Overdoing It

One thing that authors rarely think about when writing a piece of fiction is how long they want their story to be. That’s a mistake.

Now on the face of it, that seems off. After all, a story should be allowed to grow to its full extent, shouldn’t it? Rather than worry about your short story’s word count or spending a lot of time stressing about how many pages your novel is, shouldn’t you be doing everything you can to make sure that your story is as strong and interesting as you can make it?

Of course you should! That’s why you need to do everything you can to keep your story from being too long.

You see, part of being an author is loving what you write. If you didn’t love it, there’s no way you’d spend hours and hours slaving over it, after all. And part of loving something is the ever-present temptation to indulge it. To talk about it constantly. To let it do whatever it wants, not whatever is best for it. In short, you can overdo it.

Have you ever met one of those people who only talks about one thing? Their job, their kids, their blog, their six-years-and-running D&D campaign? If you have, you know that even if that subject interests you at first, there’s only so long you can sit and listen to it before it becomes boring. Now, depending on how interested you are in that subject and how interesting the person telling you about it is, it might take you a while to reach the point where you’ve had enough, and it will definitely influence how likely you are to come back for more, but the key point here is you don’t ever want to let a story run so long that readers loose interest. Ask yourself how long you would let the premise of your story keep you attention, then, if your story looks like it’s going to run longer, find parts of it to cut.

You have to be ruthless about this, because even when you’re doing your best to write with the most elegance and the least waste possible, you’re likely to find yourself running much longer than you expected to. Both Heat Wave and my previous writing project (which I may talk about more in the future) have run away from me with surprising speed. Heat Wave is shaping up to be about 10,000 words longer than I originally expected it to be, and I’ve only included about 80-90% of the material I had originally hoped to use.

Now that doesn’t mean I’m scrapping all that. I talked about nonlinear writing a while back and one of the things I’ve discovered the more you do that kind of thing the more willing it makes you to take material originally intended for one story and transplant it into another. You may wind up writing whole scenes that contain great ideas or fantastic dialog but aren’t directly related to what goes on in your story.  Save them for another story with the same characters. Or even different characters.

Have background on your characters that the reader doesn’t need to know just yet? Hold on to it for a later story where it will immediately important. That will give it more impact, because your reader sees both actions in the past and their consequences in the present in the same story. That improves both your writing now, as it removes extraneous detail for you readers to keep track of, and gives you a leg up on future projects.

Finally, trimming all that extra stuff keeps you within the bounds of the Law of Conservation of Detail. We’re busy people, who only have so much time to keep track of things. Do your readers a favor and keep how much stuff they need to track to a minimum and they’ll love your writing for it. Your stories will be slimmer, trimmer and more memorable than if you just let them run all over the place, and the ideas you’ve had to cut will be glad to have more time and space to develop themselves more fully, too.

I know that this is a hard area for me to practice what I preach. I love the extra details, the hints at the bigger picture, the long running threads that only bear fruit with time. But sometimes serving your story’s best interests isn’t a whole lot of fun for you as an author.The results are well worth it, though.

P.S. – This is a link to a review of Under the Dome by Steven King, which illustrates what I’m talking about from the reader’s perspective. That review was posted after I wrote this post, and I didn’t want to try and kludge it in in some awkward way, so I’ve just appended it here.

Cool Things: Girl Genius

And we’re back here with Steampunk month on Cool Things, bringing you another week of coal-fired goodness. This week’s theme: Steampunk Illustrated!

I can only be talking about Phil and Kaja Foglio’s amazing steampunk comic Girl Genius. Unlike many of the things I’ve been geeking about on this blog, Girl Genius is a genuine web-based property, meaning that by following the link I’ve provided you’ll be able to read the entire saga of Agatha Clay as she traverses Europa in a saga of adventure, romance and mad science.

Of course, your time is precious and you may not want to invest the kind of time necessary to get current on a story that has been updating regularly, three times a week, for over a decade. So what is it that sets Agatha’s tale apart from the rest?

For starters, there’s the sense of humor. Steampunk, being mostly rooted in the culture and moors of Victorian England, is not exactly known for it’s laugh-a-minute soundtrack. But Girl Genius spices up it’s Victorian setting and themes with excellent, vaudevillean banter, well timed comeuppances and hilarious sight gags that, odd as it may seem to say about a static medium, are executed with expert timing. The expressions of the characters alone is worth the price of admission, or at least the time invested.

The world of Girl Genius is exceptional too. Europa is very much a parallel to Europe of the past, but rather than being ruled by nations the continent is ruled by sparks, people with the touch of madness that makes them phenomenal mad scientists, among other things. Baron Klaus Wolfenbach is one of the most powerful sparks around, and he collects lesser sparks and channels their studies into avenues that are less likely than most to result in disaster or discomfort for the common man. The eponymous Girl Genius is Agatha Clay, one such spark who has to find her way in the increasingly treacherous world of the Baron and his son without loosing her life or her sanity. The inventions of the sparks are funny and original, and are beautifully illustrated in ways that are both impressive and whimsical.

