March 30

Deep-Sea Sci-Fi

I can’t remember where I first heard about the Rifters Trilogy by Peter Watts. It may have been on a message board or one of the many reader/writer blogs I follow. I heard it was different, unique, not your regular science fiction plot. I filed the information away with the plan to pick up the novels at some point. At the time I had a stack of unread books on my nightstand.

And truth be told, that stack is still there (composed of different books…the stack itself never really goes away). But one night I was cleaning up some old bookmarks on my iPad and saw one linking to the author’s website. So I clicked it and found that Mr. Watts was actually giving the trilogy away. For free. Under the Creative Commons license. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so I download a copy of each book and dug in.

Note – the books can be purchased through online retailers, and Mr. Watts also has a PayPal link if you feel inclined to make a donation. It’s to help feed his cats.

So on to the books…and a warning: I’m not going to go all Literature Major in this review. I’m also going to be spoiler-free, so my apologies for not digging into the guts of these novels. These are my thoughts and opinions on the books. Nothing more.

The trilogy is composed of three books – Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth. It’s no surprise that the first book sets the tone, introduces most of the main players, and creates an interesting near-future where the deep water ocean vents are being harnessed for energy. The majority of the main cast are Rifters, people who live in a habitat on the ocean floor, near one of the great rifts (hence, their name). They are biomechanical engineered to live there, with implants that allow them to survive the immense pressure and breath through mechanical gills. They can turn the breathing function on and off as they move back and forth between the habitat and the outside environment. The focus of Starfish is what’s going on down in this cold, remorseless environment, how it’s affecting the Rifters, and ultimately, how it culminates in a catastrophic event that changes everything.

While Starfish is well-written and plotted, there were a few things that really caught my interest. First, the characters are all broken people. Seriously broken. Without giving away too much of the plot, the powers-that-be in the books prefer psychologically broken people to be Rifters because they adapt better to the undersea environment. They are somehow better equipped to handle the isolation and pressure of day-to-day life, as well as adapt to the modifications they undergo in order to live and work there. I think what intrigued me was the fact that none of the characters are exactly likeable. They are all dealing with their own inner demons, scars from the past, and emotional baggage. Plus, they don’t like one another. Generally, I find that authors (I’m guilty of this, too) tend to make their protagonists decent people who try to do the right thing. The Rifters aren’t like that. They are dark, brooding, angry, violent, and dangerous. It’s not that they aren’t relatable. We’re all broken in some way, and because of that, I could understand their motivations. I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but I understood where they were coming from.

One of the other things that drew me into Starfish was the undersea detail. I spent a large part of my life on, under, and around the ocean, so reading about the deep-sea flora and fauna was fascinating, especially since the author is a marine-mammal biologist in real life. The guy knows his stuff, and the details about the aquatic life are amazing. Additionally, according to the afterword, Mr. Watts worked closely with other scientists and medical professionals to get as many of the details correct as he could…with some creative license. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail here. However, I do want to point out that the ocean, especially the deep water and its denizens, play an important role in all three novels.

The second book, Maelstrom, picks up where the second book leaves off. Something very bad has happened and our protagonist has returned to dry land for answers…and to settle some scores. The thing is, she’s not quite sure who the enemy is. Despite this, her attitude towards the powers-that-be and the fact she’s hiding from them makes her popular with the thousands of refugees who are isolated on the coast of the Pacific-Northwest. Side note here: In this future, the world is desperate for energy and third-world countries are dealing with serious environmental and agricultural issues. This leads to mass migrations across the oceans to first-world countries. However, and this may surprise you, the first-world countries (in this case, the US) have built a wall along the coast to keep them out. You’ll have to read the book to see how that works out for them. The books may be over a decade old, but they are still timely.

Again, the second book is a great read, some good action, interesting (if damaged) characters, and answers to some of the questions raised in Starfish. Unfortunately, there are new questions posed and some revelations that caught me off guard. Kudos to Mr. Watts for keeping me on the edge of my seat. The story takes on more urgency, things are escalating, and our protagonist is both a victim and an instigator. I think the duality works well in this story because I could sympathize with her, with what was motivating her. I didn’t agree with her methods, but she’s a bad ass who refuses to back down regardless of the situation. I liked that. Some of her actions are strange and seemingly out of character, like in one scene where she’s confronted by a mugger. She appears to just give in to him, but a few pages later I understood what she was doing. And no, it wasn’t nice.

