More on Sojourn Volume Two

The second volume is coming along wonderfully!  The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and quite a few authors are ahead of schedule with their submissions and edits.  In fact, I’d like to congratulate Michael Budd on being the first author to complete the entire process, from submission to editing to contract signing.

So what’s on tap for our second outing?  Laura just teased some of the content in her prior post, so I’ll talk about the authors.  Obviously things are subject to change, but as it stands now, it looks like Volume Two may be twice the size of Volume One.  So far we’ve got…

  1. Every single author for Volume One coming back.
  2. Ken Hite and Eddy Webb joining us from the industry pro side.
  3. A significant number of new, up-and-coming authors.

As for my own contribution, I sent several pitches to the editors and asked them to pick the one that would add the most variety to the stories they’ve already received.  They both picked Gnarl Saves Christmas, so I’m working on a comedy adventure, written in the form of a chintzy, holiday poem.  My favorite gnoll will do what Elmo, Tim Allen, Ernest P. Worrell, and countless stop-motion characters have done before him, though he’s got his own way of handling the task.

This man had a smile and gifts in his sack,
But Gnarl was hungry and just grabbed his ax.
Now, fat men are not healthy for you or for me,
But what cardiologist would gnollish folk see?
So they clawed and they fought and they chopped him to bits,
Then put what was left on their wrought iron spits.
Gnarl and Sharpa hardly could speak,
For they’d never fought a wizard so stupidly weak.
But whatever the foe, adventuring can’t be done shoddy,
So Gnarl was quick to loot Santa Claus’ body.

A little teaser

When we put out the call for stories, I had no idea that so many of our authors would respond immediately.  With a little more than three months left in the submission window, we’ve already had ten stories come in.  I wanted to give you a little taste of some of what we’ve had so far.  Please bear in mind that these are early drafts, so there may be some changes when we actually publish these stories, but they’re definitely representative of what we’re getting.  But I do hope they get you excited!

From “The Winter Hungers” by Adam Gottfried:

Academically, 20 below zero is cold and wind-chill makes it colder, bottoming out at around 40 below zero. You can comprehend this, even to some degree prepare for it, but to actually experience it…to feel your skin recoil, even under layers of protection, to see your breathy exhalation of 98.6 degrees freeze to microscopic ice crystals the moment it ceases to be a part of you, to have your nose hairs freeze solid inside of ten seconds and to feel the tears well to keep your eyes from freezing open….

     It is a kind of madness, being outside when it is this cold. Your mind reels as your external senses beg for mercy—trying to think of anything and everything that isn’t how cold it is and invariably returning to: Why the Hell do I live here?

From “Que Deja Deja” by Michael Budd:

A much older man, with just a scraggly horseshoe of silver hair left on his head. He walked with a limp as he entered, probably from a war wound. As old as he was, it might have been received in one of the many wars the old regime waged B.R. That same feeling crept up Warren’s brain stem again as he watched the senior take a seat across from him and rub his left knee through faded jeans. He was about tell Warren not to ever–

“Don’t ever get old, boy,” the old man ordered Warren. “It’s just the same shit on a different day, with more aches, pains, and required medications.”

Warren wasn’t sure whether to laugh or panic.

From “New Year, New Trouble” by Dawn Wattler:

“Mind if I turn on the TV?” she asked, peeking into the cockpit, which was decorated with a combination of grinning family portraits, live plants under a purplish light—including a tiny rose bush—and religious paraphernalia; statues of Jesus and Mary and even a tiny plastic manger set covered her dash; there were even fake candles. She didn’t know much about the religion, but she imagined that like the little garden, it must have some use for Marie when she spent weeks on end in space alone.

     “Go ahead. I’ll want to watch the SSBC at 2300 hours though. Their New Year’s Eve program is always the best.”

     Susan’s eyes widened.

     “New Year’s? It can’t be.”

Worldbuilding Series Part 3: The World Map

When writing this post up I am reminded of that Hollywood Producer’s cliche “you have three options: fast, cheap, and good–pick two.” So there is no perfect way of coming up with a map. The process I use is pretty complicated and using both my computer and good old fashion pen and pencil. So here we go.

