Is Originality an Illusion?

On their second album echolyn has a multipart suite that chronicles their struggle to make their kind of music in a world that doesn’t really appreciate it. An early section is called “Only Twelve,” a reference to the fact that the Western musical scales only has 12 tones. It’s not that diverse a palate to work with. A later section, however, suggests that’s not the right way to think about it. It’s called “Twelve’s Enough.”

But recent evidence suggests that 12 might not really be enough. As this article lays out, more and more pop artists are getting sued for lifting bits of music from other sources (Ed Sheeran, whose music I couldn’t pick out of a sonic lineup, appears to be a great transgressor). This is not likely to be a result purely of coincidence:

[quote]Bennett [a forensic musicologist – JDB] then goes very deep into the maths, proposing a scenario where he and I each decide to write a melody. ‘I might start on C and you might start on E – two of the seven notes in the major scale. The odds [against us choosing the same note] aren’t exactly one in seven, but you get the idea. Then you come to the second note: I might choose D, you might choose another E. So then we’ve got a seven to the power of two probability, and that’s just within two pitch choices.’[/quote]

The analysis goes much deeper but as you can see from just two notes, the probabilities don’t look good for coincidence. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. We interact with art – music, literature, you name it – from the day we’re born. How could we not internalize things and, perhaps, come to think of them as our own? As Bennett admits, there’s a line between copying and plagiarizing.

Having said all that, artists have always copied from one another. There are entire traditions – folk music and the blues come to mind – that are based on taking work done by others making it your own. Hell, it’s been said (by Picasso, possibly) that good artists copy, but great artists steal (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/).

The issue of going too far with borrowing is where this all meshes with the law of copyright. We want to protect creators and incentivize creativity, but we don’t want to shut down the natural drift of ideas that occurs in culture. Is the list of court cases about pop plagiarism an indictment of our current copyright scheme?

That’s the idea behind what is surely the best piece of legal/regulatory speculative fiction ever written, Spider Robinson’s “Melancholy Elephants.” It’s about a word where copyright protection is eternal and, as a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to create new things because everything can be traced to something that came before.

We haven’t reached that point yet, although we might be close. Before we go too far, it’s worth thinking about whether we want to live in a world where every idea, every melody, every story is owned by a single person (or corporate entity) for all of time.

Author Interview – Eric Fritzius

Joining me this month is a local purveyor of spooky tales about weird, wondrous, and just plain weird things.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I am Eric Fritzius, a freelance writer, actor, director, instructor, podcaster, and playwright living atop a hill in Greenbrier County, W.Va.  I’m the outgoing secretary for West Virginia Writers, Inc. an organization in celebration of writers and writing in Appalachia.  I write short fiction, short nonfiction and short plays primarily.  Occasionally my writing is published and my plays performed.

How does your work in the theater, as a writer, actor, and a director, influence or inform your short story writing?

Tremendously.  From elementary school, my earliest form of creative writing was writing plays.  My dad did community theatre, so I got to see him act in The White Sheep of the Family and The Man Who Came to Dinner.  I would follow along with the script to help him learn his lines, which was the first chance for me to see how a play is constructed on the page.  I was fascinated and immediately began trying to write my own.  I had no idea what the story would be, but my 4th grade mind wanted it to include Mission Impossible style mask removal, with characters revealing themselves as other characters.  In other words, it was unstageable and remains unfinished.  (Okay, I may admit to that one being a failed project.)  In high school I started attending a drama camp in which we wrote a three act musical comedy in the space of a week.  That was like going to boot camp each year.  You had to learn to tell complete stories using only dialogue and stage directions, with limited storytelling because you’re mostly limited to one set and therefore one setting.  You also had to learn what plot points your characters should summarize and which ones to portray, cause you had a definite limit of how long the play could run.  And I learned a lot about using music to help tell the story.  After seven years of that camp, I developed an ear for natural sounding dialogue and the rhythms of speech.  And when I began writing prose, it tended to be dialogue heavy.   To the point that I’ve adapted a couple of my short stories for the stage and have experimented with adapting a stage story to prose.

All writers are supposed to get into the heads of their characters and know their motivations.  But acting as a character tends to turn this process up a notch, because that’s essential to the job—particularly when you’re playing characters without a lot of dialogue, as I have often done.  It’s not enough to just do what the script describes your character doing and saying, you also have to know why they’re doing and saying it in order to portray it accurately.  And that’s rarely spelled out for you in the script.  Similarly, as a director, I have to be in the heads of all the characters in order to make the play work and appear to be happening as naturally and logically as I can.  Which is basically what writers do with their stories, except with prose the limiters of set and time get removed and you have an unlimited budget to work with in terms of set.  And, in genre, an unlimited special effects budget.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My most recent book is also my first; a collection of short modern fantasy fiction called A Consternation of Monsters.  It was recently published as an audiobook, for which I did the narration.

consternation audiobook cover 1-1-16 thumb

How did you come to produce your own audiobook version of Consternation and were there any stories that presented any hurdles in shifting them from the page to the aural realm?