But most endearing are the characters, from the somewhat shy Agatha to her dim but enthusiastic Jaeger sidekicks, the brooding Baron and his brash son, even Agatha’s small, clockwork robots show more personality than you will find in many titles from DC or Marvel. Whether you’re looking for someone to root for or root against, Girl Genius has what you want.

And on top of all that you can add:

Check it out. You might find you like it.

Heat Wave: Fire Drill

Helix

The alley outside of Firehouse 10 was still full of puddles from the fire hoses. You would think, with a firehouse being occupied by some of the best people in the county for fighting fires, that the building might have gotten through the blaze mostly unharmed. And under normal circumstances you might be right.

The half-melted, charred wreck of a fire engine that I could see inside the firehouse’s garage gave a hint at why that might not be the case this time around. A firefighter is frequently only as good as his equipment, and fire isn’t something people are well equipped to fight with his bare hands.

Normally.

Still, the firehouse was a big place, with enough room in the garage for eight engines, and it looked like only one was a total loss. Two more were parked out front, surrounded by firefighters carefully checking and packing away their gear. I managed to gather that much just walking past the front of the building on my way to the alley where Agent Verger said Al Massif was at the moment. I left Jack and Herrera, who was still dressed as a thrift store shopper and probably not being taken as seriously as she’d like, with the arson investigators while Kesselman and Bergstrum were on the prowl for signs of Circuit. And they say I have no situational awareness.

It was an average place, as far as alleys go, about wide enough for one and a half people and full of the kind of junk you’d expect: cardboard boxes, plastic bags full of things best left to the imagination, potted plants desperately clinging to life and the rusting bottoms of old fire escapes just overhead. Leftover heat from the fire pressed down on the alley and walking into it was a lot like walking downhill, except the ground was level. Which probably doesn’t make as much sense as it might if you felt the world around you like I do.

Once upon a time there had been a chain-link fence across the mouth of the alley, but now it was bunched in a twisted mess on one side of the alley. I probably would have just melted the padlock off of the gate and left the rest of the fence intact, but it looked like the Firestarter, or the Enchanter or whatever you wanted to call him, was growing more destructive over time. Typical arsonist behavior, no matter how you’re starting your fires.

I found Massif crouched on his haunches, running his hand lightly along the edges of a two foot hole in the concrete wall. A plastic trashcan sat against the wall a few feet away. If the trail it had left in the muck on the ground was any indication, it had started out right in front of where Al was crouched suggesting the Firestarter might have used it for cover while melting his way through the firehouse walls. As a courtesy, I pulled up against the heat in the area, sending much of it sliding out into the street, then held it steady somewhere around the eighty degree mark. Not only would that make things a little cooler, it would make it easier for Massif to make sense of what was going on.

Massif is a vector shift, and that means seeing the world in a much different way than your average joe. Of course, that’s true of pretty much all talents, from Amplifier’s super hearing to my ability to “feel” heat in unusual ways, most talents see or hear or feel the world in ways much different than normal. Trying to describe it to a normal person, or even to another talent who’s gifts lie in a different direction, is really an exercise in futility.

But I did know that people like Agent Massif and his ilk don’t just see an object, they see how it’s moving. And air is moving all the time, in no small part due to heat, so for a vector shift day to day living is an adventure in sensory overload, kind of like walking around drunk all the time. Massif once mentioned that I was a lot more stable looking than most people because I regulate the temperature of the air around me and the farther I expand that influence the easier it is for him to see what’s going on. As self-centered as it sounds, I’m not sure how he gets by when I’m not around, which is most of the time. I do know Agent Verger has to drive him around because he’s not safe behind the wheel.

Needless to say, Massif noticed the change in the air around him immediately and jumped to his feet, looking around with a grim expression. Since he was at the site of an arson started by a guy with my talent, that was an understandable reaction. His expression cleared as soon as he saw me, though, and he lumbered over and wrapped me in an bear hug that set my ribs creaking.

“Helix! Glad you’re here.”

I’m not a very touchy-feely person but I still resisted the urge to pry myself out of the hug. Al may be disgustingly tall and good looking to boot, but for whatever reason he decided he was my friend even though I’m the one who figured out he was talented and roped him into this job. Any person who puts up with you for more than two or three years and can still smile every time he sees you is a rare thing, and they’re worth a little work to keep happy.

So I pounded Massif on the back once or twice, enough to satisfy whatever standards of male affection he subscribed to, and did my best to hold my breath until he let go.

Once I was out I said, “Looks like you’re in a real mess this time around, Massif.”

“It’s not my kind of thing, that’s for sure.” He waved his hand at the firehouse. “This is the work of a real nutcase. It looks like he went straight through the wall and hit the firetruck just inside – cooked it up until the gas tank blew.”

I knelt down and peered through the wall. Sure enough, the blackened chassis of the firetruck that I’d seen before was just a dozen feet or so beyond. I craned my neck way back to look at Al. “You know, I’m not an expert on the subject since I’m usually discouraged from cranking up the temperature around anything that runs on petroleum, but I wouldn’t think one truck’s gas tank could set fire to this building.” I stood and took a step back and looked down the wall which, sure enough, still looked to be solid concrete. “Sure, one or two trucks might catch, but why start the fire here?”

