Sunday Teaser: *kith and [Click]kith, Hooah and Avey

Fresh from a busy Sunday of re-writes, here is a teaser from Warbound: The Shield-Maiden.

“We could march back to the Domains,” said Auria.

“How is that possible?” said Teven sharply. “Is the ocean not in our way?”

“There is an Old Dwarven stronghold called Khazak-Krim,” said Auria. “The under-roads that run from it lead across the sea to Sudra, once on Sudra we could march back to the fortress at Sudra’s horn or even cross the archipelago and march up to the Trials.”

“A ancient dwarf fortress?” said Teven indignantly. “Old passages through the under-roads. We all know how that sort of journey turns out in books.”

“Enough Teven,” said the Legate evenly. “We should examine every possibility. It is possible that we will have to make our way home. The march is not our first choice; but we should study every eventuality and plan for every contingency that we can. Auria, draw up those maps so I can study them. I want to know everything relevant about the surrounding terrain and peoples as well. It seems likely that we will have to move and dig in on more favourable terrain. Warbound Legarda stay, everyone else you have your orders. Dismissed.”

“Avey, Legate,” came the chorus of voices.

A few decisions have been made in the wake of comments from early readers and editors.

I was originally using Ave as a form of emphasis, like the modern marine’s use of Hooah. This form of salutation carries connotations that I don’t want to invoke, so I changed it to Avey, which I can own.

Secondly the use of * to indicate a clicking sound, and ! for popping sounds was too confusing so I am now trying [Click] and pop instead. Honestly [Click]kith does look better than *kith.

The Shadow Wolf Saga: Blade Breaker 1.7

Follow the adventures of Ragnar Grimfang a Nordan exile, in my little serial.

Stabby

Stabby

Blade Breaker 1.1

Blade Breaker 1.6

What separates a seasoned warrior, a hard hand as they say among my people, from a lesser fighter is the ability to recognize a call to action and to answer it without hesitation. A man who is merely perceptive will often see the same queues, but will rarely respond with the same celerity. A man who reacts quickly but lacks the judgement of a veteran, is easily lured by feints and other tricks, becoming a victim of his down swiftness. Among the Nordan, the second is the object of more derision; a man who overthinks is rarely a danger to others, while a jumpy man frequently misfires.

My ears caught the faintest sound of movement, almost lost amid the rush of air from the door closing behind me. No mere gutter rat this, only a skilled skulker could get so close. Instinctively, I knew someone was behind me and I pivoted on the balls of my feet, raising my hands to protect my vitals. My attacker shuffled, redirecting a blow that had been aimed at my throat into my shoulder. I grunted as the cold blade bit deep.

The reaction to pain is another element of a hard hand. Some people fear pain. Some people ignore pain. To people like myself pain is a gauge and a spur. It is a gauge because I have seen so much battle that the pain that comes from wounds, exertion, broken bones, and all kinds of fighting are as familiar as the smell of roses are to a Loragonian florist. I have a pretty good idea of how bad a wound is, short term, merely from the impact and the pain. As for the spur, well, nothing gets my adrenaline flowing like taking a good hit.

My fist thundered out, a hard right hook fit to kneecap a giant! sadly, only the air felt my wrath as my assailant ducked and came in low.  I caught the flash of light reflecting off of bright steel darting toward my groin, or more likely an artery in the leg. However, my assailant was a blue of colours, almost nauseating to look at. I concentrated on the blade/

My opponent was vastly swifter than I, possibly even ascended. However, reading their move allowed me to  defend adequately, stepping into the attack and making a grab for the blade hand. The assassin, twisted out of the way smoothly, raking the back of my hand with their blade. My leather gloves, tough wyvernhide, took away most of the sting.

I could see my opponent now. Lithe, but smaller than expected, possibly a woman. The assassin had some kind of scent mask on, conspicuous only in it’s lack of odour, as well as as suit shifting garb — clothing favoured by skulkers that acted both as camouflage and also confused the eye with bizarre patterns in combat. One hand held a Myrrhnese razor, a thin slice of metal that could slip through all but the best fitted armour plates on a thrust and yet sharp enough on the cut to  open a man’s throat with no more effort than a horse flicking its tail. Lovely little weapons, proof that not everything that comes from streets of Myrrhn is lacking in grace and refinement.

