Project Sumter

Starting on next Monday, October 1st, I’ll be posting weekly installments of the novel I’ve been working on for the past four or five months, so I suppose it’s time I talked about it some. So let’s start at the beginning: It’s called Heat Wave, and it’s the first of the Project Sumter files.

So what is Project Sumter?

Put simply, its the federal government’s talent management division. No, it’s not an agency for wannabe singers, actors and songwriters. It’s the semi-secret governmental organization dedicated to monitoring and enforcing the law among people with what we would call superpowers.

Its been a long time since the Project was inaugurated, longer still since the very first government sanctioned talent took to the field at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln. But in all that time its been a firm policy of the government to never coerce the talented people it knows of and to do their best to afford them all rights of normal citizens.

Unfortunately, sometimes Project Sumter finds itself confronted with people who are determined to flout the laws of the land using their talents as enablers. And when that happens, the Project’s own talented agents and their highly trained supervisors and support teams step to the forefront. This is their story.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of changes that an ambitious man with a lot of talent of the normal and unusual kinds might want to effect in modern society. A man with the vision, skills and organization to make things happen could go a long way. People might even rally behind him, rise up and try to effect their changes through force. Maybe because they think it’s their right, maybe because they think it’s the only way. This is their story as well.

Project Sumter, like most law enforcement agencies, has a very simple mission statement: Serve and Protect.

Revolution has a very simple objective as well: Change, whatever the cost.

Heat Wave is not the story of their struggle. No, that might be as inevitable as the Civil War that spawned Project Sumter, but the time for that struggle is not yet.

Before every conflict a breaking point is reached. Sometimes its the last straw on the camel’s back. Sometimes its the steady dripping of water that finally drives you insane. Sometimes it’s the slow charing that finally burns through a cord or burns down a fuse.

And then the heat is on for real.

Cool Things: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible is an adventure novel of a different stripe. Once upon a time, comic books were considered a very lowbrow form of entertainment. Thin plots were often called “comic book plots” by literary, theater and movie critics.

However, comic books have tried their hardest to grow out of their stigma. To some extent, they have succeeded. Grossman’s book is one example of that success. The plot revolves around supervillain Dr. Impossible and the superheroes who try to catch and imprison him in the absence of his archrival, CoreFire.

Grossman takes great pains to sketch his characters are real, believable people rather than the cardboard cutouts that are so often associate with comic books, fairly or unfairly. The result is a superhero story with a great deal of believable characters, if not a whole lot of believable wardrobe. Not that that’s a pet peeve of mine or anything.*

Invincible focuses on two characters, Dr. Impossible, the “villain” and the “hero” Fatale, a part of the superhero alliance dedicated to brining the good doctor down. Both characters are more a ball of psychoses than functional humans but, as Grossman points out, the events that bring them their abilities almost demand that.

While Soon I Will Be Invincible makes great strides towards believable characters it does suffer some from its close attention to comic book tropes. For one thing, high magic, high technology and even stranger powers all exist together with little attempt at a rational for their existence or function. For the most part that’s forgivable, because all fantasy and sci-fi rationalizations eventually boil down to just so stories. As Ben Aaronovitch puts it, “pixie dust, or quantum entanglement, which is the same thing except with quantum in it.”

Perhaps a bigger difficulty is the constant intrusion of back story into the book. Modern comic books are frequently based on characters that have been around for four or five decades, if not more, with immense backstories that readers are often expected to be fairly familiar with. Grossman tries to duplicate that feel by building a great deal of backstory into even minor characters, unfortunately sometimes it makes the plot drag a bit.  Since the long life span of modern comic book characters is now one of the biggest barriers to entry into the medium, I’m not really sure why it would be something one would want to duplicate.

On the whole, though, Soon I Will Be Invincible does a great job of combining the fun of comic books with the realistic characters of hardcover fiction. Further, it has served for a sort of template for some of my own writing. And that makes it this weeks cool thing.

 

*Edna Mode fans unite!

Trial By Fire

Sooner or later, life gets hard. It’s the way of the world. You can’t get out of it, and how you respond is part of what makes you who and what you are. It’s in the hardest times that you have to show what you’re made of. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, fiction focuses on times of conflict and difficulty in the lives of its characters.

The people you see in a story, the heroes and villains, the protagonists and antagonists, show you who and what you could be. In some ways, they are set to destroy one another. It’s that possibility that brings tension to the story, makes it gripping and makes you pay attention.