“They think the Firestarter used some kind of accelerant this time around,” Massif said. “Looks like he had some more gas cans with him, stacked them by the wall so they’d catch and spread the fire once things got going. The change in MO had them questioning whether it was really our guy this time around.”

I glanced down at the hole in the wall. “I trust that there’s no question about that now?”

“Oh yeah, but we were sure from the get go. Checked the weather people’s radar recordings before we even headed out. They show the usual temperature drop and weird weather you get from an active heat sink. Sudden clouds forming, random, highly localized rain. That kind of thing.” He gestured back towards the mouth of the alley. “Half the firehouse was out on another call when the fire started, right now we’re trying to determine if that was a deliberate distraction or the Firestarter was just waiting for an opportune moment. Thoughts?”

“He probably just waited. Every other fire he’s set so far falls into some sort of pattern, I doubt he’d clutter it up now.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and sighed. “Honestly, the whole chasing the Firestarter and catching him thing is not our gig anymore. We’re more here to keep an eye on the crime scene and try and grab Circuit if he or any of his people show up.” Not an easy job, what with no good way to close off at least one end of the alley and plenty of access from above, but then easy is not what we sign up for. “I should probably get Bergstrum over here and see about setting up some surveillance.”

Massif nodded, although he didn’t look very happy about it. “Seems like a waste of time. If Circuit hasn’t already come and gone he probably won’t show up for a few days more. If he comes at all.”

“My thoughts exactly. But in this job, the one day you don’t cover all the bases is the one you wish you had.”

“Sad but true.” Massif glanced at the entrance to the alley and dropped his voice. “There’s one other thing you should know about. Just in case it makes a difference somewhere down the line…”

Sometimes it seems to me that Project Sumter is keeping its eyes on the wrong people. Sure, I have more practical uses in urban warfare than a than in law enforcement, but even if I did go rogue I’m not exactly subtle or hard to find, and much more fragile than most people would expect. On the other hand, tell me to somehow get a command vehicle and spare personnel to run it out of our office while it was in the process of relocating and I’d have said you were out of luck. Herrera had managed to get the vehicle and volunteers to staff it who were standing by for her call. Not natural.

Still, if there’s anyone with no right to complain about not natural it’s yours truly. What’s more, my parents were not the type to look a gift horse in the mouth and I took after them.

We set up some basic surveillance around the firehouse and came to an agreement with the police and arson squad about how it would be handled over the next few days. Actually, Verger and Herrera did that, I rounded up some of the extra bodies Herrera had swindled into coming out and did the best I could to work out some sort of plan for keeping an eye on the building.

About seven in the evening Jack took over and told me to knock off. He’d finish our shift and then Massif’s people would take over. Since I was still running short on sleep I was only too happy to do just that. But before heading home I thought I should check in with Herrera and see if she wanted me to do anything else on my day off.

Our command van was located about a block and a half away, well outside of the clean-up zone. When we’d arrived that had been as close as we could get but the streets were mostly clear of the response vehicles and news vans that had cluttered them at first. Only Firehouse 10’s firetrucks were still out on the street, since they weren’t entirely sure the garage they normally parked in was still stable.

That didn’t mean the streets were clear, the general public had come and filled them back in with their cars and SUVs almost as soon as the emergency workers had left but there were far fewer people milling around on the sidewalks now, so I spotted the man leaning on the van and smoking a cigarette long before I got there.

I actually considered turning around, heading for my car and calling Herrera before I drove off but that idea was squashed almost as soon as I thought of it. I promised myself long ago that I’d never show my back to Brahms Dawson and I wasn’t about to start just because I was a little tired.

Of course having clear sight lines goes both ways, and the Senator saw me coming just as clearly as I could see him standing there. As I hesitated in the street for just a moment he pushed away from the van and came to meet me while I was still a few car lengths away, which really settled the matter.

I’d never seen him out of what I think of as full regalia – suit, tie, perfectly styled hair, prepared speech. Today he was in jeans and a short sleeved polo shirt. It still probably cost more than I made in a month, but it was the first time he’d ever seemed to be anything other than another suit in the office, if an important- or self-important- one. Which reminded me to glance around for his security people. To my surprise, I could only make one, watching quietly from across the street. I had a feeling this wasn’t one of his normal business visits to the People On The Front Lines.

The Senator stopped to tap the ashes off of his cigarette before looking me in the eye. I don’t think he’d ever done that with me before, and I was surprised to see that he looked tired and more than a little distracted. I suppose he’s got as much reason for that as anyone, maybe more, but that didn’t earn him any sympathy from me. Still, I heard the voice of Bob Sanders whispering that there wasn’t any need to pick a fight with him if he wasn’t offering one.

I wasn’t sure when Sanders had stopped being a voice that annoyed me in real life and became a voice that annoyed me in the back of my head, but I wasn’t sure I liked it. Worse, I was pretty sure he was right. So I just plastered a neutral expression on my face and nodded in greeting. “Evening, Senator.”

“Double Helix,” he said, taking a last drag on his smoke.

“Those things will kill you, you know,” I said. The obvious being the only thing I could think of to say.

Senator Dawson just shrugged. “I’m afraid I started as a young man, and kept them as my only vice. The public doesn’t like a leader without some humanizing quality. The only other option was to take up drinking, which my wife wouldn’t have cared for. So I’ve stuck with it.”