“Shadvarg!” I bellowed. whirling my cloak and reaching for my weapons. Most assassins are not fond of noise, especially those who are forced to attack during the day. My assailant lunged, seeming to blur. I twisted, trusting to the cloak to help obscure my movements. Nonetheless the assassin pricked my shoulder, sharp blade piercing the light mail I wore as force of habit. By now, however, my hands had found my weapons and I was longer defanged. I swung my pick low and my hammer high, hoping to draw the assassin’s attention away from the deadly spike with the descent of the heavy hammer. The assassin did not fall for it, instead trying for a lunge that would bury the their blade in my heart. I let it come, twisting slightly to avoid a fatal wound, ready to pounce. The assassin, eager for kill, took the bait. The razor bit my flesh, but did not end my life. My hammer connected with the assassins shoulder a moment later. Her weapon fell to the ground. A yelp, a woman’s voice, issued forth. I met her eyes and brought my pick in for the kill as she twisted away. The fight was mine.

Or so I thought.

Just before I could strike, I felt a powerful impact and slammed into the wall. A massive bolt, arbalest, buried itself in the stone beside me, dripping blood from where it had grazed me. I looked around wildly. The assassin recovered and sprinted away while I sought cover and silently wished that today had been a shield day for Ragnar. A card provided the safety that I needed. After a few tense moments I hear a scraping from the rooftops nearby as the unseen bowman left. I breathed a sigh of relief and took stock of my wounds.

All in all I felt that I acquitted myself well. The assassin was good, possibly exceptional, but I had risen to the occasion to fight through her initial attack and then nearly sealed her fate with a sacrifice lure. That she was working with a partner was unusual, especially since I expected it would have been smarter for the pair to shoot me as I came out of Git’s shop and then finish me while I was down. Understanding that would help me understand the attackers.

I grinned. At least I was near a place that sold healing salves.

 

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.4

The Shadow Wolf Sagas are a little experiment of mine, working on first person and serial format, written raw so I can improve my first draft mojo as well.

Blade Breaker 1.1

Blade Breaker 1.3 (last week’s)

Some fools dream of becoming killers. They want the fear and respect that come with being hard men. Desperately seeking the validation of the shadows, they become easy prey for real predators, anyone who can promise them a place in the hierarchy of the dark woods. All to eager to serve those that they want to become, each one of them thinks that he will be accepted in the pack, if only he does what is required with enough fervour. They think everyone else is a clod, blind to the truth of blood and blade, willfully suppressing the knowledge that they are pawns.

I grinned because a chance to rid the world of such vermin was an unexpected boon.

“I don’t want any trouble,” I said, holding up my hands, trying to sound surprised. It is rarely difficult to convince such men that you fear them; they want to be feared like a man in a blizzard wants a warm hearth. They did not realize that I knew their friend was coming up behind me in the alley, and that I was merely wanted him to get closer.

“You’ve got trouble, mark!” said one, holding up a knife. I caught a whiff of alcohol and black crystal on his breath, mad recklessness waiting to explode. “Hand over your scrip or I’ll cut ya!”

His two friends snickered. I heard a soft footfall from behind me, followed by a tension, the gathering of force that precedes most attacks. I could smell the man now, his overeager excitement for the kill turned my stomach.

When the attack came, I read it first in the faces of the three in front of me. Their slack mouth started to tug upwards, and their frenzied eyes began to brighten with cruel glee. Then I heard the whisper of a shifting leather heel on wet cobblestone as he darted forward, aiming a blade at my back. I stepped forward, tracing a quarter circle with my back foot as I turned. The gutter-knife was in mid lunge, but my back was now out of easy reach. Like most men who kill, but do not dance, his form was terrible. He wanted to put that knife in my back with all of the weight of his body behind it, now with nothing to offer resistance he was off-balance. I grabbed his arm and pulled, turning back towards his companions, using his momentum against him as I tossed him at their feet, knocking one of them to the ground.