Having a background in radio, podcasting, and acting, I thought that doing audiobooks would be no sweat.  I have a small home recording studio which I had already to record a few stories for my promotional Consternation of Monsters podcast.  These weren’t audiobook recordings, per se, but instead recorded live readings at author events, recordings of stage adaptations of my stories, or were audiobook/radio drama hybrids, complete with sound effects and sometimes other people playing roles.  To record a mere audiobook, I foolishly thought, would be a step down in difficulty.

Before I attempted it, though, I was hired to record an audiobook for author S.D. Smith for his middle-grade novel The Blackstar of Kingston.  He and I had met a few months earlier and I was very impressed with his debut novel The Green Ember–a fantasy series he describes as “rabbits with swords”—and he enjoyed my podcast work.  He already had an audiobook for The Green Ember, skillfully narrated by Joel Clarkson.  However, Blackstar was a prequel to Ember, set a century before. It made sense that it could have a different narrator as it shared no characters.

Recording Blackstar was a true learning experience, and a humbling one at that.  All of the acting, broadcasting and narrating expertise I thought I possessed seemed to evaporate in the face of portraying a dozen characters, in a variety of accents from across the UK, while also maintaining the level of tension and intensity that some of the chapters required.  I would sit at the mic, furious with myself for my inability to get my mouth around simple words, or at the disgusting smacky noises I kept hearing in every syllable, or at the UPS driver daring to make his deliveries in my neighborhood, whose truck my mic easily picked up.  I wound up recording the whole thing twice and then re-recording some of the individual chapters three or four times each before I was happy.  (Fortunately they were short chapters, the longest of which might take fifteen minutes to read.)

The major learning curve was in engineering the recordings to the standards of ACX.com (which is Audible’s self-publishing arm for audiobooks).  This wasn’t like a podcast that you could record, edit, upload and walk away.  You had to have a consistent product across all chapters, with all audio files falling within the same range of levels.  I wound up being quite proud of the end-product, but it was far more difficult to achieve than I had thought.  It was great experience to have, though, before recording the stories for Consternation.

I recorded and edited all but my final two stories in early 2016, just a month after finishing Blackstar.  Then I got royally busy casting and directing a play festival, then a number of other jobs, and wasn’t able to get back to it until November.  By then I needed a refresher course on how to engineer the files and found a good tutorial source.  Unfortunately, it was too good and my new recordings sounded better than the ones from January.  I had to re-record everything using the new techniques.  Then, just when I thought I had everything recorded, edited, and mastered, I wound up accidentally saving the brand new version of “The Wise Ones” on top of the newly recorded and edited version of “Old Country.”  (What can I say–both involve other-worldly mobsters and they got mixed up in my noggin.)  Fortunately, I had an unedited backup of the “Old Country” file, so I didn’t have to start from scratch, but it was a mistake that cost me several hours in editing and mastering.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I tend to write modern fantasy, but I was kind of drug kicking and screaming into it.  Growing up in small town Mississippi, I was mostly a science fiction fan.  I was drawn to stories of ordinary people who were pulled out of their boring daily routine and thrown into adventure.  I cut my teeth on reruns of `70s era Doctor Who (only a handful of years after their original broadcast, really).  Tom Baker was my Doctor and his remains my favorite.  From Who, I found my way to Douglas Adams’ work, after mistaking an episode of the Hithchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series for Doctor Who due to the BBC video production “look” they shared.  I loved it and soon devoured all the books.  This then led me to Neil Gaiman, who had written a nonfiction biography of Hitchhiker’s in the late `80s called Don’t Panic (in which 8th grade me was astounded to learn that Douglas Adams used to work on Baker-era Doctor Who).When Gaiman began writing comics, I remembered his name and started picking up his work, reading The Sandman, and Black Orchid, following on to his early novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchet), Neverwhere and have been a fan since.  Back then, I dreamed of writing funny sci-fi, like Adams.  And if anyone were to ask if I was “into” fantasy, I would deny it with vehemence because I thought of fantasy as sword and sorcery.  But I loved Gaiman’s ability to create wondrous and often dangerous worlds that seemed to be just on the other side of a veil from our own.  And his books were definitely fantasy, moving beyond magical realism into Gods and monsters walking around modern earth.  Like my other favorite, Ray Bradbury, he took the ordinary dull world and revealed that the strange and wonderful existed within it.  His characters often began in an ordinary, dull existence, but were pulled into adventure, usually with an enigmatic guide or two to show them the way.  Great shades of Doctor Who, really.  And the fact that Gaiman has gone on to write for the modern Doctor Who makes me immensely happy.

I also write mundane stories, though, where nothing strange or supernatural happens at all.

What determines whether a story is “mundane” or has supernatural element? Does the supernatural element lead to the story or does the story demand something out of the ordinary?

A mundane story, to me, is any story lacking genre elements, or any sort of magical realism.  Doesn’t make it boring by any means—as the term mundane has come to be thought of—but just a story grounded in reality.

