Monday, November 3, 2014

Professor Moriarty

I saw a CFS (call for submissions) for short stories using Professor Moriarty as the MC (main character). It interested me, so I, of course, read the entire canon of Holmes stories again. For a figure who looms as large over the mythos as he does, Moriarty is strangely absent from the canon. It's maddening.

Moriarty is really only in one story - The Final Problem. He is mentioned in The Valley of Fear, but that's a bit of a cheat because 1) it was written after The Final Problem and 2) he's mentioned, but he's never shown. With so little to go on, it's difficult to flesh out the character enough to have a main character. There aren't many facts. There aren't even impressions. Just a sentence here or there.

The temptation is to resort to watching TV and movie adaptations, but that's problematic for several reasons. While Elementary gets points for originality in their portrayal, using a female Moriarty would be at odds with the original era. BBC's Sherlock... oh dear. While Andrew Scott's performance was amazing at times-- The scene where he asks the female cop to put a stick of gum in his mouth before they lead him into court is creepy and chilling. When he was at Kitty's apartment and walked in to find Holmes and Watson there, oh! You believed he was just some poor dupe.-- other times, such as the swimming pool scene where they first meet, was a bit too much. It was a unique interpretation, and one that no one should ever try to duplicate. The Jeremy Brett adaptations will probably define Sherlock Holmes for the next fifty years, but since they were so faithful to canon, again, Moriarty isn't shown much. I haven't seen the Russian adaptations although I hear that they were very well done.  The only remaining modern adaptation that fleshed out Moriarty's role was The Game of Shadows, and I think that was the closest to my understanding of the character I've seen. However... they're rather brawny versions of these characters, quite in contrast to the Jeremy Brett! But the problem is that all of these are interpretations, and it seems wrong to use one of those to help form my vision. Only canon will do.

So I spent a week reading the canon. then moved on to gleaning information from the various online Sherlock Holmes fandoms. From there I was able to track down the most probable university where Moriarty was a professor, which fit in nicely with the two books he's said to have written. From there, I figured out the years he was mostly likely there, who were the (real) astronomers who would have been working at the observatory during those years, and their particular areas of interest. Moriarty wrote about asteroids Only one of the three probable astronomers he would have met did work with asteroids. That gives me an anchor year. I'm also researching a famous theft that happened around that time. Hopefully, these years overlap.

I'm collecting facts. But a list of facts does not a character make. I hope somewhere among all these notes that I find something to spark a personality. Being the anti-Holmes isn't enough. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ahead: More Science Fiction

My vision for The Devil of Ponong series has always been more steampunk than shows on the page. Technology is there, but it's been subdued. So for those of you who wonder if it's science fiction light, it has been, but there's a reason for that. As a fan of science fiction, one thing has always bugged me, and that's planetwide lack of diversity.

Part of this, I get. Watch Star Trek and everyone except the away team looks like the Von Trapp Family Singers, as if some nanny had made all their clothes from the same bolt(s) of cloth. But what else is a wardrobe department supposed to do with one week of turn-around? They developed one look for the planet and whip up a hundred costumes because that's all they had time for.And maybe the away team only landed in a small place and everyone there kind of dressed the same. Fine. But in too many books, the entire planet is one religion, one race, and of one thought about important matters. When is that possible with sentient beings? And while we're at it, how is it that everyone has equal access to the same quality of clothes, much less live in nearly identical dwellings and have the same technology? 

Half a mile away from me, homeowners have access to high speed internet, and have had it for over five years, but an invisible line has been drawn around where I am and the cable company shows no interest in ever servicing us with the better connections. Half a mile away! I might as well live on a remote island in the south Pacific.

One of my favorite movies is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At one point they leave Wyoming ( think) and head to New York City where they eventually catch a boat on their way to Bolivia. While they were Wyoming, it was still very much the wild west, but the montage of NYC at the same point in time shows paved streets jammed with automobiles. These two worlds existed at the same time in the same country.  Extrapolating that disparity, it didn't take much imagine the great differences between Thampur and Ponong.

 Decades ago, someone tried to convince me that as Southeast Asia and Africa developed, they would string telephone wires across their continents. What really happened was that developing areas leapfrogged past the historical stages that led to current telecommunication systems in the west and headed right for mobile technology. Why string a bunch of wires everywhere when you can get right to the good stuff with less expense? So not only do we have unequal access, but we also adapt technology differently.