For some reason I found that funny and wound up laughing in his face before I could stop myself. “You risk lung cancer to score political points?”

“No stranger than you risk ulcers or getting shot to do your job,” he said, tossing the cigarette butt on the ground and grinding it out under one shoe. “Everyone takes risks doing their job, whether they realize it or not. The important part is to pay attention to the ones you’re taking, and be ready to live with your decisions.”

“You’re being surprisingly straightforward today, Senator,” I said, trying to read what might be going on behind his tired expression. To someone passing on the street we might have looked just like two guys swapping our thoughts on the Bears this season but I felt more like I was about to walk into a gunfight with nothing but a Swiss Army knife. My first instinct was a tactical retreat. “While I’d love to hear what’s brought out this incredible streak of honesty, I’m actually here to talk to my boss. So if you’ll excuse me…”

“She’s in the van.” The Senator jerked his head slightly back towards the vehicle he’d just been leaning against. “Asleep. For the first time in the last forty-eight hours, I believe.”

I raised my eyebrows. “That’s it? I was under the impression she only dozed a couple of hours a week, and wasn’t planning on a nap ’til this Sunday.”

He chuckled. “She does give that impression, doesn’t she?” The humor drained away as quickly as it had come. “I hear there was a fatality today.”

“Yeah. Massif says one of the firefighters had part of the floor give under him while they were clearing the second floor.” Absently, I rubbed at the back of my neck. “Just bad luck.”

“This Firestarter guy has killed now,” Dawson said. He wave off the beginning of my objection. “An accident, sure, but you and I both know that in the long run that’s not going to matter as much as the fact that someone died because of his crime. You people are going to be twice as focused on catching him, and he’s most likely going to have fewer qualms about endangering people with his next fire. So far, he’s been careful to light them at times when fewer people were likely to get hurt. Now he’s going to escalate.”

“If you ask me, he’s already escalating.” But the Senator was right. Even today, the Firestarter hadn’t touched off the blaze until part of Firehouse 10 was out responding to another fire. He was being cautious, but that might not last. “Still, I don’t see how it’s your job to warn me about the risks of doing mine.”

“It’s not.” He glanced back at the van. “But I’m worried about Teresa. She’s wanted to be a cop all her life, and damn the consequences.”

Unable to resist the urge, I said, “What an unprofessional thing to say.”

Senator Dawson stopped short. “What?”

“Nothing.” I tried to squash the smirk but it slipped out anyway.

“Fine. But you’re right, Teresa isn’t exactly professional about this. Sometimes it seems like she lacks perspective.” He absently fumbled around in his pocket and extracted a pack of cigarettes. “Even Elizabeth was worried that she’d be biting off more than she could chew, and she doesn’t even know what all a job with the Project brings with it.”

“Elizabeth.” I frowned, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the name before. “Your wife?”

“My daughter.” Dawson rubbed his forehead with his free hand like a man with a headache just waiting to make itself heard. “They went to school together, not sure how they became friends but Elizabeth was determined to make her one of the family. I went along with it at first because I hoped Teresa would be a good influence on her.”

“And you wind up sticking her in with all of the freaks.” I smiled grimly. “Seems kind of contradictory, if you ask me.”

That got me a grimace and I suspected the Senator’s headache was starting to really kick up its heels. “You just don’t get it, do you, Helix? Yes, I know that you have no control over being born with your unique abilities. I don’t hold it against you personally, but on a instinctual level that intimidates me, just like it will anyone else. Why else keep you talented people a secret? We can’t have a smoothly running society with that kind of power imbalance inherent in it. Someone has to act as a balance between you and everyone else.”

I snorted. “Don’t act as if its anything other than an ego trip, Senator. There was another guy who recently suggested he needed to be in charge in order to keep society from falling apart and to be perfectly honest, I’d more inclined to trust him with the job than you. But if it comes to that I’d really rather give the job to Robert Sanders than see either of you in charge. Why can’t people like you just leave the rest of us to work things out on our own?”

“Because most of you don’t work at it. I should know, my-” He stopped himself and rubbed a hand over his mouth, looked down at the pavement and gathered his thoughts. Finally he shoved the neglected pack of cigarettes back into his pocket and sighed. “I’m sorry, Helix. I’m tired, and I’m talking around the point. You’re not a fan of that, as I recall.”

“That’s a fair assessment,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. “You wanted to talk to me about something. If it’s not a balanced society or your family, what is it?”

“Teresa. She’s a sweet girl, as much a part of my family as she ever was with either of her other two, and what she has accomplished is amazing considering all the handicaps she’s had, but to get where she is now she’s had to overwork herself, almost like it was a religion.” For the second time in his life, Brahms Dawson looked me in the eye. “Since you joined the Project eight years ago no one has worked to prove themselves like you have. But you’ve always managed to find a balance. While there have been plenty of reports suggesting you’re short sighted and reckless, no one’s ever accused you of overworking of overstressing. I want you to keep an eye on Teresa for me, try and help her do the same.”

“You know it’s funny, you keep repeating thing’s I’ve just heard. You’re not the first person to ask me to keep an eye on Agent Herrera, either.”