The first question that has to answered is: can you draw and do you have patience? On the first question I would say that I am above doodling. I know how to draw  but I would never describe myself as in artist.

First off I always create a world map. The reason is because I love world maps and the second reason is that it is much easier to zoom out than it is to zoom in. If you were wondering I am definitely a macro to micro worldbuilder. Now the first thing that I must do is to decide on what I want in my map. Whenever you are at a loss in the creative process remind yourself of what your goals are. And if you discover that you don’t have any goals well go back and create some. Since this world is going to be vaguely Cold War like with East vs. West my main goal is that I want the geography to clearly show the east-west divide. Also as added detail I want the divide to be a water barrier like a sea or a great lake. So that rules out pangeas and archipelagos

Now the program I use for my map-making is a software called Fractal Mapper 8.0. I first picked up the software about eight years ago. The software is good and as served me well over the years. But the problem is that I have worked with it so long that I have become used to its nuances and frustrated by its limitations.  I find the main program too tedious for my map-making (I don’t want to waste precious time dragging and dropping the mountains for this mountain chain or having to fiddle with the layers). But what is in the purchase of Fractal Mapper is this free add-on called Fractal World Explorer. What this program does is that it randomly generates a world map. This is the main lesson I have: use computer generated maps for inspiration but do the nitty gritty by hand. It will save you a lot of headache. So after cycling through a few dozen worlds I find one that is promising. preliminary map blank ….Yeah that’s the catch. Fractal World Explorer will spit out a complete and utter mess. This is just a catastrophe. But it does give you tools to fix it and the many years that I have been using this program I honed the use of these tools to do my bidding. And I can notice some promising areas that can work with my stated goal. preliminary map planningThe circled areas are the places that I find interesting and that I want to develop (the part with the black zigzags are the places that I am going to nuke completely). The image below is the result of my labors. Now for some stupid reason the software has this Mercator projection to the map so the areas near the poles are stretched so that massive area near the top is much smaller once put on a globe (a cool feature that is apart of Fractal World Explorer). I am going to pull up Fantasy Name Generator and pluck out a few names. I am done for now. Later I will develop a more extensive geography, but for that I like to use pen and pencil.  Next time we will discuss the magic system of the world. See you then!  world with names

Worldbuilding Series Part 2: Conflict

Last time we discussed the origin of my world and my decision to have a romantic tone instead of a nihilistic tone. Now comes the fun (and crucial) part: deciding the central conflict.

Not all worlds need a central conflict, and likewise not all stories need a central conflict. Shannon Dickson’s story from Sojourn is a wonderful example of a story that does not have any conflict whatsoever. But for most worlds it is important to have a clear and dynamic central conflict because down the road when you are writing stories or DMing games in your world you want to pull upon the central conflict of the world into your story. Here are some examples of conflicts from settings: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter (good vs. evil). A Game of Thrones (ice vs. fire–at least I think, the series isn’t done yet), Mistborn (order vs. chaos), Firefly (freedom vs control). The most common central conflicts, at least to my mind, are good vs. evil and order vs. chaos.

Let’s step back from the theoretical and start talking about my world. I was tempted to make the central conflict good vs. evil, but I hesitated. I am a huge fan of Tolkien’s work and I feel that pretty much he hit the nail on the head when it comes to good vs. evil. For as much his work is unjustly panned as a brutish, simplistic story of goody-goods vs. mindless evil, I have found that his insights on good and evil to be extremely sophisticated (take for example, his insight that the very wise, such as Saruman or Gandalf, are the most susceptible to evil). I shy away from doing good vs. evil because every step that I take I will think “I am ripping off Tolkien.” And not just in a elves, dwarves, and magic ring sense but in a much deeper thematic sense. My hesitation stems not from any fear of being declared, either from myself or from others, a plagiarist or “ripping off Tolkien,” for I am sure that I could add my own spin to good vs. evil. But that is it, only a good spin. I have nothing new to say about the subject. Writing about it, while the subject is extremely interesting to me, would be like a chore for me. I don’t know how I know this but as a creative person often you just need to follow your instincts. This is some good advice for you guys: the litmus test for whether an idea is a brilliant idea or a good idea is if the idea is so powerful that it can lift your fat butt off the couch, sit you down, open up a Mircrosoft Word doc, and get you writing. When an idea truly inspires you it is a force of nature.

