Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's That Time of Year For Me

The year is coming to a close and it's time to sit down and reflect on how it's all gone. Frankly, I've had a fantastic year. It didn't always feel like it at the time, but that's what hindsight is for, right? This year I published my epic fantasy novel A Sign in Blood, and put out two short story collections, All Claws and All Souls. My novella Getting Ahead was accepted to MuseItUp Publishing, and I got some fantastic rejections. (Writers always understand what I mean when I say that. It's a pretty much unique to us, though. :-D Trying to explain "good rejections" to non-writer friends is always interesting.)

I wrote... Less than I wanted to, but when isn't that the case? I've got a double handful of short stories I need to finish up in the coming year, as well as two revived novels to edit, one novel to second draft, and one novel that still needs a finished first draft. I didn't finish NaNo, but I did get about 25,000 words. And I moved home.

Just that last item is huge. We had to leave after Katrina and our long, strange odyssey was... Well, long and strange. Getting back here might have been accomplishment enough, but getting A Sign in Blood out there, getting All Claws and All Souls out, and getting a start on Getting Ahead, has been wonderful.

And that's still not all. I've written some good words, researched some fantastic topics, and--best of all--made (and become reacquainted with) some fantastic friends!

So, I hope all of you out there have a wonderful holiday season if you celebrate (whatever you celebrate), and a wonderful end of the year if you don't. One way or another, I also hope next year rocks twice as much for all of us!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Writing: Action Scenes: Group Movement

A common issue I see in action scenes (and in general) is a tendency toward group movement, wherein characters are all grouped together and move in synchronicity. They do the same things, are identified by the same adjectives and adverbs, and generally behave as a group rather than a set of individuals. Now, this isn’t always a problem. There are some instances where it can be an effective technique, but in action scenes it can drain your story of tension.

For example:

The mask-clad figures closed in, reaching for Sarah, Jane, and Smith. Smith and the others stumbled back. He shouted, but the figures didn't even slow. Their masked faces hid their expressions, but their eyes were cold and hard.

While this expedites the process of describing the action, it also takes away a lot of the character and the potential for tension, and the description and details which can really make an action scene. Because the attackers are written as a group, you can only be so specific about what actions they take. Unless all three attackers grab the wrists of all three defenders, which feels artificial, you can't delve into the details. Writing the scene this way steals its thunder.

Consider the scene written with more individual characters:

The mask-clad figures closed in, one reaching for Smith's hand. He shouted, stumbling back. One of them grabbed his wrist and he tried to yank himself free. The attacker squeezed hard enough to bruise, his eyes cold though his mask hid the subtleties of his expression.

You can be more detailed this way, and while we don't have the details of what Sarah and Jane are doing, if we're in Smith's POV, it's more likely that he'd be aware of what was happening to him and fuzzier on what was happening to the others.

However, group description isn't always a bad option, but like most things it needs to be employed at the right moment. For instance, if your POV character only has a few seconds to take in what's happening, and there's not a lot of movement or description involved.

Jane looked out the window, her eyes fixing on the mask-clad figures as they stood still and silent beneath the streetlight. She turned back into the room, already running.

In this instance the figures can constitute a group because there isn't anything to distinguish when, or time for Jane to notice any but the most obvious details.

Another reason for this kind of description is the desire to communicate everything that's going on, but action scenes are best when the reader can feel the fear or tension or excitement of the characters. The best way to accomplish that is to focus in on the details, on individual characters and their feelings and actions at the time.

It's all right if the reader doesn't know exactly what happened with Smith and Jane, if the POV character is Sarah. It's fine to sum things up with them, but you have to immerse the reader in what's happening with Sarah. For instance:

Sarah stalked up behind the masked figures. One of the men was demanding that Smith or Jane reveal her location, and Sarah used the shouting to cover the sound of her footfalls. Her heart pounded in her chest, so loud she felt sure the closest figure had to hear it. She tightened her grip on her gun, taking a deep steadying breath as she pressed it to back of the figure's neck.

"Not a word," she whispered, her lips all but pressed to the shell of his ear. The man stiffened, the tendons in his neck tight enough to string a violin, but he said nothing.

For most of this bit we have no idea what's happening with Jane and Smith, and we don't know exactly what's being said to them. Sarah's actions are what's important, as well as how she's performing them and how she feels about them. That's what draws the reader into the scene. Jane's and Smith's reactions and situation can be given a moment later, through Sarah's POV. For instance:

Sarah looked up and caught Smith's gaze. Smith looked back to the figure in front of him before he could give her away. Jane stood glaring at the masked leader, her eyes blazing as she spat at him, unaware of Sarah's rescue.

That's a bit stiff, but you get the point. When a group of characters move as one, you lose the opportunity to provide details. That’s not to say you should never use it, of course. Group movement can be wonderful way to communicate a lack of individuality among the characters. It can be used to create the sense of a group mind, or lack of individual will. I’ve also seen it used effectively in love scenes in which the details were meant to be glossed over and what was important was the emotion of the moment.