The ghost of a smile quirked the edges of the Senator’s mouth. “Oh, that doesn’t surprise me. In fact, there’s a lot of reasons for you to want to do what I’m asking you, things like making sure your oversight agent is clear headed when you need her to be, and since you’re already keeping an eye on her how much of an added burden can it be, really?”

I studied him hard, but I still couldn’t see any sign of motives other than concern. I wasn’t getting the whole story, but my gut said what I’d heard was true. “Not to sound crass, but how does that help me do my job? Besides the obvious, of course.”

Dawson’s smile vanished and his expression became completely sincere. Not the polished, smooth sincerity of a person who had practiced these lines a dozen times in front of the mirror before convincing hundreds or even thousands of suckers with them. No, it was the fragile, brittle sincerity of a man who wasn’t sure he’d ever be believed, but was going with the truth for once anyway. “This may sound surprising to you, Helix, but I’ve developed a real respect for you over the years. I don’t like you, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to. But with the right education, with the right mentors, with the right system, we can eliminate the differences that cause that and make a better world. Teresa wants to be a part of that. I want to think that in time you’ll want to be a part of that, too. Wouldn’t that help you do your job?”

For the second time that night I found myself laughing. “What’s really scary is I think you believe that, Senator. Unfortunately, my job doesn’t deal much with maybe-somedays. Now, as you already pointed out I’m an expert in balancing my work with the rest of my life. Today was my day off, my boss is asleep on the job and I’m ready to go home, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

His face fell. “Helix-”

“Tomorrow is theoretically Agent Herrera’s day off. Unfortunately I’ll be in the office, and once she gets there it’ll be impossible to throw her back out again, so you’ll just have to invent some excuse to keep her from getting there if you want her to relax some this week.” I ran my fingers through my hair and could almost feel it pulling out between my fingers, leaving me a little closer to my father’s hairline. “I’ll talk with the tac team boys, maybe Mona, see if we can work something out for after that.”

A bright smile bloomed on Senator Dawson’s face, of the satisfied, friendly, political variety. “Thanks, Helix. It-”

“I’m not doing this for you, Senator,” I said, feeling more irritated now than I had through the rest of the conversation. “I’m doing it because like you said, it’ll make my job easier. And she deserves the chance to do this job right.”

He nodded, the moment of political handling already past. “I know, Helix. But trust me, you won’t regret it.”

I certainly hoped so.

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Fiction Index

*add title here*

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose 

By any other name would smell as sweet 

-Juliet, Romeo and Juliet 

I cannot give my character the moniker “Tim the Barbarian”. Especially since he’s the bard. 

-#378 of the Things Mr. Welch Can No Longer Do During an RPG

Ever had the feeling that the perfect title is eluding you? While Shakespeare assures us names are not the defining aspect of a thing, Mr. Welch’s counterargument also carries a lot of weight. Nine times out of ten, the name of your story will be the first thing about it that your reader encounters. That makes the name of your story a vital part of making a good impression and attracting the attention of potential readers.

Unfortunately, unlike a lot of aspects of writing, there’s not a lot of good, solid, repeatable methods you can use for story titles. You want something high imact, that will stick with your audience. But you can’t contradict the basic spirit of your story either – you can’t use Gory Deadly Overkill Title of Fatal Death for a romance and Super Fun Happy Thing of Doom only works if you’re trying to be ironic. You can’t use any titles you’ve used before, and you can’t use any titles that other people have used for very popular stories (unless you’re doing a mashup, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

One of the most common strategies to coming up with titles is to develop a theme. The novels in the InCryptid series are all jokes based on the fact that the main characters’ last name is “Price”. Thus, Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special and next year’s Half-Off Ragnarok. You never have any doubts that your dealing with an InCryptid novel when you look at the title, but they don’t actually tell you much about what happens in them. On the other hand, the Cal Leandros series relies on single, high impact compound word to catch your attention and tell you a bit about what happens in the course of the story. Nightlife is your introduction to the world. Moonshine has werewolves in it. Roadkill is about a road trip (but not a fun one, exactly.)

Other themes include Sue Grafton’s alphabet soup series, which I’m sure has a proper name, but I’ve never read one of them, and the “Character name and X” convention (Mr. Monk goes to the Hospital and Immediately Leaves That Den of Filth and Iniquity) or simply naming the story after what takes place in it, such as the Peculiar Occurrences novels The Order of the Phoenix and the Janus Affair. The problem with embracing a theme is that once your dedicated to it, you have to stick with it or your audience will object to your breaking away from it.

And your theme may not be as deep or meaningful a well of inspiration as you had hoped. Chapters in Heat Wave get their titles based on which character is narrating. Chapters where Helix narrates get titles with a theme of heat or fire, while chapters that feature Circuit have titles with an electronic theme. Except when both characters narrate a significant part of the chapter, in which case I have to try and find some overlap between their themes. So far that’s worked but I’m not sure how many more chapters I’ll be able to find good titles for. Originally I had thought the title might reflect the events of the chapter to some extent, but that’s mostly fallen by the wayside at this point.

So naming your story. It’s a struggle, for most of us I think. But if you know a surefire way to come up with a great title every time, don’t hold out on us. Share it in the comments and let us in on the secret.

