Crumbling Empire Novel [Chapter 1]

Crumbling Empire Concept Cover
Crumbling Empire Concept Cover

1970 2670 words, first installment, 10 11 pages. Goal: To have a good opener. Establish protagonist. Establish conflict. Throw dangerous situations at protag. Meet the fireteam.  Make up novel name (not permanent). Set up the middle.

Edit: I have rebranded this as the complete chapter 1. It replaces the original and edited chapter 1 (or installment 1).

Edit: New edits as of 3/31/15.
Added more he/she said tags, to make all dialogue speakers clear. Added more internal dialogue for protag. Added description of shuttles and HCA. Added additional description of environs when possible. +1000 words from previous draft.

Edit: New edits as of 4/21/15.
Eradicated passive voice. Removed all semblances of was. Fixed science in initial scene to reflect how space ships really move. Removed extra alarm notice from marines waking up scene. 2768 words.

Edit: New edits as of 4/22/15.
Really removed all the wases this time. For sure. Really. Reworked first through third paragraphs. They’re tighter. I miss the weak passive voice.

Edit: New edits as of 5/01/15.
Found some errors in a paragraph. How did I miss them? I really need an editor.

Chapter 1

chapter flourish

A critical situation called the Grace Bedell’s unshaved captain to his position on the bridge, because the executive officer had insisted that he couldn’t make the call. The XO should have been able to handle all routine operations of a destroyer. He’d been with the captain for years and never interrupted the captain’s sleep before. Is it serious, then? The captain’s curiosity obscured his foul mood. What event would cause the XO to throw this decision on me? Space contained many surprises, though not on routine patrol.

The captain considered the information on the display. “They’re not IDed as security boats, and they’re not Empire. No one else has four destroyers and two cruisers in this sector because we own it. Hell, there aren’t any other official governments. Who are they?”

No one answered.

“Sir, prep for meeting engagement?” The XO inquired.

“Do it. Battle stations, sound battle stations, helm, calculate a slashing attack course and take us in, keep us slow so we can use Reville’s gravity to slingshot around and possibly attain orbit should they prove friendly or neutral, tactical give me a weapons solution asap, and XO, I need an update on damage control and weapons teams in place for possible combat. Sensors, start pulling data on what those ships are armed with.” The captain straightened up and looked at the holo of the ships again.

The XO activated battle stations and the alarms sounded throughout the ship, while a course of acknowledgments were heard from tactical, helm, and sensors. A moment later, the Grace Bedell accelerated toward the belligerents orbiting Reville.

text break

Alarm. That’s an alarm. Lance Corporal Anasia Yuen snapped alert. She lay for a moment to process. Marine quarters. Grace Bedell. No drill scheduled. What is this?

“Unbelievable,” Private Radawski complained. “Can’t we have drills in the day cycle? I haven’t done this since boot camp.” He stretched, sitting on the edge of his bunk, then passed gas loudly.

“What, a week ago, Radawski?” said another marine.

Lance Corporal Anasia Yuen sat up in her bunk, then slid out of the narrow space to stand up and dress in her under armor suit. The compartment smelled heavily of stale air and sleep. “Radawski, shut up and get dressed.” She noticed his furtive glances at her nude form, and glared at him. It’s an alert and he’s thinking sex. Staff Meyer is right. Boots are pretty dumb. No, inexperienced. But they look dumb. And they do dumb things. It’s the same as if they were really dumb.

The fireteam scrambled to get dressed in the cramped marine quarters. “Move it to the armory,” she said as she checked her personal data unit.

Radawski continued to dress. Get him up to speed in the future. I keep catching flak for his performance. “Radawski, catch up. This is not a drill,” she said over her shoulder.

Other marine fireteams funneled through the wide, brightly lit metal corridors toward their respective armor lockers. No paneling disguised the kilometers of conduit and tubes. Warship crews needed quick access to repairs in battle. The air from the corridor smelled of ozone, electrical.

“What’s the drill, Porn?” came the deep voice of PFC Tama Anaru. Because of Anaru’s extreme tallness and breadth, it had been a difficult process to get him heavy combat armor to fit.

“It’s not a drill, Stalk, this is a real deployment.” Yuen replied.

“What’s the non-drill, Porn?” His words were rapid fire as they walked.

She pursed her lips and tried to read. “Wait one…” She gave up on walking and reading and stopped abruptly. Private First Class Bendtsen ran into her with an oath.

“Six ships,” she read out loud, “unidentified possible hostiles, suit up and combat load on the shuttle, possible hostile action in a centiday.”

“This real?” Anaru asked.

Bendtsen added, “There isn’t a pirate fleet with six warships. Not one that would go toe-to-toe with the Empire.”

Because we are marines. And no one fights as well in space as we do. No pirate. No rag-bag citizen army.

Radawski ran up to them. “I’m here, corporal.”

“About time, Radawski.” Yuen replied. This pisses me off. Boots are supposed to be faster at everything, not slow.

The squad leader, Sgt. Ihejirika, spotted them clustered around Yuen in the corridor and bellowed at them. “Alpha Fire Team, move it! Suited in five milli, MOVE IT!”