The two remaining gutter-knives slid around their writhing comrades and came at me, long knives glittering in the dark alley like pools of water in a cave. They came in low, letting me see the blades, as if such a thing might unsettle me. I showed my teeth and put a hand behind me, grabbing the leather wrappings of my trusty warhammer. Things were about to get unpleasant for my new friends.

The one on my right was smarter, letting the other take the lead. Lefty jabbed at me with one blade, aiming for my groin. His attack was predictable, and I sidestepped, sending him tumbling with a quick shove. The rightward attacker, eyes wide in anticipation of victory, slash at my throat. I caught his hand in mine, holding it fast, and then watched his look of triumph turn to horror as my hammer crashed into his face. His skull buckled under the blow and he fell like a sack of meal.

By now the other two had gotten to their feet. I could see the narcotic bravado warring with the reality in their eyes. Deep down even the mangiest of hounds knows enough to recognize a true wolf. A little bit of their friend dripped of my hammer. I grinned at them, listening to the one behind me.

“I am Ragnar Grimfang of Clan Shadow Wolf,” I said. “Twiceborn. I have fought giants on the world’s edge, hunted bane spirits with the Inuw in forgotten forests, and ridden the waves with old Tharn Furisborn. I died at Drajinskyg, as was my fate, but the grave spit me out. Who are you to cross steel with me, gutter-scum.”

The two in front of me ran. I have been told that my eyes, a brooding blue colour, can be quite piercing.

The one behind me, feral with rage, leapt at my back. I took two quick steps forward, listening to the sounds of his boots on the cobbles for positioning and pivoted, lashing out and burying the backspike of hammer in his ear. His mouth opened and close a few times in shock, and then, he too, fell.

I considered for a moment what I would have done in his place. Was he brave, trying to attack me when his friends had run, or just reckless? Perhaps he had simply been more desperate: few things drive men to death like fear of the future.

I considered going about my business, but decided to wait for the watch show up. By now several people were watching from the backs of shops. The laws of Myrrhn are very forgiving with cases of self-defence, and, so long as no one had bribed the watchmen, I would soon be free to go.

The watch was quicker than I expected, appearing at the scene of battle before the rats started sniffing. At their head was a familiar figure, a dwarfen lass with a shock of red fair. My old friend watch Sargent Murith.

She did not look pleased to see me. I grinned.

I just like this one.

His hammer would be this style but more ornate.

Thoughts on my Nomads Project.

As I mentioned, last week’s Nomads will likely be the last, at least until I have had a while to think about the series.

Nomads began as an experiment. I did not start it to get page views. I’m not actually sure how many people read this blog since page views can be misleading, or if any of you are even interested in serial fiction. Mostly, I wanted to hone my writing skills, especially with first draft and writing in first person. The challenge I set for myself was to write a thousand words every week, with little preparation, as quickly as possible and to see if I could wrangle a coherent story from that. Here is my assessment of that project.

1) Draft Hard! I did find writing a serial in the raw to be great practice for writing better first drafts. One of my weaknesses as a writer (and game designer, actually) is that I love tinkering with a near finished product. I rewrote Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale seven times and would probably still be re-writing it to this day if not for the realization that it would never be perfect. Bloodlust: Will to Power only had two rewrites and most of the people I have chatted with feel it is a better work. I feel that the Nomads project helped me shape in this regard: I write faster now, and I am able to control my desire to re-write. 

2) Confidence: leaving a swiftly written story with minimal corrections up requires some bravery. 

3) A taste of first person: First person is an interesting writing style. I have pealed back a few of its layers, but much of it is still beyond me. It helps to a very strong sense of character, which is always worth working on. The  character’s perspective must be both understandable, and yet their voice must stand out. Exposition is a particular hazard, since most people do not think about the facets of their culture and surrounding that are familiar to them but might be very alien and exciting to the reader. Forcing this in first person is, if anything, more obvious than in third person. Yet another reason why I like The Name of the Wind.