But at the same time, its very rare for destruction to be what people want. Once again, verisimilitude rears its head. Most people don’t want to be destroyers, they want to be creators. Unfortunately, both are a part of our nature. In the struggle of conflicting goals and ideas, either can result. A person can do a great deal of both in a single story, to say nothing of a full lifetime.

The result is a dynamic as familiar as story and song themselves. Sometimes, when people pass through conflict they find on the other side that the people they’ve struggled with have made them stronger and better. The book of Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another.” While they may not thank their adversary for the lessons they’ve learned, they are still the better for them.

Crucibles purify gold and men alike.

I have always been fascinated by the dynamic between protagonist and antagonist, and I’m far from the only one. Lots of people have tackled the issue. There’s even have a particular term for the relationship between people who don’t hate each other, but can’t help fighting from time to time: “frenimies”. (Also, marriage, although that implies a closer relationship.)

Next week I hope to kick off a story that examines exactly how people change during conflict. The struggles we work through are not just circumstances or unfortunate happenstance, they are a chance to grow. We may not like it or want it, but if we want to really become the people we’re meant to be, we’ll have to seek that growth.

Because when iron strikes iron, the sparks will fly. And if we’re unlucky enough, the sparks will catch, and the sharpening of iron can become a trial by fire. Whether we come out tempered or broken will depend on what we’re made of.

The Glory of Edits

Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that a large percentage of what we do is actually editing. The exact ratio varies from writer to writer, but it’s always more than 50%, usually more than 75%. Editing is something that needs to happen in order for us to do our best work.

Think of a first draft as a kind of experiment. You come up with an idea and write it all out as fast as possible, sometimes going so far as to ignore basic things like spelling errors or blatantly bad grammar (I’m not one of those writers, I tend to be kind of compulsive about squishing the red squiggly lines, but perhaps you are.) Then you sit back and look at the actual text you have an compare it to the idea that inspired it. How’d that turn out for you?

If you’re anything like me, not too great. Unfortunately, that’s the way of the world. Somewhere between the primordial idea soup of your imagination and the harsh reality of solid state digital memory a lot of the vividness and life in your ideas has a tendency to bleed out.

Now sometimes you have very helpful aids to keep your writing on course. Some authors assemble photographs of celebrities who bear a resemblance to their characters, or keep actual objects they intend to write into their stories sitting on shelves in their rooms. Visiting locations and taking pictures of buildings or rooms is another big help.

But at some point writing is about your ability to put word to page and make others see what you thought. It doesn’t have to be a perfect copy, because you’re never going to get that. But a close approximation is always nice.

So you edit. Go over your writing carefully. If possible, get another set of eyes to look at it. Do everything you can to make sure the words you write and the ideas in mind match.

Editing is hard work, and sometimes it can seem to create as many problems as it solves. Finding the right pacing, the right words, the right sentence structure and the right flow of story can be daunting at times. Often, after looking over a first draft there can be an overwhelming compulsion to take the whole manuscript and throw it in the trashcan (or at least the digital recycling bin.)

Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do. But often times, if you take the time, you’ll find that what you wind up with was worth the effort.

I hope that you’ll find the story I’ve been writing and editing at least makes a decent effort at finding the kind of writing that engages you. If you’re wondering exactly what kind of story it will be, well, be sure to come back next week! I’ll be writing about what inspired the story. Then, a week from next Monday, we’ll kick things off.

Cool Things: Chilling Stones

Okay, this one doesn’t take up nearly as much head space as the last few weeks. Chilling rocks are pieces of carved stone, usually soapstone. They function in a fairly simple fashion. You put them in your freezer, then you put them in your drink. Your drink stays cold, but doesn’t taste nasty due to melting ice!

They average between ten and twenty dollars and can be found fairly easily from a variety of online retailers. Most of ’em look something like this:

So what’s so great about these babies?

The possibilities, my friend, the possibilities. Dropping ice down someone’s shirt used to be a simple, juvenile prank that left water all over the place and was a pain to clean up. Now you can just slip one of these babies down the shirt and once the show’s over pop it back in the freezer! No fuss, no mess, quality entertainment!

If that’s not sophisticated enough for you, you can take the whole mess and sit them in someone’s shoe for ten minutes or so, just before you leave the house. Dump ’em out just before you leave then enjoy a new variation on the classic hot-foot prank! Just be sure to wash those boys off before you put them back in the freezer. No telling where those shoes have been.

Most people know better than to go licking a flag pole in the middle of winter, but they’ll never see one of these rocks coming the first time around. Plus, there’s no standing around for fifteen minutes while someone heats up water to melt them off, just wait a few minutes and it should fall off on its own. Previous comments about washing the rocks applies to this stunt as well.