Yuen darted forward down the corridor. This should be easy. The plan is to load up in shuttles. But what then? Just sit and wait? “Just move, it’s real, guys.” Yuen replied, “Not a drill. Get your suits, get on the shuttle.” The fire team trailed behind her.

They arrived at and undogged an enormous hatch to enter their armory locker. Four sets of matte black Chieftain Combat Systems Paladin v. 6.8 heavy combat armor lay in organized heaps beneath metal frames. Vertical racks contained rifles and rucks of ammo. The strong smell of gun oil permeated the compartment. They had just finished cleaning all the equipment after a drill a mere… was it only two centidays ago?

By design, the HCA suits enveloped the user in a rapid automatic sequence. Yuen had polished the dull black surface of hers so it shined in spite of the matte finish. The suits did not externally differentiate between male and female, so observers could not tell the gender of the wearer just by looking. On the chest and shoulder were her rank, in gold, and displayed on the front right of the chest, her last name.

Yuen stepped into her suit, grasped the metal frame for balance, and commenced the suiting up sequence. Her helmet snapped into place to complete the process. The suit always smelled of cleaner and mechanical lubricant, and no matter how hard she cleaned it, sweat. There’s nanites that’ll clean the organics out of a system, though you don’t want those on your face. Sure, nanites can solve everything, but they’re like fresh boots, really dumb and linear thinking. The O2 flowed cold and dry, and she took a few breaths and felt invigorated by it.

The heads up display on the visor displayed the boot sequence for the many onboard computer units. “Chieftain Combat Systems” displayed for a moment, then a lot of text Yuen ignored, stating who made the cooling subsystems, the fusion power unit, weapons, the medical care system, comm system, and everything else packed into the armor. Everyone read it the first time in boot camp. Unless you were an armorer or tech, it fell into the background of things you thought about. “Authorized user: Anasia Yuen, LCPL, ISM” displayed after the rest of the system finished booting. Good, my suit recognizes me. This time. You couldn’t count on that always being the case. It seemed like technical problems sidelined 40-50% of the teams’ armor at any given time. Lots of job security for the navy HCA mechanics, though they never seem to have replacement parts.

She considered it fantastic armor, if a little dated. Due to little or no competition in the Empire, replacements were counted as unnecessary. The Marines usually acted as policemen, or sometimes, mafia enforcers. It depended on which official obtained authorization to use the marines.

“Radawski! Are you retarded? Just get your suit on,” Bendtsen said, through the open visor of his HCA. “How did you manage to get through basic? Bribes? C’mon, gehen wir!”

Yuen glanced at the completely suited Anaru, who performed his startup diagnostics.

“Damn, Porn, this thing is a glitchy piece of crap.” Anaru complained.

“Same problem?” She asked. Her suit chimed green on all systems, full power plant, comms, medical, cooling, and movement normal. She grabbed her rifle and a ruck and turned her attention to Radawski.

“Tubesteak, stop haranguing him. Calling him retarded doesn’t help him.” Yuen said. Though it’s spot on.

“Same problem,” Anaru said. “Thought the navy mechs were going to get this all fixed, it’s been two thirty-days that I’ve had this problem.”

I know. I got written up for it. “Do your best. Improvise,” Yuen said.

“He is retarded.” Bendtsen said.

“Screw you, Tubesteak,” Radawski replied.

“Both of you shut up,” Yuen snapped, “Radawski, what’s the issue?”

“Did you hear me, Porn?” Anaru asked.

“Yeah, I heard—” she began.

Radawski interrupted. “This suit’s blotchy, and the Empire doesn’t fix it. Diags show loading fault and I can’t get it fixed. In boot, the DIs would give just scream at us for a while—”

“Radawski. Shut up.” Yuen cut him off. “We all know what they did in boot camp, but we just need to get it fixed.” So quit bitching and start fixing, boot.

“Porn, what do you want me to do?” Anaru asked.

Yuen leaned in to look at Radawski’s suit, crowding Radawski away from the armor with her own armor’s substantial bulk. “Try a reboot sequence?”

“For my suit, or his?” Anaru asked.

“That’ll take a few milli, and we’re outta time, Porn!” Bendtsen replied.

“I know!” she said. “It might not matter… Screw it, we gotta go. Radawski, get your flak wrap and take a pulse rifle and grenade load out, soft kit.” Radawski looked confused. “Soft kit! You know what soft kit is? Dammit, I don’t have time for this! Stalk, issue Radawski that equipment. Move!”

“I didn’t think we used soft kit for anything,” Radawski protested.

“Uh, Yuen, my suit is still throwing faults,” Anaru pointed out.

“Sort it out on the shuttle, Stalk. Just get Radawski his kit,” Yuen said. Do I have to hold everyone’s hand?

“Sure, I’ll probably end up frozen in the airlock with a suit lockup. Let’s go, Radawski, you have to be in the shuttle in a milliday,” Anaru replied, violently shoving Radawski.

“Damn, lighten up, Stalk!” Radawski complained, rubbing his shoulder.

Radawski and Anaru moved to the equipment lockers, and Bendtsen stomped toward the shuttle debarkation port. Bendtsen has no finesse. Just brute your way through it.

“Coming, Porn?” he asked.

