Introductions Are in Order

Do you remember the first time you saw Captain Jack Sparrow? Of course you do. It looked just like this:

Before this you knew nothing about Jack. He’s not foreshadowed at any point in the film until this moment. But within a few seconds you understand the basics. He’s a pirate, he’s a little out of it and he possesses incredible poise and chutzpah. Just look at the way he steps off that crow’s nest and onto the docks. Odds are that’s exactly the first thing you think about when you think about Jack Sparrow.

And that is the power of the introduction.

Or, as you’ve probably heard ad nauseum, first impressions matter. How your audience meets your characters is a vital part of how their experience with your story will be shaped. A good introduction needs to tell, in a nutshell, who your character is, set the tone he brings to the story and signal his importance to what is going on.

So go back and watch that introduction again. What does it tell you about Jack?

Well, he may be a pirate but he has a solid, even handed understanding of what that lifestyle implies. He even has a kind of respect for those who have lived it to the natural conclusion. And he tends to be a big picture kind of guy – looks up and out instead of down and around, or he might have noticed his boat was flooding sooner. Oh, and the man has swagger. No getting around that. It’s a testimony to Johnny Depp’s skills at characterization that he lets us know all this without saying anything at all.

There, in sixty seconds of cinema, is a character in a nutshell. Purpose, a way of thinking with attendant weaknesses, defining personality trait. Don’t brush off all the thought that went into setting all that up – I’m not reading too much into things. This kind of characterization is the best of the best and ever aspect of it is planned like a villain orchestrating global takeover. You or I might never reach this level of skill, because it’s very hard and requires both talent and dedication to reach, but the first step is acknowledging it exists.

So find the very essence of your character and try and show it in just a paragraph or two and you’ll be on your way to a good start. Usually it’s best to show the character in his natural environment, as we see with Jack, but sometimes showing them out of their element is more effective. Really, the particulars of where and when we first meet a character should be chosen to best cast the character in the audience’s mind. More on this later.

The second thing you want from an introduction is tone. Jack Sparrow is the soul of Pirates of the Caribbean. His light hearted, irreverent and cocky attitude permeates the movie and, no matter what the mood is before he appears, as soon as we see him swaying his way onto the screen we find ourselves smiling. In part because this was the man who stepped directly from sinking ship to dockside without even a backwards glance.

Every character, even your main character, brings a certain tone to the scenes they are in, whether it be tension, fun, unease or calm. Now central characters are certainly multidimensional but even they manage to hit all the notes they need to in a tone that is unique to them. The tone you set in their introduction is the tone your audience will expect.

Finally, introduce your character in a way that fits their importance to the story. Not every character needs a huge introduction that hints at the strengths, weaknesses and hidden depths of the character. If you plan to expand them in a later story that’s fine – do it then. Sure, keep their introduction and all the rest of their screen time in step with your plans for the future but don’t turn a side character into a red herring.

Interestingly enough, Jack Sparrow is an example of what can happen if you aren’t careful with a character’s introduction and development. He wasn’t originally planned as a leading character but as a supporting character to Will and Elizabeth. Depp took the role with both hands and ran with it, resulting in the movie we have. That may not have been a bad thing but the point remains – Jack became a central character because he demanded it. If you have someone who shows up demanding a bigger role and you don’t give it to him change the way he shows up or your audience will be very confused.

Making your characters real in the minds of your audience is a very difficult task and it begins when a new character is introduced. So give them the best introduction you can.

——–

Now for an announcement! The first of my summer vacations starts this weekend. This is the longer of the two and I won’t have any time for writing this week so I’m not going to post anything either. Sorry.

But I’ll be back on July 7th with a new set of stories and a month-long feature on Wednesdays to boot! It’ll be worth it to come and check it out. See you then.

Cool Things: Child of Light

It’s time for the rare video game review! Child of Light is a 2D Adventure RPG developed by Ubisoft Montreal that is notable for three things – it’s sense of whimsy, it’s beautiful presentation and a new twist on old game elements. Some people are going to call this game retro. I’m going to say they’re wrong. This game is, in fact, classic.

There’s a trend towards “realistic” or “mature” games among so-called hard core gamers these days. Usually what this means is an emphasis on first person or close third person viewpoint with a heavy dose of carnage and very little attempt at a higher ideals. Most modern games are, in fact, low fantasies with different varieties of window dressing and little attempt at creative gameplay. Child of Light is a refreshing change from all of these things.

As the name implies, the game approaches its story in a very childish fashion. The whole game is hand drawn and painted in watercolors, the character’s speech (with one exception) and the game narration are set in rhyme and meter and the story feels like it has been ripped straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. Aurora is the daughter of an Austrian Duke who’s mother is dead and who’s father has married again giving her, you guessed it, an evil stepmother.

When Aurora catches a cold one evening she winds up At the Back of the North Wind and finds herself in Lemuria, a land with talking mice and a race of people that have angler fish style lights sprouting from their foreheads. Once there she is issued fairy wings and a broadsword as long as she is tall and instructed to find her way home and set things aright.

Interestingly enough, I cannot think of a single video game I’ve played that has so blatantly stolen so many fairytale elements and woven them together and that’s a shame, because Child of Light does a good job juggling all the disparate threads and weaving them into a solid whole. I don’t know if the writers were inspired by George MacDonald but it sure feels like it. At the same time this is not every fairytale you’ve ever read, Child of Light stands on it’s own merits yet still does its source material justice.

What really makes things work is the game’s artwork. Layer on upon layer of beautiful watercolors and carefully measured water and cloud effects give Lemuria a feel of beauty and wonder. It seems totally natural that this is the kind of place where statues come to life, talking mice live on the back of a mountain man (no, not a lumberjack or trapper, he’s a huge man made of stone and the mice are human sized) and you can be asked to catch a wayward flying pig for a village lady.

The game could have stopped there but it also has a beautiful classical soundtrack and, while only the narration is voiced, the voice work is very good. It’s the kind of game you want to spend most of your time wandering around in, and possibly, occasionally, moving towards what is, in theory, your goal.

That brings me to the third aspect I love about this game, namely the unusual gameplay. Most video games that use flight as a mechanic use it either as the focus of the game, complete with complicated controls and often frustrating tests of skill, or just use it as a way to handwave getting from point A to point B most of the time. But Aurora can fly across all maps for most of the game.

This turns what could have been a rehash of most platforming games into something a little more interesting. Yes, Valkyrie Profile did this and it was interesting. And I originally thought adding an element of flight would make the overworld of the game less interesting by making the map more accessible. To my surprise, Ubisoft manages to keep things interesting by adding hazards, flying enemies, and violent winds to keep getting around just difficult enough to pose a challenge without being obnoxiously difficult. Add in all the interesting tricks you can do with your firefly familiar and exploring is rewarding enough that you’ll want to just poke around the map some and take in the sights from time to time.

Of course, when you’re not there are dark creatures out there that need dealing with. Yes, it’s a delightful fairytale flavored game. If you know your Brothers Grimm, though, you know the origin of the word “grim” and that fairytales are not all sugar and light. But on a more fundamental level, the potential for harm befalling your characters is one of the ways you, the player, are inspired to take care of them and get connected with them. As such, it’s hard to cut it out of games with a storyline.

(If the subject of violence in video games interests you David Baumgart of Gaslamp Games has written an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the subject which expands on this idea more than there’s room for here. Tags and comments on that post are not guaranteed to be interesting or thoughtful.)

Much like Aurora’s quest itself, fighting in the game is more about timing and disruption than outright contests of power. While the “active battle” system has existed in RPGs since the early days of the Final Fantasy franchise Child of Light tweaks it so that, in addition to having to wait between each character’s action, you must also wait a brief time between choosing what action you take and when that action occurs. In that short period of time enemies can take actions that interrupt you and, by the same token, you can interrupt enemies while they are preparing their own actions. Winning is often as much about orchestrating a clever series of disruptive moves as it is raw number crunching or twitchy reflexes. All in all, a nice change from most games produced of late.

So. If you like story driven games with a strong sense of whimsy and don’t mind reading in rhyme for a while, check out Child of Light. It’s both fulfilling and fun, something very few games can claim.

Motivation

Johnny Cochran dropped his magcycle down the far side of the massive tube, the gripping the handlebars has as it bobbed and dipped. The main launching tube of the mass driver threw off erratic magnetic fields as it warmed up and prepared for its next launch which made using maglev vehicles nearby difficult at best and downright dangerous at worst. Every couple of years some idiot thrillseeker misjudged the fields or his vehicle’s ability to compensate for them, or worse didn’t shy away from the tube before it launched and the sudden magnetic spike threw his ride like it was a toy. Regardless of what happened it ended with a dead magrider in the streets of Kalteisen and a brief period of tighter security around the mass driver that made it harder for all the other magriders to make good time.

Of course, the ones who didn’t meet that fate were the smart ones, and Johnny prided himself on being one of the smartest. There wasn’t a thing they could do with spaceport security that he couldn’t deal with. And like all the smartest magriders in Kalteisen, he knew the fastest way across the city was to run along, above or below the section of the Cochran Mass Driver that cut through the northern half of the spaceport. It was dangerous, sure, but it also cut almost twenty seconds off the time it took you to make the east/west run from Gaffer’s Rock to Canal Street. No one raced seriously without hopping the CMD Superhighway.

Besides, the mass driver was a Cochran and they stuck by their own.

But today it did seem to be playing favorites. He was having a hard time keeping the maglev output on his cycle optimized, not an easy task in any situation and made doubly hard by the facts that one, he was running alongside a gigantic electromagnet and two, the area surrounding the mass driver wasn’t intended as an access route. Keeping an eye on the shifting magnetic fields was hard enough without having to dodge support struts, antenna broadcasting keep-away warnings to autonav programs – helpfully disabled on his own magcycle – or the random junk that seemed to accumulate in any out of the way place in a major city on any planet.

