Monday, July 28, 2014

Book review - Help Fund My Robot Army!!!

I thought it might be nice to try something new this week.  If you watch my Goodreads profile, you'll see that I tend to read a lot of different kinds of books.  Of late, I've become hooked on short story anthologies, as they give me such a broad range of stories and styles in one convenient package.  The best anthology I've read recently is John Joseph Adams' Help Fund My Robot Army!!!

The premise of the anthology is that each story is told as though it were a project page on a crowdfunding site such as Kickstarter or Indigogo.  The format is pretty well restrained, as the author is limited to essentially a sales pitch, different levels for backers, updates, and occasionally some conversation through backer comments.

Even with these restrictions, the authors who wrote the stories that make up this anthology are able to use every little bit to create characters and worlds that feel completely fleshed out.  For example, Jake Kerr's story "A Memorial to the Patriots" gives us a United States in which terrorist attacks have led to a severe reduction in any kind of communication (and shows us how futile that can be), while Carmen Maria Machado's story "Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead" manages to give an in-depth view of a family that's falling apart.

There are some silly projects, too, since that makes up a good number of the projects actually available on Kickstarter.  Even these, however, have far more depth than I expected in such a small amount of space.  As a reader, I'm enchanted by how many different worlds and how many unique voices the authors are able to create.  As a writer, I wish to learn exactly how they managed to pull this off.

Overall, five stars, would definitely read again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Character building - pain

Something that every person has to deal with at some point is pain.  Be it physical or purely emotional, how a person handles pain says a lot about that person, and people can learn a lot about themselves when they have to encounter pain of some sort.

I find that figuring out how a character reacts to pain is a great way to flesh out a character.  It's usually just a thought experiment, though occasionally I'll write a brief scene to help me solidify the things I learn about that character.  For example, I'll put the character in a situation that would cause the "average person" some sort of emotional pain - the death of a family member.  Finding out how the character reacts to that brings up a ton of questions right away:
  • How close is the character to the family member in question?
  • How does the character react externally, in public?
  • How does the character react privately?
  • Is there anyone that the character would feel comfortable expressing their pain to?
  • What's the first thought that runs through the character's head when hearing the news?
There are stories that can grow out of this information right away - if the character isn't close to the family member who died, why?  Was there some sort of estrangement?  If the character breaks down in public, how do the people around the character react?

Physical pain is less similar that it would seem on first blush.  Speaking from personal experience with chronic pain, I know that I can "push through" pain I'm used to, but will be laid out flat by something unexpected.  I have chronic head pain, so I'm used to working around headaches; however, if I throw my back out, the slightest shift in movement will leave me incapacitated.  So ask yourself: 
  • What kinds of pain your character can work through, and what will drop them into the fetal position?
  • Does your character react differently if someone witnesses an injury, as opposed to being alone?
  • At what point will your character ask for help?
In general, people don't like to think about pain.  However, seeing how someone reacts to different kinds of pain can help give a character depth, even if it never comes up explicitly in the text.  Try not to torture them too much, though - you don't want them to run off screaming into the night.

Monday, July 14, 2014

World building - important artifacts

One of the nice things about having a lazy Saturday at home is that something random on TV will spark inspiration.  This weekend, it was the History Channel (which, every once in a while, remembers that their focus is history), and 101 Objects that Changed the World.  The list is basically a bunch of tangible items that represent some major change in the world, or some major event in history.  It includes things like the hard hat (which allowed major buildings and bridges to be built safely), the cannon ball shot at Fort Sumter (beginning of the US Civil War - the list is a bit US-centric, shockingly enough), and the Coca-Cola contour bottle (first major company to use uniform packaging).

It made me wonder what objects would be considered "essential" in a world that I'm currently building.  There's the big important thing, in this case a golden rope that magically binds the different territories of the land together, but that's not something that the average person would encounter on a daily basis.  The clockwork servants, however, are things that are so common that they fade into the background.

To me, an important object for a world is something that helps differentiate the world you're creating from the real world.  It can also help you figure out how your setting got to where it is when your story is taking place.  A story is a snapshot of time in a greater timeline, and it's helpful to remember that there's a history to the world you're writing in that influences the way your story takes place.

Monday, July 7, 2014

World building - holidays

Happy late Fourth of July to those of you who celebrate!  I sincerely hope you all still have as many fingers as you started with.  Naturally, the recent holiday made me think of how to create and celebrate the holidays in the worlds I'm building, and how they would look to outsiders.

For example:  Between the ages of eleven and fourteen, my family and I lived in a Naval station in Spain.  We lived "off-base", in a gated community where several houses had been leased by the US military and the rest of the community was made up of local civilians.  On the Fourth of July, the only place where anything was really happening was on the base itself, as the day wasn't any kind of holiday to the rest of the country.

My father was never a big fan of crowds, and we knew that the base would be filled to the brim with homesick Americans watching the fireworks and listening to "God Bless America" while hoisting their beers.  Instead of going on base to celebrate with everyone else, we decided to make use of the fact that our house had an accessible roof.  (The way the houses in our community were built, the roof was the closest thing to a yard any of us had, so everyone used them for clotheslines and some gardening.)  I just remember being on the roof with my family, watching the fireworks from the base, and noticing the other Americans on their roofs doing the same.  It was a much calmer way of celebrating what can be a very boisterous holiday, and remains my favorite way to celebrate.

In general, societies use holidays to reinforce some kind of unification among their people.  It's a great way to take a moment and reflect on what's important, and an excellent way of defining "what's important" to the masses.  I feel like a world is incomplete without some kind of celebratory event that happens regularly.  Now, I don't mean that every fictional society has to be like Seanan McGuire's wonderful Aeslin mice, in which anything can be a holiday, but it helps to have a few events that are commemorated in some way.  In the world I'm working on for Camp NaNo this time, there's a Unification Day, celebrating the day the final treaty was signed and all of the territories fell under one ruler.  For some of those territories, this is a day of great celebration; for others, it's a reminder of the freedom they lost when they were conquered.

Not everyone celebrates the same holiday the same way, so it's another good way of getting inside the heads of your characters.  How do they celebrate Christmas?  What are their favorite and least favorite holidays?  You may never actually put it in a book or story, but it's another one of those things that helps flesh out a character and a world.