Of course, you can always use them for scotch “on the rocks” as well. But really, the strange appeal of chill rocks comes from their incredible versatility. Put your mind to it and I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with plenty of creative uses for your little portable chunks of winter.

Heroes and Villains

So there are people we call heroes and people we call villians, and no matter how enlightened and insightful we claim to be, we can’t seem to get away from those labels. So how do we decide which is which?

In the old days, it was white hats and black hats. The good guys dressed so we could recognize them, they were polite to the ladies and they could always stand up to the bad guys no matter how bad the odds. The bad guys, on the other hand, were cowards and lechers. Their wardrobe was just as obvious.

It happened most in Westerns, when everyone wore hats. It worked in gangster movies for much the same reasons. Or look at that great of classic movies, Casablanca. Rick and Victor Lazlo are almost always shown in a white suit, while Major Strasser appears in the traditional black uniform.

But in no medium have heroes and villains been more clear cut than comic books. With every character wearing brilliantly colored costumes that make them easy to identify, villains and heroes were never so clear cut as in the golden age of comics.

Today, people have taken great pleasure in blurring the lines between heroes and villains. To an extent that’s a good thing, because it forwards verisimilitude, or how realistic fiction is. Realistic fiction is good fiction, because it’s more likely to last a long time.

For an example of this, look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (or Emma or Sense and Sensibility). In spite of the fact that few modern readers can sympathize with the lives of young daughters of English landed gentry, the books continue to resonate with readers and, in fact, be very funny. Why? Because Austen was an astute observer of human nature, and her larger than life characters reflect people we ourselves know.

However, her central characters are riddled with flaws – Mr. Darcy’s pride, Elizabeth Bennet’s snap judgements, Emma’s inability to understand the intentions of many of the people she meets. This doesn’t make them weaker characters, it makes them more believable ones.

The problem with modern fiction is that it has a tendency to go too far. Central characters in many stories are now self-centered anti-heroes, or cowards who stumble to heroism entirely by circumstance, deliberately shying away from the character traits that life and experience tell us makes people good for themselves and their communities. This is just as lacking in verisimilitude as the white hat-black hat attitude embodied in the old western.

All too often the attitudes that fiction show us make us more fragile and disconnected human beings. Maybe it’s time to push back. If you drop all that in the fire and cook it good, what comes out?

Care to have a look and see?

Make Work

A huge part of writing is finding the time to sit down and write on a daily basis.

It’s harder than you think. Ever tried to keep a daily diary for any length of time? It’s really hard work. Of course, you can make excuses for yourself, because if you’re anything like me you probably have a very boring day to day existence.

Got up this morning, ate toast with peanut butter, got dressed, went to work. Yay.

See writing isn’t just sitting down and trying to find five hundred or so words* to say. You have to find five hundred or so interesting words to say. And then you may want to check to make sure they have great rhythm, sparkling wit and poetic overtones if you have any ambitions of standing out of the crowd.

Like any skill set, that doesn’t just happen. I’m sorry to say that it takes a lot of work, the kind of careful repetition and constant mistakes that you’ll only be willing to put up with if you’re really dedicated to the craft. It’s one of those things that prompt writers to smile tolerantly when people say they’ve decided to write a book. Those poor fools, we think, they have no idea what they’ve signed up for. I wonder if they’ll make it through?

It often feels like make work, because half the stuff you crank out you realize almost instantly will never be fit to be seen by others, unless, of course, you’re trying to convince them that everyone makes mistakes. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever tried any kind of serious writing, the kind that aspires to something besides a B+ in a college course you don’t really care about. It’s the kind of writing that, no matter how hard you go over it, will never yield value comparable to what you invested in it.

It’s a lot like athletics. No one cares how many times you post a four minute mile, that’s not a real achievement anymore. But unless you can do that, you’ll never get anywhere close to posting a time that counts in competitive cross-country running.

I want to assure you that I don’t view what I publish here as make work. I take everything I do here very seriously, just like an athlete in training. But just like an athlete, I’m not always going to be in top form. While I’ve got lead time and the power to edit my work, and I’m trying to keep ahead a few weeks and to allow for unexpected events, I’m pretty sure I’m still going to post some downright bad stuff from time to time.

Hopefully you’ll stick it out anyway. It’s not easy to write fiction that is both fun and thoughtful, but I want to do it well. Things kick off on October 1st, and I hope you’ll tune in and let me know how I’m doing.

 

*When I first wrote this sentence it said, “five hundred words or so” instead of “five hundred or so words”. Fortunately I caught and changed the wording in a clear example of the kind of exciting editorial decisions writers must make on a daily basis.