Yet even though Johnny struggled he could see his cousin Pat a few hundred feet ahead bobbing along at top speed, threading his way through obstacles along the path of least resistance so fast you’d think he’d never even heard of wind resistance. Sure, he was two years older and he was in the military but that didn’t exactly lend itself to getting lots of practice magcycling. The Space Forces did make extensive use of magnetic drives but Patrick was in the Biocomputing Corps.

A little voice in the back of his mind pointed out that the ability to think twenty eight  times as fast as the normal human might have something to do with Pat’s performance but Johnny did his best to ignore it. He’d always been the better driver ever since he was old enough to be trusted with a cycle of his own. No way he was loosing just because Pat had some new hardware in his skull.

The Mass Driver fired every twenty minutes, barring maintenance or technical problems. Trying to keep a magnetically driven vehicle on course while the Mass Driver was engaged was suicide, it was big enough to throw fifty kiloton containers from ground to orbit after all. That was quite a feat, even with the nothing but relatively low Martian gravity and thin atmosphere to deal with, and it required a huge amount of power to make it work. Piggybacking on all that electricity as it primed the launcher was part of what gave magcycles the speed that made it an effective short cut.

Unified Field Theory said that the closer two magnets were, the stronger their attracting or repelling power. And on top of the mass driver was not the closest point to its magnetic drivers. If you drew a square through the circular tube so that each corner touched the circle of the tube, the magnets would be at each corner of the tube. There was enough junk sticking out of or scattered around the mass driver that  you couldn’t get close any of those lines of magnets, though.

Not until the last two miles of it, that is.

Johnny spotted the support strut he had been looking for coming up fast and dropped his magcycle off the top of the mass driver’s length, the autonav system running in his helmet heads up display – but not connected to his bike! – protesting as he momentarily strayed away from the strongest magnetic fields in the area. Then he fired the emergency compressed air thrusters to spin it almost exactly a hundred degrees and latched almost directly onto the magnetic line that ran through the mass driver at about eight o’clock.

Now he was hanging onto the side of his cycle for dear life and struggling to keep it in a more or less straight line as it hummed along, his head closer to the ground than his feet, knees clinging to the bike, front electromagnet pulling him forward towards opposite charges in front of him, rear electromagnet pushing him away from like charges behind, the autonav once again happily pointing him towards the strongest magnetic sources.

And that was all he had to do for the next fifteen seconds. There was nothing along this stretch of the mass driver – no support struts, maintenance buildings, diagnostic antennas, spaceport walls or random debris high enough to clip his head. In fact, there was just enough time to glance out at the spaceport itself and catch the sight of a Combined Orbital/Deep Space military drop ship coming down on one of the farther bounce pads like some kind of flying whale, graceful despite its bulk. He wondered if it had come for Pat. He was shipping back out in a day or two.

The walls of the city were coming up on them again. The mass driver was one of the oldest structures still standing on Mars, when it had been built there hadn’t been a city, just a spaceport and a preliminary settlement twenty miles away. Now the three were almost one and the same.

Since the Cochran Mass Driver was both a valuable resource and something of a historical landmark, not to mention still privately owned, the city had been forced build around it. Getting through the  the city walls, which held in the atmosphere suitable for human habitation, was the single most dangerous part of running the mass driver. Sure, there was the danger of loosing your helmet or suit integrity in the thin Martian atmosphere, or worse when diving through the vents that filtered pollution our from the city’s atmosphere and forced it into the world at large.

But the biggest danger was still the physical barriers humanity had to maintain between their living area and the more hostile world outside.

The wall of the city rushed up at them quickly. Pat was still at least twenty feet ahead, effortlessly bobbing his bike back and forth to take best advantage of the fluctuating magnetic fields around the mass driver. Johnny had gained some distance by taking the straight shot along the side of the tube but not nearly enough. The next hurdle would be going through the vents.

No one had ever come up with a scheme that would let Mars retain a breathable atmosphere so settlements on the planet were still enclosed. But buildups of toxic gasses from industrial processes that couldn’t be reprocessed into anything useful weren’t allowed to stay inside the biospheres and were instead vented out into the atmosphere. When Kalteisen had built around the mass driver the architects had apparently figured why not kill two birds with one stone and positioned vents in a ring around the mass driver tube. The Cochran Trustees hadn’t been happy about it but eminent domain left them with little in the way of legal recourse.

Magcycle racers loved them because not only did they represent a sizable shortcut by letting you through the city walls but they could kill you in three separate and exciting ways. Getting through them safely brought a corresponding level of admiration from other racers.

The first hurdle was catching them when they were open, since leaving them open all the time defeated the purpose of enclosing the city. Johnny could see over Pat’s shoulder well enough to tell that, for better or for worse, they were closed at the moment. They opened every few minutes, for about a minute at a time, but waiting for the vanes of the vent to snap open had changed the outcome of more than one race across the city.

Come in to fast and you slammed into the wall and an exciting new life as a cripple, best case. Come in to slow and gutsier racers would beat you through.

Pat suddenly slowed down, the front of his bike kicking up slightly to increase its wind resistance and it’s magnetic fields suddenly reversing polarity on the autonav readout. It was the maglev equivalent of kicking on the brakes and it was also a good time to pass. Sure, the shutters on the vents were closed but that didn’t mean you couldn’t speed up. It just meant it was risky.

But Patrick was a savvy magracer too, he kept his bike bobbing back and forth, its magnetic polarity fluctuating rapidly and always in opposition to Johnny’s so that the two magcycles repelled each other whenever they got close. Even when Johnny tried doing a complete loop around the launch tube to shake him off Pat managed to cut him off and push him back, nearly shoving him clear of the mass driver entirely and sentencing him to a fast meeting with the ground of the Martian desert.

They were less than a mile out when the vents to the city snapped open and started spewing out clouds of dark vapor into the world outside. Both racers kicked their magnetic drives into high gear and shot towards them, jockeying for position forgotten.

Those clouds were danger number two. The whole point of opening those vents was to pump all that toxic air out but the clouds only really cleared up as the vanes were closing again. By then it was too late to sneak through the vents. But the vents were barely tall enough to let a magcycle and its rider through if the rider crouched low. Since the smog clouded a driver’s ability to see it was easy to clip one of the vanes on the vent and spin out, pancaking onto the wall, the mass driver or the ground and giving the local EMT teams a new story to tell at the bar that night.

But, as he had with just about every other problem on that run so far, Pat plunged through the clouds without hesitation. It was hard to hear through the thin atmosphere but it didn’t sound like he’d wiped out, not that Johnny really had any time to change anything if he had. A split second later he kicked his magcycle up just a fraction, flying up at an angle through the vents in what experience and other magcyclers had taught him was the safest way to clear the hazard. For values of safety, of course.

Almost as soon as his brain processed the fact that he’d once again timed things perfectly and wasn’t going to paste himself all over Kalteisen’s outskirts he had to deal with third and final complication of reentering the city as he had. Gravity was rapidly cranking back up to normal.

After all, human bodies don’t function right in low gravity and Unified Field Theory, correctly applied, made keeping one G of gravity a simple matter of producing enough power. Not all local governments could afford to keep Earth standard gravity within their confines but Kalteisen could and did as a matter of public health. So as soon as Johnny was back inside the walls of the city he started falling, and fast.

Which was good, since for the racer speed equals opportunity. Patrick had been out on deployment for nearly a year and before that he’d been in training. He didn’t know the neighborhood as well as he once did.

The old Chinese restaurant on the corner of Laughlin’s Way and Straight Street had added in a new and outrageously powerful “back-up” generator two months ago. It ran all the time and gave new life to the rumors that they were connected to the Triad somehow. And gave it an outrageously powerful magnetic field bounce off of, cutting a loop off the route they’d used last time they raced. And it was nearly half a block away from the old route.

Johnny bounced his magcyle just enough to point it in the right direction then, instead of grabbing onto the local maglev relay that would pull him into the official “lanes” of traffic that crisscrossed the city he matched polarity with it and shot skyward in a long parabolic arc that took him towards the restaurant.

Too late he noticed Pat’s magnetic field on his autonav, not running down Ender’s Way like he should be but instead hovering just over the Chinese place! As Johnny dropped towards him Pat’s bike suddenly bounced up and matched polarities with his, sending Johnny hurtling off course. He caught a relay over Laughlin nearly a block out and wound up making Canal Street long after Pat, not only loosing the race but posting a time of 7:23, a personal worst.

Johnny broke the seals on his helmet and threw it to the ground in a flurry of cursing that fought to be heard over Pat’s laughing. Finally Johnny got a grip on his temper and said, “How did you do that?”

Pat threw one arm around Johnny’s shoulders and thumped him in the chest with the other, the impact mostly lost in the padded, airtight suits they wore for racing. “Simply strategy, Johnny my boy! Know the terrain and you’ll win the battle.”

“Not that! Well, okay, that too.” Johnny fumed for a moment. He probably should have guessed that Patrick would think to scout out the ground before the race, they’d only been promising to do this for the last two months, since the family learned his cousin would be getting leave. “But how did you bump me like that? You jumped straight up then pushed straight down again. I’ve never seen anybody that good at straight mag repulsion flying by the seat of the pants, it takes a nav program or something.”

Tapping one finger against his temple Pat said, “What am I again?”

Johnny groaned. “A biocomputer.”

“Exactly. Overclocking at 28X is good for more than just fast reaction times. And there’s other perks, too.” Pat gave his bike an affectionate kick. “While I can’t do a direct gel interface with this thing I did rig some modifications in the controls to suit me better.”

“You what?” Johnny stared, openmouthed. “That’s cheating!”

You upgraded your magcoils while I was gone,” Pat said. “It’s the same thing. I just tweaked out my bike in a different direction. Face it, Johnny Boy – you lost.” He turned Johnny back towards his bike and gave him a little push, then hopped back on his own magcycle. “Now as I recall, this means you owe me some Chinese!”