4) The Serial Format: I have great respect for people who can write a serial and keep it going. I learned that it is best to end each episode on a question or some other hook. (not necessarily a cliffhanger) Not only does this help keep the story fresh in the reader’s minds, it also gives the writer something to work with for the next episode. For the same reason I prefer to leave an unfinished sentence on your novel when you are done writing for the day; it gives me an easy place to start when I get back to work.

The problems I encountered in writing the Nomads serial were not insurmountable by any means, but they did make it less fun. Here are my thoughts on the problems I encountered.

1)  Introduction woes: Nomads begins in medias res. The first line of Nomads was a recording from a Nomad who has just been gunned down, sent to Raven. We follow Raven as he investigates how Jessup died. The problem with this is that in a first person narrative it is imperative that you establish voice and character first. Putting the action first without establishing Raven’s personality and voice was a wasted opportunity. This becomes especially confusing since I have to convince the readers that they should care that this Jessup dude died, all at the same time. Bit of a disaster, really, but kind of fun nonetheless.

2) Raven: As a voice character, Raven was not particularly interesting. Firstly, he was lacking in any meaty defects or even super-spy suave. Secondly he was too neutral in his opinions, which is inappropriate when you have access to a character’s thoughts and perspectives. A subtle character is best left to masters of the form, I should have tried something simpler or bolder.

3) Military Setting: The Nomads were essentially an elite military squad, equivalent in many ways to modern special forces but with futuristic toys. The problem this created is that I really wanted to stay away from that kind of atmosphere. Oops. 

4) Documentation: I keep a lot of notes when I work on m novels. One of these a spreadsheet with details on characters, geography, terminology, slang, and any other world-building miscellany. Whenever I need to recall details, I refer to this spreadsheet first. It helps maintain consistency: you never know when a character’s eye colour might come up again. With Nomads I was constantly reading previous posts to look up names, callsigns, jargon, weapons, and suit types.

  • 5) Source of Enthusiasm: When I started writing the Nomads serial I was playing a game called Firefall. I enjoyed the armoured-suit style action. I went with the Nomads idea because Firefall was boosting my enthusiasm for that type of story. Low and behold, when I stopped playing Firefall, my enthusiasm for Nomads suffered. It would have been better to choose a longer standing interest as a base for a serial.
  • In the end I feel that the Nomads serial was a success. I learned quite a bit and I enjoyed it while it lasted. I will likely try the form again, or perhaps pick up and try to rescue Nomads, at some point. 

World Building and exposition: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Xenophon’s Anabasis is one of the key texts of ancient Greek literature. Not only is it a historical account of great importance; it is also a simply written tale of adventure that remains compelling to this day and has become the template for other works.

Xenophon was an officer in a mercenary force of Greek heavy infantry (likely hoplites) hired by Cyrus the Younger to help depose his brother, Artaxerxes II, and take control of the Persian Empire. They combined forces engaged the enemy in 401 BC at Cunaxa. (by comparison the battle of Thermopylae was in ~480 , and Alexander’s conquests of Persia began in ~334 BC). The leader of the ten thousand Greeks, Clearchus, arrogantly refused to follow Cyrus’ battle plan which led to the loss of the battle and the Prince’s death. After the battle Clearchus and most of the senior leadership of the Greek forces were tricked and betrayed when they tried to treat with Artaxerxes vassals. Xenophon is one of three leaders elected by the men to replace their lost leadership.

The main narrative occurs after the battle is lost and the Greek leadership is removed. The Greeks are deep behind enemy lines, no longer supported by friends, low on supplies, and with uncertain leadership. The Persians decide to let the elements destroy the Greeks rather than engaging them in a costly battle. Instead they harry them and force them into terrible terrain. And yet the ten thousand endure, marching North from Cunaxa to the Greek Colonies on the Black Sea, through desert and mountain, foraging, fighting, selling their services, and ultimately finding a way home. It is easy to see why this is a compelling tale, and how it can be used as a great template for militaristic fantasy. My favourite anabasis style work is Glen Cook’s Black Company series, although The Warriors movie  holds a special place in my heart as well.

