Potted Soil – Finding the Right Planning Method

Last summer, while I was playing around with the idea of elemental mages, this one air mage kept showing up in my daily practice. It made sense to try to find her story. But when an idea presented itself, it brought with it earth mage Minerva Watts. I became so fascinated with her and her story that I determined to grow it into something.

When I wrote the original short story, I challenged myself to write it in Third Person Present, a POV I’ve never written before and tend to run right over when I read. (It can literally take me 90% of a story to notice this particular POV when I read it.) It was definitely a challenge, but I survived…until I decided to expand it into a longer story. At the time, I was working a lot with the Scene-Sequel structure, trying to get a feel for it and what it could do. But it wasn’t working for this story.

In very short order, I also blew through an attempt to blend the seven-point structure and Scene-Sequel, and a brief flirtation with the Pixar storytelling method.

Part of the problem was that I had two strands going – the town’s story and Minerva’s story. A simpler structure was necessary to keep things going, and it turned out using the seven-point structure alone was exactly what the story needed. So I laid out both threads, trying to figure out where and how the stories intersected, and I kept Pixar’s core message approach to help guide Minerva’s side of the story. After more struggling (because this really was a learning experience for me), I finally came up with something I liked.

You are welcome to check out “Potted Soil” over on wattpad, along with the original short story “Healing the Garden”. (There is also a narration available for “Potted Soil”.) I included it for those who might be interested in seeing where I started after seeing where I ended up, although if you’ve been thinking about expanding your own work you might find some inspiration…even if that inspiration is how not to do it.

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Light Novel vs. Visual Novel

When you get it into your head to explore the different types of media out there, it can be a very…educational…experience. Not only are you learning and juggling new voiceover jargon, you are also learning that the world is bigger than just audiobooks, games, and animation. I ran into this early in my voiceover work, and somehow keep running into it now. So, I thought it might not be the worst idea to start documenting what I’m learning, and maybe even help others out or find people who work with these media who can add to what I’ve learned.

Let’s start with the first terms I ran into years ago that left me saying, “What is that?”: the light novel and the visual novel.

Like some of its fellow unfamiliar terms, a light novel is a Japanese invention. Sort of. Light novels are fast-paced, pulpy novellas, usually aimed at teen and children readers. It’s not unusual for a teen light novel to become popular enough to be adapted into an anime.

Really…not terribly different from wandering the middle grade and YA shelves in any bookstore or library…or Netflix. Heh.

The visual novel also has its origins in Japan. It’s often described as an interactive game genre featuring static images and occasionally incorporating audio, and is most often associated with dating sims and hentai (porn). While the genre is expanding to cover more types of stories, it’s slow going. You would get farther pursuing interactive fiction.

There is also a subgenre, kinetic novels, which are visual novels that lack interactivity. Sometimes, you’ll find these referred to as dynamic novels, although that term sometimes to refer to stories that have some sort of animated display element triggered as the reader moves through the story.

So, that’s round one. I may come back and update this as I explore them more.

Hidden Trail: Writing What You Know

My habit of using wattpad contests to avoid actually working on my own projects continued last month when their science fiction channel hosted a challenge celebrating one of my favorite things: Clark’s Third Law. If you’re unfamiliar: Any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic to more primitive societies.

Given my fascination with intersections of science and magic, you would think this would have been a simple challenge for me.

You would be wrong. Heh.

I actually managed to lose a lot of sleep over this, mainly because every idea I kept trying ultimately ended up being magic-based technology, which is not the same as technology appearing as magic. We won’t get into exactly how many times I had to sit myself down and lecture myself over the difference, but it was a fair few.

My first thought concerned the pile of notes I have on all the ways I could play with runes in New Glory. While runes are typically seen as tools of magic or divination, I was sure I could make them programmable. I’m sure you can see where the flaw in my thinking happened. I was convinced that a series of magic-powered rune stones lined up and “executed” like the block-based coding programs used to introduce children to coding would definitely work.

Remember, magic-based technology is not actually the same as technology being perceived as magic. No matter how many times you rearrange those magic-powered runes. And I tried many configurations and executions. *sigh*

I finally realized trying to make a traditionally magical object into a bit of science-based technology was not going to happen, and so I started playing with other ideas when I remembered an Internet of Things class I took a couple of years ago. The main class project we were working on involved objects with NFC tags, dongles that provide a locator beacon that reacts to something that comes near enough. (In the case of the class, the “something” was an app-enabled phone.)