Johnny snorted and snatched his helmet up off the ground. “I’ll get you for this next time.”

“Dream on!” Pat snapped his helmet into place and then made his way back towards the restaurant they’d just passed over at a much more leisurely pace.

Eight Months Later

“Are you Mr. John Cochran?”

Johnny set aside the old balancing gyro he’d just pulled of his bike and looked over the top of the seat. An unfamiliar man wearing a ComODS dress uniform and a grim expression stood there. The drab gray almost let him vanish into the concrete walls of the garage and made the glimmering silver oak leaf that denoted his rank stand out all the more.

“I’m seventeen and I don’t have my citizenship papers yet,” Johnny said, dragging himself to his feet as a feeling of dread started to build in the pit of his stomach. “No one calls me mister anything.”

“Sorry. My mistake.” He took a few steps into the garage, his flat topped, black brimmed hat held in front of him like a shield. “Actually, your mother asked me to come out here and talk to you.”

“Is this about Pat? Because I can’t think of any other reason for a ComODS major to come out here and talk to us.” Johnny folded his arms over his chest and glared. “We’re not the important Cochrans, you know.”

“Yes, actually.” A ghost of a smile cracked the man’s stern face. “There are thousands of Cochrans just descended from Zachariah Cochran. Only a couple hundred are involved directly in running the mass driver. Everyone in the family is different. I served with several Martian Cochrans over the years. They all gave the same speech and it was true every time.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side, surprise warring with his other emotions briefly. “Yeah? Well. So why are you here?”

He glanced down at his hat briefly, then up to look Johnny in the eye. “I regret to inform you that your cousin, Captain Patrick Cohen has been declared missing in action.”

“Missing in action?” Johnny felt some of the tension relax. “Then you’re looking for him?”

The major didn’t break eye contact. “Son, he’s been declared MIA because we no longer intend to actively look for him.”

“Why not?” Johnny demanded, coming around the bike and stopping almost toe to toe with the uniformed man.

“Captain Cohen was on a deep space deployment when his vessel went missing. I’m afraid details beyond that are classified.” The major, who’s uniform had the name Williams over the left pocket, put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, deep space is huge. We could look for your cousin for decades and never turn him up.”

“But-”

“Listen for a minute, son.” Major Williams turned and walked around the garage, looking at the tools, parts and programming equipment that made up a magcycler’s workshop. “Your mother tells me you two were close. Not just his closest living family but real buddies.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “Our dads worked space traffic control, they were buddies. Died when the Braggadocio wrecked in Katleisen Synchorbit. Pat’s mom… didn’t live long after that. So he lived with us.”

Williams nodded. “I remember that fiasco. Mr. Cochran, I know you’re probably never give up on finding your cousin. Honestly, we never will either. That’s part of what makes MIA cases so difficult. You never know when to give up hope. Every commander who takes a vessel through deep space keeps his ear out for signals from missing ships. But right now you need to focus on the family you’ve got left. If Captain Cohen is still alive out there he’s tough enough to make it until we can rescue him.”

“Yeah?” It took a lot of effort but Johnny managed to keep his voice from trembling. “And what guarantee is there that you’ll really keep looking?”

Major Williams ignored the question, instead poking at a half rebuilt maglev coil on the workbench. “You a racer or just a tinkerer?”

“A racer,” Johnny said suspiciously.

“Any good?”

He drew himself up defensively. “I’ve run the CMD Superhighway in under three minutes. Crossed the city in 7:09.”

Major Williams raised his eyebrows. “Better than good, then. So, here’s something to think about. No one has more time to sift through deep space background noise for traces of lost ships than fighter pilots flying battle space patrol on boring escort missions. A lot of the same skills you’ve gotten pulling stupid stunts on that bike will be useful as a pilot. If you absolutely have to look for your cousin, that’s the best way to do it. Just talk to your mother before you sign up. She’s already had enough holes punched in her heart for a couple of lifetimes.”

“There’s always been Cochrans in the military,” Johnny said before his brain caught up to his mouth. When it did a split second later he added, “But I’ll talk to her. If I were to sign up, wouldn’t I need a recommendation or something? Pilots are officers and that means the Academy, right?”

“Did you really make it from Gaffer to Straight in under 7:15?”

Johnny patted his magcycle. “Want to see me do it again?”

The major snorted. “You’re right under a major synchorbital space station and a military shipyards and the security there likes to watch races on the slow nights. If you’ve done it less than six months ago odds are there’s still footage of you doing it floating around. That’s really all the recommendation you need for the fighter program.”

“That’s all?”

He shrugged. “That and decent scores in math, science, physical ability and the rest. You plan to take a shot at finding your brother?”

“Yeah. Can you think of a better reason for taking a job that could get you killed?”

“This from a magcycle racer.” Williams laughed. “Well, greater love has no man than this, I suppose. Best of luck, son. Best of luck.”

Fiction Index

Investment Levels

A man and his wife are sitting in their living room, on a sofa in front of the coffee table. An argument commences in the way most arguments start – with little warning about something that’s probably not important. After a few minutes the man stands up a bit too fast and bangs his shins on the coffee table. Cursing, he limps into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of wine as his wife straightens the coffee table out and gets it back in its proper place. The two are yelling at each other all the while. The man walks back into the living room, sipping his wine, the cupboard door standing open behind him.

The woman gets up and stalks past him, closing the cupboard door, while he turns his back and walks to the window, shaking his head in frustration. There’s a moment of silence as she checks the kitchen for messes and he stares out the window. They meet back at the sofa for round two. As things ramp back up again he moves to slam his glass down on the coffee table, she grabs his hand before it gets half way and gently takes the wine from him.

Aggravated, he lays in harder, gesturing wildly. She grows still, quietly answering each point until finally he traps her and triumphantly calls her out on a stupid discrepancy. She fumes for a moment, then flings the glass on the floor and storms out, leaving her surprised husband with wine and glass all over the floor, the sofa and his pants.

This is part two of a two part set. Part one is here. We’re talking about action scenes, what they look like and how to do them. What you see above is the outline of an action scene. No, it’s not a traditional action scene with chases, explosions or fisticuffs, but it’s still an action scene. It’s not that long, although with dialog it might be longer than you think, but then action scenes don’t need to be long, just engaging.

The most important thing here, at least in my opinion, is the viewpoint. It’s a third person story and that’s part of what makes it work. While we could spend all our time in the heads of one of these characters the way they’re arguing would steal much of the action – it’s the point/counterpoint of their actions, leading up to the twist when the orderly woman finally looses it and makes a mess, that gives the action drive, purpose and timing. Change the point of view to first person with either character and you get a very different scene, and one that would probably be much harder to play with the same sense of immediacy and drive that being a fly on the wall would give you.

We often think of first person as the most immediate and engaging point of view. This is not always the case, however. If you look at the scene that opens this post from the first person point of view you find that it looses a lot of the action. The characters aren’t looking at each other during most of the action and their thoughts about their circumstances and how the other person is acting are going to slow down the pacing.

The climax of this scene is where the woman, who has been obsessively keeping the room meat, finally breaks down and makes a mess. There’s wonderful symbolism about the state of their relationship tied up in that moment. But it’s not going to come through unless we’ve seen the full interplay between both characters, and for that we need a detached third perspective.

Have you ever been to one of those movies that uses a constantly jostling, tumbling camera perspective to try and create the feeling that you’re right there, in the action? Ever notice how it’s mostly just nauseating and makes the action harder to follow? Writing action from the wrong perspective can be like that. Not to say action from the first person is impossible – it can and has been done. But like with all writing choices you have to keep your audience and the ultimate goal of your writing in mind.

First person gives us an investment in the person telling the story, but third person transfers the emphasis to what is going on – and that’s the heart of the action sequence. Even some first person stories find ways to tell action from the third person point of view, that way the audience is invested in what is going on and how it will affect the characters they care about, not what the characters are thinking or feeling. There’s often very little time for either in the heart of unfolding events, so it’s better to unpack that later anyways.

It’s much better to show than tell, so some books with well written action scenes that I would recommend include The Horse And His Boy by C. S. Lewis (pay particular attention to the battle scene at the end), Madhouse by Rob Thurman (the Sawney Bean fights), Moon Over SoHo by Ben Aaronovitch (chasing the Pale Lady and Peter’s first meeting with the Faceless Man) and any of the Cobra books by Timothy Zahn for gravity defying parkour at its best. Can you think of any I’ve missed? Be sure to let me know!

The Daedalus Incident

A “mashup” is where you take two things that seem totally unrelated and blend them into a seamless whole. The term doesn’t imply it but the blending has to seem natural to the point where the two things you’re working with almost look like they were always meant to go together. The term seems to have originated in contemporary music, where homages to previous musicians or blendings of styles seem much more common. But that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to other things.

The Daedalus Incident, by Michael J. Martinez is a great example. It takes fairly hard scifi and smashes it together with alternate history and low fantasy to get a story that is unique and charming.

We start on the venerable planet of Mars, where mining operations are interrupted by an unexpected and theoretically impossible earthquake. (Yes, technically it should be a marsquake but apparently that’s not a word.) As the multinational space command overseeing things there struggles to find a good explanation it quickly becomes apparent things are getting worse.

Meanwhile, Lt. Thomas Weatherby of the British Royal Navy is bound for Mercury. In the late 1700s. In a sailing ship equally at home on the sea or in the sky. And the story hasn’t even gotten weird yet.

The Daedalus Incident is everything you ever wanted if you’re into scifi with an X-Files twist. It’s got everything, from ancient alien astronauts to weird alchemy and beyond. The science here is pretty solid, to the extent it goes (and that may not be as far as you think) but more than that it takes pains to be believable enough to keep us from questioning it without demanding too much of us. There’s a very real element of believability to the nature of Weatherby’s ships – all the old-fashioned nautical terms are clearly well researched and consistent and the made up stuff is blended in seamlessly.