 In countries without well developed banking systems, people use debt card apps on their phones to pay for everything. Here in the US, we're actually far behind the curve adapting that level of technology. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because we figured out clunky work-arounds that we're too invested in to give up, or because we invested in a cellular infrastructure that doesn't play well with others, or maybe because culturally, we haven't reached that place where we understand that what we think of as phones are actually handheld computers on which we can also make phone calls, whereas in Korea and the UK and Iceland and Egypt, everyone wised up to the computer thing a long time ago and ran with it.

Disparity in adoption is real, and I felt it had to be reflected in my stories. Unfortunately that meant mentioning cool gadgets but not really getting to show them. But now that QuiTai is heading for the continent, I'll finally get to indulge in showing off the mechanical wonders of the age. It's going to be difficult to restrain myself. So expect more science fiction. More gadgets. More steampunky goodness.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Do I Write Too Much About TV?

For a long time, I didn't watch any television. I used that time to write. But then I decided to quit being so antisocial and have found a number of shows I like. At some point I'll rave on about the perfection that is Orphan Black. I have True detective recorded but haven't had a chance to watch it. And, of course, I'm current on Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful.

Person of Interest - the first several seasons were much like the Equalizer. Good, but the idea grew stale just as it had with the original Equalizer. So in a brilliant move, they revisited their original concept and decided to explore the dystopian side. There's a machine-- now two-- that monitors everything people do. Privacy is an illusion. It would be bad enough if the government were in control of it, but in the hands of a private company, it's terrifying. Of course the team will eventually prevail, but the personal stakes for them are now dire. They can't simply hide their identities because that's what vigilante justice teams do when they're playing Batman. Oh no. Now their lives are at stake and they have to balance that with their desire to help others.

One of the reason I enjoy Person of Interest so much is that it has some of the finest female characters on television. Shaw and Root have their own dynamic duo chemistry going much as John and Finch do. They have their own lives, aims, and agendas. There have been scary, capable female villains as well.  Even their female victims don't tend to cower and scream while other people take care of the dirty work. Most are gutsy and continue to risk their lives for their ideas. I miss Taraji Henson. She wasn't just the most capable cop out there, she was also a veteran who balanced out John's "doesn't integrate well" persona. The last thing we need is television subtly reinforcing the idea that returning veterans are unbalanced.

Female characters aren't the only ones that shine in this show. Elias is chilling. Fusco may be on the road to redemption, but it won't ever be easy. They all make for a show that I'm not bored of yet. the explosions are good, but the characters are what keeps me watching.

I'm awaiting the return of Elementary. It took a while for me to get into it, but now it has far surpassed BBC's Sherlock as my favorite (current) adaptation. Can we all agree that series three of BBC's Sherlock was a disaster? It felt as if the fanboys took over the fanboy asylum this time around. They had over a year to write the script, but after the first installment, my comment was "And that's the best you could do?"  Where to begin on all the things so terribly wrong with series three? What happened to the beautiful cinematography? And what on god's green earth was that cheesy "Sex and the City" music when Sherlock entered the restaurant? Who wrote that awful dialog between Sherlock and Mycroft after the incredibly pointless Russian prison scene when Sherlock decides to come in from the cold?  But the thing I found most upsetting what the awful cheat of not explaining how he survived the Reichenbach Fall. That, Mssrs Gatiss and Moffat, was unforgivable. Because you know what it said to me? That you have no clue how it worked. You failed to discuss it with a professional illusionist before you wrote and filmed it, then afterwards realized how dodgy your physics were, so you tried to hide it by fudging the reveal. That will not stand, sirs!

That cheat wasn't the only thing I hated about series three. The incessant winking and nodding to the fans became a full-on twitch. Don't get me started about how horribly they continue to use Molly for cruel jokes. But even with all that aside, the mystery wasn't all that mysterious. Cardinal sin! You know, I could forgive the egregious errors in Hound of Baskerville, because otherwise it was well written, but this? No. No forgiveness, ever. I doubt I'll ever watch series three again. It's so sad that it's crumbling so rapidly.