She followed him lightly down the corridor. If anyone could sneak up on someone with an HCA, it’s me. She’d learned how to move quietly and be light on her feet in a large, heavy set of combat armor. It did not rank as a very useful skill in a combat unit that placed more value in shock and awe. You can’t shock someone if they don’t know you’re there. But you can punch them with incredible force and that kills them.

“Yeah, let’s get loaded before Meyer and Ihejirika both fuse their brain pans,” she said.

Yuen and Bendtsen hurried through the open airlock to their designated planetary assault shuttle. The shuttle crew had painted the area next to the airlock door to the shuttle a rendition of a blue dragon belching fire with claws extended, with the caption “Hot Boarder.” Navy regulations technically forbade wall art, but navy personnel ignored it. If a shuttle crew cared enough to name their shuttle and paint a mascot on their airlock, they had good morale and took good care of their vessel. A dull, soul-sucking grey smothered the remainder of the bulkhead. Naval regulations required all military equipment to be uninteresting colors. Morale or something. Would it kill the navy to put in some crimson colored curtains or something?

The airlock door and shuttle door were temporarily wedded together, leaving a wide opening into the shuttle permitting easy navigation for Marines in HCA. It wouldn’t bother most of the personnel if there had been leaks, as they were required by regulation to have airtight suits. Airtight suits in boring colors. Everyone is suited up.

Attached to a concave area on the destroyer’s exterior hull, the Skua class combat shuttle lay within the destroyer’s shielding system. Four other combat shuttles were attached at evenly spaced positions on the hull, one for each squad. They were flat, black aircraft, with large swept back wings and hover nodules for short take-off and landing on planets with atmosphere. In micro gravity, the wings served no function, but increased the mass and thus the fuel loss when maneuvering, slowing down, and speeding up.

The two marines plunged into the matte black interior of the crowded shuttle. Four racks open. For my fireteam. Looks like Bravo fire team and squad leader are here already. “Last man in?” anxiously queried the suited up shuttle crew chief, Spaceman Second Class Nolan.

He can’t count? We’re down two, you moron. “Not for this fireteam, two more to go,” Yuen responded, sitting in her HCA rack. Bendtsen locked into the empty rack beside her.

“What, they putting on their makeup?! Crap!” Nolan said. “LT wants us sealed and ready to pop.” He looked at her shoulder insignia and name. “Yuen? Your fireteam is going to get us killed. We’re going to be plastered all over the side of Grace in a milli if your people can’t get here in time. Or we leave them behind.”

Even the normally mellow crew chief is bitching and he’s scared. “Yeah, well, Lieutenant Monroe is more than welcome to get us parts for our HCA when he’s not piloting this shuttle, which is, I don’t know, most of the time? That’ll speed things up,” Yuen said. Lieutenant Monroe is an egotistical, arrogant, self-worshipping jerk. He’s also very good at what he does. I’m pretty sure he has no idea at all what we peasants do once we leave his precious shuttle to go tread around in the mud. Bet he never has missing parts or systems down. Or gets mud on his shuttle.

“Porn, you’re down two… pinging them at thirty meters, sitrep?” Sgt. Ihejirika radioed from the HCA rack at the front of the crowded shuttle compartment. Vessels that needed to operate under atmospheric pressure and high gravity made mass and volume a premium commodity.

He wants to know why my fire team is taking their sweet time. He knows why. Radawski is why.

“Radawski’s suit is redlined and he’s going soft kit. Anaru is helping him.” I don’t blame him. When my fireteam isn’t greened up, Sergeant Ihejirika gets it from his boss, Staff Sergeant Meyer. It’s a shame, really, since Meyer always takes out time of the chain of command to specially counsel me anyway. He doesn’t have to do that. He shouldn’t do that. It’s a nice personal touch, a fireteam leader like me getting nuked by the platoon sergeant. Meyer’s an asshole.

“Get your crap together, Porn. Every time, it’s your fireteam.” Ihejirika replied.

Getting nuked by the squad leader is quite enough. Time to appease him. “I know, sergeant. I’m working to improve the troopers.” A lead ball seemed to form in Yuen’s gut. The dressing down sounded mild, but Sgt. Ihejirika didn’t yell. That’s him yelling.

“No more screw-ups. Fix it.”

Yes, mother. “Understood, sergeant.”As if I know what a mother is like. I do, sort of. Mother Superior. She’s like a mother. Mother Mary. I could never have kids. No training. The sergeant is wound pretty tight, right now. He didn’t say it, but I’m the one who should have stayed behind to supervise Radawski. The leader is always responsible for the actions of the people under her.

Anaru and Radawski arrived in the shuttle at that moment. The other marines of Alpha squad looked at Radawski in his sealed suit over unpowered light armor and carrying a heavy assault weapon. Anaru clicked into a rack next to Bendtsen, and Radawski found a jump seat next to the crew chief, yelling “Last man in!”

Yuen thumbed the fireteam channel. “Ski, you green?”

“Yeah, Porn. I’m… hermit crab without a shell. I could be killed by fly fart in this rig. I got comms and O2.”