That said, if you’re one of those people who cannot stand, for whatever reason, anything that smacks of handwaving in your scifi this is not the story for you. (Honestly, I’m not sure how you can stand reading scifi at all.) Because frankly there’s a lot here that’s vulnerable to fridge logic and is liable to leave you with an upset stomach after you try and digest it. You’re better off leaving it on the shelf and admiring the pretty colors, because not everyone can handle that.

The plot here is suitably complex – there’s stuff going on in both narrative threads and a good pace and points of view are juggled to keep you interested in what happens next. Suspense is maintained quite well – I figured out who the mole in the ranks of the good guys was about half way through but I was still interested in how it would play out and there are enough other plot threads at work to keep you interested even if you figure it out, too.

All in all, this story is great fun and shows a creativity sadly lacking in a lot of politically or conspiracy oriented scifi these days. There’s a total of three books planned, the second of which is already out, and I plan to chase them all down. It’s probably worth your time, too.

Code Red (Part Two)

“Out of all the Euthanasia Wars, China’s was the worst.”

Herrigan stopped in the center of the amidships ballast pumping compartment to give Lauren a disbelieving look. “Euthanasia Wars? As in more than one?”

“Yes. That’s why there are two countries where the United States used to be. Several nations fought them as recently as ten years ago.” She gave Herrigan a little push aft before continuing. “But China’s was the worst.”

“Did they still have that stupid family planning policy with one kid each?” Herrigan asked, taking the hint and continuing on his way. “Even we never went that far and we had limited oxygen in the early days.”

“Yes, the one child policy still existed and yes, it was a big contributing factor to what made the war so vicious. The population was so heavily skewed towards young men at that point that, when the government started putting down the elderly, there were riots.” Lauren shrugged, although Herrigan couldn’t see it. “I guess they figured they weren’t going to put up with a society that didn’t care about whether population manipulation stiffed them out of a wife and wanted to kill them once they got too old.”

“No one saw this coming?”

“Some people think they didn’t, some think they had plans to deal with it that weren’t enough, and the possibilities go on.” Lauren paused a moment as they moved through a compartment with a few other crew in it. She didn’t want too many people hearing her story. It was common knowledge on the surface but that didn’t mean they liked talking about it. Once they were in the next compartment she continued. “Early on, while people were still picking sides, there was a mutiny on the nuclear submarine Guan Yu.”

“Nuclear powered or armed with nuclear weapons?” Herrigan asked.

“Both. It left port one day and no one heard from it for nearly two weeks. Then there was a string of massive detonations in or near the Aleutian Trench and-”

“Wait.” Herrigan tried to stop in the middle of the aft auxiliary electrical compartment but this time Lauren didn’t even let him come to a full stop before pushing him on. He didn’t let a little shoving keep him from his question though. “How can you have a nuclear winter caused by undersea detonations?”

“That trench is right along the tectonic plates. The detonations caused massive instabilities resulting in new volcanic eruptions and, in turn, warmer seas and much more violent storm seasons. To say nothing of the earthquakes and other problems.”

“The Big Shake was caused by this Guano ship? I remember that. I was six.” Herrigan tilted his head to one side. “But that was nearly forty years ago!”

“The most recent wars ended ten years ago, some of them have been over longer.” Another shrug he was in no position to see. “And some of this stuff has taken a long time to sort out.”

“And that was enough for an ice age?”

Lauren sighed and rushed through the next part. “Okay so some radical enviroterrorists released huge clouds of sun scattering nanoparticles into the upper atmosphere twenty years or so before that to try and combat global warming and the two may have stacked together to make undesirable results.”

“Like an ice age.”

“Yes.” She bit out the words. “Like an ice age. Now you know why your ship is illegal in most ports the world over. Can we please get my boss and work something out before he causes an international incident?”

“You realize we run on a small reactor. Can’t even melt down creditably, much less cause an explosion.”

“And you have no idea what the ice age has done to people. To civilization.” They were stopped outside a door marked “O.P.” that didn’t quite muffle the sound of shouting from inside. Lauren realized there was an edge in her own voice and did her best to reign it in. “People are going to be weirded out by this. Try to cut them a little slack.”

Herrigan gave her a strange look and said, “Right. Slack.” Then he grabbed the handle on the door, cranked it around to unlock it and pushed it open.

Chaos greeted them.

Bainbridge lay sprawled on the floor, he was soaking wet and covered with some kind of dull red lace or ribbon. An old man in a black jacket, the first of the color she’d seen, was yelling at him about meltdowns and responsible fissioning and qualifications all while shaking a stepladder at the harbormaster like some sort of geriatric lion tamer.

The captain, first mate and a third crewman faced off against the two harbor security men that Bainbridge had brought with him. The XO, Gwen, had pulled a knife from somewhere while both guards had drawn their ionizers. With a sudden twitch of panic Gwen wondered what would happen if they used the electrically based weapons in an environment as damp as Erin’s Dream. Especially with Bainbridge already sopping wet.

It was surprisingly easy to concentrate on the question since all shouting stopped as soon as the door banged open. Herrigan took advantage of the silence to say, in a surprisingly stern tone, “Put down your weapons, you two. You’re under arrest.”

The two security men looked at him in disbelief, something Lauren was sure was echoed on her own face, then one of them started to point his ionizer at Herrigan only to step back in surprise when a huge black blob appeared on his arm with a soft whuffing sound.

While Lauren had been distracted by what was going on in the compartment Herrigan had apparently drawn his own weapon, which was clearly not an ionizer, and was now carefully pelting the security men with whatever it was his gun fired. Whatever it was it crackled like popcorn and swelled up quickly, turning from a small black dot to a large sphere in just a second or two. The guard tried to bat it away only to wind up with his hand stuck to his sleeve.

Almost as fast as things had started it was over, with both security men tangled in a mess of black sticky foam, glued to themselves, the floor and sides of one tank and even each other. Neither one had their weapon pointed at anything important. Lauren cleared her throat and addressed them. “Why don’t you gentlemen go ahead and put the safety on your weapons? If they go off now there’s a good chance you’ll be the only ones hurt.”

“What’s that?” Bainbridge demanded, his tone not quite matched by his new reddish hairstyle. “Don’t be ridiculous, Lauren!”

“Mr. Bainbridge, we’re bordering on an international incident.”

He pulled a handful of red seaweed off his shoulder and tossed it aside, “The Living States of America won’t care if we impound an illegal nuclear vessel and arrest it’s crew.”

“No,” Lauren said, glancing at Herrigan. He nodded slightly and she said, “But the Alcatraz Pact might.”

“The what?” Bainbridge asked, going suddenly still and pale.

Lauren tried to remember if she’d ever seen him so disturbed. She didn’t think she had. “Former penal colony? They live under the ocean, around the Marianas Trench? Do you know something about this you’d like to share with the rest of the class?”

“There have been rumors…” The harbormaster glanced hurridly around the room, as if viewing it’s occupants in a new light. “I didn’t think the Marianas ghosts were real, though.”

The ship’s captain cleared his throat. “Deputy Cartwright? Could I have a moment?”

——–

“You told her about the Pact?”

“Just the name.” Herrigan glanced over at Lauren. At his insistence they’d moved the whole discussion back to the galley for the moment, in part because as soon as Bainbridge had remembered they were sitting next to an active and leaking nuclear reactor he’d gotten very, very nervous and edging close to some kind of breakdown. “Oscar, we’re running blind here and we’ve already made a lot of mistakes. We just didn’t know enough about the current situation up here to pass as surface men. It was better to tell her the truth than let her draw some kind of weird conclusions.”

Oscar looked skeptical but all he said was, “It’s your call to make. Just be ready to explain it when we get back. You cousin might not appreciate it, to say nothing of the Chief Zeke or any of the other Ward leaders.”

“I can handle Sam and he can handle the Chief Executive. The other Wards…” Herrigan shrugged helplessly. “We did start as a settlement of political dissidents. When have the Wards of Alcatraz ever agreed on anything?”

“Just remember that if the Warden ever calls you up to Alcatraz proper for an explanation. You’re deputized, sure, but I dunno if that was ever meant to cover something like this.” Duffy’s tone was light but his expression was grim. This was all new territory for everyone involved. “Let’s go talk to our friends, shall we?”

Bainbridge had put himself back together fairly well over the last ten minutes and he once again looked less like a frightened man and more like a self-satisfied official, albeit  a damp one. He harrumphed a bit as the other two men settled in across from him, breaking off a quite conversation with his assistant harbormaster. “Gentlemen, I think I have a better grasp on the situation now.”

“Excellent,” Duffy said with a quick and easy smile. “I hope that means we can set aside all this talk of impounding my ship.”

“Unfortunately, while I am convinced that you had no ill intent in bringing your ship and its…” The harbormaster hesitated for a moment. “Its dangerous power source here, that doesn’t mean I can just allow you to retain possession of it. It’s still my intention to impound Erin’s Dream until the government can decide exactly what to do with it.”

“Now wait a minute,” Herrigan said, holding up a hand. “Does the prohibition on nuclear power apply to warships as well? Because the Alcatraz Pact views all existing subs as part of its Reserve Navy as well – we just don’t have the resources to maintain a full Navy and a healthy construction fleet – so Erin’s Dream counts as a deep patrol sub in our books.”

“That’s preposterous! Little better than privateering.”

“There’s some similarities, sure,” Herrigan conceded. “But it’s not against international law as far as I know. ‘Course, our knowledge of surface law is out of date, hence our problem here…”

Bainbridge’s expression grew thunderous even as his voice grew quiet. “This ship is armed?”

“Maybe it is, maybe we have to install the right modules before we ship out.” Duffy spread his hands casually. “We’re not actually required to tell you, I believe.”