The important thing to remember is that it’s a trade off. Details, especially personal character-related ones, draw the reader in. So, if you’re going for tension, as with an action scene, specificity is often the best choice.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 6

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Truth vs Fiction

There are a lot of things that we see on TV or read in books that is just there because we think it should be. TV and movie sword fights especially have this problem because the visual nature of the media sticks in our minds. We think, "Well, they're two actual people with more-or-less actual swords, so that must be what it really looks like when two people with swords go at it." Well, we're wrong. TV and movie swordfights are all choreography, they're just as prone to the myths of sword play as book writers, and they play to what they think will look good, even when that's not what would or should happen.

Actual sword fights are much quicker and sleeker than what we see in television. Far too often, soldiers on TV are hitting their opponent's sword, and the opponent is hitting their sword in return. This makes no sense because the point is to hit the opponent. Blocking a blow is one thing, but when a strike is clearly intended for an opponent sword, it gives the sword wielder nothing. They've wasted movement and momentum on a strike that will mostly likely be pointless. Now, I can think of a few instances where it might be worth it to strike an opponent's blade, but most of them are more suited to a training session, or a soldier facing a weaker opponent that they don't want to hurt, but want to dissuade from attacking. The point is that, in a TV sword fight, striking for the opponent's blade is less likely to get the actors hurt, but in a real sword fight, someone getting hurt is generally the goal.

Also in TV sword fights we often see two soldiers locked in combat, pressing into one another as if they can't move any other way but forward. However, swords pivot around one another, slide against one another, and there's no reason to stay in a clench like that when you have a range of movement.

This can be a difficult point to visualize (I actually broke out the mop and broom and had the fiancé help me figure out the physics of the position), but imagine the scene for a moment. Two soldiers (A and B), pressing together in that clench. Soldier A will be the one taking action here, but in reality either Soldier A or B could do these things, further complicating the dynamics of the sword fight.

Soldier A's blade meets Soldier B's at one small point of contact, but there is still a lot of blade that is not in contact. Why simply push forward when Soldier A could turn their blade along Soldier B's, bringing it right into Soldier B's face? Not only that, but when Soldier A turns their sword, Soldier B's forward momentum carries them forward without Soldier A. This could put Soldier B off balance, but even if it doesn't Soldier A now has an opening to strike at Soldier B's side or back. Or, if their blades remain in contact when Soldier A turns, pushing from the side could throw Soldier B to the ground. In addition, Soldier B's legs are open to kicking/tripping because they can't defend the blow (too close quarters, sword and momentum engaged). Soldier A could also move backward, retreating to reset or to engage again from a different angle, or spin back and to the side, creating moment for a blow to Soldier B's back.

If an opponent is pushing their weight forward, their momentum carries them forward once the obstacle moves. So, a soldier is more likely to move to either side or backward than commit to a clench that offers them no advantage.

In TV and movies, you also see a lot of edge on edge contact. While such contact isn't always avoidable it's nonetheless a bad thing. It can nick and dull a sword's edge and swords are more likely to break if the edge is used to parry a blow. The flat of the blade is generally the best bet when it comes to blocking because it distributes the force of the blow, allowing it to dissipate along the length of the blade. Edges are such a small area of contact, that damage is more likely and the blow's force is more focused, allowing it to do more damage.

In closing, remember that, when writing swordplay, you usually don't want or need a blow by blow description. There may be times--particularly tense and/or important battle scenes--where you approach that, but it's the important moments that matter most in the writing. The moments when Soldier A almost goes down, or Soldier B gets in a strike, or when the momentum of the battle changes in one direction or the other. So, while it's important to have an understanding of the actual physics involved, you don't have to understand or describe every single moment of a given combat sequence. Just pay attention to the moments you do describe so that you can make them the best that they can be.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Yes, I Am Still Alive...

Hello all! I know I've basically disappeared from the face of the internet, so I thought I'd take a few moments while I can to let you all know that I'm still alive! The move to New Orleans became complicated, as such things do. On the drive here we were stuck for three hours in a traffic jam caused by an overturned cucumber truck! It sounds like a joke, right? As my lovely and witty friend Leslie said, we were in quite a pickle. :-D

Anyway, we finally made it home (and it is SO GOOD to be home! I really cannot tell you how much I missed New Orleans!) and things were further complicated by the fact that the modem and internet service we signed up for in Austin (which we were GUARANTEED would work just the same in New Orleans) doesn't work at all here. *sigh* Then, we moved into our awesome new apartment (which we both totally love) and found out that the old building (which is part of why it's awesome) is only partially wired for cable and internet services. I know, right? So, we're looking into options and figuring things out when OUR HEATER BLOWS! *Looks skyward* Did I offend someone up there? I'm REALLY sorry. Can I have heat and internet now, please? It's actually pretty cold here.

Luckily, my aforementioned wonderful friend is letting me come over to her place and sponge her Wi-Fi. Awesome, right? So, I'm online for the moment and I think there are some places around the new apartment that offer wi-fi, so I'll be on more often in the future. It will still be spotty, but it's better than never hearing from me... Right? Right? Guys? You still love me, right? :-D

Well, one way or another, you'll be seeing me around more often! I'm going to try to get the next (and final! Er, for now.) Swords and Swordplay post up by Saturday, Wednesday at the latest, and then I've got a post on writing action scenes and one on creating magic systems. There are a few others brewing, but we'll have to wait to see which bubbles to the surface first, you know?