I find writing mundane stories more of a challenge than genre stories, but the temptation to try and turn them into genre stories against their will is often strong.  With genre, writers often have an instant hook of the fantastic that will keep a certain demographic of reader—fans of genre—reading.  Without those elements, I feel like I have to do more heavy lifting in order to make my worlds and characters real and interesting enough to hook the readers of all.  Now this shouldn’t be the case, because writers of genre fiction are supposed to do this same kind of heavy lifting in addition to the world-building necessary to bring the fantastical elements they include to life.  Somehow, though, what should be easier on paper seems harder to me.  I’ve found myself mid-way through a mundane story before, have hit a snag in my narrative and have thought “Oh, if I could just have Miss Zeddie show up now I’d be home free and could crack this story, no problem.”  In those situations, I know I have to stick to the mundane because to do otherwise would be cheating the story somehow.

Seems strange to say it, but I don’t think I’d ever considered if there is a difference in writing technique between my mundane stories and genre stories, or if the genre elements themselves are what leads to the story or vice versa. There are no mundane stories in A Consternation of Monsters, though there is one (“Puppet Legacy”) that is 95 percent mundane, with a hint at larger genre elements, and a feint at others.  In 9 out of the 10 stories, though, it was the genre element that inspired the story.  By contrast, many of my mundane stories (which I nearly have a collection’s worth gathered), are often, though not always, character-driven first with the stories building out from there.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

My process, if you’d call it that, is pretty varied and can sometimes take years and I pick up and put down a given story until it’s finished.  For every short story I have been able to dash off a draft in an afternoon, I probably have five that have taken months or years to finish.  (I find it’s best to have a hard deadline with embarrassment on the line should I not meet it.)

However, I find my ideas often start as a glimpse of an image in the middle of a story, which I have to then write up to, figuring out how that image comes to be, and then write beyond it to see what happens next.  For instance, back in the mid oughts, my wife and I went on a glacier tour on Resurrection Bay, near Seward, AK.  The scenery was gorgeous and inspiring on its own, and we got to see some pretty big wildlife up close, including whales surfacing near the boat.  On the way back to Seward, the boat moving along at a faster clip, I found myself imagining what might happen were a blue whale to burst out of the bay, directly in our path?  It was an image, but not a story.  Even if something catastrophic happened to the boat, like it capsizing, it was still just an incident with no inherent conflict.  But what if, I continued to wonder, the hypothetical whale had surfaced in order to exact vengeance upon a specific passenger? Not so much in the way of the 1980s killer whale movie Orca, in which the titular creature exacted revenge on Richard Harris (and Bo Derrek’s leg, to some degree) for killing his mate and child.  More of a Day of the Jackal, except with a whale as the assassin.  That was the point when I realized it wasn’t really a whale to begin with.  And then some new, exciting, and improbable images entered my noggin.  At this point I had some basics, but the ultimate story itself wasn’t cracked for months yet.

Probably a year later, I took an online test to see if I might be a good candidate to become a transcriptionist.  (I type nearly 100 words per minute, so it seemed a skill that might have value.)  The test required you to listen to a sample recording and transcribe it exactly, including making notations for any stray noises in the room, such as coughs, farts, sneezes, etc., with those sounds described in [bracketed text] on a separate line.  The transcription folks never called me, but knowing the format of a transcription gave me the key into my story of the whale/non-whale in Resurrection Bay.  In an instant I knew who my main character was, and how to get into and out of the story.  The rest of the details in between those points filled themselves in as I went.

This became my short story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”, (which can be heard as a podcast at my website).

Sometimes, though, I’m lucky enough to have stories arrive in my head fully formed.  “Limited Edition,” which is the longest story in my book, dropped into my head, almost fully formed after I read a single sentence.  It was a writing challenge issued to me by a friend, who said I had to write a short story in which the following sentence appeared: Something told him that in all the world, there was no other fork quite like this one.

When you set aside stories and then come back to them later, do you always intend to come back to them or, when you set them aside, do think they’re failed projects that just aren’t going to work?

I don’t believe in failed projects.  I insist on believing that all stories can be made to work.  Eventually.  However, the number of story fragments in my NPROGRESS directory would seem to argue otherwise.

I read a piece from Neil Gaiman in which he describes trying to write his novel Coraline on a few different occasions. He’d come back to it every now and then, averaging 2000 words a year, and make a little more progress only to find he did not yet possess the skill to write further.  After 12 years he said he decided that he wasn’t likely to get any better than he was in that moment, so he may as well get on with it and finish it.  I can absolutely sympathize with this.  I definitely have begun stories that I didn’t possess the skill to complete at the time.  Some of these have to gestate for a while, with occasional revisits by me until one day something just clicks and I’m able to finish it.  Or I don’t.