A soft ping alerted Yuen that Radawski’s suit, back in the locker, signaled it had rebooted and recovered from a serious error.

text break

“There’s no reason for us to hold on to the marines. Jettison the shuttles—Send ‘em to Revile for this conflict, tell them to evade and land and coordinate with friendly ground forces,” the captain ordered. At least the shuttles might survive. The Grace has no chance in winning if they turn out to be hostile. They’re not talking so they’re not friendly.

“Aye sir, jettisoning shuttles now.”

“Comms, keep hailing them. We mean business, we own this space, and nobody screws with the Empire. We own thousands of ships.” Just none of them are here except this one.

“Aye sir.”


Military ranks – sci-fi

I’ve seen a fair few numbers of military sci-fi novels that do interesting things with ranks. The modern ranking system has some meat to it, in that we see certain positions going back centuries and millenia.  Others, not so much.

There’s two approaches I see: 1) Historical, based on a present day military ranking system of a particular country; 2) Non-historical, either because the author doesn’t understand military ranks or they are deliberately changing it.

Historical Ranks

The advantage of using a system based on historical systems is that there is a lot of knowledge out there available to interpret and understand the ranks. Some authors may draw from their own knowledge and experience in the military.  There are nuances for different countries, and even the different services may have ranking systems that are not strictly using the same rank names for the same ranks.

Witness, for instance, the navies of the future.  If you’re using the United States navy, you have some classifications that might not sound right applied to space navy: Seaman, for instance.

You also have rank names and titles based on hundreds of years of traditions that are in turn descended from word origins that may or may not make sense. Lieutenant, which is Leftenant in the UK, is from the French.  The position is a junior officer in the US Army and USMC, but it’s a mid-level position in the US Navy.

While I was reading the Honor Harrington series, I thought it was fascinating that David Weber carefully brought forward the ranks and roles from the current UK modern navy, and even utilized the terminology.  It was a sort of look of “what would the English navy look like in space”?

If you’re going to use historical ranks, try to understand them enough to know what they do. Which ranks typically lead which sized forces?

Don’t mix up the force compositions. If you’re talking about a fireteam, that is not the same as a squad (it’s usually a sub-element of squad), or platoon, or company, etc. Those are terms of art and they have meanings that resonate with military guys.  They may differ from nationality to nationality.

In the Warstrider series, the ranks and force composition names are Japanese, reflecting the culture of those worlds.  I’ve seen Chinese ranks used as well. The future of space isn’t always ‘MURICA!, though it feels like it most of the time in the books I read.

Making up a new rank system

I believe that if you’re going to create a new ranking system, while it’s comfortable to use historical rank names, it’s going to look like you botched your research. When you say “this guy is an optio and he’s in charge of 100 men” that makes some readers’ heads hurt. We’re thinking, “no, you mean centurio, and it’s only 88 guys.”  Make up new ranks and rank structures with non-historical names, and you avoid this problem.  We readers have all this baggage about what we think it’s supposed to be, and it bothers us, a lot, when you do something that breaks the mold of what we think that means.  A sergeant is an non-commissioned officer (which is another funny term- if you don’t have commissioned officers, can you have a NCO? Or does it want another title?) so he shouldn’t be doing officery stuff, and vice versa.

Or make it clear that you’ve departed from the wonky historical ranks. You could have private 7th class as your lowest rank, and then after that, sergeants first through fifth class, and so on. Those people who don’t know what a first sergeant is or a staff sergeant or a master sergeant aren’t going to care, as long as they can get your system and understand the inherent rank status of each character.  Higher or lower?

Force Composition – Who leads what?

One thing you should consider is the makeup of the forces each person commands. The US has been experimenting with the ideal number of people under command of a person for over sixty years, and they think it’s four person teams, typically. This doesn’t mean you’re wedded to that fact, but you should consider force composition before blithely making up numbers. This is one of those areas where it won’t ring true if you say one guy is commanding, say, 48 people with no other NCOs or officers.  That’s a platoon, by the way, and there’s usually a ton of people to make everything happen.  For instance, you may have:
Platoon leader – 2nd or 1st Lt. (48 people under)
Platoon Sergeant – Sgt. or Staff Sgt. (directly trains the 4 SLs)
4 Squad leaders – Corporals or sergeants (12 or 8 people under)
3 or 2 fireteam leaders in a squad – specialists or lance corporals or corporals

And then there’s the idea of battle-buddies, which is that you have a guy to look after you and you look after him.  The Air Force calls that a wingman. We know from Top Gun that you never, ever leave your wingman.

Even in the four man fireteam, there is rank hierarchy due to position.  Thus, the fireteam leader is carrying a rifle with a grenade launcher, his battle buddy might be the least experienced guy who gets just a rifle, and then there’s a MG guy and his battle buddy humps ammo for him.  It’s VERY clear who is next in line for command of the element, because when the guy in command is killed or wounded, the next person has to take over.

The end result of that whole mass is that each person doesn’t command more than 4 people. Wait, Pontius, you say, the Lt. commands 48 people. No, he doesn’t. He tells their NCOs what he wants to have happen and they carry it out. So he’ll talk to the plsgt or the SLs and tell them that he wants them to move to a ridgeline using bounding overwatch and then provide fire suppression on position x.  The squad leader makes decisions and issues orders to the fireteams, and they execute the orders.  The Lt. does not give orders to individual soldiers at the end of the line; he goes through intermediaries and lets them use their training to carry out the orders using their best understanding of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Higher Ranks

The higher ranks are more esoteric; at a certain point, maybe at battalion level or higher, the officers aren’t in combat, aren’t in the field, necessarily. They’re directing things, again with a low number of officers directly reporting to them so they can keep the information flow going.