Thankfully, Elementary gets stronger over time. I let go of canon and simply enjoy the performances and writing.  There's one small regret, and that's how they combined Irene Adler with Moriarty. You've read my comments on that before, but this is a different regret, which in a way shows how fond I am of what these writers are doing. There's a CFS (call for submissions) by Maxim Jakubowski for stories featuring Moriarty as the MC (main character). Since Moriarty really only appears in one canon story, and is mentioned in only one other (maybe two), there isn't much to go on. While I don't want to turn to movie or television portrayals of him for inspiration, I'm aware that those do influence how readers think of the villain, so I can't outright dismiss them. If only Elementary's Moriarty had been closer to canon! That would have been an interesting model. But no, they went so far off canon that there's no way their work can expand my understanding of the character. Rats. I know I'm in the minority here, but I did not like BBC's take on Moriarty. He didn't  in any way say mathematical prodigy to me. That leaves the current movie adaptations, which are closer to my reading of the man. With that model and the canon stories in hand, now all I have to do is think of the story.



Meanwhile, I have most of the story for Devil's Game in mind. I've spent the past few weeks trying to decide where to start it. Ill let you know when I figure it out, because that's the point where I'll start actually writing it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Writing Process

Because someone asked.
You know who you are.

In television commercials and on Mythbusters, they always warn you DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.  I have a similar warning about my writing process because it must be wrong. It has to be wrong. I'm terribly inefficient. I don't do things the same way every time. I don't find the plot so much as it finds me as I blunder about.

I may have posted about my experience writing The Devil's concubine, but I'll sum it up here. I originally wrote it as a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) work. the challenge there is to write a complete fifty thousand word first draft between November 1st and 30th. But just because you can't write word one before the first doesn't mean you can't plan ahead. I was looking for a writing experience, not a real first draft, so I decided to try all sorts of things I'd never done before, such as working from a written outline and using Scrivner.

A writer friend suggested using the snowflake outline method, so I tried it even though I hated the idea so much (Flames! Flames on the side of my face!) that I dreaded forcing myself into it. I won't go into the snowflake method here (Google it for yourself) but I will say a few things about it. 1) outlining didn't destroy my creativity, it simply changed when I was creative. 2) if you have to churn out a fifty thousand draft in thirty days,  you need an outline like this. 3) even if I never outline another novel as long as I live, there were some truly useful tools there, the most important of which were the first three. Oddly enough, those first three are the last three seat-of-the-pants (pantster) writers usually think about, and even then, only when they're trying to sell the work.

I didn't get Scrivner at that time even though I meant to. I used it to write Tempt the Devil. The jury is still out on it. I didn't use all its bells and whistles, but I liked being able to move scenes around easily and see them on my sidebar while I'm working on text.

Getting back to my NaNOWriMo experience, on November 1st I had a detailed outline and was ready to start writing, Every night when I got home from work, and after dinner, I knew exactly where I was in the story, what was supposed to happen in the scene, and  what came next. There wasn't a moment of staring at the wall wondering about any of that, which seems to be my usual habit. (my wallpaper is atrocious and not at all conducive to the imagination) By the 28th, I had more than fifty thousand words and a completed first draft.

It sucked.

I rewrote it -- meaning that I typed each word of it over again rather than working to improve the the first draft-- in December and January. The main problem I fixed was changing the main character from Kyam to QuiTai, which of course meant many new scenes. That was a huge leap forward, because now she wasn't this incomprehensible, stereotypical dragon lady. She still was to Kyam, but not the reader. Guess whose opinion I cared about more?

But while changing the MC to QuiTai made huge, positive changed to the work, there were still problems with the story. The biggest one? Kyam. He was a different person in each scene. He was always the foil to QuiTai, but he was inconsistent. You'd think after starting out with him as my MC that I'd have a clearer view of who he was, but I didn't. So the third time, I focused on him and really defined who he was rather than thinking of his role in moving the plot forward. That was the fix it needed.

I'm not supposed to say this, but I consider Devils' Concubine to world's longest prolog for Devil Incarnate. The sole purpose of it was to introduce QuiTai and set everything in motion for Incarnate. Incarnate was so complicated with so many moving pieces that it couldn't fit into one book. But since I wrote Concubine with Incarnate's plot already in mind, Incarnate was fairly easy to write.

"You don't learn how to write a novel. You learn how to write this novel." Poppy Z Brite.

She said that as the first Saints and Sinners writer's conference I went to, and it has stayed in my mind as I've worked through this series. Every novel is a different animal. It seems like the same work, but it isn't. There are different problems. Challenges.