“Well think again-”

“Actually, sir, he’s right.” Lauren handed the harbormaster her tablet. “U.N Security Counsel approved it in 2033 in order to help deal with African and Indonesian pirate vessels, since good Navies were out of the price range of many countries involved. The laws are still on the books. And they’re right, warships can carry nuclear reactors.”

“There you have it.” Herrigan folded his arms over his chest and did his best to match Bainbridge’s grim expression, although he felt mildly ridiculous just having to argue about something as fundamental as keeping ahold of his livelihood. “Our ship is legal and safe. An attempt to impound it would be a blatant disregard of the rights of Marianas Trench Colony citizens. Our reactor is spinning down right now and will be ready for patching by the end of the day after tomorrow. Give us a little breathing room and we can be out of here in a week.”

“Marianas Trench Colony?” Bainbridge quirked an eyebrow. “Is that the official name for you fellows?”

“Not many people like it,” Duffy said. “Since all that’s really be done is scrubbing the word ‘Penal’ out. For all that it says pretty much the same thing most people like ‘Alcatraz’ better. Maybe because we picked it ourselves.”

The harbormaster braced himself against the table, as if to shove it away, but all he did was say, “Foreign warships are expected to declare themselves when they arrive in port, not sneak in and tie up with the civilian ship. Particularly not when we find they’re leaking radiation into my harbor. And-”

“My engines aren’t leaking nothing into your waters!” Old Phil bellowed from the other side of the galley where he and his grandson waited with the two security guards Bainbridge had brought along. He made as if to cross over to the other foursome’s table but the younger Phil restrained him. “You’ll be throwing-”

“You will all stop interrupting!” Bainbridge shouted. Herrigan bit his tongue and did his best to make the statement true. He was sure Duffy was doing the same beside him. After a moment’s quiet the harbormaster went on, his tone once again quiet and dangerous. “Furthermore the Alcatraz Pact has no relations at all with the government of Australia, the U.N. or any nation thereof. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

“No, you’re right on target there,” Herrigan said.

“So we could just as easily interpret your presence here, undeclared and possibly armed, as a declaration of war. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Duffy suddenly turned to one side and spat, a sure sign he was getting seriously angry. Lauren and Bainbridge started slightly at the sudden move and Bainbridge’s lip curled down in disgust but otherwise the silent tableau held. A part of Herrigan’s brain was already mulling over Eddie’s actual armament, the potential capabilities of the destroyers they’d spotted in port as they came in and whether the reactor could actually be patched when the ship wasn’t in port. If the harbormaster did decide to try and take possession of the ship was there really anything they could do to prevent it? Erin’s Dream wasn’t helpless but a daring escape under the nose of a working military port wasn’t exactly something she was designed for, either.

“Mr. Bainbridge.” The three men turned to Lauren as one. “Let me point out that the crew of the Erin’s Dream had just cause to suspect they wouldn’t be viewed in a friendly fashion. On top of that, they have still dealt with us in a fair fashion, to the extent they knew how, and haven’t threatened us in any way.”

“Except for attacking two security guards,” Bainbridge pointed out.

“In my defense,” Herrigan said, “Riot foam is proven nonlethal technology that came down with us from the surface. They were never in any danger.”

Lauren leaned in closer to the harbormaster, saying, “And they are a salvage vessel equipped with a nuclear reactor. If they wanted to be nasty I’m sure they have equally unexpected methods to do it with.”

Bainbridge mulled it over for a minute then finally said, “We would still have to notify the Commonwealth. I’ll admit I’m inclined to let you go, if for no other reason than to make sure rumors of nuclear reactors in private hands don’t get out. But I can’t just let you wander off without approval from Canberra.”

Herrigan and Duffy exchanged a look. The captain asked, “What do you think, Harry? You’re the closest thing to a government officer on board.”

“And don’t I know it.” He said it more to buy time to think than anything else. Ultimately there was no way for Erin’s Dream to escape New Darwin if the local authorities and the Australian Navy were determined to keep them there. Even a fully equipped war sub was meant to fight as much by stealth as power and, as much as he loved her, Herrigan knew he couldn’t count on his ship for even a quarter of the firepower of an Alcatraz tactical sub. At the moment their only leverage was having the harbormaster and assistant harbormaster on board and effectively in their power.

Announcing the existence of the Marianas Trench Colony to the Australian government just to get permission to leave port didn’t really appeal to him. But sometimes being smart meant knowing when to back down and see what happened. “We’ll want to keep working on repairs while we wait to hear.”

“Of course, Mr. Cartwright.” The harbormaster clearly liked that idea. “The sooner that reactor of yours is patched the better. How long do you think the patching process will take?”

“Two days to finish cooling the reactor,” Duffy said absently, “Maybe another day to patch it and three more days to spin it back up. About a week?”

Bainbridge raised his eyebrows. “That quickly?”

“If you banned nuclear power nearly forty years ago then you’ve fallen a fair bit behind the times.” Duffy shrugged. “Phil could explain the process better than I could, but I’m pretty sure he’ll back my numbers. Will we know if we can leave by then?”

“I’d expect to have the answer in three to four days, if not sooner,” Bainbridge said.

“Four days.” Herrigan leaned back and glanced down the narrow galley at Old Phil. “Can we be ready that fast?”

He nodded gravely. “If I have to break my heart to do it.”

“I expect to be leaving port in four days, Mr. Bainbridge.” Herrigan pushed himself up from the table and waved for the rest to gather up. “Now you two are probably very busy people so I’ll see you on your way.”

——–

To his surprise, Herrigan found himself out by the gangplank the very next afternoon, welcoming Lauren back to the ship. “I have to admit,” he said once the usual rituals were observed, “I wasn’t expecting you back quite so quickly.”

“No one was expecting an answer so soon,” she admitted. “But apparently someone in the Prime Minister’s office drafted a contingency plan for your reappearance about the same time the surface cut off contact with you and it only took a few hours of debate to settle on using it now.”

Herrigan absently rubbed his hand along his chin. “Really. After what, sixty years?”

“It may have been revised some.” She handed him a thick manila envelope. “The details are in there but the general gist of things is, they want you to take an ambassador down to you colony when you go home in order to facilitate opening friendly relations.”

He gently took the envelope out of Lauren’s hands and turned it over once or twice, as if that would somehow reveal that this was all a joke. “Who’s the ambassador?”

“We haven’t heard yet. I think that part is still being worked out.”

“Well.” Herrigan slipped the envelope into his back pocket and tried to think of what to say. He hadn’t really expected them to have a policy primed and ready. Hopefully he’d have at least another day to figure out what to do with an ambassador before one showed up on his doorstep.

“I need to be getting back to my work.”

“What’s that?” He jerked out of his thoughts and realized he’d been quiet for a minute or two while Lauren stood and waited. “Right. Sorry, didn’t mean to keep you. Thanks for letting us know the outcome so fast.”

“No problem.” She favored him with a very pretty smile. “Bainbridge is kind of chomping at the bit to get you out of his docks as soon as possible. Calm seas, Mr. Herrigan.”

“Wait.” She paused, turned halfway back towards the gangplank, her head cocked in an unspoken question. “I didn’t get a chance to ask yesterday. You didn’t seem to care much for us when you came on board but you still put in a good word with the harbormaster for us. Why?’

She thought for a moment, looking over the cluttered, kind of grubby deck of Erin’s Dream as if seeing it for the first time. Then she shrugged. “I suppose I just thought you should take second chances anywhere you can get them.”

Herrigan broke into a grin. “That you should, Lauren. That you should.”

Fiction Index
Part One

And Action!

At least half of all writing calls for an action sequence of some kind. We’re not just talking about a knock-down-drag-out slug fest here, anything from two kids chasing each other through the house to a particularly heated argument with fists banged on table tops and people pacing back and forth are opportunities for “action” sequences. With the right kind of writing a cross country race is not just a slog across back roads, it’s a gripping series of events that keeps the reader invested in what is happening to your characters.

If you’ve been to the movies on a regular basis in the last few years odds are you’ve seen a lot of action sequences so you already know that they have a lot of parts to them and can be done a lot of different ways. The construction of an action sequence is a big enough of a topic that I want to take two weeks to break it down, so this week we’re going to start with what an action sequence needs.

Action sequences all need a few basic building blocks:

  1. A character or thing that is taking action. You can’t have an action sequence based on a bunch of rocks baking in the summer sun. Ideally there will be a relatable character at the center of an action sequence, particularly if it’s early in the story, but compelling action sequences can also be built around an object or objects, like a coin being weighed and tossed about by the mechanisms inside a ridiculously complex vending machine. Or even better, a Rube Goldberg sequence that starts with that coin and ends with a bag of salted peanuts. While this sounds like a visual thing don’t underestimate how much a sequence of odd cause and effect events can interest readers, as well.
  2. A goal of some sort that everything will eventually lead to. Even if the whole point of the slip of paper making it’s way through 39 steps from the secretary who takes the message to it’s recipient is to introduce Luther Pendleton, Clockworker Supreme, when he picks it up out of his inbox, make sure all this action gets the readers somewhere. Action with no point comes across as frantic and quickly gets annoying.
  3. Things for the character (or thing) to react to. This usually comes in the form of an obstacle but can involve the character finding something unexpected and helpful, like a skateboard to use in the middle of a chase sequence. Remember, walking is an action. It doesn’t really become interesting until someone slips on a banana peel. Without something to react to, there’s no action.
  4. A sense of place. Where action takes place is as much a part of the action as what is going on. If you have any doubts about this I refer you to the clock tower sequence of The Great Mouse Detective. Your place doesn’t have to be quite thaaaat dramatic, but obviously you need something.
  5. A sense of timing. Just as with humor, in the action sequence timing is everything. You can’t just go from zero to hero in a couple of paragraphs or a few seconds of camerawork. Exactly how long is up to you but the ideal action sequence has something like fifteen to thirty ‘beats’ in it. (These are much like the beats in a beat outline, except each beat is a much smaller unit of time.) Like a plot as a whole your beats should ebb and surge, always building to the climax of your action scene.