Think of it like trying to play four games of Risk simultaneously.  The information flow is going to be rocky; you might be getting slammed on one board while you have a great position on another, but your attention is limited and you can only focus on one thing at a time.  The joy of computer systems is that it can sometimes prioritize things and organize things for better review, and your sci-fi universe can reflect that.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Edit-  To help you out, current US Military ranks are found here:

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.


Emotional Connections to Characters that We Kill

My treasured spouse The Blonde likes to watch those awful forensic crime dramas. I still love her.

So one of them, the other night, shows us the household of a nice family, mom, dad, a little boy, and a toddler.  They’re written as a pretty normal family and we like them.  They’re getting ready for a trip. There’s something going on with the large dog they have, and that turns out to be an Important Point In the Story.  Of course it is. They only include the clues we need so we don’t get too mad when they draw conclusions later and we’re not able to find out the bad guy because they didn’t give us the same clues the protags are getting.

But I already know that this crime drama is going to do something mean to these characters. How Olympic.  Zeus creates a mortal, and then he toys with him.

Nevertheless, we start to identify with the family, and the tension we feel is real: What are those awful writers going to do to them? Who is going to be killed/kidnapped/have something awful happen?

The family goes to sleep, and the mom wakes up. It’s her POV. She sits up, says “Honey?” and looks to her left. Shot of the husband, eyes wide, gagged and duct taped to a chair shaking his head.

Then to the crime scene: the entire family was killed and left in the basement after being tortured for a few days.

I curse the writers, because I was emotionally identifying with the family, similar to my own, and now I’m going to sleep with the loaded shotgun nearby for a few nights due to being paranoid.  Good writing? Yes and no.  Good in the sense that it’s a crime drama and they made the family charming and normal and interesting.  Bad in the sense that they took that and snuffed ’em all out.  The writers killed a three year old. And they made me feel it.

So how does that tie into writing fiction? Do we build up a character to kill them later just to wrench an emotional reaction from the reader? Is this cheap and tawdry? Can it be done classy? Or is it gimmicky?

Dark Matter Never Seems to Show Up in Fiction Universes

Or not.  No snappy title. I’m sure you can see where a post about dark matter could bring bad titles, like weeds after rain.

We won’t go there.

Which reminds me of this awesome skit with Bob Newhart from Mad  TV, in which a psychiatric counseling session happens in a way most therapists would probably prefer:

“This is not Yiddish, Katherine, this is English.”

Anyhooooo, the purpose of this post was to talk about a like from the Science Geek over at  Mr. Geek liked my post on planetary mechanics.  This lead me to read about dark matter.

Whoa boy.  That’s a can of worms, and I even understood the arguments based on my recent attempts to understand Kepler’s third law (the one about orbits based on mass/distance/speed).  See, all the planets conform to Kepler’s third law.  But the galaxies do not. At least, they don’t based on the things we can see, so the postulated idea is that there is dark matter we cannot see that forms a majority of the galaxy.

I’ve not yet seen this incorporated into science fiction, or maybe all those guys just aren’t hard enough. Warp/worm gates? Lots of those. One, two, a dozen gas giants? Sure. Trinary star systems. But no dark matter, anywhere, to see.  See what I did there? You can’t see it. It’s dark matter. Heh.

Never mind.

The book started slowly and I didn’t have much hope, but it delivered

I confess I purchase what the hive mind deems commercially good for my kindle sometimes. I’ll look at #1-10 of a genre and buy those books and then see if they do with their craft what the critics say they are supposed to be doing.  [Commercial success is a viable indicator of that: Though most books get by on their merits, some of them have no business being a commercial success, and maybe there’s a lesson there.]

Something, I’m not sure what, happened in the last tale I read.  It started out a little infodumpy, and in first person. I didn’t like the lead character much.  Nevertheless, I pushed through the opening of the novel and it finally began to expand and I could see where it was driving me, and thus I finished it at 2 am last night. Giant space wars? Had ’em. Exciting protagonist? Had it. Conflict? All over. Set backs? Had ’em. Just when the situation couldn’t get worse, it did.  Pacing, 5 stars AFTER you got through the beginning.

At first I thought it was that book everyone warned me about, the one where the author didn’t know anything about what he was writing and gained dozens of legitimate one-stars. Thanks, narrow-minded Amazon reader villagers with pitchforks! This story, however, had not had a plethora of one stars, so the beginning baffled* me.  Bull through, I thought. It must get better or this wouldn’t sell so well.

The lesson? You can do well, even if parts of your book are marginal or barely adequate, as long as the rest of the prose is a proper roller-coaster. As Junie B. Jones would say, Probably.

* Please note that “baffled” is a term of art used by the media to refer to policemen, detectives, and law enforcement when they don’t know something.  I’m none of those things, but I didn’t know something so I’m going to use it anyway. Just like owning more than one firearm means you have an “arsenal.”