Of the stories in Consternation that falls into this category is “Old Country,” a story I started in the late 1990s as a way to flesh out a particular corner of the history of the shared fictional universe my friends and I had created.  It began with the idea of a guy the mob is unhappy with being called in advance of his own hit, just to make him squirm, and because they believe his knowing will make no difference in the outcome.  The setting was the pre-cell-phone `80s, when a mobster could just call you at home and then have his henchmen cut your phone line afterward and hang out to make sure you stayed put.  I knew what the turn of the story would be, and I knew how the guy would escape his fate.  What I didn’t know was how to get from the phone call about the hit part and the escape his fate part.  Seemed like it needed something special.  And so the story sat there as a beginning and ending only for a few years.  Somewhere in the mid-2000s, I met an older lady at a writing event who chatted with me for quite some time on the topic of quilting.  It’s not a topic I have a lot to offer on.  So after I exhausted the story of my own grandmother taking up quilting later in life, and then officially retiring from it as soon as she’d finished a quilt for each grandchild, I was done.  The lady, though, had quite a depth of knowledge on the topic and was willing to share it—all about spiral quilts and block quilts and patchwork quilts and art quilts, and on and on.  Under other circumstances, I might have needed to gnaw off my own leg to escape (to paraphrase Douglas Adams).  But instead, I was fascinated by her stories because of a secret she revealed to me as to her quilting process.  The lady said that when trying to decide what style of quilt to work on, she would frequently be petitioned by the spirits of her dead family members, each of whom had an opinion as to what sort of quilt she should work on.  They would apparently argue with each other, and with her, until she finally made a choice.  Some days the spiral quilt “people” won.  Some days the block quilt “people” won.  It was a magical realism sort of moment for me, because she said it quite matter-of-factly, and with no reservation about telling all this to a stranger.  It was awesome from a character-study standpoint.  Thinking back on that conversation later, the elements of it merged into Martin’s grandmothers and their mystical quilting skills, and suddenly my story had the middle it was in need of.

Eric Fritzius-cropped

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Probably have to go with Miss Zeddie on this.  She’s a wise old woman who appears in two stories in Consternation (including “Limited Edition”), and is referenced in a third, by a Mexican gray wolf named Fungus.  Truth be told, though, I didn’t create her.  At least, not initially. A friend from college, named Marcus Hammack, created her as a non-player character in a role-playing game my friends and I played.  It was a game set in a fictional universe that we collectively created.  Madam Z, as she was called, was an enigmatic, mysterious, and frustrating figure for our player characters to meet.  On the surface she was just an odd, wise, yet still very cranky old lady.  Somehow, though, she was simultaneously the most intimidating figure our characters had encountered.  Marcus’s masterful storytelling skills implied a great deal of power in her, while at the same time showing only a tiny bit of that during the actual game.  I was immediately curious as to her backstory, and kept trying to guess things about her over the course of our sessions.  Ultimately, Marcus revealed that he’d developed no backstory for her whatsoever.  She was a character he’d kind of created on the fly to help guide our characters because we’d obviously not picked up on the clues he’d been feeding us otherwise.  I was disappointed, but, after he graduated, I became her custodian, free to apply the backstory I’d been dreaming up as I saw fit.

We meet the old cranky version of Zeddie in Consternation.  A younger, less-jaded version of her will appear in the next collection.  (Oh, and we’ve already met her brother.)

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

It’s been a goodly number of years since, but I had to research the ancient origins of the Mafia for my story “Old Country.”  I couldn’t begin to tell you my sources at the time, but a Googling will bring up some that exist currently.  Being the internet, there is, naturally, disagreement.  But the version I chose to align with was one that speculated La Cosa Nostra began a few centuries back as groups of Sicilian farmers who organized to defend their land against the kind of repeated invasions Sicily has seen across its history.  People think I made all that up for the story, but if you remove the dark warriors—who I did make up—you’re left with basic history.

I suspect, though, that the answer to this question will change once I have a draft on a different short story—another that I’ve been wrestling with for a few years.  Its current title, “Draft of Chapter 13 from the Unpublished Memoir of Baron Ladislaus Hengelmüller von Hengervár, Austro-Hungarian Ambassador, 1894 – 1913” might give you an indication as to the era I’m researching. Despite its “assigned reading” sounding title, the story is an action adventure.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

A lot of time and trouble can be saved by reading and taking to heart Stephen King’s On Writing.  There are around six pages near the middle of the book (you’ll know them when you get there) where he breaks down some hard truths of the writing game that often take writers years to learn on their own.  Or, indeed, accept.  Some of the advice he gives I had heard from others before in regard to my own work, sometimes for years, and had either not believed the advice at the time, or just stubbornly refused to follow it.  I’ve now come around.  I teach Mr. King’s advice to my own students, giving full credit to Uncle Steve when I do.  I then advise them to go read Ray Bradbury and see how gloriously and elegantly such rules can be broken by a master.  I’m certain Mr. King would agree.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I suspect I’d get even less writing done.  Unless, maybe, I used the money to pay people to give me deadlines.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I’m super late to the party on the Kingkiller Chronicles.  I’m not usually drawn to historical fantasy, though I have dipped into it more and more in the last decade.  And I did my best to resist this series, too, despite multiple people whose opinions I respect telling me I would love it.  It took hearing Patrick Rothfuss speak at the WV Book Festival last year before I realized I had been wrong the whole time.  His talk was so good that I decided I was doing myself a disservice by not reading The Name of the Wind.  So I picked that up and it’s fantastic, as billed.  I had to buy autographed copies for a couple of the people who’d been telling me to read it for years, to make up for ignoring their advice.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I’m currently directing a play called The People at the Edge of Town(May 19-20, 2017, at the Pocahontas County Opera House, in Marlinton)by WV playwright, A.J. DeLauder.  It’s a play largely about small town politics, class warfare, friendship, and family secrets set in a town council chamber.  After that, I have secretarial and contest coordinator duties to wrap up for West Virginia Writers, Inc.  Then I hope to get back to working on my own writing and voiceover projects, including the next collection of short stories.  It will likely have another inadvisable collective noun title, too.  A Solace of Baba Yaga, maybe.