On a very basic level, a plot is something happening. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that an action sequence, where more things happen than usual, equals more plot in a single scene it is true that people expect things to happen during a story. Unless, of course, your audience is the most elite of the literati, in which case things happening are probably actually a negative in your book. But for everyone else, a certain level of things happening is a must, and action sequences are a good way meet those expectations in a very attention getting fashion. Tune in next week and we’ll look at how to keep your audience invested in an action sequence.

Cool Things: Captain Phillips

Warning: Do not watch this movie if you do not deal well with stress.

While the packaging for Captain Phillips doesn’t have that warning anywhere on it, I really think it should. If you’re not sure who Captain Phillips is, or why a movie based on real events that happened to him should perk your interest, here’s a quick recap:

Richard Phillips was the captain of the Maersk Alabama when it was attacked by Somali pirates. He and his crew resisted as best they were equipped to and eventually got the pirates off their boat. But the pirates took Captain Phillips along with them as a hostage. It would take a Navy SEAL team to get him back.

The best genre to put Captain Phillips in would be thriller, but that does a huge disservice to the movie and the real man it’s based on. Perhaps the best way to think of it is a character study that runs over two and a half hours long. Or maybe it’s a meditation on the responsibilities that come with leadership. Or maybe it’s just a study of how good men stand up to hard times.

Phillips is not a particularly brave or exceptional man – and I say this in much the same way that Tolkien begins stories about hobbits by noting that they are not particularly brave or exceptional. Rich Phillips is a normal man with kids to worry about, a wife to worry with and a job where he’s spent many years working his way up to middle management. He’s a normal guy who’s job just so happens to involve moving cargo around the Horn of Africa.

I’m not going to dwell on the plot a whole lot, since it’s pretty much ripped straight from real events. It doesn’t have to be believable – it happened!

The cinematography, something I don’t usually dwell on in these segments, is ideal. It’s got that slightly jittery, almost homemade feel that reemphasizes to us that these are not your usual Hollywood glamourized characters.

Tom Hanks as Phillips gets to do something actors are almost never allowed to do – talk like a normal person. He hems and haws his way carefully and deliberately through his lines, not because he’s uncertain but because that’s exactly what fits a man who’s whole life has revolved around making haste slowly, so that the deliveries are made on time. There’s very little glamour in this movie. Frankly, it doesn’t need it.

Everything in this film is so realistic it’s scary. From the early laidback attitude of the crew to their later panicked intensity, the manic energy of the pirates that slowly builds into complete breakdown, we believe something about what we see that most movies can’t quite make us believe: That this happened somewhere, to someone. That something similar could easily happen to us.

So there’s a lot of nail chewing as the crew of Maersk Alabama struggles to keep the pirates off their boat with firehoses and flares, then sabotages them with broken glass and shorted out generators. But all this pales to the abduction of Captain Phillips and the eventual rescue at the hands of the US Navy.

There’s no way to explain the tension this movie builds. There’s no moment of frantic action, no clever twists of the plot. There’s just the integrity of Captain Phillips and our sense that, whatever happens, we’d like to have someone like him in our corner when our time comes. Like all films that focus on the heroism of a good man, the message is that we should strive to be that person, should the time come.

If you can manage to stand up to a couple of hours of pure tension, Captain Phillips will more than make itself worth your time.

Code Red (Part One)

Well here we are just two stories into the summer plans and we’re already off schedule. This story took me all of two and a half days to write so I figured it must be short – but when I went to post it I discovered it was about twice as long as what I would consider ideal post length. Looks like it’s perfect for a two part story!

——–

The position of chief technician on a Trenchman sub was a weird blend of chemical expert, mechanical engineer and botanist with a smattering of really weird expertise thrown in for flavor. They were very smart, very well respected people who the crew listened to as a matter of course, even when they didn’t personally like the technician in question. Captain Oscar Duffy had always gotten on fine with Old Phil, his chief tech, so when Phil called him off the bridge Duffy assumed it was important and made his way down the length of the Erin’s Dream to the rear Oxygen Processing compartment without protest.

“It’s turned red,” Phil said, as if that explained.

“I can see that,” Duffy said. He was, unfortunately, unenlightened by his chief tech’s explanation. “Unfortunately we’re not going to have a replacement on hand any time soon. The salvage bays are going to be mostly empty on our return run, though. Could we just load some extra air in tanks and use that to get us home? We could run part of the way on the surface.”

Old Phil gave him a disbelieving look. “You don’t know what this means, do you?”

“Assume I’m not entirely current on the nuance of every system on this ship.”

“Fine.” He rapped his knuckles sharply on the bulkhead just a foot from where the two men were standing. “You know what’s on the other side of this?”

“Oh.” Duffy felt himself turning pale. “That’s bad.”

“Yes, Captain, it certainly is. The pressure hull isn’t the only thing that’ll need fixing when we get to port.”

——–

Lauren Cochran looked up when Vern walked, or rather shuffled, into the assistant harbor master’s office. He wasn’t the type to intrude without cause, in fact he wasn’t the type to do anything at all to draw attention, so there was really only one possibility if he was crossing her threshold of his own volition. “Something the matter, Vern?”

Vern cleared his throat twice, an annoying but predictable sign of nervousness, and said, “Yes, ma’am. You know we’ve got a sub in port right now?”

“New Darwin’s always had a little Navy presence, Vern,” she said, fingers absently skimming over touchscreens as she tried to bring up the current listing of Royal Australian Navy ships in port. Was there an attack sub at dock just then? “Are they causing problems?”

“Not that I know of.” He fidgeted for a second. “Actually, I’m talking about a civilian sub?”

Flicked fingers sent the military berths away and she started flipping through the larger public listings. “A research sub or a salvage vehicle?”

“The latter.” He handed her the tablet he was holding and said, “The dock inspector found something you should see.”

Lauren grimaced as she took the tablet. It was clammy and sweaty and she did her best to surreptitiously wipe her hands dry as she woke up the device. “You could have just copied me the memory stick, you know.”

Vern shook his head vigorously. “You don’t want this running around the wifi, Lauren. Trust me.”

Erin’s Dream, huh,” she muttered, thumbing through the screens of data. She stopped when she reached the fourth. “Does the harbormaster know about this?”

“Not yet.” Vern looked down at his hands as if ashamed of the fact. “He was in a meeting with the deputy mayor when we noticed. He should be back in half an hour but…”

“You didn’t want this in the datastream. Okay, you made a good call.” She pushed herself up and out from behind her desk. “Have him meet me at Pier 42 as soon as he can.”

“Do you want security there?” Vern asked tentatively. “Or the police?”

“If it was going to be anyone I’d have the military there. But there’s still a chance this is a misunderstanding.”

“You think so?” Vern asked hopefully.

Lauren sighed. “No. Not really.”

——–

The cramped surface deck of Erin’s Dream was cluttered with equipment, parts and crew. With the sub at dock there wasn’t much call for the Waldos so Herrigan found himself doing his best to keep order among the chaos. “No, not the welding equipment. What if Graham needs that to patch the hull? Put it aft with the other stuff going back down into engineering storage.” He scowled around at the rest of the junk on the deck. He’d thought nothing could be as tough as keeping an underwater salvage op from tangling in it’s own power and communication cables but he didn’t even know what half this stuff was, much less whether they’d need it below decks in the next few weeks. “Keep the spare parts for the Waldos and Eddie separate. I don’t want to try seeing if a Waldo battery is compatible with our power supply system, you hear me? Don’t get them mixed up!”

“Hey, Harry?” Herrigan looked down from his vantage up on the conning tower to spot Tank, one of his salvage sub drivers, down on the main deck by the gangplank, waving for his attention. “Harry, some guys here to see you. One of ’em says he’s the harbormaster.”

“Coming!” He rattled down from the conning tower muttering curses. He’d chosen his salvage pilots for experience, since bad salvage pilots were almost entirely weeded out by their first two jobs. If you survived that long you were good. That was the way the job went. But that kind of competence didn’t always come with good manners, something people like harbormasters tended to appreciate.

It was pretty easy to tell with a glance which one the harbormaster was and, just as Herrigan had feared, he didn’t look happy at Tank’s offhand way of referred to him. The kind of man who came out to look at a salvage sub in a three piece suit most likely expected to be addressed with respect, too. There were maybe half a dozen people with the harbormaster too, a pretty large group just to pay a visit to a lowly salvage sub. To say nothing of how unusual a personal visit from the harbormaster was, period.

For the second time that month Herrigan was hearing damage control alarms. Problem was, this time they were entirely in his own mind and he wasn’t sure what kind of damage he was dealing with.

“Hi, I’m Herrigan Cartwright,” he said, holding out a hand to the harbormaster. “Welcome aboard the Erin’s Dream.”

“A pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” the harbormaster said, giving the offered hand a quick shake, his tone making it clear they were just words. “This is a fine looking ship you have.”

Eddie’s got it where it counts…” Herrigan racked his brains quickly and, just as he was about to skip it remembered the name he’d heard during the ship’s initial inspection. “Mr. Bainbridge. What can I do for you today? Or are you perhaps a connoisseur of submersibles? Ours is a pretty unusual model.”

Bainbridge’s expression sharpened momentarily. “It is at that. We weren’t able to find anything like it in our records.”

Which was because Erin’s Dream had been build in Purgatory Ward’s shipyards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, something the Australians weren’t supposed to know existed. Herrigan mentally kicked himself for that slip up, comparing submarine design and customization was a typical middle class topic of conversation for Trenchmen but he couldn’t expect others to share it. “She was a custom job, actually,” he answered, hoping it didn’t come off as lame as it sounded. “Would you like a tour?”