On the flip-side of good vs. evil is order vs. chaos. On this I will be brief (hopefully). I never very much enjoyed the idea of order vs. chaos. I remember as a kid watching the History Channel and a show started talking about Zoroastrianism. They talked about how it was about a god of good and a god of evil duking it out. “Wow!” I thought, “that sounds awesome.” Then years later I read about it on Wikipedia and I learned that it was just all order vs. chaos and I was bummed out. Order vs. chaos inevitably boils down to: order is the stagnant pool of water and chaos is a consuming flame that destroys everything. Each side is so balanced in its bummer factor that I lose all interest.

What to do? What to do? How do you come up with something “original?” Well one source that I take inspiration from is the real world. I was contemplating about the news stories of the day and trying to find a common link between them. My advice for anyone doing this is to not go for the “writ from the headlines” because a) that will instantly date you b) the story will become as much about the real life issue as the story itself. Don’t believe me, watch The Dark Knight and then The Dark Knight Rises. The former is a classic about order vs.chaos and the latter is a confused mess about Occupy Wall-street and other topical issues of the day.

So anyway, I was thinking a lot about the culture wars going on in the United States. Like Archimedes leaping out of his tub I shouted “Eureka” (okay not really but he sentiment is the same)! I realized that what what the central theme to all the different culture war issues was virtue vs. passion.  I wanted a central conflict that was not so black and white as good vs. evil but not something so morally relative as order vs. chaos. What do I mean by virtue vs. passion? Well someone who falls under the virtuous camp holds ideas like chivalry, honor, ethics, and tradition above their own desires and passions. Whereas the passion camp says that what is good is whatever your heart desires it to be, and who are we to say otherwise. The virtue camp holds that the virtues that they live by (and thus the god/philosophy by which those moral laws were ordained) is the center of life and above humanity. Whereas the passion camp says that humanity decides where the center of life to be. Like in real life this does not mean that virtuous people cannot be passionate and that passionate people cannot be virtuous, but instead determines what it is that each civilization/culture/society hold up as the most dear. And what they are willing to let go in order to uphold those principles.

This is perfect for me because while I personally am in the virtuous camp I can completely empathize and communicate the passion camp. Each ideology is rich with both good and evil characters and both good and evil cultures.

Okay this post has been going on way too long. Next time we are going to talk about the basic geography of the world.

The World of Blind Barthon

The World of Blind Barthon

The World of Blind Barthon

My contribution to Sojourn was a pseudo-myth story called “Blind Barthon.” The basic premise is that Barthon must go on a quest to find the perfect bride, guided (and insulted) by the gods all along the way. The story began its life as backstory. Over the last three years I have been developing an EPIC fantasy world that I call the Mortal Realm (emphasis of epic). I wanted a mythology for a Nordic culture in this world, a people that I called the Jarls (j pronounced as y–and yes I do know that Jarl means King in the real world). This world is where I fully devote my passion for history. I want as much of the world as possible to feel authentic and plausible–at least to me. Basically not sound made up. I wanted the Jarls to have a mythology suitable for their inspirational heritage so I hit the books. I read up much on Norse mythology specifically with The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. While reading that book I had a spur of inspiration and I started penning some myths. One of the myths (and honestly the best of the bunch) was the story that is now available in Sojourn.

Now to the map. Part of the function of the Barthon myth is not only to teach Jardic boys what are the preferable qualities in a wife, but to also give a geography lessen. Pre-modern peoples had a very limited scope of their surroundings. Only 200 years ago it took pioneers years to cross the North American continent. Nowadays the roughly two thousand miles from NY to LA is crossed in hours. Even driving is not much more of a hassle. A year ago my family vacationed in California. On the return trip my brother, dad, and I drove from California to Illinois in 24 hours. We drove in a Ford Explorer so at least one person was able to have a nap in the backseat (also we are from good Scottish stock so we were up for it). That is a colorful anecdote of how much time and distance has changed in the world. Barthon, and his pre-modern contemporaries, probably never strayed 20 miles from the place they were born. So how they learned of the surrounding world was through stories such as mine. Along with just directional information, the stories would be filled with what type of people lived such faraway places along with how they related to them. For instance, Barthon’s people were mainly a hearty warrior people and such they looked upon the Normons as very strange for their vigor of the seas.

