial Child"

5) Japanese pop culture

I was exposed to anime while still in elementary school, before I even knew what the word was. All I understood was that these Japanese cartoons were "better" than the majority of American ones. I liked that they had ongoing storylines, and that the characters' actions had consequences. Sometimes, people even died.

Adding icing on the cake, once I got a video game system of my own, I discovered that the vast majority of games I liked also came from Japan. I liked the art style, and I liked the kinds of games they made, which were rarely attempted by western developers. (I was a big JRPG fan.)

This grew into a life-long appreciation for Japanese pop culture. When people ask me "Who would you cast as your main character?" My reply is invariably, "I don't know. Everything looks like an animated movie in my head." Specifically, it looks like an anime in my head.

With the internet these days, it's easier than ever to find Japanese exports. I read translated manga and books, watch translated anime and dramas, listen to J-pop, and I happen to live next to a city with one of the highest Japanese ex-pat populations in the US, which means that great, authentic Japanese food is just a few minutes away.

This was an influence on: Just about everything

If you'd like to check out more writerly influences, you can read the other #My5 posts here:

K. M. Alexander's #My5: The Bell Forging Cycle
Mike Ripplinger's #My5: The Verdant Revival
Eric Lange's #My5: 30 Second Fantasy