My outline is wrong. All wrong. Throw it out, start over.

I’ll bet you never thought that.  Heck, most of you don’t outline. That’s English class stuff, no application to the real world.

It’s okay, I agree. About the English class stuff. Application? Plenty.

How can you write a complex plot unless you have some map?  “It ruins the spontaneity, Pontius,” you say to me plaintively.  “And,” you add snarkily, “you can’t even spell spontaneity without a spellcheck.”  Got me there. But you’re not so clever! I’ve obviously got a spell check.  Strawman Snarky reader: 0. Pontius: 1.  Just in case you missed that.

I think I get what people are sayin’.  See, there’s joy in discovering a story as you go. You write and write and a few thousand words in, the characters are changing the story in a natural direction that feels right. It’s like you’re along for the ride and the story writes itself.

Or so some of the good writers claim. “Got my little fiction ouija board here, and it practically writes itself. I got discipline and creativity coming out of my back pores. I can’t help but write awesomely. Some days, I’m in awe of how the story writes itself. Then it’s down to the bank to cash that day’s royalty checks for a couple grand.”  It’s okay. We can hate them together, and be one with our envy.

So outline it is.  It’s faster.  Better. And because most of us aren’t geniuses, we need a process to outlet our creativity.

I’ve been processing. I thought I had a good outline. Now, I’m not so sure. Scratch that. I’m sure. It’s not good. It’s meh. Indifferent! Poxy and foul! To the scrap heap, and not one more word from you. No, reader, you cannot save it.  I will rebuild. Bigger. Better. Etc.

Pity all the conflict is in me battling my outline.  I’d be better in a story.

Show don’t tell… or not? Relativism of Writing

This whole writing thing is relativistic, not objective. That’s why it’s art.

I collect what people write about that art, because some things resonate with the reader better than others and I want to know what those things are.  If you’re a good writer, you’ll avoid mistakes made by bad writers and write well.

There’s all sorts of things wrong with that last sentence. Value words, such as good, bad, and mistakes, are relative to the person making the judgment.  One person may like a piece of writing, another may hate it.

Thus, we come to the bromide, “Show, don’t tell.”  No. Not a bromide. A stick. C’mere, writer. I’m going to hit you. It’s about your art. I don’t like how you did it. You should do it this way.

Why is showing better than telling? Who decided that? And why do some people get a pass on the SDT deal, and some don’t?

Ultimately, you write for your audience. If your audience is the tortured muses in your head, why, then, you’ll write what the tortured muses want.  If it’s for the Amazon .99 misers, then you’ll write what they want. And so on.

And those people, some of them, want SDT.

There’s still plenty of tales out there that are far more TDS.   But this is a thin characterization. 😀

Infodumps and your personal opinions

I’m finding that I like to go back and do revisions on a piece as I go, rather than waiting for the End.

I look for tense problems, awkward working, MRUs, conversation that seems stilted or out of place, observations that do not contribute to flow of the narrative, infodumps (even microdumps) and the dreaded author’s opinion peeking out.

Using the cell phone standard which Dave Koster kindly tossed out at On Writing Dragons, the essence is that your reader needs to know only as much about the tech as an average ordinary person would know about, say, a cell phone.  We don’t know how they work, except you need a signal, there’s cell phone towers, and that’s about it.  Why explain more to your reader than necessary? An infodump or a pulpitdump both interrupt the narrative with non-flowing information or opinions which contribute zero to the process.

With that in mind, you wouldn’t write a story thus:

William looked at the phone in his hand. It’s amazing that this thing is a 4G phone and allows me to download so quickly! It was a difficult transition from 3G, but it’s really a great standard.

Yes, even in his thoughts, William is awkward. Some people think that way, but the average ordinary person might do this instead:

William looked at the phone in his hand. A text! He opened it. “I can’t wait to see you tonight, baby.”  This was unexpected. He didn’t know the picture or the name, but whoever she was, she was dynamite looking. Time to text back. “Where are we meeting?”  A moment later, the return chime signaled a response. “Who is this? William? I don’t no U. Don’t text me again.”

Raise your right hand and take the oath:

“I, state your name, solemnly swear I will not infodump if I can avoid it.  My text will only serve the purposes of the narrative. I will advance the narrative with only the information the reader needs. I will have my characters supply the information if I can, and it will not be awkward. So help me, God.”

You can put your hand down. Don’t you feel awesome?

Right, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about your politics and religion.

If you’re writing fiction, I should not be able to tell who you voted for in the last election. No special reason, although I don’t care comes in pretty handy for it. Your characters should not be you, and they should be written fairly. It’s no fair to put in a strawman and belittle the other side through your fictitious characters.  And there’s a fantastic reason why.  (“Why, Pontius, why!” you chant.)

Here it is. It is a disservice to the reader. I am not reading an opinion piece, it’s fiction. If you write your character beautifully, I may connect emotionally and maybe I’ll agree with their sentiments. That’s the beauty of it.  If you’re writing the book Pol Pot Goes to Hogwarts, then make me see through Pol Pot’s eyes and understand that even though he’s a vicious mass-murdering muggle, he still had a reason and a drive to wipe out thousands of his countrymen and then attend the premier wizarding institution in Britain. It isn’t writing a character that is easy to agree with that makes you shine, it’s the characters that are disagreeable and nasty and mean and immoral and who aren’t you who show your talent.