The map only shows a quarter of the world (as I said EPIC) that is called Borea. Hemmed in by the Hygeann Mountains (high-JEE-in), the region is approximately the size of the Atlantic to the Mississippi. The region is divided into three horizontal cultural halves. The bottom half, comprised of those jutting peninsulas is subtropical and home to mainly the Waelens, an amalgam of invaders and foreign cultures. The Waelens are very cosmopolitan and the home of fine wine and finer intrigue. The middle bulk of the continent is inhabited by the great swordsmiths and hearty warriors of the Aluns (my Celtic analogy). And last but not least, is the most northerly half– home of winter and cold winds. Barthon the Jarl calls this his home.

The circles show the places where Barthon visited. Reread Blind Barthon and discover the places listed in the story. Have fun!

(Sorry about the confusing mess of lines on the map. This comes from one of those fractal map generators. The original files were corrupted but I did manage to save some images from the maps. I intend to one day draw out the maps properly so that they don’t look so squirrely, but that is for another day. Just cross your eyes…maybe that will help)

Worldbuilding Series Part 1: Origin and Tone

The best way that you can understand what I am doing with my world is to describe what started it off in the first place. There is usually that spark, that initial inspiration that begins the whole process. Like billiard balls, one idea leads to another and that idea leads to more ideas. The initial spark is most often very unique to the individual and the moment. For me, the spark comes from the story that I wrote for Sojourn V2. The whole story revolves around the decisions and the fate of someone called the Dreamt Myriad (I don’t know what that means but it sounds cool). In the story the Dreamt Myriad is the foretold hero and champion of the Western Kingdoms who is destined to save the world. He is the head of the church, king of kings, and champion of the people. The idea is tried and true in fantasy fiction and I was drawing upon my nostalgia for books like the Belgariad by David Eddings. The story concerns the Dreamt Myriad as he mistakenly trusts the leader of the Eastern Kingdoms, a man whose position mirrors his own, a man called Tybrin, and thus dooms the Western Kingdoms. That is the cliff-notes version. Hopefully when you read the story in Sojourn V2 you will see the nuances that I thread into the story.

Now worldbuilding, at its heart, is all about making decisions. Macro decisions like “will this world be a literal flat earth” to micro decisions like “what is the economy of this dwarf village?” When you start making a world there are so many questions and so many decisions that you can start to feel overwhelmed. What are the religions? Are they monotheistic or polytheistic? Are the religions tolerant or intolerant? Are the gods real? How involved are the gods? What are the holy scriptures? Are women allowed to be priestesses? What is the preferred weapon for the clerics in my world? When you make a world, question begets question at a frightening rate?

Sometimes when starting out a new world I have gotten shell-shocked by the sheer amount of questions I had to answer to start laying the foundations of the world. Even when I started answering the the huge pile of questions I felt wrong when I did it. My decisions felt arbitrary and contradictory and I feared that in the future my decision were going to lead me into a creative dead end. Over the years of writing and worldbuilding I have developed a useful solution to solve this anxiety. The solution is to go back to my original idea, the spark that got me thinking about the world in the first place. If you examine your inspiration, often a large majority of the questions will fall into place.

Let’s use my world as an example. One decision that I struggled to make was whether the tone of my world was going to be nihilistic or romantic. What I mean by the word “tone” is how the world feels emotional. So was this going to be a romantic world where heroes are heroes and villains are villains. Or was this going to be like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones where heroes are killed and the villains are rewarded for their cunning? This was a dilemma for me because I love both. I love the sheer emotional power  of romanticism! Those are the stories that just lift you off your feet and take you towards the adventure. Star Wars is a great example of unabashed romanticism and one of my personal favorites. On the other hand I love the complexity and the thought-inducing quality of nihilistic stories (I could not really decide on the correct term, a more apt term would be “postmodern” but that word is as loaded as a revolver so I decided to just go with nihilistic). I love both of them and if you forced me to choose the only real deciding factor would be the side of the bed I woke up on that day.