I had been reading about the ways different destinations were using NFC technology to create more interactive experiences for visitors, so I didn’t think anything of it when we started working with them in class. Some of my classmates didn’t have that background, and were just fascinated at what could be accomplished with these dongles.

And I suddenly knew how to create a bit of “magical” technology in New Glory.

I’m not done exploring this possibility, but if you’d like to see how I handled its maiden voyage, please feel free to read “Hidden Trail” over on wattpad.

What is “Soft” Science Fiction?

I recently saw a tirade about how all science is “hard” science and so we should just do away with the labels “hard” and “soft” altogether. (I’ve actually seen a number of tirades recently that suggest there’s a whole class of science fiction writers unfamiliar with the history of the genre, including some of the most impactful treasures of the genre, but that’s best left alone.)

The problem is science is actually broken into two “classes”, for lack of a better term: hard and soft. The hard sciences are the applied sciences -physics, chemistry, biology, etc. – or what we often think of when we talk about science. Science fiction stories that draw primarily on these fields, often valuing scientific accuracy and terminology over everything else are considered hard science fiction.

The soft sciences, formally recognized as part of the STEM universe, are the social sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. Science fiction stories that draw primarily on these fields, often dismissed for their touchy-feely nature and handwavium implementation of the applied sciences, are considered soft science fiction. And strangely, they are just as valid as science fiction based on the applied sciences.

Entertainingly, the dystopian path embraced by so many popular science fiction stories at the moment are more soft than hard in their execution. Many of the “classic” science fiction stories used to practice genre elitism also happen to be soft science fiction, and deeply political in nature.

Perhaps there are reasons writers are encouraged to read far and deep in the genres they choose to write.

 

For the sake of transparency: I have been working on this post for the last couple of weeks and scheduled it Sunday to post today, with no idea what Tuesday would hold. I point this out because Ursula K. Le Guin was how I was introduced to the concept of soft science fiction, and she was definitely on my mind while I was writing.

Designing New Glory’s Temporary Tattoo

Last fall, wattpad hosted a contest called “The Aesthetic Punk”, searching for cover art and stories celebrating the visual beauty of the various punk subgenres. With a storyworld that straddles the line line between cyberpunk and near future science fiction, how could I resist?

I’ve been working on New Glory for just over ten years now, in the spaces in between other projects. It’s still a very nebulous, not entirely stable thing…with a couple of exceptions. One of those is the very idea that helped launch New Glory – a personal security device. When I first started working on New Glory, I was teaching in an after-school science program where one of our projects included a bracelet made from photosensitive beads. These beads go from clear to a color when you expose them to sunlight. I was overly fascinated with them. In a matter of weeks, they became the basis for a bracelet with a single bead that glowed a color that indicated your security clearance.

In a world where a corporate president had been assassinated, it made sense that they would be paranoid enough to put a visible indicator of security clearance on everyone to minimize “accidents”. The nature of societies and corporate structures and side jobs being what they are, though, it became obvious while working on the first New Glory short story that the bracelets could become a problem if someone had a higher-level bracelet than it would appear they should.

I stressed over that for quite a while, not coming up with an answer I liked.

The solution came in the form of a Writing Excuses prompt provided by Brandon Sanderson. An implanted tattoo would still be able to serve as a visual indicator of a person’s security clearance, but steps could be taken to conceal it. Plus, a nanite-based tattoo had the potential to serve as a personal data manager, allowing for all kinds of fun and mischief.

But as I started playing with the idea and how one might hack the tattoo, problems started cropping up again, mostly concerning access to allow the hacking to begin with. Again, Sanderson to the rescue. While reading his novella The Emperor’s Soul, I became fascinated by the stamps, and how they could allow someone to alter parts of themselves. With that in mind, I’ve been playing with ideas for how someone might affect an implant in a similar manner.

As I always intended the implanted tattoos to be visually interesting, the wattpad contest seemed the right time to actually play with my favorite of the ideas for altering the tattoos. And to my great surprise, it won. If you’d like to check out how I went about combining the ideas, you can read the story on wattpad.

The anthology it’s going to be featured in is in the process of being pulled together, but for now, I’m content to know this wasn’t the craziest pair of ideas.

Learning to Write MRUs

I’ve mentioned in a past post that my efforts to learn to write Scenes and Sequels were derailed briefly by…well…let’s just call it a side quest. You see, many of the articles that explained the Scene-Sequel technique referred to another technique that many use as part of their writing process: the MRU (motivation-reaction unit). Honestly, this is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, dummy, write cause and effect!” (Seems obvious. Isn’t always. I’ve now seen some scary examples of this.)