You can use a character as a mouthpiece, but we’re going to call you on it if you do. It’ll take your writing down a few notches and add it to the slush pile of average to barely adequate writing.  The narrow-minded villagers with pitchforks, a.k.a. Amazon laymen reviewers, will also come for your work with torches and burn it and you.

The next time you write and you start to pontificate, shut up.  Write substantively, eliminate the pontification, the moralization, and the opinions.  The only opinions I want to hear is your characters, and that done honestly. If the politics of the world you show are so messed up, let me draw the conclusions for why through the thoughts, speech, and actions of your characters.  I’m not stupid, and I will do the work necessary to see the entire canvas you’re painting without you drawing on it in black paint saying “see this part? Their politics suck.”

MCUs – Writing sample draft

The following text is a draft from the beginning of the novel. I’ve attemped MCUs, as much as I can. How’d I do? I also tried to sneak in some environment.  I have no idea how to better deliver the technical information about the ship than by slugging in a large paragraph.  Maybe that’s not necessary?

The alert occurred just as Captain Luke Advance of the Ruth’s Diamond received payment for several tons of guns and ammunition. Multiple audible alarms sounded, and the personal communication devices of the locals rang stridently.

His eyes widened and he glanced from his crewmember Anastasia back to the agent. “Should I be concerned about that? Overflowing Toilet?”

The agent smiled wanly and brought out her personal communication device and checked it. Her face registered shock, then anger. “It’s war!” she said.

“Then, yes, I should be concerned?” he asked peevishly.

“I have to go.” She replied as she hurried away.

Luke leaned against the spaceport wall and considered the credit in his hand.  This might not be a good place to get repairs and parts. We should leave as soon as possible.

“I’m going to a kiosk to get more information,” Anastasia said.

“I’m going back to the shuttle. It’s probably not an overflowing toilet,” Luke replied to her back. Or it could be. .9 gravity might play havoc with a gravity water system. He straightened up and walked back to the transshipment shuttle for the Ruth’s Diamond, checking the credit chip as he walked.  Cold, dry winds battered him as he left the building and walked across the tarmac. The last container of ammunition had been cleared from the shuttle, and was cordoned off from other supplies and equipment and protected by a pair of soldiers huddling for warmth in the cold winds. That was no longer his concern. His concern was war.

Anastasia returned a moment later and secured the shuttle ramp while he began the preflight check. “So, war?” he asked urgently.

“Sorry, was trying to hurry. Yes. A fleet of five non-imperial warships were detected entering the system. The local government believes they’re the American Confederation of Planets troop and warships, and they’re going to invade this place.”

“that’s better than Miss I’m-Vague-About-Important-Things-Agent. `War! Gotta go!’” he mocked in a falsetto voice. “A local war, interstellar war, intergalactic war, what? Has the Empire ever been at war?! I thought their version of war was to drop rocks on naughty populations.”

“We’re not supposed to panic. They said that,” Anastasia informed him. He questioned her with a look as she strapped into the seat beside him. “What?! Oh, the government, they said not to panic. It’s just in this system, as far as we know.”

He rubbed his temples, then grimaced. Doesn’t the Empire have any warships out this way? “If the Empire tells you not to panic, you should probably panic. That’s like saying, ‘Don’t panic, it’s the plague, but only you’ve got it.’ They knew this was coming.  We just delivered thousands of rifles, ammunition, and rations and there ain’t no such thing as a coincidence. The Imperial navy might be on their way, or hiding to do an ambush, or maybe the navy doesn’t exist anymore.  We need much better information and then move quickly, either profit or run.”

“What does some warship want with us? We’re civilians, we’re not anyone’s enemy.”

“Stasia, we have a commercial mega container ship that can tow umpteen zillion containers or bricks of ore through any wormgate in the Empire. An upstart government would love to have us join their fleet or destroy us so we cannot help the Empire.”

“We’re not joining anyone’s fleet!” Anastasia said.

“Merchant marine, however unwilling. We might if we stick around to find out. And they tell you, they don’t ask.”

“So… what about that HCA cargo we were to pick up?” Anastasia asked.

Heavy Combat Armor. Of course. This place manufactures the stuff, we were going to pick up a cargo of it for the marines. “That’s what the Amcons want.”

“The HCA?”

What else would they want with a planet in the third year of a fifteen year winter and no gas giant in the system? “Yep, I’m pretty sure of it. This place doesn’t have anything else of value, no gas giant, no planet teeming with life, just this icy rockball. Checklist clear?” He responded.

“Yeah, we’re green on everything. Seems like a lot of effort just to get HCAs, though.” Anastasia said thoughtfully.

He keyed his radio and notified the spaceport’s traffic control of their desire to depart, which was quickly granted.

“There’ll be a queue later, I suppose,” he mused, as they accelerated out of the planets diminished gravity.