“Actually, I would. In a manner of speaking.” Bainbridge gestured behind him to a tall, careworn woman with gray streaks beginning to work through her black hair. “This is the assistant harbormaster, Lauren Cochran. We’ve come down here because there were some discrepancies in your registration we’d like to sort out. The two of us would like to take a look through your vessel if you don’t mind, Captain Cartwright.”

He flicked his gaze from the harbormaster to his assistant and back again. Best to buy time to work out a clearer picture of what was going on. “Actually, I’m not the captain. He’s below decks with our XO, getting a feel for some repairs that need doing.”

“You’re not the captain or the fist mate?” Lauren asked. “Then why did they call you over?”

“Because I am part owner. Captain Duffy and I each own half shares in the ship. So far as business decisions go I’m just as capable of making them as he is.” Herrigan offered her a casual shrug. “Tank must have figured this was about some of the repair supplies we’d requested.”

“Well, ‘Tank’ was close but not quite correct.” The harbormaster held up a flat device about the size of a notepad. “Our visit is related to the salvage you’re offering for sale. I notice you haven’t visited New Darwin before, so you might not be aware of some of the rules we have governing what kind of salvage we can and can’t take. We’ll need to inspect it, and do a second inspection of your vessel for possible illicit salvage.”

“Illicit salvage? That some kind of joke?” A glance between the two officials faces convinced him that no, it wasn’t. Herrigan sighed and waved to get Tank’s attention again. “Ring down to the galley and get Duffy up here, will you?”

“The galley?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah, like I said we’re doing some repairs down there. It’s a long story. I’d take you there but the place isn’t in any shape for company.”

“This is an inspection, Mr. Cartwright.” Bainbridge crossed his arms over his chest. “We’ll need to see all sections of the ship eventually.”

“All right,” Herrigan said, keeping a firm grip on his building annoyance. “We’ll go meet Duffy there. Then, since I’m sure we’re all busy people, I’ll take Mrs. Cochran to inspect our salvage holds and Duffy can give you the grand tour. Sound good?”

“Splendid,” Bainbridge replied. “Lead on.”

——–

The crew of Erin’s Dream was almost as strange as the ship itself. Almost everyone they passed in the corridors was wearing the same kind of slick, plastic shelled jacket that Herrrigan wore. Lauren hadn’t seen that many people on deck wearing them but that may just have been to keep cool. It quickly became apparent why they wore the jackets, temperatures belowdecks weren’t that bad but the humidity bordered on stifling. The jackets collected condensation and wicked it down to the floor quickly. She couldn’t tell what happened to the moisture after that, there certainly weren’t any puddles visible leading her to assume some kind of drainage system was at work.

The humidity was probably the driving force behind the almost total lack of hair on all of the men she’d seen. Most had just shaved their heads bald but some, like Herrigan, had enough fuzz on the top of their heads to be confused for a peach. The one woman she’d seen so far, the XO by all accounts, wore her hair short enough to be mistaken for a man most other places.

That might make things seem drab except the crew all seemed intent on wearing the brightest colors possible. Herrigan and at least half the crew had chosen a bright canary yellow for their waterproof jackets, most of the rest were an equally bright shade of blue. As nearly as Lauren could tell, the color didn’t correspond to job description in any way. While clothes tended to be loose cut and shapeless the crew seemed to favor crazy patterns on the fabric and, when mixed with tools sticking out of pockets,  bandanas on heads or broad leather belts, the whole crew had a vaguely piratical air.

Even Captain Duffy, who out of the whole crew wore the only gray waterproof jacket she’d seen and wore a button down shirt, accessorized with a bolo tie and iron gray hoop earrings.

Herrigan’s black trimmed, yellow clothes would have made him unremarkable in comparison to the rest of the crew except for the fact that he was armed.

Lauren caught sight of the weapons as he cranked open the pressure door leading into what he called the salvage bay. On the side of his belt he wore what looked like an ionizer with an unfamiliar control scheme. A knife handle stuck out from behind his back. She couldn’t tell more because as soon as she realized what they were he was pushing the door open and his jacket fell to cover them again.

“Tell me, Mrs. Cochran, what exactly is illicit salvage?” He asked, ushering her into a comparatively large compartment that, for all it’s size, was nearly crammed full with a set of six minisubs painted the bright sky blue she was starting to suspect was the signature color of Erin’s Dream.

Lauren cleared her throat, suddenly a little nervous. Herrigan Cartwright didn’t strike her as a particularly dangerous man, with no hair on his head his ears seemed comically prominent and the rest of him was a bit too gangly and awkward to be really threatening. If anything he looked kind of like a forty year old man who’d never outgrown his teenaged gawkiness. But an armed man was an armed man, and he might not like what he was about to hear.

“Australia has a law against salvaging any vessel that’s been on the ocean floor less than five years. Ships that do so can be barred from our ports and scrap companies that purchase such salvage can be fined.”

Herrigan’s brow furrowed. “Really? How can you tell? It’s not like they’re dated when you find them on the ocean floor, after all.”

“We have a process for that,” Lauren said, waving the tablet she’d brought with her and hoping Herrigan didn’t want any details she didn’t have. “It won’t take more than an hour to run the inspection, depending on how much scrap you have.”

“We only got the front hold half full before we had the mishap that brought us here,” Herrigan said, waving to their left. “There’s nothing in the aft hold right now, although you can have a look there if you want.”

“We can do that after.” He didn’t seem interested in what the tablet was supposed to be doing in all this and that was a relief. “Lead on.”

“You got it.” He threaded his way between the minisubs and the wall of the bay, taking a moment to stop and examine the manipulator arms on the vehicle as he went past. They passed a total of three minisubs and Herrigan stopped to look at each one.

“Can I ask what exactly it is you do?” Lauren said as he straightened up from inspecting the arms on the third sub. “You said you’re part owner of the ship but if that was all you are I think you’d be back at home, letting the crew do the earning for you.”

Herrigan laughed. “I’m not sure a crew like this would work for a guy like that. Still, since you asked, I’m the salvage team commander when we’re working on a wreck. The rest of the time I’m the deputy and assistant – well, chief cook now, I guess.” Lauren’s face twitched towards a scowl before she could catch herself and Herrigan caught it. “The food’s not that bad, honest.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” she said, absently rubbing at her wrist. “Deputy, you say? Are you a union man or something?”

“Or something,” he agreed, nodding vaguely. “But mostly, I cook.”

“I just don’t like the idea.”

“Of cooking?”

“Salvage.”

“Oh.” He was quiet for a moment as the finished crossing the bay. As he cranked the next pressure door open he asked, “Any particular reason?”

She mulled over what to tell him as he swung the door open and ushered her into the next compartment. The lights clicked on as he stepped in behind her. Finally, Lauren said, “My husband died at sea. I wasn’t… I didn’t really think anything about salvage before. But after… I have a hard time with the idea of total strangers pulling his ship apart around his body.”

Herrigan was quiet for a few minutes, leaving her with her thoughts and the sight of a dozen or so racks of neatly cut hull plates, crates of more complex parts like pumps or electrical boxes and who knew what else. Finally she gathered herself together and brought her tablet to life, pulled up the utility she needed and went to work.

“Ever heard of Erin McClain?” Herrigan asked after she’d been engrossed in looking over the salvage for a minute or two.

“No.” Lauren glanced up from her tablet. “Did she design this ship?”

“Not exactly, although it is named after her. She died a good five or six years before it was built.” Herrigan offered a casual shrug. “Kind of well known in shipbuilding circles. She was a big advocate of recycling. Said reusing what others left us furthered their legacy, rather than harming it. When Eddie was built I guess the christeners thought a salvage ship ought to be named after someone like that.”

“A nice sentiment, anyway.” Lauren went back to the salvage and tried not to think about where it came from or who it might have once belonged to. Or, for that matter, whether it was radioactive.

——–

“This is spare parts storage but most of that is up on deck right now. You’d be amazed how that kind of thing gets jumbled up over the years.” Duffy forced a smile. “Finding the patches and equipment to fix the hull breach you saw in the galley gave us a good excuse to sort it.”

“I was amazed to see a part of your ship look so… empty,” Bainbridge agreed, a hint of condescension in his voice.

“It’s a salvage sub,” Gwen said, ice in her voice colder than the Trench itself. “Space is at a premium.”

“Of course.” Bainbridge peered around at the empty shelves for a moment, boredom evident on his face. “Forgive me, Captain Duffy, but I’m beginning to suspect that this whole visit is a waste of everyone’s time. Maybe-”

“Captain?” Young Phil’s head poked through the pressure door at the other end of the compartment.

Duffy resisted the urge to try and shoo him away, after twenty minutes of the ship’s most boring features they’d almost gotten rid of the harbormaster. But shooing the young tech away now would look bad. “Yes, Phil?”

“Gramps wants you down in aft oxygen processing.” Old Phil and Young Phil were actually related, grandfather and grandson, and they had certain qualities in common. A tendency to ignore anyone that didn’t strike them as important was one of them and, given the fact that he didn’t even glance at Gwen or the harbormaster meant that whatever Old Phil wanted it was strictly Captain’s Business.

“I’m sorry, if you’d excuse me for a minute, my-”

“Captain, in case you’ve forgotten this is a total inspection,” Bainbridge said, immediately attentive. “We’ve started, we may as well finish. Let’s have a look at this oxygen processing compartment, shall we?”

“If you insist,” Duffy said, hiding a smile.  This might be to his advantage after all. It looked like the snappily dressed harbormaster just needed one more push to get him off the boat and oxygen processing would do nicely. “Right this way, gentleman.”