Where to Find Eric Online

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What I’ve Been Up To

With The Water Road trilogy wrapped up I figured this might be a good time to check in and let folks know what I’m doing, writer wise. The TLDR version – cranking through some short stories and trying to plan the next big project.

Short Stories

After the epic feel of The Water Road I decided to dig back into my bag o’ ideas and work up a couple of the shorter ones. This isn’t to suggest that returning to short stories is a way to “take it easy” or some such. Building worlds and characters in a few thousand words, versus hundreds of pages, can be a challenge in its own right. It’s a different discipline in the writing world, but one that’s very rewarding.

The first of the new stories is “To the Sound of Birds.” It was inspired by some very odd noises I heard during an autocross years ago. Animal noises, of a sort, coming from the woods across the street from the venue. The idea came to me then and I’d kicked it around for a while before I got a chance to sit down and finish it. I’m about to try and find it a home and let it loose upon the world.

The other isn’t quite finished, but should be in a week or so. It’s called “The Miracle at MarvoMart” and is about a guy who gets in over his head with a good thing that turns very bad. This one, too, came from an idea that occurred during an autocross – more precisely, during a bathroom break. I never set out to write a story set largely in a public men’s room, but that’s where I’ve ended up!

Aside from those two, I’ve also pulled out and polished a story I wrote a while ago in which the main character is this little girl:

MaiaTalkstoYou

Along with her two feline companions (at the time the story was written). It’s about what the animals get up to while their people aren’t around. It involves dragons and a whole unexplored world under the house. At one time it was going to be a series of stories, but I never got past the first one. An anthology popped up that I thought this story would be good for, so I sent it in. We’ll see if anything comes of it. Don’t worry, it’s for grownups – they curse and such.

I’m also working on one final story in The Water Road universe, set between The Endless Hills and The Bay of Sins. It would explain why, when two characters meet in The Bay of Sins, they are not particularly fond of one another.

The Next Big Thing

As I’ve said before I’m having a hard time figuring out what my next novel project will be. I have a lot of ideas, but none of them have roared up and demanded to be written right the fuck now (at least not yet).

One of the issues is that before I even think about ideas there’s a preliminary question to answer – should my next project be a standalone novel or the first in a new series? Some ideas lend themselves better to one or the other, but there are pros and cons to each choice. A stand alone novel probably sees the light of day sooner, but a series gives me the opportunity to really dig into a new world in detail. Until I make that decision, it’s hard to know where I’m headed.

As far as series ideas, the main one would be a several volume steampunkish fantasy set in a global superpower that’s slowly falling apart. I’ve done a lot of background work on it, so it’s probably the most “shovel ready.” Another series idea is to expand the universe of my short story “The Last Ereph” into a common setting for a bunch of unrelated stories. Finally, there’s a trilogy about the nature of magic I’ve been toying with.

The stand alone ideas are more wide ranging. For one thing, they include a couple of ideas that fall solidly into the science fiction category. I’ve written some short sci-fi, but my longer projects have all tended toward fantasy. I’d like to change that, so that might be a deciding factor. One of those idea is more serious, philosophical, and somewhat relevant to the current political climate. Another is more of a fun, planet-trotting adventure. As for fantasy ideas, one that I’m keen on doing (at some point) is my version of the standard fantasy quest, although it has a neat twist at the core of it (or so I think).

So that’s where I am. At least right now as I post this. From here on out – who knows?

Water Road Wednesday – Rand McNally Edition

Just when I thought I was done, then keep pulling me back in!

I’ve had more than one reader ask about whether there are any maps of Altreria, the land that’s the setting for The Water Road trilogy. Strictly speaking, in terms of something I’d be happy putting in the back of a published book – the answer is “no.”

However, in the spirit of sharing my work and showing how I do things – I’ve dug out a couple of hand-made maps from my notes. These are what I used to keep myself oriented in the world of The Water Road. At least at the beginning.

In the spirit of Michael Feldman, three disclaimers:

First, these are crude, hand drawn, and simply photographed. They’re not great quality, but I never expected anybody aside from me to see them. Judge accordingly.

Second, place names and such are noted in my horrific hand writing. Enter at your own risk (although I’ll be happy to translate, if asked).

Finally, I made these before I even started The Water Road and while I added to them on occasion afterwards, I didn’t change things on the map to match the text. As an example, “Port Keneally” became “Port Jaray” in the books (Keneally just didn’t feel right, when push came to shove – sorry, Mike).

With those disclaimers, here we go . . .