Fantasy enthusiasts often create huge elaborate worlds with dozens of complex cultures, civilizations, places and so on. Take a look at this world building subreddit to see a few interesting examples of people’s imaginations run wild with world-building.

One of the problems encountered with this level of detail, when writing a novel, is that it is hard to download it on the reader without ruining the pacing that is expected of a good story. Games have a much easier time of this — especially open-world sandbox type games. The player being  free to explore and engage with a large world at the pace of their choosing is more or less the point, in that case. However the narrative structure of the novel is such that the author must dictate pacing, and paragraphs of exposition can really get in the way of a story. Nobody really wants to stop and read a long dissertation about where the Orc Barbarians who are storming the castle came from, and what their culture is like. Describing the culture of a people that the protagonists meet in passing, just once, in great detail can really make that escape from the oddly dangerous bandits that are tracking them seem a little less pressing. A lengthy discussion of history is also a great chunk of pacing issues, especially if it is not directly related to the plot. Exposition must be brought out organically, as part of the story in most cases, which makes it hard to show off s big, brilliantly built world.

The tried and true methods of allowing the reader to experience more of the world are

  • The Quest: In a quest base narrative the protagonists must travel to many different places to achieve their goal, often interacting with obscure arcana as part of the Quest. This arcana is a great way expose history and the journey is an excellent way to expose geography. The quest is the easy method of creating a journey that leads through many exotic areas  allowing the author to show off a lot of their world.
  • Multiple Character Epic: A multiple character epic allows the author to set different perspective characters in different parts of the world. In effect, each of those characters becomes the exposition for the part of the world that the author wishes to show off. This strikes me as the best way to showcase a huge world without ruining pace, but it seems quite hard to pull off convincingly.

The Anabasis Story offers an excellent alternative to The Quest for world exposition. Here are the main advantages of such a story type for world-building.

  • Exposition without dissonance: In the Anabasis form, the protagonists are strangers to the area they are in, picking up local customs and history as they try to get home. They have a legitimate void of knowledge that needs to be filled and real reasons to fill it.
  • Realistic Exploration: The easy way home is, of course, blocked. The group must take the unfamiliar path, which will require them to explore just to find that path. Climate, terrain, and food scources all become of utmost import to a group trying to find their way out of a strange environment.
  • Immediate Political Involvement: A small band wandering through an area is hardly cause for the high and mighty to react, an army on the move ALWAYS elicits a political reaction, and not always a hostile one. Opportunities abound: the Ten Thousand ended up selling their services in the their travels, after all. This allows the reader to experience even the most Byzantine political systems with great validity, since the members of the travelling army have a real interest in it and it is directly related to the story.
  • Home: because the characters will constantly be comparing every strange thing, to “the way it is back home.” it is easy for the writer to create exposition for the home culture as well.
  • Structure: The Anabasis narrative provides a strong structure for exposition without wrecking the pacing of a story. The band will explore their options, act accordingly, and move on. The hardships they face, the places they go, and the obstacles that they must overcome are all legitimate uses of your carefully built world that will not derail the story. It is an ideal form for a writer who wants to immerse the reader in multiple parts of a large Fantasy world.

The Survival Dynamic: Zombies, Shipwrecks, and Magical Apocalypses

It works just as well for a Fantasy series…

My Domains of the Chosen Series takes place in an Empire that has risen from the ashes after a magical disaster called the Reckoning, caused by the fallout of an all-out war between the world’s greatest magic users, has warped the fabric of the world and reality itself. One of the most common story requests that I receive is for tales that take place during or just after the cataclysm. You see, in my books, while the disaster still effects the psychology of  the Domains and taints the land outside of the Domains, it is a settled, historical event. It lacks the survival dynamic of a running apocalypse or sudden catastrophe.

The survival dynamic is a cute shorthand for all of the drama that can occur in disasters, cataclysms and other traumatic upheavals, big and small. The characters are thrown out of their comfort zones as the normal social orders are eroded or outright removed and replaced with more primal concerns like food, shelter, and not being eaten by hungry Zombies. Here a some thoughts on what the survival dynamic can bring to a fantasy story.

