Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Æther Serenade

Okay this makes two posts in the same day, and this one's flash fiction as well, that's just how it goes apparently. This story is in response to another of Chuck Wendig's weekly challenges at terribleminds. The challenge called for mixing two genres from a list and this is supposed to be Steampunk Erotica (I'm not sure it qualifies as the latter as it's not hugely explicit, but still consider yourself warned). Oh and, yes the title is a nod to the Abney Park album Æther Shanties, which got played a lot while I was writing this.

Æther Serenade

Out of blood and chaos and burning the 'ship rose into the sky. For once the carnage Lydia was leaving behind was not of her own making, though doubtlessly she would be blamed for it. Looking back she saw columns of smoke winding up from the destruction, as eager as she to escape the smog-choked streets below. No other craft appeared from the murk and as those ashy beacons fell further and further astern she began to relax.
Her attention was drawn by the woman calmly examining one of the brass, arm-shaped automatums that helped her fly the airship. Shorter than herself, more slender, fey looking, fragile even, though Lydia already knew that that impression was an illusion. She saw again the angry mob, baying for blood and in it's midst this one beautiful, delicate seeming creature, utterly composed in the face of violent death.
As if sensing her attention the woman turned "I know you." she said "I've seen the wanted posters, 'Lydia Vincent, Terror of the Skies'. Hardly a flattering portrait, you're much more attractive in the flesh." the woman smiled impishly "My name's Violet."
"I'm not going to hurt you." Lydia didn't know why she was trying to reassure a woman so clearly unafraid, perhaps it was herself she was trying to reassure "Or do anything that might concern you."
"Like laying claim to my body for your own personal pleasure?" Violet suggested, she smiled wickedly at Lydia's shocked reaction "Oh honey, I'm a whore. The only thing that concerns me about that scenario is not getting paid." she inclined her head towards the distant smoke "Though, you just saved my life, so really you've earned it."
"What if I'm not interested?"
Violet shrugged and walked past Lydia to sit looking out over the clouds "Then I'll just have to find another way to repay you."
In silence she reached up and began to unpin the forest green top hat from her hair. She unwound each braid, shaking loose a deep red tumble of pre-raphaelite curls. Slowly she loosened her left glove, peeling it from her hand and dropping it into her upturned hat, Lydia watched, bewitched, as the right glove followed, just as deliberately. Violet stroked her hands down one leg, pale, slender fingers gliding over green velvet. She unlaced her ankle boots, flexing her toes as they were released from their stilletto-heeled prisons. And only then did she look up, smiling knowingly to see Lydia's gaze fixed upon her.
Violet stood, her eyes twinkling, she winked at Lydia, daring her to look away as she swept her hair over one shoulder and reached for the zipper at the nape of her neck. The dull roar of the engine and the squeaks of the mechanical arms seemed strangely hushed compared to the metallic hiss as the zip's teeth slowly unmeshed. Lydia found herself holding breath as Violet worked her blood-spattered dress over one shoulder at a time, then let it fall to the ground, stepping out of the circle it made on stockinged feet.
Violet tilted her head back, closing her eyes against the evening sun, she stretched out her arms as if to caress the wind that plastered her camisole to her body "Cold up here."
"So I notice."
"I thought you weren't interested."
Lydia sighed "No you didn't."
Violet laughed, sultry and confident "True." She walked slowly across the deck to Lydia, brushed her fingers lightly over the pirate girl's cheek and down her throat "I wasn't wrong though, was I?"
"What you're suggesting could get us both executed." Lydia protested
Violet merely smiled "You're a pirate, you already have a price on your head." she leaned closer and, her breath warm against Lydia's throat, she whispered "What's the point of being an outlaw if you can't have what you want?"

Lord of the Lake

So I found this flash fiction challenge over at Not All Who Wander Are Lost, 500 words featuring a mythical creature, I can do that, assuming 'watery tarts' with swords count as creatures that is (I'm pretty sure they're mythical).