A map of the continent of Altreria itself:

AltreriaMap

A few highlights. The long blue ribbon running across the continent is, of course, The Water Road. The two north-south tributaries are the River Innis and the River Adon. The Guildlands are west of the Innis and the Kingdom of Telebria is to the east of the Adon. In between is the Confederation of the Arbor. North of the rivers are the Badlands. The little speck of land in the Bay of Sins is the island city of Tolenor. South of The Water Road, of course, are the Neldathi mountains.

And here’s a different view of the Neldathi mountains, with the great circuit of each clan drawn in:

NeldathiMap

For those scoring at home, here’s how the numbers match up to the clan:

  1.  Dost
  2. Haglein
  3. Chellein
  4. Volakeyn
  5. Mughein
  6. Kohar
  7. Akan
  8. Uzkaheyn
  9. Elein
  10. Sheylan
  11. Paleyn

This one also gives you a better idea of the names of the mountain ranges and Islander cities. Yes, many of them are named after musicians. Albandala, the city Antrey founds in The Water Road is somewhere near the Hogarth Pass.

Weekly Read: The Collapsing Empire

I don’t think this is unique to me, but it’s at least unusual that my entry into the realm of John Scalzi fan began not with his books, but with his blog, Whatever. I was a regular reader there for a few years before I started working through his ever expanding bibliography.

What’s more unusual is that, for the most part, I don’t care for Scalzi’s most well developed universe, the Old Man’s War series. I read the first book and liked it well enough, but military sci-fi has never been my favorite corner of the genre. I’m much more into Scalzi’s stand alone work, from The Android’s Dream to Redshirts to Lock In. Which is to say I was stoked when I heard Scalzi was opening up another space opera series.

The Collapsing Empire has, at its core (or “Hub,” I suppose) a terrific idea. Humanity is spread across a multitude of worlds (Earth not being one of them, anymore), thanks to a faster-than-light McGuffin called “The Flow.” The Flow works . . . well, nobody is really sure why it works. But it does work, like a hyperspace equivalent of the jet stream or ocean currents, carrying spaceships along at post-light speed and making interstellar travel possible, if a pain in the ass.

Since people can only go where The Flow takes them, there are certain routes of travel. All lead to a planet called Hub, where the titular empire is headquartered. On the other end of the travelled galaxy is End, a sort of Australia (they send the troublemakers there) that, also, happens to be the only place where humans live under the open sky. The problem, as the book begins, is that The Flow is starting to fail. The bigger problem – most of the empire has no idea about it yet.

This is all background, against which a few stories play out. There’s a new emperox (not a typo – it’s a gender neutral imperial title) trying to figure out her new life. End is experiencing one of its periodic rebellions, although this one might actually stick. And someone is trying to inform the powers that be about the problem with the Flow. All of this is interesting, but none of it seems like a fully formed story.

That is The Collapsing Empire’s biggest problem – it’s not a complete story. Even in the context of a series (of which this is the first), it’s not too much to expect an individual volume to actually have some resolution. This doesn’t, really. In the end, it feels more like an extended, epic prologue or a backfill sequel than it does a novel of its own.

Which is a shame, because until you realize that the end is coming and there’s no way things are going to even try to wrap up, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. Scalzi’s characters are well drawn and interesting. His great creation in this book is Lady Kiva, the “owner’s representative” on a ship that has to deal with The Flow and the rebellion on End.* She’s quick of wit, free with the word “fuck,” and willing to sleep with just about anything that moves. Think of her as Captain Jack Harkness’s long lost more vulgar cousin. The new emperox, Cardenia, isn’t developed quite as well, but her desire not to do the job sets up an interesting story going forward.**

Which brings me back to my complaint – this is all setup. It’s interesting setup. I’m definitely on board for the next book in the series, because I want to see how all this starts to shake out. But I’m left wanting more right now, something a little more solid and whole.

Still, I’m hooked. That counts for something.

* Bonus fun note – the ship names are great. A pair of sister ships are called the Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and No Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe.

** Bonus fun note – the emperox has access to a “memory room,” in which she can summon the computer-generated simulacrum of any prior emperox. The discussions she has in there are all the better for the simulacra knowing just what they are.

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Let’s Play the Feud!

I’m currently reading Authors In Court: Scenes from the Theater of Copyright, which uses a handful of case studies to track the development of copyright law since its introduction in England via the Statute of Anne in 1710. I haven’t even gotten through the first case yet and already I’m entertained. To anyone who thinks folks way back when were more civilized than modern, crass, digital folks, think again.

That first case involves Alexander Pope, English author (and second most quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, according to Wikipedia – behind only Shakespeare), and a contemporary publisher named Edmund Curll. They’re in the book because, eventually, Pope sued Curll for publishing some of his letters in which, Pope argued, he retained the copyright. But things got ugly long before that.

Curll and Pope were very different people. Pope was a country gentleman, an elite. He was a writer, but he didn’t do it for a living (heaven forefend!). Curll, by contrast, was a scrappy businessman, doing anything he could to make a buck. He developed a reputation as a low-rent publisher, becoming (among other things) the first publisher in England to be convicted of obscenity.