The Ruth’s Diamond rested in geosynchronous orbit over the planet’s spaceport. Luke admired her lines as the shuttle boosted into orbit and closed with the docking port.  She was designed with minimal crew compartments, and had a massive long lattice work which was just barely the height and width of a wormgate and could handle everything from raw ore to large containers. Because the wormgates charged by mass, the unloaded ship travelled pretty cheap. The only constraint on cargo was to where it was delivered: if to a planet, it needed to fit in the ship’s shuttle or the planet’s transshipment shuttle, or it could not be delivered; if to an environment in micro-gravity, ore could be shipped in raw or smelted form, with the only limitation being safe maneuvering of large masses.  The ship was capable of transporting other ships in tow, as well.

“As soon as we’re back on the Di, contact the HCA orbital facility and ask if they still want to do business.” Luke paused, then said, “no, find out the ETA for the warships, and see if we have a margin to do the pickup, then call the HCA-Orbfac.”

“Got it.” Anastasia took a note on her personal data device.

“Maybe we can hook ‘em as we go by.” Luke snorted.

Anastasia looked amused. “Collisions in space tend to explosively reflect the relative speeds of the objects in involved. Most cargo doesn’t like massive acceleration or deceleration.”

“Shuttles and tugs are hardly a fast way to accomplish tasks,” Luke pointed out, as they docked with the command capsule of the Diamond.

“Figure out a better way, –“

“—and you’ll be rich.” Luke finished.

[~990 words]

Science Fiction settings – building the universe, solar system, planet

Setting doesn’t occupy as important a place as other elements of a good yarn, but it influences the story in subtle ways. Unnecessary details about a planet or universe may detract from fast action and a driving narrative.  Some readers loathe details; my wife is one of them. She loves Steven King’s plots but detests the lengthy prose that drives them.

You probably don’t need  a detailed description of your setting unless it’s a plot element. Still, we see in many instances the inclusion by the show-don’t-tell crowd of something like this:

The sand that blew around the deserts of PitfallWorld was a fine, gritty sand. It entered through every unprotected orifice in the body, and the howling winds propelled it across the flat spaces in huge storms.  But this didn’t concern Cameron, because he was inside a heavily armored research station. The howl of the impotent winds was something drowned out by copious soundproofing on every wall.

If you’re like me, I’m thinking, “Is the sand important? If not, I want to forget it and move on. If it’s important, point it out. If it’s not, you’re wasting my time. Or maybe the sand is mentioned because Cameron is about to find himself ejected from the cozy station and the writer was doing a camera shot of it for our benefit so we understand just how big a pickle Cameron is in when it finally happens. The sand! The sand!

You may notice while reading many sci-fi books that most, not all, sci-fi novels take place on a 1 G normal earth-like planet (and all the planets are like that… ah, the garden-like planets of home. So nice) -or- the environment is deadly earnest in trying to kill you with lots of interesting gases in the atmosphere that are not pleasant to breath.

I thought, it ought to be mapped out before I write, because the planet will have some unusual characteristics that’ll make it interesting.  Humans need a 1 G or close environment to prevent health problems.  And they need that 15-20% oxygen mix. And they like certain temperatures between 10-33 c.

Solar System Creator

I went searching for a program to autogenerate a solar system of planets, and discovered this:

Cool, huh?  And to interpret it, there’s a PDF manual that will teach you about actual astronomy, all in the setting of a book for a role-playing-game.  The Cosmos-2 booklet is here:

Thanks, Alternity!

You will need to either just decide what you want as you go along, or roll some dice.  I was able to automate a bunch of tasks for this in excel, and now my spreadsheet will generate the amount of time it takes the planet to circle its sun(s), and it gives me information such as the circumference, how many hours in a day, axial tilt, and where the planets in the solar system are in relation to each other during this snapshot (by degrees on a compass, 1-360).  I can also fudge those results if they don’t work.

Example Star System

For example, I ended up with a red giant K star, which is much bigger than our sun.  It pumps out more heat and light, and thus a habitable planet is 16 AU from it.  And that planet takes 60 years to orbit its sun, AND it has an axial tilt and a mostly circular orbit (perihelion and aphelion are not too far apart).  I figure each season is approximately 15 years long, though I suppose I should consult an expert on how much heat hits what where and how the long seasons are affected.  Gravity is .9, so everything is 10% lighter.  And the days are 36 hours long.  I tried to wrap my head around creating a 24 hour system to run up against the 36, but essentially you have completion of a regular 24 hour 4 day cycle every 3 natural days.  It’s not that hard, but try living in that. It’d be like permanent jet lag.

Winter is cold and dusty, because it’s arid.  Plant life would have to adapt to a new climate every 15 years or so, though come to think of it, it’d be a fusion of each season since it’s incremental.

And the solar system around it is notable – 3 asteroid belts, and various other planets scattered in the system to provide more easy meat should the story require it.  It doesn’t require it, but I could if I want to.

I love the flexibility of a solar system creator.  Need a solar system? Grab a newly generated one, and boom.  You can adapt your characters to fit the environment, or you can change the environment to fit your characters.

Again, this doesn’t mean I need to slug the reader with all those details in a information dump. It’ll come out in dribs and drabs from different characters, mentioned in passing.  No one wants to read a science paper, so we’ll keep it light and breezy and on track.