The story hits a peak with the final book, Behemoth. Apparently, it was originally released as two books (per the publisher), but on the website it’s one volume. By this time in the story, North America is under siege by the rest of the world and one person is holding the wolves at bay. Our protagonist and a companion are on a mission to save the world, but they know the odds are against them. They again return to shore, this time on the east coast of the US, in search of solution to the problem threatening all life on Earth. The thing is, our protagonist is part of the reason things fell apart and as part of her character arc, she’s trying to do what she can to repair the damage she’s caused. Again, the action takes place both in the ocean and on dry land. Mr. Watts does a great job of giving all the main cast an arc, allowing them to change over the course of the three books in interesting and believable ways. And to keep things interesting, they don’t always change for the better.

There is, of course, the big show down at the end, and I think some readers may find it unsatisfying. Personally, I liked it. There was some finality to it, but it didn’t wrap up everything. I like it when an author leaves the rest of the story to my imagination. I don’t need everything wrapped up in a nice, neat package. Leave me something to think about, to hope for, to wonder about. Besides, from a writing perspective, it gives the author an opportunity to revisit the story again at some point and address those unresolved questions.

All in all, I enjoyed the trilogy. Well written, intelligent sci-fi. I didn’t get mad at the characters for making stupid decisions just for plot advancement. I felt that the technical and scientific aspects were well done…they weren’t overwhelming or too dense to understand and they served the plot well. As I mentioned above, the main cast all had arcs, they developed and evolved, changed their minds and their dispositions based on their situations and the knowledge they acquired. And I appreciate the fact that the story doesn’t get tied up all nice and neat at the end. It left me wondering.

A final note – As I mentioned earlier in this wall of text, the characters are broken people and aren’t particularly nice. This means that they do bad things, some worse than others, and there’s a fair amount of physical and sexual violence. None of it is glorified and it all serves a purpose to the plot. I know some readers have a problem with this stuff, which I can understand, so I want to make sure anyone interested in reading this series knows what they’re getting into.

Please check out Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth. You can purchase them online or download (and donate!) at https://rifters.com/real/shorts.htm.

RB

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March 27

Gestation

Ideas for stories come in all shapes and sizes. There are times when a story pops into my head almost fully formed. They’re rare, but it happens. It’s usually when I’m drifting off to sleep at night and I have to force myself to turn on the lamp next to my side of the bed, grab a handy notebook and pen, and scribble down as much as I can. Or at least enough that I can remember the rest in the morning. The worst is when I’m driving and I have to pull over somewhere, dig the notebook out of my trusty backpack, and commit the idea to paper. Luckily, it’s only been awkward once. “No, officer, everything’s fine. Just writing down an idea for a story. Nothing to see here…”

Most of the time, however, ideas start out as kernels, just a basic “What if?” or maybe an image of a character doing something and I want to know why. These are the ones that are far from fully formed. I’ll roll it over in my head for a few days, looking at it from different angles to see if it triggers any additional avenues to explore. Sometimes it does and pieces begin to fall into place. Most of the time I quietly push the idea to the back burner, set the heat to low, and let it simmer.

I prefer the ones that are fully formed or come together quickly. However, I’m always surprised when a kernel that I put away years ago finally decided to pop and catches me by surprise.

That happened to me recently. I’d had an idea for a story involving Santa Claus, a boisterous talk show host, and organized crime. It seemed interesting, but I had no idea what to do with it. I made a note in my journal and moved on to other projects.

The idea slipped off my radar for years. Like, close to ten years. Then one day I was writing a blog post and -BAM – the idea resurfaced with an almost complete story in tow. It took me a week to commit it to page, then another two weeks of fine-tuning, but it turned out to be (in my humble opinion) a weird and funny story.

It’s strange how the creative process works, how some stories write themselves while others feel like an archeological dig through solid concrete. I doubt there’s a logical explanation. It’s just how the creative mind works, filtering through all the debris in our unconscious mind until something interesting gets caught in the filter.