What set the feud alight was a book Curll published called Court Poems, which purported to contain works by Pope (among others). The poems were scandalous and Pope was upset, either because he or a friend was designated as the author of some of them. Rather than just send a nasty letter, Pope got even in a much more emphatic way:

shortly after the book appeared, Pop contrived to encounter Curll at a tavern in Fleet Street. There, under the pretense of sharing a glass of wine as a sign of reconciliation, Pope dosed Curll’s drink.

Said dose was an “emetic,” a word which sent me scrambling to the dictionary. Long story short – it’s something that makes you puke.

Poisoning a professional rival so that he puked is a pretty dick move. But Pope wasn’t done:

A few days later, adding insult to injury, Pope published a comic pamphlet couched in the sensationalist style of a Grub Street production, a style not entirely different from that of, say, a modern supermarket tabloid. Titled A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, Bookseller, Pope’s undated pamphlet, identified only as “by an Eye Witness,” reports on the tavern episode and then veers off into malicious fantasy as the stricken Curll, convinced that he is dying, makes his last will and testament.

In the end he is spared from death by “a plentiful foetid Stool.” Pope still wasn’t done, writing two more pamphlets expanding the fantasy and, eventually , devolving into anti-Semitism.

Future chapters involve Harriet Beecher-Stowe and J.D. Salinger, among others. I wonder if they taunted their rivals with bodily fluids (and tales thereof), too?

They might, given that the Pope/Curll feud is just one of many in literary history that went beyond simple sniping at each other. For example, Gore Vidal once compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson – so Mailer punched him at a party (leading to Vidal’s retort – “once again, words fail Norman Mailer). Hell, Mario Vargas Llosa punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1976 and neither ever explained why (although this article suggests it was over a woman and, therefore, isn’t really a literary feud at all) .

Of course, writers being writers they’re more likely to lash out at each other with words rather than fists. Playwright Lillian Hellman sued critic Mary McCarthy after McCarthy said that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman got the last laugh, dying before the suit could be heard. Salman Rushdie responded to John Updike making fun of a name he used in one of his books by suggesting that Updike “stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do.” Finally, after Colson Whitehead gave a book by Richard Ford a particularly nasty review in the New York Times, Ford spit on Whitehead at a party. Whitehead shot back that this “wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me” and that other critical reviewers (there were a bunch, apparently) best “get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

If nothing else, feuds tend to be good for business. Pope and Curll, certainly, made hay out of their beef. Maybe what I need to do is go honk off some famous author and start a heated back and forth! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

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Adios to the Hex

Here’s a bit of technical for you – the 2018 World Cup is already underway. Has been for months. What we normally think of as the “World Cup” – such as the event in Russia next summer or the last shindig in Brazil – is actually the World Cup “finals.” They only take about a month. The process of getting to the finals takes over a year, winnowing the field down from 210 countries to a relative handful.

One of the neat things about the process is that FIFA allocates slots in the finals to each confederation, but let’s each confederation figure out how to fill its allocation. Europe, for example, divides up into groups, with the winners advancing and some number of second-place teams matching up in playoffs for the other spots. South American, by contrast, puts everybody in one group and plays a true round robin tournament (easy to do when you only have 10 countries). Most other confederations use some group structure to do away with a number of nations over two or three phases.

CONCACAF – the federation that covers North America, Central America and the Caribbean – works that way. Two rounds of preliminaries produce six teams that battle it out in “The Hex” – ten games, home and away. The top three go to the finals, while the fourth has to playoff against someone else (from Asia, this time around) to get in. The bottom two go home. While the region isn’t the toughest as far as talent, the 10-game format still makes for a great combination of slim margins and long hauls. Witness 2014, when Mexico had to claw back into fourth place and win the play off to get to Brazil, or the current Hex, where the US is barely in fourth place after laying goose eggs in our first two games.

Sadly, The Hex is almost certainly dead. Last year, when FIFA announced that the World Cup finals would expand to 48 teams (from 32) in 2026, everybody was fairly certain that would be the case. All the extra spots would call for a massive reorganization of qualifying the world round. But now, with FIFA announcing the allocations for 2026, it’s official – there’s no point having The Hex if six teams will qualify for the finals from CONCACAF.

I’m not sure whether the expanded World Cup finals will be an improvement over the current setup. The bloated European Championships last year included an awful lot of dull group games, although the knockout rounds were better. And I’m all for letting more people get to the biggest dance in the world (sorry, March Madness). But it will undoubtedly depressurize qualifying, at least in most confederations.

So, adios to The Hex.

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The False Unity of Opposition

I had a thought on election night back in November, as we slowly crawled to the fact of President Trump. I wished I’d blogged it back then, but I’ll just have to ask you to trust me about this.

The thought, as I sat there and contemplated Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House, was this – can the “party of no” go from playing opposition to actually governing? Recent events suggest they may not.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), Republicans have pledged to repeal it. It was a promise Trump embraced enthusiastically during the campaign. If there was one clear thing Americans could expect a united GOP power structure to do, it was to gut Obamacare. Last Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan withdrew the proposed “repeal and replace” bill, rather than watch it go down in flames on the House floor. Democrats only had to smirk from the sidelines.