Their destination was several compartments aft and one deck down, requiring a little backtracking and a lot of edging past damp, sweaty crew. Once, when Graham came by leading a pair of crewmen carrying bags full of spoiled food from the ruined galley, he thought the harbormaster was about to bolt. But Bainbridge sucked in his stomach, smoothed down the front of his snazzy suit and let the three men by. A few moments later Duffy cranked open the pressure door into oxygen processing and let the harbormaster and his two men in first, sharing a smile with Gwen behind their backs.

“What is this?” Bainbridge exclaimed a moment later, a hand going over his mouth and nose in a vain attempt to combat the smell of compost and seawater. “Captain Duffy, why do you have a compartment full of seaweed?”

“It’s oxygen processing,” the Phils said in unison. The younger finished the thought, pushing into the compartment and trotting over to his grandfather. “We pump air through here and the seaweed breaks down the carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen and emergency food staples.”

Bainbridge looked around at the room in horror. The compartment was actually just a couple of narrow pathways through floor to ceiling water tanks crammed full of fernlike seaweed and clinging pillows of algae. “And this actually provides you with enough oxygen?”

“Well, this and the other two similar compartments throughout the ship handle about two thirds of our needs under normal circumstances,” Duffy said, pulling the pressure door closed behind him.

“Or they would if we could get that leak fixed,” Old Phil said, pulling an unhealthy reddish plant out of one of the tanks and tossing it into a bucket by his feet. Dozens of other dying plants already filled it to overflowing. “Captain if this keeps up we’re not going to be able to count on this compartment for more than half it’s usual output. The plants are dying off and it’ll take weeks, maybe months, for new splittings from the other compartments to get up to full size.”

“So we’ll take on some tanks of oxygen along with the other supplies. We’re already bankrupting ourselves on this run anyways.” Duffy shook his head ruefully. “We can handle running a little heavy in O2 reserves if we-”

A pinging noise from one of Bainbridge’s two men cut him off. The lackey, a big, tattooed guy with enough gut to suggest he spent more time in paperwork than honest work, pulled out one of the tablet computer gizmos that most of the dock workers seemed to carry and consulted it for a second. Then he said in alarm, “Harbormaster, this compartment is radioactive!”

“Well what do you think’s killing the seaweed?” Old Phil demanded. “Our reactor hasn’t cooled down enough to apply a patch yet.”

“It’s not dangerous to humans if we avoid long term exposure,” Young Phil added. “The seaweed is only affected because it’s been stuck next to the reactor for a week and a half.”

Bainbridge slowly turned to look at Duffy, sheer horror written across his features. “This ship is powered by a nuclear reactor?”

“Yes?” He hadn’t meant to be snide but Duffy’s answer still came out more like a question. The growing storm of emotions on the harbormaster’s face prompted the captain to add, “Is this going to be a problem?”

“Is it-” Bainbridge actually sputtered for a full five seconds, his men shifting nervously and exchanging glances as they waited for some cue on what to do. “This is an outrage, captain! Your ship will be impounded immediately! And you, Mr. Duffy, if that’s really your name, you will…”

At that point it looked like no more useful information was forthcoming. And really, after threatening to take his ship what more could there be to hear? Duffy looked at Gwen and said, “Tell Cartwright he needs to get up here. Now.”

——–

“Impound the ship?” Herrigan stared at the intercom in disbelief, as if doubting Gwen would somehow change what he was hearing. “Because of a reactor leak?”

“That’s what it sounds like. I – What?” The last bit was indistinct, not said into the pickup on the other end. There was a click and the speaker went dead.

Herrigan sighed and switched his own end of the conversation off. “Come on, Mrs. Cochran. Your boss is pitching a fit about our reactor.”

Lauren came out of the salvage stacks, her face noticeably paler. She could almost pass for a natural Trenchman. “Your what?”

“Our power plant has been leaking radiation since our accident. We’re planning to patch it tomorrow, once things cool a bit more.” Herrigan looked back through the door way as he waited for Lauren to catch up. She seemed oddly reluctant to get any closer. “I’m not irradiated or anything, it’s not a big leak. We can patch it, at least long enough to get it looked at by someone certified.”

“Who are you people?” She asked quietly. “And where are you from?”

“We’re salvagers,” Herrigan said, stepping back into the salvage bay slowly, wondering what he’d said that was wrong. “Our home port is Norfolk.”

“I thought that’s what your paperwork said.” She held her tablet between the two of them like it was a shield. “But no one calls it that anymore. Everyone calls it the Greater Chesapeake Port Authority, they have ever since the docks had to be moved out. And the Living States wouldn’t let a nuclear powered ship use that as home port.”

“The Living States?” The question was out before Herrigan could stop it.

“Who are you?” Laruen demanded, Herrigan’s confusion apparently making her bold.

He pulled in a lungfull of air and sighed. “Okay, fine. Game’s up. I’m Herrigan Cartwright, part owner and salvage commander of Erin’s Dream. And I’m a fully deputized constable of the Third Ward of the Alcatraz Pact, born and raised on the bottom of the Marianas Trench.”

Lauren stared at him in what he took to be an open invitation to continue. “We’ve been down there for almost ninety years, you know. It was a joint project, mostly Brazil and the US – you still got the US?” She nodded mutely. “That may not be good for us, then. Anyway, back then people were trying to combat global warming and decided to round up all the most committed skeptics and exile them some place where their ‘harmful practices’ couldn’t reach the world at large. And I think the sealed biosphere they were stuck in was supposed to help them see the errors of their ways, force them to adopt sustainable living and be less greedy or drive themselves to extinction. I’m not surprised you never heard of it, the project was kept hush-hush. At least to the public, other governments must have heard about it because we wound up getting people from just about everywhere except Australia – probably have your history to thank for that – and many of the later ones weren’t people exiled for views that didn’t match the political climate.”

Herrigan leaned against the doorframe and watched Lauren’s expression. He’d been hoping for a good mix of conflicting emotions – our at least outrage over his bad joke at the end – but all he was really getting was shock. Maybe a final push. “Funny how that worked out, given as how we finally get back up to the surface and, as near as we can tell, you’re stuck in the middle of an ice age with falling sea levels and everything. What caused that?”

Lauren finally looked him in the eye. “Nuclear winter.”

It was his turn to process things, and he took his time doing it. Then summed up his thoughts. “Huh.”

Fiction Index
Part Two

Stumbling Blocks

Writer’s block is widely viewed as the creative disaster and with good reason. When you sit down and. Just. Can’t. Write. It feels horrible. But rarely, in my experience, does the inability to write boil down to any one thing. Typically there’s a bunch of different things contributing to your inability to write and sometimes all you need to break the slump is to look at those things one at a time and determine if that’s your problem. By breaking things down writer’s block becomes a manageable problem. So here, in order of how often I find these things intruding in my writing, is a list of the typical building blocks of writer’s block and a suggestion on how you might deal with them.

  • Physical discomfort. Yeah, this is usually the biggest one for me. Sitting for a while results in cramps and sore muscles and getting up every so often to stretch, get the blood moving, ect, does wonders. Don’t discount hunger or thirst, either. While constant snacking while writing isn’t healthy, neither is starving yourself. A glass of water and a quick snack can do wonders to restore your concentration.
  • Stress. It’s an unfortunate truth that, while I enjoy doing theater or other such activities, juggling them all can often leave me too stressed or distracted to focus on writing. Now sometimes writing can serve as a bulwark between you and stress, allowing you to focus on something you enjoy while you recuperate for your next bout of stressful activity. But stress can build to the point where blocking it out for a time is not a healthy way of dealing with it. Sometimes you just need to slow down. Set writing aside and grab life with both hands for a while. Confronting the problem straight on, or slogging through a period of intense business with no distractions, is often the best way to get past this block. Constantly trying to write during times of high stress may make it harder to let go of the tension once the tough times are past, so it may be safer to just set writing aside for a while.
  • Lack of time (or sometimes laziness). This actually ties with stress in problems I have. Some stories need a lot of research, a lot of preparation and a lot of careful thought put into them. A case in point: If you’ve seen the Project Sumter Timeline you can see there are at least two major periods of time that are ripe for development. In fact, the story was originally supposed to focus on the Civil War, not the modern era. The early story ideas there just weren’t gelling because I didn’t know enough about the Western Theater of the Civil War to compile a good narrative. This situation is only nominally improved now. If a story needs more work than you’re putting into it and you don’t have the time maybe you need to simplify the story. Or maybe you need to shelve it and work on something else. Of course, if you do have the time, maybe you just need to focus more…
  • Convention. It’s very easy to get caught up in the idea that “this is how things should be”. For example, telepaths are almost always fearsome figures in paranormal fiction usually because they have ability to control people’s minds. How many stories can you do about that? How many different telepath characters can you create? But in Mindspace Investigations telepaths are feared more for their ability to directly manipulate the nervous system, knocking people unconscious with a touch or broadcasting pain so powerfully people keel over. The result is a  very different kind of telepath surrounded by different social dynamics and with different character quirks. Look over your story and make sure the tropes and conventions you’re using are empowering your story, not preventing it from going somewhere new and interesting. Because new and interesting is usually where stories need to go.
  • Original expectations. Sometimes you expect a story to go one way and it winds up somewhere else. Sometimes totally unexpected characters crop up in the background and start demanding attention. Under no circumstances can you let your original plot idea get in the way of where the story actually goes. Yes, make sure you stay on theme, but don’t be afraid of the extra work that comes with shifting focus to better suit the story you get rather than chasing the ghost of a story that may have never really existed.
  • Lack of ideas you like. Sometimes you can see stories places and just have no desire to follow up on them. Don’t force yourself. Instead grab a book, hit the movies or call up some friends and hang out and do something other than writing for a while. Give yourself a chance to recharge a little and soon enough your writer’s instincts will present you with something worthwhile. For me it usually takes fifteen minutes to an hour, but your mileage may vary.

Hopefully that helps you the next time you find yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper/word processor. Good luck!