Luckily, most of my story ideas pop up close to fully formed. It’s only a handful that aren’t quite ready and have to sit in the incubator for a few months. Or years. Or a decade.

RB

March 23

And now the second chapter…

I’ve now started work on rewriting the second chapter of my novel. The first chapter went better than I expected, so I feel like I have momentum behind me. My concern was having a strong opening to the story, something that would draw the reader in, get them interested, make them want to know more. It took some work, but I think I nailed it. Or at least a close approximation.

So now I’m working on the second chapter. I’ve given up on approaching each chapter as a short story. That was how I wrote the first draft. Now I’m looking at it from a different angle and making each chapter show the reader a piece of the puzzle – WHO is the protagonist, WHAT does he want, WHY does he do the things he does. Every chapter needs to include some of the who, what, and why. That was one of the important things I learned in the creative writing workshops I attended in college – focus on motivation. What drives the characters, what do they want?

The second chapter will explore that in a bit more detail. My protagonist, Rask, is dealing with some de-motivational events in his life, he’s spiraling down, attempting to drown his sorrows and despair. While the first chapter introduces him and gives a glimpse into his past, the second chapter is going to bring the reader into his present, show where he is mentally and emotionally, introduce friends and acquaintances, and show some of his internal conflict. The main thing I want to make sure I get across is that he’s not a bad person, but due to his circumstances he makes some bad decisions. He’s trying to navigate his life without a roadmap. He’s lost and confused and scared. And because of that, he’s acting like an ass.

The secondary thing I want to focus on is the setting. The story takes place in the future after a cataclysmic event destroys the world as we currently know it. A large portion of the population has been killed or died off, there’s very little infrastructure, electricity is a rare commodity so people have to rely mostly on coal and steam to power their lives. I guess it could be described as a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, steam-punkish mash-up. That’ll be fun to explain on the book jacket.

And yes, I’m taking my time on this. No deadlines. No rushing. I want to craft this story, make sure each line and paragraph is needed. There’s a part of me that feels the need to push myself to get this done, but common sense is telling me to relax. I’m siding with common sense this time. Besides, when I feel the need to work off some of that “hurry up”, I’ll simply take a break from the novel and write a short story. There’s always something else I can write.

Now…back to it!

RB

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March 18

Talking about dialogue

Arguably one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction is creating realistic dialogue. The problem lies in the fact that everyone speaks differently, with subtle nuances like slang, pronunciation, and accents. It’s easy enough to pick up on these things when you’re listening to someone speak. In writing, however, it’s difficult to convey those subtle verbal distinctions without coming across as pandering or offensive.

There are some writers who set the standard: Elmore Leonard, Mark Twain, David Mamet…but I don’t think most writers consider giving their characters distinct voices. And it makes me wonder if it really matters. Do readers notice when all the characters in a novel speak the same way?

My opinion is that most readers don’t pick up on it. If they’ve suspended their disbelief or are simply engrossed in the story, then they probably won’t ever notice. But it is something I find distracting. That’s not to say each character must have distinct vocal traits, but there should be something about they way a character speaks on the page that sets them apart from the other players.

I know that when I’m writing a conversation I hear the characters in my head and try my best to get that onto the page. I shoot for realism and a unique voice for each of them, but not so much that it becomes a parody. Basically, I’d like my character’s voices to be different enough that I can write a back-and-forth conversation without all the “he said” and “she said”.

I look at it this way: In real life we all speak differently, sound differently, use slang, and have regional accents. In a story, our characters don’t have those audible distinctions, so writers have to provide them. We give our characters their voice and they deserve to have their individual quirks and nuances included on the page.

It’s only fair. Besides, it helps the characters to stand out, to be realistic, and to help us relate to them.

RB

March 9

Novel Update

I’m working on the second draft of my first novel and, well, I’m making progress. Slow progress, but progress. I’ve been working on the first chapter for about a week now, trying to get it just right. The first chapter is where the first impression is made and I want to make sure I pull the reader in. I wasn’t happy with how the chapter was originally written. It was the first draft of this massive undertaking and I didn’t know how to begin, so I started writing some background. After a few pages the story itself kicked in and I took off from there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done in a way that would allow me to simply hack off that initial intro, so here I am basically starting over.