I was a bit spoiled after how easily Incarnate flowed onto the page, so I was a bit surprised when Tempt the Devil turned out to be as difficult as Concubine was, but for different reasons. In the first draft, QuiTai was the detective.  The problem here--- and I'm sure A.C. Doyle must have run into this exact issue with his novella length Sherlock Holmes story Hound of the Baskervilles-- was that QuiTai was too smart. Unless I gave her a serious case of the stupids, she'd solve the case far too quickly. AC Doyle took care of that by having Sherlock send Watson out to investigate. Watson dutifully reported what he saw in letters. He did a good job, I think. Watson, we must never forget, was a worthy, educated man. A brave soul. But oddly for a doctor, he couldn't seem to link symptoms to the cause.

I solved my problem by calling on my own Watson, Kyam Zul. An intelligent man. A worthy one. And, in the end, a better detective than Doctor Watson. To do that, I had to toss out the first draft and start over from word one. The second draft was better but I wasn't at all happy with it. Before I could muse over the problems and fix them, a close relative died. And the company I worked for closed its doors. And there was some other family drama. Every time I thought I put out a fire, another one would crop up. Somehow, I lucked into the perfect position quickly after the company closed and the family drama fires got smaller and easier to manage with the passage of time. Either that or I'm numb to emergencies by now. Either way, it seemed as if life got less hectic. At that point, I'd been away from my manuscript long enough that it was easier to see the flaws. (Always remember to set aside your work for as long as you can stand to so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. It makes a world of difference) With my MS already six months late for delivery, I sped through the third rewrite. I sped too much. The final chapter was utter crap. My beta readers called me out on it, thankfully. So I fixed it and got the MS out the door.


Rewriting an entire novel three times is a waste of time and it's inefficient. This is why I'd never suggest my "process" to anyone.  But there are things I do that aren't such a waste of time. My stories are complex. There are many wheels within wheels. Sometimes as I'm writing, something will occur to me and it's as if the perfect cog dropped into the timepiece. It's glorious and perfect and such a gift from my subconscious. I also call it lacquer. It's one thin coat of varnish over another, over and over, until each scene has multiple depths of meaning set into the words. Lacquer or clockworks, it all leads to the same thing-- going back into previous chapters and weaving those thread seamlessly into the existing work.

That takes a lot of time. It takes keeping the whole novel inside my head at the same time which is really difficult to do. That's why outlines are good, because you get to have an adjunct brain to hold all that detail for you. If I used Scrivner the way it was meant to be used, I'd have the power of an outline at my fingertips without having to actually write an outline.  So even if you hate outlines, play around with one or use Scrivner and you may find it works well for you.  I won't because I work the way I work, but you work the way you work and no two writers are the same, so just because something doesn't work for me doesn't mean ti won't for you.

Now I'm noodling around ideas for book four of the Devil of Ponong series. I have a few seconds of a mental image, like a movie inside my brain, that offers a tantalizing clue. Like strudel dough, I have to stretch and work that blip of insight into a whole scene, then into a book.

I'll spend the next month or so imagining, rejecting, and piecing together the story before I sit down to write it. I won't know the entire story. I seem to find it as I'm writing -- another thing which you probably should not do. Yes, I have a vision of the overall series story arc, but there are many path through the woods that all lead to the same destination. My method is to blunder around by writing until I luck onto the right path. How do I know it;s the right path? I can't explain it. I just know.

I'm a bad example. Really, there must be a better way to write. I just can't get myself to work any other way. So now you know my process, such as it is. But please, Do Not Try This At Home. You've been warned. ;)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thank You

I wrote a forward with a list of thank yous but I don't see it in the ebook, so I need to publicly thank:

William (correct me if this is wrong) who takes my terrible attempts at maps and makes them wonderful.

Nan Andrews - who gives me some of the best, on point critiques of my work. She makes everything I do better. Plus she's willing to read the version before the good version, which takes a lot of time, and talk through it in detail with me with is so generous and amazing that the words thank you seem inadequate.There's that writer's ego where you want people to be into your work, but when it's another writer, the conversation is like attending a master class where you're the only student.

Ali Magnum (don't know if you want your real name here) who, like Nan, donates her time and energy to help me make my work better. I originally wrote a terrible, awful,embarrassingly crappy final chapter because, frankly, I wanted to wrap it up and get it to my publisher. Ali whacked my nose with a rolled-up newspaper and told me to fix it or else. It really was crap, and she was right to point it out. She also finds all my typos. Do you have any idea what that's worth on the open market? And she just gives it to me. Amazing.