Cool Things: The Kingdom of Jackals

What do you get when you combine satire, comedy, steampunk-sci-fi and a grouchy old steamboat captain?

Why the Kingdom of Jackals, author Stephen Hunt’s crazy, tongue-in-cheek romp through adventure, human nature and Science! The Kingdom is a far cry from many steampunk stories in the themes it chooses to look at. While many steampunk stories are obsessed with Progress or Science!, Jackelian stories are a different beast. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of steam powered robots, airships, scientific societies and more to tickle your neo-Victorian sensibilities, but they’re not the focus in Jackals. Rather, Hunt turns these things into subtle (or not so subtle) metaphors for modern culture.

Some struggles in human history are timeless, and by setting them in a place that never existed he manages to both show us the extreme forms of some historical and sociological themes and let us enjoy watching fun, engaging characters deal with them using gratuitous quantities of coal powered, pressure gauge studded, improbable technologies.

Jackals is full of weird but entertaining ideas. It’s the Republic with a King. The state religion is the Circlist Church, which worships reason and math and views the word “faith” as blasphemy. Groundquakes periodically send huge sections of the ground floating into the air unless worldsingers can calm the pressure in the tectonic plates. And that’s just day to day living, before the evil cults, chosen wielders of ancient, thinking weapons, lost civilizations, alien invasions and displaced nobility is taken into account.

As I said last Friday, Hunt makes excellent use of his characters in these novels. There’s nothing exactly like a main character in the series. Although some characters, such as Molly Templar and Jethro Daunt, are the focus of more than one book, the closest thing to a central character is actually Commodore Jared Black, the only character to make an appearance in all six novels to date. While never a central character in any of the stories he manages to be consistently among the most surprising, engaging, human and personable. Among the wild tales of aspiring authors, outlaws, famous detectives and belittled archaeologists, Jared manages to be the voice of the Everyman – and that while harboring some impressive secrets for himself.

Steampunk is many things to many people. It is commentary on the Victorian era, a time of unprecedented progress and struggle. It is a reflection on the relationship between knowledge, reason and the human soul. And it is a great excuse for huge quantities of gratuitous cogs, gears and pressure dials. If you want all that, with a healthy dose of thought provoking ideas for today, then the Kingdom of Jackals might be a place to think amount visiting…

Heat Wave: Slow Boil

Helix

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they organize a place. For example, anyone who wandered into Pritchard Mossburger’s new apartment would instantly realize that he had an organized mind. His new furniture, although a mismatched collection of second hand stuff, was still arranged symmetrically in one corner of the room, with a sofa at the center and two chairs flanking it. A long, low table ran down the side wall. It all looked like it had been organized by a T-square. However, before one could start thinking that he was an OCD neat freak you’d notice the cork board in the corner, already collecting newspaper clippings and printed blog articles that both dispelled that illusion and warned you that he might be mentally unstable in an entirely different direction.

All of that wouldn’t mean quite as much to you as the two big guys sprawling on his sofa or the even bigger guy who dwarfed the beaten up recliner he sat in on the right. Even if you never made it past Jack, Bergstrum and Kesselman to Herrera sitting in the other chair or me standing in the middle of the room and staring at them, you’d realize that Mossburger wasn’t your typical conspiracy obsessed genius with schizophrenic tendencies. That’s just one of the reasons we love him.

“Hey, Helix, you with us?” Bergstrum asked, waving his hand lazily across my field of vision. “Meeting’s going to start soon.”

“I hear you,” I mumbled, still staring at the couch he was sharing with Kesselman.

“What he’s trying to say is sit down,” Jack said, leaning forward and scratching his knee absently. “You’re making us all tired just looking at you. If there’s something so special about that couch you should have taken a closer look at it when we were helping the preacher fellow load his truck.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s where I’ve seen it before.” A moment’s pause as something registered in the back of my mind. “We didn’t load a sofa on Rodriguez’s truck. I would definitely remember moving two sofas in one day.”

“It was on there already, I saw it in the back.” Jack snorted. “You need to work on your-”

“Situational awareness,” I said in unison with him. “I know, I know. You keep telling me that. Along with Sanders, Mona and occasionally Al Massif, Broadband and a bunch of other people I’ve already forgotten.”

“Maybe you’d remember them better if you were paying attention?” Kesselman ignored my scowl and hopped up to poked his head into the apartment’s cramped kitchenette. “Hey, Mossman, you don’t have feed us a four course meal!”

“Good, because I couldn’t make you one.” Mosburger came in carrying a pot of coffee and a pitcher of ice water in one hand and a tray of mugs in the other. “But I thought something to drink would be a step in the right direction. There’s sodas in the fridge, too.”

He put the dishes on the table and left them there as he and Kesselman retrieved a couple of chairs out of the kitchen. I stared at the coffee pot and ice water for a minute, feeling my fingers twitching in annoyance, then gave in and picked up to the ice water and moved it to the other end of the table.

Herrera watched me do it, an amused look on her face. “Something wrong, Helix?”

“It’s distracting. You have no idea how distracting thermodynamics can be.”