What the hell happened? How could a party so unified in the past about a goal fall apart so quickly?

Because being the opposition helps creates a false sense of unity among those doing the opposing. Think about it – so long as the only thing a group has to do is say “no” to some outsider they don’t have to deal with their own internal divisions.

Make no mistake – during the Obama years, the GOP was the opposition. While they controlled both the House and Senate (for varying lengths of time), it wasn’t enough to override a veto, if it came to that. Measures with bipartisan support were possible (if vanishingly rare), but true GOP proposals were dead on arrival. Hence those 54 votes to repeals of the ACA, none of which actually accomplished anything (aside from being red meat for fund raising).

That’s not quite true – it papered over the differences in the party itself. After all, when the default position is anti-whatever the other party wants, it’s easy to stick together. It doesn’t matter why you take that position, only that you do. That one group of reps are coming from a deeply ideological direction and a second from a  more moderate one is irrelevant so long as they both arrive at the same result.

There’s an old saying that pure democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. While we can assume there’s at least two votes not to eat the wolves, we might not assume there’s the same support for eating the sheep. After all, one of the wolves could be a vegetarian.

So now, I suppose, the question is – how long before the GOP wolves finally figure out how to eat the sheep.

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Water Road Wednesday – Thank Yous

The first time I had something called The Water Road in my (virtual) hands was the fall of 2009. The book was my NaNoWriMo project that year, my second “winner” (the first is in the back of my closet, probably permanently). The process started some time before that, what with character sketches and some basic world building.

But the very first thing I remember writing was a Neldathi creation myth. It poured out in a very un-fantastic place.

Every year my office and our Federal Defender counterparts in the Northern District of West Virginia put on a two-day seminar for private attorneys who handle court appointed criminal cases. We alternate hosting and in 2009 the Northern District hosted up in Morgantown. Through the day and a half of the seminar (on breaks or during sessions that didn’t really apply to me), I sketched out this story about the Maker of Worlds and how she created this world in which I was going to tell this story.

Naturally, I had to account for the titular river, as fantastic a thing as there is in The Water Road universe. It was not born of a pleasant impulse:

Eons passed before the Maker of Worlds remembered her watery creation with the one continent upon it.  In the time that had passed, The Land had become full of life.  Not only animals and plants, but intelligent beings, who lived together in communities and created a society.  The Land was rich and plentiful, but its inhabitants still found things to fight about.  They constantly warred, on upon the other, seemingly without end.  When the Maker saw what had become of her world, she was depressed.  And she was angry.

In her anger, the Maker of Worlds lashed out at her creation.  She drove a single finger into the soil on the east side of The Land.  Then, she drug it across the entire breadth of The Land, changing it forever.  In the wake of the Maker’s finger came Great Basin Lake and The Water Road.  To the south of the river, great mountains heaved up from the soil, all the way south to the cold southern seas.  To the north, The Land cracked and two great rivers were formed as water rushed into the fissures.  The far north, beyond the reach of the waters, became barren, dry, and unhospitable.  The people of The Land were likewise shattered, north and south, divided by the The Water Road into Neldathi and Altrerian.  Many multitudes died.

Much as I enjoyed pulling that together, I knew it wasn’t part of the story itself. It was essentially a note to myself – something I didn’t intend anybody else to see. But it started something inside me, lit a fuse that wasn’t going to go out. It got so insistent that when the final session wound up I plopped myself down in a big chair in the hotel lobby, pen in hand and a legal pad, and scratched out:

It had been ten years since Gaven had been confronted by an angry Neldathi with a gun.

I didn’t get much further than that (I was months away from NaNo), but I’d crossed the Rubicon. There was no going back after that.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I never really thought I’d be here, looking back on eight years of work and being “done” with The Water Road. So I wanted to take care of one last piece of business, to acknowledge everybody who helped me get here. Thanks . . .

Firstly, to my family, friends, and coworkers who put up with a “writer” in their midst, who asked supportive questions and never made me feel like I was wasting my time chasing a silly dream.

To the members of West Virginia Writers, Inc., the Absolute Write Water Cooler, and KBoards who are quick with their advice, encouragement, and support. Great writing may be mostly about talent, but being a great writer means recognizing that those others out there who do what you do are allies and colleagues, not rivals.

To Empire Books & News in Huntington, West Virginia, who support local authors not because they’re some kind of odd curiosity that draws gawkers, but because they have great stories to tell, too.

To my copy editor, Claudette, who plowed through all three books of The Water Road, helping them be the best, most professional products they can be.

To the fine folks at Deranged Doctor Designs who did the covers for The Water Road trilogy. I get compliments on them almost everywhere they pop up.

And, of course, big thanks to readers who have told me how much they’ve enjoyed these books. That’s the greatest reward a writer could hope for.

Finally, to my wife, Kelly. When we met I was someone who had  a few ideas and thought, maybe, I could write something, sometime. Back by her voracious reading habit, she’s pushed and supported me through all this, providing valuable, honest feedback and sharing in my happiness at getting this all done. I love you, sweetie.

On to new things!