For many writers, Scenes and Sequels are made up of these MRUs, and if you put enough of these together, you eventually end up with a story that makes some form of sense. People might even read and enjoy your story. (No promises.)

All right, so…what is an MRU? It’s a basic action sequence made up of two parts: the motivation and the reaction.

  • Motivation – an external, objective stimulus that can be experienced by at least one sense
  • Reaction – the character’s subjective response to the Motivation in order: emotion; reflex action; rational thought/action

The MRU is pretty straightforward, because it’s how we actually respond to things. I know some of the articles pointed this out, but I didn’t actually get my mind around it until I realized trying to overthink my way into writing MRUs was just leading to writing how I normally write. I’ve always tried to write out how I would move through something, right down to the stage blocking. (And hearing professional writers use stage terminology to describe how they write has helped me understand and accept that I’m not a total weirdo for doing it. It helps me to see what’s going on in the scene I’m writing.)

When I was first reading about MRUs, I thought you were supposed to use them to build the entire story. And found out the hard way that’s not exactly true. I struggled for days trying to make MRUs work for my action-light stories, unable to figure out why they weren’t working, before I finally learned they’re for action sequences. I don’t write a lot of action to begin with, so practicing MRUs has been a frustrating process for me. I finally came up with the following and incorporated it into my daily writing habits so I have something to practice on.

My MRU Practice Routine

  • Respond to oneword’s daily prompt. (I do it in my journal instead of on the site.)
  • Rewrite the response into an MRU format. (Also in my journal.)

Feel free to steal that, or use it to create something that suits your own writing habits. And then let me know how exploring MRUs goes for you. Maybe you’ll find yourself frustrated like I was. Maybe it will be just the thing to help with a problem you’ve been experiencing in your writing. But I’m willing to bet you’ll find something useful in it.

 

Learning to Write Scene-Sequel

Like so many others, I spent the beginning of the year looking over what I had done last year and thinking about what I wanted to get done this year. I know I have a tumultuous relationship with my writing, and thought I was starting to turn things around. Really, I was deluding myself. While I got more written last year than I had in the previous five years combined, I wasn’t getting any productive writing done.

So I started my writing plans for this year by tabling every writing project I failed at working on last year. Then, I planned out a new daily writing practice schedule, focusing first on reconnecting with and strengthening my writing skills and letting my projects grow out of that recentering. Because somehow, things are easier for me if I feel like I’m learning and practicing something concrete. (I know you’re surprised.)

My first writing lesson: Writing Scenes (not to be confused with scenes) and Sequels.

I’ve heard people talk about Scenes and Sequels on writing blogs and in writing podcasts for some time now, but never actually looked into it. Now seemed as good a time as any, so I pulled together some favorite podcast episodes, added in some blog posts and articles, and jumped right in. It did require a small side trip (which I’ll get to later), but I think I’m starting to get the hang of things.

Scenes and Sequels are narrative units that work in pairs to create rhythms that encourage readers to keep moving through the story. The Scene consists of three parts: the Goal, the Conflict, and the Disaster. The Sequel also consists of three parts: the Reaction, the Dilemma, and the Decision. Breaking those down…

The Scene contains the action (or rising action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help keep that action building.

  • Goal – what the character wants when they first come into this moment
  • Conflict – the infamous try-fail cycle (It can be as simple or as complex as the situation requires.)
  • Disaster – an obstacle appears that severely hinders the character’s ability to reach their goal (This does not have to be a literal disaster. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that.)

The Sequel contains the reflection (or falling action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help the character process what has happened and figure out how to move forward.

  • Reaction – what it says on the label; the character’s immediate response to the Disaster
  • Dilemma – the character figures out what options they have moving forward, with no good options present
  • Decision – again, what it says on the label; the character picks an option and runs with it, moving us into the next Scene

The nice thing about these two units, when used well, is that they really follow a logical flow while building in good opportunities for tension in a scene. And they build a cycle, which can help minimize writer’s block to an extent. If you’ve crafted a good Scene, it should lead into a logical Sequel, which if well-crafted leads into another Scene, and so forth and so on.

As I said, I’ve been playing with is for about a month now, and I think I’m starting to craft them without having to look up each step. I’m even starting to find some success with them. Try them out in your own writing and let me know how your own explorations go.