But it’s not a bad thing. I’m enjoying it. It’s funny because I get this feeling that I’m taking too long with it, that I should be ripping through this thing like a Tasmanian devil. Then I remind myself that I’m not in a race, that no one is judging me on speed. Hell, I don’t even have a deadline. Besides, this is my first real go at a real novel. I want to take my time and do it right. Or at least, as right as I can make it.

And I’m glad I’m not pushing myself. I feel that I’m finally crafting the opening my novel needs. There’s some action, some allusions, some back story, all leading the reader along my desired path. A friend took a look at the first two pages for me and her response was encouraging.

I’m on the right track now. I feel good about the story, about the characters, and that I’m handling the subject matter the right way. Yes, I want to have a message in my story. It’s sort of a morality play, I guess. But shouldn’t all stories have some underlying message to them? Like, be true to yourself, don’t give up, don’t be a dick…even if we aren’t consciously trying to make a point when we tell a tale, all stories eventually have one.

It feels good to be making progress on this beast. I think I have a good story to tell, that it’s coming together (although I’ve barely scratched the surface), and I think people will like it. It’s a weird feeling, that confidence in my work, especially now that I’m swimming in uncharted waters. But I know what I’m doing, where I’m going, and how to get there. I should have this first chapter reworked in the next few days, then it’s on to chapter two. Then three. Then four.

And so on.

RB

March 4

A different kind of beast

I’m working on the second draft of my novel and I’m finding it…challenging. This is my first long-form story and it’s much different from the short story format. The first draft took a few months, but it went better than I expected. I created a rough outline of each chapter, a character list to keep track of everyone, and dove it. I think it helped that I looked at each chapter as sort of a short story. That allowed me to focus more on the chapters and not be overwhelmed by the overall scope of the novel.

I then let it sit for a while. I had read (and gotten feedback from) other writers who suggested taking a break between drafts. Helps to get some perspective. For me, it allowed me to come back to the story with fresher eyes. After staring at this thing for weeks and weeks I found that the words were beginning to blur, that I was starting to wander off into the weeds in certain parts. I worked on some other stuff for a few weeks and did a good job of putting the novel on the back burner for a while.

But it never really left my mind. I picked it back up last weekend and have been steadily working on the second draft. What I’ve found, however, is that I’m not moving as quickly as I was on the first draft. Now I’m polishing the text, fine-tuning the narrative. And that means I’ve been working on the first chapter for about seven days.

Is that normal? Then again, is anything normal when working on a creative project? All writers are different, have different styles, different processes. And really, I don’t think I’m taking too long to work on this. Hell, I had a writer on Twitter tell me they worked on their novel for seven years. With that in mind, I’m moving like a jack rabbit.

But back to my point…writing and rewriting a novel is so much different than a short story. Obviously, the word count is going to be slightly larger. That’s one of the hurdles I’m having to overcome. With shorts I write with an economy of words. I try to get in, tell my story, and get out, all within a handful of pages. I don’t spend much time on setting or back story. My focus is on the characters and the action, who they are and what they want. There’s no paragraph-long descriptions of their environment. There aren’t any detailed flashbacks explaining their motivation. Short stories are supposed to be concise.

With the novel, though, I’m having to fight my instincts to edit my words. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t be economical with my words, but I don’t have to cut things down quite as much. To me, a short story is like a quick walk around the block, whereas a novel is more like a leisurely stroll through the woods. Someone who reads a novel does so because they want to lay back and go on a long journey.

So I’m finding that I’m editing a section, but instead of cutting I’m adding, but I’m being selective. When my protagonist is introduced in his apartment, I originally had him rise, grab his stuff, and head out the door. After the second pass I have him rise, then look around his apartment so I can describe it. I’m using this as an opportunity to show his situation (poverty) without coming right out and saying, “he’s poor.” Showing instead of telling.

It’s an interesting experience, going from short story to novel, but I’m enjoying myself. I’ll continue to post updates on my progress, hopefully culminating in an actual book release. Some day.

RB

Category: Writing | LEAVE A COMMENT