Jack laughed. “You think that’s bad? Leave a chunk of dry ice out sometime and watch him squirm.”

I gave him my darkest scowl. “I thought you were one of the good guys.”

“Sure I am.” He laughed again. “It’s not like it’s your secret weakness or something. You never notice these things when you’re focused on something, they just bother you when you’ve got nothing else on your mind.”

Herrera clapped her hands together and said, “In that case we might as well get started so Helix has something to think about besides coffee pot feng shui.”

Mosburger and I took seats in the kitchen chairs, which also looked like well worn second-hand furniture from somewhere, and settled in. We started by retreading over what I’d heard that morning. A break-in at the Project, relocation, a possible lead on the Firestarter. I turned Herrera’s books back over to her at that point and said, “While I’ll admit that these look like they could be the source of the Firestarter’s name for himself, and we should probably talk to Analysis about relabeling him as the Enchanter just for simplicity’s sake, I’m not sure that this really helps us in our primary goal, finding Circuit and throwing him in jail.”

“Except,” Mosburger held up a pile of paper that he had been skimming through, “that Circuit implied in his phone call last night that he was interested in the Firestarter. Or the Enchanter, or whatever you want to call him. He mentions it at least twice in this transcript, and I haven’t even finished it yet.”

“What are the odds it’s just some sort of red herring?” Bergstrum asked. “Circuit does that kind of overcomplicated psychological thing from time to time. Are we sure he wasn’t just trying to distract us from something else he’s up to? Has anyone followed up the theft that put Gearshift and his buddies on him in the first place?”

“Apparently he stole a grad student’s senior thesis project,” Mosburger said. “I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, I haven’t gotten the report on how Clark Movsesian managed to track Circuit from Texas back to his warehouse in the city, but I am fairly certain that it’s not directly related to the Firestarter. There’s no practical use for a miniature hydroelectric turbine around here.”

Jack leaned back in his chair and scratched at his chin absently. “I followed up the phone trace Forensics was running while Helix was chatting with Circuit last night. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to help us any. It was either routed through a labyrinth that puts the Greeks to shame or somewhere along the line Circuit hacked things so he could make it look like the call was coming from wherever he wanted. Forensics says they traced it to the Island of Malta, San Antonio, LA and a couple of other places. It even showed as originating in the building at one point.”

Bergstrum sat up a bit straighter. “Could he have called while he was already inside?”

“Service is spotty through most of the building,” I said. “Shelob keeps it that way to help enforce the no outside networks policy.”

Jack got up and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Here’s what I don’t understand. Why did Circuit offer to cooperate with us if he was just planning to steal our files on the case and run off with them?”

I turned in my chair so I straddled the back and held out a hand. Jack handed me the coffee and filled another. Herrera waved for a cup too, so he wound up pouring a third. After a fortifying draught of caffeine I said, “Circuit’s the classic chess master. It’s unlikely he’d just ask us for information without planning what to do if we didn’t hand over what he wanted the easy way. What I don’t understand is how he knew where to go in the first place. The office is a secret government installation. It’s not like we’re listed in the yellow pages.”

“I asked Voorman if there were any leads on that.” Herrera paused to sip from her coffee and grimace, I wasn’t sure whether that because she didn’t like the drink or what she was about to say. “Apparently he’s put Agent Sanders on that inquiry, but the exact details, leads, sources, that kind of thing are all hush-hush so far. Officially so as not to compromise the investigation.”

Unofficially so as not to make Voorman or anyone else look bad. “As much as I’d like to follow that up, it’s out of our hands,” she said aloud, handing the much battered and worn books I’d just returned to her on to Mosburger. “Pritchard, take these in to Analysis as soon as you get the chance, see if that gives you getmen any insight into what the Enchanter is going to do next. I talked briefly to Agent Verger this morning, she’s agreed to keep us appraised of the Enchanter investigation in case that turns up something that points us back to Circuit. The rest of us will look into the warehouse Circuit was using, see if we can back-track it to him.”

“Join Project Sumter, see the world’s paperwork,” Jack muttered.

Herrera gave him a sympathetic look and waved a stack of papers she was pulling out of her messenger bag. “I understand where you’re coming from. This is my little piece of paperwork heaven, forms and regulations from one of the countless Federal departments I’ve never heard of that I apparently need to familiarize myself with.”

Jack leaned over a bit so he could see what Herrera was holding, then raised his eyebrows and exchanged a glance with Bergstrum and Kesselman. Either Herrera missed it or wasn’t curious, because she set them aside and kept digging around in her bag until she produced a spiral bound notebook and said, “I have a few leads I want to try and run down today, and I want to hear any ideas from you as well. But,” she gave me a slight smile. “Not all of us were supposed to be in the office today, back when we all expected to have an office to be in. So if they’d rather call it a day…”

I got up out of my chair, saying, “I think that’s my cue to leave. Will our new offices be ready for us by tomorrow?”

“I think so,” Herrera said as Mosburger picked up the papers she had set aside and started flipping through them.

“Then I’ll see you there,” I said, and started towards the door.

“You know, I had to go through this stuff on my first day,” Mosburger said, tapping one finger against the papers. “They make all the analysts muck through it once. If you can’t figure out it’s a prank in less than four hours they figure you’re second rate.”