1) The simplicity of survival: everyone, instinctively at least, understands survival. People often talk about what they would bring if they were stranded on a desert island, or with shocking frequency these days — what their plan to survive the zombie apocalypse would be. Because we all understand it, or think we do at any rate, survival is an easily accessible hook for almost any genre. It is nearly procedural following the simple needs of safety (getting away from danger), finding food and water, finding shelter, and contacting other survivors. It is a great starting point for many types of stories, and works just as well for a fantasy.

2) Lawlessness: Whether society collapses or the characters are merely temporarily isolated from it, lawlessness is a big part of the survival dynamic. In many kinds of disaster the temporary disruption of the institutions that modern life are built around such as the courts, the police, banks, the power grid, and international trade compound the problem. The whole premise of classic books like Lord of the Flies is built around the reactions of characters who can no longer rely on institutional authority and law, and the pitfalls of creating a new social order. The idea is that that without social norms, some people become monstrous, This has become a rather big theme in zombie games, shows, and movies where the human survivors are more dangerous than the undead. The walking dead tagline “fight the dead, fear the living.” is a good example of this.

3) Moral Dilemma?: The survival dynamic does place characters in interesting dilemmas, pitting morality against the needs of survival. Food and resources are scarce, other survivors may be liabilities that endanger the main character and so on. Personally I feel the negative aspects moral dilemmas of survival are a little overplayed at this point. Generally, only a truly heroic character or a fool will sacrifice themselves for morality and I’m tired of cynical writers hammering this home as if to say we are all bad people at heart. I’d love to see something more uplifting where a grizzled survivor type takes a risk to help others and is actually rewarded instead of doomed by their kind actions. I know, i know… I’m getting soft.

4) Tabula Rasa: Eventually the successful survivors will start again. In small scale disasters they will have to re-adjust to societal norms that may seem wrong to them now. In large scale disasters they may have to start society anew.  Removal from society and history as a result of the survival dynamic allows the writer to experiment with what happens when the survivors adjust to the new paradigm and get around to rebuilding. This is a very exciting field of writing, especially if the author follows closely to the logic of the situation. As a reader I just love series where characters cobble together new social norms and grow civilizations from a disaster organically. This goes double if the series starts with the cataclysm and follows through uninterrupted.

5) Scaling, from epic to personal: interestingly, the survival dynamic works just as well in large scale tales like a worldwide zombie apocalypse to smaller, more personal stories like that of shipwrecked pirates on a monster infested island. This scaling allows writers to choose their focus, or even vary it over the course of a series.

So what kinds of survival dynamics can be created in Fantasy? I can think of a few…

1) The usual:  Cataclysms, shipwrecks, and Zombie invasions all work just as well in fantasy. The elements of magic and the wondrous do allow the author to tackle it from a different direction. Robinson Crusoe would be way different if the island was home to the ancient elven ruins, and the Walking Dead would have an entirely different feel if necromancy was in the mix…

2) The magical disaster: something changes the way that magic works, and everything gets messed up as a result. In my favourite published RPG, Earthdawn, a rising tide of magic allows monstrous beings called horrors to cross into the world from the astral plane and survive. The people are forced to build magical shelters and try to wait until the magic ebbs enough for most of the horrors to dissipate. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time the male half of the power gets tainted, which drives most male magic users insane.

3) Divine intervention: Several fantasy settings I have enjoyed have involved distasters that were cause by divine wrath or are cause by a war between the gods. The main difference here is the anthropomorphic element of the disaster and the reaction to it. The characters have to factor in the will of the divinity into the disaster to survive and prosper. Love it or hate it, the Left Behind series is a good example of this; the survivors must also deal with the will of God. Variations of this can include the waking of the ancients, dragons razing society, and so on.

4) Revolution: There is even a case for revolution, perhaps the most modern of upheavals, as a survival dynamic. A revolution can be just as destructive as any other form of cataclysm, but is entirely man made… The difficulty is in dealing with the politics of revolution.

However the writer chooses to use the survival dynamic, it is as compelling for Fantasy fans as it is for any other genre. I mean, really look what Zombies have done for westerns…

Yeah, I’m saying it is a Western.