But if I go back to my inspiration as a guide, the decision becomes clearer. For my story I wanted the Dreamt Myriad to be the real deal. I didn’t want him to be a fraud or a buffoon. I wanted to show that even if one is chosen by prophecy then you can still mess everything up. I wanted to explore the idea that even the best of people can screw everything up for legitimate reasons (not because they are idiots or bastards). And in order to buffer that idea then the prophecies have to be true. And if the prophecies are true then most likely the tone is romantic.

There are no hard and fast rule. It is very possible that I could still have a nihilistic tone and then subvert that by having one prophecy, in a world of crack-pot prophecies, that can be the only true prophecy. That would still work and be beneficial to my goals. I decided upon the former simply because of personal preference. Your creativity will become enhanced tenfold the moment you break the unconscious box that you have erected around your work (I’ll talk more about this idea in future posts). The thing to understand about this process is that going back to your inspiration is not a way to find definitive answers. But the glorious thing that it does do is turns an arbitrary decision into an actual decision.

For my next installment I am going to figure out the major conflict in my world and decide what is it these Eastern and Western Kingdoms are fighting about. And if it will devolve into a snap fight like in West Side Story.

What’s a Sirini?

I’ve been invited to do author interviews in a few places, so I don’t want to steal any thunder from the questions they’ve sent me.  But there’s one question I’ve been asked by several readers that hasn’t come up in the interviews.

The story I wrote for Sojourn‘s first volume, Surviving Sunset, deals with a pair of teenage girls trying to adapt to life under alien invasion and occupation.  I’ve done quite a bit to develop the universe where that story takes place, and I’ll be visiting it again in future installments of the anthology (though likely not in the next volume).

The aliens menacing these girls are the Sirini.  They’re not an evil race, even if they are the antagonists in this particular story.  I hope to show the complexity of their culture and motivations later, but in this article I want to deal with a more basic question: What the heck is a Sirini?

The race’s name is pronounced [SEER-in-ee].  If you say the phrase, “beer in knee,” you’re basically there.  (Though if you actually have that issue, you should probably seek medical help.)  Oddly enough, every person I’ve talked to has mispronounced the name the exact same way — [sir-IN-ee] — so maybe they’re onto something.

Sirini are intelligent, cultured, and physically imposing beings, though they lack our overall agility.  They stand about 9 feet (2.75 meters) tall and are roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) across.  I doodled out the race’s appearance back in 1997.  However, Keith Curtis did an amazing job of helping me really figure this species out, literally starting from the inside.

Sirini-SkeletonThe Sirini skeleton is designed with the major organs sitting in a saucer-shaped bone near the top of the body.  Rib-like structures offer some protection while leaving enough gaps for the tissue to stretch during respiration and digestion.  Since the brain sits below the heart — and the legs have a lot of muscle tissue — I imagine their blood pressure being rather high.

Sirini-MusclesAfter putting that together, he started adding soft tissue to the design, as you can see with the addition of muscles, trachea, and esophagus.  We talked about the brain being potentially divided into two hemispheres that are coordinated by a lot less tissue than we have between ours.

sirini_small_transparentThe finished art put everything in place.

The only clothing they typically wear is a stole on the front-left leg.  Its color indicates their philosophical inclinations (much like a human’s religious pendant).  The three patterns are constellations that represent a Sirini’s birth circumstances (bottom), social role (middle), and personality (top).  I suppose it’s something like reverse astrology — they dip into the constellations they’ve assigned meaning to, evaluate an individual, and then decide which ones best describe you.

The primary role of the stole is to help Sirini understand each other at a glance.  If you were trained to interpret them, you would immediately have some idea what a Sirini believes, their childhood history, their areas of expertise, and their notable personality traits.  As you can guess, Sirini have a much more open culture than we do, skipping the small talk and lengthy trust-building that would precede most humans disclosing that sort of information.

If you want to see any of the art in more detail, you can click the pictures to see them in higher resolution.