“What?”

“The Department of NBH isn’t a real place,” he said. “There’s a lot of strange Federal offices out there, I know I dealt with some in my last job, but I don’t honestly think one of them deals in newbie hazing. Whoever put you on this stuff was probably just pulling your leg.”

I quietly latched the door behind me and quickly made my way down the hall to the elevator. Maybe letting Herrera think there was a massive pile of paperwork she needed to read through hadn’t been the nicest thing to do, but honestly, the woman needed to take things a little easier than she had been or she’d burn herself out. And the NBH stuff was pretty funny. If you knew it was a joke.

Or so I told myself. I didn’t have to tell myself much else because, before I could even call for the elevator, my phone rang. Since I was supposed to be out of the office it wasn’t surprising for my phone to go off. But I’d just been in the same room as most of the people who would normally call me on my day off, and I didn’t think Herrera was the type to call just to chew me out for playing a harmless joke on her.

As it turned out, I was right. The number wasn’t familiar to me at first but after a second I realized it was Aluchinskii Massif’s. I unlocked the touch screen and answered, pressing the call button for the elevator with my free hand. The door slid open as I spoke to Massif. We were done before it could close again, but rather than get on I hurried back down the hall and rapped on Mosburger’s door.

After a moment Kesselman opened it. If he was surprised to see me he didn’t show it and let me shove past him and back into the room without resistance. “I just heard from Agent Massif. The Enchanter hit a fire station downtown today. He says if we want to check out the scene now is the time.”

Herrera’s expression morphed from irritated to businesslike in a split second. It was a nifty trick and I needed to learn it one of these days. “How long ago was that?” She asked.

“Two hours or so, from the sound of it.”

“Does it matter?” Jack asked.

“Actually, no, I guess not.” She quickly shoved her papers back into her messenger bag. “Let’s move, people.”

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Fiction Index

Author’s Obligations: The Story

So every author needs to pay attention to their audience. What comes after that?

Well, for the fiction author, it’s the story. Most fiction authors start writing so they can share stories with their friends, or because they have a story they love so much they just have to tell it, or perhaps even just because they love stories so much they want to be part of making them. So with all this love and dedication to stories flying around, it might be useful to pause and say exactly what a story is. After all, if people start writing them for different reasons, they probably have different ideas of what the end product will look like.

According to Merriam-Webster’s, a story is an account of incidents or events, a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question or an anecdote, especially an amusing one. When talking about writing his famous poem “The Raven”, Edgar Allen Poe adds that it’s wise to consider what kind of emotional impact you want your readers to walk away with, as well. Many other authors have also said that they try to consider the ending of their stories before they begin. So, let’s say for the moment that a story is an account of a series of events intended to leave a specific impression on the reader when he is finished.

Now, you may quibble with that. There is lots of talk in writing circles about plot driven narratives versus character driven narratives. Maybe you think to yourself, “But I just want to have a good time and share it with others.” However, even in character driven stories things still need to happen in a certain order for your characters to make sense. Having fun is still an emotional response, even if “fun” isn’t something we normally consider an emotion.

So, what exactly is it that we owe to the story? What do we need to keep in mind as we write?

First, all stories have a natural arc to them. Beginning, middle, end. Whether you’re looking at the life of a single character or the events of a single day, all stories follow this basic pattern. There’s a lot of good stuff out there written on this topic, and I’m not going to rehash it all here. Suffice it to say, if your narrative doesn’t have a specific plot point where things start and another where they end, you’re probably in trouble.

Stories also want to be unique. They cannot have too much in common with other stories. Try not to be obviously recycling plot elements from other stories you have written, or successful stories written by other authors in the same genre. Also, and this is a much more common mistake, try to avoid using the same character over and over. Audiences (and publishers!) love continuity and returning faces. It gives them a sense of familiarity and stability as they wade into a new, unknown story. But, as the Wolverine Publicity phenomenon suggests, using a character too much can result in burnout or cynicism. Some of the best uses of recurring characters that I’ve seen come from the Kingdom of Jackels novels of Stephen Hunt and the Clockwork Century novels of Cherie Priest. In these series, the setting carries most of the work of continuity, while the characters show up to remind us that yes, they’re still alive and still being awesome.

Finally, it’s important to make sure that your story’s length and pay off are balanced. No one wants to read a seven hundred page book to find that the entire story built up to a single one line gag, but an hour long TV show can handle that kind of thing occasionally. (See, “The Trouble With Tribbles“.) Another example is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. While well written and fast moving, and featuring believable, almost-lovable characters, after over fifteen hundred pages the trilogy ends with many of the major plot points unresolved and the fates of several characters left to the reader’s imaginations. Not exactly a satisfying end to a story. While life isn’t always satisfying, part of the point of fiction is to get around that. Since Abercrombie has written other books set in the same world, it’s possible that we’ll see some of these characters again. But I’m not sure he needed three books just to introduce us to his setting.

In the end, your obligation to the story is more about not getting caught up in your pet characters, scenarios or causes and making sure that the story speaks to the audience as clearly and effectively as possible. If you’re not doing that first, then you’re failing your story and your audience and you need to take a hard look at what you’re writing.