D.L. King - who is my biggest fan. But not in that creepy Misery kind of way.Yet. But she's always such a supporter of my writing and has been for years.

Dorothy - my publisher, who makes me happily published. You have no idea how rare that is. We have a great working relationship (at least I think so) and she has such enthusiasm for this series that I feel quite special. I know she publishes other writers, but she gives me so much attention that it doesn't seem like it.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tempt the Devil is Out!

I'm so excited!

Have I mentioned how difficult it was to write the first book in this series, The Devil's Concubine? Well, Tempt the Devil was just as bad. I'm so relieved that it's finally ready for you to read! I can't wait to hear if you enjoyed it.

Buy links:

I've always loved mysteries. I read every Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, PD James, A.C. Doyle, Lawrence Sanders, Dorothy Sayers, E.A. Poe, and true crime (a guilty pleasure of mine) novel on the library shelves. The Devil's Concubine and Devil Incarnate were political thrillers, but this time I wanted to write a mystery. Who knows where these whims come from? But I was determined, so even though I'd never written one before, Tempt the Devil would be a murder mystery even if it killed me.

It almost did. Like The Devil's Concubine, I completely rewrote this one three times. I am a terribly inefficient writer. In the first draft, QuiTai was the detective. She solved it too quickly, because she's The Woman, this planet's version of Irene Adler, the only person to ever outsmart Sherlock Holmes. It made for a very short story. Second version: I made Kyam the detective, but QuiTai was still leading him around saying "Here's a clue." It wasn't until I tossed her into the Fortress that I could let Kyam get on with the detective work uninterrupted.  That version worked. Whew!

The phrase that popped into my mind immediately after deciding Tempt the Devil would be a mystery was "How about a nice, simple little murder for once?" But of course, nothing is simple in Levapur. The personal is the political, and the political is personal. (and yes, I know murder is never nice, but I don't write nice)
(this next paragraph might be considered a bit of a spoiler, so read with caution.)
That got me thinking about How Things Actually Work in Real Life-- a continuing series of reality checks I take with my stories so I write characters who act like real people and not like, well, characters in a novel. We'd like to think our enemies do things because they sat down and logically picked the most evil thing to do, but in reality, I think most of our enemies don't even know they're our enemies, and they blunder through life just the same as we do. If what they do hurts us, it's usually unintended. (When we set out to harm others, we usually just do something stupid to sabotage ourselves.)  So How Things Actually Work in Real Life is that sometimes, the world does not revolve around us. Things happen that have nothing to do with us even though they affect us. The problem starts when we forget that it isn't always about us. 

Was that cryptic enough?

I'm so glad to back on track and proud of how this story worked out. It was worth the three versions. The next book, Devil's Game, is swirling around in my mind in a happy little whirlpool of imagination. I foresee an airship, intrigue on the continent, and Grandfather Zul sitting across a table from QuiTai in a high-stakes game.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What Is The Story About?

The first draft of Tempt the Devil is FINALLY finished.

*toss of confetti*

Before I start work on the second draft, there's a question that has to be asked and answered: What Is The Story About.

You'd think I know, but it's not that clear while I'm writing it. If you had asked me in the middle of the first draft what tempt the Devil was about, I would have said, "One of QuiTai's enemies is found dead in the Red Happiness. If the real murderer isn't found, she'll be executed by sunset." Or something like that, but that isn't what the story is about. That's the plot.

Plot and theme are two different things. They influence each other. Any character action should serve both to some degree. Plot is a timeline of events, cause and effect. Theme is more nebulous, more of a gut reaction, the emotional takeaway.

I'm sure most writers know what they mean to say when they sit down to write a story, but I discover it while I'm writing. It does no good to ask what the story is about while I'm working on the first draft because I don't have a clue. I haven't found it yet.

As I think about what I wrote in the first draft, the theme comes into focus. While I didn't know at a conscious level, subconsciously I was weaving it into the fabric of the story. Looking back, it's all so obvious. Tempt the Devil is about Kyam forgiving QuiTai for betraying him during the rice riot.  (although, if you're team QuiTai, you know there's nothing to forgive) 

Now I can get to work on the second draft.