Lord of the Lake

Gwen stood at the edge of the lake and frowned. The water was dull, grey and uninviting, probably freezing cold too and rain was falling into it, all this she was perfectly happy with. The water was also deep, realistically mysterious and possessed a natural grandeur that hinted at ancient magic, and that, she felt, was deeply unfair. If magic was going to exist it ought either to look twinkly so she could laugh at it or not magical at all so she could ignore it. Instead, this was exactly how she would imagine a real magical lake to look, which was annoying because being the secret, hidden heir of a semi-mythical country was no fun at all if you had to go around believing in it all the time.
There was no use putting it off, she took the stone out of her pocket and looked at it, smooth, flat, interestingly coloured, with flecks of glittery quartz in it, totally real, potentially magical, a definite theme going on there. Gwen hadn't been given any particular words to use so she just chucked the probably actually magical stone into the probably actually magical water and improvised "Oh lady of the lake hear my prayer, I've ridden three hours on this trusty mare... and, look could you just give me the damn sword because I suck at poetry."
The ripples made by the stone as it entered the water spread further and further out, then reversed direction and coalesced around the emerging figure which, rather than rising mystically out of the water, simply waded up out of the depths towards the shore. Gwen blinked, long golden hair? check, almost unbelievably beautiful? check, lady? not so much. Or at all. If Legolas had made an advert for jeans he would have looked like this. He looked at Gwen "Well that was original."
"Sorry. Umm... are you the lady of the lake?" Gwen took another look, just double-checking. Still a finely muscled torso, smooth, hard muscles that showed actual use, too, not artificially sculpted in a gym. Totally real, potentially magical, oh yes.
The vision sighed "It's an official title. You know how a Lord Mayor, is still lord even if they're a woman? Same thing, only the other way about." he sounded like he'd had to explain that a lot, though given that he apparently lived at the bottom of a lake in the middle of nowhere, goodness only knew who to "Also, my eyes are up here."
"Sorry." Gwen said again and looked up.
His lips twitched in amusement "It's all right. Nice not to be a disappointment for once. Anyway, your 'damn sword' milady."
Gwen took the rapier, it was of course quite beautifully made. Also practical and weighted such that her fencing lessons might actually prove useful. No need to admit that though. She looked speculatively at it’s deliverer "I don't suppose you have any idea how to use this?"

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Same Thing In Fewer Words : Character Introductions,

One thing that really annoys me when I'm reading a novel is when the author takes two or three times as many words as they need to to say something, or set something up or... well to do anything really. Because it annoys me, I try to avoid it in my own writing or, more precisely, when editing my own writing - needless waffle being part of the process of writing a first draft (I'm also not too fussy about waffling in blog posts I don't really expect anyone to ever read, you noticed that huh?).

There's obviously more than one way to reduce the number of words it takes to say something, but one I wish more writers would do is the following:

Introduce characters in batches.

There is a damn good reason that so many roleplay games begin with some variation of 'everyone meets up in a bar' which is that it's boring to sit around and watch other people play while you have nothing to do. Now admittedly characters in a book aren't literally sitting around waiting and getting bored but some of that sense of impatience bleeds through somehow (possibly because they're metaphorically sitting around and complaining in the writers brain). Also it's tiresome to have scene after scene which are there mostly to introduce new characters one after another. Also, also you get a better idea of what someone is like if you see them interacting with a variety of people.

Of course introducing three or more characters in the same scene can end up in a confused muddle if you're not careful, but when it works it's that much more satisfying. I don't really have advice on how to introduce multiple characters in a brief time other than to point at a couple of examples that I thought did it really well (both from video but the techniques can be adapted, aka shamelessly ripped off).

Example 1: The opening scene from Shaun of the Dead
This starts with Shaun, then introduces his girlfriend Liz because she's talking to him, then as their conversation brings up Shaun's best friend and Liz's flatmates the camera pulls back to show them close enough to be hearing what's said about them. In literally one minute of screen-time (yes I did actually go and time it, I am that sad), five characters are introduced and we know how they know each other, something about what they're like and roughly what they think of each other. Furthermore the scene also introduces a fairly major subplot (Liz isn't happy with her relationship with Shaun) and an important location (the local pub), in one minute. That takes some beating.

Example 2: The Firefly Episode 'The Train Job'
 Not quite as compact as the previous example, but again multiple characters are introduced rapidly (in part because of the awkward situation where this is the second episode chronologically but the first to be aired), if you have it on dvd and watch the commentary lots of little tricks they used to keep things clear in the viewers mind are actually pointed out, Kayleigh rolling out from under part of the cockpit because this is visual shorthand for 'mechanic', various characters describing each other in terms of relatedness (my wife, his sister, etc) or in terms of their jobs (mechanic, medic, etc) and also all the shots showing Mal moving around Serenity to give you an idea of how the interior spaces connect up. Lots of neat tricks to internalize and reuse.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Fake

This story was written in response to this flash fiction challenge over at terribleminds. I don't usually draw attention to my more pretentious literary devices, but this week I just want to point out that the narrator is actually supposed to be first person (in case that's not obvious) and the fact that she does not refer to herself as 'I' is very, very deliberate.

Fake

Bruises fade, even broken bones heal, but that moment when your lover looks right past you and pretends he didn't hear you say no, that moment stays with you.
There were excuses, so familiar they hardly need repeating, he was drunk, that skirt was too short. Familiar, tired excuses, almost comforting, easier to believe that there's something you could have done, or not done, less gut-wrenching than the slowly dawning realisation that in a moment that should have been intimate, you became, in his mind, an unperson, less than human, a mere beast who's cries of protest could be guiltlessly ignored. Easier, not healthier.
Life hardly changed at first, except for the silences, after a joke that would once have been funny, before sex when he would once have whispered 'I love you'. He must have known it wasn't true, not that it stopped him, a line once crossed becomes blurred, scuffed out, easier to believe it isn't there at all. Easier, not healthier.
Time passed, there were more silences, and as if in compensation, arguments. More than arguments, fights, it isn't a mere argument if you end up in the emergency room. If he's stronger than you, if he's angrier than you, it's you that ends up needing stitches, even when some of that anger is at himself and what he's become. You feel guilt for your own anger, because you can't apologise enough to take his guilt away, and you become angry because it's harder to forgive. Harder, still not healthier.
When you become an unperson, your life fades away, a drip at a time, piece by piece, but if you're lucky enough, brave enough there comes a day when you look deep into the oblivion inside and find a way to face it without fear. Today is that day, all his things are piled in the hall, stacks of books and cases of clothes, posters, music, old toys and ornaments. On top of the pile is a note, it simply says 'Leave', this time the message will get through.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Sweet Nothings In An Alien Tongue

I have this theory about Firefly, where all the characters learnt Chinese as their first language but now speak English due to some kind of social pressure. Why would I think that? well because they swear in Chinese and my experience (I have relatives who's first language isn't English) is that people revert to their native tongue to swear. It's easy enough to understand why, it's easier to find the words in a hurry, the emotional release from swearing just isn't the same if you don't know, right down in your soul, what those words mean, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I love Firefly and I get that the show does that to get around the censors, but it still kind of bugs me, just a little bit.
Reason I bring that up is that I've been working on my alien language this weekend, filling in the various places in my work in progress that read something like <replace this with nefari greeting> or more relevantly <insert nefari curse> (nefari being the name both of the alien race, obviously), and I've been trying to make sure I'm not guilty of the same thing. Incidentally, I leave comments like that because working the phrases out as I go along would completely stall my momentum (I do the same for names of places / people / objects that I haven't figured out yet as well) but on the flip side I do have to go back and work them out at some later point, like for example this weekend.
Anyway, the point (and I realise I'm taking a while to get to it) is that in trying to fill in the gaps it was once again brought home to me that the times when people are most likely to revert to their native tongue and to a lesser extent the times when people are most likely to switch to a foreign language are also those when they're most likely to use idiomatic phrases. Which makes it both more satisfying and more difficult to come up with them because these are phrases that are rooted in the culture of the native speakers. Case in point, the aforementioned curse, an alien character was remarking on the stubbornness of another character and used a nefari word for emphasis, relying on the rest of the sentence to get the meaning across (as the phrasing is 'being a stubborn <blank>' I'm fairly sure it's clear).
Now I could just have made up any collection of sounds and run with it, but either because I'm some kind of imaginary language obsessive or because I desperately wanted to avoid going back to writing the scene from hell (or possibly both) I decided that I wanted to come up with something culturally significant, so I sat and thought for a while about what kind of things we consider to be stubborn and what the nefari might consider archetypally stubborn and I thought first of mules and then that I had already established that the nefari anthropomorphize plants quite a lot so I started thinking about what kind of plants might be stubborn and I thought of weeds that keep coming back or are hard to dig up because of their roots. So long story short (way, way too late for that) I figured out that they would call that kind of plant a grip earth and then worked out what the words for those components would be and then I finally had the word I could insert into my manuscript. Hooray, it only took me an hour to work out a single word (a single word that might still end up being cut at that) progress is mine. Or something.
So my question (to myself as much as anything) is 'was it worth it?' was it worth spending that long working out the exact derivation of a word that isn't even translated in the text, all that work that no one will ever see except for those few hardy souls that managed to wade through this terminally dull blog post? and you know what, I kind of think it was, I learned some interesting new things about my setting, for one thing, but mostly it just feels satisfying to have made the effort.